If ever a sportsbike went from zero to hero, Kawasaki’s ZX-10R is the one.
Regarded as the poor relation of the class when introduced in 2004, Kawasaki took advantage of other manufacturers abandonment of 1000cc superbikes in the latter half of the last decade to turn its flagship model into not only a bike that shone in magazine road tests, but which would also dominate superbike racing around the world.
Kawasaki has always been renowned for making big, powerful bikes with lusty engines. In 1972, they famously introduced the Z1 – a four-cylinder, four-stroke 900cc superbike that took on Honda’s CB750 concept and added more power and more kudos. At 81bhp, the Z1 delivers less power as a modern middleweight, but in the early 1970s, the concept was truly mindblowing.
The Z1 gave Kawasaki a reputation it was to build its stock on throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Big Zeds had strong engines, even if there was less emphasis on the chassis or overall package. The GPz range of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s had a huge following and with the watercooled GPz900R of 1984 introduced one of the most iconic names in world motorcycling – Ninja.
The GPz900R was the first liquid cooled, 16 valve four cylinder motorcycle and cemented its cult following as the transport of choice for Tom Cruise’s character Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell in the iconic 1986 movie Top Gun.
The 900R was replaced by the first ZX-10 (minus an R) in 1988. This shortlived model was the fastest production motorcycle in the world at the time of launch. Known in America as the Tomcat (Kawasaki has often given essentially the same models different names from region to region) the ZX-10 was replaced by the ZX-11 Ninja (or ZZR1100 as it was known in the UK) – a bike that was firmly in the big and heavy sports touring camp.
Kawasaki fans looking for something lighter and more sporting were catered for by ZXR range. The ZXR750 of 1989 was designed to race under the world superbike rules of the time, with a 749cc four-cylinder motor. With its memorable ‘hoover pipe’ air intakes, the ZXR gained a huge cult following. American Scott Russell won the 1993 Superbike World Championship on a ZXR750 (or ZX-7R, as it was known in the States) and an updated bike, known universally as the ZX-7R, was introduced in 1996 and soldiered on until 2003. These bikes were the first production machines to commonly adopt Kawasaki’s lime green corporate racing colours.
For years, Kawasaki had no real answer to Honda’s CBR900RR FireBlade. The green alternative was the ZX-9R, which combined a lusty motor with a bigger, heavier and more road biased chassis that proved to be less popular than the more sporting alternatives. When Yamaha rewrote the rules and created a new 1000cc sportsbike class with 1998’s YZF-R1, the other manufacturers followed. Suzuki came with the GSX-R1000, while Honda incrementally increased the engine capacity of the FireBlade before introducing an all new CBR1000RR Fireblade in 2004. That was the same year that Kawasaki came to the party with the first generation ZX-10R, although sadly that bike was not quite to be the answer to the Kawasaki loyal’s prayers…
2004 Kawasaki ZX-10R
On paper, the ZX-10R had it all. In reality, it had way too much for all but the most experienced rider.
Kawasaki marketed the bike as the ultimate track tool and with over 180bhp claimed in those days before electronic aids, there is no doubt that it was a real animal.
All that power came in a chassis that weighed the same as a 600. That meant that it attracted a good following, although the sensible money went with the more usable alternatives from the competition.
In truth, there’s not much wrong with these bikes, it’s just that they provided something of a wild ride. The power was aggressive and the handling flighty, the complete antithesis of the ZX-9R that went before it.
2006 Kawasaki ZX-10R
Following a two year update cycle, like its rivals, Kawasaki unveiled a more refined ZX-10R to see it through 2006 and 2007.
Visually the main change was from the single side exit silencer to a pair of twin underseat units, as was the fashion a decade ago.
That added five kilogrammes to the weight, now 175kg before any fluids were added, and although the looks were similar virtually every component was revised on the new model.
Ultimate power was unchanged, although the delivery was improved with more on tap down at the bottom end. The 2006 ZX-10R was more refined than the animal that preceded it, however was still the bad boy of the class. That was, of course, always going to give it a strong following among a hardcore of bikers, but with brand loyalty high in the sector it didn’t pull enough buyers away from their GSX-Rs and Fireblades to make it class leader.
2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R
Recognising that even 1000cc superbike owners were looking for some refinement to go with headbanging performance, the 2008 ZX-10R marked a turning point in Kawasaki’s development.
The new design had a chassis that was longer and heavier, the latter in part down to the increasingly strict emissions laws. Technology came in to tame the power too, with a slipper clutch and a rudimentary traction control system. The styling was revised again, with a switch back from the underseat exhausts to a single side exit system but despite the refinement the ZX-10R was still seen as being more raw than the competition.
Styling wasn’t to all tastes either, with sharp angles and big airscoops. It remained track focussed and the choice of the utterly committed rider. Kawasaki returned to world superbikes with this model, although results were disappointing on the whole. It also underwent a small restyle in 2010.
2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R
Stuff happened between the launch of the 2008 and 2011 ZX-10Rs that changed the landscape of the big sports bike market.
Firstly there was the global ‘credit crunch’ of 2008. That saw sales of big sports bikes go through the floor and made manufacturers dial down development in the class. Honda and Suzuki effectively stopped development of the Fireblade and GSX-R1000, while Yamaha introduced a ‘big bang’ engine and more sophisticated electronics to make the R1 easier to ride.
Alongside this, BMW debuted the S1000RR and brought with it more power and more sophisticated electronics than anything that had gone before.
While the 2011 ZX-10R couldn’t match the BMW’s near 200bhp power output, it was a massive step forward from any Kawasaki that had gone before it.
The 2011 Ninja claimed more power and less weight, but sophisticated electronics suddenly tamed the beast. With riding modes and proper traction control, not to mention a new chassis and Showa suspension, Kawasaki went from Bridesmaid to Belle of the Ball overnight. It was also the machine that would form the basis of the most successful world superbike contender in recent years. Tom Sykes won the title on a Kawasaki in 2013, while Jonathan Rea repeated that success in 2015.
2016 Kawasaki ZX-10R
Kawasaki’s world superbike successes that led to this, the 2016 ZX-10R. Externally the new bike looked very similar but featured a host of changes aimed at further improving the bike’s competitiveness on the track.
Small but important changes to the chassis improved the balance of the new bike but the most significant changes were to the engine, where a host of updates saved weight and provided the race team with an even stronger base upon which to tune the motor.
For the road rider, the benefit was even stronger mid range power delivery, with even more sophisticated electronics keeping it all in check.
In superbike racing, Jonathan Rea won the 2016 championship on a ZX-10R, while a limited edition ZX-10RR was brought in with lightweight racing wheels, Ohlins suspension and further small mechanical developments to make the Ninja even more track ready.
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