MCN Fleet: Home time for the hooligan

1 of 23

As my time with the Green Hooligan comes to a close I have mixed feelings. Although I’m sad to see it go, I also can’t help but feel a pang of relief. I’m relieved that I’m able to hand it back in one piece after a few near misses on track.

I’m relieved that I’ve still got a licence and that I’ll no longer have to lay awake at night wondering if that Toyota Yaris had a dashcam. And I’m relieved that I’ll no longer have to fold myself up like an origami frog every time I want to nip to the shop.

More long-term tests

Any bike that does one thing extremely well will be compromised elsewhere and I’d have been a complete idiot – which isn’t unheard of – to expect the ZX-10R to be an all-rounder. But having ridden most of the superbike competition out there, I’m baffled as to why the ZX-10R needs to be quite so uncomfortable.

It’s single-minded in the extreme. By way of comparison, Ducati are bringing out version after version of their Panigale V4 with small refinements to make it more friendly. BMW have decided a superbike should be all-day comfy with added heated grips and a satnav on the S1000RR.

Kawasaki ZX-10R on track at a wet Donington

Meanwhile, Kawasaki have raised the footpegs and splayed out the clip-ons of the ZX-10R, making the riding position even more extreme. The strange thing is that I love them for it.

Kawasaki are making a stand. Take the power delivery for example. The peak claimed figure of 200bhp is achieved at 13,200rpm and peak torque is at 11,400rpm.

For a high-revving, inline four-cylinder engine this is pretty much what you’d expect but there’s no shiftcam or VVT system at play to boost the midrange before you get there. Much like a supersport of yesteryear, all of the action comes as the needle (or digital gauge in this case) climbs towards the redline.

Us bikers have never had an easy relationship with the non-biking public, but wailing around the countryside at lightspeed has never felt as antisocial as it does now.

Kawasaki ZX-10R Performance Edition tank

Which is a bit of an issue on the ZX-10R because even in first gear you’ll have waved goodbye to the speed limit by the time the real fun begins. It is essentially illegal to hit the limiter on the road. But boy is it tempting to do it anyway.

A bike like the ZX-10R gets into your blood. Having 200bhp at your disposal is like a drug and once you’ve gone cold turkey you begin to crave it. Now I don’t have the option to jump on the Ninja, I want to, and I regret all those times I left it tucked away under the cover and took the car because it seemed the sensible option that day.

The ZX-10R scratched an itch I didn’t even know I had. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, impractical and arguably too fast for the road.

So I hand it back to Kawasaki with a modicum of relief but also knowing that for the rest of my life on warm summer’s days and drawn out evenings, I’ll find myself staring wistfully into the middle distance and remembering my time with this brutal, bonkers and utterly brilliant machine.

Update 8 – Kawasaki ZX-10R round-up video

Published 16.03.22

Update 7 – Does the Ninja know best?

Published 23.02.22

Kawasaki ZX-10R cornering

The ZX-10R is packed to the gills with electronic doodads and assisted thingmabobs. Almost every rider input is taken under consideration and only put into action if the right combination of sensors agrees it’s a good idea.

Twist the throttle and the ECU considers your lean angle via the IMU and the relative speeds of each wheel before deciding how much throttle to give you. Ditto the brakes. Even the steering damper is electronic.

More long-term tests

Obviously, this all happens many times faster than the blink of an eye and, assuming your ambition hasn’t outweighed your talent, you get the power or braking pressure you were after before you’ve had time to notice. Sometimes, however, something happens that makes you realise you are not in complete control.

This moment came for me on track at Snetterton – luckily – when my overexuberance meant I needed to trail-brake deep into a corner and abandon all hope of hitting the apex. I had all but stopped thinking about the corner at hand and was already considering the next when I found myself running ever wider towards the outside kerb. The bike had decided my lean angle was too great for the brake pressure I had applied – and let them off again.

Kawasaki ZX-10R is full of electronic gubbins

My initial reaction was one of annoyance. My chosen braking pressure felt perfectly safe to me and with hot tyres on a hot day and plenty of laps under my belt I felt pretty confident that the front end was well within its limits. ‘How dare the bike intervene like that?’ I thought as I returned to the pits after the session.

But as the adrenaline dissipated, another thought entered my head. Maybe the Green Hooligan had actually just saved me from myself – I’m not exactly Fabio Quartararo, after all. Maybe, on a superbike of yesteryear I’d have been wondering where it all went wrong from the grass rather than decrying Japanese caution when it comes to ABS intervention.

The thing is, I’ll never know. I could have done any number of daft things that would’ve meant a trip to the barriers on a bike with less tech and never know. But on the ZX-10R I was able to razz around in the upper half of the inters group for a day and still ride it home.

