2011 Kawasaki Ninja 1000

Road Test Review

Perhaps because of our Puritanical roots, naked bikes aren’t terribly popular here in the United States. Europeans love ’em, whether they roll out of the showroom without plastic or they scrap the fairing and bolt upright handlebars onto a wadded-up sportbike. (Nude beaches are more popular in Europe, too.) A popular topic of conversation among American moto­journalists is bemoaning, model by model, the long list of great motorcycles that have died the undignified death of crappy sales. More than a few naked bikes are on that gallows roster, including Kawasaki’s own ZRX1200. The market is as the market does. You can’t make people want a sportbike with no clothes any more than you can make them want a cruiser with generous cornering clearance and decent suspension travel.

Thus, Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA must have been tickled pink when the Ninja 1000 was slotted for release. It is essentially the same bike as the Z1000 that debuted last year with the addition of a full fairing and other concessions to rider comfort. Both bikes were developed at the same time, but global production scheduling dictated the Z1000 get first shot at the showrooms. The Z1000 and Z750 have been perennial best-sellers on the other side of the pond, so Kawasaki’s European division got dibs.

Second-fiddle release notwithstanding, the Ninja 1000 brings home the bacon. For $10,999—just $400 more than the Z1000’s MSRP—you get the aforementioned bodywork, an adjustable windscreen, thicker rider and passenger seats, passenger grab handles and more fuel capacity (up nearly a gallon, to 5.0 gallons). Though the Z1000 offers a mostly buzz-free ride, the Ninja 1000 adds rubber-covered footpegs for rider and passenger, and the rider’s are rubber-mounted in addition to having vibration-damping weights behind the heel guards. Both bikes share the same upright, spacious riding position, though the extra padding raises the Ninja 1000’s seat height by 0.2 inch, to 32.3 inches. Instead of a tubular handlebar, the Ninja gets individual hand grips which have been moved inward by almost half an inch compared to the Zed. And to enhance the Ninja’s greater range and comfort, a full range of sport-touring accessories will be offered.

The Ninja 1000’s liquid-cooled, DOHC, four-valve-per-cylinder, 1,043cc in-line four is the epitome of silky smooth power. Flawless fuel injection, minimal slop in the driveline and a tried-and-true throttle cable (vs. throttle-by-wire) let you be the maestro of your very own internal-combustion orchestra. Roll on the throttle, crank up the revs and enjoy the stereophonic sounds of howling intake and exhaust. Your rump will confirm what Jett Tuning’s Dynojet dyno revealed: a steady climb to the 125.1-horsepower crescendo at 9,900 rpm, with a broad spread of torque that peaks at 74.4 lb-ft at 8,800 rpm. Because the Ninja 1000 was developed for the street rather than the track, it’s tuned for strong midrange power—more than 60 lb-ft of torque is available between 4,000 and 10,700 rpm. The power response is immediate and addictive, and it kicks in with a vengeance above seven grand. In-line fours tend to be inherently smooth, but a secondary balancer helps quell wayward harmonics; minor vibrations are occasionally felt through the seat and tank, but hands, feet and mirrors remain calm. The six-speed transmission is also butter smooth. Ample torque reduces the frequency of shifts, but when the time comes the rider enjoys light action by the cable-actuated wet clutch and effortless, positive gear changes.

Fresh air enters the airbox through ducts in the fairing. Digital fuel injection adds the precise amount of gas and sends the mixture through 38mm Keihin throttle bodies and downdraft intakes into cylinders with a bore and stroke of 77.0 x 56.0mm. To complete the four-stroke cycle, combustion’s effluvia is cleaned by dual catalyzers and passes from four pipes into two, into a pre-chamber and then out via dual silencers with quad tips. The pre-chamber in the belly keeps weight low and allows for short, low-volume exhaust pipes on each side.

Holding the engine in place is a light, rigid aluminum backbone frame with one rubber and three rigid engine mounts. Likewise, the subframe and swingarm are aluminum, the latter featuring stylish yet functional concentric chain adjusters. To absorb the imperfections and roughness that roads—and life, quite frankly—send our way, the Ninja 1000 relies upon a 41mm fully adjustable male-slider fork with 4.7 inches of travel and a rear shock with 5.4 inches of travel that is adjustable for preload and rebound. With a setup Kawasaki calls Horizontal Back-Link Rear Suspension, the shock and linkage are located above the swingarm, which protects them from exhaust heat and better centralizes mass. Stepless rebound and compression adjustability allows infinite variation.

On the press-launch ride, which included the tight, rough pavement around Mount Tamalpais in Marin County, California, the standard suspension settings provided a reasonably plush ride. At 220 pounds, plus the weight of my riding gear and a loaded tailbag, I’m in a much higher weight class than the “average” ride for whom standard settings are calibrated. When the road opened and the pace quickened, that plushness became somewhat of a liability and warranted cranking up the firmness at each end. Heavier springs would help, too, or I could just lose some weight. The Ninja 1000’s suspension reflects its price-point and intent: a reasonably priced, street-oriented sportbike. It offers quality and adjustability that will keep the vast majority of owners happy, whether they ride solo, do some two-up sport touring or sign up for the occasional track day.

