By Neale Bayly
Photos by Brian J Nelson.
“It’s got a petrol engine son.” I’ve always imagined the moment in the future when my grandkid is in my garage asking me what the weird looking two-wheeled machine is in the corner. After all, by then we’ll probably be heading to work on hydrogen powered smart phones, if there are any jobs left. I’ve also always thought I’d like that bike to be the pinnacle of development for the internal combustion engine. The fastest, meanest, most evil fossil fuel burning production motorcycle ever built.
Howling over the blind rise coming out of Road Atlanta’s turn five with the front wheel two feet in the air, the speed the new Kawasaki ZX 10R had reached approaching turn six was making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Rolling off the throttle, skimming the brakes and clicking off a downshift, a light nudge on the bars had the bright green machine on its side as I pinned the throttle again. Repeating this procedure for turn seven, it was time to shrink behind the fairing and head toward the mother of all corners: Turn 9. Taken flat out in fifth gear, sixth if you are good enough, my onboard camera showed 176 mph on the digital speedometer on one pass. Making the hairs on my neck hairs stand up, I waited for my brake marker, squeezed the lever and started downshifting. This process is as mad as the acceleration that got this started, and I wondered for a moment if this might be the one?
First introduced back at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2004, Kawasaki’s Superbike has been evolving every two years, with a new model in 2006 and again in 2008. This year, however, the new ZX 10R has undergone a complete redesign for the first time since ‘04 and shares little with these previous models, as Kawasaki attempts to unleash the most powerful, sophisticated, intelligent superbike to date.
[singlepic id=112 w=320 h=240 float=left]It’s immediately apparent that the bike has some major styling changes and it certainly looks a lot sharper and leaner. Kawasaki is claiming the bike is more aerodynamic, presumably thanks to the new rounded edges on the fairing. The front air duct is moved lower to allow a smaller frontal area, and the tail section has been on an obvious diet. For those who will be riding on the street, it should be noted that it doesn’t come with a get out of jail free card. There are new line beam headlights, a nine-bulb taillight and LED-type turn signals in the fairing mounted mirrors. Also, the rear turn signals and taillight are attached to the fender for quick removal at track days.
The first thing I noticed about the new ZX 10R, apart from the obvious changes to its looks, was how light it felt. Sitting on the presentation model after the press conference, I was shocked when moving the bike from side to side. I have a CBR1000RR on test, and compared to the Honda, I wondered if the Kawasaki had some parts missing. Jumping in the saddle for my first session at Road Atlanta the following morning, the sensation was exactly the same, and a quick check of the specification sheet shows a weigh reduction of 22 pounds this year. This gives the Kawasaki a claimed weight of 436.6 pounds, which is very similar to the Honda, but it’s incredible how different the bike feels.
Starting with an all-new aluminum-alloy twin-spar frame, the weight bias has been shifted forward by reducing the rake angle 0.5 degrees and increasing the wheelbase by 10mm. The new design has a more direct route from the swingarm pivot to the steering head, and torsional rigidity has been increased by 7.4 per cent. Apparently this gives better rider feedback with increased cornering stability. At track day speeds, I’ve never really experienced problems on previous models, but talking[singlepic id=109 w=320 h=240 float=right] with the Japanese engineers I learned the new bike is significantly quicker around Kawasaki’s Autopolis test track than last year’s model. The chassis itself is now made from fewer pieces with less weld joints, and pivot area rigidity has been reduced. This allows the swingarm more flex for better corning, and this has been both lengthened and strengthened this year, while still managing to lose some weight. One of the benefits of this longer swingarm is the ability to alter the wheelbase for track use by up to 16mm. This can only be done with a race system installed, as the exhaust pre-chamber has to be removed.
Kawasaki has also changed the suspension this year. A Showa Big Piston Fork (BPF) is now used. It’s still an inverted 43mm unit, but no longer uses a cartridge inside the fork legs. This reduces the number of internal parts used and therefore weight is reduced. With the ability to use a much larger main piston, damping pressure is also reduced, while the force remains the same. Compression and rebound damping changes are made at the top of the fork, while preload adjustment is made at the bottom. One of the biggest benefits is “enhanced composure under braking.” I’m not sure if I could directly feel this, but did notice every time I approached turn 10A after braking from extremely high speed, it felt I could have left it later.[singlepic id=119 w=320 h=240 float=none]
The rear shock and linkage are now placed above the swingarm, which frees up space for the exhaust pre-chamber. It also allows the shock’s top link to be mounted further from the swingarm pivot, which improves frame rigidity and chassis balance. Featuring a piggyback reservoir, it has both high and low speed compression damping as well as the usual rebound damping and preload adjustment. Another benefit of its position is reduced heat from the exhaust system. The only changes I made to the rear shock were to add some preload to help keep the front end more connected with the floor under hard acceleration, and the changes we made greatly improved the ride.
