By Tricia Szulewski – Photos By Adam Campbell and Kinney Jones
I had an interesting discussion one night when a non-enthusiast quizzed me about the bike I was testing — the Kawasaki Ninja 1000. I explained to him that while the bike is a new model as far as Kawasaki is concerned, it’s essentially a Z1000 with a few styling changes. Designed for Americans who typically don’t see the beauty in purpose-built items (i.e. naked-standard motorcycles), the new Ninja is dressed with a fairing with diagonal slits and streamlined plastic that make it appear as fast as it really is. This friend confirmed my theory about American consumers with a tale about the research he did regarding a coffeemaker from New Zealand that gets water hotter than any other brand, which, in turn, makes what he considers the best cup of joe. When he tried to find the machine in the US, he couldn’t get the New Zealand model. Instead, he was forced to purchase the fancier, Americanized version, which had been made to suit our designer tastes. Both machines get the water just as hot. But Americans will buy the one that looks like it gets the water hotter.
So, while I might argue that looks shouldn’t matter, they do — particularly in America. Kawasaki used the same track-inspired, high-tech hardware on the Ninja as is found on the Z1000 that was introduced last year (May 2010). But the Ninja differs in that we get some added real-world touring comforts, as well as the sexier sportbike styling and some slight modifications. The upright seating position on the Ninja is similar to the Z1000. But instead of the Z’s tubular handlebar, we get individual handgrips that are high and perfect for all-day comfort. (Thank goodness the company didn’t go the route of sportbike clip-ons and rearsets, in keeping with the Ninja’s sportbike marketing theme.) The footpegs are cushioned with rubber, and the rider’s heel guards include an extra weight block to reduce vibration. A larger, 5-gallon fuel tank increases the Ninja’s range to more than 200 miles, and real touring comfort is achieved with help from louvered front fairings, an aerodynamic adjustable windscreen, and a thicker pillion pad.
The Z1000 and Ninja 1000 were actually developed side by side, and share the same strong, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 16-valve 1043cc inline four power plant. The slick, six-speed was retuned for the Ninja to deliver tons of low and midrange torque, with a power kick just over 7000 rpm. EFI with four 38mm Keihin downdraft throttle bodies deliver smooth, predictable throttle response, and real adrenaline-rushing fun can be found in almost any gear between 4000 and 11000 rpm. The 81 ft-lbs. of torque peaks at about 7800 rpm, but you don’t even need to get there before the inevitable sh*t-eating grin is plastered all over your face.
The 4-into-2-into-1-into-2 exhaust is a mouthful, but works to enhance the bike’s appearance by way of a prechamber, which also helps centralize the weight. A butterfly valve in the right muffler helps reduce noise and tunes backpressure waves for enhanced low-end engine response. The small triangular black mufflers are placed so that there’s plenty of clearance whether you’re mounting side bags or finding the maximum lean angle, or both. If you prefer a more traditional canister look, aftermarket options are already available (See Showcase section, page TK).
The chassis consists of the same advanced aluminum twin spar frame as the Z1000, similar to the Ninja ZX-10R’s. The lightweight cage curves over the engine, cradling it from above, using the engine as a stressed member, and bolting solidly to it in three places with one rubber mount that helps to isolate vibration and add rigidity. This design keeps the bike’s waist narrow, for a comfortable, sporty, controlled ride. A secondary engine balancer, gear-driven off the crankshaft, reduces engine vibration and creates a stiffer chassis feel for better handling. The lightweight, aluminum-alloy swingarm is attached to the main frame with its pivot points cast right into the frame. This keeps unsightly welds to a minimum. Eccentric chain adjusters keep the aesthetics clean and offer easy tension adjustments.
The Ninja’s powerful engine and stable chassis are further complemented with its fully adjustable, sport-inspired suspension components. Up front, the 41mm Showa inverted fork is spring preload- rebound- and damping-adjustable, so you can just dial in your riding style preferences. The damper-mounted rear shock features a single back link inspired by the ZX10R and found on the Z1000. It’s horizontally mounted above the swingarm, away from hot exhaust components, providing excellent mass centralization. The gas/oil shock is adjustable for both spring preload and rebound damping. But the Ninja’s shock gets a seven-step cam adjuster instead of the double locknut threaded setup found on the Z1000.
The Ninja’s radial-mounted brake calipers are a direct benefit from MotoGP-tested technology advances. The radial design uses integrated mounting points at the top and bottom of the caliper, which offer more rigidity and improved brake feel over traditional side/front mounting. The opposed four-piston calipers up front squeeze dual 300mm petal-type rotors. A radial-pump front brake master cylinder contributes to the race-spec setup. The rear brake gets a single piston, pin-slide caliper squeezing a 250mm petal disc. All told, braking feel and response is outstanding. To date, there’s no option for ABS on the Ninja 1000.
