Back in the day, when men were men and race team managers were scared—not for what their riders did on track, but for the hi-jinx after—manufacturers made limited-edition homologation specials made specifically for superbike racing. Kawasaki revives that era with the return of its ZX-RR series in the form of the 2017 Ninja ZX-10RR ($18,899).
Adorned in special “winter test’ livery, this Ninja appears factory with its matte black paint and white accents. Subtler enhancements hide beneath the radar reflecting bodywork, including an enhanced Inline Four engine that readily accommodates Kawasaki’s racing-spec camshafts (when installed, increases valve lift by 0.7mm) along with tougher, DLC-coated valve tappets. There’s also extra metal inside the cylinder walls to compensate for the added power of the engine in race-spec configuration.
Lighter, seven-spoke Marchesini forged aluminum rims shod with ultra-sticky Pirelli Diablo Supercorsa SP V2 rubber and badging on the engine’s ignition cover lets you know you’re riding something special. Only 1000 examples rolled off the Japanese assembly line making it even more desirable.
A special bike necessitates a special test, so in Ninja spirit we rode it at the track, dragstrip, and the street. The short story, what can’t this bike do?
On the track, it’s an absolute weapon. Much of the credit goes to its truly excellent Showa-sourced gas-charged suspension. And the best part? It’s the same components that come on the $15,099 base superbike.
Handling is incredible. There aren’t a lot of sportbikes that you can wheel to the track, check tire pressure, and get down to business. Competence, ease of use, fun, and charisma are all hallmark features of this Kawi.
The front end affords the utmost in feel. When pouring around turns— it feels like you’re on your hands and knees. That’s how copious road feel is.
There’s no shortage of sweet handling superbikes on the market, however the front suspension complements the Ninja in a way other manufacturers cannot match. It’s easily one of the better handling liter-class bikes you can buy today.
It’s especially apparent during corner entry with the fork offering borderline absurd control during braking, but we’ll talk more on that in a bit…
Much to our surprise, the suspenders prove just as effective on the street, whether cruising at 70 mph on the freeway our carving through beat up city streets. It filters the rough stuff well delivering a level of plushness and regality that’s typically absent in a sportbike class.
The range of suspension adjustment is wide enough to accommodate a variety of rider weight and/or damping preference both for street and dedicated track use.
A capable IMU-powered electronics package complements the impeccable handling prowess, performing well on both the closed, and open course (street).
Although designed for competition, the electronics perform marvelously on the open road. Whether gravel or worn out and slippery asphalt, the Ninja’s TC settings are broad enough to account for most riding conditions. On treacherous, or unfamiliar surfaces the maximum setting (KTRC Level 5) allows the bike to still be ridden with authority— the worry of losing traction absent. Instead, worry channels into focus— on riding. That’s the real point of superbike electronics and the Ninja’s setup does that well.
Conversely, Level 1 is the least restrictive setting designed for competition. Thing is, it requires seriously fast riding and lap times to even feel it at work. Its threshold was above our level of trackday comfort making Level 3 a more suitable setting for fast, but not banzai riding. Another plus, TC settings can be made on the fly, while riding. Our only gripe is that the display is so tiny it can be hard to see the settings at speed.
More electronics come in the form of adjustable engine power modes permitting the rider to limit the engine’s power output based on preference or road conditions. On track we ran the full power setting (‘F’), however on tight and more slippery road surfaces that we encountered during our street photo shoot we ran the Low power setting (‘L’) which reduces engine power by approximately 40% making the motorcycle easier to ride. An 80% Middle (‘M’) power setting is also available.
Ever since Kawasaki overhauled its Inline Four for 2011, it’s carved a niche inside the class for its smooth, almost electric-feeling powerband. Its one that’s especially easy on tires— working well with the rear suspension to ensure smooth, drama-free acceleration out of turns. The more close-ratio transmission helps keep this top-end biased engine on the boil and we appreciate the way in which it shifts between gears— feeling like a drag race car with a high-pressure shift kit installed.
The engine is smooth and devoid of vibration on the street. Yet, get the rpms up and it makes all the right sounds letting you know that you’re in control of something special.
