2011 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R | Review

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R

Just yesterday my mind was wandering back to 2004 to my Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6RR racebike’s slipper clutch – a first at the time and considered to be high-technology. Today, I am focused on Kawasaki’s completely redesigned 2011 Ninja ZX-10R.

It is a spectacular, technological tour de force with a sophisticated electronics package that includes different power modes, and-a first for the Japanese manufacturers-traction and wheelie control.

Until recently, this sumptuous buffet of options was only available to the most prestigious race teams and on precious few exotics; now it is time for the masses to dine. It is quite apparent that times have changed.

A flagship of this caliber is rightly focused on track performance, and there are few better tracks to test the new Ninja’s mettle than Road Atlanta. Nestled in the rolling hills of north Georgia, it is a very high-speed course with dramatic elevation changes and some tight, technical sections thrown in for good measure.

Although the ZX-10R is a street-legal production bike, Kawasaki’s engineers were determined to provide a motorcycle that is quickly interchangeable between the street and track with minimum effort. The rear license plate assembly, and mirrors with incorporated LED turn signals, can be quickly removed in order to pass tech inspection. Noticeably more compact and aggressive than before, the Ninja’s new bodywork improves both aerodynamics and heat dissipation.

One of the first things I noticed once aboard the Ninja was how comfortable I was in the saddle, which made me feel integrated into the bike. The angle of the clip-ons has been raised, and the footpegs are slightly lower and more forward. These are welcome changes, and the race-crouch attack position is very natural.

I adjusted the footpeg location to taste and reversed the gearshift pattern to the race-standard down-for-up arrangement. As I blasted around Road Atlanta at speeds I wouldn’t dare share with my mother, the fairing felt solid, pleasing and quiet. Humming down the back straight, I grabbed the next gear, and tucked confidently into the tranquility behind the cocoon-like cowling. I felt protected, as the windblast actually reaching me was insignificant; the entire bodywork is distraction-free, which is a real boon at race speed.

A completely new instrumentation package comes with innovative electronic tools, and dual display modes help the ZX-10R’s transition from Street Queen to Track King. Switching from Standard to Race mode, the speedometer becomes the gear position indicator, the odometer a lap timer, and the small clock becomes the speedometer. Even with the plethora of information displayed, the instrument pod is a very easy at-a-glance read. Only the sweeping LED tach took some getting used to, as reading a traditional analog tachometer is so instilled in my brain. Included in the splash of info is an LCD graph revealing in real time how much electronic intervention is occurring from the S-KTRC traction control.

Fully adjustable Showa 43mm Big Piston Forks are coated with DLC (Diamond Like Coating) for less friction. They are complemented by a fully adjustable horizontally mounted rear shock that improves mass-centralization and makes for smoother damping action. A stronger, lighter, cast aluminum twin spar frame and swingarm are also the stars of the all-new ZX-10R chassis. Kawasaki’s considerable weight reduction efforts throughout the bike have shaved 20 pounds off the previous ZX-10R, and at 436 pounds wet, Kawasaki claims it is now the lightest four-cylinder liter bike in production.

The lack of weight pays off handsomely as the Ninja changes direction effortlessly and quickly. Road Atlanta has a chicane after cresting a blind hill that is so slow it feels as though the bike is almost parked in the middle of it. Being of a smaller physical build, tossing a superbike back and forth tends to be quite the event for me, yet I was surprised by how little effort was required to move the ZX-10R around. Coming off the 6th gear straight, I was almost 20 mph faster into the 1st gear chicane than I had ever managed before; the side-to-side transition and exit were so quick the ZX-10R felt more like a nimble 600 rather than a 1000cc superbike.

In the faster sections I did initially experience the front end wandering a little wide, although after the minor adjustment of adding two turns to the rear shock preload, the Ninja became stable and planted, giving me the confidence to ride harder and go even faster.

Having quickly realized how well the new Ninja handled, I was very intrigued to find out how intrusive the traction control system would feel. The S-KTRC is designed to be proactive rather than reactive, and monitors data from the various sensors-wheel speed and slip, engine rpm, throttle position, acceleration, and more-200 times per second. Most interestingly, the system is designed to maximize actual forward momentum and most-favorable acceleration. This means powerslides and wheelies-necessary weapons in a racer’s arsenal-are not prevented if they do not prohibit effective traction and forward motion.

A Kawasaki spokesman told me the system controls spark frequency for instant, ultra-smooth operation. To say the least, I was skeptical that modulating spark frequency could occur so transparently.

However, once underway, the reality was that the three-mode traction control was almost undetectable from the seat. It worked extremely well and my confidence in the system allowed me to relax; I ended up riding most of the day at the least-regulated Level 1.

This is an impressive feat by Kawasaki’s engineers, given such a potentially overwhelming amount of power at the whim of my wrist.

During one powerslide, I could feel the bike just wanting to drive forward. It did so in a perfectly smooth, controlled manner; not once did I experience any sputtering or hiccups with the system. The highly regulated Levels 2 and 3 are best for wet conditions, street riding, or an inexperienced track rider.

Closing the throttle and operating a switch on the left clip-on gives you the ability to choose between the three different levels on the fly. To turn the system off, just come to a complete stop and toggle the thumb switch.

Within each of the three S-KTRC modes are likewise three power settings-Full, Medium and Low-essentially giving the rider a total of nine options.

