2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R | First Ride

Delayed gratification

By Ari Henning, Photography by Brian Nelson

Masterpieces are not created overnight. It took Michelangelo four years to paint the Sistine Chapel and 19 years for researchers to develop the Polio vaccine. A quarter of a century after they started the project, Microsoft is still tweaking Windows. Perfection takes time, so Kawasaki can be forgiven for introducing the latest ZX-10R Ninja a year later than expected.

The 2011 ZX-10R is Kawasaki's magnum opus, the culmination of 50 years of bike-building and four years of dedicated effort. As with remodeling a house, sometimes it's better to knock the thing down and start from scratch. That's exactly what Kawasaki did. This isn't a mild redesign for the sake of marketing; this Ninja is all-new, from the wheels to the windscreen.

Aside from turn signals that hung like tumors from the mirror stalks, the 2008-'10 ZX-10R was one sharp-looking machine. But compared to the 2011 model, it already looks dated. The new bike appears lower, leaner and overall more focused, like a big cat waiting to pounce. The fuel tank isn't as flared, but the bike's excellent rider interface is maintained and even enhanced by the increased downward angle of the clip-ons. The green-and-black paint scheme will look familiar to race fans, as it's based on the World Superbike race team livery.

The Ninja's debut found us not at some far-flung foreign racetrack, but at Road Atlanta in Georgia. This undulating, blistering-fast 2.5-mile road course is challenging both physically and mentally, yet the ZX-10R proved less demanding to ride than expected. Through the miracle of mass centralization, Kawasaki's engineers are closing the handling gap between 600s and 1000s. The brains at Team Green redesigned and repositioned numerous components and cut a claimed 22 lbs. Considering how deftly the Ninja snaked through Road Atlanta's downhill esses, you'd expect it to twitch and shake in the faster sections, but the bike remained stable everywhere, even when bombing through the back kink at over 180 mph.

The 2011 engine has been completely re-engineered to improve midrange power and tractability, and there's a much broader spread of thrust. Aside from some stiffness in the gearbox, the engine is a gem. Peak output is stated as 188 horsepower at 12,500 rpm and 82.6 lb.-ft. of torque at 11,000 rpm. That's an increase of nearly 10 bhp and a serious shift in the power peaks: down 500 rpm for horsepower and up over 2000 rpm for torque. Power is delivered in a smoother, more linear fashion, which explains why this bike doesn't feel as fierce as its predecessor with its abrupt top-end rush. The new LED tachometer is easy to see but hard to read. Turning down the brightness helped keep the lights from blending together, but the previous analog display was better. Power levels off beyond 12,500 rpm, so you hear the limiter at 13,500 rpm more than you feel it.

Bigger throttle bodies, better ports, revised valve timing and a new exhaust result in more airflow through the engine, which produces more power and less engine braking when the throttle is closed. The free-spinning character of the engine, a new Showa Big Piston Fork and slick slipper clutch make the big Ninja nearly as easy to throw into a corner as its 600cc brethren.

The exhaust note coming from the shorter muffler is deceptively muted, even at 10,000 rpm. Taller gearing and linear power delivery make the Ninja misleading at speed. The Tokico calipers are plenty strong and the BPF resists bottoming and remains compliant, even at the entrance to Turn 10A where you have to shed four gears and 120 mph in just 600 feet. That exercise never fails to widen your eyes!

The big news with the 2011 bike is S-KTRC (Sport-Kawasaki Traction Control). At an unfamiliar and dauntingly challenging track like the one we'd just been let loose on, S-KTRC's greatest gift is that it frees up attention to focus on other important matters--such as which way the track goes over that next hill. Take the time to look down at the seven-bar TC indicator and you'll see it flashing wildly if you're using Level 3, intervening on occasion in Level 2 and hardly ever in Level 1. After spending time in each mode I settled on Level 2, as it allowed a subtle yet satisfying amount of rear-tire smear at corner exits. Level 1 was too apathetic, permitting so much tire spin that I found myself instinctively modulating the throttle rather than trusting the electronics. When the system is working, there's no popping or sputtering from the exhaust. In fact, the only ways you know it's in effect are by looking down at the gauge (not the best thing to do with your knee on the ground!) or because the slide is kept in check despite your right wrist calling for more power. S-KTRC polls sensors 200 times per second, which means it responds to adverse inputs in 0.005 of a second--about 40 times faster than the most adroit rider on his best day. Unless you hit oil or do something really stupid, the system is essentially crash-proof--and more so if you've dropped an additional $1000 on Kawasaki's race-spec anti-lock brake system. At the press launch time only non-ABS bikes were available, but if S-KTRC is any indication, KIBS (Kawasaki Intelligent anti-lock Brake System) should be fantastic.

S-KTRC incorporates wheelie-control of sorts, but its response proved unpredictable; sometimes it worked to maintain a steady power lift while other times it made the front end yo-yo like a fledgling stunter. The only way to disable the function is to turn TC off, which meant depending on my own acuity to keep from sampling the red Georgia clay. But even with S-KTRC immobilized, the Ninja is surprisingly manageable and communicative. After a dozen laps with the electronics switched off, it was clear that the bike's excellent behavior is intrinsic to the engine and chassis design, and not strictly due to the electronics.

This Ninja was bred for the racetrack, but Kawasaki knows it will spend most of its time on the street. The new bike's seat is both lower and softer and the rearsets are adjustable. A new balance shaft successfully quells engine vibrations, and those drooping mirrors actually work, showing more than your elbows. The fully adjustable suspension and electronics system all work to let the rider tune the bike to his taste. As Kawasaki's tech guru Ron Taylor said, the Ninja is "a full-blown track bike that can be easily toned down to suit the rider's comfort level or the requirements of conditions."

After a full day aboard the 2011 ZX-10R, there's no denying it's a huge improvement, literally better in all respects. Except price: The base model will sell for $13,799 (up $2300 from last year), and if you want ABS, add another $1000. Then again, this bike needs nothing to rip up any racetrack on the planet and is ready to take on the BMW S1000RR with money left over for a stack of tires. You can't rush greatness, and we're glad Kawasaki took the time to get the new Ninja right. Good things, as the saying goes, come to those who wait.

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