2011 Motorcycle of the Year | Kawasaki Ninja 1000

The Brightest Idea

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Jorge Nunez

We saw some of this coming. Anybody with a passing grade in Discernment 101 and basic information-gathering skills could have told you BMW was primed to fire a high-velocity bombshell at Honda’s Gold Wing. Nobody but Hendrik von Kuenheim and The Amazing Kreskin would have predicted a 1649cc, 160-horse straight-six with headlights that look around corners. Rumors of a revamped Triumph Tiger had been brewing longer than the perennial half-full pot of decaf in the Motorcyclist mess hall, but Hinckley’s 800cc triple turned out to be more outgoing than everybody but John Bloor expected it to be. If Ducati power-cruiser sounds like an oxymoron, the Diavel says otherwise.

Despite all that and more, new motorcycles aren’t exactly flying out of showrooms. Everyone but professional on-air/online pessimists figured the global economy should have made a more convincing comeback from the Great Implosion of ’08 by now. It’s three steps forward and two steps back too much of the time. Nobody was ready for the devastating earthquake/tsunami that hit Japan last March or the deadly tornadoes ripping through America’s heartland in April and May. Still, any card-carrying motorcycle-riding optimist knows one thing for sure: We ride right through this stuff. Sometimes we’re not sure how, but we do.

Give it some time to sink in and the biggest surprise of 2011 shouldn’t have been all that surprising after all. The simplest things pull us through life’s disasters, big and small, public and private, natural and manmade. So here’s one simpler truth we hold to be self-evident: Even when the things outside your helmet seem upside-down, inside-out, improbable, impossible, unpredictable or a little too dark, going for a ride lets you see things in a better light. This year, the best bike to do that on isn’t particularly complicated or expensive or dressed to impress anybody but you. It’s just the best.

2011 Motorcycle of the Year
Kawasaki Ninja 1000

Most of What You Want, Everything You Need
Words: Tim Carrithers
Photo: Kawasaki

This is progress? How exactly does the best motorcycle of 2011 get away with weighing 45 pounds more and making 54 horsepower less than the best bike of 2010: BMW’s S1000RR? For anyone with $16,630 to spend on a staggeringly fast, staggeringly focused sporting tool and the skills to match, it probably doesn’t. But for those of us living a little closer to America’s socioeconomic epicenter, where you can’t afford to impress anyone but yourself anymore, this year’s magic number is $10,999.

That’s $10,999 as in the price of admission for one relatively comfortable, eminently capable, well-mannered Ninja that pulls off most any weekend agenda you can dream up and throws in some pretty sporty transportation for the rest of the week at no extra charge. Call it a compromise. An anachronism. A throwback to the days when one liter-class superbike could haul your dutiful hide to work all week, make the annual Labor Day pilgrimage to the ancestral recreational refuge in another time zone and file off a set of peg-feelers without lingering physical or fiscal pain. We call it a sportbike, sport-tourer or an overqualified commuter, depending on the to-do list du jour. At that rate, broadband ’80s ideology doesn’t sound so bad after all. Make no mistake, boys and girls: The Ninja’s engineering is pure 21st Century stuff. No stale retro aftertaste here. No warmed-over retro styling, either. The silhouette inspires love or hate in most members of the viewing public, but ease your eyes across this fresh, functional plastic skin a couple of times and you’re looking at an idea whose time has come back.

Developed in tandem with the artfully underdressed Z1000, the Ninja’s 1043cc torque-pump makes the kind of smooth, useable power that puts a smile on your face a dozen times every day. Thanks to the miracle of spot-on digital fuel-injection, this engine is open for business with seamless acceleration from 2200 rpm all the way to its 120-bhp, 10,000-rpm peak. But since most of the herd come together toward the center of the rev band, even a casual rearward rotation of the right wrist stuffs dawdling traffic into those nicely shaped rear-view mirrors. Big midrange means all kinds of quasi-legal fun below triple digits—good news for those of us who just don’t look good in handcuffs.

A humane riding position, adjustable wind protection and a genuinely comfortable seat add up to a refreshing change from accommodations designed for Dani Pedrosa or Bilbo Baggins. Spec-chart enthusiasts gnash their whitened-teeth at a 503-lb. curb weight that’s 63 lbs. heavier than a ZX-10R. Okay, fine, but thanks to light, accurate steering and nicely sorted adjustable suspension at either end of the Ninja’s aluminum skeleton, the extra heft is more noticeable on paper than on pavement.

The bottom line, in this case, is the bottom line: When $10,999 delivers more motorcycle to more people than anything in anybody else’s showroom, our Motorcycle of the Year isn’t the fastest or the lightest or the strongest. It’s Kawasaki’s Ninja 1000.

