2009 Kawasaki ZX-6R first ride review

It may only look like a small update, but there’s a lot more under the skin of the new ZX-6R. With a new look comes a more refined attitude

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Kawasaki’s new ZX-6R is a bike that is certain to split opinions, because it’s a step away from a traditional Kawasaki character.

Traditionally, ZX-6Rs come with screaming motors that need to be thrashed like crazy because there is next to knob-all midrange. Any decent forward motion is usually accompanied with a wailing engine and valves that are pumping harder than a randy bull in a field of cows.

After a brief period of experimentation with extra capacity, Kawasaki decided that it was too much hassle to build two different capacity engines for racing and road and returned the ZX-6R to its roots in 2007 with a 599cc engine that thrived on revs and was flatter than the world economy anywhere else.

This was a bike pitched at the trackday enthusiast and despite it being a finely honed circuit tool, when it came to riding on the road was a massive pain in the arse. Compared to the discovered midrange, riding an import 400 with a two-stroke power-band at about 14,000 rpm. Entertaining on track, but who wants to pop down the shops on a bike that needs to be constantly screaming like a mentally deranged gibbon?

Kawasakis are traditionally a bit on the mad side, but this was too much and owners of the bigger capacity ZX-6Rs weren’t impressed, criticising the lack of grunt. and they were joined in their criticisms by the World Supersport racers, although it’s doubtful that Katsuaki Fujiwara was using his bike to pop down to Tesco on. Kawasaki has now done something about this.

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I wasn’t expecting the 2009 ZX-6R to be too much of a departure from the current model. Despite the re-location of the exhaust from under the seat to a traditional side mounted position and a few cosmetic bits and bobs I had assumed it would be a slight tweak. This isn’t the case, Kawasaki has completely re-worked the ZX-6R’s engine and with it given the bike a totally new character.

On the spec sheet there doesn’t seem that many changes, it’s the usual cam tweaks, flow of fuel/air into the engine, ECU updates and the like, but when combined they have succeeded in filling the gaping hole in the bike’s midrange, not to mention shedding a whopping 3kg off the motor alone. But to ride the difference is quite staggering, which could be a bit of an issue to Kawasaki purists.

I’m a bit of a slow starter in the mornings so for our first session of the day at Kawasaki’s test track of Autopolis in Japan I decided to take it easy and learn my way around.

On the old bike this would have been a fairly irritating experience as the lack of midrange would have meant constant gear shifts were needed to keep up a decent momentum. On the 2009 ZX-6R the power delivery is totally changed, gone is the gutless mid-range followed by a surging powerband, now it’s just smooth and linear power. While the engine still has a wonderful screaming sound, the power delivery is chalk and cheese compared to previous Kawasakis and feels a bit, dare I say it, Honda-ish...

I can almost hear the thud as die-hard Kawasaki fan’s jaws hit the ground at this comment, but bear with me, it’s not bad news. In fact it’s good news, because the ZX-6R is now a considerably less frustrating bike to ride, yet still maintains the razor sharp handling and all of the old model’s good points. Once I was confident where I was going and opened the ZX-6R up the engine just got better and better.

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From as low (in 600 terms) as 8,000rpm the Kawasaki delivers strong power all the way to the bellowing 16,500rpm red-line. That’s 8,000rpm of useable power, as opposed to the old bike’s 4,000rpm (if you were lucky.) rather than the frustrating precision that the old model demanded when it came to gears you can be far lazier with the new engine, running into corners a gear higher or down in the rev-range and still driving out rather than having to wait for revs to build up and the power to chime in again.

But there is a downside. at times the engine feels a bit flat and lethargic. Despite building up speed very fast there isn’t a rush of excitement that you expect from a lime green bike, just strong, constant power. Which can feel a bit, not disappointing that’s too harsh, more muted. The test track was quite high above sea level, so there is a chance the engine was being strangled slightly by the thin air, but I think this is just a character of a flat power/torque delivery. You can’t have your cake and eat it, with smooth drive comes a flatter power delivery.

