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2006 Kawasaki ZX-10R - First Ride
By Kevin Duke

Smaller, lighter and more powerful: These are the basic tenets of sportbike engineering.

Unless, that is, you're Kawasaki and you need to build the best possible race platform for competition while transforming an unbridled street beast into a more tractable machine for mere mortals.

So, although the nearly all-new ZX-10R is longer and heavier and has no claimed increase in power, the big Zixxer turns out to be an even better track tool and street machine than before.

That's high praise considering the previous version pounded its rivals into submission during our Superbike Smackdown in 2004, then narrowly lost to the factory-fresh GSX-R1000 in our 2005 comparo.

With this kind of success, one might expect Kawasaki to make some minor updates to the platform in its third year, waiting for a total redesign at the end of the usual sportbike four-year cycle. Kawi reps admit that's the kind of thinking they adhered to in the past, "but that's not who we are anymore."

Kawasaki points to its "renewed focus on sportbikes" since 2003, resulting in the gnarly ZX-10R in 2004. Then came an all-new ZX-6R in '05 that took top honors in our Supersport Shootout.

Development of the new ZX-10R began immediately after the introduction of the 2004 model. Nearly every part on the new bike has been replaced or revised.

The architecture of the 998cc inline-Four shares its bore and stroke with the old powerplant, but it's been thoroughly tweaked with the intention of providing a more linear powerband and a stronger midrange without sacrificing its walloping top-end hit.

Beginning with the intake system, a hungrier ram-air duct feeds a new airbox, while updated injectors spray a finer charge into revised ports and through 1mm smaller intake valves. Lightweight titanium exhaust valves remain the same size, actuated as the intakes by billet cams. Increased flywheel mass smoothes off-corner acceleration and helps the bike resist wheelies in the lower gears. The engine's center of gravity has been raised by moving the crankshaft up 20mm for quicker side-to-side transitions, while the angle of the cylinders has been rotated forward 3 degrees. Its generator has been moved from behind the cylinders to the left side of the engine and is claimed to reduce friction and induce less mechanical noise.

Some message board pundits have derided the bulging exhaust canisters on the new ZX, but Kawasaki says the required heat shields on a true underseat exhaust would've added too much weight. In addition, the ZX's arrangement retains a small storage space under the passenger seat. As before, the exhaust system is made from titanium, save for a stainless-steel section under the engine that contains a pair of catalytic converters in front of Kawi's version of a midrange-bolstering powervalve. Reps from Team K noted that Honda's CBR1000RR is the only other literbike that meets stringent 2007 Euro 3 emissions requirements, so the Suzuki and Yamaha will need revisions next model year.

The factory claims 173 horsepower (181 ponies with the assistance of ram-air) and 84.6 lb-ft of torque, identical numbers as last year. Redline remains at 13,000 rpm, but peak power arrives 200 revs later at 11,700. Pity the poor French who's ZX-10s are neutered to a paltry 105 hp in compliance with governmental regs! (Is it surprising the French were the first country to "surrender" to societal cries for a reduction of power?)

The ZX chassis also received an overhaul, with efforts made to provide extra stability and enhanced rear-wheel traction. The frame is similar to the previous incarnation but with the noteworthy additions of rigid engine mounts for greater stiffness and an extended steering head. By moving the latter 15mm forward, there is less weight on the front wheel, something Kawi says lets a rider get on the gas earlier and harder without spinning up the rear tire. Also new is the ZX's subframe, going from a welded box-section aluminum unit to a slick die-cast component that is said to be stiffer.

A lovely new aluminum swingarm replaces the old bike's boxy unit and it pivots 4mm lower in the frame than previous, something Kawi engineers say makes for better traction and a wider array of suspension settings. The new swingarm design is nearly as light as the ZX-6R's and it allows larger race-spec rubber. Kawi defied convention by fitting a 190/55-17 rear donut instead of the 50-series rubber that is common on current literbikes, theoretically putting a larger contact patch on the ground when leaned over and perhaps making steering transitions a bit easier.

Bodywork is all new, with the only carryover part being the fuel tank. The king Zed is nearly one inch (20mm) longer than the old bike but is also 15mm shorter in height. Kawi claims the improved aerodynamics from its slippery new skin, under-tail exhaust and integrated turnsignals is worth the equivalent of 10 hp at 174 mph. The squinty-eyed dual projector headlights feature a more potent 65-watt high beam.

The tech presentations at new-bike intros always tout the new and better bits. Conspicuously absent from the ZX's was any mention of the bike's weight. However, a quick perusal of the spec chart sees a claimed dry weight of 386 lbs, which is an 11-lb carbo-load over the 2005 model. The old bike weighed in tank-empty at 405 lbs on our electronic scales, so this new one should scale in around 416 lbs if the specs are to be believed, still several pounds lighter than the R1 and revamped CBR1000RR.
Saddle Up
Riding the new ZX is initially an experience similar to the old model, with a riding position virtually identical to the '05. It fires up with a throaty roar and promises the same intense thrill ride as we've come to love from the ZX Grande. It's a raspy, nasty sounding motor, erupting in a symphony of high performance when shredding the atmosphere down California Speedway's banked front straight.

It doesn't take long to realize the geeks in the R&D lab achieved their objective of making the Zixxer's powerband more linear. Its power delivery is electric, putting its torque production to work similar to that of the CBR1K. Its lack of spikiness made it feel more docile.

