The 2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R ABS is one of the best bang-for-your-buck superbikes currently on the market. There, I said it. Often, that type of compliment carries a stinging backhanded connotation, but in this case, I’m not hinting at anything of the sort.
It’s almost the cheapest superbike available—the standard 2019 Suzuki GSX-R1000 holds that title— yet the ZX-10R has plenty of other enticing characteristics to keep the spotlight on it.
2016 was the last time the Ninja ZX-10R received its last from-the-ground-up revision. Since then, Kawasaki’s inline-four superbike has seen precious few peripheral upgrades, save for an up-and-down quickshifter.
This year, the 998cc powerplant received its first major update, including a finger-follow valvetrain and a taller cylinder head with room to accommodate high-lift cams, should you choose to use them for performance applications. Previously, those engine enhancements were exclusive to race-ready ZX-10RR.
Importantly, the ZX-10R still has the same 14,200 rpm rev limit, and does not get the 600 rpm increase that the RR model does because the standard-issue 10R lacks titanium connecting rods. Ho-hum. It still strongly suggests that your arms don’t belong in your sockets when you hit 9000 rpm and rocket off into the sunset.
Kawasaki North America doesn’t claim performance numbers, but with limited Google-fu, you’ll see it turning 170+ horsepower at the rear wheel on various dyno charts in stock trim.
Everything about the ZX-10R screams, “Throw race bodywork on and take it to the track.” Kawasaki’s suggested accessories include a programmable ECU and a racing wiring hardness, so Kawasaki is not subtly suggesting its intentions.
In the World Superbike Championship, its distant cousin has been quite successful with five-time world champion Jonathan Rea at the helm. It also took the top spot at the Suzuka 8 Hours endurance race this year.
It’s the paddock favorite in MotoAmerica Stock 1000 class, with more than a fair amount circulating the field. California native Andrew Lee nabbed two consecutive titles aboard a Franklin Armory/Graves Ninja 10R that our readers, should they have the money and know-how, could probably build themselves.
In 2019, Kawasaki’s superbike does not the freshest electronics on the market, though they work quite well. It doesn’t have the best dash or user interface. What it offers is arguably more important—a brilliant motor and a remarkable chassis.
The latter points being why our long-term 2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R was my trusted track riding and canyon steed for as long as Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A. would allow.
The DOHC powerplant offers that classic Japanese four-cylinder sportbike experience, with seemingly infinite top-end power on tap. Below 8000 rpm, the ZX-10R is almost docile, making street riding manageable with predictable power delivery and commendable throttle response.
Ah, but that is just a taste of what’s to come because once you’ve stepped into the ring and you’re able to wick things up past 8500 rpm—then it all changes. The cloak is dropped, and the ZX-10R becomes the prizefighter it is meant to be. Sure, she’s still a little sluggish on her feet during slow, first gear exits, as is typical for inline-four motors. Anywhere else, the Ninja literbike accelerates hard and does not stop. I ran out of steam before it did.
The 2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R doesn’t quite have split personalities, as it isn’t peaky or uncontrollable. Rather, there are two distinct behaviors at certain rev counts. Fortunately, the power delivery remains fluid and predictable, whether you’re plodding along in the canyon or tucked behind the bubble on track.
The slick six-speed gearbox features an up-and-down quickshifter that will see you blasting through the gears with the best of them. On the street, the kill-times are superb and don’t shock the chassis even when casually shifting at lower rpm.
On the track, it’s more of the same good stuff, helping you keep focused on the turns ahead as you grab the next gear. When it comes to dropping anchor and backing through the gears, the ZX-10R’s gearbox isn’t shy of rapid-fire clutchless downshifts. Additionally, the slipper clutch does its part to keep you out of the dirt.
The single caveat that you might experience—and this is going to depend on your skill level in combination with the track configuration—is when rapidly decelerating, shifting down from 6th or 5th all the way to slow 2nd or 1st gear. The final downshift might be ever so slightly hesitant as the revs will be spiking dramatically in those specific situations. It isn’t detrimental, and it’s due to over-rev protection in the ECU, something that you’d most likely change when tuning the ZX-10R for track-only use. Again, that quirk will only be revealed on tracks and in situations that tease it out.
Helping you along in the engine department are three riding modes—Full, Middle, and Low. Full offers the most aggressive throttle connection and all the 998cc motor’s elegant, pummeling equine-kick of power. Middle tames the throttle response, while still giving you everything on tap. Low cuts the power in about half, which calms the throttle considerably, making it a de facto rain mode.
For hard riding, a full-electronic aid suite is my preferred angel on the shoulder, and the 2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R has just that. Earlier, I stated that the ZX-10R does not have the latest electronics. While that statement is accurate, that doesn’t mean that the six-axis Bosch IMU supported is inadequate. Quite the contrary, as you have cornering ABS, cornering-aware traction control, wheelie control, engine brake adjustment, and launch control.
The five-level TC can be dialed up to neuter the ZX-10R completely or can be dropped into 1 or 2, where it will allow wheelspin, and then some. Level 1 will let you get to the limit and cross it—a threshold that I’m personally not comfortable flirting with. I was quite happy with 2 or even 3, depending on the conditions. It is refreshing to have a humble five perceivably different TC variances, as opposed to having an overwhelming 14 levels on motorcycles such as the BMW S 1000 RR.
All the rage these days with top-tier superbikes is the ability to adjust each rider aid independently, and that isn’t the case with the 10R. As you move through the five traction control settings, you’re also changing the intervention levels for ABS and wheelie control.
I must believe that the 10R’s shortcoming in separating rider aids has something to do with the rudimentary Casio-watch-like LCD dash that I’ve come to almost see as endearing. It functions well enough and displays all the necessary information. However, the user-interface is more comparable with microwaves from my youth, and having in-depth adjustability seems beyond its abilities.