Riding a bike of this nature and keeping the front end on the track wil be a problem to some degree, so you’ll be pleased to learn an Ohlins race-spec steering damper is used. Often lofting the front end around the track, it greatly helped my confidence how quickly any headshake was dealt with and there was little drama when the front wheel reconnected with terra firma.
Visually the brakes look the same this year, but there are some subtle changes to improve their performance. Coming bolted to new 3-spoke wheels, which are listed as 11 ounces lighter, the 310mm waver rotors still have four piston Tokico radial-mount calipers grabbing them and they now have four individual 30mm pistons. The previous model used pairs of 32mm and 30mm pistons. How this affects things I’m not sure, but I do like the initial bite and feel at the lever during trail braking. There are no complaints about overall stopping performance either, as it’s more than I’ll ever need. Rear brake remained unused during our day, but for those interested, it’s a single 220mm waver rotor with a lightweight single-piston caliper. None of the bikes we tested had ABS, but this will be an option by the time the bikes are available for purchase.
One of the big questions is the new ZX 10R’s power output. With BMW raising the bar in liter bike horsepower levels, expect the Kawasaki to be at the same level around 180 plus horsepower at the crankshaft. European models are closer to the magic 200 number, and a version of the bike with a full exhaust system and race ECU we rode, produced this sort of horsepower. Whatever this turns out to be, the Kawasaki is actually producing, it is wicked quick and has more than enough power for most of us mere mortals.
The engine is completely new for 2011 and designed so that this power is accessible across the rev range. During the test, as much as the phenomenal chassis package, first class brakes and highly sophisticated electronics package dominated most of our off track conversation, it’s the way the Kawasaki puts power to the ground that is most impressive. During a stint on the Yamaha R1 at Road Atlanta, to get my best lap times I changed from the full power mode as the throttle was just too sensitive in the tighter corners. Not so on the ZX 10R, with the predictable power delivery it was easier to ride. Talking with Kawasaki’s tuner extraordinaire, Joey Lombardo, it was obvious from the glint in his eye this is something he is really pleased about from the new ten.
Starting at the top of the motor, new chromoly steel camshafts open and close the four valves per cylinder. These were previously made of cast iron, so presumably they are lighter as well as having less friction. Intake valves are larger, while the exhaust valves remain the same and tappet sizes follow suit. These have been redesigned to work with the higher lift cams and have a smoother surface this year and increased oil retention. All of this intense attention to detail is mind boggling to me, and amazing how much work and effort is needed these days to extract more power from production engines. Therefore it’s no surprise that the intake and exhaust ports have been redesigned to increase the volume and to reduce engine braking.
Continuing on this fastidious diet, the pistons have lost 3.5mm from the bottom of the piston skirt, and 0.14 ounces in weight, as Kawasaki’s engineers determined it served no purpose, other than increase engine temperature. They even reduced the width of the piston rings, the oil ring now 0.3mm shorter to reduce weight. With the new engine red lining at 14,500 rpm, compared to last year’s 13,000 rpm, less reciprocating mass screaming up and down is very important. These lighter piston rings have lower tension as the cylinders are bored with a dummy cylinder head in place, which makes for a more precision fit. Compression ratio is now 13:1. The connecting rods and crankshaft have been strengthened to deal with the higher loads, and there is a new secondary balancer that allows lighter handlebar weights thanks to less vibration.
The crankshaft is located higher with the input shaft now located above the output for improved mass centralization. The way the bike feels and how fast it transitions from side to side through the chicane at the top off the hill after turn two, shows Kawasaki has done a fantastic job with this. It still puts power to the rear wheel through a six-speed transmission, but this baby is now a cassette style that can be changed without draining the oil. For racing purposes, there are seven different gear configurations to choose from.
