The previous Big Piston Fork was great for sport riding, but the shock faded when pushed, and as is typical of sportbikes, the setup felt somewhat stiff on the street. “Harsh” is not a word you could apply to the Ninja 636 under any circumstances. The suspension sucks all roughness out of imperfect roads while providing a clear summation of what the contact patches are encountering. Showa’s new Separate Function Fork Big Piston (SFF-BP) may sound like a translation mishap, but it and the revised shock are minor miracles in original equipment, with a level of compliance on par with a well-tuned touring rig. Yet the Ninja sacrifices nothing it terms of handling and feel. The relaxed showroom settings will eventually allow some chassis pitch and rear-end wallow when the pace picks up, but a few turns of the adjusters brings the handling back in line. The fork is especially easy to tinker with since all the adjusters are on the fork caps. There’s a flat blade in the tool kit for tuning the front and rear damping, but no spanner for setting preload. As it turns out, a quarter works great for setting the fork preload, but you’ll need the proper tool for the shock.
The minor changes in chassis geometry make the new Ninja steer sharper than before, but the bike is more stable than ever. “It gives you the feeling that you can tighten or change your line at any time for any reason.” says Cook. On the street as on the track, the Ninja is nothing but amicable. “It’s so easy to move around on,” says Editor at Large Aaron Frank. “I never felt like the chassis was arguing with me.” No combination of inputs could upset the chassis. If you can’t be smooth on the 636, you’re either trying way too hard or not at all.
Engine and chassis flexibility are just part of what makes the Ninja so versatile. Conditions change: those clouds may drain their watery contents on you, the road may become strewn with sand or you may just like to run your tires ‘til the cords show; the Kawasaki can accommodate via adjustable traction control and power modes that come as standard features. Both are tunable via the rocker switch on the left cluster. Push up to realize the 636’s full power or to experience a neutered, 90-bhp Ninja. Press and hold the rocker down to change the Kawasaki Traction Control (KTRC) setting. Your selection is indicated on the LCD screen to the right of the analog tachometer, which now positions redline at 16,000 rpm rather than 16,500 rpm as on the previous bike. KTRC makes the Low power mode superfluous, and as Associate Editor Zack Courts so aptly put it, “No self-respecting squid would be caught dead with his sick new 2013 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R 636 in Low mode.”
This is the same layout as before, but the tach face is black instead of white, and there
KTRC Level 1 is intended for sport riding, with maximum acceleration as its objective. It allows a fair amount of wheel spin, but the system works so smoothly that the only way you can tell it is functioning is by a slight warble in the exhaust note. Level 2 is more cautious, stymieing wheel spin that would otherwise go unnoticed by the rider. Level 3 is downright over-vigilant, eliminating any imbalance in front/rear wheel speed with a triple-punch spark/fuel/throttle butterfly combo. Level 1 is a good safety net on the track and Level 2 proved best in the wet, offering a high level of safety without limiting acceleration.
You may be ambivalent about traction control—some of us are—but when you’re navigating urban streets after dark in the rain, being able to dial in more safety with the push of a button is pretty fantastic. And with KTRC as a backstop, it was interesting to see just how hard you can accelerate in the wet before overwhelming the rear contact patch—the new Bridgestone S20s have inspiring grip.
For 2013, the Ninja’s shape is even more modern and edgy, with sharper lines that more closely parallel the ZX-10Rs. “I really loved the looks of this bike,” says Frank. “It has a lot of complex shapes, and looks carefully and functionally styled.” Fairing-integrated front turn signals preserve the Ninja’s sleek silhouette, but the painted plastic panels covering the upper frame spars are too much, and they showed scuffs after the first aggressive street ride. The black paint on the muffler makes it look down-market, but the can itself is slim and compliments the bike’s slender tail section.
There’s really not much to complain about. This year’s $1400 price hike—from $10,299 to $11,699 without ABS—is a surprise given the softness of the 600 Supersport category. But the updates justify the raise, though we’d love to have a standard quickshifter. As it is, the transmission is so slick that you hardly need one, but we can dream. Beyond that, the bike works so well and has had all flaws so thoroughly worked out of it that—dare we mention it?—it lacks personality. If you’re looking for charming quirks or amusing misbehavior, keep going. The Ninja is quiet (probably too quiet), smooth, and very relaxed. It’s a stone-faced performer.
Don’t misunderstand. Kawasaki’s emphasis on street-worthy performance is exactly right for today’s economic circumstances. Think of the Ninja as truly two bikes in one, a fantastically good track-day tool that will give you all the speed and capability you need, and a supremely confidence-inspiring street machine. The day of the hyperkinetic 600, a demanding witch of a motorcycle that challenges your skill, may well be behind us. So, yes, Kawasaki kicked convention to the curb with the 2013 Ninja ZX-6R, and in doing so built a bike that’s so good that it alone could breathe new life into the 600(ish) class.