The Kawasaki ZX-10R has not always been known for its seamless systems integration, smooth ride yet tame power delivery. Remember the first generation “widow maker” of 2004-2005?
We do, and as much fun as that bike was to ride at the time, we’ve all become accustomed to the more linear power delivery and electronically-assisted riding characteristics of superbikes like the ultra-smooth 2011 ZX-10R. That bike was way ahead of its time with features such as standard traction control, Showa Big Piston fork and optional ABS that combined to create an extremely competitive 160-horsepower superbike that was easy to ride. Half a decade later, Kawasaki has refined its latest version of the flagship literbike and we are happy to report that the 2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R is the next evolution in fun, easy-to-ride superbikes.
Despite the only subtle aesthetic changes to the bike, the 2016 ZX-10R is almost a complete redesign that taps into the excitement factor of the original and smoothes it all out with some modern-day tech. Right away it’s clear the bike makes plenty of smooth power throughout the RPM range, while feeling light and nimble riding around town and when navigating through traffic. We found the electronic throttle, traction control, and ABS are all worthy rider-assist features on the street, as they smooth out the rough and dirty public road surfaces, giving you that extra sense of security from knowing all that stuff is in place to help you survive the ride.
However, one drawback of the sophisticated electronics system is that it can be a little intrusive when you’re just trying to ride. For example, the bike tries to tame any hint of an aggressive launch or – god forbid – if you try to wheelie. This can be overcome by fiddling with the traction control or launch control settings, but if you forget to do that before you head out, just slip the clutch like you’re practicing race starts. Even though you’re simply trying to ride away from a stop light. Was it annoying? Yes. Is it a deal breaker? No.
The bike has launch control, so if you really want to get off the light hard, just dial it up, twist the throttle, drop the clutch, and you’ll smoke that mini-van to the other side of the intersection, no problem.
Although you can use the ZX-10R around town, it’s not until you get it on a canyon road or race track that it feels more at home. We did manage to log some miles on our favorite twisty roads and we found that the bike is just as nimble and flickable at elevated speeds as it feels cruising around town.
On the track, we found it has a quite linear feel when dipping into corners. It dives into turns without any abrupt transitioning from the initial bar input. Instead, your turn-in can be easily modulated and the feedback from the front-end will give you the confidence necessary to carry more speed and lean angle than any Ninja before this one.
When connecting corners during aggressive riding, the ABS works great without much noticeable interference, but the traction control does subtly remind you of its presence on especially hard corner exits. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad trait, and I wouldn’t want to tune it out completely. It’s reassuring to know that the TC will allow you to test the limits of available traction without taking much attention away from the riding experience.
One of the reasons the TC is so good is because it is an “Adaptive” TC system. That doesn’t mean it learns to respond to the way you ride but it does respond to your throttle control inputs when things start getting out of hand. If you start to lose traction and choose to dial in the throttle to try and catch-up with the spinning rear wheel, the TC will allow it to slide more than you might expect. If you are the type of rider who chops the throttle when you start to drift, the TC rolls-off slowly for you. I experienced this a few times. But it turns out, Kawasaki actually had a plan here, and I was the only one who didn’t know about it!
The engine in the 2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R is completely redesigned with the usual goal of offering more power, better power delivery and smoother operation. Bore and stroke remain unchanged at 76 mm and 55 mm, but the crankshaft and main gear have been lightened, the cylinder walls thickened, piston skirts shortened, airbox expanded by 25 percent, and exhaust valves enlarged by 1 mm. This all translates into a slightly quicker-revving motor that provides increased top end power but sacrifices a little bit of bottom end, despite what Kawasaki PR says.
The cassette transmission is re-geared to bring the gear ratios closer, so you can stay tapped into that power as you row through the gears, which is also made easier by the Kawasaki Quick Shifter (KQS). The KQS works great on the track but it does make for some quirky shifts on the street once in awhile. The slipper clutch is as good on this unit as it has been on any previous ZX-series bikes, as it smooths-out your ham-footed and aggressive downshifts on the road or track.
Kawasaki does not like to disclose (as not to be held to) engine performance specifications, but they do claim this powerplant puts out more than 200 horsepower (149 kilowatts) to the crank (and it’s been rumored to be closer to 210 hp). Whatever the actual numbers may be (we didn’t have the opportunity to get it on a dyno), this new engine feels noticeably more powerful than last year’s bike, pulling much harder on top end in particular. The power delivery is linear and you’re able to dig out of a hole from as low as low as 4,000 rpm if you happen to forget a downshift here and there.
But where it really begins to scream is from 10,000 on up to 14,000. The stock exhaust system produces a pleasing four-cylinder howl and it even has a throaty note at idle. We also like the menacing look of the titanium headers after they were heated up and turned that nasty burnt-Ti blue.
