2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R Test from Sepang

2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R | Championship Ready for Top SpeedLighter by one pound—that’s not much. But, for Kawasaki’s all new 2016 Ninja ZX-10R, one pound has made a significant and very noticeable difference.

Because that pound in weight has been lost from the crankshaft, the resulting claimed 20-percent reduction in inertia has made a dramatic impact on the ZX-10R’s feel and handling. Riding the bike around Sepang International Circuit, the effect was useful during side-to-side transitions, and especially noticeable when hard on the brakes.

Although the big Ninja doesn’t lack in ultimate power, the reduced crankshaft weight, coupled with tough emissions rules, does mean that the low-down power is a little lacking, and I quickly realized I needed first gear for optimum drive out of the slow corners. The ZX-10R is essentially a racebike, and a very, very good one at that.

I had not ridden Sepang International Circuit before—a fast track used for F1 and MotoGP. The professionals like it for its high-speed, sweeping nature, yet it also has highly technical and somewhat blind sections that need some real finesse.

The 2015 FIM World Superbike Champion Jonathan Rea was lapping at the same time I was on track, and afterwards I had a chance to chat with him about the machine he’ll be campaigning this year. Rea joined the factory squad a little late for major input into this ZX-10R, so even though it is more Tom Sykes’ ZX-10R, Rea is very impressed by it.

Despite Rea’s incredibly dominant world title win last year, his biggest wish in 2015 was for the ability to brake later, and have more stability while doing it. He says the new bike absolutely delivers. Second on Rea’s wish list was easier changing of direction; with the 2016 ZX-10R, I found turn-in to be both effortless and instant.

Turn 2 at Sepang appears immediately after its predecessor, and taking the optimum line—which admittedly I never got quite right—requires an instant transition from maximum lean angle across the line to the other side. This is further complicated because Turn 2 is a dramatic, downhill left-hander that needs complete confidence in the front. This little section was instant affirmation of the new Ninja’s ease of handling. I am very impressed by the ZX-10R’s quick transitions, and how precisely it goes where I want, as well.

2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R Top SpeedThe quick turn-in is due to the reduced inertia, though once it has been initiated, the rest of the handling is down to the ZX- 10R’s all-new chassis. The engine has been raised and moved forward in the frame, and the rider’s seat lowered, giving the riding position a little more seated-in feel. A nice side effect of not being quite so perched on top is that the bike feels comfort- able, too. The change in center of gravity makes a difference, but Kawasaki also pulled the steering stem back towards the rider by 0.3 inches, thereby putting more weight over the front for maximum rider confidence.

Because the ZX-10R is so well balanced, it is a challenge to communicate just how secure the front feels on this machine. Suffice to say, I pushed my personal limits on turn-in, and the bike always responded positively and precisely.

The snag with putting so much weight on the front is that the rear can lack traction. To offset that, Kawasaki changed the swingarm pivot point location, and lengthened the swingarm by over a half-inch, resulting in a wheelbase just under a half-inch longer. There is now a more direct line from the steering head to the swingarm and, subsequently, grip from the rear is very good.

On television, Sepang’s Turn 9 appears to be a nice fast sweeper; in person it is nothing of the sort! The corner is actually a blindish uphill left-hander. Fortunately, the corner entrance is quite wide, so it’s faster than it looks and takes some practice to get right. If ever there is a place to test the Kawasaki’s rear grip, this is it.

Despite my fairly aggressive throttle wrenching, the ZX-10R always came off the corner hard and without tire spin. That was true for most of the day, though I admit that once when coming out of Turn 14—the infamous Rossi/Márquez incident corner— the rear stepped out quite dramatically and launched me out of the seat brie y; to be fair, I was in first gear, hard on the throttle and I blame myself.

Racing enthusiasts will immediately notice the exotic 43mm Showa Balance Free Front Fork (BFF), with its external nitrogen-charged chamber. Of course, the reservoir is more than just looks—by moving the damping functions into the separate chamber, the whole surface of the main piston acts as a pump, making it more efficient and much more responsive.

Under hard braking I was struck by how little dive there was from the front, and how stable the bike felt, especially at the rear. There was no side-to-side hunting at the bars, and zero waggling of the rear tire. The Showa BFF and rear Showa Balance Free Rear Cushion-lite (BFRC lite) shock handled the bumps and vagaries of Sepang well, indeed. The suspension is firm, yet compliant.

If I had more time, I would have tried going up two clicks of rebound damping at the rear to eliminate a slight settling when hard on the power in Turn 3. Still, all in all, I was very impressed with the ZX-10R’s exemplary handling. The significant chassis changes and excellent suspension help the Ninja transition quickly, feel superb on the brakes, and achieve great grip at the rear.

The ZX-10R comes in the usual Kawasaki green, plus a nice Metallic Matte Carbon Gray. Sadly for the US market, it isn’t available in the Euro-spec Winter Test Edition that includes a fancy snow flake motif on the front. The reason I mention this is because Kawasaki provided a Winter Test Edition that was fitted with the optional race kit parts and an Akrapovič race muffler, so don’t be tempted by the graphics you see in the photos.