Putting the Ninja 1000 to the test, the official press introduction was held in Marin County, California. Having just one day to try this fun, sporty ride on fantastic roads that can’t be matched where I come from wasn’t good enough. So, after the intro, I slapped on some soft luggage and spent another three days, 1,000 miles, and about 30 hours exploring California’s coastline, finally delivering the bike back to Kawasaki headquarters in Irvine.
Testing the bike through as many riding situations as I could find — including fresh gravel, steep, long inclines and descents, twisties, sweepers, cities, and highways — I was pleasantly satisfied with my steed. However, despite all the efforts Kawasaki engineers put into reducing vibration, I still felt a lot of buzz in my hands and feet, especially at lower rpm; I noticed a deep, nearly intolerable vibration under 3500 rpm. It wasn’t as noticeable in the higher range, though — especially when my attention was focused on corner-carving.
But the big engine’s power delivery was strong and smooth, no matter the gear, so long as the rpms were kept above that annoying, deep-vibrato level. Despite the sit-up seating position, the Ninja feels like a sportbike. Taking off with a handful of throttle on some of California’s long, less-traveled roads was simply irresistible. Shifting quickly from first to second, I’d reach illegal speeds before even thinking about third. From fourth or fifth, I’d run out of road or nerve once I saw triple digits on the LCD speedo. On the freeway, I played with sixth, but found it to be a little too close to fifth gear and saw almost no use for it. At a cruising highway speed of about 80 mph, shifting from fifth to sixth only dropped the rpm 300 to 400 revs, not enough to notice a difference in vibration or power at all. But passing other vehicles and maneuvering through traffic was easy, even without downshifts, due to the extra-wide powerband.
My knees and back were done after the fourth consecutive day of six hour-plus rides. I attributed the lower backache to my Nelson-Rigg top case shifting forward, into my back, especially on long, bumpy descents. Even after adjusting my tie-downs, it didn’t help much, and I was constantly pushing the bag back with my body. I would’ve been much happier if the hard luggage Kawasaki plans to have available for the Ninja by the time you read this had been ready for my ride. Some of the optional accessories include Givi hard side bags and a top case, as well as heated grips and a tank protector. The only catch for serious tourers who need tons of cargo room, though, is that the side bags and top case cannot be used together. Kawasaki engineers aren’t going to approve the conjunction of all that heavy equipment, as the weight will adversely affect handling.
Soft luggage mounting points on the Ninja are a bit of a challenge to find. The grab rails can’t serve as bungee points, as they only attach to the bike in the front; if you attach any kind of strap to them, it simply slides off the open end. My Nelson-Rigg soft saddlebags mounted cleanly to the rear peg mounts in the front, and to each other through a space in the taillight assembly in the rear.
Then, my top case connected to the saddlebags via built-in quick connectors. However, a better setup would’ve kept the bag on its perch.
But perhaps the best addition to the Ninja that makes for all-day comfort is the windshield. It’s adjustable to three positions, and pivots from the bottom, away from the rider, bringing the height up. Positioned at its highest, the windshield looks odd when the bike is parked, but that was my preferred placement for the bulk of my seat time, as it moved the wind up from hitting me in the chest; I felt no head buffeting whatsoever in this position. The thick shield has an interesting curvaceous shape, and does quite a bit of dancing at the top when it’s all the way up and you’re moving along at a good clip. But that’s okay, since you’re not looking through it. Making height adjustments is a two-handed, toolless affair. A lever sits on the inside right side of the fairing. You’ve got to get your hand down in-between the upper clamp and the fairing to push a lever down, while using your other hand to move the windshield. Obviously, it’s recommended to adjust the shield while the motorcycle is at a stop. But if you’re moving along with the shield either midway or all the way up, pushing the lever will release the latch while the wind pushes it to the downward position. You’ve got to be careful putting your hand in there, though, even a slight left-hand turn will get you into serious trouble, as there’s not enough clearance for your hand and the bars in a turn.
Slap A Sticker On It
I’ve been documented on camera (Kawasaki video review) as giving the Ninja 1000 a “10 out of 10” rating in the fun factor. While some people have looked at me sideways, challenging this notion, I stand by my words. Track-inspired technology makes the Ninja 1000 the kind of ride that offers an unlimited amount of adrenaline. In addition to being a hooligan toy, it’s an affordable, hot-looking package that I’d have no trouble touring the country on or making daily commutes with. That’s my idea of the perfect motorcycle, no matter how you label it. RB
Story as it appeared in the May 2011 issue of RoadBike.