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The Everyday Bike for the Real World; 2011 Ninja 1000

“A purpose-built sport bike for the street.”

So you are getting older and your knees and back aren’t what they use be but you love sport bikes. You grew up with your wrists down, rear end up, and as far as you are concerned it’s how a real motorcycle should be. They were built for carving canyons, applying liberal doses of adrenaline through the vascular system when needed, and need to look like they are doing 100mph at rest. Sure, you can get a bike like the ZX 10R, and enjoy ten-year-old Moto GP quality performance on the street, but there is a price to pay in the levels of comfort, especially when you want to go somewhere or take a passenger for a ride. Up till now the choices have been a little slim lately. Move over to a sport touring machine, put a bikini fairing on a naked standard, or like the guy you saw at Target the other day in his jogging pants, just give up, and head out to buy a cruiser.

Well, if you find yourself at this life threatening crossroads, where waking up each morning allows you to replay the memory of all the accidents and injuries you’ve had over the years, Kawasaki has come up with a new form of therapy called the Ninja 1000. Looking like a sport bike, behaving like a sport bike when you twist the throttle or dive into a sweet series of fast corners, it’s designed to be ridden for long periods of time. Handlebars are high enough to not put any stress on your wrists, the foot pegs are low enough you don’t need a prescription for Celebrex to go for a weekend ride, and the seat comfortable enough to let you sit for longer than a 20 minute track session without pain. You can also add soft luggage and a tank bag, which will give you the ability to go sport touring. And I wouldn’t mind betting with some suspension tweaks and a stickier set of tires, it would do quite well at your local track day.

While Kawasaki is introducing this an all-new machine, the concept of this style of motorcycle has been with them for many years. Way back in 1983, they had the awe inspiring GPZ1100 and have carried on with a number of bikes like the GPZ 900R, the ZX-11 and even more recently the ZZR1200. They also had a bike called the Ninja 1000 back in ’86 which came during that odd period when someone thought 16 inch wheels were a good idea. It was never a bike I liked and seemed like a poor replacement for the Ninja 900 to me, but that’s all in the past, so let’s get back to the future.

For our test ride we headed to the mountains roads outside of San Francisco, and full marks to Kawasaki for giving us such a variety of conditions. I was amused to listen to one moto scribe who was not happy with the tight, twisting and bumpy roads in the morning. Partially strewn with pine needles and rotten branches I could see where it could have been a nightmare for someone who obviously did too many laps at the bar the previous evening. Allowing me to marvel at the wide bars, the superb balance, and excellent control available from the precise fueling, I was absolutely in heaven. Diving between fallen branches, swerving around piles of leaves and pine needles, and rattling up and down the gear box like a sax player practicing scales, I did a lot of bonding with the Ninja during this part of the day. “It’s a sport bike for the real world,” says Kawasaki’s Karl Edmondson. This was the real world, and the new Kawasaki Ninja 1000 was certainly living up to my expectations.

The suspension did a fantastic job all day, compliant over bumps, while also keeping the bike composed at speed. The Ninja started moving around speeds reached into the illegal zone on some bumpy sections of road, but it was more of a slow down signal than an alarm bell. Don’t start thinking of your old 1980 Z1000 trying to tie itself in knots when you past its limits. This is more of a gentle oscillation that says we are approaching the limit so back off. Imagine one of those gentle electronically generated female voices saying, “It’s time to slow down,” not Flo the insurance gal yelling at you to back off. Parking my Ohlins shod personal bike the day before riding the Kawasaki, I was most impressed with the way the bike would settle after hitting a bump or series of bumps. As one area of testing that always shows the quality of a suspension system, the Ninja gets extra bonus points as it was on stock settings.  For the technically minded, the Ninja uses a 41mm inverted fork featuring stepless compression and rebound damping with adjustable pre load. The rake and trail are 24.5 degrees and 4 inches respectively, and the bike rolls on a 56.9-inch wheelbase. To put this in perspective, the ZX 10R uses a 56.1-inch wheelbase. In the rear, the single shock is mounted in a horizontal fashion with just stepless rebound damping and pre load adjustments possible.

The new Ninja 1000 is highly deceptive in the weight department, feeling a lot lighter than its listed 502 pounds. Moving a liter bike around the garage manually or at low speeds with the engine running in a parking lot, reminds me of why track days can be so tiring on a bike of this capacity. These things are still pretty heavy. Performing the same maneuvers on the Ninja, you would bet money it’s 100 pounds lighter than the pure sport bike thanks to the wide bars, and low, narrow seat.

And it’s easy to maneuver, too. Turning for photos at a point where the road fell away from us, it was no problem to come to a rolling stop, let the bars fall to the steering stop before rolling down into the turn. Finding myself able to keep my feet on the pegs, with some juggling of the light clutch and throttle, it really put a smile on my face every time I turned. This can sometimes be a challenging part of the job on narrow roads when riding a heavier bike. It’s this balance and poise that made the day of sport riding on the California roads so much fun. I distinctly remember riding similar roads on Ducati’s Streetfighter, and feeling like I was a novice at a track day struggling to find my way. It was that difficult. The Kawasaki by comparison with its upright and set back bars, allows for super light input on these transitions, with no compromise to the bike’s stability. Never any nervousness, just precise, predictable handling.      Ride position is comfortable and apart from a 10mm change in the individual clip on bars, it’s the same as the Z1000, or Kawasaki’s naked standard that this bike is based on if you are not familiar with the model. After a long day in terms of riding hours not necessarily miles, the seat was starting to feel a tad firm, but nothing a quick stretch and a walk around wouldn’t fix.