2011 Motorcyclist of the Year
Erik Buell
The American Innovator, Unleashed
Words: Aaron Frank
Photo: Brian J. Nelson

When last we met with Erik Buell on the day of the Buell Motorcycles factory liquidation in January 2010, he was visibly distraught: The Barracuda prototype he considered his finest creation would never see production. This past June, we rode the breathtaking new Erik Buell Racing 1190RS—an evolution of the Barracuda concept—during one of its first public appearances at Road America (see First Ride, page 40). After what must have been the 10th person approached Erik to sputter something to the effect of, “Holy sh*t, that bike is fast—and it looks fantastic, too,” he was again moved almost to tears—this time tears of joy. Buell has been working toward this moment for almost 40 years. That the 1190RS was ever built at all, never mind so quickly, makes this the most incredible, improbable comeback of the 21st Century—and perhaps of motorcycling’s modern era.

That the 1190RS was ever built makes this the most improbable comeback of the 21st Century—and perhaps of motorcycling’s modern ...

Just don’t call this Buell’s second act. During his remarkable career in the motorcycle industry, he has become accustomed to disappointment. Whether breaking bikes (and bones) as a professional roadracer, facing financial ruin after changing racing rules made his first motorcycle, the two-stroke RW750, instantly obsolete, or addressing the countless challenges of designing and building the 136,923 Buell motorcycles sold between 1983 and 2009, Erik has mastered the art of overcoming hardship.

Still, this latest blow seemed fatal. When parent company Harley-Davidson closed Buell Motorcycles in October 2009, it looked like Erik had reached the end of his very long, very resilient rope. Everything he worked for over the past 26 years—the intellectual property, patents for innovative technology he pioneered, even the right to use his name—remained in the hands of The Motor Company.

It would have been easy—honorable, even—for the 60-year-old designer/engineer to slip quietly into retirement, to spend more time with his six children and playing guitar with his band, The Thunderbolts. But Buell still feels he has plenty left to prove. Motivated by an almost pathological loyalty to his fans, customers and former employees, he barely rested a day before launching Erik Buell Racing in a small warehouse across the parking lot from the old assembly line on Buell Drive in East Troy, Wisconsin. The fledgling company initially made ends meet supporting existing Buell XB and 1125R racers, but most of Erik’s energy went into developing the 1190RS.

This most recent revival is shaping up to be Buell’s best act. Liberated from the boardrooms and business meetings that dominated his time at Harley-Davidson, he is now free to concentrate on his real passion: building world-class American superbikes. His company is leaner and more focused than ever before, and his bikes are the best they’ve ever been. Say what you want about the man—and we’ve said it all—this is the latest and most inspiring chapter in what is an undeniably inspiring life story. What more could we ask for from our Motorcyclist of the Year?

Best Sportbike
Aprilia RSV4 Factory APRC SE
Even Better With Traction Control

Why just take our word for it? Not only was Aprilia’s RSV4 Factory the repeat winner in Motorcyclist’s “Class of 2011” sportbike comparison, it’s also the reigning World Superbike Champion. Just like the SBK winner, this Special Edition displays Max Biaggi’s name on the tail. More importantly, it now features the same sophisticated Aprilia Performance Ride Control electronics package “Mad Max” uses to dominate his competition. APRC—the most dynamic and effective traction-control system we’ve tested—makes riding like a world champ easier than ever before. But even with the electronics disabled, the Aprilia is still the most charismatic sportbike on the market, with a scintillating V4 engine, rock-steady Öhlins suspension and the sharpest reflexes this side of an Olympic fencing riposte. We’re more confident than ever choosing the RSV4 Factory as our Sportbike of the Year. Watch for Biaggi’s endorsement at the racetrack.


Alternative Take

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R
Previously, if you wanted traction control you paid a premium for a European brand and accepted the inevitable compromises such a superbike entails. Kawasaki’s excellent S-KTRC traction-control system, incorporated in the all-new, $13,799 ZX-10R, delivers the same performance and safety-enhancing benefits in a more versatile, accessible and affordable package.

Triumph Speed Triple
Rule Britannia!

Triumph’s Speed Triple wasn’t the first naked bike, but it’s certainly the ultimate expression. Fittingly, the British invented the concept, inexpensively returning their crashed sportbikes to the road by stripping off their roadrashed fairings and bolting on tubular handlebars. They called these creations “streetfighters,” but the Italians christened them “naked bikes” and the name stuck.

Three years in the making, this fifth-generation Speed Triple boasts revised styling and an all-new chassis for improved handling. Those who loved the look of the original will mourn the passing of its twin, round, “bug-eye” headlamps, replaced by more modern pentagonal units. And some of those fans might consider the new radiator cowlings a tad too refined for the original hooligan bike. But there’s still a familial resemblance (note the single-sided swingarm and high-level exhaust), and there’s no mistaking the 1050cc triple’s soul-stirring exhaust note.


Alternative Take

Honda CB1000R
Ever since the seminal 1969 CB750, Honda has been working on an encore. The Nighthawk 750 was too small. The CB1000 was too big. The 919 slotted in right between, but failed to connect with a style-conscious public. At long last, with the made-in-Italy CB1000R, Honda has gotten it just right.

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