2007 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R Full Report
Stay On the Gas!
"When will it end?"
That's the question I've been asking myself over the past year or two with respect to the evolution of modern-day sportbikes. You've probably heard it said or said it yourself time and again, "Those things are just race bikes with license plates and blinkers!" The implication of such knee-jerk assertions is that many of the sportbikes available today are untamed fire-breathing stallions whose full potential is available only to those rare masters of their own fear who posses skills that set them apart from the motorcycling masses. In other words a racer, or at the very least a veteran track day junkie. Judging solely by the numbers -- rear wheel horsepower, torque, quarter mile times, etc.-- it would be easy to align oneself with the aforementioned mentality.
But after spending a day and a half zipping around the 15-turn road course at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, AL -- my first time there -- on the 2007 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R, I started to realize that I was asking the wrong question.
It's a brand new day for the third most potent Ninja (ZX-14, ZX-10R, ZX-6R... get it?). The 6R's engine is all new, the first total redesign in 10 years for the model, and the bike in general is endowed with a paddock's worth of race-inspired technology. Using the above logic, such a track-honed tool necessarily means less street-ability. Kawasaki sportbike product manager Karl Edmondson tried to impress upon the assembled U.S. journos that the Ninja is a street-legal race bike. Additionally, Kawi press literature is full of section titles like,
"All-New Racing Engine", "Racer-Friendly Riding Position" and "Race-Ready, Right Out of the Box."
Despite this subtle indoctrination, dozens and dozens of laps not only revealed its race driven design, they also left me with the distinct impression that this bike would be perfectly at home on city streets. It should happily serve the needs of its owner just as well there as on any race track. To summarize; (and to be about as succinct as I've ever been) this thing is just plain easy to ride.
The bike's design and influence came from a former 125cc GP racer employed by Kawasaki as chief development rider to help generate the "lightweight GP-racer cornering performance" that they were after with this latest Ninja. Indeed, the overall sensation is one of a narrow-waisted, lightweight and agile sprinter. This GP flyweight inspiration is where the 6R gets a lot of its most-excellent handling performance. But it doesn't stop with the handling. As mentioned above, the motor is all-new and it too contributes to the cause.
Claiming an overall reduction in size by 40mm -- some of which is thanks to reduced engine pitch -- in length and width from the previous model, Kawasaki touts the compact cases as providing a more rigid engine.
The 599cc 16 valve liquid-cooled inline four focuses on high revs thanks to strengthened and lightened internals bent on reducing reciprocating mass. Short-skirt forged pistons are connected to rods that are more compact on the small end by smaller and lighter piston pins. Big-end rod bearings have been revised to fit a new crankshaft with modified flywheel mass that is said to aid traction.
In order to boost low to mid-range torque, the cams received new profiles and intake valves -- about the only internal parts that didn't get smaller -- increased in size from 24.0mm to 26.5mm. Before leaving the top end alone Kawasaki changed the exhaust valve angle and polished the intake ports. To assist in the high rpm/torque combo, throttle bodies were shortened by eight millimeters and the injectors were changed to ultra-fine atomizing sets. While on the subject of fueling Kawi also revised mapping for both the fuel injection and ignition systems. Finally, the six-speed transmission is a racy cassette set-up and the back-torque limiting or slipper clutch is adjustable.
Mass centralization is all the rage these days and as part of the program to achieve this, a revised and improved exhaust system now operates with a pre-chamber nicely hidden beneath the engine. This maneuver allows the silencers to be smaller. In further attempts to help centralize mass, the oil cooler (which is itself liquid cooled) and oil filter are now located behind the cylinders.
Suspension work is handled by an all-new inverted, fully-adjustable 41mm fork in the front. A new rear shock employs "pillow balls" -- ask Gabe or Sean to show you theirs -- instead of bushings for improved feedback.
Braking is somewhat familiar fare with 300mm stainless-steel semi-floating petal-type rotors up front that are now six millimeters in thickness instead of the previous five and a half. Four-pot radial-mount calipers utilize one brake pad per piston to reduce pad warping. Your fierce desire to stop is translated to the calipers via a radial-pump master cylinder that provides excellent feel.
Even though it shows up in familiar Kawasaki Green, bodywork has also been redesigned for improved airflow. Frontal area was reduced by minimizing the ram-air intake without reducing intake volume and projector beam headlights now pierce the night -- they look small but powerful. As a result of smaller under-the-seat silencers the tail section is also narrowed up.
Previous ZXs had a little issue with a poorly designed and located instrument cluster. The tachometer was a narrow, digital band that was difficult to see. To make matters worse, the top line of the windshield did an excellent job of obscuring the view of the tachometer. Not so this year; welcome back, analog. A bright white-faced tachometer sits prominently in the center of the rider's view and is accompanied by a reasonable digital readout just to the right that displays speed, water temp, mileage, and other functions. The only drawback -- a rather minor detraction -- to this new cluster is the little gift that Kawi attempted to give the rider. Nestled within the tachometer is a narrow digital readout that displays the gear position. This can be a handy feature to have on any bike, but unfortunately the display numbers are quite small and difficult to read while concentrating on the road ahead -- even more so while ripping down a race track. Thanks anyway, Team Green.
In the beginning of December MO brought you our first impressions directly from the track at the end of the first day of the intro. We'll spare you the rambling recount in this piece and just let you read it again -- or for the first time.
After a full day on the wonderfully entertaining circuit that is Barber, nothing proved to be drastically different about the bike on the second, abbreviated day of riding. What I can say about the second day was that within the first few laps of the first session I had settled in with the bike and was riding around a race course as fast and confidently as I ever have before. As evidence of this, I found myself abusing my right knee puck as much if not more so than my left; no small feat for me. You see, being able to enter and complete a right hand turn smoothly has been something of a challenge. But at this track; and more importantly on the 2007 ZX-6R, I had reached a new level in my own riding. This speaks volumes for the changes and improvements Kawasaki has made to this machine.
The Ninja provides a compliant and forgiving platform that doesn't sacrifice quick and responsive handling to achieve ease of use.
The brakes, transmission and clutch are very good if not great. Power overall is, at the very least, on par with much of the supersport class. A supple, accessible mid-range combined with excellent fueling means that -- in my opinion -- the Ninja ZX-6R will perform just as admirably on the street or canyon as it will on the track. So don't be too intimidated by the racing heart that Kawasaki has attempted to build into this bike.
The coming year should prove to be an excellent time to consider a new supersport purchase. The Big Four all have highly-refined weapons as does Triumph. Will the ZX-6R be able to snatch the glory this season? We'll have to wait until our supersport shootout a little later on, but any way you slice it, the consumer will be the big winner.
That conclusion brings me to the question I listed in the beginning. The question I should be asking myself isn't, "When will it all end?" It should be, "Can it get any better?"