November 23, 2020
| On 2 months ago

2021 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R and ZX-10RR – A Detailed First Look

Kawasaki’s much anticipated, and heavily revised, ZX-10R has finally been announced, and it’s bringing along its race-bred sibling in the ZX-10RR, too. Rumors about an updated ZX-10R had been swirling about for some time, and armchair warriors really went crazy once early pictures were released from Australia. Buzz really started swirling last week, when the Kawasaki World Superbike team took part in the championship’s winter test, revealing the 2021 ZX-10RR in full race trim.

A dominant force in World Superbike since 2013, the ZX-10R has been nearly unstoppable in the hands of Kawasaki’s lead rider, Jonathan Rea. However, recent threats by Ducati, and even more recently Honda, in the form of the Panigale V4R and CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP, respectively, have shown that the current ZX-10R was starting to get long in the tooth. If the results of the previously mentioned World Superbike winter test were any indication (Rea set the fastest time), it appears like the new bike is meeting its goals.

Is this the machine that will take Jon Rea to the 2021 World Superbike title and extend his record-setting string of championships?

So, let’s break down the new ZX-10R and ZX-10RR. There’s a lot to talk about here, so buckle in. This is a long one.

ZX-10R

Normally we start these First Looks by diving into the engine and working our way out, but this time around we’ll begin by immediately addressing the elephant in the room – the new styling. Specifically, the new nose. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying the new front end is eye-catching. The “reverse slant” design of the nose, gives the rider a clean, uninterrupted line of sight all the way from the top of the taller, longer windscreen to the tip of the nose. The new LED headlights are tucked under the cowl of the slant, hiding them from the rider if they were to look over the windscreen from the saddle. They also weigh a pound less than the halogen lights used before.

While internet and social media commenters are up in arms about the admittedly polarizing nose section, they might have missed the fact Kawasaki designers integrated downforce-generating winglets into the cowling.

From a performance standpoint, the reshaped ram air opening is smaller than before but its efficiency hasn’t changed thanks to the new cowl shape that’s said to funnel a similar amount of air.

What your eyes might not see are the seemingly ubiquitous winglets other bikes are proudly flaunting. This could be the genius in the Kawi design because the new 10R does indeed have downforce-inducing winglets; they’re cleverly integrated into the upper cowling and are part of the 17% increase in downforce. Overall, the new fairing design reduces drag by 7%. Strategic side openings help dissipate engine heat away from the rider’s knees, while the lower cowl is shaped to help direct air to the new oil cooler, which we’ll talk about in more detail below.

Aerodynamically, the new ZX-10R is said to cut a cleaner hole through the air. The bars are further forward and lower, the pegs are a little higher, and the rear section of the seat is raised, all in an effort to put the rider in a racier position. However, if this rendering is truly representative, I’m a little disappointed the rider’s elbows are beside his knees and not in front of them.

Ergonomically, the ZX-10R is going all-in with the racy edge, with clip-ons that are 10mm farther forward and at a straighter angle. The footpegs, too, are 5mm higher, helping to push the rider’s weight over the front more. The windscreen mentioned earlier is 40mm taller and at a steeper angle, which should add more protection, especially in a tuck. And lastly, the rear portion of the seat is raised, which pushes the rider’s hips and butt higher when in a tuck, all to achieve maximum aero efficiency.

Engine

Click the image to see it in greater detail. Once you do, you’ll get a better idea what the difference in power is between the ZX-10R and ZX-10RR (which is covered in more detail below). You’ll note the single-R actually makes marginally more power and torque until redline. The double-R revs higher, and thus, makes a little more top-end. A nod to its racing intentions.

Now that we’ve addressed the looks, let’s talk about the engine. Unlike the Honda and Ducati mentioned earlier, and their 81 mm cylinder bores, the ZX-10R’s 998cc inline-Four retains the 76.0 mm bore and 55.0 mm stroke it’s always had. The engine uses finger follower valve actuation for a few reasons. Not only is it 20% lighter than tappet-style valve actuation, according to Kawasaki, it also allows for a higher rev limit. The followers themselves get DLC coating for minimal friction against the aggressive, high-lift camshaft, itself made from forged Chromoly billet instead of a casting, saving half a pound. Both intake and exhaust valves are titanium for minimal weight, again helping the engine to spin higher. Interestingly, despite what Kawasaki calls an aggressive camshaft, only single valve springs (with oval cross-sections) are needed to close the valve.

Inside the engine, a lightened crankshaft helps it spin easier and the offset cylinders reduce power-robbing side loads on the Teflon-coated piston at the point of combustion.

In a nod towards those who wish to upgrade their 10R, the cylinder head provides the clearance to fit the race-kit high-lift cams. Combined with the kit valve springs, the 10R gets even more high-end power. Previously, this option was reserved only for the ZX-10RR.

