2010 Kawasaki ZX-10R Review

Green machine gets honed


Kawasaki’s ZX-10R has always been one of the most lively and animalistic literbikes of the bunch. These qualities define the big Ninja, for both good and bad.

For the 2010 model year, Team Green has made a few subtle refinements to the 10R, although its fundamental mechanical bits are unchanged.

The most distinguishable change is the adoption of new ZX-6R-inspired bodywork that makes for a slimmer appearance.  The ZX looks lighter, even if its wet (fully fueled) weight of 459 pounds is unchanged since it debuted as an all-new model in 2008.

Along with the new upper, center and side fairing panels, the big Ninja’s overall look is also tweaked by an embossed metallic gray coating on its titanium muffler that visually shrinks it in size to minimize its awkward shape. Trim pieces around the fairing’s cockpit area cleans up the rider’s eye view.

The Kawasaki ZX-10R gets an updated appearance and subtle other tweaks for the 2010 model year.

We’ve had no complaints about the 10R’s transmission since the 2008 iteration, but Kawi has changed shift ratchet assembly, shifting arm and springs and collars to inhibit friction at the shift-shaft pivot. Boring stuff to read about, but fans of smooth gearboxes will really enjoy what is probably the slickest literbike tranny ever. A very competent slipper clutch aids sloppy downshifts.

New bodywork for 2010 looks especially good in its special-edition graphics.

One of the continued characteristics of the ZX-10R has been its animalistic persona, and this latest version has the rumpity and menacing idle that portends the ready availability of hyperspace mode. EFI ensures it fires up cleanly and is quickly ready to ride away, but the engine enters a growly, vibration-intensive region from 3000 to 4000 rpm followed by a wicked intake snarl that might make a timid rider question his ability to control this missile once its fuse is lit.

But considering there are nearly 160 raging ponies at the back wheel, the Ninja’s motor is actually quite manageable. Throttle response is sharp but controllable, aided to some extent by KIMS (Kawasaki Ignition Management System), an anti-wheelspin system that Kawi says “curtails sudden spikes in engine speed” but isn’t comfortable describing it as traction control. There is a slight abruptness dialing in throttle from the closed position, feeling like engine vacuum is holding the butterflies closed, but it’s easy enough to be smooth.

Other than the 3000-4000-rev vibe zone, the inline-Four has negligible vibration. It’s amazingly smooth at freeway speeds, and tingles are suppressed to such an extent that it would be possible to zoom comfortably at 80 mph in fourth gear, verified by a handy gear-position indicator. Impressive freeway roll-on grunt is available without downshifting from sixth gear.

The 2010 ZX-10R impressed us on public roads and on the Streets of Willow race course.

Despite the minimized bodywork, there is surprisingly good wind protection, and it seems like the turnsignals in the mirror stalks deflect wind from a rider’s hands. The 10R is entirely tolerable for an hour while commuting to work or to the canyons, even for our tallest (6-foot) test rider. We appreciate how the mirrors/signals and tailpiece can be easily removed for track days, but both our shorter and taller testers wished the mirrors had a broader range of adjustment.

The Ninja’s instrumentation is quite legible and comprehensive, but we’d like to see a second tripmeter and a fuel gauge to augment the lap timer, clock, and engine temp readouts. The gauges’ shift light is small but readily visible.

Pete scything through the Streets of Willow on the updated Kawasaki ZX-10R.

It’s difficult to find places to unleash the massive power from the 10R on the street, and we found a similar experience even on a racetrack. There are only a couple of places on the Streets of Willow Springs where the ZX’s throttle cables could be fully stretched, and the big Ninja never even gets out of third gear! And yet its chassis and brakes are so good that it comported itself well in the tight confines of the bumpy California track.

The ZX’s fuel tank cutouts provide good grip for knees when charging hard, and I liked how my arms drape across the tank when hanging off, supplying extra feedback.

“The combination of the fuel tank and frame spar shapes create a genuine feeling of a light, narrow-waisted sportbike, almost like a supersport,” Pete reports. “The sensation of a smaller, lighter motorcycle could help a rider feel more confident with what is a very powerful bike.”

Another tweak for 2010 is the addition of a new Öhlins steering damper atop the upper triple clamp, distinguished by its titanium color and laser-etched Öhlins logo. The previous generation ZX also had an Öhlins damper, but it couldn’t be clamped down racer-tight. This new one uses additional spring and oil pistons for stronger damping along its 18 clicks of adjustment.

A new Ohlins steering damper offers increased damping for aggressive track use.

As on the street, the DLC (Diamond-Like Coating) treated fork sliders proved to be exceptionally compliant over smaller bumps, and the suspension is responsive to adjustments. Braking power and modulation remain excellent. Bridgestone BT016 tires warm quickly, grip well, and provide neutral steering manners.

For 2010, the 1000cc Ninja is available in only two color choices. The standard edition is painted in Metallic Spark Black and retails for $12,999. An extra $200 will buy the Special Edition (Lime Green/Pearl Stardust White) version of our test bike that also includes pinstriped wheels – it drew many positive comments during our rides. It ships with a green passenger seat; shown is the accessory seat cowl which costs $119.95.

“After a year of not having ridden the ZX,” says Pete, “riding it was almost like riding it for the first time. Experiencing its light steering effort, light and snappy throttle response, communicative chassis and rush of top-end acceleration was a thrill all over again!”

Indeed, the ZX-10R is an impressive machine, and the updates for the 2010 season only make it better.

Pete leans the Special Edition ZX-10R into a right-hander.

Our 2009 Literbike Shootout narrowly ranked the ZX ahead of the Suzuki GSX-R1000 and Yamaha YZF-R1, both of which are unchanged for 2010, so the Ninja's next challenge will be to take on the updated Honda CBR1000RR and the potentially game-changing BMW S1000RR in our upcoming inline-Four literbike comparo.

Has Japan Inc. done enough to stay ahead of the scintillating German upstart? It’s sure to be a thrill finding out!

Related Reading:
2010 Literbike Shootout: Aprilia RSV4 Factory vs. Ducati 1198S vs. KTM RC8R
2010 Honda CBR1000RR C-ABS Review
2010 BMW S1000RR Review
2009 Literbike Shootout
2008 Literbike Shootout
2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R Review
All Things Kawasaki on Motorcycle.com

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