Thankfully the chassis more than compensates for this. In a feat similar to Fern Britton’s recent weight loss the ZX-6R has shed 7kg from it’s chassis alone, and all without the use of a gastric band. In such a tight class where a few kg here and there make such a substantial difference this 10kg over all diet (3kg from the engine) is impressive. Although most of the weight loss has come from the new exhaust, small chassis alterations and a new set of very flash forks have also contributed significantly.

The ZX-6R is the first bike to come with Showa’s Big Piston Forks as standard, and very impressive they are too. As the theory goes they dive less than ‘normal’ inverted forks, and from what I could tell this theory holds up. Last year’s ZX-6R was very impressive on the brakes, this year’s is even better. Autopolis’ front straight is over 1km long, and by the end of it the ZX-6R was showing the top side of 150mph before you have to brake hard for a second gear right hander.

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Slam on the brakes and at first it’s a bit disconcerting as the forks don’t compress half as much as you are expecting, keeping the bike flatter and almost feeling as though the brakes aren’t doing their job. It takes some getting used to, but when combined with the excellent gearbox and slipper clutch allows some seriously silly late braking as the bike is kept more stable as the weight isn’t pitched so far forward. It’s very impressive and I’m certain it won’t be long before the rest of the japanese follow suit, especially if the ZX-6R starts to do well in WSS.

Braking over and mid-corner the ZX-6R is stunning. The chassis is totally neutral, balanced and turns into bends beautifully with inch perfect precision. Once leant over the smooth engine response and lovely fuel-injection means that you can roll the throttle on and off and the superb chassis refuses to be upset.

Autopolis has more than its fair share of long, big-angle, corners and the ZX-6R remained super-stable, despite my ham-fisted throttle action as I bottled it mid-corner on more than a few occasions. you can chop the throttle mid-corner, drag the bike tighter in the turn and power on again with no fuss or drama at all.

However it is worth pointing out that Kawasaki did cheat slightly by shoeing the bike in Bridgestone’s ridiculously sticky BT-003 tyres, in the softest compound, but I’m certain it will be equally as good on the standard BT-016 rubber. and quite nicely it’s not all super-refined. Get a bit excitable and the ZX-6R will still shake its head exiting corners or over bumps under power, it’s not worrying, and the Ohlins damper stops it getting out of control but personally I quite like my Kawasakis a bit lively. It’s traditional.

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Where the old motor was certainly frustrating at times, it was equally exciting to ride in much the same way a two-stroke motorcycle is. There is a certain amount of satisfaction to be had hammering an engine, keeping it in the sweet spot and working for your thrills, rather than have them presented on a plate. The new ZX-6R doesn’t quite have this charm and can feel a bit flat because of it and ever so slightly non-Kawasaki. although the new engine will certainly make the

ZX-6R a far better road bike than the previous model I can see Kawasaki purists might dislike its slight lack of ‘Kawasaki character.’ It doesn’t scream, kick or howl in the same fashion as the old bike, but in the same token it handles better and is much more pleasant to ride.

Despite lacking the ‘Kawasaki’ engine buzz there is no question at all I’d have the new bike over the old model, especially for the road. It might be lacking that top-end two-stroke style kick that ZX-6Rs are known for, but the rest of the bike is still very track-focused with a stunning chassis, it just now comes with midrange to boot. This, in my book, is well worth sacrificing a drop or two of green blood for.

What are those things?

Big Piston Forks have been used by racers for a while now and don’t work that differently to ‘normal’ forks. The main change, however, is that the main piston is bigger and there is no cartridge tube and sub-piston, allowing the big piston to slide directly along the inside of the fork. Because it has a larger surface area the big piston can distribute an equal amount of damping force over a smaller movement, increasing the feel and reducing the fork’s dive.

Think of it like a hole in a water bucket and the water leaking out as fork movement. A small hole equals water shooting a long way, loads of movement. A large hole equals a slower trickle of water, less fork movement. As the theory goes less pressure is easier to control and provide constant damping, and less moving parts means a lighter fork that is simpler to maintain and has a more direct feel.