September 25, 2018

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First Ride Review: 2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R ABS

Wheelie Control In Action

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Wheelie Control In Action

Lettin’ it hang in Sepang! The ZX-10R puts wheelie control to the test while powering out of Sepang’s turn 4 hairpin.

They say:Championship driven.
We say:The ultimate expression of trickle-down technology.

If there’s one thing I learned while attending the 2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R’s press launch in Sepang, Malaysia, it’s that jet lag is no match for adrenaline. The fatigue of flying 9,000 miles and crossing nine time zones morphed into a hormone-fueled state of alertness as soon as I threw a leg over a motorcycle we’ve so anticipated. After carrying sixth gear down Sepang’s half-mile straight, I don’t know that I’ve ever been more awake.

The first time I twisted the throttle to the stop on a new ZX-10R was at the previous model’s press launch at Road America in 2011. At the time the bike was at the forefront of the superbike class. With lots of power at the rear wheel, a low curb weight, and advanced electronics (it was the first Japanese bike to come with traction control), the big Ninja dominated our Japanese “Class of” shootout in 2012 and faired well against an onslaught of more exotic European superbikes in subsequent tests.

2016 ZX-10R Tail Section

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New Tail Section

The previous Ninja’s LED taillight somewhat resembled Geordi from Star Trek, and incorporated the turn signals into the clear-lensed unit. A new red-lensed LED taillight melds cleanly with the reshaped tail, which now has tiered paneling. The turn signals are mounted to the rear fender, which is said to be easily removable for track days. The Ninja comes shod with Bridgestone’s RS10 sport tires, which I sampled for the first session of the day.

In recent years, however, the Ninja has tumbled down the rankings as it has stepped into the ring with increasingly powerful and sophisticated machines like BMW’s S1000RR and Yamaha’s new YZF-R1. A last-place finish in our most recent superbike comparison ( “Class of 2015,” MC, Sept. 2015 ) made it painfully clear that the ZX-10R was in need of an overhaul, or at least a substantial upgrade, to regain competitiveness.

Luckily, an update was already underway. Drawing directly on the development work done by Kawasaki’s World Superbike team—which has had great success with the ZX-10R in the past five seasons, including 42 wins and two championship—Kawasaki Heavy Industries was hard at work enacting changes that it hoped would return the ZX-10R to prominence in media shootouts, boost sales, and ensure continued dominance in World Superbike.

Ninja ZX-10R Showa Fork

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Showa Balance Free Fork

Showa’s Balance Free Fork is the first gas-charged fork to appear on a production bike, and it offers some impressive technology as well as a striking appearance. In a typical fork damping force is generated by forcing oil through a cartridge inside the fork tube, but in the BFF it all happens in the external Damping Force Chamber. The Balance Free Fork isolates compression and rebound circuitry, avoiding the moment of pressure balance that occurs as the wheel changes direction. Compressed nitrogen gas inside the chamber and separated from the oil by a sliding piston, prevents cavitation under extreme use and insures immediate damping action. The rear shock uses the same “Balance Free” circuit technology to isolate damping, similar to the famous Öhlins TTX units.

2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R brakes

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Premium Brembo Brakes

Bye-bye petal rotors. The previous Ninja’s 310mm wave rotors—a defining feature of the ZX-10R line since its debut in 2004—have been replaced by 330mm circular discs. Brembo M50 Monobloc calipers are cast as one piece for rigidity and pressurized by a Brembo radial master cylinder that’s plumbed with braided stainless steel hoses. This is the same setup that’s used on the supercharged H2R and Ducati’s 1299.

The 2016 bike is rife with significant changes, the most visible of which are the new WSBK-inspired gas-charged fork and massive Brembo brake hardware. Less apparent is the addition of the latest-gen five-axis IMU (inertial measurement unit) to better inform the Ninja’s broad portfolio of electronic rider aids. The bike also has a heavily revised frame, swingarm, and engine location, all aimed at improving maneuverability, cornering stability, and rider feedback. The engine was also tuned up with a lighter crank and balance shaft, shorter, lighter pistons, revised valve timing and ports, and a much larger airbox, among other changes.

The list of updates is substantial—the tech briefing consisted of over 100 slides—but it’s not the spec sheet that matters, it’s how the bike actually works. Thankfully, I had most of a stiflingly hot day at Sepang to find out.