Don’t interpret this as the Ninja 1000 being a jack of all trades, master of none, or that it is a “cheap” version of the ZX-10R. Au contraire. Precisely because the Ninja 1000 won’t be homologated for superbike racing, Kawasaki’s designers were free to make sensible compromises to build a real-world sportbike. This is a bike you’ll easily come to love and trust, not struggle to live with and resent for being out of your league. The Ninja 1000’s 501-pound wet weight, 56.9-inch wheelbase and sporty-but-not-extreme steering geometry (24.5 degrees of rake, 4.0-inches trail) are ideal for its mission. Handling is responsive without being twitchy, predictable without inducing boredom.

Though not marketed as a sport tourer, the Ninja 1000 can be easily outfitted for the job. It obviously leans more toward the sport end of the spectrum, more like the Honda VFR1200F or Triumph Sprint GT than Kawasaki’s own Concours 14 or Yamaha’s FJR1300. Standard equipment includes a height-adjustable windscreen. By pressing a small lever below the instrument panel—located in such a way to discourage riders from trying to reach it while riding—the windscreen can be set to one of three positions over a 20-degree range. The highest position offers decent wind protection, but it directs air under the rider’s helmet and increases wind noise. The sportiest/lowest position puts more air at the rider’s chest. Your call. Also, the Ninja 1000 has a 41-tooth rear sprocket vs. 42 on the Z1000, which raises gearing slightly for a smoother open-road ride. The 350-mile, six-hour ride home from Marin County to our offices in Ventura was remarkably unremarkable. I had no complaints about seat comfort, riding position, vibration or fuel economy, which averaged 38 mpg. When was the last time you heard that about a sportbike? My only frustration was with the fairing-mounted mirrors, which, though clear at almost any speed, greatly limited the view behind me (I prefer the Z1000’s handlebar-mounted mirrors).

Serious sport-touring riders will plonk down for the 35-liter saddlebags (same as those offered on the Versys) or the 39-liter trunk, both of which are made by Givi with special Kawasaki graphics. I emphasize “or” because you can mount one but not the other. The hardware for the saddlebags and trunk share a mounting point near the license plate, and Kawasaki feels it isn’t strong enough to handle the loads of both. (At 431 pounds, overall load capacity is adequate/generous.) Of course, the aftermarket will find a solution to this limitation, it just won’t have Kawasaki’s official approval. In addition to the luggage, heated grips will also be offered. Prices and availability for these and other accessories weren’t available as of this writing. Kawasaki reps assure us that final testing is underway by their counterparts in Europe and such information is imminent.

Another feature popular with sport-touring riders, including me, is anti-lock brakes. ABS is an option on Euro-spec bikes, but it got nixed on U.S. models. The safety benefits of ABS are undeniable, but apparently not enough people are willing to pay extra for it, at least on a sportbike. Perhaps if Kawasaki sweetened the deal with traction control, as it does with the $1,000 ABS option on the Concours 14, more folks might come around. Nonetheless, the Ninja 1000’s brakes are great and feature Kawasaki’s signature petal discs—dual 300mm front rotors and a single 250mm rear rotor. Being responsible for the majority of slowing and stopping, the front setup uses opposed, four-piston, radial-mount calipers and a radial-pump master cylinder. Its rear companion is a single-piston, pin-slide caliper. Power is more than sufficient and feel from the adjustable lever is linear and predictable, without the sharp initial bite found on race-replicas.

Befitting the sportbike segment, the Ninja 1000’s styling is aggressive, with scowling dual headlights and more angular bodywork than Dick Tracy. Louvered openings in the fairing pull hot air away from the engine and direct it around the rider. Days were cool during the late-autumn press launch and our home-turf test, but felt heat was never noticeable. Similar to the Z1000, the Ninja’s turn signals are integrated into the bodywork and their rubber mounts are said to minimize damage in the event of a tipover. A ZX-6R spec, aerodynamic front fender, slim rear hugger and LED taillight contribute to the Ninja 1000’s futuristic, menacing appearance. Likewise, the six-spoke wheels, frame, swingarm and exhaust canisters are finished in black, and the bodywork is spiffed up with either Ebony or Candy Fire Red glossy paint. Rather than the all-digital panel on the Z1000, the Ninja has the same instrumentation as the ZX-6R, which we prefer. An analog tach is paired with a LCD screen that shows just the basics: speed, fuel, clock and distance (trip A/B or odometer).

All of this adds up to a very good motorcycle, one which embodies the essence of fun, fast riding. Unburdened by complexities such as throttle-by-wire or multiple engine modes, the Ninja 1000 delivers a pure, authentic experience. It is a modern sportbike designed to excel where it’s most likely to be ridden: on the street. At 80 percent of the price of a ZX-10R you won’t pay for an extra 20 percent of performance you’re unlikely to miss. And the overall package is much more comfortable and versatile. In the estimable words of our esteemed editor, “It’s taken a long time to get a sportbike this good with bars this tall.” Well said, boss.