First Ride: 2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R

Jim Bowen managed to completely spanner a ZX-10R the last time we put him on one. He has never been to the Qatar MotoGP circuit. So, who better to make a complete arse of himself...

Most, or all of the above is largely true, but I’m more than happy to make an arse of myself in the name of sunny foreign press launches. As Niall and Whit were busy at the NEC show, I lunged at the opportunity to redeem my previous road test misdemeanour from this summer. More importantly though, I was very keen to see if the third incarnation of the ZX-10R would remain the loveable but demented rogue, or finally mature into a proper contender for the ultimate track tool.

Its qualities were matched by its failings, as far as the masses were concerned. I, for one, loved the raw motor with its class-leading low-down grunt and raucous air intake roar. I also liked the fact that a high degree of physical rider input was necessary to counteract the wayward chassis. It made it fun, if a little exhausting, and certainly intimidating for some.

The bottom line however, was that the Japanese competition made models that were easier to ride fast and that, at the end of the day, is how these bikes are judged. I should point out that my fairly spectacular dismount in southern France a few months ago had nothing to do with the bike, but rather a rogue front Dunlop that had created unpleasant moments for most of the riders on that particular test. No such problems here as the bikes are fitted with Pirelli Diablo Super Corsa’s on the first day and a softer version developed specifically for this circuit on day two.

So, what have Kawasaki done to address the criticisms of the 2006 model? Well, there seems to be a fresh ethos at the factory to produce a more powerful yet more controllable bike, with emphasis on increased chassis feedback and flickability, and far greater potential for success in the superbike racing arena – let’s see how many podiums Laconi and Tamada can amass between them. As a part of this, the bodywork has been designed to fit the rider more snugly, allowing a more race-like stance with less obtrusion from the fuel tank and fairing. It certainly looks dinky and very narrow and once tucked in, fitted me perfectly.

The significant changes over the outgoing model include the predictable increase in power (185bhp and 197bhp with ram air effect which is up 13 & 17bhp respectively) along with a lighter and more rigid chassis and sub frame. Re-shaped intake ports and combustion chambers are to thank for the stronger top-end surge. Improved mass centralisation is down to the welcome return to a conventional exhaust layout. Gone, thank God, are the cumbersome and ugly under seat items (aren’t they all?) that blighted the rear of the predecessor. Secondary injectors are added along with a revised and quieter ram air system thanks (or no thanks if you enjoyed the ferocious racket of the current bike) to new intake funnels. Lighter aluminium discs and a few titanium internals help keep the claimed dry weight to 179kg, a slight 4kg increase over the incumbent.


How long have you been designing bikes at Kawasaki?

20 years, but I also design watercraft and ATV’s. Bikes are my passion and the main reason I am employed here.

How many projects do you complete every year?

Around nine bikes and five ATV’s/watercraft, so I’m very busy at the moment!

So did you come up with the original concept sketches for the new 10R?

Yes. It started with me but I have 23 staff – 14 in Styling and Design and nine in graphics. I design the entire bike, not just the bodywork. It’s labour-intensive, but incredibly satisfying.

When did you start on the project?

In June 2006, soon after completion of the previous model. Most projects take around 24 months but we completed the exterior in 15 which, is pretty quick.

What part of the bike, if any, are you most passionate about?

For me it is the fuel tank because it is central and a point of focus. It has a functional beauty, and we have ensured that it has room to accommodate the legs, arms and chin.

The new angular bodywork is certainly an improvement. What were the targets?

We wanted a more aggressive yet agile looking exterior, with strong graphics and personality.

How has this affected aerodynamics?

In wind tunnel testing, the 2008 model has proven to be more efficient than the old 2006 model, but it took a lot of work!

There is a MotoGP influence there. Will this filter down to the next middleweights?

The new generation of design concept will be seen on future 600’s, for sure.

If you could be remembered for one design achievement, what would it be?

The ZX-9R of 1999. I loved that bike.

Can you tell me what projects you’re working on now?


Do you support Arsenal?


Never mind...

