Kawasaki 2008 ZX-10R review

The 2008 ZX-10R is a major step up, even if some of the feisty old character has been replaced by smooth sophistication.

Seriously quick | Track-focused missile | Now with more power and more usability
Some of the bullish character has been lost

Having ridden previous models, I was aware of its qualities and failings, and was eager to see if this latest iteration of the bike, the 2008 ZX-10R, had matured into a proper contender for the ultimate track tool.

The raw motor with its class-leading low-down grunt and raucous air intake roar were some of the 2006 ZX-10R's strengths, but the wayward chassis and high degree of physical rider input required to tame it could be exhausting and intimidating for some riders.

However, Kawasaki seems to have addressed these issues in the 2008 model with a fresh ethos to produce a more powerful yet more controllable bike, with increased chassis feedback and flickability, and greater potential for success in superbike racing.

The changes in the 2008 ZX-10R are apparent from the moment you lay eyes on it.

The bodywork has been designed to fit the rider more snugly, allowing for a more race-like stance with less obtrusion from the fuel tank and fairing. The styling is more aggressive, with a sky-high tail unit and excessive use of black, giving it a serious and focused look.

The new model also boasts an increase in power, with 185bhp and 197bhp with ram air effect, thanks to re-shaped intake ports and combustion chambers.

The chassis has been made lighter and more rigid, with a conventional exhaust layout that replaces the cumbersome under seat exhaust of the previous model. Overall, the 2008 ZX-10R appears to be a more serious track tool with improved performance and handling capabilities.

On the track, the 2008 ZX-10R did not disappoint. The engine delivers power in a quieter, smoother, and more linear manner compared to the previous model, with good, clean power available throughout the rev range.

The chassis upgrades are evident in the bike's improved composure out of turns and its ability to easily cope with direction changes at high speeds. The bike feels smaller and more focused, comparable to a 600 or 750cc bike, and provides a level of feedback previously unavailable.

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.

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 Pirellis. 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 200 horsepower of sportsbike, and it felt more and more like a 600 with each session.

Should you buy the 2008 ZX-10R?

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.

Living with a 2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R

Words by Jon Bentman

July 2008

The new long termer is a beast. Neighbour Phil confirmed it – in a year he barely noticed the CBR600RR, certainly didn’t comment upon it, but from day one the Kermit-green Kawasaki ZX-10R had him hooked.

He could tell, just looking at it, that the ZX-10R can do the business. And he’s not wrong. Simon Bowen rode the ZX-10R on its world launch for us and came back from Qatar speaking of 600/750-territory proportions and ‘quiet’ power delivery.

First impressions for me are that by no means is the ZX-10R 600-size, it feels far bigger than the CBR. But I’m not complaining, at 6’0” it’s a perfect match for my frankly weedy frame. I understand his ‘quiet’ comment though. The new ZX-10R has neither the bark nor shriek of previous incarnations; it’s almost Honda-like with its new smooth unfussy motor.

It’s still blazingly fast though. Maybe in the vast openness of Losail it felt measured, but between the hedges in back roads Kent it’s nothing less than mind warping. Big throttle action makes for jaw-dropping acceleration and has the front light and twitching hard on reconnection to earth, while crests in the roads again send the front skyward – creating yet more twitches. None of which is at all dangerous, but it is enough to make you pleased to be looking directly at the Öhlins steering damper each time the front lifts. It’s been raining these past few days.

Riding on Bridgestone’s new 3&5 compound BT-016s the big Kwak has been brilliant. It hooks up and it is just so confidence inspiring that the ride to work has become a bit of a GP. It’s early days yet, but yes I’m enjoying the Kwak immensely. It may be the most civilised ZX-10R yet, but it’s still got attitude. I’m even starting to enjoy its looks.

September 2008

This Kawasaki ZX-10R is something special. I loved my last long termer too, the CBR600RR, and I was wondering back then whether there was any point in riding anything bigger. Well, the ZX-10R has answered that. Yes, of course there is. Sure, I barely travel any faster than I did before but there’s something special about the size and power of the Kawasaki that makes it even more entertaining to ride. Certainly I can see an easy justification in the price premium you pay for a 1000 sports.

I’ve had the ZX-10R long enough now (three months and 5,000 miles), too, for any initial new bike euphoria to wear off. The reality then is the ZX-10R remains an ever-intriguing ride. Because it is so powerful you nibble at its (well, your own) limits very respectfully. The power wheelies still astonish but cornering is the real cool experience. I’m lucky enough to have some pretty handy roundabout and corner sequences on my way to work and hauling the big Kwak left and right though these is simply an endless fascination. Special mention here has to go to the Bridgestone BT014s. The first set got changed at 3,500 miles after a vigorous ride around the Scottish Highlands saw them off ahead of time.

