Honda CBR1000RR vs. Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R vs. Suzuki GSX-R1000 vs. Yamaha YZF-R1 | The Big Four's Big Four

Class of 2012 Part I

By Ari Henning, Photography by Adam Campbell, Joe Neric

Best Lap: 1:53.13

Kawasaki ZX-10R

Kawasaki’s ZX-10R underwent a complete overhaul in 2011, and while nothing is new for 2012, the Ninja still stands out as the most modern and sophisticated machine here. It’s also the lightest and most powerful, weighing in at just 440 lbs. wet and producing 157.9 bhp at 11,600 rpm. Kawasaki was the first Japanese manufacturer to outfit a sportbike with traction control, and the S-KTRC (Sport-Kawasaki Traction Control) package lets you get on the gas harder and sooner, with obvious benefits. The system provides three levels of intervention and there are also three power modes (Full, Medium and Low), but we never felt the desire to toggle away from the full monty.

The ZX-10R's ergonomics are odd but agreeable. The bike is long and low, with wide-set clip-ons and a high seat. It’s a fairly roomy cockpit, with excellent wind protection and ample legroom once the adjustable rearsets were put in the lower position. The mirrors are the best of the bunch—in fact, the best we’ve experienced on a modern sportbike—and provide a panoramic rearview that’s un- affected by engine vibration. The multi-color LED tachometer that spans the top of the dash makes you feel like a spaceship pilot and conveys engine speed nearly as well as an analog unit, but some testers found the amber glow distracting, as if the engine warning light were on.

The ZX-10R feels like a baby ZX-14R on the freeway: big, stable, smooth and stinking-fast when you got up in the revs. Opening this one up really feels like you’re pulling the trigger on something powerful, which wasn’t an impression the other bikes conveyed. It’s got a muted-but-appealing exhaust note and the kind of midrange power and subdued engine vibration that make you forget which gear you’re in. Push the tachometer past 9000 rpm, however, and the ZX-10R tries to rip your arms off! The Kawasaki was noticeably faster on Chuckwalla’s short straights, and it has mega-brakes that are a step above the rest in terms of feel and power.

The ZX-10R rolls off the assembly line with the rear end slammed for stability, which results in some wonky handling for those of us who prefer canyon roads over the HOV lane. As delivered, the bike was slow to steer and wanted to stand up and run wide in turns, requiring constant bar input to stay on line. Kawasaki’s ace technician Joey Lombardo transformed the Ninja’s handing by shimming the shock to add 8mm of rear ride height. Steering effort was thus reduced and the tendency to run wide eliminated. As the pace quickened at the track, front-end chatter and headshake became a problem, but Lombardo fixed those issues by raising the front end 4mm and tweaking spring preload. Those changes slowed steering again, but stabilized the front. We felt the most confident upping entry speeds on the ZX-10R, as evidenced by the Bridgestone techs’ highest recorded front-tire temperature of 174 degrees. In the end, the Kawasaki turned the fastest lap at the racetrack, clicking off a 1:53.13—exactly 1 second quicker than the runner-up Honda— with much less effort or drama.

Non-digital bikes might be more exhilarating to ride at the edge of adhesion, but TC lets you do it with less strain and risk. There’s no doubt that the Kawasaki’s S-KTRC enabled quicker lap times, but we’d like to see more refined intervention levels; or better yet, more of them. Level I proved too lax, letting the rear tire step out so quickly that instinct kicked in before the TC, negating the “no worries” aspect of electronics. Level II proved more effective, cutting in early enough to keep the back tire in line while allowing aggressive throttle application. But even in Level II, riders still experienced some frightening moments when drive slides became lateral slides. In that situation, there’s nothing electronics can do for you.

The Kawasaki’s gear changes could be smoother and the chassis took a lot of work to set up, but once we got it working, it worked the best—by a long shot. The ZX-10R was the easiest to go fast on thanks to its stable handling, mega-power, boss brakes and the assistance of S-KTRC. The Ninja feels, powerful and well put-together, with a look that’s both edgy and distinctly Kawasaki.

Barry Burke

BEST LAP: 1:59.40, Suzuki GSX-R1000 | AGE: 51 | HEIGHT: 6’0” | WEIGHT: 173 lbs. | INSEAM: 34 in.

OFF THE RECORD
These bikes are so similar that it had to come down to the details. The Kawasaki serves up raw power with an impressive traction-control system. It might have handled slow and felt low on the street, but it came into its element at the track. I went fastest on the Suzuki due to its stability and the confidence it inspired, but it’s loud and looks and feels unrefined compared to the competition. The Honda is precise and nimble, and I think it had the best front-end feedback. The lack of TC didn’t bother me, but the high footpegs did. If not for the limited legroom, the CBR would have been my pick for the street. The Yamaha has the best TC and a great motor, but the harsh throttle response and underseat “birth-control pipes” overshadow any positive aspects. I’m going with the Kawasaki.

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