Kawasaki's exciting and rider-friendly superbike
It's fair to say that the BMW S1000RR caught the Japanese superbike establishment napping when it appeared like a bolt from the blue-blooded brand two years ago.
The big four Japanese bike-makers had been resting on their superbike performance laurels since the mid-noughties, their development focused mostly on making their most race-worthy bikes more ride- able on the road.
Then BMW copied most of the 2005 Suzuki GSX-R1000, hotted it up further, and kept it controllable by developing an array of sophisticated electronic riding aids for it.
The S1000RR quickly covered itself in bike magazine comparison test glory, and we've waited two long years for a riposte from the Japanese, who have been hamstrung by an enduring economic downturn (not to mention a tsunami or two). That answer to the BMW challenge is finally here in the form of the new Kawasaki ZX-10R, and it's easily the most improved player in the 2011 superbike sector.
Normally I approach a ZX- 10R test with a mouth full of chewed-up garlic, an extended crucifix in one hand, and sharpened wooden stake in the other. No other superbike has so consistently tried to kill me over recent decades with its vicious blood-sucking power and unruly rambunctious handling.
However, this latest version is a truly nice, well- mannered machine. It's as if the ZX-10R development team finally signed off the latest bike when they'd actually finished the job, instead of stopping for a celebratory beer with lots of chassis development and power- delivery tuning still to do. This is, I suspect, the first Team Green superbike that a company like Honda would be proud to apply its badge to.
However, don't confuse nice with boring because the ZX-10R's latent mean streak is always lurking just a traction control (TC) setting away. The Kawasaki's new riding aids are just as complex as the BMW's, but are more user- friendly and sports-oriented in their operation.
For example, they still allow wheelstands and stoppies at will, and the traction control is more focused on achieving a better drive off a corner than it is on quelling wheelspin. If the Kawasaki decides a little rear wheel-slip will achieve a better drive, it'll allow it, and the result is a more involving ride than the BMW.
The ZX-10R comes with an easily thumbed rocker switch on the left-side handlebar, which you push upwards to select one of three engine modes, and rock downwards for a similar number of traction control settings. I spent most of the test with the engine in full-power makin'-whoopee mode, and the traction backed off in the middle of its settings. However, even with the traction set up to allow some intuitive wheelspin it never felt intrusive.
The Kawasaki's TC also has a smoother intervention than the BMW system's juddery activation when it does cut in, and it feels as if one company borrowed heavily from their car technology for their superbike, while the other simply developed a traction control purely for a sports-oriented motorcycle application. Tellingly, there are no lean-angle sensors on the ZX-10R's TC system, nor does it ever back off the throttle like the TC that Kawasaki has developed for some of its touring bikes.
The root cause of the Kawasaki's need for traction invention is the ZX-10R's new engine. This develops power in quantities immediately comparable to the 190bhp BMW, but delivers it in a more refined way. A balancer shaft makes the ZX-10R engine one of the smoothest inline fours in the 1000cc superbike sector, and the twin fuel injectors serving each cylinder provide flawless throttle response.
Most of the time the ZX-10R will fuel itself with the just the injectors nearest the combustion chambers. However, heavier use of the throttle will see the secondary injectors located further up the inlet tracts called into play, and the result is an addictive and sudden increase in the bike's acceleration.
It's a system that achieves the same effect as a dual-throat carburettor, and it allows the primary injectors to be tuned to provide excellent throttle response at light settings. It also allows the ZX-10R to achieve decent fuel economy, the 6.8litres/100km average consumption on test was way superior to the thirsty BMWs.
There's lots more to say about the Kawasaki's engine - notably its hand-polished ports, race-ready exhaust headers, and ability to snarl in a suitably aggressive fashion but the more rigid chassis really is the highlight of this upgrade. For Kawasaki has managed to draw all the bike's components closer to the centre of gravity by raising the engine's crankshaft and lowering the fuel tank etc.
The result is a 197kg bike that feels as if it roll-rotates into corners with your ankles. Suspension quality is another step forward, the 10 getting the same excellent Showa Big Piston forks as the current ZX-6R, and a new rear monoshock layout that keeps the rear wheel more in contact with bumpy surfaces.
This is a hard bike to criticise, and in my opinion it is the finest superbike for road riders on the market. The only bug-bear is the $26,495 price ($28,995 with the well- tuned ABS). For you'll find many cheaper Japanese 1000cc sportsbikes on the New Zealand market. You just won't find one that's superior to this magnificent ZX-Ten.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 998cc liquid-cooled dohc 16v inline four stoked by twin fuel injection systems to develop 147kW (200bhp) at 13,000rpm and 112Nm of torque at 11,500rpm.
Transmission: six-speed sequential gearbox, chain final drive.
Frame: Alloy twin-spar with cast alloy swingarm, 43mm fully-adjustable Showa ig piston forks and fully-adjustable monoshock.
Price: $26,495 ($28,995 with ABS, which adds 3kg).
Hot: The most exciting and rider-friendly superbike ever to emerge from Japan.
Not: Will kill a set of tyres if you let the TC loose at a track day