Ninja 1000

A purpose-built sportbike for the street. Kawasaki’s simple objective when developing its all-new 2011 Ninja 1000 sounds easy enough. Yet delivering exhilarating performance in a street-friendly manner, all wrapped up in enticing sportbike style and an affordable price point… that sounds a little tougher. We put the new Ninja to the test on the scenic roads of California’s Marin County to see if it lives up to the hype.

Riders will always demand production racebikes, and success on the racetrack drives the development of Team Green’s ZX-10 and ZX-6 flagships. But the drive for excellence at the track has long outpaced real-world performance for the street to the detriment of many riders who can no longer palate the sportbike compromises in comfort. Track-biased performance comes at a cost. Hunched over the tank is an optimal stance for a 20-lap sprint race, and the occasional trackday, but not for long-range comfort. High redlines are required to reach ever loftier peak horsepower, but they don’t make for the most user-friendly powerbands. And racing bodywork is built for aerodynamics, not rider comfort and wind protection. Then there is the literal cost, as supersport and superbike MSRPs race up along with performance. Just look at Kawasaki’s own ZX-10R. In 2004 it retailed for $10,999 (the new Ninja 1000 asking price) but the 2011 base model rings in for $13,799 and the ABS-equipped version $14,799. And price tags only increase as sportbikes adopt more sophisticated electronic aids, like production traction control.

Enter the Ninja 1000, which Kawasaki shills as an answer to genre dissatisfaction. Its research indicates riders forced onto naked standards or performance cruisers for the forgiving riding position, will come back when they see the Ninja’s sporty lines. The improved comfort also should appeal to riders that want to tour, but don’t need the bells and whistles, high MSRP and 600 to 700-pound curb weights of the “sport-touring” class. As the riding age climbs, delivering a do-it-all sportbike for the street makes more and more sense.

Reading the spec sheet for the Ninja 1000, riders could be forgiven for assuming it’s simply the Z1000 with a fairing slapped on… as that’s a fair summation. The two bikes were developed in tandem and, in fact, Kawasaki USA wanted the Ninja 1000 to debut before the Z1000, as Americans seem genetically predisposed to not buy naked standards. But globally the big Z, and its 750 sibling, are huge sellers, particularly in Europe. So the Ninja 1000 arrives as a 2011 model, a year later than the redesigned Z1000, but sporting the same engine, suspension and brakes.

A liquid-cooled, 16-valve Inline Four takes center stage on the Kawasaki. Without any racing regulations to please, the displacement is a satisfyingly irregular 1043cc. Tuned for street performance, gone are the sky high redlines and top-end biased powerbands of the track-oriented Ninjas. Where the ZX-10R redlines at 13,000 rpm and the ZX-6R screams up to 16,500, the new Ninja 1000’s redline is 11,000 rpm. Yet the new 1000’s power claims are far from paltry, with 136 horsepower at the crank. The new Ninja churns out 10% more hp than the ZX-6R and 65% more torque, it’s lb-ft production on par with the ZX-10R.

Jump behind the controls, thumb the starter and the Ninja packs a nasty wallop right off the bottom. An aggressive burp on the throttle in first gear hoists the front wheel sans any clutch finesse and it only gets better from there. Acceleration is brusque, yet smooth, pulling steady down low. The power builds with a delicious top-end zing around 7K that hammers away until topping out. The top end boost cranks power up to the proverbial 11 on the seat-of-the-pants dyno, though it also accompanies buzzing vibration up through the tank at 8000 rpm. Riders can take two paths with the Kawasaki: ring its neck for optimal power and performance in the top end, or chug along nice and steady in the lower rpm. Either way, the Ninja is happy to play along.

Unlike most first ride evaluations, we have independent results to give relative credence to Ninja’s power claims, having run the Z1000 on the dyno during our 2010 Streetfighter Shootout. That engine confirmed a notable up-tic on the torque curve beginning around 7K with a 72.34 lb-ft peak registering at 7900 rpm. Rear wheel horsepower for the Z1000 measured 122 at 9800 rpm.

The only difference between the Z and Ninja 1000 powerplants is the addition of a top speed limiter on the latter. Kawasaki decided to add the limiter because of the fully-faired Ninja’s improved aerodynamics, which actually make it a speedier ride than its sibling – as the naked Z reaches its top speed without electronic inhibitions and much more wind resistance.

Unchanged from the Z1000 are those distinctive four-pipe exhaust silencers. The system is, in truth, a dual exhaust, with the end-caps only delivering a faux four-pipe aesthetic. But it pulls off the charade well enough, and it manages a respectable tone in stock form.

