Kawasaki ZX-10R

Returning for a third-straight year almost completely unchanged is the 2010 Kawasaki ZX-10R. In 2008 the bike was second from the top, while last year it was a mid-pack runner. But could it stay there with the addition of the new class of 2010? With bikes like the BMW S1000RR, Aprilia RSV4R and KTM RC8R, where would the Kawasaki stack up? Relatively well, actually.

It’s no secret that an all-new Green Machine is on the way for 2011, though it was originally slated to be here this year before the economy decided to take a run for the gutter. Even so, the existing Kawasaki is no slouch. It may not flick from side-to-side like the KTM or have the horsepower of the BMW, but it is still one excellent all-around motorcycle.

The strength of the flagship Team Green Superbike is without question the engine. With 162.96 hp and 75.75 lb-ft of torque, even at the end of its development cycle the Kawasaki puts up competitive numbers. In fact, it’s second only to the monster BMW in terms of rear wheel horsepower. Even more impressive than the outright numbers, though, is the Ninja’s ability to put the aggressive power to the ground in a controllable manner. Although it has a small hiccup at lower rpms, once you spin it above 6 grand the engine comes to life. And where the Suzuki is seamlessly smooth, the Kawasaki has that back-wrenching violent acceleration of Superbikes from yesteryear. The Green machine pulls with ferocity through the rev range in nearly every gear, easily lofting the front wheel in the first three cogs.

“The Kawasaki is my favorite engine of the regular Inline Fours,” Sorensen explains. “It has the most explosive power of any of the bikes. The low and mid-range power is very useable, but when it comes on in the upper gears it goes into warp drive. This power characteristic makes the Kawi more difficult to ride, but also a lot of fun and challenging.”

Hensley was very much of the same opinion. “One word: Balls. You better have em’ if you’re gonna manhandle this motherf&*$%#@, which is exactly what it seems to ask for. It’s just daring you to sack up and crack the throttle. It likes to fist fight for fun and only respects the dude who’s not scared to give or receive a punch to the face. And, for that, I thoroughly appreciate the fact that this is what Kawasaki offers in a 1000.”

The only area the Kawi’s engine suffered was in terms of final-drive gearing. In several spots on the curvy Thunder Hill track the ZX-10R was caught between gears. It’s not a big deal if you own the bike and can easily throw a new sprocket on the back, but during our track testing it suffered a bit as a result.

“Smooth power pulls strong with wicked top end but the final-drive gearing was off for T-Hill,” explains Neuer. “She sure pulls hard in the upper revs though!”

The massive motor and hard-hitting power delivery was shown in the data, as the peak acceleration exiting Turn 6 of 0.8g was the best of the shootout. While the same didn’t hold true for the 0.76g it was able to achieve out of the final turn, much of this came down to the previously mentioned gearing issue. It still tied the Ducati for second-best acceleration numbers but it could have easily been top dog with correct gearing. As for top speed, 150.9 mph down the front straight was fourth-quickest, which was another direct correlation to the drive exiting the last corner.

Combined with that engine we are so enamored with is a very user-friendly clutch and well-made transmission. And when it came time for our day at El Toro the Kawasaki shined bright. With a best pass of 9.878 seconds, it was the third-quickest ET that was within a couple tenths of the blisteringly-fast BMW. The Ninja also posted one of the quickest speeds through the trap at the quarter-mile mark, clocking 144.2 mph on its best pass, bested only to the Ducati 1198S and Beemer.

Harnessing the power is a relatively stable chassis which was substantially better than last year though the addition of one simple part: A new Ohlins steering damper, one which actually changes resistance when adjusted from the softest to the hardest settings. Where the unit last year barely changed no matter the setting, the new unit is far more compliant and allowed us to dial its position to fit varying conditions much better.

“The Showa fork on the Kawi is probably the second best fork on a stock bike here (Ducati’s Ohlins being first),” Sorensen says of the ZX-10R. “I have always found this fork very responsive to small changes in preload and the compression and rebound clickers. The Kawi fork had a good firm feel to it with minimal dive under braking”

Yet turn-in was an area where Team Green wasn’t at the top of the pile by any means. The wider bars made flicking if from side-to-side quickly not an issue, but getting the bike to settle into the corner from straight up and down is not a strong point for the Kawasaki.

“The ZX-10R did require a little muscle to get it headed in the right direction, but that kind of added to the character of the bike for me,” Hensley remarks. “You almost expected it from the mean green machine.”

That said, when looking at the data, the solid and confidence-inspiring set-up that Kawasaki had on the ZX-10R allowed us to flick the bike the quickest going from Turn 4 into Turn 5 during Superpole with a maximum flick of 94.3 degrees per second. This means that from full-lean in Turn 4 to full-lean in Turn 5 the ZX rotated the furthest in the shortest amount of time. It also tied the Honda for max lean top honors in Turn 14/15 at 49.4 degrees. In fact, it was the only other bike besides the BMW to lead the rankings in three individual areas.

What was the Kawasaki’s third area of high-end performance? That would be maximum braking g-forces. Through the use of 4-piston radial-mount front calipers fed by a very responsive master cylinder, the feel and feedback were equally as impressive as the outright power. This equated to peak g-forces going into Turn 14 of 1.26g, while the measured stopping distance from 60 mph out at El Toro of 123 ft was third-best.

“The ZX-10 brakes were just as good as the Honda’s,” assures Garcia. “I have no complaints besides maybe adding an aftermarket pad with just a bit more initial bite and then things would be perfect.”

As a complete package the Kawasaki is still a very capable machine. It may be on the older end of the spectrum but it still handles with precision, turns in with confidence and is very much planted mid-corner. The result was a directly mid-pack Superpole lap time, with a best of 1:57.44 in my hands.

Summing up the Kawasaki ZX-10R as a track-based machine, Sorensen says: “While I have a soft spot in my heart for the Kawasaki, it would be hard for me to choose this bike to go club racing. I think we will see a new design from Kawi next year which should include a new chassis. We have seen this bike makes more than enough power, the lap times are competitive, but winning races might be more of task on the Ninja compared to some of the competition.”
Tying the Suzuki for fourth spot left the Kawasaki right smack in the middle of the pack, exactly where it was last year, only this time it took on and beat all of the new kids on the block with the exception of the BMW. Considering the bike is three years old and at the end of its development cycle, this was nothing to be ashamed of. We can’t wait to see what’s coming next…

Kawasaki ZX-10R

  • MSRP: $12,999
  • Curb Weight: 458 lbs.
  • Horsepower: 162.96 @ 12,300 rpm
  • Torque: 75.75 lb-ft @ 9000 rpm
  • Quarter Mile: 9.878 @ 144.2 mph
  • Racetrack Top Speed: 150.9 mph
  • Superpole Best Lap: 1:57.44
  • Overall Ranking: 4th Place (Tie w/Suzuki)