First Ride: 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R

Kawasaki's all-new ZX-10R is bursting with technology. But is it better than BMW's S1000RR?

Kawasaki have launched the all-new ZX-10R. The much awaited new model steps up to the plate with a claimed 200bhp at the crank, traction control as standard and the option of ABS. No prizes for guessing the bike Kawasaki want to knock off the top spot.

One thing is clear; Kawasaki aren't messing about with this one. Since the original ZX-10R in 2004, they've struggled to keep up with the competition but with the new bike boasting S-KTRC, Kawasaki's clever traction control system, three power modes and the option of KIBS, Kawasaki's ABS system, the ZX-10R is packed with the latest technology and spoiling for a fight with the litre superbike class leaders.

The first thing you notice about the ZX-10R is how small it is. A ZXR400 was the first bike I thought of when I slung my leg over the 10R in the oppressively hot Qatar heat. It's a full 10kg less than the outgoing 10R too. I don't know about you but I'm still impressed at the rate at which these bikes get developed. The all-cast frame is the lightest in its class and has enabled Kawasaki to make these huge weight savings.

I had five sessions out on track and used the first two to learn the Losail circuit. I can confidently say that Losail is the toughest circuit I've ever ridden, it's as flat as a tea tray, with no obvious trackside features and to make it even more awkward: every corner looks the same.

Despite not getting to grips with the circuit in the first couple of sessions, I had plenty of time to get comfortable with the basics that make the new ZX-10R so good. It handles like a 600, infact better than most. The front end feels so plush, so precise and very light. In order to build confidence, I have to trust the front-end and when I was running into corners too hot in the early sessions while still getting to grips with the circuit, the front never protested and my confidence didn’t take a knock.

Although the new ZX-10R’s wheelbase is 10mm longer than the outgoing model, there’s no way you could accuse the new 10R of being a barge.  You can remove the bike’s standard cat and move the rear wheel in by 16mm. I’m not sure you’d need to as the 10R already drops into corners with little effort and handles the transition flick from left to right with ease. Shortening the wheelbase might make the 10R more nimble but potentially at the cost of its stability through the longer 120mph+ right-handers at the back of the Losail circuit.

The brakes are astonishingly powerful but I suppose they'd be nothing without the 43mm Big Piston Forks. If you've not ridden a bike with a set of these forks on, you need to. They give you feedback in High Definition.

I stuck to 2nd and 3rd gear for the early sessions so I could concentrate on braking and turn-in points. The engine's power delivery is incredibly smooth, so much so that it doesn't feel like a big and torquey litre superbike that kicks in with a big wallop, it fizzes like a 600 and because the Losail circuit is so wide, it was hard to feel just how much grunt the 10R really has. I'm sure if I was riding around Cadwell Park I'd be able to tell you a different story...

Kawasaki have used more precise engineering techniques when building the new engine, so much so that lighter pistons and lower tension piston rings are used. The result is a bike that revs with a ferocity that I've only ever seen matched by a two-stroke 250 race bike. It is so easy to dial up too many revs, deliver too much power to the rear wheel and fire yourself into a corner 20mph faster than you should be going. Ideal when you're learning the circuit!

The throttle response is razor sharp, especially in the lower gears at higher revs. It took some getting used to at first as I found the pick-up jerky coming out of both of Losail’s left-hand hairpins. The pick-up was so quick I found myself rolling off before rolling on again, unsettling the bike and feeling a touch disconnected from the engine. There’s nothing wrong with the bike, it was just me that needed to adapt and once I tempered my harsh and eager throttle hand, I had a lot more confidence in setting the revs to where I wanted them to be and focusing on getting on with getting the 10R into the turn.

It was only in the last session of the day – the first time I put in some proper laps – did I get to feel the benefit of what is arguably the best bit of technology on the new ZX-10R; S- KTRC. Traction control to you and me.

Developed from Kawasaki’s experience in MotoGP, it is a sophisticated system. Gone are the days that traction control is just there to prevent you from highsiding yourself into next week. Kawasaki boasts that the new Sport Traction Control system is designed to maximise forward motion by allowing a certain amount of rear-wheel spin. Every half of a split-second the system is monitoring front and rear wheel speed, engine rpm, throttle position, current spin rate and acceleration. It also remembers what you did the laps before and builds up enough information to predict what you’ll be doing next.

Forget the science for a bit and take in this quote from MCN’s Trevor Franklin who was sat behind me on the final session: “You don’t half get on the throttle early, boy. You’re laying black lines everywhere.”

Such is my trust in S-KTRC, I was getting on the power at the exact moment I wanted to and instead of feeding the throttle in, keeping myself a healthy distance from highside territory, I was holding it wide open and letting the S-KTRC sort out the repercussions of my demands to send 200bhp towards the rear Bridgestone BT-003.  

Now, you may turn your nose up at that and say ‘where’s the skill?’ but the feeling of holding the ZX-10R pinned to the stop in 3rd with the rear drawing a black arc is unbeatable. Racers might do that lap after lap with just their skill, but I’m happy trading a lack of skill for a nice dollop of technology. It took a few laps to get my head around cracking the throttle open in 2nd gear while still banked over but if you trust the system, you’ll reap the rewards.

Traction control isn’t the be all and end all of superbikes, but it’s clear from the sales figures this year - and BMW’s results in World Superstock - that it helps.  When it goes on sale, the new Kawasaki ZX-10R will be the best Japanese superbike money can buy, no doubt. The trouble is, gone are the days when being the best Japanese meant you were the best.

Is it better than the S1000RR? If I were BMW, I’d be reaching for the drawing board.