While most of Japan’s motorcycle manufacturers have taken the cautious approach to riding out the global recession—making minimal updates to existing models, building low-buck econobikes or otherwise hitting the snooze button—Kawasaki is wide awake with the throttle pinned. In the last three years we’ve seen a recession-defying number of new models. They include the ZX-10R, which remains the only open-class Japanese bike to have been completely reworked in the past 36 months, and was the first to come with traction control; the 2011 Ninja 1000, a reasonably priced sportbike for the real world; the 2012 ZX-14R, which simultaneously rehashed and squashed the decade-old horsepower feud with Suzuki’s Hayabusa; the totally reworked 2012 Ninja 650; and the all-new, fuel-injected 2013 Ninja 300. And, finally, the 2013 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R.
The other industry players aren’t playing—especially in the middleweight category—leaving Team Green to make its own moves and build its idea of the ultimate middleweight. Just like a decade ago, Kawasaki is shrugging off class convention with a 636cc “cheater” motor. Unlike in 2003, Kawasaki isn’t building a 599cc version for roadracing. Kawasaki doesn’t care if there’s nowhere for the 636 to race, it’ll be a more versatile, user-friendly machine for street riders. That may put diehard sport riders on edge, but as the track-oriented press introduction proved (First Ride, Jan.) this Ninja is an even more capable track tool than ever before. And while the press event gave us a few hours on freshly paved mountain roads, we knew a longer, real-world road test was needed to fully evaluate this new bike.
We’ll get this over with early: Strapped to Motorcyclist’s SuperFlo dyno, the 2013 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R makes 112 horsepower at 13,300 rpm and 46.4 lb.-ft. of torque at 11,300 rpm. That’s up 3.3 bhp and 2.8 lb.-ft. compared to the 2012 bike in terms of peak power. Decent gains for a measly 37cc, but the midrange is where the new Ninja gets the most muscle. Between 5000 and 11,000 rpm, the new long-stroke 636 averages 5 more bhp than the 600, while the 2013 bike reaches the previous bike’s peak torque nearly 2000 rpm earlier.
That’s just what you glean from eyeballing the dyno charts. Ride the bike and you’ll swear the gains were greater. And it’s so smooth! Feed your average 600 a handful of throttle at a few thousand rpm and it will probably make more noise than thrust, or perhaps just strain or stumble. Not so with the Ninja. It pulls strong right off of idle with the most serene, fluid motor in the class. It’s driveable at all rpm, with an unexpectedly broad spread of power for a highly tuned, small-displacement four.
From the helm, this bike feels nearly as potent as a Suzuki GSX-R750. Editor in Chief Marc Cook was the first to make the comparison with the classic extra-middleweight benchmark. “The midrange pull feels as good as the 750’s,” says Cook. “It’s strong enough that you can almost ignore gear selection on a twisty road and just work on your lines.” Such flexibility makes for one accommodating and easy-to-enjoy motorcycle, no matter how you ride. But pure performance helps, too. Drag strip numbers show just how close the 636 is to the 750. The 2013 ZX-6R runs down the ¼-mile in 10.69 seconds at 129.24 mph, improbably close to the GSX-R750’s 10.44 sec. at 133.31 mph considering the Suzuki’s similar weight (it’s just 2 lbs. heavier) and superior power (a peak of 122 bhp). In top gear, the Ninja is only a tenth of a second slower from 60-80 mph, and actually 3/10ths faster from 80-100 mph. Granted, the Suzuki is held back by tall final gearing, but the fact that we’re making performance comparisons to the 750 and not to other 600s says a lot about the 636.