2011 Kawasaki Ninja 1000 | First Ride

The bike you've been waiting for you just didn't know it yet

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Adam Campbell

We know what you're thinking: Did somebody at Kawasaki kick sportbike evolution into reverse? Nearly naked 2010 Z1000 puts on slinky new bodywork to become a 2011 Ninja 1000 that weighs 66 lbs. more than a new ZX-10R and makes less horsepower? That might sound backward from where you sit, but somewhere between Fairfax and Stinson Beach on some of the most diabolically convoluted back roads in all of Northern California, it's one giant step in the right direction.

Call it an alternate route to the evolutionary trajectory toward smaller, lighter, faster Ninjas like the 2011 ZX-10R. Bikes that get closer to the track and farther from everyday reality year after year. Just don't call it a dressed-up Z1000, which wears too much plastic to be naked anyhow. Kawasaki rolled out the underdressed version first because the home office figures to sell more copies everywhere except here, but both 1043cc fours were fleshed out together. Once you peel back their dissimilar plastic skins, both bikes are pretty much the same. Same relatively long-stroke four tuned to lay down most of its muscle in the middle of the rev band. Same gear-driven balance shaft squelching second-order vibration. Same stiff, five-piece, stressed-member, die-cast aluminum skeleton. Same 41mm fork and horizontally mounted shock. As a wise far-western philosopher once said, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Lighter, six-spoke cast wheels are new to the Ninja 1000 parts manifest, along with a list of functional touches that make life on the street a little more interesting and a lot more comfortable.

Sculpted body panels and an easily adjustable three-position windscreen add effective wind protection and a suitably warlike Ninja demeanor. A ZX-6R-style instrument pod conveys vital information. Though the relatively upright riding position is nearly the same as sitting on a Z1000, cast-aluminum risers angle the clip-on bars 10mm inward, while rubber-covered pegs convey noticeably less engine vibration. A 5-gallon fuel tank carries a full gallon more than the Z1000, giving the Ninja a welcome bump in range. An extra 10mm of urethane seat foam and six buzz-killing mounts under the pillion make this one a nicer place to spend the day.

Despite that infusion of practicality and a sub-$11,000 sticker price, the new Ninja more than holds its own amid the Porches, Ferraris and Toyota Priuses favored by upscale Marin County motorists. Initial throttle response is slightly abrupt, along with a twinge of driveline lash and some stiffness shifting from second to third if you're looking for nits to pick. Otherwise? Steering is light and dead-on accurate despite the bodywork and fuel that make it 22 lbs. heftier than a Z1000. You feel that extra gallon of fuel sloshing around between your knees when the tank is topped up, but thoughts of going back to the undressed version disappear with the first stretch of open road.

The fairing and windscreen do an admirable job of steering oncoming air around your grateful torso, especially above 70 mph. Extending the windscreen to its most upright position provides more protection for the vertically unchallenged. But since that setting aims a stream of noisy, turbulent air right at a taller rider's head, we left it in the middle slot. There's a whiff of muted, inline-four buzz at socially acceptable freeway speeds, but nothing more. And while that extra seat foam puts the pavement about a half-inch farther away at every stoplight, it's a blessing everywhere else.

In between the radar-enforced 35-mph speed-limit signs, roving bands of militant bicyclists and a treacherous garnish of pine needles from the last weekend storm, the Ninja can carve this beautifully ostentatious chunk of Marin County into its own little sportbike heaven. The longish-stroke four is instantly obliging from 3000 rpm up-a reassuring feature for making safe, quick progress on unfamiliar roads. And just north of 6500 rpm, it pulls hard enough to condense time and space into a pleasantly addictive little neurological aperitif. Though fitted with a smaller, 41-tooth rear sprocket in place of the Z1000's 43, it's electronically restricted to some undisclosed top speed for reasons that elude us.

Radial-mount Tokico front calipers reverse the process with a two-finger squeeze, with or without any help from the rear brake. Z1000-spec suspension is still a bit harsh over the worst lumps and divots, but strikes an equitable balance between comfort and control everywhere else. Burn off that extra gallon of fuel en route to the twisty bits and you'll never notice the extra weight. Besides, actual wind protection will be worth every last ounce on the ride home.

In some perfect world-a few miles north at Infineon Raceway, for instance-that new ZX-10R would have been the better way to go. But at the end of a day in the real world we ride through every day, it doesn't get much better than the Ninja 1000.

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