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Born to be wild
(Filed: 19/11/2005)

World exclusive. Kevin Ash scoops the world’s press with the very first ride of Kawasaki’s new superbike, the ZX-10R Ninja

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Kawasaki’s mission of the past few years has been to restore the association of its name with a raw edge of excitement, to remind people it can still be the most dangerous and individual of the Japanese factories. The new ZX-10R Ninja delivers this message with some conviction, even if its looks don’t quite suggest its capabilities.

You make my heart sing: don't be deceived by the Ninja's unassuming looks

We’ve previously discussed the intention of motorcycle division president Shinichi Morita to reverse years of sales depressed by product mediocrity and timidity through the re-embracing of speed, power and daring. But to do so distinctively in a class already steeped in exactly those qualities is a daunting task indeed.

The current class leader is Suzuki’s definitive GSX-R1000, a bike that, when I rode it early this year, persuaded me within my first two laps of the race track that it was the new king of the superbikes.

No such revelationary leap on the ZX-10R, but that’s not to say it isn’t a match for the Suzuki, on top of which it absolutely oozes adrenaline and ferocious performance.

Let’s get that styling out of the way first, though. The bike has been completely revised, despite the outgoing model being just two years old, and this includes the bodywork, reshaped to improve the aerodynamics.

No doubt they’re better, but the confident, aggressive stance of the previous version is superseded by a shy-looking front end (the headlights are too small) matched to a high-rise twin silencer exhaust layout that smacks more of middleweight all-rounder than top end superbike. The GSX-R and Yamaha’s R1 are streets ahead visually, but dynamically it’s a different story.

The Kawasaki’s motor has been revised to meet the tough new Euro 3 emissions regulations, which ought to have tamed it slightly: instead, the engineers have not only found more power – a staggering 181bhp is claimed, more than 1bhp to propel each of the bike’s 175 dry-weight kilograms – but also say they’ve boosted torque at lower revs and smoothed out the power delivery.

That’s certainly how it felt as the Ninja hurtled up the half-mile straight of Kawasaki’s fabulous new test facility, a full-scale, 20-corner, F1-standard race track draped atop the volcanic hills of Kyushu, Japan’s southern island.

The violence of the engine is tempered only by the precision with which it can be controlled – it’s enough to see almost 170mph on the cool, floating LCD display, motor still pulling hard before you squeeze the brakes and flick the bike down into the right-hand turn one.

Yet the horsepower flows back seamlessly, the suddenness of the old bike’s delivery just a memory, exactly as you need when the ZX-10R is heeled over so hard the footrest is scratching its signature into the track surface.

The chassis works in harmony, eking out the last vestiges of grip from the tortured rear rubber as the front stays tight on line, working with you to stand the bike upright again and drive forward to the next turn. No question, it improves on the old model in this respect. Ooh, but it’s a lively beast!

Despite the standard fittment of a top quality Öhlins steering damper, the front end wiggles and shakes, keener to change direction than point straight and true when the throttle is open wide.

On the track it’s compelling, breeding excitement as the bike rides adrenaline between fun and fear, snapping left, flicking up, shaking its head, power wheelying, hunkering down, catapulting forward.

This is a real rider’s machine, slower to lap a track than the totally accommodating, perfectly metered GSX-R1000 with a reasonable rider aboard, but quite probably faster even than the Suzuki when mastered by an expert.

The speed with which it flings itself on its side then springs upright again through a turn takes your breath away, and the force with which it fires you on to the straight has you cackling maniacally into your helmet.

The Ninja is the antithesis of Honda’s anaemic ’05 FireBlade (we’ll be reporting on the revised ’06 ’Blade in mid-December) and considerably quicker to boot, despite not feeling quite as insanely fast as the outgoing ZX-10R (although in practice it’s quicker).

The new bike is stronger in the 5,000rpm to 8,000rpm zone, meaning there’s less of a step into the real meat of the power higher up. You feel more in control of the power too, but rather than make the bike less interesting, this merely helps to unleash more of its staggering performance.

The chassis works in the same vein, with increased agility and a touch more stability but considerably improved feedback and response, allowing you to push it that much harder without encroaching further on your personal margins of safety.

Ultimately – and this is riding the bike hard – ground clearance becomes an issue where on the GSX-R it’s never a problem. The Ninja’s footrest end bolts touch down when the bike is thrown into a corner and the suspension compresses, enough to have you thinking about how you enter a turn, which intrudes on your concentration.

The specification is de rigueur superbike, and includes radially mounted front brake calipers (gripping wavy-edged “petal” discs with eye-popping tenacity), low-friction titanium nitride-coated forks, a slipper clutch (which allows reverse slippage to prevent engine braking locking the rear wheel on the overrun) and a slightly mean, 3.75-gallon fuel tank. It could do with more because the ZX-10R is not impractical as an everyday machine.

OK, luggage attachment is limited to a couple of loops of material that fold out from beneath the vestigial passenger perch, but the riding position isn’t too radical, there’s plenty of low-rev torque and, unlike on the ZX-6R, even a taller rider like me fits without feeling unduly cramped.

The compact instruments, for example, aren’t obscured by the screen as they are on many bikes (for me…), and it’s good to see that Kawasaki’s engineers have acted on complaints that the old LCD rev counter was hard to read. The new analogue design is clear and has a contrast control, while the large digital speed figure floats serenely in the centre.

The motor does buzz through the bars and footrests much of the time, which could be irritating at steady motorway speeds, but otherwise this newest Ninja is another testament to the greatest achievement of the Japanese, bringing stupendous performance to everyday motorcycles.

At an everyday price, too: at £8,800 on the road, the Ninja undercuts Yamaha’s R1 by some £600.

Wild thing… I think I love you.

Kawasaki ZX-10R Ninja

Price/availability: £8,800. On sale January 2006. Contact: Kawasaki Motors UK, 01628 856600, www.kawasaki.co.uk.

Engine/transmission: 998cc, in-line four-cylinder four-stroke with 16 valves; 181bhp at 11,700rpm, 85lb ft torque at 9,500rpm. Six-speed gearbox, chain fi nal drive.

Performance: top speed 185mph (est), average fuel consumption N/A.

We like: Epic performance, edgy handling, thrilling character.

We don't like: Engine buzziness, apologetic looks

Alternatives: Honda CBR1000RR FireBlade, £8,799. Suzuki GSX-R1000, £8,799. Yamaha YZF1000-R1, £9,399.
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