The view from the saddle shows a very well finished and clean cockpit without any clutter. The gauges taken from the ZX 6R work perfectly, with a nice big analogue tachometer to let you know what the engine is doing and an adequate digital speedometer. There is a good fuel gauge, easy toggle through odometer, trip counter and sensible practical switchgear that’s not clever for the sake of it. Plus a manually operated three-position windshield that is easy to operate, but it must be done while you are parked. This is part of the full fairing, which actually leaves a fair amount of your body out in the wind. Raising or lowering the windshield gave a small change in airflow, but nothing drastic. The mirrors are good, with the usual head and shoulder routine showing only half of what’s going on behind.

On paper the bike is identical in horsepower and performance to the Z1000, but with a slightly lower final gear ratio and a more slippery aerodynamic profile. The Ninja will get to its marginally higher top speed quicker. I gushed about the 1034cc engine in my review of the naked Z last year and still feel exactly the same. The fuel delivery from the 38mm Keihin throttle bodies is as seamless as anything I’ve ever ridden, and allows perfect on-off-on throttle response. It’s just so predictable at lower throttle openings. It’s not going to land you any trouble, especially if you unexpectedly hit a bump mid corner. And it differs from a sport bike with three power modes, where the lower power option, or rain mode as some people call it, feels like someone pulled a plug wire. The Ninja engine just feels right all the time and will pull cleanly from 2,000rpm. You can drop to around 35mph in top gear and still pull away smoothly if you are not into dancing on the gear lever in town. In 6th gear out on the highway with the engine spinning along minding it’s own business you are doing a comfortable 70-75mph. Dropping the bike into fifth gear gives a 500 rpm increase, so clearly sixth gear is just an overdrive. This makes for a nice relaxed feeling at highway speeds, with none of the dry mouth, anxiety associated with Superbikes under these conditions. To me, it seems like I spend the entire time all wound up waiting to just yank the throttle and take off and stressing about the potential problems it could cause. Not so on the Ninja.

Gear changing for the most part is very good and precise. I did have a couple of times where I was left waiting for it to be ready for the next up shift, but there were no false neutrals during downshifting or clutch-less up shifting. Clutch lever pull is sharp; engaging soon after the lever leaves the bar. It should be noted it is non adjustable, where the front brake lever has six position choices depending on the size of your paws.

Brakes are full on sport bike equipment, with a radial pump master cylinder, sending fluid to a pair of radial, four piston calipers. Wave petal rotors are standard stuff these days for Kawasaki sport bikes, and at 300mm, they are a tad smaller than the all out sport bike. Nothing earth shattering about the components or their action, just good solid equipment that gives all the stopping power you need. If I was being really nit picky, I would like the initial bite to be stronger on such a sporting bike, as I’m not comfortable having to apply so much pressure to the lever when the pace gets hot.  The rear brake is useful to keep the bike settled in the faster stuff with the more softly sprung front end. It can take a good, firm push before locking the rear tire, and this adds a degree of confidence during the fast braking process. The front wheel appears to be lifted from the ZX 6R and came wrapped in a sticky 120/70 ZR 17 Bridgestone BT100. This gave superb feel and grip, as did the 190/55 ZR 17 rear, so no surprises here.

The new Kawasaki Ninja 1000’s styling is certainly interesting. The front fairing has quite the beak, and coming from one who has a large personal fairing thrusting off my face, I feel qualified to comment here that it could be a love it or hate it feature. The rest of the fairing seems well integrated, and uses the side panel design to channel heat away form the engine with its unique rounded shape. During our test day the temperatures around the San Francisco Bay remained cool, so it never got hot enough for me to tell if they were doing their job as intended. It also seems to draw attention away from the stylish triangulated mufflers, which look larger on the naked Z1000. These are the last part of a 4-into-2 pre-chamber-into-2-layout with main and pre-catalyzers keeping the stuff we breathe cleaner.

While Kawasaki is touting the Ninja 1000 as an all-new bike, not a Z1000 with a fairing bolted on, in truth most of the bike is the same. From the lightweight aluminum frame to the five-gallon gas tank, both bikes share the majority of components. Priced at $10,999, the new Ninja 1000 is ready to be shipped to dealers and will be available by the time you are reading this. There are a number of accessory items in the works with saddlebags, frame sliders and a larger windshield already on the list. This will probably be one of the big attractions to this real world sport bike, as you can pack up and go away for a weekend or more in comfort. As one of the aging demographic that can’t tolerate long days in the saddle of hard-core sport bikes too often, the Ninja 1000 is talking my language.  Compliant suspension, a powerful torque loaded engine, and heaps of low down grunt, it has more handling and braking capabilities than you realistically need on the street. And, of course, looks to match. Reminding me very much of Kawasaki’s Ninja 900 and GPZ1100 from my early motorcycling years, Kawasaki has created another exciting adrenaline inducing motorcycle that is going to make a lot of sport bike enthusiasts very comfortable. Pun intended.

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