Once the most hotly contested sector in British motorcycling, the 600cc supersport class has lost its shine in recent years. With sales on the decline, manufacturers were in no great hurry to update their 600s when the latest round of Euro4 emissions laws came in a few years ago.
As a result, the UK has lost long time favourites like the Honda CBR600RR, Suzuki GSX-R600 and Triumph Daytona 675, a bike which just over a decade ago was regarded as one of the benchmark sportsbikes of the generation.
Arguably the defining bike in the class, at least on the race track, was Yamaha’s YZF-R6, but even that went without a serious update from 2008 through to 2017, when the latest model hit the showrooms and now, for 2019, Kawasaki has given its ZX-6R a minor update.
In light of all those absences, the new ZX-6R is a bike with very little competition. Pricewise, the £9499 Kawasaki is sandwiched between the £7729 Honda CBR650R, a practical middleweight with a whiff of sportiness about it, and Yamaha’s hardcore YZF-R6. The Yamaha is still regarded as the benchmark in the supersport category, but it’s a more extreme road bike and costs £11,799, £2300 more than the Kawasaki.
Where the Yamaha has been built with an eye on the race track, the Kawasaki has been developed as a road bike/occasional track day machine. That can be ascertained by a quick glance at the spec sheets, which shows the engine capacity of 636cc. With the capacity limit of international supersport race series dictating a limit of 600cc, Kawasaki have elected not to take on the mighty R6 on the track (Kawasaki teams running in the Supersport World Championship utilise the older design, dating back to 2009). Indeed the advertising blurb for the latest ZX-6R takes great pride in fact that it has an Eco mode. There’s even an 12v socket for plugging in electrical devices. Has the Ninja gone soft?
Thankfully not. The ZX-6R Ninja is one of the founding fathers of the supersport class and although it has rarely featured at the most extreme end of the sector, it’s usually a model renowned for its lusty motors – a legacy carried on by the 2019 version.
Personally I have some fond memories of the first generation ZX-6R. Some two decades ago I had a summer job working in a bike shop and got the chance to put some miles on our demo bike before it went out to punters. I remember riding it home at speeds I’d never even dreamed of, with nary a care in the world for cars pulling out in front of me, or Bubba waiting for me in a local jail cell. Thankfully I have grown up a bit, and so too has the Ninja.
In many ways, the 2019 ZX-6R is a minor, Euro4 friendly version of the previous (2013) model. Visually, it receives a new fairing in the style of the ZX-10R superbike (not to mention the smaller Ninja 400), LED lights and a new exhaust. Euro4ification sees the ZX-6R lose 1bhp over the old bike at the top end (making a claimed 128bhp, or 134bhp with the full effects of the ram air system), while ABS brakes, three mode traction control, quickshifter (working on the upshifts) and switchable power modes are all standard fare for the 2019 model. Suspension comes from Showa, with the acclaimed 41mm Big Piston Forks up front, while radially mounted Nissin monoblocs provide the stopping power up front. Those brakes are excellent too, positively burying the front wheel when you get hard on the anchors. Sticking with the Japanese componentry, Bridgestone has provided its new Battlax Hypersport S22s as the ZX-6R’s OE rubber.
So far, so good. Climb aboard the ZX-6R and it feels quite well proportioned by sports bike standards. Make no mistake though, the mid-sized Ninja is still a compact machine that was built for speed rather than comfort. The main discomfort in my time with the bike fell on the wrists. Maybe my butt was hurting too, but after just 10 miles in the saddle my wrists were telling me that this was certainly no touring bike.
Handling is what defines any sportsbike and the ZX-6R doesn’t disappoint. The immediate feeling when you have is of lightness. The steering is incredibly light and precise. In my time with the Ninja, I rode on some of my favourite local roads and was impressed by the way in which it cut through the corners, although I do get a feeling that more enthusiastic owners may look to order the optional Ohlins steering damper kit to keep things under control.
Talking of options, our demo bike came with the accessory Akrapovic slip on silencer, which improves the look no end and gives the motor a sweet rasping soundtrack. Our bike had also been modified with the factory pillion seat cover, engine guards and tank pads – all the options except the steering damper really.
On the road, I found the mirrors useful. They stick out far enough to clear my elbows, even if they do get a bit buzzy at speed, and the instruments are clear to read as well, even if they are a bit old fashioned in today’s world of TFT screens.
