Road Test Review
Contemporary high-end sportbikes typically offer all of the best stuff in a single package. Trick fully adjustable suspension, radial brakes, aluminum perimeter chassis, engines with freakish power output per pound, even the slickest transmissions—regardless of your riding style, if you want the ultimate in high-performance components, you’ll get them all working together on a premium sportbike. Trouble is you’ll also get low clip-on handlebars and high footpegs that hurt after a few miles on the freeway, and a potentially whopping insurance bill (primarily because of all of that expensive fairing plastic). What’s a performance afficionado to do?
Enter the “naked” sportbike, or what we like to call a sport-standard. Now that the manufacturers have found that comfortable do-it-all standards designed to appeal to everyone—with softer suspension, dual seats, larger fuel tanks and lower prices—actually appeal to almost no one, bikes such as the new Kawasaki Z1000 tested here still have sit-up seating, no fairing and less plastic overall, but start out much more sportbike oriented. For 2010 the old Z1000’s comparatively softer platform is gone, replaced with stiletto-heeled styling, more power and sharper chassis and suspension performance with some racetrack DNA. Yet during the bike’s makeover, Kawasaki also found a way to slip in a few street compromises such as a broader powerband, a secondary counterbalancer and a more accessible rider’s seat.
The fun starts in the liquid-cooled, transverse in-line four, an all-new engine Kawasaki says was developed just for the 2010 Z1000. At 77.0mm, cylinder bore is actually .2mm smaller now, but piston stroke has been lengthened by 5.1mm, for a total of 90cc more or 1,043cc. Despite the increased capacity, engine size and height were kept about the same, in part by lowering the crankshaft, and any additional vibration was checked with a new gear-driven secondary balancer in front of the crank. New Keihin 38mm downdraft throttle bodies are 2mm bigger than their semi-upright predecessors, but have oval intakes or “sub-throttles” that allow them to sit closer together. Though the engine doesn’t use ram-air induction, it does have new cool-air intakes routed through the frame to a resonator chamber in the airbox, which gives it a wonderful howl when you’re on the gas.
The engine’s top-end keeps the DOHC four-valve-per-cylinder layout, with shim-under-bucket actuation that needs inspection every 15,000 miles. A pre-chamber ahead of those funky double-barreled mufflers (that carry forward the original Z1’s quad-pipe theme) allows them to be quite small and short, part of a mass-centralization and diet program the bike was put on that Kawasaki says shaved 22 pounds (our scale indicates it’s actually 34 pounds lighter, or 481 pounds wet). Finally, a new solenoid-controlled valve just ahead of the right muffler tunes exhaust flow to throttle position. Overall the new mill offers an incredibly broad torque curve and powerband that is right there any time you want it, in any gear, and screams right along all the way up to its 11,000-rpm redline. More midrange and top end mean the bike flat leaps forward with the tiniest twist of the grip, yet the sharper response does not come at the expense of throttle abruptness or vibration. Power rolls on as gradually or quickly as you like, and noticeable vibration doesn’t start to creep into the grips and seat until well up in the rev range, so it’s smooth and silky on the highway. Clutch and shifting feel from the six-speed are excellent, and the bike purrs at idle, started easily and had nary a glitch in its power delivery from idle to redline. On the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno it made an impressive 128 horsepower at 10,100 rpm and 75 lb-ft of torque at 7,900 at the rear wheel, about 11 and 7 percent better than the 2008 model.
None of these powertrain improvements would be much good in the old steel frame, so Kawasaki went all out and gave the bike a sportbike-based all-aluminum perimeter chassis. Lighter, more rigid and slimmer waisted, the new frame provides better handling, and by doing away with side covers is also narrower under the seat and allows the rider to touch the ground more easily. I could easily flat-foot at stops with my 29-inch inseam. The engine is rigidly mounted in the frame as before, though a new fourth rubber mount in back contributes to stability without transmitting more vibes. One ride reveals the improvement the chassis has made to the bike’s handling potential, as the bike feels solid and responsive from end-to-end once the suspension is dialed-in.
That job is enhanced with a new 41mm male-slider cartridge fork up front, now fully adjustable with the addition of stepless compression damping adjustment as well as stepless rebound and spring preload. It’s seriously sportbike taut, and its adjusters all make significant changes to the ride quality. For my 210 pounds and aggressive riding it liked all but two of the 15 turns on the preload, and an additional quarter-turn on the rebound and compression over standard. The linked rear shock rides in a new semi-horizontal position, another mass-centralizing trick that also makes it easier to access, though its ring-and-locknut spring preload adjuster requires a drift, hammer and some patience. Its stepless rebound adjuster is easy to use, but the shock lacks compression adjustment, is somewhat harsh and really the least impressive component of the bike’s handling package. It does the job for a solo rider (and that tiny pillion pad doesn’t warrant regular passengers), but that’s about it.
Not so the bike’s triple-disc brakes, which are fully revamped on the 2010 Z1000 and offer high-quality feel and tremendous stopping power, with new features like a radial-pump front master cylinder. A thumbwheel adjuster is provided on the lever for the pair of opposed four-piston radial calipers and petal discs up front, and the single-piston, pin-slide caliper in back is slung underneath the swingarm now to better show off the wheel, a pretty new five-spoke design like the front. Sticky supersport-type Dunlop Sportmax 17-inch radials, a 120/70 in front and 190/50 in back, need careful attention to the recommended air pressures and wear quickly, but combined with its light, quick steering get the bike around a corner like it’s glued down. There’s cornering clearance aplenty, and stability is very good on smooth roads, though the bike does have a tendency to wag its head a little over bumps.
Ergonomically the Z1000 feels compact and sportbikelike except for its lack of wind protection, lower roomier footpegs and much higher, wider and flatter tubular handlebar, though there’s enough forward lean to brace you against the breeze. The seat pad is thin and uncomfortable and the tank very wide for a sporty grip with your knees, so while the Z1000 is not exactly set up for sport touring, it’s still good for a long ride on smoother roads and much more comfortable than something with clip-on handlebars and high rearset footpegs. With the suspension adjusted for best handling, though, the bike jostles the rider mercilessly on bumpy roads and freeway, and seeing anything but your arms in the diamond-shaped mirrors requires moving them, so it’s not a very user-friendly daily driver. Eccentric adjusters make final drive chain adjustment a snap, and Kawasaki gave the new all-digital instrument pod a three-position tilt adjuster which can help to reduce glare. Fitting luggage other than a small magnetic tankbag is a challenge, but there’s a small storage space under the locking pillion for the toolkit that comes with the bike. At 4.1 gallons with our fair average fuel economy of 36.6 mpg you can travel fast but not very far between fill-ups on premium fuel.
If I were looking for a sportbike primarily for short romps in the canyons and perhaps half-day trips to get there, it would need a comfortable roomy sit-up seating position like the Z1000’s. Its angular new Buck Rogers styling with those mandibles in front will not be to everyone’s taste, though it does envelop some pretty nice-looking touches like an ultra-thin line-beam headlight, LED taillight and fork guards. We chose the Pearl Stardust White and orange Creamsicle paint combo for our photography, but there’s also a Metallic Spark Black and silver option that’s a bit more subtle and doesn’t have a white (!) pillion pad. Overall this a really fun, seriously fast motorcycle that—with the possible exception of the rear shock—is ready for the canyons or track days with a minimum of tweaking. It’s tons of fun, sounds great and is turn-key easy-to-own right out of the box.