5-Axis Inertial Measurement Unit

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5-Axis Inertial Measurement Unit

The addition of a Bosch 5-axis IMU allows the Ninja’s ECU to evaluate five “freedoms” of movement, including longitudinal (forward/backward) acceleration, transverse (side to side) acceleration, vertical (up/down) acceleration, roll rate (lean angle), and pitch rate (wheelies/endoes). By crunching the above data, the ECU is also able to determine the yaw rate, or the bike’s rotation around a vertical axis, as when in a power slide. By watching the pitch rate and comparing it to wheel speed (and lots of other stuff!), the ECU and S-KTC are able to manage wheelie height for maximum drive, as well as mitigate wheel lift during hard braking. According to project leader Yoshimoto Matsuda, half of the 32-bit ECU’s processing power is dedicated to S-KTRC.

Swinging a leg over the new bike outside the garages in Sepang, the riding position struck me as odd but functional. The clip-ons for the 2015 bike already felt like they rested in your lap, and now they’re even closer to the rider, while the seat and newly non-adjustable rearsets are both higher. This makes what was already a compact riding position even more so, but there’s plenty of room to move around and the interface with the tank offers plenty for your legs to latch onto.

WSBK-Inspired Bodywork

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WSBK-Inspired Bodywork

Kawasaki gave the Ninja’s skin a mild makeover for 2016. The fairing shape is modeled after the World Superbike machine, with a wider, taller fairing and windscreen for better aerodynamics at high speed. Small cutouts on either side of the windscreen reduce negative pressure for better rider stability. It works: Even at speeds of 160 mph, my helmet remained completely stable behind the bubble. The Ninja’s tail is redesigned as well and has a new LED taillight and fender-mounted turn signals.
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Motoring out of the hot pit I was eager to try the new feature that we’ve been waiting for on the ZX-10R—a quickshifter. It’s finally got one and it works as intended, though it requires a firmer shove than the shifters on other bikes. A quicker-revving engine and closer gear spacing in the upper ratios help the bike come off faster corners well, but a tall first gear and soft low-end power make the bike feel sluggish off of tight first-gear corners, and Sepang has five of them.

2016 ZX-10R Engine

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Updated Engine

Engine updates include a lighter crank (by nearly a pound) and balance shaft for a claimed 20 percent reduction in inertia, while lighter pistons (by 5g each) reduce reciprocating weight. Ports are reshaped and polished for better flow, and to further to help the big Ninja breath better at high rpm (and thus make more power) the exhaust valves have grown by 1mm and the cams are now timed for more valve overlap. Electronically controlled throttle bodies inhale through a larger air filter fitted within a bigger 10-liter airbox. Exhaust gases escape out of beautiful titanium-alloy headers, stained blue by the heat of combustion.

Kawasaki says the engine updates added peak power and midrange and the bike certainly feels fast once it’s spinning above 9,000 rpm, but it doesn’t have the hard-hitting, compress-your-eyeballs, scream-in-your-helmet acceleration of the S1000RR or the new Aprilia RSV4. Kawasaki America doesn’t list power figures, but Kawasaki Europe’s website claims 197 hp (207 hp with ram air factored in), which is surely measured at the crank. The last bike we ran on the dyno made 160.9 hp, and this one feels like it’s making around 170 at the rear wheel. (The most recent S1000RR we tested had 184.6 hp at the rear wheel.)

Okay, so Kawasaki didn’t magically unlock 20-plus horsepower to surpass the class leaders. That wasn’t really the objective of the engine updates. Project leader Yoshimoto Matsuda says the aim was to improve handling by reducing inertia, hence the lighter-weight crank, balance shaft, pistons, and clutch primary gear. The 2016 bike does steer better and transition faster than last year’s machine, which is all the more impressive given that we were riding on nearly stock settings. Considering the previous bike needed major chassis changes (by shimming the shock and sliding the fork up in the triples) to steer worth a damn at the track, it’s clear Kawasaki put a lot of work into the chassis. And the handling became even sharper after the first session when we switched to Bridgestone slicks. Mmm, there’s nothing like slicks!

2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R Frame & Swingarm

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Revised Frame and Swingarm

It looks the same, but the Ninja’s frame and swingarm are different and made from all-new castings. The headstock now sits 7.5mm farther back while the engine is positioned higher in the frame. These two changes increase the forward weight bias and raise the bike’s center of gravity, improving steering response and front-end feedback. A 15.8mm longer swingarm helps stretch the wheelbase 12mm for better mechanical grip and high-speed stability. Rear ride height is at least 5mm more than on the ’15 bike, says the Kawi tech I spoke to.