Low setting cuts power down to a 600- type of output and is best suited for rain or very slippery conditions. Medium feels more like a typical 750, but the delivery is very gentle as it actually gives the performance of the Low setting at less than 50-percent throttle opening; Full power is as described.

Wheelie control on a 1000cc bike sounds interesting, but on this particular track it felt less than ideal. With all the hard acceleration and the steep elevation changes at Road Atlanta, I found the front wheel in the air frequently. However, after the front comes up, a message tells the system that the front wheel is off the ground, so the power is cut and the front comes down somewhat abruptly.

Then, the instant it touches down, the system realizes you are still trying to go forward in a hurry. Full power is reinstated too quickly, causing the front to come up again. The sensors then send the same message again, repeating the same cycle of events.

Perhaps this pogo-type behavior was due to the peculiar demands of Road Atlanta overwhelming the system’s programming. Unfortunately, the wheelie control is integral to the S-KTRC system and cannot be independently disabled. If you want traction control and the S-KTRC is enabled, then wheelie control is activated as part of that.

Improvements to the engine are widespread. Airflow is increased, thanks to larger throttle bodies, an airbox with an additional quart of room, larger intake valves, revised exhaust porting, and higher-lift cams. Decreasing vibration was not left off the designer’s punch list.

The new short-skirt pistons are lighter, and the camshafts are made from chromoly rather than cast iron (note: a glitch found on the first production models prompted Kawasaki to replace the camshaft, valve springs, and spring retainers, though I experienced no Kawasaki-described "valve surge" problems on my test unit). All these contribute to less engine vibration, and the Ninja is smooth and less fatiguing to ride.

Some superbikes have a power delivery that hits like a two-stroke powerband. On the ZX-10R, the power arrives in such a smooth fashion that it is somewhat deceiving-you don’t realize how quickly this bike gets up to speed. Power delivery is linear and manageable, with no rough spots, translating to less physical and mental effort.

As silky as the motor is, it is also extremely strong. I had no problem coming out of Turn 7 in 1st gear and then hitting 180+ in 6th by the end of the straightaway. This, of course, requires flawless shifting and perfectly spaced gear ratios to maximize the transmission of power to the ground.

I remember my ’04 Ninja’s close ratio transmission as something really special, but today, the ZX-10R’s cassette-style transmission has closer spacing between the top three gears, with seven replaceable options. Technology marches on impressively.

All that power is a liability if the bike lacks an outstanding braking system. Tokico radial mount brake calipers and radial pump front master cylinder are top shelf items, and they put the grip onto 310mm front petal discs.

Initial bite was rather plush, which helps to even out the ride when you require serious braking at high speed. The Big Piston Forks kept dive to a minimum when hard on the brakes.

Rapidly downshifting from flat out in 6th gear down to 1st, the adjustable back-torque limiting slipper clutch kept things smooth by preventing chatter at the rear wheel.

The power and feel of the Tokico calipers was impressively consistent, and fade was a non-issue. As the day progressed and my confidence in the ZX-10R’s abilities grew, I found myself pushing harder and deeper into corners-I braked later and later, and still hit my new marks and did not blow any corners.

The titanium exhaust headers are hydro-formed and nearly identical to race-ready contemporaries. The new ZX-10R is incredibly quiet-almost too quiet for the rider. Like most track day enthusiasts, I wear earplugs and tend to rely on aural cues to shift gears more than the tachometer and (adjustable) LED shift indicator. Clearly, an aftermarket slip-on muffler is in order.

I was greeted with a nice surprise at what appeared to be the end of the day. After my final session aboard the standard ZX-10R, I was offered to ride the Kawasaki-dubbed "Power-Up" bike. This was the same 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R I had been riding all day, except for being uncorked by a couple of upgrades.

A slip-on muffler and prototype race-ECU released a further 18 horsepower (claimed) over stock. In addition to the replacement of the stock muffler, the rear license plate assembly and rear view mirrors were removed. That might not sound like it totals up to a significant amount of weight, but it was taken far from the center of mass, and I was surprised at how much of a positive difference it made on the track.

I couldn’t help but notice how exceptional the throttle response became-it was as if the bike was reading my mind and knew when I wanted to accelerate. As mentioned, the aftermarket slip-on provided some useful feedback without being obnoxious; in fact, the muffler delivered a healthy, crisp note that was instantly intoxicating.

The claimed horsepower increase seemed hard to believe, until I rode the Power-Up bike. I’m not sure how accurate my seat dyno is, but my advanced brake markers were approaching much sooner than they had been on the standard-spec machine. I was shocked at the difference these minimal modifications made, and it gave me a glimpse into what the ZX-10R will be capable of in full race spec.

Road Atlanta truly is a demanding track-a full-on roller coaster ride through the hills of Georgia. Having sampled what the new ZX-10R is capable of, it is clear that one can now walk out of a Kawasaki dealership with a bike that will likely handle anything you can throw at it.

With a power-to-weight ratio (in Power Up-spec) that betters the spectacular BMW S1000RR, the new Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R has decisively raised the bar. Although they made great road bikes, previous editions in race trim were never quite able to step up to the top of the podium. Kawasaki might just have the tool to change all that in 2011.


  • Helmet: Joe Rocket RKT201 Carbon
  • Suit and Gloves: Shift Vertex
  • Boots: Sidi Vortice