Chassis and Suspension
The most notable change to the ZX-10R chassis for 2016 is the 12-mm longer wheelbase. This is a byproduct of moving the steering stem back 7.5 mm to make room for raising the motor mounts and moving it forward in the chassis in an effort to improve that front end feedback. Of course, doing that facilitated extending the swingarm by 16mm to help salvage some traction out back. These geometry tweaks have improved handling and made it feel more responsive, dare we say, more flickable into corners and between switchbacks while also keeping the bike planted through those turns.
This is the first production bike to receive the new Showa Balance Free Fork (BFF). This is the next big fork product from Showa since the renowned Big Piston Fork (BPF) was released in 2009. Kawasaki claims the 43mm BFF components on the 2016 ZX-10R are identical to the units on the WSBK bikes, aside from the larger external “sub-tank pressurizer” on the street model.
That bigger reservoir increases the service interval because the smaller race-spec reservoirs are rebuilt after every race. As you might expect us to report, the new BFF front end feels amazing and provides a ton of feedback on the track. The rear shock is a Showa Balance Free unit but it is less impressive. While it works fine on the street, it allows a bit of numb feel when it’s put under high-load conditions during high-speed corner exits. Of course, we didn’t have a suspension tech on hand during our track days but we have to imagine the rear end could be dialed-in to our needs without too much hassle.
One of the best upgrades this year is a gnarly brake setup. An excellent Brembo master cylinder is paired with beefy Brembo M50 monobloc calipers that are connected by steel-braided brake lines and bind-down on huge 330mm discs. It is not common among the Japanese bikes to be equipped with steel braided lines out of the crate – that’s been the domain of the Italian machines up until this point. This package, aided by the sweet, non-intrusive ABS system, allows you to slow the bike at a startling pace with a level of accuracy I’ve not experienced in quite some time.
The 2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R weighs in at 454 pounds (206 kilograms) wet, which is more than 10 lbs (4.5 kg) heavier than the previous model. Despite the fact it is heavier, this new generation 10R feels lighter at all speeds.
The technology package on the new 2016 ZX-10R truly makes this an amazing superbike. As with any top-tier sportbike on the market today, the Inertial Measurement Unit or IMU is the heart of the electronic rider assist systems. This five-axis Bosch unit provides the first level of data for the Engine Braking Control (KEBC), Launch Control Mode (KLCM), Intelligent anti-lock Braking System (KIBS), Corner Management Function, Traction Control (S-KTRC) and Quick Shifter (KQS). As mentioned previously, the integration of these systems into the bike’s powertrain and chassis is what’s most impressive. The traction control, corner management, and ABS operate on par with the best systems available.
Managing chassis stability with so much power being pumped out to the rear wheel and so much force to the front wheel thanks to the powerful braking system is no easy feat. Nevertheless, the Kawasaki set-up is well engineered and we are running out of the necessary hyperbole to get that point across. So, we will just say it in plain English: This system is so damn good.
Ergonomics and Aesthetics
As it has been since the 2011-2015 model range, the comfort level on the ZX-10R is surprisingly high. The bike looks so aggressive standing still that it seems impossible that it can be comfy over the long haul. But it is actually very accommodating during all its riding duties. The riding position does not put a ton of strain on the lower back or arms, the cockpit is not cramped for my 6-feet-tall frame, and very little engine vibration is transmitted through the rider controls.
Of course, the ZX is comfortable in the track riding position, too. Hanging off the bike is done with ease, windscreen visibility is great and I never managed to drag during some extreme lean angles. What was a drag is that the instrument display seems a bit overloaded with information, especially when you’re trying to monitor critical data while on the track.
But that is not uncommon among this latest generation of superbikes, which have dashes that are packed with data. It’s just something you will have to get adjusted to over time.
And while the bike looks good in our opinion it was a polarizing topic to others. The aggressive, angular bodywork, wide front cowling and angry-looking headlights didn’t always get rave reviews but there is a purpose to all of it. The headlamps are bright and project a wide path of light at night. The windscreen provides great protection, especially on the track when you’re in full tuck, and the bodywork is pure Kawasaki. So, if you don’t like it, they’ll probably be OK.
The price tag on the 2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R has gone up slightly from last year. The ABS model in the Kawasaki Racing Team green scheme that we tested goes for $16,299 MSRP. The non-ABS model in flat black is available for $14,999. This is up from $15,599 and $14,299 respectively. However, the value gained from the overall package update vastly surpasses this $700 spike.
Kawasaki is serious about the superbike market with this new ZX-10R. It is up on power and is equipped with an electronics package that has harnessed the Ninja ethos and delivers a silky-smooth, confidence-inspiring ride that the Ninja is known for. The powerful engine produces more than enough grunt to hang with anything else on the track. Pair that all up with the new Showa BFF front end and Brembo brakes and the result is a Kawasaki ZX-10R that’s ready to take on any other production superbike right out of the box.
Weight: 165 lbs
Height: 5’ 10”
Built: Compact, athletic
Experience: 20 years riding; 13 years street/sportbike, 12 years roadracing, 20 years motocross
Specialty: Sportbikes, road-testing, racing, technical