Kawasaki put the world on notice last October when they announced a major refresh to the ZX-10R superbike, which it claimed would make a whopping 207 horsepower and have an industry-leading electronics package. At the Sepang Circuit in Malaysia I worried I’d kill myself on it. Turns out I didn’t have much to worry about.
(Full Disclosure: The folks at Kawasaki wanted me to ride their new ZX-10R superbike so bad they stuck me on a plane to Malaysia, where they hoped we’d get some track time without rain. They were very, very wrong.)
Kawasaki has had an interesting role in the sportbike world. It is completely absent from the premiere class MotoGP, but took top honors in World Superbike in 2013 and 2015 (they finished second in 2014) which uses bikes adapted from the production offerings rather than pure, one-off prototypes.
Speaking of their production offerings, their 2012 refresh of the ZX-10R was the only Japanese bike to be seriously considered in the superbike shootouts alongiside bikes like the BMW S1000RR, Ducati Panigale, Aprilia RSV4 until Yamaha’s huge update to the Yamaha R1 (which we loved) last year.
Compared to the Euro options, it’s always been down a little on power, and down a lot on tech and refinement—but that refresh brought great power, very usable power delivery, and was cheap enough that guys could buy it and upgrade the rest.
Like Yamaha, Kawasaki has realized that going fast on a motorcycle means feeling comfortable and confident on a motorcycle. The 2016 bike is almost completely new, with tons of changes that make it easier and safer, which means you can ride a whole lot faster.
While it’s easy to say Kawasaki is copying Yamaha with their latest superbike, the reality is that these things take way longer to develop and they both had the same idea in response to the horsepower wars.
The Specs That Matter
While the 2016 bike might look a whole lot like the previous iteration at a glance, I can assure you Kawasaki is accurate in claiming almost everything on this bike is brand-spanking-new. The tech presentation was over 100 slides, most of it turned me cross-eyed (though having the tech presentation at the track with the bikes lined up just feet away made it tough to concentrate.)
The 998 cc inline four gets a new and lighter crankshaft, which helps the engine spin up faster and improves throttle response and acceleration. Additionally, it also reduces the reciprocating mass, which reduces inertia by 20 percent which makes for better corner turn in and better side-to-side transitions.
Kawasaki claims 197 horsepower, or 207 horsepower with Ram Air, thanks in part to a redesigned combustion chamber shape, bigger exhaust valves, increased overlap in the intake and exhaust camshaft overlap, new camshaft chain tensioner, new pistons, and larger airbox.
The transmission has also received a host of updates, including more close-ratio gearing, new and lighter clutch primary, and a slipper clutch with a quick shifter.
Improved power is nice and all, but the real goal (and highlight) of the bike is the improved handling. The engine has been mounted higher, and farther forward in the frame, which moves the center of gravity up. The steering head is now 7.5 mm closer to the rider, which puts the rider farther over the front of the bike. The swingarm is 15.8 mm longer, which gives the bike a 12 mm longer wheelbase, which improves stability.
Then there’s that Showa Balance Free Fork, with its cute little gas reservoir. While most forks allow for varied pressure balance, these move the damping valves to outside the fork legs in the damping force chamber. This means the entire surface of the fork piston can push hydraulic fluid towards the valves and the pressure inside the fork tube remains balanced.
This creates more front end feel, better stability, and better comfort - which are the sorts of things I’m a real big fan of when say flying into the hairpin between the back and front straights at a track like Sepang.
The ZX-10R also gets a new Brembo braking system, which uses high spec M50 aluminum monobloc four-piston calipers and larger front rotors, up from 310 mm to 330 mm.
Finally, there is Kawasaki’s new electronics system. Like most companies, Kawi uses a Bosch Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), which it has paired to a proprietary ECU. As with everyone else’s system, the IMU measures five axis of movement to help the electronics systems keep the bike in control but, unlike everyone else’s system, Kawasaki claim their ECU calculates the yaw which adds a sixth axis of measurement.
Kawasaki’s traction control system (S-KTRC) has added two modes, bringing it to five, and they claim it’s the most accurate and responsive offered on a production motorcycle. Using the IMU, Kawasaki claim they can even account for variables like tire conditions, surface conditions, and rider preference.
Yes, you read that correct. Kawasaki claims its system is “adaptive” and is fast enough/has the ability to sense your preferences and will allow for slip accordingly. Engineers say it does this by sensing throttle inputs in a slide and allowing for slightly more slip if the rider stays on or adds gas, or tightens the rains if the rider responds more tentatively.
Next is what Kawasaki calls the Intelligent Braking System (KIBS), which includes their corner management function. This system uses multiple sensors to help better modulate brake pressure and also paves the way for Kawasaki’s cornering management function, which helps keep the rider on-line while braking in a turn.
