2009 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R - The Ninja's New Moves

By Ari Henning, Photography by Kawasaki

If a bike is meant to excel on the racetrack, it makes sense that it's developed on one. So it was with the latest ZX-6R, which Kawasaki's engineers and test riders spent countless hours refining on the manufacturer's private road course in Southern Japan. Having strengthened the engine and honed the chassis to meet the demands of the 2-mile, 19-turn Autopolis circuit, Kawasaki extended an invitation to the press to sample the new bike on its home turf.

Thus I found myself racing down the front straight with 150 mph showing on the speedo and the tach needle flirting with redline in top gear. Sailing past the brake marker I'd been using at the end of day one, I pulled in the brake lever and shed three gears, bracing against the vision-warping deceleration. True to form the Big Piston Fork remained in the upper range of its travel, and with the bike's chassis completely composed, I leaned in to the turn, trailed off the brakes and rolled on the throttle at an rpm that would have had the previous 6R falling flat on its face.

Meet the 2009 ZX-6R: "An all-new bike with a lot of improvements," said Kawasaki's Sportbike Manager Karl Edmundson. From the more potent engine to the lighter, more nimble chassis and impressive new Showa fork, this Ninja is indeed a better bike.

Owner's forums and our "Class of '07" shootout praised the previous-generation ZX-6R for its balance and responsiveness, but bemoaned its languid midrange power. A multitude of engine changes such as reduced valve overlap and improved porting have brought 636-like thrust to the 6R's middle revs.

"Our efforts were focused on increasing torque, especially in the mid-rpm range," said project leader Yasuhisa Okabe. A dyno-graph comparison showed that the depression in the middle of the '07-'08 model's torque curve had been smoothed over, and the power curve rose higher and tapered off less impetuously. Our posteriors corroborate Kawasaki's claims. Having just spent a day aboard an '08 Ninja at a Track Club (www.thetrackclub.com) track day at Buttonwillow Raceway, I had the old bike's power delivery characteristics fresh in my mind. The new engine maintains the same stratospheric 16,500-rpm redline and over-rev capabilities, but power comes on earlier and builds longer, putting a claimed 124.4 horses to the ground at 13,500 rpm as opposed to the previous model's 117.9 bhp at 12,500 rpm. The engine's happy zone has grown by about 3000 revs, indicated by a band of green that extends from 8000 rpm upward on the white-faced tach. Throttle response is crisp and the engine pulls cleanly from idle, with noticeably more grunt in the middle. Combine the engine's extra meat with a buttery six-speed gearbox and a smooth-acting slipper clutch, and you have a bike that's easier to ride-and easier to ride fast.

On a technical track such as Autopolis, power is useless without a nimble, responsive chassis. The Ninja is as agile as its name implies. The spec sheet shows steeper rake and reduced trail that undoubtedly help it turn quicker, but most impressive is the reported 22-pound weight reduction: 6.6 pounds skimmed off the engine and 15.4 off the chassis. That's no small feat. Components as crucial as the cams and as insignificant as the rear brake hose were evaluated for weight savings. What was left was carefully positioned to centralize mass (most notably the muffler), and it's easily perceived in the Ninja's willingness to change directions.

Autopolis' sinuous back section crams eight turns into a half-mile, requiring rapid, full-lean, left-to-right transitions. With super-sticky Bridgestone BT-003s on the wheels, the bike's speed through these sections was essentially limited by its ability to change directions. The Ninja responds to commands enthusiastically, diving in to turns with minimal effort. Cranked over on its side, the entire chassis works in unison to follow the road, its stability and virtually limitless cornering clearance inspiring faster corner speeds.

When it's time to actuate the radial master cylinder and put the squeeze on those 300mm petal rotors, you'll appreciate the flexible trim panels just below the tank that let you clamp into the bike as it scrubs speed. Braking hardware is unchanged from '08, and with good reason. The stock setup reduces velocity with a swiftness akin to running into a gravel trap, and requires only two fingers to access its tremendous braking power.

Using those powerful stoppers reveals the attributes of the BPF front end. Reared in the intense environ of MotoGP racing, Big Piston technology is the edge on the Ninja's katana-like handling. Its slow-speed compression characteristics adamantly resist brake dive and do wonders to maintain chassis attitude. Lap after lap, I pushed my brake markers farther down the track, but the bike's composure never faltered. Suspension action is fluid and controlled, yet every bump and ripple of the riding surface is accurately communicated to the rider. Simplified fork internals mean there's a more direct link between the circle of black rubber on the ground and the oval of gray matter in your head. That's a big deal for those without a Pro racer's sense of traction, as it lets you push harder and extract more of the machine's potential while still maintaining a feeling of complete control.

The Ninja's unflappable composure and intuitive feel help in corner entries. Running in to the off-camber entrance of Turn 13, the BPF's transparency was inspirational. Long before I ordinarily would have sensed trouble, it became evident that all was not well at the front contact patch. The sensation of the front end pushing was subtle yet clear-a gentle reminder to pick up the throttle and get on with reeling in the next rider. Had I tossed the bike at that moment it would have been like walking into an open trench while reading the warning sign.

Visually, the Ninja's organic lines have morphed to resemble the angular and insectile look of its bigger brother, the ZX-10R. The appearance may be polarizing, but riders will appreciate the wind protection and the perfect harmony between body and bike. To facilitate body contact, the clip-ons have been moved rearward and angled back a few degrees, moving your elbows out of the windblast. Forearms rest securely in the channeled edges of the fuel tank, and there's complete contact from calves to crotch along the curved frame-to-tank transition. While the windscreen is low, even my 5'11" frame found room behind it thanks to the helmet-sized indentation in the tank top. New for '09, an hlins steering damper is mounted atop the triple clamp, although legal types have limited its range of adjustment.

At $9799 the Ninja is on par with its competitors, price-wise, but how does it stack up in terms of performance? Will its improved engine, slimmer physique and sharper handling put it at the front of the middleweight pack? Only time-and our "Class of '09" comparison-will tell.

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