Kawasaki’s race kit includes a replacement ECU and wiring harness, lighter clutch parts, a track quickshifter (that turns the standard one into a blip-downshifter, as well), a choice of steering collars to change the steering rake, and a choice of swingarm pivot height adjusters.

2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R weightThe revised ECU mapping and easier breathing of the race muffler helped the fuel mapping enormously. When railing through the long fast left-hander of Turn 5, I ended up using third gear on the stock Ninja for easier throttle modulation; with the race-parts equipped ZX-10R, the throttle connection cleaned up and I could scream the willing motor through the same turn in second gear.

The low-down power was hugely improved with the race Ninja. I can’t criticize the stock bike for the fueling shortcomings too much—it has a somewhat jerky throttle response in first and second gears—because it is clearly down to emissions regulations strangling the motor’s breathing. Riding the race parts bike proved that to me by unleashing the motor as intended.

The Brembo master cylinder and M50 calipers bite down on huge 330mm rotors; the brakes are superb, with plenty of feel at the lever. Even with this powerful braking system, the ZX- 10R feels stable and lightweight; there seems to be so much less mass pushed through to my arms, especially under braking from high speed.

A clever bit of Kawasaki electronic wizardry is in the optional intelligent ABS system that includes a corner management function. Adding just five pounds to the ZX-10R, the system monitors the speed of both wheels, as well as front caliper pressure. Based on the sensors’ data, the brake system adjusts hydraulic pressure to the individual calipers enough to help keep the rider on the desired line instead of wanting to stand up and drift wide. ABS is an option, and the race ECU comes with a dongle for ABS-equipped ZX-10Rs so the rider can disable it completely, or just at the rear.

Sepang’s Turn 1 is the obvious place to see if the system overly-interfered in the braking, but frankly I couldn’t tell. As the laps wound down and my confidence increased, it was possible to brake later and later, while at no time was there any untoward feeling the lever. Even when trail braking into turns, the Ninja stayed planted on line and impeccably behaved.

It is worth noting that the Ninja’s excellent braking performance has some assistance from outside of the braking system. I had no idea that inertia played such an enormous part in not just handling, but also braking—yes, we are back to that lighter crankshaft.

With all the talk of the Ninja’s incredible handling, it is still true that its heart is a 998cc inline-four motor that has improved and polished intake and exhaust ports, plus a revised combustion chamber shape. The wider camshaft profiles give more overlap for increased top end power, and the titanium exhaust valves are larger.

As you might expect of a thinly disguised racebike, it likes to rev. No doubt helped by the considerably lighter pistons— five grams each—the motor spins up and down rapidly with a quick muffler bark when the throttle is blipped. Accelerating hard, the Ninja motor screams quickly to its ceiling, and several times I found myself over-revving the motor and hitting the soft limiter. Despite the instantaneous throttle response, the power comes on smoothly and builds very quickly.

New this year is a race-ready cassette-style gearbox with revised ratios optimized for the track. It is mounted higher in the engine, again to centralize the center of gravity, and it can be accessed without having to drain the engine oil. The slipper clutch has also lost weight.

To allow for a louder exhaust that still meets regulations, Kawasaki developed a patented ram air resonator system that uses the hollow chassis spars to damp and dissipate intake roar.

Thin and light, the headers are titanium alloy, so track day riders or racers need only replace the muffler rather than the full system. Although I had no complaints about the stock system— which sounds really good—the race kit equipped machine has an intoxicating, grin-inducing exhaust note that pops and bangs in the coolest way on the over-run.

Although Kawasaki has essentially the same Bosch Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) and ECU hardware that other manufacturers use, the ZX-10R’s electronics have been enhanced in a big way; Kawasaki’s software and algorithms interpret the data in a way that makes it all work so well.

There are the usual three power modes (100-, 80- and 60-percent power), five levels of traction control (which also minimizes wheelies), two levels of engine braking, launch control, and a quickshifter. An electronic steering damper developed in partnership with Öhlins is acceleration and braking sensitive.

2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R horsepowerKawasaki’s “special sauce” is the software-based yaw control that predicts and controls rear wheel slide out. In other words, the traction control system isn’t just detecting and controlling wheelspin—it is allowing a certain amount of slip, and then con- trolling the amount of slide.

This is an incredibly complex function that allows faster cornering; impressively, it continually learns and eventually predicts what the rider needs. As I mentioned, I did manage to fool the system once, though I didn’t crash. The race ECU allows for independent adjustment of the various functions within each traction control level, and it also gives the rider the opportunity to select the engine brake settings for each individual gear.

Kawasaki’s new ZX-10R is a remarkable motorcycle. Interestingly, although it looks almost identical to the previous model, in reality it has been completely changed, and that can be felt throughout every aspect of the bike’s behavior.

Riding around an unfamiliar high-speed MotoGP circuit in ridiculous heat and humidity is challenging, but the Ninja was supremely easy to ride and did exactly what I asked of it at Sepang. I was delighted by how much easier and less fatiguing the bike is to ride than other machines in its class. Seeing the fire in Rea’s eyes as he talked about the new bike has me convinced that both he and the 2016 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R are going to be a very tough combo to beat in World Superbike, yet again.

Action photography by Ula Serra I Prats and James Wright

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Story from the latest issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; to view the issue for free, visit Ultimate MotorCycling Digital Magazine.

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