But the second set are looking good some 1,700 miles later. They’re offering great handling, but it’s in the wet I truly love them. They feel so inspiring, so much so that I look forward to wet rides as much as I do dry ones. There’s a lot made of the lineage between this bike and Kawasaki’s MotoGP bikes, but I’m beginning to wonder if both don’t also have a strong connection with the firm’s jetskis. They sure love the wet.

Anyway, I took the Kwak on a 400-mile round trip to Cornwall in early June and it again proved simply brilliant. I’d fitted Kawasaki’s own accessory high-screen before leaving and this allowed comfortable motorway cruising at just below the ton. Most of the journey was made on single carriageways though, like the A30, and chasing along the undulations of Dorset, Wiltshire and Devon the Kwak was excellent.

The motor is Honda-like in its silky smoothness, ideal for long rides, but it retains enough gruffness to be characterful with it. Comfort was commendable too. Sure my knees felt a bit sore after a while, but I’ve suffered as much on proper tourers, too. Yet what really impressed me on this trip was the fuel range. I got to 150 miles before the fuel light came on, then refuelled at 160 miles to find I could only squeeze in 15.5 litres, I could have easily gone 170 miles. That’s a return of something like 41mpg. Very BMW-like – yeah, impressive.

The only other modification to date is the addition of a seat cowl, again Kawasaki’s own. And it looks spot-on. More changes are afoot though. There’s a mini indicator kit coming and we’ve a carbon can from Two Brothers to slip on. You’ll be able to read about those next time.

It’s curious, I remember a lot of negative comment about the ZX-10R’s looks when it was launched. But in the flesh it seems to be impressing an awful lot of people. Non-biking people especially comment favourably on its striking styling. I can’t say I was a big on it at first, but over time I’ve really come to like it.

And there’s something about Kawasaki’s green. It’s not an easy colour to carry off, but when the bike in question is as potent as this one it really is a question of: so what?

• Kawasaki’s own Bubble screen £55.95
• Kawasaki’s own pillion seat cover £81.95
• Bridgestone BT016 (excellent tyres, now on second set, first set lasted 3,500 miles – although plenty of those were pretty hard sport riding in Scotland) £229.00

MILES: 5250

October 2008

I don’t know who was more surprised, Kawasaki UK or me. Fact was the ZX-10R wasn’t showing much shy of 7,300 miles. Have I really done that many, so soon? Seems so. So the10R is currently in their workshops for its first major service (there’s a minor at 4,000, so I’m told). Not that I could justify any reason for it to be there, it is after all riding as sweet now as it did on day one.

Surprisingly my promised modifications have taken place. I have to admit the work has been done by others. The Two Brothers slip-on muffler has indeed slipped on. And very nice it looks too. It’s had an effect on performance. The ZX-10R now stutters slightly off the bottom but the power comes in with a bit more force than before – nicely entertaining. Whether or not the top end is much healthier who knows – chasing top end performance on the road is a difficult and risky business. I’ll say one thing though – it’s loud. Lovely to you and me but I don’t think the public share our enthusiasm. A quietening insert can (and will!) be inserted. And the fancy Kawasaki-own mini indicator kit – and tail tidy – is also on. It reeks of quality. Excellent.

December 2008

I want Kawasaki HQ to always service my bikes. Those guys must seriously love their little green children; the ZX-10R came back from its 7,500 mile service with every last adjuster cleaned, lubed to perfection and nipped up ‘just so’. Even the nasty chips and scratches on the petrol tank (not my fault) were given a touch up. The ZX-10R positively purred. Only with that Two Bros pipe it’s always a growl.
With the big Kwak now passing the 8,500-mile marker it’s been time to change the tyres too. Shockingly the Bridgestone BT-016s have been on for an honest 5,000 miles and only recently has the rear started squaring off. The front looks good for many miles yet. I’ve really enjoyed riding on the 016s. They’ve been stupendous in the wet and in the dry they do nothing wrong, certainly they’ve had me cornering harder on the road than I usually do. And to last this long on a bike this powerful, that’s ticking all the boxes – great performance wet or dry plus good longevity.

The Bridgestones have been replaced by a set of contraband rubber – Michelin Pilot Race jobbies, which are a super sticky track version of the standard Pilot Power road tyre.
Curiously the change of tyre hasn’t significantly changed the handling – least not in road terms. There are some differences. I’ve noticed where on the 016s when I used to pitch hard into a turn there’d be a sense of sliding for a nano-second before they hooked up (and they always did), on the Michelins its maximum grip and surety all the way. I’ve also noticed, hammering along some great roads in Derbyshire, that nailing the ZX-10R through the gears it felt a lot more lively than I can recall. Lots of bar shake, to the point I considered turning up the steering damper (I didn’t). But these are race tyres, they should be a little livelier.