The Ninja’s transmission is almost complaint proof. A cable-actuated clutch delivers a light pull and easy engagement, while the six-speed gearbox offers zero hiccups rolling through the gears. There is no slipper clutch, though, so sloppy downshifts can be problematic for the lackadaisical. Another minor quibble is the lack of a gear position indicator on the LCD display – hey, we pick nits because we care.

The Kawasaki brakes feature radial-mount four-piston Tokico calipers up front clamping down on a pair of 300mm petal-style rotors. The front units also source a Nissin radial-pump master cylinder. The single disc rear is a 250mm rotor pinched by single-piston caliper. At first, our test unit required a much sterner two-finger tug than expected, and the rear pedal offered little feel from out back. However, the braking performance improved during our ride, possibly as the new braking components on our test bike bedded in. We’ll give Kawasaki the benefit of the doubt, as our recollection of the Z1000’s brakes is quite positive. It’s a trait we look forward to re-examining on a future road test or comparison review.

Handling wise, the Ninja craves high-speed flowing terrain, where it can stretch its legs. The aluminum frame and swingarm chassis transmit ample feedback. The Showa suspension components, a 41mm fork and rear monoshock (utilizing a horizontal linkage similar to the new ZX-10R), are set up softer than those developed for the track-oriented Ninja Supersports. Yet riders can dial in the settings with three-way adjustment options for the fork and preload and rebound for the rear shock. A couple quarter turns for rebound and preload after lunch improved feel for our afternoon ride, which took us up to the top of Mount Tamalpais for a majestic view of the Bay (double true for us, as the weather proved to be an atypical cloudless blue sky).

Heading down the mountain, the Ninja’s 502-pound curb weight feels more than manageable. The 24.5-degree rake and four inches trail, combined with the 56.9-inch wheelbase, make for an easy-to-turn, yet stable mount. The biggest challenge in tighter terrain comes not from the chassis, but keeping the lively throttle smooth, as the Ninja chomps at the bit to open things up.

The ergonomics and rider comfort are a huge selling point on this model, and having the 2010 Sport-Touring Shootout fresh in mind (which included the 2010 Kawasaki Concours 14) our critical teeth were ready to eviscerate long-range comfort. In the context of a sportbike, however, the Ninja 1000’s ergonomics excel in this regard. The natural riding position leans, metaphorically, toward the upright standard variety – similar to the position on the Ninja 650R. Footpeg placement, rubber mounted to mitigate vibration, felt good for our 6’1” frame. Unlike the single piece handlebar on the Z1000, the Ninja sports individually mounted handlebars. Despite a subtle forward cant in the neutral riding position, we felt no untoward pressure on the wrist, the placement quite natural for our tastes. At 32.3 inches, the Ninja’s perch may be on the high side for shorter riders, and the seat comfort we rate only average after our 150-mile testing rout. It’s not bad by any means, but not the highlight of an overall ergonomic package that lives up to its billing.

Aside from the intrinsic aesthetics it conveys (is there a more distinctive sportbike feature?), the Ninja’s fairing is quite effective at directing air away from the rider. The open section of the segmented design channels engine heat air out away from the rider as well. A tall windscreen offers three positions to further maximize rider comfort. Adjustment is manual, but tool-less, with a lever underneath the control panel allowing the screen to rotate into three positions. We’d be fibbing if we said there was a dramatic earth-shattering difference between the three settings, which can be altered while on the move (though a big warning on the gas tank says not too..), but it’s a nice option.

The overall comfort factor makes the Ninja an intriguing touring mount. The bike’s subframe has been built up to better accommodate two up rides, but namely to handle saddlebags and serve as a touring-capable mount. We saw a test model with optional hard bags attached and expect top case options as well. Further increasing its touring credentials, Kawasaki added another gallon of fuel (compared to the Z1000) for a five-gallon tank, so a range of 180 isn’t improbable (based off the 36 mpg of the Z in our Streetfighter Comparison).

In the looks department the latest Ninja may not sport the uber-sleek lines and full unbroken fairing found on the “real” Ninja ZX sportbikes. But much like its smaller-displacement kin, the 650R and little Ninja 250, it delivers legit sportbike styling despite lacking a full track pedigree.

The launch of more practical sportbikes herald an emerging Roadsport class, but the Ninja 1000’s success is far from assured. American riders don’t buy bikes for practicality, and production trackbikes for the racing leathers and knee-puck clan are in their own way as much a lifestyle purchase as the lumping V-Twin for the leather-clad cruiser brood. Kawasaki’s betting on those interlopers who’ve grown tired of the rigid genres. At $10,999 the Ninja 1000 delivers versatility and exhilarating road performance, without compromising comfort. Riders looking for a road-going sportbike should take keen interest in this new entry from Team Green.