You can argue about the merits or otherwise of electronic rider aids until the cows come home, but I’m leaning more than ever towards them being a good thing.

Update 6 – 200bhp commuter – How does the Green Hooligan really work as a daily ride?

Published 13.12.21

Kawasaki ZX-10R on the daily commute

There’s no question that with your chin on the tank and the throttle wide open, the ZX-10R excels – this is what it’s for, after all. But a near £17k bike can’t be a fair-weather toy that’s only wheeled out for the fun times, can it?

If, like me, you only have the space (and budget) for one bike in your life and you’re desperate for it to be a ZX-10R does that mean you are destined to take the car to work all winter?

More long-term tests

The simple answer is ‘no’. Despite its committed riding position and supersport-esque powerband, the ZX-10R is just about civilised enough to use on cold, wet, mundane rides to the office.

In Rain mode, the power is curtailed enough to take the fear out of using your right hand and as long as you give the tyres plenty of time to warm up, you can brake and tip in with confidence on slimy autumnal roundabouts.

Kawasaki ZX-10R in winter gear and rucksack can feel precarious

I’ve ridden other superbikes in miserable conditions and felt like I was constantly flirting with disaster. Riding a Panigale V4 in the cold and wet is like trimming your fingernails with an angle grinder – it’s possible but let your concentration slip and you’ll find yourself in an ambulance. The Ninja is more amenable than that.

The tall gearing and old-school powerband are more of a help than a hindrance in poor conditions as you can easily short-shift your way around without troubling the traction control. Although this leaves you feeling a little frustrated, you will still be travelling faster than 99% of the traffic around you and can still scythe through the morning rush hour without issue.

Heated grips – like the ones you get on a BMW S1000RR – would be a nice touch when the temperature drops, especially on days where you know it will warm up later and you don’t want your thick gloves on for the ride home.

Kawasaki ZX-10R on wet, cold UK roads

Obviously, there’s no luggage provision either so if you commute with stuff for work or you want to nip to the supermarket on the way home, you’ll probably need to wear a rucksack.

This is pretty restrictive and, when coupled with thick winter riding gear and the teetering riding position of the bike, can leave you feeling a bit awkward and top-heavy, but you get used to it. In fact, if I had to pick a motto for using this bike in winter, that would be it ‘feels a bit awkward to begin with but you get used to it soon enough’.

If you use your bike as your main (or only) form of transport and you fancy a superbike, the ZX-10R will do the job. It’s not so much a fish out of water as it is a pig out of muck – it’s not living its best life but it’s still able to function. The BMW S1000RR would be a better choice with its comfier riding position and creature comforts, though.

And if you ride a lot through winter or have a long commute only the most of stubborn superbike devotees need apply. After all, there’s a good reason I haven’t seen another ZX-10R on the morning commute since late September, or many other litre sportsbikes, for that matter.

Get practical

  • Headlights – So bright you get flashed by oncoming traffic
  • Mirrors – Big and useful although you need to lift your arm for a proper look
  • Switchgear – Well laid-out and simple to use but not back-lit so tricky in the dark with winter gloves
  • Finish – Nothing has rusted or fallen off and build quality feels strong
  • MPG – On a long run taking in A-roads, B-roads and motorway I managed 51mpg (pre-E10)

Update five – A change of season brings a change of tyres for our Kawasaki ZX-10R

Published 13.12.21

New Tyres for the MCN Fleet Kawasaki ZX-10R

After a few summer trackdays, the ZX-10R’s OE Bridgestone RS11 tyres were starting to look a bit worse for wear. They would likely have survived another couple of thousand miles of road use but I was keen to experiment with how a slightly more road-focused tyre would affect the bike’s handling.

There was nothing wrong with the RS11s and I was impressed with them on track and for sunny blasts on the road they were stable and offered plenty of grip – although you felt at times like you were fighting to keep the bike on a tighter line in fiddly corners.

More long-term tests

I also had a couple of small slips from the front-end on roundabouts when the conditions were fresh in the mornings after I had expected them to have warmed up more than they actually had.

As the summer was drawing to a close and I didn’t anticipate spending much more time on track, I opted for a set of Michelin Power 5s, which are at the sporty end of the road tyre spectrum. The Michelins have a much softer carcass than the Bridgestones and the difference in plushness on the road can be felt immediately.

They warm up more rapidly than the RS11s and take less work to keep the heat in, even in the wet. It’s also easier to get the bike turned in with the Power 5s fitted, but this comes at the sacrifice of some stability mid-corner.

Rear Michelin Power 5 tread pattern

On track, the Power 5s started to feel a little out of their depth. Whereas the RS11s allowed you to pick a line early on in a corner and hold it perfectly all the way through, the Power 5s react more to imperfections or bumps in the track and call for small adjustments to be made throughout the turn.