With more air making it to the air box through the newly positioned air intake duct, it\ has been increased to 2.4 gallons and the surface of the air filter increased by 48 % for better breathing. Further weight has been shaved with a smaller fuel injection ECU, which is now located inside the air box to help with mass centralization. With a massive 2.2 ounces being saved, I would think visiting the potty before getting on the bike might help more, but I guess it all adds up. There is a bank of new 47mm Keihin TTK47 throttle bodies with larger oval sub-throttle valves. Twelve hole injectors spray fuel evenly and it’s no surprise to learn these injectors have lost some weight also.
Once the mixture of fuel and air is burned, it passes through a new three-piece exhaust system. After learning about all the ounces lost here and there, this is like a biggest loser contestant dropping 2.6 pounds. Made with hydro-formed titanium headers, these pipes connect to a large pre chamber under the bike as part of the mass centralization program. This allows the ZX 10R to use a smaller muffler, and you can remove this pre chamber and fit a race exhaust without the need to change the headers.
While it’s obvious Kawasaki has put a massive amount of development into every area of the new ZX 10R, the electronics package the bike comes with has been creating the most buzz. Calling this all-new traction control system S-KTRC (Sport Kawasaki Traction Control) this highly advance package has been developed in Moto GP racing. It has three modes you can choose from, as well as the ability to disable the system completely. For my first session, I put it in TC3 and worked through to TC1. The system can be disabled if you wish, and unlike the BMW S1000RR, you don’t have to go under the seat and plug stuff in to do this.
What was interesting to me is technology might be marching ahead at high speed, but there’s no software to download into the brain to immediately accept this fact. Telling myself the wheelie control wouldn’t allow the bike to flip over backwards, I spent the first sessions testing the system ans trying to make myself keep the throttle wide open during wheelies. This just didn’t compute in my aging brain, and it was some sage advice from Kawasaki’s Jeff Herzog that fixed the problem. “Just ride it like a normal bike without traction control and electronic devices and let them do their stuff.”
Back out on the track in full power mode, with the traction control set on position one, it suddenly all made sense. Riding the way I always do, my laps times fell and my comfort levels rose. Jeff said that due to the predictive nature of the traction control, it’s hard to feel it. “Trust me, it’s working” he told me, after following me for a few laps while filming some video. I can’t say I could feel it, but as the day wore on my drive off the corners was way stronger without any spinning or drama, so it was certainly doing its thing.
The new system reads your throttle inputs and makes predictions accordingly. Rather than wait for the rear wheel to spin and cut power, multiple sensors read gear position, engine acceleration rate, wheel speed and amount of tire slippage to predict traction loss. Some wheel slippage is good, so the system reacts quickly and smoothly reducing power at these moments to ensure the bike is still making rapid forward progress. The S-KTRC monitors these conditions 200 times per second and adjusts the ignition for a seamless response to whatever situation it is encountering. There is a level meter on the LCD panel, but exiting corners hard on the gas on a bike making close to 200 horsepower my attention was always elsewhere, so I never saw how this worked.
Testing the power modes, the most restrictive setting “L” cuts the Kawasaki’s power to 60%. This would be great for learning a track or in the rain, but it’s no fun when you’ve experienced the bike in full power mode. The middle setting, “M” is a variable mode that cuts power to 75%. It does allow you to have full power on full throttle opening, but it still made the bike feel somewhat strangled to me. Position “F” is full power and the setting I used the majority of the time. With the Kawasaki’s brilliant power delivery and sophisticated traction control, there just seemed no need to use any other settings.
At the end of the day, looking over my lap times with Joey Lombardo, the story showed steady improvement all day and a high degree of consistency. While I didn’t break any lap records, the impressive thing was how easy the new Kawasaki made it to run these times, while being so exciting to ride. It’s such a complete package from the way it flicks into corners, deals with heavy braking, and then allows you to accelerate off the corners knowing the traction control is there to help you. It sounds like an absolute demon when you have it up close to the rev limiter and is my pick of this year’s liter bikes as the easiest and most fun to go fast on.
Priced at $13,799, $14,799 with ABS, the new Kawasaki ZX 10R is available in the Lime Green tested here, or Ebony. It’s a stunning machine to look at, and incredible to ride. With the possibility of 200 horsepower with the addition of an exhaust system and the race ECU, the only question I have left is whether this is the one my grandkids will find in my garage, as it’s hard to imagine a production sport bike better than this new Kawasaki.