Here’s the admission. Despite the cover photo, I never rode Kawasaki’s track-ready litre bike on the track. Everything in this review is from riding around at the speed limit — or if I did exceed the limit, I’m not about to admit to it here. You’ll have to take me to the pub and buy me a few drinks first.
What I did do, though, is go looking for rough asphalt to try out the suspension, seek out some gorgeous riding roads in the hills, and toodle the bike around the city, posing between Starbucks and Tims. So this is a real world test. Go read up all those reviews of this bike from the track and you’ll find out about its idiosyncrasies at speed on a perfect surface, but consider what I’m saying here and you’ll find out what it’s like to actually own the thing.
You can still buy the regular ZX-10R that’s been available for the last couple of years. It starts at $16,899 and then goes up by a thousand or so if you want ABS brakes (you do) or Kawasaki’s racing colours (up to you). You might even be able to buy the super-duper, limited-edition ZX-10RR that’s tuned and prepped for the track and lists for $28,599. But this year, you can spend a lofty $24,599 and get the ZX-10R SE, with electronic suspension, lightweight forged aluminum wheels, and a quick-shifter that works both up and down. In fact, as the season’s ending, there’s even a $500 discount off that price.
The big news for the SE is the suspension, called Kawasaki Electronic Control Suspension, or KECS (bet those naming guys are great at parties). Other sport bikes have electronic suspensions but the Kawasaki’s Showa system is claimed to be quicker and more responsive. Instead of using pilot valves or step motors, it uses a single solenoid that can react in one thousandth of a second. As well, there are stroke sensors on both the front fork and rear shock, which also give feedback once every millisecond. Add to that, there’s speed information and acceleration and deceleration information being assessed every 10 milliseconds, so the KECS is pretty much on top of what’s going on during the ride.
The engine and transmission and chassis are otherwise unchanged from the much less expensive ZX-10R. The bike still makes up to 197 hp (less without the Ram Air) and almost 85 lbs.-ft. of torque at a rev-happy 11,500 rpm. The torque doesn’t sound like much compared even to power cruisers, but this bike weighs just 208 kg wet. Wheelie control and traction control is a given.
On the road
My right leg cramped up less than a minute after being slung over the Ninja’s seat. A bike like this is designed to be ridden at high-speed on a race track, and there are no compromises for comfort. It’s not un-comfortable – it just takes some getting used to, and a bit of muscle conditioning. Well, quite a lot of muscle conditioning.
As with any sportbike, you lean forward and low and your elbows hug the tank. This is great for riding the cushion of air on the back straight at 240 km/h, or bracing yourself against the back force of hard braking before a corner, but it’s not so great for riding between traffic lights in town or maintaining a 60 km/h cruising speed. The turning circle is wide as you wrestle the bars against the tank.
In the city, rear visibility was a challenge because I couldn’t turn my head properly for a shoulder check – my head was already craned as far up as my neck would allow to see ahead, given the prostrate position of my body. And thinking of prostates (see what I did there?), it takes a while at first to get used to the ass-up, head-down riding position that helps on the track and hinders on the road. If you’re getting on a bit, and aren’t we all, don’t be tempted to buy a no-compromise sportbike unless you want to track it, or you’re a yoga-loving fitness fanatic.
But thumb the starter button, slide out into the road, take the fast route out of the city and the ZX-10R SE comes into its own.
The clever suspension can be set for Road, Track or Manual, with just the press of a button on the left handlebar. As you’d expect, Road is the softer damping setup, but it’s not that soft. It’s well-suited for the average highway, and it will even stiffen up the front to limit braking dive, but when you find yourself on chopped-up pavement, you’re going to know about it. This is no adventure-tourer suspension. Manual, however, lets you set up the compression and rebound damping rates with the same button for any of 15 different settings each. If you want, it can go even softer and gentler for a rougher-road ride.
So did it all work? I can’t say if it worked better than the base ZX-10R because I didn’t ride one for comparison, and I can’t say it worked any better than the systems on the Ducati, Yamaha, Honda or BMW for the same reasons. I can say, though, that it gave me a very welcome confidence on such an intimidating bike. The Kawasaki felt solid on the road and didn’t do anything I didn’t expect. Whenever I’d switch to the Track setting, the ride was noticeably stiffer to the point of being uncomfortable; I’m sure that on a track, it will make all the difference.
