2013 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R Test
Kawasaki didn’t just revamp the ZX-10R in 2011, they completely redesigned it from the ground up. The Ninja lost weight (claimed to be around 20 lbs.), kept its stellar handling, became friendlier through the use of serious electronics, and received an eye-watering motor.
The looks of the 2013 liter bike are very different from the previous generation Ninja, and styling cues have been taken from Kawasaki’s erstwhile MotoGP effort. The angular streamlining, shorty exhaust and abbreviated tail section are all clearly taken straight from the race bike.
For 2013, Kawasaki didn’t have to change much, and the ZX-10R returns as a carry-over model with a few upgrades, including an Öhlins-Kawasaki electronic steering damper.
Immediate impressions are favorable, as the Ninja feels well balanced, and the riding position, although committed of course, is relatively comfortable. The large instrument pod is easy to read to the point where the large sweep rev counter/programmable shift light across the top in bright yellow is a little distracting.
The four-cylinder engine displaces 998cc and is redlined at a heady 14,500 RPM. Clearly there are several good reasons that Colin Edwards’ MotoGP team (NGM Mobile Forward Racing) chooses to run the Kawasaki ZX-10R motor in its CRT entry this year.
My immediate impression is how unusually smooth it is; very few vibes reach the rider. The prodigious power output — claimed to be well in excess of 200 horsepower — is delivered through a precise and easy-shifting six speed gearbox and slipper clutch.
The fueling is well mapped through 47 mm throttle bodies, and despite the enormous power the Ninja is very easy to ride; dual fuel injectors ensure on/off throttle transitions are smooth even if you’re a bit ham-fisted with the throttle.
I found the mid-range punch particularly impressive, yet happy that the instant power doesn’t come at the expense of linear delivery. The thrust builds incredibly quick, but the engine doesn’t have a frenetic power band and simply produces what you need, when you need it.
Other than Full power mode, two alternates detune the power output in less than optimum conditions via the thumb operated toggle switch on the left handlebar. The Middle mode gives a milder power curve up to 75 percent of full power (although maximum power can be accessed if you need it suddenly), and Low power mode only gives 60 percent of maximum power. Unless it’s raining, I tend to just leave the excellent mapping in Full power mode and use my right hand to control what’s going on.
The 2013 Kawasaki X-10R Ninja feels so light that accelerating to warp speed is ridiculously easy. It’s not the same hyper thrust as say the ZX14R, but the acceleration feels similar simply because of the Ninja’s light weight. This is one of those bikes where anything feels possible.
Kawasaki’s electronics are based on its racing experience, and kudos to the factory for refining the package so well. They were one of the first to introduce traction control on a production bike and their confidence in the system is justified.
The awkwardly acronym S-KTRC (Sport-Kawasaki Traction Control) continuously monitors a flood of data about 200 times a second that comes from wheel sensors, throttle position, engine rpm, and as necessary the ignition is retarded slightly to take the edge off the power and optimize traction.
That’s a lot easier said than done as the system has to be sensitive enough to hold the tire right on the edge of traction; a certain amount of tire slip is actually a good thing, and the Kawasaki system is so advanced that it allows for that.
The Kawasaki system is a rate of change intelligent unit that “learns” from the rider’s input exactly what is needed—all with the goal of gaining momentum. The traction control on this Ninja differs from the other Kawasaki bikes in as much as they are an insurance safety feature, whereas the ZX-10R system is designed to help you go faster.
Three TC modes give a good range of choice, with Mode 3 being maximum intrusion. In both Mode 3 and 2, wheelie control is included, and I never found it to my liking. I can safely say it did work though. As you might imagine the Ninja at full chat is happy to loft the front wheel without provocation in first and second gear. However, for me the system would only detect it moments after the front wheel was airborne. The system would then cut the power and instead of the front wheel smoothly returning to earth it would drop like a stone, and simultaneously it would feel like the brakes had been applied.
I found it quite disconcerting and never figured a way around it other than to treat the throttle gingerly in the low gears—and that spoils the fun of the flagship Ninja. So I left the traction control setting in Mode 1 and had no problems. The traction control in Mode 1 is incredibly transparent and it’s tough to tell if it’s working; but such is the seamless linearity of the ZX-10R that I was able to focus on riding and not worry about TC — and that’s the point really.
To be fair, Kawasaki state in their notes that “riders can choose between three operational modes, depending on skill level and conditions” so clearly they’re aware that individual preference is the order of the day; choose accordingly.
Handling is big on the Ninja’s list of accomplishments as the bike is so intuitive to ride. Turn-in is very quick, and confidence in the front is enough that I was happy to exploit it. It’s easy to be precise even in high-speed corners, and the suspension is so well set up that bumps didn’t faze the Ninja at all.
Front suspension is courtesy of Showa’s Big Piston Fork (BPF), debuted on the ZX-6 in 2009, and the smooth damping and minimal front end dive keeps the chassis stable and very well mannered. Duties at the rear are handled by a Showa shock with a horizontal back-link that helps make the action smooth and linear; the full range of adjustment with compression, rebound and preload are available.
New for 2013 is an Öhlins-Kawasaki electronic steering damper that looks very similar to the previous version, but is now electronically controlled via its own dedicated ECU. The chassis is very stable so this is perhaps overkill, however it’s a nice item to have on board and it proved occasionally useful when I landed a wheelie awkwardly; headshake was minimal and well-controlled. The damping force increases not just as speed goes up, but also based on acceleration and deceleration forces. It is a big improvement over the previous unit that made little difference no matter how much adjustment you tried to dial in.
Arguably more useful than the traction control is Kawasaki’s excellent Anti-Lock Braking system that is available as a $1,000 option. ABS is perhaps still slightly controversial, but to my mind it’s a necessity. Fortunately ABS is rarely needed, but like any insurance, the day you do use it, you’ll be very, very glad you had it. Street conditions are so varied, and unexpected ugly moments so swift to happen, that it’s more than just nice to have it in place.
In normal usage the Nissin radial calipers biting on wave rotors have excellent feel and omit that initial over-bite that can catch you out in an panic braking situation.
Instrumentation on the ZX-10R is excellent and the large single-pod unit displays everything well. Aside from the previously mentioned tach, the instruments are easy to read and the most useful information (such as speed and gear indicator) is the most obvious. The pod can be switched from Street to Race mode and priority then changes from speed readout to gear position indicator and lap times.
As currently being proven by Tom Sykes in World Superbike racing (Sykes just doubled at Donington Park), Kawasaki’s Ninja flagship is a spectacular, highly evolved motorcycle that does everything well.
It’s committed and fast enough to enhance Kawasaki’s reputation, yet it is also so highly technical and well-sanitized enough that the street rider can stay in control. It’s very nice to see Kawasaki running up at the front again, and with a machine as highly evolved as this, they deserve ultimate success.