I’m sorry. Writing all that made me feel like I used to when I was a teacher and had to give a big test on a Friday. That wasn’t fun for either of us, but it had to be done. On to the good stuff!
There will be a quiz on this later, though.
We Rode The Damn Thing
As far as tracks go, the best word to describe the Sepang International Circuit is “bonkers.” It has two long straights separated by one little hair pin, the second fastest speed trap found on any track, and a sprawling mix of tight turns and long sweepers.
If I’m completely honest, I was more nervous than excited to ride this track. Flowing tracks with lots of rhythm are both easier to learn and tend to require a less violent ride, and it was hard to shake that we were in a third world country, pretty far from a hospital, and on no sleep.
However, I was asked along for the ride for a very specific reason. Like many brands, Kawasaki has realized that a bike that’s easy to ride is a fast bike. While all of my peers along for the trip had extensive racing backgrounds, Kawasaki was clear that they were just as interested in how a skilled but non-pro racer like myself could get around the track.
And get along I did! I mean, I’m pretty glad none of you were there to see my first session because that place is all sorts of confusing at first (those damn double right handers!) but Kawasaki definitely delivers on the promise of making a superbike accessible to the non racer.
I’ve never ridden a Kawasaki that wanted to turn into a corner, until now.
Cornering turn in on the new ZX-10R is incredible, so much so that it took quite a bit of adjustment to get used to. I thought I was the only one having a difficult time until CycleWorld’s Don Canet and SportRiders’ Bradley Adams passed me coming into turns 13 and 14 and both had to check up a bit as they tipped in, still unprepared for how fast the bike wanted to lean.
By the third session, I’d gotten the hang of the track and bike finally and could finally get to the business of going fast. I’ve never had a lap where I was trying to do anything more than survive on the previous ZX-10R. It’s cliche, but this new one feels much more like riding a 600 on steroids around the track, and it has the components to keep that power in check.
The BFF forks felt planted regardless of what the track or my abilities threw at it. a 160 mph straight into heavy braking before a hairpin? No problem. The bumps on track that you hit coming out of turn 3 or turn 5 at full lean and hard on the gas? Piece of cake.
The new ZX-10R feels incredibly stable, and also provides a ton of feedback both on the brakes and at lean. As my speeds increased and lap times decreased, I was impressed how the front end feeling just got better and better and gave me the confidence and abilities to continue to push harder and ride faster.
That isn’t to say that the bike is perfect, though. The transition between off and on fueling is too abrupt and, while the suspension does a nice job of keeping it from scaring you too badly, it definitely can make throttle modulation in corners pretty tricky.
We were supposed to ride the bike with an aftermarket pipe, reflashed ECU, auto down-blipper, and stiffened suspension (same components, just a few clicks added) after lunch. Unfortunately, Malaysia had a different idea and the lightning and thundershowers began just as we started gearing up to head back out on the track.
Two of the guys had gotten a chance to ride it before lunch, and the sound of the exhaust as it backfired its way through downshifts had me absolutely drooling. They both described is as downright addicting, and praised the re-flashed tune (for race purposes only because emissions make everything no fun) for how it woke up the already beastly engine.
I’d walked onto the track that day more cautious than excited. Big bike, fast track, far from home, I’m a big sissy. You get it. I left with one of the better track experiences of my life, thanks almost completely to a bike that helped me go fast and feel good doing so instead of trying to murder me.
What We’d Change
As has become the norm with performance motorcycles, the ZX-10R has some fueling issues. It holds onto its Ninja heritage with bulk of the power all coming above the 9,000 RPM range, which is good because the fueling down low is a bit snatchy—especially between off an on throttle.
Those of you who like a super roomy cockpit might feel a bit cramped, and some of the other journalists made comments about how the clip ons, which have been moved closer to the rider, and the higher seat and foot pegs gave them a little less room to move around. Personally, at a hair over six feet tall, I found the riding position to be one of the best I’ve experienced.
The previous model and the 636 both make me feel like I’m sitting on top of the bike and about to fly over the front under hard braking, but with this one I felt inside the bike and the tank was well shaped to utilize for stability. But, in an ideal world, a little more leg room would be nice.
As good as the new S-KRTC is, I still didn’t find is as impressive as that on the Yamaha. Kawasaki made big claims about spending more money on a nicer Bosch IMU than Yamaha did (instead of blowing it on some fancy screen), but the TC still sent some of us shooting out of our seats on enthusiastic corner exits. At normal fast guy speeds, this didn’t cause too much of an issue but guys like Chris Ulrich, who tests bikes when he isn’t racing MotoAmerica, had a couple of close calls.