Oh, and the power? Like shit off a shovel, of course. Shit. Off. A. Shovel. The ZX-10R likes to rev and will bog down easily below 3,000 rpm, but give the throttle a twist and everything happens very quickly indeed. Get the revs up over 7,000 rpm and everything starts to boil, and there goes your licence. Canada’s 100 km/h speed limit comes up at 8,500 rpm, and that’s just first gear. Redline is at 14,000, and if you’re that brave, everything’s moving like the Starship Enterprise hitting warp speed.
Fortunately, there are various things you can do to make the bike more manageable for the road. Five different traction control settings, for one thing, which can help keep things under control, and another setting that cuts total power to the rear wheel by a quarter or even half. I switched it on and the ZX-10R was still very fast indeed. As the nice man from Kawasaki said when he handed me the key and explained the feature, why would you want to do that with a bike like this? I reset it to Full and was content all week.
Is it worth it?
This is a niche bike. It’s a track bike, and it really doesn’t want to ride anywhere that has a speed limit. Don’t buy this bike because you want to ride fast, because plenty of motorcycles go plenty fast – buy it because you want to race, and if you’ve already earned enough experience to not waste its abilities.
That said, it’s very, very well finished and is a pleasure to just clean in the driveway, running your cloth over the curves of the tank, wiping the honeycomb finish on the fairing, rubbing the aluminum of the wheels and the forks. It’s a premium machine, as you’ll see from the Ninja embossment on the seat and the high-quality paint of the tank. There’s no choice of colours: it’s only available in a flat black and matte grey, with lime green accents. That’s okay. It’s the paint scheme I’d have chosen anyway.
I do have some issues with the bike, though, other than the whole ergonomics-and-getting-old thing. It’s annoying that there’s no fuel gauge, just a warning that comes on when the tank goes onto reserve. If the bike is road legal, you should be able to tell on the road how much gas is in the tank without having to interpret the odometer. It’s an easy display to include, so why not do it?
After a half hour or so of droning on the six-lane highway at just-about-acceptable speed, the right bar sent enough vibrations into my wrist that I had to keep taking my hand off the throttle for a shake. That said, the mirrors were always crystal clear at every speed, very handy for looking for cherries. Maybe I could fix the bar vibration by riding in a lower gear, but the bike is content to ride around in 5th all day long (and then you’d never enjoy the quick-shifter, which works very well for hands-free shifts once the revs are above 2,500 rpm, both up and down).
And my biggest bug-bear, perhaps the least significant of the ZX-10R’s foibles but enough to upset any rider with even a trace of OCD: the right headlight is the low beam and the left hehadlight is the high beam. You ride around all day long looking like one of your lights is out. This would really irk me.
(Ed note: This is a legal thing, apparently. Separate headlights must not both be illuminated because they can be mistaken at a distance for a car. But it still bugs OCD types.)
But if I wanted one of the best litre-class track bikes out there, and I had the money for it (as well as the steep cost of insurance), and if I was prepared to do a little muscle conditioning and lay my licence on the line every time I hit the road, I think the ZX-10R SE would seduce me every time I hit the back straight at 240, and brace for the corner. Every single time.
2018 Kawasaki ZX-10R SE Key Specs
Engine: 998 cc inline-four
Curb weight: 208 kg
Power: 197 hp @ 11,500 rpm
Torque: 114.6 N-m (84.5 lbs.-ft.) @ 11,500 rpm
Wheelbase: 1,440 mm
Length: 2,090 mm
Seat height: 835 mm
Brakes: Dual semi-floating 330 mm Brembo discs, with dual radial-mount, Brembo M50 monobloc, opposed 4-piston at front; Single 220 mm disc, with single-bore pin-slide at rear
Front suspension: 43 mm inverted Balance Free Front Fork with external compression chamber, KECS-controlled compression and rebound damping, manual spring preload adjustability, and top-out springs.
Rear suspension: Horizontal Back-link, BFRC lite gas-charged shock with piggyback reservoir, KECS-controlled compression and rebound damping, manual spring preload adjustability, and top-out spring.
Tires: 120/70ZR17M/C front, 190/55ZR17M/C rear