The bike’s quick flickability was most apparent in the slow turn one/turn two direction change and when transitioning from knee to knee in the fast turn five/turn six combo. Rocketing out of the long turn five at full throttle, you have to muscle the bike from the left side of the tire to the right, and just as you get the bike turned and the front end loaded you encounter washboard ripples near the apex of turn six. Even with all that going on, the Ninja was nothing short of brilliant through this section. The bike was responsive, stable, and always on line. Front-end feel is excellent, and is best enjoyed while trail braking toward an apex.

Part of that composure surely comes from the new suspension, which Kawasaki developed in collaboration with Showa. The 2011 bike broke new ground with the Showa Big Piston Fork, and the Ninja is forging ahead once again with this year’s gas-charged Showa Balance Free Fork, which everyone at Kawasaki was quick to point out is a direct descendent of the front end used on the WSBK racebike. The shock is new, too, and operates on a longer, stiffer swingarm via revised linkage.

2016 ZX-10R Muffler

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New Titanium-Alloy Exhaust

Kawasaki designed a new exhaust to compliment the engine. The headers are made from titanium alloy and are modeled after the World Superbike’s system. The under-engine pre-chamber is made of stainless steel and now has half again more volume and houses a back-pressure control valve and a larger catalytic convertor. The bigger pre-chamber allows for a slimmer titanium-alloy muffler that’s reminiscent of Yoshimura’s famous R77 can. Despite using lightweight materials, the new exhaust is some 6 pounds heavier than the ‘15’s system, says ZX-10R project leader Yoshimoto Matsuda.

With several maximum-braking zones at Sepang (it’s famous for them!), there was plenty of opportunity to get familiar with the Ninja’s new brake setup. We always liked the Kawasaki’s brakes, and rated the previous Nissin package on par with the Brembo setups on far more expensive machines. Yet now that the Ninja’s got the Italian goodness from the radial master cylinder on down to the Monoblock M50 calipers, I found myself longing for the old system with its strong bite and more progressive power. Given the quality of the components, I suspect better performance is just a pad-swap away, but as delivered the brakes have noticeably less bite than before. (As a side note, for all sessions except the first one of the day we were on ABS bikes with the ABS disabled, which I’ve been told requires removing a fuse.)

Far and away the Ninja’s strongest trait is its front-end feel and stability, two factors that make corner entries much easier on the new bike. Unfortunately, the Ninja isn’t as capable when it comes to corner exit, mainly due to that soft low-end power and a TC system that isn’t entirely consistent.

ZX-10R Instrumentation

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Cockpit

The dash with color LED tachometer should look familiar, because it’s the same display that’s been on the Ninja since 2011, though it’s been updated with icons for the bike’s new electronic features. The Öhlins electronic steering damper, which varies damping based on ground speed, returns for 2016 as well. The windscreen is taller than before, and those wide, low clip-ons now rest 7.5mm closer to the pilot.

With the addition of a five-axis IMU (with a sixth axis, yaw, extrapolated by proprietary Kawasaki software in the ECU) the new Ninja’s Sport-Kawasaki Traction Control is ostensibly equal to—and Kawasaki claims more advanced than—what’s offered by the category leaders. S-KTRC now evaluates many more factors in its quest to manage traction, and there are two more TC levels to choose from (for a total of five), but the functionality isn’t consistent enough to merit full trust. I experienced some eye-widening slides and got kicked out of the seat several times—cue the adrenal glands!—during the day, which simply shouldn’t happen on a bike with electronics this advanced. I was really hoping the IMU would bring the Ninja’s TC to the next level. It doesn’t seem like Kawasaki has matched the capabilities of the Yamaha R1’s TC, much less exceed them.

One function that is significantly improved by the addition of the IMU is wheelie control, which now does a much better job of keeping the front wheel at the optimal height while accelerating. Also improved is KIBS (Kawasaki Intelligent anti-lock Brake System), which used to intervene as soon as the rear wheel got light under heavy braking. Now the system takes into account pitch and other factors to allow some amount of rear-wheel lift. The feel at the lever is also more consistent when KIBS is engaged. KIBS now includes a “Cornering Management Function,” which I’ve done my best to explain in the sidebar below.


CORNER MANAGEMENT FUNCTION

2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R CORNER MANAGEMENT FUNCTION

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Wait, You Mean I Can’t Crash It?

What the Cornering Management Function does is mitigate over-braking while leaned over, therefore preventing a chassis attitude change that tends to stand the bike up and make it run wide.