Kawasaki has shortened the gearing of the 2019 ZX-6R, no doubt to offset the slight drop in power compared to last year’s, Euro3, version. With nearly 130bhp at the right wrist, the Ninja certainly doesn’t lack go, but the motor does need to be worked hard to get the best out of it, and there’s none of the smack in the face that you get with a full fat 1000cc superbike.
That feeling of lightness continues with the transmission, which is silky smooth and benefits from a quickshifter that allows you to snick up the box without using the clutch. The quickshifter doesn’t extend to downshifting, as seen on the latest generation of superbikes, but the clutch action is light and precise, with the slipper clutch helping to facilitate smooth down changes.
Personally, I am not too sure about the styling. In a world where sportsbikes have become elegant, sophisticated looking beasts (witness the latest Honda Fireblade, Suzuki GSX-R1000 and even the R6) the Ninja looks a bit angular around the front end. That’s Kawasaki’s thang though, and the family look (which started on the Ninja H2) is clear to see. With the 636, you have a genuine big bike, a premium bike. Where the Ninja look has been extended down to the 400s and 650s, there’s no feeling that the ZX-6R is a badge engineered commuter bike. It’s a proper little race bike, with all the right kit and the build and finish you’d expect from a near £10k motorbike. It needs to come in the green KRT colours though, and that costs £200 more than the black bike we tested.
Whether for reasons of vanity or pragmatism, litre bikes are far more popular than 600s these days. The last supersport bike I ran was almost a decade ago, when I had a Triumph Daytona 675. The 675 was (is) still a truly spectacular bike and for all I loved it (and I did love it too) I hated it in almost equal measures. It was horrendously uncomfortable, impractical and had the turning circle of an oil tanker. That I haven’t even had a hankering to own another sportsbike of any capacity in the last 10 years probably says more about me than it does the wonderful bikes that populate our showrooms these days.
Taken in isolation, the Ninja 636 is a cracking bike but it’s easy to see how the supersport class has become irrelevant in the years since I had my Triumph. Where litre bikes have evolved massively, gaining big power and sophisticated electronics to keep them in check, the Kawasaki doesn’t seem to have really moved on significantly from the previous generation 600s. The electronics are the only real developments we’ve seen in that time, but remain basic when compared to the latest big capacity machines. Compare a ZX-6R of 2008 to today’s model and it feels like a gentle evolution, but look at two ZX-10Rs from the same eras and you can see what a revolution we’ve had in that class. The truth is that sophisticated electronics are making 1000cc superbikes easier to ride today than ever before. Turn the volume down on a modern superbike and you’ll find a bike as docile as a 600 – another reason for the category’s increasing irrelevance.
Then there’s the marketplace. PCPs have come along and made owning motorcycles easier than before (although a ZX-10R still costs £100 a month more than the ZX-6R), while the aging demographic of the modern day motorcyclist means that the usual barriers to owning sportsbikes for younger riders (insurance premiums, finance and running costs) are becoming less and less significant.
Sports bikes still intrigue me but, like many, the desire to own one has diminished over the years. The thought of being cramped up on a 200bhp rocket leaves the 45-year-old me quite cold these days, but on paper the ZX-6R delivers plenty of thrills for not too much money.
Now I am no racer and my test of the Kawasaki took place mainly on the rural roads of Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, but for my average abilities the Kawasaki provides more than enough performance. I can’t tell you what lap time the ZX-6R can do around Silverstone, and whether that’s faster than an R6, but I did enjoy riding it without scaring the bejeezus out of myself.
At less than £10,000, the ZX-6R feels like something of a bargain to me. Sure, it’s not at the cutting edge of sportsbikes, but in terms of pound-for-pound performance it takes some beating. It’s way more powerful and premium than the budget CBR650R and even if the R6 does have it licked on the race track, the Kawasaki feels less compromised as a road bike.
With the current trend for race replicas at an all-time low it’s hard to see too many Kawasaki ZX-6R Ninjas flying out of the showrooms this summer. That’s a great shame because, as unfashionable as they are, 600s still provide plenty of fun for the man and woman on the street.
Thanks to Wheels Motorcycles in Peterborough for the loan of the ZX-6R.