2014 Kawasaki Ninja 1000 ABS

Road Test Review

More than any other manufacturer, Kawasaki has all the sportbike bases covered, with its line of Ninjas ranging from 298cc to 1,441cc. If you’re in the market for a liter bike, Kawasaki gives you three options: the attack-the-track Ninja ZX-10R and, for the street, the naked Z1000 and the fully clothed Ninja 1000. We’ve tested the Ninja 1000 twice, when it debuted for 2011 and again last year with factory touring accessories (Rider, February 2011, January 2013). Smooth, generous power, real-world performance and reasonable ergonomics make it exciting to ride and easy to live with. Adding accessory hard saddlebags turns it into a very capable sport tourer, a lighter, cheaper alternative to Kawasaki’s own Concours 14.

Until now, part of the Ninja 1000’s appeal has been its simplicity, offering gobs of get-up-and-go without the complexity of engine modes or traction control, and ABS has been optional. Its lack of electronic rider aids, along with its 125 rear-wheel horsepower and 500-pound wet weight, motivated my uncle, a retired attorney and former roadracer, to buy one to replace his old Suzuki Bandit 1200. He loves it.

Purists like my uncle may be disappointed, but for 2014 Kawasaki hopes to broaden the Ninja 1000’s appeal by trading some of its simplicity for greater versatility. Compared to Ninja 300 and 650 owners, Ninja 1000 owners tend to be older, have more riding experience and rack up more miles. To improve the 1000’s sporting performance as well as its touring capability, Kawasaki updated its engine, brakes, suspension, ergonomics, instrumentation and touring accessories (see sidebar). Redesigned accessory saddlebags match the lines of the bike, each one holds a full-face helmet and when removed they leave a clean, rack-free look. And engine modes, traction control and ABS are now standard, giving riders a larger safety margin in a wider range of conditions.

In previous tests, I described the Ninja 1000’s liquid-cooled 1,043cc in-line four as “the epitome of silky smooth power,” an engine that “combines the performance of a sportbike with the civility of a sport tourer.” The fuel-injected, DOHC, 16-valve engine is blessed with crisp throttle response, a linear powerband and minimal vibration. What was very good is now even better, with a bit more polish, a bit more grunt and more auditory stimulation. For 2014, revised intake cams and new Digital Timing Advance boost low-to-midrange power, while new cylinder-connecting passages and a higher-flow air filter improve power higher up. On Jett Tuning’s dyno, the 2014 Ninja 1000 made 126.7 horsepower at 10,300 rpm and 76.0 lb-ft of torque at 7,600 rpm at the rear wheel. Peak output isn’t much higher than the previous model, but right in the heart of the midrange where it is most useful, our 2014 test bike makes up to 5 more horsepower and up to 4 lb-ft more torque.

Equal-length velocity stacks, recalibrated ECU settings, an updated cool air intake system and changes to the exhaust system (hello header balance tubes, bye-bye exhaust valve) make what was already a refined, responsive engine even more so. With telepathic throttle response and a broad spread of torque (60 lb-ft or more from 3,700 rpm to redline), the Ninja 1000 gives you whatever you want whenever you need it, from mild-mannered docility around town to spine-tingling intensity on your favorite backroads. Some high-frequency vibration works its way through the grips, tank and pegs above 7,000 rpm, but it is never offensive and the bike absolutely purrs otherwise. Clutching and shifting are effortless, and a slightly taller 6th gear ratio makes for mellow cruising at highway speeds.

Kawasaki has yet to introduce throttle-by-wire on any of its sportbikes, but its Ninja ZX supersports have digital ignition with multiple maps and selectable power modes. A similar setup is now on the Ninja 1000, with a new switch on the left cluster that toggles between two power modes, Full and Low, the latter delivering 75-80 percent of maximum output with milder throttle response. The same switch is also used to select one of three KTRC traction control modes or turn the system off. KTRC modes 1 and 2 are for maximum acceleration on dry roads, allowing some or very little rear wheel spin, and mode 3 is for wet or slippery surfaces. Since the Ninja 1000’s power delivery is so linear and KTRC is so seamless, Low power mode seems unnecessary, though it could come in handy for fuel conservation (there’s a new ECO indicator on the dash). Traction control and ABS are welcome additions, however, because they rarely interfere with everyday riding and can save your bacon when the unexpected arises.

Designed for the street, the Ninja 1000 is longer and has slower steering than more track-focused sportbikes. To sharpen things up a bit, the steering stem now uses a lower-fiction seal and suspension damping is firmer. A slightly stiffer rear spring better supports the weight of loaded saddlebags and a passenger, and its preload can now be easily adjusted remotely. Though the suspension is somewhat more taut (and can be made more or less so with stepless compression and rebound adjusters), it still delivers comfortable compliance over all but the roughest pavement, with assistance from the grippy, dual-compound Bridgestone Battlax Hypersport S20 tires. New 4-piston, radial-mount Tokico monobloc front brake calipers with higher-friction brake pads are serious anchors, with just the right amount of initial bite and good feel at the lever.

The Ninja’s twin-spar aluminum frame and cast aluminum swingarm are unchanged, but a new 3-piece cast aluminum subframe is narrower and stronger than before to make it easier for the rider to reach the ground and to accommodate new accessory saddlebag mounts. The all-new, Givi-made Kawasaki Quick Release (KQR) saddlebags are color matched to the bike, can be keyed to the ignition and are very easy to open, close, remove and put back on. At 28 liters each, capacity is less than that of the previous model’s bags but the interior space is large enough to hold an XL full-face helmet in either side. With mounts, the saddlebags cost $1,269.75; add soft liners for another $129.95. The new subframe allows the rider’s seat to be flatter and have slightly thicker padding without changing seat height (32.3 inches). The stock seat is reasonably comfortable, but its sharp edges dug into my thighs on long rides (the rounder shape of the accessory gel seat does not). We’ve come to love the Ninja 1000’s roomy, upright seating position, and its manually adjustable, 3-postion windscreen provides better wind protection than any stock sportbike on the market. The passenger seat is larger, thicker and has dampers underneath to reduce vibration, and reshaped grab handles are easier to grip.

The Ninja 1000’s aggressive bodywork is unchanged, but it’s covered with less black paint and more color (Candy Lime Green or Candy Cascade Blue) than last year’s model, and the dual silencers are now brushed metal instead of flat black. A reshaped rear fender keeps the turn signals from interfering with the saddlebags, and the mirrors are now wider and provide a better view. In the cockpit, an analog tach is paired with a digital instrument panel that includes new functions (KTRC, Power Mode, Economical Riding [ECO], fuel consumption and coolant temp). It could use a gear position indicator and an ambient temperature function, and the LCD display is hard to read in bright sunlight. Fuel capacity is still 5 gallons, and we averaged 37.3 mpg on the required premium fuel.

Over the past few years, Kawasaki’s Ninja 1000 has carved out a niche between hard-edged sportbikes like the Ninja ZX-10R and big-rig sport tourers like the Concours 14. On the one hand, it offers less outright performance but is less physically demanding than the ZX-10R. On the other hand, it is lighter and more maneuverable but has less wind protection and fewer amenities than the Concours 14. At $11,999—just $200 more than last year’s Ninja 1000 ABS—it costs thousands of dollars less than the other two. Now it runs smoother, makes more power and torque, has new power modes and traction control, steers quicker, stops harder, soaks up bumps better, is more comfortable and is available with better touring accessories than before. With apologies to the purists, giving up some simplicity for more versatility is a worthwhile tradeoff.