The new air-to-air oil cooler. Note also the exhaust header pipes that Kawasaki says are similar in diameter and length to the race bikes.

A new, race-derived, air-to-air oil cooler separates engine coolant from oil. It no longer uses coolant routed from the radiator, to the oil cooler, and back to the engine. The new, independent oil cooler routes oil from the left lower crankcase, to the oil cooler, then returns it to the right side.

As global regulations keep getting tighter, the ZX-10R is Euro5 compliant thanks in part to a revised collector pipe in the titanium alloy exhaust. One of the catalyzers also moves further upstream, allowing it to heat up faster for better efficiency and cleaner emissions. The exhaust pre-chamber is then decreased in size, but the silencer itself is about five inches longer which expands the internal volume. Since the size of stock exhausts is usually the first thing people complain about (except, in this case, the polarizing nose might take the top spot on the complaints list…), Kawasaki engineers designed the header pipe length and diameter to closely resemble that of the race bikes. So, if you hate the stock pipe a slip-on replacement should be all you need.

On the transmission side, one thing the ZX-10R has been notorious for is its extremely tall first gear. One of the many ways the new 10R is more track-focused is through the use of shorter ratios for the first three gears. A 41-tooth rear sprocket is two teeth larger than the outgoing model. This overall combination of shorter gearing should result in snappier acceleration, which will be especially beneficial on corner exits. Rowing through the gears will be easy thanks to the Kawasaki Quick Shifter allowing clutchless shifts in both directions.

Chassis

Keeping that power under control is a revised chassis with 2mm more fork offset and an 8mm longer swingarm than before. The net 10mm longer wheelbase should yield better stability, while the reduced trail from the new fork offset should help the new 10R steer and change direction as quickly as before. At the rear, the swingarm pivot was lowered by 1mm. This new geometry moves the front/rear weight balance slightly forward by 0.2%. No, that doesn’t sound like much, but for riders like myself who need confidence in the front end, more forward weight bias is welcome.

On the suspension front, Showa’s Balance Free Fork (BFF) may not have the cache as a pair of Öhlins, but the tech inside of them is really quite impressive. By locating the damping valves outside the fork, fluid pressure fluctuations are isolated from the main fork body. Another benefit of moving the compression and rebound valving into separate chambers is it allows the whole surface of the piston to act on the oil. The end result is a more compliant fork.

Showa’s Balance Free Fork returns on the ZX-10R, this time with softer springs and tweaks made to the damping circuits. Note also the Brembo M50 caliper and 330mm discs.

The BFF front end returns on the latest ZX-10R, this time with a few tweaks. The lower triple clamp is wider than before, and its rigidity has been revised, but the bigger difference is the slightly softer spring inside the fork (21.5 N/mm down to 21.0 N/mm) to give more front end feel. To offset the spring change, the compression damping circuit has been stiffened slightly while the rebound circuit gets a little softer. Interestingly enough, the Balance Free Rear Cushion – Showa’s term for a shock – gets a stiffer spring (from 91 N/mm to 95 N/mm) but softer compression and rebound damping.

Stopping power is largely the same as before, with 330 mm discs paired with Brembo’s excellent (albeit superseded) M50 caliper. A Brembo radial-pump master cylinder feeds the fluid. Minor tweaks for the rear brake include different brake pads and relocation of the rear master cylinder further inboard.

Electronics

What the rider sees.

Superbikes are nothing without electronics, and the ZX-10R comes with the standard fare of electronic rider aids we expect in the class. They’re centered, of course, around the five-axis Bosch IMU that calculates the sixth axis (yaw).

An IMU is not new for the ZX-10, nor is its ability to allow the traction control to be predictive rather than reactive, but it’s still worth mentioning the system is processing conditions every five milliseconds. Traction control intervention is primarily via ignition retardation before closing the electronic throttle valves. There are six levels of intervention – 1-5 and Off. Interestingly, modes 4 and 5 (most intrusive) have been updated to allow mid-corner throttle inputs without completely upsetting the chassis. It’s also smart enough to detect a power wheelie versus an unintentional wheelie and will let it go.

A TFT display gets fitted to the ZX-10R, with a switchable light or dark background.

You’ll find a total of seven(!) riding modes: Three preset (Sport, Road, Rain) plus four manual modes the rider can use to set the power, TC, and other parameters to their liking. Even better is the fact the modes can be changed while riding via buttons on the left bar. Returning electronic rider aids include Kawasaki Launch Control, Engine Brake Control, and the Corner Management Function, which uses KIBS and S-KTRC to monitor brake pressure while leaned over to resist the bike standing up mid-corner while trailbraking.

Cruise control is now a feature for the first time on a ZX-10, thanks to a new throttle position sensor integrated into the throttle itself eliminating the need for a throttle cable.

