First Look: 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R

Smarter and stronger

Tantalizing videos, U.S. patent applications and heavily censored testing reports have finally given way to concrete details and a glimpse of a pre-production 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R. Mean Green's new superbike won't utilize variable cam timing or an electrically assisted big-bang engine as initially speculated, but it will be packed with new technology and a long list of chassis and engine upgrades "intended simply to make the bike go faster."

According to Rob Taylor, who led the presentation at Kawasaki's U.S. headquarters in Irvine, California, peak power isn't a big part of the equation. Chasing maximum output "is the old model of approach," he says. Rather, the new ZX-10R will rely primarily on electronic aids and a better power spread to enhance rideability and give Kawasaki the advantage it so desperately needs on the racetrack. Still, updates like a bigger airbox, more aggressive cam profiles and an elevated redline point toward a more potent top end, while a higher compression ratio, revised ports and a significant reduction in mechanical losses are said to yield remarkable midrange power increases.

Considering how hard the previous-generation ZX-10R hit, it's a good thing the 2011 model will come with a comprehensive electronics package, with selectable traction control and variable power modes as standard and anti-lock brakes as an option. The S-KTRC (Sport Kawasaki Traction Control) used on the big Ninja is based on the KTRC that debuted on the 2010 Concours14 sport-tourer, but with a heavy racetrack bias that includes faster sampling rates and more refined response profiles. The optional KIBS (Kawasaki Intelligent Braking System) uses an active Hall Effect sensor similar to that employed by Porsche and Ferrari in their racecars. The TC and ABS software are said to work on a predictive rather that reactive basis for more precise management of rear-wheel spin and front-tire lockup. Wheelie control relies on ground speed only-with no angle or duration limits-which means as long as you're accelerating, the computer will allow the wheelie to continue. Likewise, spin control focuses primarily on thrust, permitting slip (within limits) so long as effective traction is not compromised. Additionally, the electronics are said to be self-learning, constantly adjusting and adapting their responses to optimize forward movement.

Less weight is always an improvement, and although the figure hadn't been finalized at press time, Kawasaki insiders claim the 2011 ZX-10R will be about 10 kilograms (22 pounds) lighter than last year. Pricing similarly had not been confirmed, though we're told the MSRP will fall between last year's $13,000 price tag and a $17,000, fully-equipped BMW S1000RR. The optional ABS will add about $1000.

With electronics tending to the traction concerns traditionally dealt with in chassis design, Kawasaki's engineers were free to alter the frame layout for sharper handling. The engine's input shaft now sits above the output shaft, and the crankshaft has been positioned higher, raising the machine's center of gravity and shifting the weight bias forward for more rapid direction changes and better stability once tipped into a corner. Likewise, the new, all-cast frame has slightly more aggressive geometry and a shorter swingarm. Suspension consists of the Showa Big Piston Fork introduced on the '09 ZX-6R and a shock repositioned above the swing-arm in a horizontal back-link layout in the interest of smoother movement and better compliance. A flatter clip-on angle, lower seat and adjustable rearsets should make the bike more comfortable on the street.

Engine updates are plentiful, although conventional, and include bigger intake valves (up from 30 to 31mm), reshaped/polished ports and new chromoly cams with a nitride coating for reduced friction and better durability. Torque builds faster thanks to offset con-rods, which reduce lateral loads on the pistons and allow for shorter skirts and smaller wrist pins, thereby lowering reciprocating weight. A larger opening in the Ninja's redesigned nose is said to do a better job of utilizing the high-pressure zone created in front of the bike at speed, and channels air through a more direct intake tract, through a bigger air filter, and into a larger-volume airbox before diving down fatter throttle bodies. Titanium-alloy headers are based on those of the World Superbike racers and route spent gasses into a straight-through muffler for optimized performance right off the showroom floor.

Kawasaki listened to owners' and critics' remarks regarding the previous ZX-10R's styling and totally overhauled the bike's look. Gone are the bug-eyed headlights and mirror-stalk-mounted turn signals. The new Ninja has a sharper snout with numerous cooling and aerodynamic openings in the fairing, plus a stubby tail and shorter muffler. It promises to be a fine machine in all respects, and we look forward to riding it. Look for a track test in an upcoming issue.

The ZX-10R's tachometer uses LEDs, not just a backlit LCD bar graph. Display brightness adjusts automatically based on ambient light. Switching the dash to Race mode puts gear position front and center.
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