Motorcycle Road Test: 2004 Kawasaki ZX-10R Ninja

Meet the most potent superbike ever built. Kawasaki's ZX-10R Ninja is a 433-pound motorcycle with 162 horsepower

You expect certain things from the Ninja. Power. Quickness. Agility. Focus. Bravado. Attitude. Heavy on the attitude. Still, unless you catapult-launch F-18 Hornets or 6500-horsepower Top Fuel dragsters for a living, this Ninja is a revelation. Prepare yourself for the strongest literbike in the world. Understand that it's lighter than most 600s. And while that's sinking in, make a mental note to pack an extra Depends.

One hundred mph arrives before the 13,000-rpm redline—in first gear. Shift into second at triple digits and a practiced throttle hand can lift the front Dunlop for obscene distances. The 10R covers a quarter-mile in less time than it takes to read this sentence, and it punishes incompetence, impudence and stupidity even more quickly. Too much throttle, almost anywhere, and it'll stick you in the ground like a golf tee.

This Ninja doth not suffer fools. It eats them. Whole. Any sportbike commands respect and first-rate skills. Kawasaki's all-new ZX-10R demands more of both than any motorcycle currently for sale, along with simply heroic willpower. Nothing in any showroom punts you forward with such pure, concentrated, brute force. Its predatory silhouette alone makes small children, domestic pets and impressionable girls hyperventilate. If it lived next door, the ZX-10R would bet heavily on the Oakland Raiders. It would own an overwrought Rottweiler named Cujo and play all 11 Metallica albums every weekend—with the dial cranked up to 11. Your mother wouldn't approve. Your black-sheep uncle doing time for armed robbery would advise against it. Twenty years after the first 900, Kawasaki's latest literbike is entirely stunning—and unmistakably a Ninja.

It's slim and short enough to make most 600s look like sport-tourers. A ZX-6R is larger in every dimension except overall height. Parked alongside it, Suzuki's GSX-R1000 seems positively massive. The eyes, in this case, have it right. At 433 pounds, complete with all requisite fluids, the 10R carries 11 fewer pounds than a GSX-R1000 and weighs 33 pounds less than Honda's CBR1000RR. Its 54.5-inch wheelbase is the shortest in literbike land. Thumb the starter and throttle response is immediate. There's something wicked going on down there. The 998cc four's titanium exhaust system delivers a rowdy, loping, raucous idle: the consummate overture to horsepower.

That fat rear Dunlop delivers the goods, too. Putting 161.9 horsepower on the pavement at 11,750 rpm, it dethrones the previous dyno king, Kawasaki's ZX-12R (161.4 at 10,000 rpm). Anyone else want a piece of this? The ZX-10R overpowers Suzuki's Hayabusa (156.1 at 9500 rpm), Honda's new CBR1000RR (153.3 at 11,250 rpm) and Yamaha's latest R1 (158.3 at 12,500 rpm). And here's the kicker. Add that 433-pound wet weight to the 170-pound rider we use for spec-chart calculations, divide by 161.9 horsepower, and you have a weight/power ratio of 3.72 pounds per. It just doesn't get any better than that, sports fans.

But enough with the numbers already. As you might ask a man hit by lightning: What's it like?

Tall, slender frame spars and strategically compressed engine dimensions make the Ninja feel more like a twin between your knees than a four. Beyond that, rider accommodations are all business, though somewhat less compact than the rest of the package. Comfortable is a strong word—think an F-18 cockpit, not a 747 first-class lounge. Legroom is adequate for a 35-inch inseam, though shorter-legged types are more at home here. Back out of the inexplicably stiff standard settings and the ZX-10R's suspension is taut though agreeably compliant, with none of the nasty harshness that troubled the '03 ZX-6R. Thanks to the tough, linear clutch—and the strongest engine in motorcycling history—that 100-mph low gear isn't a problem in traffic, especially with the extra-tall first gear. There's more driveline slack than you'll find in a GSX-R1000. Add the Kawasaki's curt on/off throttle response and commuting in traffic is a notch more trying than usual. Heat rising from the exhaust system's cast-titanium collector slow-roasts your right foot—one more reason to take this thing out where it can breathe. Otherwise, the package is magnificently agile and surprisingly well-mannered.

Touring, in ZX-10R parlance, is whatever combination of freeway, thruway, highway and/or toll road lies between your garage and the twisty bits. By that definition, the world's strongest streetbike works just fine. Ergonomics situate the rider well forward—that front Dunlop works better when it's on the pavement—without overloading arms and wrists. This close proximity allows the racy little fairing to provide practical wind protection. Compliant suspension delivers a humane ride over all but the most neglected pavement. Aside from a short seat-to-bar dimension that puts a tall rider's elbows and knees in tight company, the nicely shaped saddle makes this a decent place to spend the afternoon. The low-fuel warning light usually starts blinking after about 120 miles, which means you'll be running out in another 30. As long as there are suitably interesting roads—and a gas station or two—within 150 miles of home, you're in business. Just do everyone a favor and get your mind right first, because things soon get, shall we say, exciting.

