Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R Makes Beastly Power

When the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R entered the open class battle in ’04, its arrival didn’t exactly go unnoticed. Rather then sneaking past in the shadows, it barged through the front door with a hedonistic howl like a crazy green-eyed Samurai shaking its head wildly while wielding its 150-horsepower motor as its primary weapon. The ZX proceeded to conquer the urban realm by beating the competition into submission in our inaugural Superbike Smackdown, with its combination of a menacing motor and razor sharp handling that made for an equally exciting ride on the street or track. For 2007 this once proud warrior is pretty much the same, although it is slightly more docile than the original.

Although the ZX-10 has won magazine shootouts around the world and received a full-scale makeover in 2006, it hasn’t quite lived up to expectations on the racetrack. In both World Superbike and AMA competition the 10R has only one race win to its credit and that was at the hands of Chris Walker during a deluged Assen TT. It’s difficult to understand how a bike with so much going for it on paper hasn’t made an impact on the track, but that’s the facts as we see it. From our perspective during this year’s track test at Buttonwillow the 2007 Kawasaki ZX-10R is still an absolute blast to ride, despite the faults our finicky crew uncovered. It’s certainly still in the ballpark thanks to its value-added components including an excellent slipper clutch, Ohlins steering damper, decent suspension and, of course, the motor.

“Kawasaki hit the mark with their remarkably powerful engine with the ZX-10,” says Earnest. “It has usable power from down low and seemingly doesn’t stop making power until the rev limiter kicks in. With such a stompin’ motor and its general ease of wheelie-riding ability, I found the ZX an absolute joy to ride.”

The Kawasaki ZX-10R might not be quite as raw and unrefined as the original but it still requires a smooth throttle hand to ride effectively on the street or track because it doesn’t suffer fools too kindly. Keep the Kawasaki on the boil and you’re in for an adrenalin-filled journey between the turns. Power wheelies, slides, and arm pump are all standard fare on this unruly beast.

“This thing was the sleeper of the group,” says former hog wrangler from Alaska Jimmy Moore. “Ugly? Yes: But that motor. Heavy looking? Yes: But that motor. Soft suspension? Yes: But the motor. This thing has a freakin’ motor! When you let her eat, she eats. Unlike the Yamaha, when you twist the throttle, it responds immediately and with authority.”

Describing this bike as a beast is a pretty good analogy because it has no manners and it isn’t going to win any beauty contests between it and the lookers from Honda and Yamaha. The aerodynamically correct front cowling, integrated turn signals, and headlights may look good to an engineer trying to reduce drag coefficient on a computer but it didn’t get very high marks from our group. Same goes for the heavy dual exhaust that showed up last year. Both of these cosmetic changes have polarized public opinion, so it really is up to the consumer to decide if it suits their style. After all, beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.

“The brakes were good and for the most part, this thing is actually a blast to ride,” muses Moore. “It’s just that when you got off it and look at what you were riding, well, it reminds me of this girl I used to date in Alaska…”

Besides fessin’ up to some questionable decision making in his past, Jimmy’s not saying anything the rest of us weren’t already thinking about the general experience of riding the ZX-10. In a straight line the Kawasaki is tough to beat considering it weighs in a mere pound over the CBR. The power curves are similar too, but after the Honda fades away the Kawasaki continues to make a solid seven more horsepower over an extra 1,500 rpm.

How the ZX behaves on the brakes and through the turns, however, is where the competition catches up. The Ninja ranked lowest in the critical track categories of both High- and Low-Speed turning prowess and, as was the case with this bike in the past, the brakes faded fairly quick under the abusive hands of hard chargers like Jimmy and Michael E. It countered those racetrack blemishes with a top score in Low- to Mid-Range Power and a second in Top End hit to the GSX-R. In an attempt to tame the headshaking madness of the original, Kawasaki relaxed the chassis geometry and added the damper. While those changes might have made it more manageable at the professional level, it reduces this once sharpest scalpel to fourth-most agile in this group.

“The ZX requires more input to initiate turn in and has a tendency to run wide on exits out of the faster corners,” explains Earnest. “The brakes have good power too, although I experienced excessive lever travel (fade) after only five or six fast laps.”

Although it makes track riding simultaneously amusing and tricky, the hard hitting motor is the key to the ZX-10’s success on the street. With full-tilt cornering out of the question on public roads, the thrill of connecting them takes center stage. With the unscrupulous Mr. Steeves at the controls of the Ninja there was not a traffic law left intact between Bakersfield and Orange County. It wasn’t his favorite but the allure of the Ninja was difficult for the hard-riding hooligan to discount.

“The ZX10 has a long way to go before its hand will be raised in this heavyweight cage fight,” explains Steeves with yet another one of his patented wacky analogies. “But for sure it sets the pace on the street with its monster motor. If it’s a daily driving commuter, Sunday fun-day on the mountain, coffee gettin’, lane splittin’, two trackdays a year, bad ass superbike that you want, then look no further.”

In the past the ZX stood out as the undisputed king of the road but these days the competition has caught up and in some cases surpassed it. The Ninja lost a step in terms of outright agility but is still one of the lightest bikes in the group. The GSX-R and R1 produce more peak power, but it still has them covered in torque. It may come as a surprise that even though the Kawi is still the torque leader with nearly 80 lb-ft on tap at 8,500 rpm, the motor actually is smoother than you would expect as only the GSX-R seems to give off less vibes. It also has one of the better cockpit arrangements for street purposes. The instruments may be the best of the bunch and the saddle is the most forgiving. There is still a bit of storage under the passenger seat, decent mirrors, and the ZX features significantly better wind protection than either the R1 or CBR.

“The triangle relationship (peg-seat-bars) has improved over the previous generation, although the footpegs may be a bit high for taller riders,” explains Earnest. “The suspension was ultra plush, soaking the bumps up exceptionally well on Buttonwillow’s not-so-smooth road course and with the Ohlins damper set on fully stiff it still is a handful at accelerated track speeds, but it should be adequate on the street or a moderate track pace.”

So then what’s the problem, you might be asking. Not much is the simple answer. The fact is that while we take pride in the effort we put into testing these things in the end the rankings are intended to show how the bikes sort out against each other. Take a spin on a ZX-10R or any of these bikes for that matter, and you might feel it is the gnarliest bike ever made. Ride it back-to-back and you will discover that it requires a bit more patience to get the most out of it.

“As for the actual riding experience, I found myself having to put in more input to get the same result out of the Kawi,” says Steeves before unleashing another one of his cunning descriptions. “We flipped these bikes from one side to another more times than a beach full of hot chicks working on their tans during our run through Malibu canyon. That’s when it became apparent that the Kawasaki needed more attention to reducing the amount of steering input needed to set and hold its line. If you set the bike on its side and the road ahead throws a decreasing-radius curve ball at ya then you really need to make serious body and steering adjustments so you won’t end up yard selling.”

Like the Honda, the Kawasaki is in the final year of its development cycle so a new-and-improved version is expected for 2008. Will it be a return to the nasty Ninja philosophy that won the hearts of journalists around the world, or will we get a track-focused weapon, intent on improving its record in international roadracing competition? Either way we’re sure it’s going to have the heart of a warrior because that is the Kawasaki way.