The cornering management system doesn’t keep the bike in line while turning as much as it keeps the rider from overbraking in a turn. It detects lean angle and then won’t allow you to brake so hard that the bike stands up, which produces a very different experience that that on the Ducati Panigale or Multistrada. It only works with the ABS turned on, and provided very negligible results.
Finally, I think the most interesting thing, and maybe the thing I wish Kawasaki would have done the most, was to spread more of the power out.
We got a chance to talk to project lead for the bike, who said that they purposefully put the power into the top end because too much mid range would just spin tires. Some of the guys, who’d grown up racing 600s, liked that they kept the power delivery the same—but most of us prefer that whopping mid-range of bikes like the BMW S 1000 RR.
You Wanted To Know
I posted a pic of the bike on those social medias the kids are always talking about and asked what your questions were about the bike so I could help tailor the review to what you wanted to know. If you aren’t following me on Instagram or Twitter, you really should be. I try and keep the food and cat pics to a minimum.
- “Has it reached the point where it’s too fast to have fun?” - Completely the opposite. This version’s handling and electronics package make it much more manageable.
- “How does this compare to the Panigale 959? Would you put this bike in your garage?” - It’s a very different bike than the Ducati, because its inline-four makes all of its power at the very top of the rev range, whereas the Ducati is all about power down low. I would have refused the previous model, but I wouldn’t say no to this one (but I’d still buy the Duc if it were my money).
- “A bit off topic, but what was Sepang like? It is one of my favorite circuits. Was it brutally hot and humid?” - Sepang was incredible. As I mentioned, I was pretty intimidated by it and its history before riding there, but the track is phenomenal. And yes, it was in the mid 90s with 70 percent humidity or so. I’ve never sweat so much in my life, but it made for really sticky asphalt. Definitely one of my top tracks of all time.
- “Was it hard to find the bike since they nickname it Ninja?” - WHY DO THEY INSIST ON CALLING EVERYTHING A NINJA? It’s ridiculous to brand something so strongly and then dilute it so much. It’s the 650 that kills me.
- “What movies did you watch on the plane? Did you eat anything local while you while there?” - All of them. I can’t even remember them now. The Martian, Empire State, San Andreas, Pan’s Labyrinth, Sicario, Fast Seven, Pitch Perfect 2, Hitman 47. Our hotel was pretty far out of the way, so we ate most of our meals there, but the Indian food was the best I’ve ever had.
- “ZX-10R or H2, both are free, which one you taking?” - ZX-10R all day! This is such an improvement and the fact that I could ride it fast, have fun doing it, and not kill myself, speaks wonders.
- “How many more times do you WANT to ride it?” - All of the times. Every single one.
- “Could this be a viable, every day bike?” - Sure, but why would you want to do that to yourself?
- “Did you kill any snakes on the track?” No, but I came about a half inch from taking out what I thought was a three foot long iguana. That was the only time I almost shit myself.
- “S1000RR or ZX-10R?” - This is a tough one, because I love the motor of the BMW, but I think I’d go with the Kawi. Even though I still think it’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen, I love that it, like the R1, really makes all the power accessible, safe, and fun to ride. The BMW will likely still put down faster times, but you’ll have to wrestle it to get there and won’t be having near the fun.
Why You Should Care
It’s incredibly exciting to see manufacturers start to focus on people’s experience on the bikes rather than just lap times. Because, in the end, it often leads to more skilled riders who put down better lap times.
Jonathan Rea and Tom Sykes, Kawasaki’s World Superbike riders had a huge influence of the development of the bike and Rea was at Sepang lapping with us (yes, it hurt my feelings as bad as you’d expect). You could tell his involvement with the bike was more than just lip service, and he was as pleased as the Kawi execs that he was running a tenth of a second of the 2015 Superstock race bike or over two seconds faster than the standard 2015 bike at Portimao.
Overall, the 2016 bike is an epically massive upgrade over the 2015 bike. For those of you racing, it’s definitely a contender especially with all of the options in the race kit and Kawasaki Contingency Program is really strong. It will likely make more power than the R1, the suspension and brakes are top notch, and hopefully those of you racing them will have the skills to not need some of the aides.
However, for you regular sport riders, I’d still go with the Yamaha. The fueling is a little better, the electronics worked a little more seamlessly, and you likely won’t really need the extra braking abilities of the Kawi.
Though if I’m being completely honest, buy the bike you like the most, because both of these machines are way better than almost any rider out there and are more than capable of scaring the shit out of you or moving you around a track at lightning speeds with a big ass grin plastered across your face.
Helmet: Shoei X-14
Leathers: Alpinestars GP Tech
Gloves: Racer High Speed
Boots: Alpinestars Supertech R