The effectively invisible LCD tach display isn't much help, but things change on the other side of 8000 rpm. Long, straight bits of road are transitory blips on your visual radar. Corners rush from the horizon to your lap far too quickly. Entering bends 10 or 20 mph faster than ever is ludicrously easy. Discretion becomes the only part of valor. We kept the engine spinning between 4000 and 8000 rpm to maintain a quick, twisty-road pace—shifting more often than is necessary on a GSX-R1000, for example—to stay out of the big power. Ironic? Yes, but thanks to Kawasaki's most nimble, obedient chassis yet, plenty entertaining.

Even on tight, quick-flick roads, the 10R feels more agile than any other literbike and all but a few 600s. Assertive steering geometry and that stubby 54.5-inch wheelbase let you instigate your desired cornering trajectory with minimal muscle. The biggest challenge in point-and-shoot land, or anywhere else for that matter, is keeping the front wheel on the ground. Get sloppy with body position or throttle control, just for an instant, and you're riding a 162-horse unicycle.

It's just as responsive on fast sweeping pavement, too, and doesn't feel nervous. Since there's no steering damper, we approached fast cornering over any sort of rise with the same respect afforded blasting caps or underfed piranha. Once dialed in, suspension is by far the most compliant of any Kawasaki sportbike, regardless of engine size. The 10R's cornering manners are commendable by any measure, even at maximum lean. Springs are on the stiff side, and damping is taut, but pavement imperfections rarely upset the bike's excellent cornering composure or loosen the superb grip of Dunlop's new D218 radials. Lackluster initial bite and spongy feel at the lever mean it takes a healthy squeeze to slow things down despite the radially mounted calipers. The skinny brake lever cuts into your fingers under hard braking, too—a common occurrence on something this fast.

The glitch list is short for an all-new motorcycle. We'd like more bite from the front brake and less from the lever, plus a tachometer you can actually read. Otherwise, the ZX-10R is literally stunning in every sense of the word. It's easy to argue that 162 rear-wheel horses in a 433-pound (full o` gas) package adds up to an obscene case of overkill. You could contend that nobody needs this kind of clout, and we probably wouldn't argue. But if you have the skills and judgment to wield it, then shift into second at 8000 rpm on this thing just once and see if "needs" doesn't take on a whole new meaning. Other '04 literbikes may offer more civility or comfort in certain situations. But when it comes to airing out the adrenals with pure, unadulterated acceleration, nothing exceeds like excess. And nothing else comes close to this Ninja. Nothing.

OFF THE RECORD

Frank
Age: 29
Height: 5 ft. 7 in.
Weight: 160 lb.
Inseam: 30 in.

This was supposed to be the year I finally abandoned my obsession with liter-class sportbikes. My New Year's resolution wasn't to back off booze or to quit buying scratch-and-wins, but instead to jump off the bigger-is-better ego train and learn to love smaller-capacity bikes, too.

Riding the 2004 Suzuki GSX-R600 and 750 sealed the deal. My real resolution this year is to get my corner speeds way up, which requires skills you only learn on a lighter, more agile (and usually slower) bike. Besides, the latest GSX-R600 effortlessly power-wheelies in second, and the 750 makes as much power as a Y2K literbike—but weighs almost 50 pounds less. Not exactly a sacrifice! What to do, then, with Kawasaki's mind-bending ZX-10R? The numbers are almost too good to be true: 433 pounds wet, less than 55 inches between the axles, and tinier in nearly every dimension than the K-company's ZX-6R.

From the saddle you have every indication you're riding a 600—until you crack the throttle and 162 ruthless horses come online, that is. The 10R doesn't even argue if you ride it like a 600. Run it deep into corners (love those righteous radial-mount calipers!), flick it in late, pick it up early and then happily carry the wheel through the next two gears. Have your cake, they say, and eat it, too.

So what about my New Year's resolution? There's always 2005.—Aaron Frank

Boehm
Age: 41
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 220 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.

Here's an analogy those of you who ride dirtbikes might appreciate: Riding the ZX-10R on anything but a wide-open back road or a racetrack is sorta like riding an open-class motocrosser—in your 100x60-foot backyard! The thing is so short, so light, so narrow between the knees and so damn fast that riding it on public roads becomes an entirely new experience. Think Han Solo and making the jump to lightspeed. Remember the song "Hot Rod Lincoln" from the late 1960s or early '70s, the one that had lyrics that included a bit about "light poles looking like a picket fence?" That's what riding the new Ninja is like. It's funny, though...as brutally fast as it is, it's also fairly refined, and it wouldn't be out of the question to have this thing as your only sportbike. Your riding buddies might call you a sadist, but you could do it. Riding to Laguna Seca with soft bags strapped to the tail? OK, maybe not. But Kawasaki deserves kudos here for mixing in a few pinches of livability with all that mind-blowing explosiveness.

I've written this before and I'll write it again: These new literbikes are all so powerful, trick and capable that picking one really does come down to styling or one's gut feel for a particular brand. Picking a "winner" from this bunch is gonna be a bitch, but it's definitely a good thing for fans of high-end sportbikes. —Mitch Boehm

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