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FIRST RIDE: 2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R

Published: 02 December 2015

Updated: 27 November 2015

‘The closest thing yet to a road-going World Superbike’

After around 40 laps on the new ZX-10R at the world exclusive first launch in Australia I’m still trying to come to terms with just how good this bike is, and why. I’m a red-blooded sports bike fan, but even if you already have green blood in your veins, the 2016 Ninja ZX-10R is going to get it flowing even faster. I expected improvements. What I experienced was stunning.

You can immerse yourself in the new machine’s technical advances over the coming pages, but in short Kawasaki said to themselves: “Bugger all the cosmetic and marketing related fashion crap, let’s just make the 10R lap faster and easier than anything else anyone can buy. If a part doesn’t improve lap times, it’s straight in the bin.”

Project leader Yoshimoto Matsuda sums it up after his technical briefing: “When you climb a mountain, you don’t carry a big bag of nice clothes and fine food. You won’t get to the top carrying that rubbish.”

The enthusiasm on Matsuda-san’s face says it all as he explains how hard the Team Green engineers and test riders have worked and, most importantly, how much they have used the invaluable feedback from World Superbike pilots Tom Sykes and Jonathan Rea, both Kawasaki #1 plate holders this season and last.

Despite the denial of appearance counting for anything, as I walk around the bike, I do start to fall for it. Kawasaki have tapped into the feelings of sportsbike fans like me. The KRT livery on my test bike looks hot in the flesh, and makes me feel even more like Tom Sykes than my beard, specially grown for today, does.

The tail unit looks sharper and that ugly exhaust is gone, replaced with a neat titanium unit. The reshaped upper cowl looks like the SBK fairing and the dash is at least bigger than an iPhone, unlike the YZF-R1’s miniscule offering. I like it. It looks fast, and is clearly carrying no extra clothes for the mountain top celebrations.

So what was it like to ride? In a word, rewarding.

I’ve done over 2000 laps of this track (Wakefield Park Raceway, New South Wales), so it was straight to the task at hand – pushing the 10R to the limits. As I familiarise myself on the bike the ergonomics feel fantastic but I would like the ‘pegs around 5mm lower. However, after touching the pegs down already, I realise this would be an issue.

Aside from that I feel comfy and familiar as I warm up. The new clip-on position puts me over the front a little more and I feel confident in the front end, which I need or there is no way I can push hard. Down the chute, tucked in, the larger frontal area completely isolates me from the airflow. It’s fantastic and I am a bigger build at 90kg and 185cm. Aside from these things, the bike ‘feels’ like the previous one to be on. But what about the performance?

As I approach the fast right kink at the end of the short straight, I brake hard for the first time, trying to feel for the limit of the SC1 front tyre fitted. I find the limit easily and with finesse. The feel and feedback from the new Showa Balance Free Fork and Brembo package is the most refined I have felt on any production bike and only matched by the factory superbikes I have tested. This braking area is a kink that is off camber and of tightening radius and the 10R eats it up. Stunning.

Braking hard while turning in and shifting down gears here was always hard on the previous model, which had to be wrestled onto its side using my outer arm forearm and knee usually, then lots of pressure to keep it over before firing off the turn feeding the power in gently.

Right now my arms are relaxed, I’m stopping the bike 20% harder, it is heading to the apex where I am looking, basically on its own, completely stable thanks to the brake assist and closer gear ratios making rpm changes less dramatic on downshifts. The 10R is tracking through the turn with no stand-up and then I’m exiting the corner on full throttle, driving hard up a long right-hand uphill turn, while the 10R wheelspins ever so slightly and the front wheel hovers an inch off the ground as the electronics keep me out of hospital. It is stunning to experience and easy to trust.

Repeating this process corner after corner means I end up lapping only a few seconds off my normal time here on a slick-shod 1000cc production based superbike. And I feel like I can keep going all day, without even raising a sweat. Riding a superbike flat out has never been so effortless.

As I head downhill into the fast left dogleg a few more laps in, I push that little bit harder and find myself running too deep. I repeat this a few times. No problem. For the next session I adjust the Engine Brake Assist and try that. Nope. I come in and switch it off and am immediately on line into that turn. This time I am better off with it off but the options are there for various conditions. In the end I settle for FULL Power, S-KTRC 1, KEBC OFF. I try S-KTRC on all 5 settings including OFF and prefer 1, the least intrusive, to keep the wheels inline. Our test machine is non-ABS, which won’t be an option in the UK thanks to Euro4.