The difference is not dramatic, the new tyres haven’t turned the ZX-10R into a mechanical bull but in really fast corners such as Hamilton at Snetterton they give you less confidence to really throw the bike on its side and trust that it’ll be where you want it at corner exit.

It’s handy if you need to make an adjustment for a mistake though, the Michelins’ relative instability makes it much easier to do so with minimal bar pressure. That said, after a few laps the compound had started to feel quite vague on tighter, slow speed turns, too, as the heat built up in the tyre.

For the kind of riding I generally do, I’m a big fan of the Michelins but they’re definitely a road tyre first and foremost.

Update four – Can you really tour on a Kawasaki ZX-10R?

Published 04.08.21

Touring on a Kawasaki ZX-10R

Screaming around the British countryside on a sunny Sunday afternoon as though it’s the mid-noughties is one thing, but what about those times you want to go a little further afield?

The ZX-10R’s nosebleed-inducing acceleration makes it a joy on track but with one of the most extreme riding positions around I was pessimistic about how it would be on a long ride.

More long-term tests

To find out if I was right, I loaded it up with a tankbag and tailpack and headed for Anglesey. I set off from my home in Norfolk and went north on the A17 and A616 towards Sheffield where I would pick up the famous Snake Pass A57 through the Peak District before a dash around Manchester on the M56 and then along Wales’ north coast on the A55.

I left the green hooligan in Road mode for a softer throttle and switched on the engine braking control which helps to knock the edges off the chopping and surging throttle you sometimes get when trying to hold a constant road speed without using the cruise control.

Long distance riding with luggage on the Kawasaki ZX-10R

The first part of the journey felt frustrating as I learned to ride around the tankbag – the Kawasaki’s low and splayed-out clip-ons were making it tricky to handle from a more upright riding position.

But I got used to it within 20 minutes or so and started to relax a bit more. I soon worked out that if I was going to enjoy this ride I would need to ride as smoothly and methodically as possible – rolling through corners rather than braking in and firing out and timing my overtakes rather than relying on bhp to blip past.

Once I settled into this rhythm I felt my whole body start to relax. I could have ridden the twisty sections of the route all day without stopping – not once did I even consider whether my knees or neck were hurting.

Kawasaki ZX-10R with sheep on the Snake Pass

The motorway section was a different matter, however, and as the discomfort level rose, so too did the number on the speedo as I tried to get it over with as rapidly as possible.

So, can you tour on a ZX-10R? Yes, but only if the journey is part of the experience. If you prefer to take the road less travelled the Kawasaki works great but if you prefer to get somewhere quickly on the motorway and then explore when you get there, look elsewhere.

Update three – Is the focused Kawasaki ZX-10R really as extreme as I thought?

Published 04.08.21

The Kawasaki ZX-10R is cramped for a 6ft rider

Sometimes you learn a lot about your own bike by riding someone else’s. The riding position on the ZX-10R is clearly extreme – I can feel it in my neck, shoulders, back and most of all knees.

But was it really as bad as I thought, I hadn’t ridden a superbike for a couple of years and maybe I’d been spoiled by the Ténéré 700 I rode last year, and the CBR650R the year before.

More long-term tests

An opportunity came up to ride the new BMW M1000RR homologation special and Ducati Panigale V4 SP – pretty much the fiercest and most focused machinery money can buy – and I thought it’d be a chance to put the green hooligan into context.

First up the Ducati. I left it warming up its 1100cc V4 engine on the sidestand while I finished suiting up, letting the lumpy cacophony of Italian brute force build the sense of drama and occasion before I took a deep breath and swung a leg over.

Ducati Panigale V4SP on track

This is the sharpest, sportiest, shoutiest bike I’d ever ridden, honed to perfection for trackday addicts without even a backwards glance for road riders… and somehow it was immediately more comfortable than the Kwak.

Yes, riding the SP on the road is impractical. It’s got a throttle like a claymore and wants to peel your face off every time you pull away, whether that’s down the back straight of Snetterton or across a gravel carpark, but the riding position is still comfier than the ZX.

Things got even surprising when I jumped on the BMW. I expected the M1000RR to have more impressive riding modes and adjustability for the track, that’s what your £31,000 is paying for, but it also has creature comforts such as heated grips and a built-in satnav!

BMW M1000RR on track

Swapping back to the ZX-10R felt like going back in time. I never thought I’d say that a 200bhp superbike felt pedestrian, but because of the violence with which those others administer their power from almost no revs, it does. It also feels low and the seat feels chunky and the tank is really wide – all things I hadn’t really noticed before.

The way the Kawasaki delivers its power higher in the revs makes it far friendlier to ride in the real world and it’s just as quick as the others once you rev it out. But I just can’t understand why the riding position needs to be so tortuous when the likes of the race-bred M1000RR are comparatively comfy.