In practice, the five levels act accordingly, backing off or increasing intervention incrementally. So, while I can have a bit of fun at the dashboard’s expense, the whole package is still quite competitive in a market where settings have become so nuanced. Still, it’s missing cruiser control, which has appeared on many superbikes these days.
The current dash has been part of the ZX-10R platform since 2011, long before full-color TFT displays were even a twinkle in the motorcycle industry’s eye. We can’t expect it to display things with the same grace that the lusty dashboards of the H2, H2 SX SE+, or Versys 1000 SE LT+ do.
Where Kawasaki makes a sticking point, and why I am such a proponent of this motorcycle, is the chassis. The fully adjustable Showa Balance Free Fork and horizontal-backlinked Showa Balance Free Rear Cushion shock, working with the twin-spar aluminum frame, keeps all the chaos from the motor in check.
In action, the Showa suspension can be softened up to soak up the rough stuff on the road, at more reasonable street paces. However, when track riding is on the agenda, you’ll have a good range of adjustment to make the ZX-10R a far, far stiffer chassis and make it the steely-eyed track weapon it is. I also had to tweak suspension settings to suit my riding abilities, as well as my tire choices, though that’s something all owners will need to do.
With a balanced 25 degrees of rake and 56.7-inch wheelbase, the 10R has one of the most confidence-inspiring, planted chassis in the business. The front-end feel is rock-solid, whether you are trailing in on the brakes, or testing your mettle on a high-speed sweeping turn such as Riverside at Buttonwillow Raceway Park; the ZX-10R’s front end is virtually unshakeable.
The showering praise doesn’t end there, I’m afraid. When it comes to putting the power down, I have just as much confidence in the rear as I do the front, especially in places like turn 1 at Buttonwillow, which sees riders wringing it out to the redline off the apex. As the ZX-10R starts to break traction, it relays all that information to the rider nicely and keeps the right amount of communication.
That planted feeling remains during transitions. To some, the 10R will require effort that some of its competitors might not need during initial tip-in or through chicanes. On the other hand, some of its competitors don’t have nearly the same amount of stability—a compromise I’m happy to make.
If, for some reason, you do manage to introduce some headshake, an Öhlins electronic steering damper is on hand to keep things from getting too far out of whack.
An easy way to increase the tip-in rate is to bump up the rear tire size. In stock trim, the Bridgestone Battlax Racing Street RS10 120/70 front and 190/55 rear will do just fine on the road, or an occasional track day. I mounted several sets of Pirelli Supercorsa Diablo TD and Diablo Superbike slicks in a larger 200/60 rear size and noticed a positive step in agility.
One must-have upgrade for the ZX-10R is captive wheel spacers. After changing several sets of tires, the fiddly spacers make remounting the wheels challenging. If regular track days are in your future, it’s a wise move to stave off some aggravation.
On the braking front, Kawasaki was well ahead of the curve with the Brembo M50 calipers and massive 330mm floating rotors up front in 2016. As you might assume, feel is excellent as is stopping power. Another important note is the inclusion of steel-braided brake lines, which are critical for riders that hit the track in high temperatures. To that end, I didn’t feel any excessive brake fade, and no more than I might expect on triple-digit days in the Southern California sun.
In the rear, a single-piston caliper and 220mm rotor help settle the bike if things get squirrely under hard-braking. I’d often use it control wheeling and keep the front end from lifting, instead of ham-fisting the throttle and letting the electronics sort it out.
The 32.9-inch seat height is average for the class, and I’m still able to get my boots to the ground with my 32-inch inseam. At 5’ 10”, I find the Ninja ZX-10R to be relatively comfortable and without an extended reach to the bars. Even better, the fuel tank makes for a perfect anchoring point while cranked over.
The 2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R ABS might not speak to a buyer that is looking for the flashiest of the flashy or the newest of the new; that’s fine because this bike is about getting the job done. However, when it comes to outright performance and chassis feel, the ZX-10R has a granite foundation to work from, and that’s why I keep coming back to its saddle.
- Helmet: Shoei X-Fourteen
- Suit: Mithos RCP18 w/ Alpinestars Tech-Air
- Baselayer: VnM Sport Compression
- Gloves: Alpinestars GP Pro V3
- Boots: Alpinestars Supertech R
2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R ABS Specs
- Type: Inline-4
- Bore x stroke: 76.0 x 55.0 mm
- Displacement: 998 cc
- Compression Ratio 13.0:1
- Maximum torque: 85 ft/lbs @ 11,500 rpm
- Fueling: Four 47mm Mikuni throttle bodies
- Valvetrain: DOHC; 16 valves
- Transmission: 6-speed w/ bi-directional quickshifter
- Final drive: Sealed chain
- Front suspension; travel: Fully adjustable 43mm inverted Showa Balance Free Fork; 4.7 inches
- Rear suspension; travel: Fully adjustable Showa Balance Free Rear Cushion shock w/ dual-stage compression damping; 4.5 inches
- Tires: Bridgestone Battlax Racing Street RS10 (stock); Pirelli Supercorsa Diablo TD and Diablo Superbike slicks (as tested)
- Front tire: 120/70 x 17
- Rear tire: 190/55 x 17 (200/60 x 17 tested)
- Front brake: Semi-floating 330mm discs w/ Brembo M50 Monoblock 4-piston calipers
- Rear brake: 220mm disc
- ABS: Cornering ABS standard
DIMENSIONS and CAPACITIES
- Wheelbase: 56.7 inches
- Rake: 25.0 degrees
- Trail: 4.2 inches
- Seat height: 32.9 inches
- Fuel tank capacity: 4.5 gallons
- Curb weight: 454 pounds
2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R Price:
- $16,099 MSRP