Reeling off lap after lap I focus on individual points that have been revised. The fork action is like nothing I have experienced. Silky smooth over high and low speed bumps, soft and subtle yet loads of support on hard braking, even sudden sharp hard braking. The brake feel is so intimate and although the same spec as the Ducati 1299 Panigale, the ZX-10R package feels more intuitive when it comes to small lever modulations, particularly braking on the side of the tyre. The rear suspension also offers fantastic support and stability under hard acceleration and into turns. There is abundant feel from the rear tyre and the bike is not pitchy at all, while I would prefer a more one-to-one connection between the throttle and the rear tyre. Braking hard into turns I feel I am sitting in the bike not on top of it, which I like, something I have struggled with on other new models, where I end up with arm pump.

The engine is the heart of any motorcycle and as technology increases, its soul tends to get tuned out in favour of refinement. This is the case with the ZX-10R, too. If, like me, you like cutting fast laps, then you will appreciate this engine as it allows lots of early throttle roll. If you like a big stupid grin on your face after a triple-clamp pops up and smacks you on the chin when you open the throttle, you will find this engine boring.

As previously mentioned, I was exiting turns at 100 per cent throttle in places I never have on a 1000 – and doing it easily. All of the torque and punch are delivered high in the rpm range, purposely, to allow easy fast drive. I felt like I was getting nowhere at times and it wasn’t until I saw my lap times that I knew I was going fast.

I chatted to ex WSBK legend and World Endurance Champ, Steve Martin, about this at the end of the day and he agrees, saying: “That’s how a well set up factory superbike feels with good electronics. You just feel you are getting nowhere but you are actually flying. We were going fast today but it just felt too smooth to be fast”.

The gearbox ratios are revised but being a short track, I only just grab fourth gear, so will reserve comment until I ride at a longer, faster track. The quickshifter needs a solid boot but is consistent and reliable, which is handy as I find I need to keep the engine spinning above 9000rpm to get going.

From an engineering point of view, the revised engine character is a huge achievement. I’m treating it like a supersport 600 engine not a 1000 as the power comes in with such grace that there is no need to fear the throttle.

I switch the S-KTRAC off to see if the rear Pirelli lights up, but even with ham-fisted throttle inputs, it just drives. In fact, I have to double-check that the S-KTRAC is really off.

Top-end power is, as always on a 10R, absolutely stonking, provoking audible laughs in a few sections of the lap. But I may be fooled by the fact there are slower turns and the acceleration up top feels extra fast, so I decide to head in and I jump on a Ninja H2 for a few laps to compare these engines, having spent some time on the H2 on the road and deeming it ‘mental’.

To my surprise, I’ve got the H2 wide open and wanting more on the straighter sections of track – proving that the 10R is damn fast but does a great job of masking it. The H2 doesn’t feel much faster, just more explosive…

I have to hand it to Kawasaki. They really have done it, and this is the best ZX-10R yet, and the closest thing to the real WSBK deal.

There were some variables in my test to a standard machine. The suspension was set-up for the track within the standard parameters but only a few clicks here and there, albeit with the help of Bryan Staring! The standard Bridgestone RS10s were replaced with track oriented Pirelli Super Corsa SC1s and as you can see in the images, the mirrors were removed due to track regulations.

However, these small changes cannot hide bad bones and I can say with confidence that this is one very special machine.

2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R –  THE VERDICT

It’s not a de-tuned ultra expensive MotoGP replica or a street superbike styled like Lorenzo’s M1, it truly is as close to Rea and Sykes’ machines as a road bike can get. I’ve ridden Tom Sykes’ race bike and I vote the new Ninja ZX-10R as the closest thing we’ve ever had to a real world superbike ever. With linear, smooth, controlled power delivery and amazing mechanical grip, the most advanced traction control in class and a sophisticated ABS option this bike will give you security on the streets and huge thrills on the track. If you want to race, just take the lights off, and add a link pipe and race muffler. This is the next level for litre-class machines.

2016 ZX-10R: Quick view

A new crankshaft with a 20 per cent reduction in inertia moment, new camshafts, valves, cylinder-head, offset cylinders, pistons, balance shaft, gearbox and clutch. Quicker revving and harder accelerating.

Frame and swingarm
Seven piece cast aluminium frame, head pipe is 7.5mm closer to rider to increase rider. Swingarm pivot and steering head adjustable via race kit collars. Swingarm 15.8mm longer for braking and turn-in stability as well as increased traction.