Update two – The Kawasaki ZX-10R shows its true colours on track

Published 04.08.21

Kawasaki ZX-10R on track at Donington

Riding a 200bhp superbike on the road gives me an idea of what it must feel like for Usain Bolt to run for a connecting flight through a busy airport.

The open road never seems to stay open for very long before the back of yet another vehicle is in your way. And even though you rarely have to wait very long, it’s enough to disrupt your rhythm and bring the downsides of the bike as a roadgoing prospect – its extreme riding position – back to the forefront of your mind.

More long-term tests

Even if you do find an extended stretch of road uncluttered by selfish dawdlers, you can’t let the Ninja off the lead for very long at all before driving licence preservation becomes a concern. If you’re riding a ZX-10R flat-stick on the road, the gear indicator doubles up as a helpful prison sentence calculator.

Kawasaki ZX-10R turning left on track

Luckily, the UK has many racetracks that will let you test your mettle for a fee and it was time for me to do exactly that with my green hooligan. I set off for Donington Park to take part in a California Superbike School training day.

On track, the ZX-10R makes so much more sense. The last 3000rpm with a wide-open throttle deliver a near spiritual experience and the best part is you’re only a click of the quickshifter (or a clunk, more on that later) from experiencing it all over again.

Despite its physical size, the ZX is surprisingly nimble and made easy work of the Foggy Esses, and the long and winding section from Redgate all the way through the Old Hairpin passed in a blur of sublime poise, balance and power.

Kawasaki ZX-10R in the pits at Donington

The autoblipper – which can be hit and miss at road speeds and revs – is suddenly firing with sniper accuracy and precision. The quickshifter isn’t the best I’ve tried, though, and near the redline it cuts power for a split second longer than you need, making gear changes feel a bit clunky.

Don’t get me wrong, life on the road with the ZX-10R is far from bad but now I’ve felt what’s possible I just want to ride around in circles as fast as I can as often as I can. I know I’m not even scratching the surface of what the bike is capable of and that makes the prospect of spending more time doing it even more exciting.

Update one – All aboard the ZX-press!

Published 28.04.21

Kawasaki ZX-10R on UK road

As a professional journalist and a grown-up (sort of) I try to stay level-headed about the exciting opportunities that come with the job. But I don’t mind telling you that after a patient wait through Coronavirus delays and the blockage of the Suez Canal, I was a fizzing mess of anticipation when the van came to deliver the MCN fleet Kawasaki ZX-10R.

And I wasn’t disappointed at my first glimpse – the signature lime green paint work was retina-burning in the early evening sun and even better than in the thousands of pictures I’d pored over on the internet.

More long-term tests

But, as I was left to explore every nook and cranny, my excitement turned to apprehension. I’d barely ridden since my previous long-term test bike, a Yamaha Ténéré 700, went back in March and that only had 72bhp. Now I was staring down the newly designed snout of a bike with as near as makes no difference 1bhp for every kilo.

Ben's loving life with the Kawasaki ZX-10R

The thought of riding it set up camp in my imagination and throughout the rest of the working day, my niece’s ninth birthday party and that evening’s dinner, a section of my brain was held hostage by the green hooligan waiting for me under its cover. I had to ride it.

So, despite it being late and the light beginning to fade I kitted up and set off on my first tentative ride. The first thing I noticed was the extremity of the riding position. Until now, the least accommodating superbike I’d ridden was the Aprilia RSV4 1100 Factory, which is like a small and recalcitrant ironing board, but the riding position on the ZX-10R is more extreme still.

At slow speed, manoeuvring out of the estate with plenty of first gear clutch slip and a headfirst riding position, I felt incredibly conspicuous. This wasn’t helped by the angry Akrapovic exhaust the bike is wearing – part of the £1000 performance pack. The irony of a noisy Ninja wasn’t lost on my four-year-old nephew. But, to my surprise, once I got out on the open road the Kawasaki wasn’t intimidating.

The engine is still being run in – as am I – so short shifts are the order of the day, but you can still gather speed with otherworldly efficiency when you want to.

That first 50-mile blast in the setting sun along Norfolk’s twisting tarmac and through the tunnels created by trees reaching out to each other across the road will remain one of the best riding memories of my life.

Update one: Can all the power of the Kawasaki ZX-10R work in the real world?

A side view of the Kawasaki ZX-10R

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of running a superbike as a daily ride but got bitten by the off-road bug and so haven’t ever owned one. I want to find out if 200bhp-plus can work in the real world by spending a year with the Kawasaki ZX-10R.

The rider Ben Clarke, Assistant Editor (Motorcycling), 35, 6ft. Riding for 14 years, loves a bike tour.

Bike specs 998cc | 200bhp | 207kg | 835mm seat height