In two short years Kawasaki has transformed its Ninja ZX-10R from a raging, nervous beast to a finely tuned instrument of speed. Canadian Biker’s Bertrand Gahel was one of a handful of journalists invited to an exclusive venue in Japan to sample this evolution.
One could say Kawasaki’s first generation Ninja ZX-10R had the flaws of its qualities. Powerful to the point of being violent, agile to the point of being nervous, only a very experienced rider could flirt with the limits of its tremendous capabilities. A mere couple of years after its introduction, the model is already evolving in a very serious manner. Similar in architecture to the original, yet literally new from the ground up, Kawasaki’s ’06 ZX-10R isn’t only faster, but also significantly easier to push hard. Less than 20 journalists worldwide had the chance to attend the official launch in Japan.
A PROPERTY OF KAWASAKI HEAVY INDUSTRIES SINCE SPRING OF 2005, the Autopolis circuit sits majestically, almost surreally, atop a mountain range north of Japan’s Kyushu region. Built some 15 years ago, the world class facility never saw its hopes of attracting world class events materialize. It was eventually seized by the city, rarely used nor maintained ever since. For Kawasaki, the smallest of the big four Japanese motorcycle manufacturers and the only one without its own test track—until recently, most track testing was an expensive and complicated proposition mostly done in Europe—the acquisition of Autopolis was as much an opportunity as an obligation. Already, the facility is being put to good use as it’s mostly where the ’06 ZX-10R’s development process took place. It was to show off both of its new toys—Autopolis and the 10R—that Kawasaki brought the world press half way around the globe.
At nearly five kilometres in length, twisting over some 20 turns and featuring a back straight just short of a kilometre long, the Autopolis circuit is by no means a small track. Yet, riding this first evolution of Kawasaki’s mean ZX-10R, the Formula One-class complex layout is eaten up at such a rate it seems I’m playing on a go-kart track.
The original ’04 version was already very fast, but that one was something else. Strangely, the new 10R is neither more powerful—the claimed horsepower figure, 174, is the same—nor lighter. It’s actually 5 kg heavier than the ‘05, thanks to a new double silencer and, especially, to the addition of a heavy catalytic converter allowing the bike to meet the pending and severe Euro 3 emission standards.
Only a racetrack environment makes it possible to understand how a motorcycle with a less favourable power-to-weight ratio than its predecessor can be faster, for only that environment allows the rider to realize how much sooner and harder he can twist the throttle exiting corners. That quality of allowing the rider to get on the gas earlier and harder coming out of a turn is one of the most difficult to achieve, yet one of the most sought after characteristics of a modern sportbike. It is also one that generated, in the case of the new 10R, a kind of velocity at the end of each straight that honestly demanded a few moments of acclimatization. With the possible exception of Suzuki’s latest GSX-R1000, I simply haven’t ridden anything with the capacity to annihilate the distance between two corners with such a combination of grace and ferocity.
ONE OF THE MOST NOTICEABLE IMPROVEMENTS OVER THE BIKE’S previous version is the additional low-rpm grunt available. This increase, which was one of the main goals for the new ZX-10R, is the main reason behind the use of the twin silencers since only that configuration would allow the necessary exhaust volume needed to produce the kind of low-rpm torque Kawasaki engineers were looking for.
While the new 10R’s inline four is indeed impressively healthy under 5,000 rpm, a monster awakens between there and 7,000 rpm. From there to the 13,000 rpm redline, the motor becomes a possessed beast that unleashes acceleration with formidable fury, its intake accentuating the drama with demonic howls.
The combination of breathtaking power and a fuel injection process that’s essentially flawless allows the ZX-10R to literally catapult forward as soon as the corners begin to open up. Such performance married to such control is nothing less than an extraordinary feat on Kawasaki’s part.
Speaking of control, several quite interesting slides—along with a few dropped bikes—quickly convinced our hosts to switch the stock Dunlop Qualifiers for their racing versions. Kawasaki staff insisted on referring to the new rubber as ”high-grip” rather than race, but the bottom line is the new tires produced levels of grip and confidence that were both significantly greater than the stock equipment. I guess at some point street tires, no matter how good, simply aren’t good enough to handle a certain amount of power and riding intensity. As far as I’m concerned, it is only from that point on that I was able to really use and enjoy all that the big Ninja’s monster motor had to offer.
While the new 10R’s power and traction are obviously critical elements, just as important is that the bike should also have a chassis with precisely the right behaviour. We’re no longer talking about higher rigidity here, but rather of maximized rigidity. This means that while some areas of the chassis are still made as rigid as possible, some frame flex was deliberately left in, even generated at certain key areas.
THE FIRST GENERATION ZX-10R COULD BE SOMEWHAT temperamental if a series of conditions were met—hard acceleration exiting a bumpy corner was the most notorious combination. Although bumps were hard to find on Autopolis’s smooth surface, the latest 10R displayed absolute stability in all conditions. While some minor geometry changes contribute to that newfound quality, the installation of an Öhlins steering damper is one of the main reasons for the improvement.
There is a downside, though. The new 10R is slightly less flickable from big lean to big lean than the previous version and asks for a little more involvement from the rider in order to go from vertical to full lean. But considering the kind of violence such bikes are capable of if they are the slightest bit unstable, it’s a small, undoubtedly very acceptable, tradeoff. Plus, at the end of the day, you are turning quicker lap times, which is the ultimate goal here.
You’d expect a sportbike of the calibre of Kawasaki’s new 10R to be nothing less than superb from corner entry to exit, and it is. Think about the desired line, look where you want to go, and there you are to the inch. It’s literally that easy. Whether in one of the very slow hairpins of the Japanese track or with the right peg scraping the asphalt at more than 180 kmh, anytime it’s leaned over, the new ZX-10R is peaceful and serene.
The front brake is exceptionally powerful, but some effort is still required at the lever—a characteristic I personally like since it makes for a braking system you can just grab without fear of front wheel lock-up due to oversensitivity. It’s also a system you can easily modulate.
A host of mechanical improvements have substantially enhanced the ZX-10R’s handling. The transmission is a good example. It now works perfectly, instead of roughly, which allows the rider to concentrate on the next corner apex rather than on the quality of his shifting. The addition of a back-torque limiter to the clutch is a big plus, a fact very well demonstrated while fast approaching one of those first-gear hairpins. This piece of riding demanded a delicate transition from more than 200 kmh to about 40, this with the bike being progressively brought to full lean. The back-torque limiter allowed very late and very aggressive braking without any fear of back wheel locking or hopping. Very, very confidence inspiring.
ON A DAY-TO-DAY BASIS, THE NEW ZX-10R REMAINS A FOCUSED AND rather uncomfortable bike. The riding position is all but unchanged and thus quite aggressive. The suspension, while not harsh, remains firm and the inline-four still buzzes slightly at upper rpms. On the other hand, the seat isn’t bad at all and Kawasaki finally replaced the old unreadable LCD tachometer with an original analogue/digital display.
With their throttles pinned open—moments generally as rare as they are short— modern litre-class sportbikes allow their riders to live an extraordinarily intense experience. On the Autopolis circuit, the fabulously powerful new ZX-10R proved docile enough to allow such moments of ecstasy in an unusually generous dose.
This is a new and improved version of the original 10R that retains all of the first-generation bike’s qualities while seriously addressing its shortcomings. The transformation is impressive since it sees the ZX-10R grow from a powerful, but sometimes violent and nervous beast to a finely tuned instrument of speed. I got off the bike shaking my head, totally overwhelmed by its capabilities, unable to imagine how such levels of performance could ever be topped.
by Bertrand Gahel Canadian Biker #219