The nitrogen charged Balance Free Fork was developed jointly with Showa and is the first mass-produced fork of its kind. The shock is also Balance Free with rebound and compression independent circuits.

Kawasaki developed the layout of the ZX-10R around a rider of 180cm. The footpegs are 5mm taller than previously, while the front cowl and screen are redesigned to take wind pressure off the rider, particularly on the brakes during turn-in at speed.

Forget the acronyms! The ZX-10R has traction control, launch control, ABS, corner management function, quickshifter, three power modes (full, 80%, 60%), engine brake control and a Bosch Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) measuring 6 degrees of freedom.

Brakes and Wheels
Kawasaki chose Brembo M50 calipers, the top spec Brembo master-cylinder and stainless-steel braided lines. Combined with the 330mm discs, the set-up is ready to race at any level. The wheels are gravity cast aluminium and some of the lightest in the class.

Chassis Awareness
With the new IMU measuring 6 DOF, the S-KTRC changes from a purely predictive system to one that also incorporates feedback. This means the system will adapt to any level of rider or condition, allowing experienced riders to ride to their potential, while keeping a less experienced rider safer by intervening. This sets the ZX-10R apart from others.

Tech talk: ZX-10R: Electronics

The electronic systems on the 2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R have been heavily updated, including a new fully electronic throttle actuation system which has enabled the Kawasaki traction control system to further evolve, with launch control (KLCM) and engine brake control (KEBC) added. The new Sport-Kawasaki Traction Control (S-KTRC) system includes five modes for greater control than ever before, particularly aimed at improving performance on the circuit, with modes one and two intended for race/circuit use. The system is a hybrid predictive/feedback-type system, which uses Kawasaki’s proprietary dynamic modelling software, and is further refined with the latest generation Bosch IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) to provide five measured parameters and a sixth calculated by the ECU. Engine rpm, throttle position, slippage, acceleration and more are all also measured to allow the dynamic control, which allows unfavourable conditions to be predicted.

The Kawasaki Launch Control Mode (KLCM) offers three levels of adjustment, with riders able to take off with full throttle, with the system limiting engine speed and regulating wheel spin and lift. It is disengaged at over 93mph (150km/h) or from third gear onwards, as well as when engine temperature exceeds 100ºC, and also deactivates for 150 seconds after use to protect the clutch during consecutive launches.

The Kawasaki Engine Brake Control allows engine braking to be reduced from that normally offered by the back-torque limiting clutch, with the setting saved until changed, including when the bike is turned off.

The Kawasaki Intelligent anti-lock Brake System (KIBS) uses not only front and rear wheel sensors, but also communicates directly with the ECU, taking into account throttle position, engine speed, clutch actuation and gear position to allow optimal control and minimise intrusiveness. Front caliper hydraulic pressure is also monitored via the KIBS system for smoother operation with less noticeable pulses, better rear wheel lift control. The KIBS system further communicates with the Bosch IMU, allowing a new cornering management function which minimises the effect of braking on standing the bike up mid-corner.

An optional race kit accessory is also available that allows the KIBS to be switched to ‘R OFF’ which limits the system to front brakes only, or completely ‘OFF’.

The Kawasaki Quick Shifter (KQS), allows seamless upshifts and can be combined with the optional race kit ECU for clutchless downshifting.

Three power modes are available as standard, with Full offering what the name suggests, while Middle reduces power to approximately 80 per cent, and Low reduces power to approximately 60%. A CAN coupler is also present for easy data logger fitment.

Tech talk: ZX-10R Chassis

The twin-spar aluminium frame traces a direct line from the steering head to the swingarm pivot, delivering linear behaviour, or greater control. Frame twist was tuned to be as close to the main pipes as possible, which increases rider control.

The head pipe is moved 7.5mm closer to the rider to place more weight on the front, giving more front-end feel and increased stability and confidence on corner entry, also helping with direction changes and braking. The reverse offset collars in the race kit allow adjustment 4mm either way from standard, while other collars allow head angle changes. The swingarm pivot point can also be adjusted via the race kit parts.

The swingarm’s optimised torsional rigidity contributes to the bike’s nimbler handling and is 15.8mm longer, contributing to the increased front weight bias and increasing traction on corner exit.