I had to interview three Kawasaki personnel—including the product manager, media relations supervisor, and project leader—before I was finally able to wrap my head around the new Ninja’s “Cornering Management Function.” The ABS bike is described as being “better able to follow the rider’s intended line while slowing down for a difficult turn, rather than having the tendency to run wide.”

Now this is not a carte blanche to hammer the brakes at the last minute while entering a corner, and that description is even a bit misleading, because unless you do something drastic with the brakes while leaned over, the Cornering Management Function doesn’t, well, function.

What the Cornering Management Function does is mitigate over-braking while leaned over and therefore preventing a chassis attitude change (fork dive) that tends to stand the bike up and make it run wide.

Similar to the way the S-KTRC has a predictive feature—where it calculates how much traction there is for a given lean angle and won’t necessarily give you 100 percent throttle even if you ask for it—KIBS will regulate the requested brake pressure based on lean angle and other data from the. So if a rider were to stab the brakes while leaned over, the Cornering Management Function would not deliver all of that force to the calipers. Make sense?


Electronics also control the throttle plates now that the Ninja is ride by wire, and yet throttle response is more abrupt than before. (It’s worth noting that the 2015 ZX-10R is more abrupt than its superbike-class competitors already.) The ‘16 bike is only jumpy at small throttle openings and low engine speeds—at higher speeds it wasn’t an issue. I spoke to an engineer about my observations and the only explanation or suggestion I got was to be smoother with the throttle. Err, okay, thanks. Admittedly, the problem became less prevalent in later sessions as I learned the track and became more deliberate with my throttle inputs.

Throttle response and TC issues aside, this is certainly the best Ninja to date. Complaints we had about the previous bike, including funky geometry and sluggish handling, a too-low seat, lack of a quickshifter, and crude wheelie control have all been remedied. On paper Kawasaki has pushed the Ninja back toward the front of the superbike class, and it did so without a huge price jump. The bikes we rode were ABS models with the pricier KRT paint scheme, so they carry a $16,299 price tag, which puts them within a few hundred dollars of a base-model Aprilia RSV4 or BMW S1000RR. In black and without ABS, the 2016 model can be had for $14,999, which is well below the price of all the other TC-equipped superbikes except the new Yamaha YZF-R1S. That bike goes for $14,990.

2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R ABS

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2016 ZX-10R ABS, Green

To the excitement of everyone involved, Kawasaki opted to host the ZX-10R press launch at Sepang. Jonathan Rea won at Sepang last August, and finished the season with the World Superbike championship. Rea was at the press launch, and he’s a hell of a nice guy.

The Ninja kept my jet lag at bay all day, but a monsoon in the afternoon meant our riding time was over and gave exhaustion a chance to fully set in. I think my adrenal glands were empty anyway. I had a tremendous time turning laps on the ZX-10R, and while I never felt like I was really hauling ass, I know from years of roadracing that the fastest laps are often the ones that feel slow. It’s a function of being relaxed and being on a bike that’s responsive and easy to ride. We know the new Kawasaki works well, but we won’t know just how well until we’re able to ride it alongside the competition. And that’ll happen as soon as we can manage it.

TECH SPEC

EVOLUTION
Last updated in 2011, the ZX-10R returns with world-class suspension and brakes plus all-new electronics, all in a bid to surpass the current crop of ultra-sophisticated superbikes.
RIVALS
Aprilia RSV4 RR, BMW S1000RR, Ducati Panigale 1299, Honda CBR1000RR, KTM RC8, Suzuki GSX-R1000, MV Agusta F4RR, Yamaha YZF-R1
TECH
PRICE $14,999 ($15,999 w/ ABS)
ENGINE 998cc, liquid-cooled inline-four
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER NA
CLAIMED TORQUE NA
FRAME Aluminum twin-spar
FRONT SUSPENSION Showa 43mm fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Showa shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.5-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo four-piston calipers, 330mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Nissin one-piston caliper, 220mm disc with ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 25.0°/4.2 in.
WHEELBASE 56.7 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.9 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.5 gal.
CLAIMED WEIGHT 454 lb. wet
AVAILABLE Now
CONTACT kawasaki.com
VERDICT
Better in all respects, but not the total transformation we had hoped for.
2016 ZX-10R ABS, Black

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2016 ZX-10R ABS, Black

We rode green and black “KRT” Ninja’s with race-inspired graphics, but the Ninja is also available in the Metallic Matte Carbon Grey, pictured above. KRT paint costs another $300. Without ABS, the grey color scheme will run you $14,999. ABS ads $1,000.

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