Kawasaki’s litre bike may lack the desirability and looks of its rivals, but look beyond its bland styling and you’ll see a very capable weapon guaranteed to entertain.
This was the first Japanese bike to be fitted with a proper racing-type traction control system, and this one also has the optional high-performance ABS. But that’s not all – this 2012 bike is rammed full of rider aids including wheelie control and three power modes, although in reality the lowest mode is all but redundant.
Swing a leg over the bike and it feels tiny, mainly because it is, and although it’s very compact the ergonomics are surprisingly good – the low seat is comfortable, the controls fall easily to hand, and the adjustable pegs feel right in their standard position for my gangly legs. Even the low slung mirrors work, offering a decent view behind.
Twist the key, prod the starter button and the Kawasaki’s distinctive clocks spring into life. This is very much a digital affair, and the LED bars indicating the revs rise across the screen in chunky graphics, colour changing from orange to red as the revs rise.
And you’ll watch those bars race across the screen very very rapidly, thanks to the ZX-10R’s blistering performance. Kawasaki claim the engine produces 197bhp, some 7bhp more than the BMW S1000RR, and it feels like it. This is one very quick bike.
The bike sounds angry, and the power is usable and available from low down in the range. The real power first makes an appearance at 8,000rpm, then comes on stronger after 10,000rpm before peaking at 13,000rpm (although it could spin on to 14,500rpm).
On the move the gearbox feels slick, and in the 1800 miles we covered in our week together I never got a false neutral. In fact the engine feels bulletproof, and while it lacks the dizzying top end rush of the BMW, it’s still more than plenty quick enough without feeling intimidating.
Out on the road and the fully adjustable Öhlins steering damper, the
‘horizontally’ mounted single shock and Showa BPF forks do a good job of soaking up the worst of the bumps, although the front feels a little lively when really pressing on, and I mean really pressing on. On a smooth track surface it should be fine, and 95 per cent of the time on the road everything behave impeccably. But on the A169 across the North Yorkshie Moors it felt skittish at higher speeds, the front shaking its head, almost as a reminder not to get complacent as much as anything.
What is also clear on these glorious roads is that the Kawasaki’s traction control system is stunning. It relies on front and rear wheel speeds matched to rpm, throttle position, gear selected and other sensors to predict tyre slippage and alter ignition/fuel settings to balance acceleration against loss of traction.
The traction control system has three modes with Level One being the least obtrusive. Level Three sees the machine render wheelspin non-existent, while Level Two allows a comfortable amount of slip or slide without intervening too harshly. Level one permits some seriously sideways attitude and allows for throttle modulation of a slide, intervening only when things get alarmingly lurid. The three modes, which are mounted on the bars, can be selected on the move, and the power interruptions, when made, are much more subtle and smoother than the system on an equivalent S1000RR.
The ZX-10R is happy on its ear, gracefully carving lines through corner after corner as we tear through the stunning countryside, traction control occasionally cutting in to wrap a comforting arm around me as mud covers one deceptively tight corner. And the brakes are phenomenal, offering immensely powerful stopping power and plenty of feel. And despite what many riders say, the ABS allows me to brake much harder and smoother – it’s a refined system, and another tool in the ZX-10R’s impressively-equipped armoury.
The ZX-10R is equally happy cruising through town, that tall first gear being smooth and tractable, effortlessly coping with the stop-start flow of traffic. And it’s practical too…that wide tank is perfect for a tankbag and there are plenty of bungee points on its rear to strap a tailpack.
Unfortunately I didn’t get time to put the ZX-10R through its paces on track, but it’s won titles at BSB and WSBK level, and it’s proved a weapon in the hands of Ian Hutchinson on the roads, so I’d expect it to be a weapon at somewhere like Silverstone or Donington, where that engine would come into its own.
The only chink in the ZX-10R’s armour is the styling – this isn’t a pretty bike. It’s a bike borne of form over function, and if you can live with that you’ll discover a very, very capable bike at a very reasonable price. Try one, it might just win you over.