With nearly 170 horsepower at the back tire, strong brakes aren’t a feature— they are a necessity. And the class-leading Brembo setup is the real deal. One-piece billet M50 calipers bite 330mm diameter discs via rigid expansion-free metal brake lines and a heavy-duty radial pump master cylinder, also from Brembo. The hardware is augmented by KIBS (Kawasaki Intelligent Braking System). It’s the same setup that’s used on the supercharged Ninja H2/H2R, however this machine has 71 pounds less to slow with its fueled curb weight of 452-pounds.
More than fancy branded ABS, the setup relies on a front brake pressure control sensor to alter line pressure based on control and ECU input. This facilitates gentler negative g-force loads on the Pirelli tire and helps reduce excessive pitch during heavy braking.
The programming is fixed and not dependent on riding mode. It’s also always-on and can’t be manually disabled. Additionally, the electronics incorporate two-way adjustable engine brake control (KEBC). By default the motorcycle uses the normal setting. But by selecting the ‘L’ mode, engine brake effect is further reduced allowing the motorcycle to roll more freely into corners. More momentum generally equals more speed, so we prefer this setting.
Even at an ultra-fast circuit like Oregon’s Portland International Raceway, the setup is devoid of fade and offers plenty of power with excellent feel— especially during delicate trail braking maneuvers. The setup functions so well, that it’s virtually transparent when riding. This Kawasaki ABS system is nearly faultless.
You can ride this bike insanely hard. And the brakes— like the rest of the machine’s components work with the whole dynamic of the bike, from the Showa fork to the new auto blip down-shifter. Everything on this bike is seamless and well integrated. It allows you to ride the bike at full tilt without scaring yourself.
The addition of the auto blip down-shifter on this RR model complements the chassis almost perfectly, allowing you to charge into corners with precision and control. This bike loves to turn. The seamless quickshifter allows you to enter corners with superior pitch control. There’s no weird chassis movement when you’re entering corners— instead, pure balance and control.
This Ninja is literally hooked up the entire time— from braking, corner entry, to mid-corner, and exit. Its glued to the pavement. Obviously, the OE fitment of the Diablo Supercorsa SP rubber complement that. But its a high-performance track day tire. You get a lot a lot of grip out of the tires and excellent handling, but they’re not going to last the longest. But, we’ll take it for the amount of performance you get out of these tires.
Ergonomics-wise, this Kawasaki fits bigger American bodies well, including this six-foot tall rider. A little more stretched out as compared to others in the class, one can tuck underneath the windscreen well, and while riding on the street, the bike feels substantial— unlike riding a 600cc supersport or a little teensy-weensy motorcycle. For a lot of you guys, looking for something meaty, you’re going to like this bike.
Probably the only real squawk, if any, is the instrumentation. The dash remains 2011-spec with a rectangular monochrome LCD front and center. The color horizontal bar graph type tachometer looks neat but is hard to read. The LCD component could be larger and is hard to see while you’re riding, or when parked at a standstill. A larger, more modern display that’s easier to read would be a big improvement here.
Most current superbikes incorporate a basic form of launch control. And although it’s a road race derived feature, the technology also pays off at the drag strip, as tested again during a run-what-ya-brung drag night at PIR.
Without launch control, the Ninja proved more difficult to launch due in part to its peakier top-end oriented power band. During three runs, the best time we recorded without the aid of launch control was a 10.57 second run at 143.2 mph.
On the fourth and final run, by enabling the rpm holding function of KLCM (Level 1— most aggressive setting), we were instantly over a tenth of a second quicker through the quarter mile with a time of 10.426 at 142.2 mph.
We were surprised how much easier the Ninja was to launch with it enabled. Kudos to Kawasaki for getting the electronics right on this motorcycle.
If you’re looking for a really special liter bike, something that you can cherish in the garage, something that’s going to make you want to ride— a lust worthy machine that harkens back to the old days of superbike racing when Doug Chandler was winning races and Scott Russell was the man, this Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10RR is that bike. It really embraces the heritage and spirit of Kawasaki and the racing pedigree of the company, and it is an awesome bike for riding on the track or even on the street. This bike does it all.