The new Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R takes on tech support and a cube boost for 2013.
Kawasaki ZX-6R : Back to 636
The new 2013 ZX-6R from Kawasaki is another reminder that much has changed for the motorcycle industry as a direct result of the Great Recession of 2008-2012. Plummeting sales have put the brakes on the fast renewal cycles once enjoyed by fans of Japanese sportbikes who keenly anticipated complete biennial overhauls of their favourite ZX-R, CBR, GSX-R or YZF-R.
Current Supersports are now seeing their shelf lives extended to 1990s’ criteria, if not longer, as some designs haven’t changed much in five or six years. (The ZX-6R went four.) Among other belt-tightening measures now is that “new” often means, “updated” albeit to various levels.
Under its sexy new skin, the “new” ZX-6R remains relatively close to the bike it replaces. The cube boost to 636cc is big news, though sportbike riders will recall the 636cc ZX-6R of 2003-2007. But its role was pure street. For the track, Kawasaki concurrently offered the 599cc ZX-6RR.
Also big news is the addition of standard traction control (a first on a Japanese 600), variable power modes, Showa Big Piston–Separate Function Fork and optional “intelligent” track-spec ABS. Additional refinements include more precise fueling, bigger front discs squeezed by Nissin monobloc calipers, FCC clutch with assist and slipper functions (it tightens on acceleration and loosens, or “slips” on deceleration), along with numerous fine improvements to the inline four’s internals. Frame and wheels remain intact, although modifications to the suspension tighten the steering angle to 23.5 degrees.
The new Ninja is available in lime green or spark black livery with the ABS option adding $700 to the $12,499 standard MSRP—that’s up about $200 over the 599cc 2012 ZX-6R that produced a factory-spec 126 hp and 48 ft/lbs. torque.
Kawasaki marketing’s rather liberal use of “street” (i.e. “The Middleweight King Returns to Rule the Streets”) is another hint that things are changing. Any reference to the street has been a marketing no-no for more than a decade in the Supersport world. Ruling the track is what you wanted to do. Any street-driven feature would have ruined that hardcore mission. Problem is, that singular vision morphed the Supersport (and litre-class bikes) into painfully unpractical street bikes.
A more street-friendly 600 sure doesn’t sound bad to me, especially if one of the ways you do it is by bumping displacement and adding some much needed mid-range torque, as is the case here, to the tune of 37cc.
Of course, going over the 600cc threshold means Supersport racing is out of the question unless, like Kawasaki during the 2003-2007 era, you also produce a separate race version 600cc. But that may not happen again any time soon, given the current economic climate. Which begs the question: does production racing really matter anymore? Do Supersports really still sell on Monday after winning on Sunday? Do you even know who won last Sunday?
So what is it like to ride a significantly updated, bumped (back) to 636cc, street-friendlier and electronics-filled ZX-6R? In a word: sublime. It’s especially so in the context of a racetrack, where it’s still very much at home, despite the supposed street bias. On the track, the new (factory-spec) 129-hp ZX-6R embodies everything a 600 Supersport should be: incredibly flickable and amazingly comfortable and natural at full lean. You instantly grasp its handling potential is almost limitless, and you clearly feel everything is in place to benefit from that potential in the very best conditions and with no drama.
The extra power and 52 ft/lbs. torque that come with the displacement boost are instantly noticeable features of the 6R. While 37cc may not sound like much, in the cruel context of a peaky, torque-starved 600 powerband, the extra oomph is both fun and much appreciated. Corner exits in particular are stronger and can sometimes even be achieved with a choice of two gears.
Electronic aids like the traction control are much harder to feel working than on a tire-spinning litre-bike, but the system is there and it works, letting you confidently grab a handful of throttle at corner exits, even over painted lines as you use the track’s entire width.
If one thing is missing from this otherwise amazing track package, it’s a quick-shifter. I mention this only because the ZX-6R’s handling is so incredibly relaxed and refined at race speeds that one of the rare operations capable of upsetting it is mid-corner shifting, a situation that slightly disturbs the otherwise wonderfully peaceful and serene behaviour of the rolling chassis. I know cost is always an issue, but all the electronics are already there. All that’s needed is some pretty basic hardware. And what of the claimed or implied street qualities of the new ZX-6R? Well, the truth is, it’s still a very serious track weapon and any reference to the “street” has more to do with marketing talk than reality. This being said, no one can argue with the benefits of the added displacement on public roads.
By Bertrand Gahel, December 2012