That was some ride as it went. It’s not often you get the roads quiet enough to be able to slip the leash, but I could on that occasion. I’ll say one thing, it gets pretty busy. Past 6,000rpm the Kwak pulls so hard and the noise from the pipe is just so sweet. It’s so fast you have to change your riding style.

Like riding dirt bikes: if you’re only looking ten yards ahead of the front mudguard then you will only ride so fast, but if you lift your head and look to the next corner, and ignore all the shit between you and there, then you’ll ride much faster. On the ZX-10R it’s very similar, just look for that end product and hang on. If you’re looking for manholes or overbanding you’re pretty much done for because you won’t be ready for the next corner, which will be on you, like now! It’s all quite physical too. I was finding I was coming out of the likes of roundabouts hanging over the inside and nailing the throttle while applying a bit of opposite lock.
Finally, to clear up any mis- understanding, the Kawasaki mini indicator kit is made from what looks to be CNC-milled ally, they fit like OE kit and for something so diddy they flash as bright as the originals. £250 might seem like a lot, but this is a £9k bike, is it worth spoiling the looks with 50-quid’s worth of plastic tat when by shelling out proper money you can have proper kit?
Costs this month: Michelin Pilot Race £210/pair

Miles: 8,726

February 2009

My son misses the Kawasaki already. Just a little more than two years old, he liked to sit on the ZX-10R, was thrilled when I would start it up and give it a handful or two (with him on the saddle) and would on many occasions pop my Shark helmet on his head and stagger around the house making broom-broom noises. He’d become something of a ZX-10R fan it seems, which he’d come to call “daddy-gike.” The first day after the ZX-10R went home, I came home from work (in a car), he met me at the door and asked, “Daddy-gike?” “No daddygike,” I replied. Christ, he looked sad.

Almost as much as I felt.

Yep, all good things come to an end. I’m just thankful I got in over 10,500 miles on Kawasaki’s coolest of missiles before time was called.

At the beginning of the tenure the ZX-10R was all about brute force. It took weeks to get over the effect twisting the throttle had. Incredible acceleration combined with ever-twitching handlebars created perfect highs.

As cool Spring gave way to warm Summer so the ZX-10R’s agility became the next area of fascination.

In a road context it has a sublime handling package. Riding on Bridgestone BT-016s I was forever nibbling away at ever-greater lean angles. When deep lean became commonplace, we moved onto investigating deep lean and ever more acceleration. The way you could drive it off an apex was extraordinary. Behaviour that would only a few years ago have you shot from the saddle in one of those slip-grip high-siding motions, on the ZX-10R went unpunished. Stepping up from the 2007 CBR600RR I had anticipated having to ease back on my cornering habits, but if anything, on the Kawasaki, I was able to riding even more keenly.

A further area of joy with the Kawasaki was its comfort. I took it on at least three cross-country trips and on each occasion it was surprising just how cosseting it was. The motor could tick along at 99mph all day long, unstressed. I used both the standard screen and Kawasaki’s own high screen and both gave more than ample protection – far more than the CBR’s did. The seat and footpeg positions too proved spot-on. And as the ZX-10R could turn in an easy 42mpg, even when cruising at more than 90mph, it allowed an excellent 170 mile tank range. There was really no impediment to touring expeditions.

Those BT-016s were great tyres by the way, the rear lasting a good 6,000 miles. I couldn’t fault them for road use. The replacements – Michelin Pilot Races – did show there was at least another 5% more extreme performance available. When first fitted, in the last days of the summer warmth, they certainly outperformed the Bridgestones, but as the days have cooled so has the Michelin’s performance. I was increasingly conscious of warming them up for a good five miles or so, and in the wet I was starting to tiptoe again where on the Bridgestones wet weather had been just one big playtime.

I slipped on a Two Brothers carbon end can, which proved a lot of fun. I can’t say that I detected any performance gains but the howl was very ‘race’. It was awesome on over-run too, more than anything I enjoyed the pops bangs and burbles on overrun.

So it’s a fond farewell to Kawasaki’s awesome litre-sports. It felt sharp beginning to end. I got to really enjoy the looks, loved its green-ness. And I got to experience that sense of individuality that comes with the brand. It’s not like owning a top-end Ducati, say, but there is definite sense of difference, and certainly a sense of ‘club’ with other green riders. My only regret is I never got to ride it on the track. Niall snagged that job, and by all accounts made a real pig of himself. Must have been cool.


MILES: 10,544