The 43mm Balance Free Forks bring SBK technology to the streets. Damping force is generated outside of the main tube in the damping force chamber, which allows the piston in the main tube to act as a pump, pushing oil towards the valves. This helps reduce pressure balance fluctuations, which can cause cavitations, as a result of compression and extension. The external compression chamber is pressurised with nitrogen gas enabling very stable pressure increases. The compression and rebound circuits are completely independent from each other, giving smooth, optimal oil flows.

Like the fork, the damping force in Showa’s Balance Free Rear Cushion shock is generated in an external chamber and compression and rebound are independent circuits. The position of the shock also minimises heat transfer from the engine or exhaust, giving more stable damping.

Tech talk: ZX-10R Engine

All new in 2011, the ZX-10R engine was designed to promote early throttle opening and drive by moving torque higher in the rev range. The new engine retains this character but offers a stronger mid-range and is more responsive, spinning up quicker thanks to a lower moment of inertia, which benefits accelerations and deceleration (along with cornering performance).

The intake ports are machined in two stages, first at the valve seats, then at an inclined angle, to promote a straight path for the air. The ports allow a greater volume on fuel-air mixture, increasing power, and are polished as well. The exhaust ports are also straighter and wider as well as polished, while the combustion chamber is reshaped and has larger titanium valves. The spark plugs have platinum tips, contributing to linear power deliver particularly on initial throttle opening. They also have a very long service life.

Revised camshaft profiles give greater overlap and more power at high rpm and are now made of chromoly to reduce weight. A half nut cam chain tensioner helps with more stable valve timing.

The combustion chamber is dome machined and shorter, lighter, pistons contribute to throttle response, while the crankshaft has a 20 per cent lower moment of inertia, the most significant change brought about through SBK feedback. Acceleration, deceleration and cornering all benefit, while a single-shaft secondary balancer helps reduce engine vibration.

The cassette-style gearbox ratios are revised for track riding, with shorter ratios for second through sixth gears, aiding acceleration and more stable downshifting. The airbox is 2L larger now at 10L, while the 47mm throttle-bodies feature dual injectors, the secondary for top end rpm and the primary operating at all times. The fly-by-wire system allows full ECU control of the throttle valves, controlling fuel, air and engine braking.

Interview: Yoshimoto Matsuda, ZX-10R Project Leader

In 2002 Matsuda-san was appointed engine designer for the Kawasaki 990 MotoGP project. The bike debuted in late 2002 and continued development through to 2009. Matsuda designed almost every aspect of the 800 version including the engine and chassis. Since then, Matsuda has been heavily involved in the Ninja series and with World Superbike and Supersport racing. He explains the thinking behind the ZX-10R:

“When I was given the task of Project Leader for the new Ninja ZX-10R, I knew immediately we needed one goal, to be the fastest on track. Every change and improvement had to reflect lap times and all development needed to be done on the racetrack. I knew if I built a good bike on track, it would be good on the road. At the end of the development, we allowed test riders on the street. Their feedback indicated the bike is very good on the road. Many were surprised. I was not!

“First of all I needed to take advantage of the SBK rules to make our bike even more competitive. With feedback from Tom Sykes and Jonny Rea we were able to focus on the areas most critical – power delivery allowing early throttle opening, nimble handling, less crankshaft mass for lower inertia and therefore more control into corners and better acceleration.

“I also wanted to give the public and racers a true race replica. The ZX-10R has the same chassis, suspension and brakes as a top racer. It is not out of reach cost-wise like a de-tuned MotoGP bike. This is the real thing. If you want to race, fit a muffler and link pipe and go racing.

“No money was spent on cosmetic upgrades, not even a new dash, for example. I spent all resources on lap times and performance. We spent where it counts – brakes, suspension, exhaust material, electronics. This is a pure sportsbike, however, by default is a very nice road bike. It is comfortable and will be very reliable. I think you can own this bike for 10-years with no trouble.”

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R – Technical Specifications

£13,649 in Metallic Matt Carbon grey
£13,799 for the KRT Colour scheme
£14,399 for the Winter Edition

Engine: 998cc, DOHC 16v, inline four
Power: 208bhp @ 13,000rpm (with Ram Air)
Torque: 83ftlb @ 11,500rpm
Electronics: S-KTRC traction control, ABS, KLC launch control, quickshifter, KIBS braking control, Power Modes, Bosch IMU, KEBC engine braking control, steering damper
Dry weight: 206kg (kerb)
Fuel capacity: 17 litres
Seat height: 835mm
Frame: Twin spar cast alloy
On-sale: January 2016



Photos: Keith Muir

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