A Quartet of Electronically Enhanced Superbikes | MC Comparison

Class of 2011: Divine Intervention

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kevin Wing, Matt Samples, Joe Neric

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R
Best Lap: 1:53.9

Kudos to Kawasaki, the first Japanese manufacturer to stand up and deliver a traction control-equipped superbike. Sport-Kawasaki Traction Control (S-KTRC) is the big news here, but it isn’t the whole story. In addition to the extra-big brain, the 2011 Ninja was given a comprehensive wheels-to-windscreen makeover that trimmed away more than 20 lbs., confirmed when the new bike weighed just 440 lbs. ready-to-ride on our scales. The ZX-10R was the only all-new bike in this year’s mix, so we were understandably excited to pile on some miles.

“Despite its plebian parts, the Kawasaki’s performance feels equal to any of its European counterparts.”

Riding the new Ninja alongside hard-edged race replicas like the Aprilia and Ducati reminded us just how approachable a Japanese sportbike can be. Long and low with softer suspension that doesn’t require race-level cornering loads to activate, the Kawasaki was the easiest bike to hustle along a chilly and damp Ortega Highway. The Alpha Ninja is perfectly content cruising along at 75 percent effort, unlike high-strung European machines that aren’t happy until they’re flogged at 110 percent.

That friendly character is less desirable at the racetrack, however. The ZX-10R was a lumbering bear until Kawasaki tech (and former AMA race tuner) Joey Lombardo shimmed the shock 10mm and stiffened everything up, providing race-ready reflexes without sacrificing the rock-solid stability we found so reassuring on the street. The Kawi still couldn’t match the outright agility of the narrow, quick-turning Ducati or Aprilia—blame the innate inline-four girth—but it was the least nervous mount, especially in long, fast turns like Chuckwalla’s high-banked bowl.

Despite its plebian parts, the Kawasaki’s performance feels equal to any of its European counterparts. Radial-mount, four-piston Tokico front calipers stop as well as the other bikes’ Brembos and the Showa Big-Piston Fork (BPF) matches the action of the high-dollar Öhlins units on the European machines. In fact, in terms of small-bump compliance, the BPF was actually the best of the bunch, enhancing the ZX-10R’s already impressive mid-corner stability. The fully adjustable Showa shock, mounted horizontally above the swingarm to isolate it from performance-sapping exhaust heat, impressed us as well, highly reactive and capable of withstanding the biggest acceleration loads we could throw at it.

The S-KTRC system doesn’t use a gyroscope or accelerometer, just a multi-parameter ECU that monitors front- and rear-wheel speeds, gear position, throttle position and rpm to detect wheelspin and respond by retarding spark. Three TC levels are available, in addition to Full, Middle and Low (FML) power modes. Tilting a rocker on the left switch cluster upward changes the power mode. Tilting it downward adjusts TC on the fly, though you have to come to a stop to switch it off completely.

Like the Aprilia, Kawasaki’s least invasive setting (Level 1) allows significant wheelspin before stepping in, letting you paint corner exits like a high-speed Picasso. Level 2 is preferable for most riders because it intervenes sooner, giving a better sense of what’s happening at the contact patch. Level 3 is too bossy, and best suited for rain or other low-grip situations. There isn’t wheelie control per se, though the ECU does cut spark when it decides the front end is rising too quickly.

Unintended wheelies weren’t an issue on the Ninja. Tall gearing and muted power delivery made the ZX-10R feel comparatively tame. Larger intake valves, more aggressive cam timing and a higher, 13,500-rpm redline should make the new Ninja feel more muscular, but if anything it felt anemic under 10,000 rpm—especially alongside the arm-stretching BMW. Our test unit also stumbled off closed throttle, which proved annoying on the street and downright aggravating at the track. Lombardo adjusted throttle cables and even swapped the ECU with no improvement—we suspect this is an emissions-tuning side-effect that will require an injection remap to correct.

Even if it’s down nearly 20 ponies to the S1000RR, 159.5 bhp isn’t shabby, and the Ninja still came within .1-second of eclipsing the BMW’s Best Lap. And this was the only bike without a quick-shifter, which might have been worth as much as a half-second per lap. Neutral, forgiving and probably the easiest for the widest range of people to ride fast, the ZX-10R is the archetypal, broadband Japanese sportbike. Plus, unlike some of the other more “charismatic” competition, the Kawasaki’s mirrors actually work, its balance shaft kills vibes dead and it boasts two-position adjustable footpegs.

Moreover, at $13,799, the Ninja is a relative bargain. Even if that’s a whopping $2300 more than last year’s ZX-10R, the added benefit of traction control makes it a steal compared to its European competitors. A comparably equipped BMW S1000RR costs $1631 more—a difference that leaves you a lot of spare change to spend regearing, remapping and making the other minor improvements that will pay major dividends on the road and track.

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