Kawasaki ZX-10R Review

It’s fair to say that the new model, despite there being no change to the handlebar/seat/footrest relationship, looks and feels a far more serious a track tool, and that’s before firing up the motor. One final inquisitive lap of the bike and I have to say that the new styling does work for me. I love the side profile, in particular the sky-high tail unit and the excessive use of black, even down to the anodised foot pegs. I could happily do without the front indicators (a tiny £110 LED replacement will be available as an accessory) that look like fat caterpillars en route to a leaf party and the nasty black end cap on the silencer. Never fear, titanium Akrapovic cans with carbon end caps will remedy this at around £450 by the time the bike goes on sale late Feb/early March next year.

I was getting a bit sick of hearing how difficult a circuit Qatar is to learn, and how slippery it is off line in the desert dust, so was glad to trundle off and find my way round. There is no doubting that this bike feels proper small – 600/750 territory and very focused. By the end of the first sighting session it was clear that the engine has little in common with the current model. Gone is the savage low-down thrust and induction roar that made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.

Instead, we have a quieter, smoother and far more linear delivery. So much so, that there is no discernable point in the rev range where it seems to suddenly pick up its skirt and clear off. There is good, clean power from the off and it is seriously fast, pulling hard and happily to 13,000rpm without a hint of vibration or fuss. So we appear at this stage to have had character replaced by smooth sophistication.

The problem with the current model wasn’t with the motor itself, but in the ability of the chassis to cope with it. The new frame has been beefed up both in thickness and rigidity, has the headstock further forward and a new swing-arm pivot point, all to help the bike maintain its composure out of turns and provide a level of feedback previously unavailable. It certainly succeeds in these areas, but more noticeable is the bikes ability to easily cope with the direction changes of a high-speed kink, which could have seriously upset the ‘06 bike.

As it turns out, I did struggle to learn the circuit layout in the three short sessions of day one, but it started to come together the following day on the ultra sticky race-bred Pirelli’s. Firing the bike onto the start/finish straight in 2nd with an almighty handful of gas did upset it slightly lap after lap – the front stayed down but the bars waggled for about 100yards before calming down.

This was easily remedied by short shifting into 3rd and nailing it through the gears but I was more perplexed with a vague feeling at the front from mid-corner to exit as the rear squatted slightly with so much traction available. A slight tweak on the rear high and low speed compression all but cured the problem and amusingly, as the quicker I rode through the last two sessions, the less I could notice it. Perhaps it was a case of slow old Jim not keeping it pinned enough, perhaps? But I doubt it.

There’s no doubt that the ZX-10R seemed to thrive being revved hard and behaved impressively at high speed. Firstly, it’s completely stable even with a noticeable desert wind crossing the track. Secondly, it holds a perfectly tight line and was not phased by my ham-fisted mid-corner throttle adjustments, particularly on the first day. But most impressive was the braking. My top speed before braking for the turn 1, 2nd gear hairpin was an indicated 175mph on the first day and up to 184mph on the very last session. I never once touched the back brake and never missed my turn-in point. The power, feel and feedback are absolutely spot-on all of the time.

Considering that there were three riders sharing each bike, and the bikes never had a breather, I was seriously impressed, as there was no fade whatsoever during two days of hard thrashing. The chassis was so composed that a reasonable handful of front brake could be carried very late into a turn without any negative effect. The gear ratios and change are excellent, with no hiccups up or down the ‘box at any point during the test. Once I had a good idea of which way the featureless circuit went, I had so much confidence in the bike that I plain forgot I was hooning around on nearly 200horsepower of sportsbike, and it felt more and more like a 600 with each session.

Kawasaki have made a giant leap forward with this model and have entered the arena with a proper track tool that is going to give the best of the rest a genuine run for their money. I doubt if it’s good enough to topple the current top dog, Suzuki’s GSX-R1000, but my guess is that it’s a match for the current ‘Blade (we will have to see what Niall makes of the new ‘Blade in the next issue) and would murder the over rated R1 in a group test.

There is absolutely no energy wasted fighting the new ZX-10R. You can just get on it and ride it fast from the off and it does everything very well, giving plenty of feedback from the chassis, tyres and brakes. So, Kawasaki, I’m happy to say, have finally cracked it with a genuine contender. The 2008 litre shoot-out could be the closest run contest yet.