But by the way the speedo numbers rapidly scrambled upward on Cal Speed's straightaways, this is in no way an inferior powerplant. Our on-board video footage shows the ZX's speedometer climb past 180 mph on the banked front straight, a speed at which you might notice the windscreen doesn't provide much protection unless tucked down "under the paint." You may want to reconsider your Iron Butt Rally plans.

The much maligned circular LCD tach on the ZX-10 (and ZX-6R, Z1000) is thankfully replaced with an analog dial that is more easily read, although its LCD needle still isn't the most legible thanks to a tinted window. Three-position adjustable brightness levels help in this respect. The instruments also include an adjustable shift light and a lap timer.

The previous ZX fell short of the Gixxer Thou's slick gearbox, so Team Green went to work re-engineering its transmission. Its splines are now barrel-ground for smoother engagements, augmented by a revised shift linkage and new lever. Cog changes were more positive yet a bit notchy on my first bike, but I could detect no fault on the second ZX I spent the rest of the day on.

Although Kawasaki made some suspension changes last year that resulted in better wheel control, the green guys were at it again for '06. They bucked the trend toward stiffer suspension settings, claiming the improvement in its chassis performance makes it unnecessary. Indeed, I was very impressed by the manner in which the ZX was able to suck up mid-corner bumps without upsetting the chassis. It really seemed to handle pavement irregularities while leaned over better than the previous version.

And while you're leaned over, you'll be noticing how smooth and precise the ZX is when it comes time to dial in more power. The multitude of changes to the intake system has not only ironed out the lumpy powerband, it's also resulted in fabulously predictable re-application of power, an attribute not to be overlooked when lighting the fuse of a monster such as this.

What didn't work as well as the Kaw boys predicted is the flickability of the ZX. They claim quicker transitions, but I was one of the few among the assembled journos who didn't buy into the PR-speak. Adding rake and weight is no recipe for quicker steering, and the ZX feels slightly more ponderous when flicking it around chicanes and such.

One of the most notable additions to this year's 10R is the twin-tube steering damper with relief valve. As the last of the literbikes to receive such a unit, the ZX receives a high-spec Ohlins stabilizer to calm untoward headshakes. Still, the big Kaw was less stable than expected, especially when on the gas through the infield chicane that we short-cutted to avoid a large mid-corner divot. It never did put me into a tankslapper, but I wasn't able to confidently pile on the coals in this section.

"A race-quality steering damper has been fitted with track use in mind," reads Kawi's PR material. "However, it is quite all right to remove the damper for street riding." This sounds to me like a CYA policy regarding the lack of damper on previous models. Anyway, the Ohlins stabilizer is highly adjustable, so it would remain on my bike.

After reading some glowing first impressions of Dunlop's new Qualifiers, standard equipment on the ZX-10R and new Yamaha R6, I was surprised to experience a few rear-tire slides at relatively modest throttle applications. I was happy to switch to a different bike with much stickier race-compound Dunlops for my next session after my Roadracer X colleague lowsided our Pearl Solar Yellow bike (thanks, Chris!).

The additional traction provided by the grippier buns vastly improved my time aboard the ZX, greatly upping my confidence level. This newfound trust in the Gods of Grip allowed me to be more aggressive with my inputs, to which the ZX responded with stability and composure. Using my legs more forcefully made a big difference in the ZX's transient responses, aided by the grippy surface on the upper frame rails that provides an extra measure of rider control. It enjoys being muscled around, so it's not for the timid.

Braking performance from the old 10R was mid-pack. Though this new one retains last year's 4-piston 4-pad Tokico radial-mount calipers and petal-shaped 300mm rotors, a much more direct feel is offered via a new radial-pump brake master cylinder.

When it comes time to scrub off Big Speed, the ZX proves to be better than ever. Stability under braking is a notable improvement thanks to the chassis revisions, aided as usual by a slipper clutch system that is enhanced this year by an "anti-chatter" disc to make it operate even smoother than before. Team Green notes that the additional crankshaft weight also allows the slipper clutch to more easily match revs with the back wheel. Even sloppy downshifts are handled without drama, and I couldn't be more impressed with its performance.

One of the new ZX's few flaws surfaces when trying to steer it while trail-braking. The application of the binders while leaned over causes the bike to want to stand up - usually the last thing you want when you're trying to achieve a perfect apex. It can make for a nervous moment, especially when learning a new track, but it's a trait not uncommon in the motorcycle world. Getting your braking done in a straight line is the easy solution.

One of the highlights of the day occurred when I was joined on the track by an old acquaintance of mine, Tommy Hayden. I first met the eldest of the famous racing Hayden brothers in 1998 when I was working for Roadracing World, then went on to be his ghostwriter for several of his columns in the same magazine. Tommy Gun has since gone on to claim the past two AMA Supersport championships, and this year's he's making his return to the Superbike class on the new ZX-10R.

But on this day, Tommy was toying with motojournalists on a stock ZX. The first I saw of him was when he blazed by me on the brakes into Turn 12 with impossible speed. Though I'm obviously not in the same league as he, I managed to stick with him for an entire lap and even gained some ground on him on the front straight. I realize, of course, that he was probably putting as much effort into his riding as he does eating his Cocoa Pebbles, but it sure was cool to be tailing such an illustrious roadracing champion.

Later during another session, he came underneath me on the brakes into the same right-hander, then in the following left he lit up the rear tire in a stunning display of talent and control, smoke billowing out from the rear tire for several seconds.

"The chassis in general feels more solid to me," he later said about this new ZX-10R. "It's a lot easier to push around a racetrack."

The salient point here is that it's easier for a rider like me, too.

The new ZX-10R is at dealers now, listing for a suggested price of $11,199.

Source: Motorcycle USA
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