Lastly, the new ZX-10R gets a major improvement in the gauge display, as there is now full-color TFT instrumentation to display everything the bike is doing in a much clearer fashion than before. Two screen modes are also available; one is suited for street riding, while the other is tailored towards the track.

There’s lots to be excited about on the left bar, including buttons to switch the ride modes on the fly, (optional) heated grips, and cruise control!

Integrated into the new instrument panel is a Bluetooth chip, which allows the use of Kawasaki’s Rideology app. Considering the 10R’s track-focused nature, one of the more interesting features of the app is the detailed riding log it can keep which tracks vehicle speed, rpm, gear position, throttle position, front brake fluid pressure, acceleration/deceleration, current mileage, and coolant temperature. Kawasaki literature doesn’t specifically say this is a feature that can be used as a form of data acquisition at the racetrack, but it certainly has some similar features.

ZX-10RR

Being introduced alongside the ZX-10R is the ZX-10RR – an even more track-focused thoroughbred. In many ways, both the 10R and 10RR are very similar. The major differences are found in the engine. For starters, the rev limit is increased 400 rpm to allow the rider to carry a gear a little longer, if necessary, and avoid a shift.

This increased rev limit is made possible thanks to the titanium connecting rods that are paired with lightweight pistons, both manufactured by Pankl. With each connecting rod being 102 grams lighter than its single-R counterpart, the double-R crankshaft’s moment of inertia is reduced by 5%. From the saddle, this should result in a more lively, freer-revving engine. Further, compared to the 10R, the RR pistons use one less piston ring, allowing for a 33.7mm shorter piston height, resulting in less mechanical loss due to friction.

Titanium con rods, shorter, lighter pistons, and high-lift cams are just a few of the go-fast parts inside the ZX-10RR’s engine.

An interesting comparison between the standard ZX-10RR engine and one fitted with the optional Kawasaki race kit parts. While we don’t know the actual numbers, the gains everywhere are impressive, especially the torque bump in the midrange!

Since the ZX-10RR is designed for the track and high rpm, it does away with the dual-height intake funnels used on the ZX-10R. Where the 10R stacks are 10-30-30-10mm, respectively, for better mid-range performance, the RR’s funnels have an effective height of 5mm across the board to maximize top-end power.

Also, maximizing power is a more aggressive camshaft specific to the RR. Kawasaki says it’s designed for more top-end power, so we can only assume this means it has greater valve lift compared to the R model. This hypothesis is supported by the fact the RR uses machined valve spring retainers due to their greater precision during the manufacturing process – something you want when you’re looking for reliable high-rpm running.

On the suspension side, the ZX-10RR uses the same Showa Balance Free Fork and shock as the standard R model, the only difference is adjusted base settings of the clickers to accommodate the other big change – lightweight forged aluminum seven-spoke wheels from Marchesini. They’re wrapped in Pirelli Supercorsa SP tires instead of the Bridgestone RS10 rubber on the standard R.

Price

Of course, all those upgrades come at a price. Before we get into that, let’s start with the standard ZX-10R. These will start at a very competitive $16,399. The KRT Edition livery bumps the price to $16,699. Opt for ABS but the standard paint scheme and you’re looking at $17,399, while the KRT Edition with ABS will set you back $17,699.

If you want the best Kawasaki has to offer in the literbike field, it’s gonna cost you.

The ZX-10RR? If you’re serious about your track-focused Ninja, it’s going to cost you $28,999 – a relative bargain considering World Superbike rules cap the price for the homologated production bike at $40,000 which, coincidentally, is the cost of one of its rivals, the Ducati Panigale V4R. Still, that’s a steep jump compared to the standard ZX-10R models and puts it in line with the Honda CBR1000RR-R Fireblade SP ($28,500), Ducati Panigale V4S ($28,695), Yamaha YZF-R1M ($26,099), Aprilia RSV4 Factory 1100 ($25,499), and likely the BMW M1000RR, which BMW hasn’t announced pricing for yet.

Once we get the chance to ride the new ZX-10R and ZX-10RR, you’ll find the First Ride review right here.

Is this the machine that will take Jon Rea to the 2021 World Superbike title and extend his record-setting string of championships?more
Titanium con rods, shorter, lighter pistons, and high-lift cams are just a few of the go-fast parts inside the ZX-10RR's engine.more
An interesting comparison between the standard ZX-10RR engine and one fitted with the optional Kawasaki race kit parts. While we don't know the actual numbers, the gains everywhere are impressive, especially the torque bump in the midrange!more
Click the image to see it in greater detail. Once you do, you'll get a better idea what the difference in power is between the ZX-10R and ZX-10RR (which is covered in more detail below). You'll note the single-R actually makes marginally more power and torque until redline. The double-R revs higher, and thus, makes a little more top-end. A nod to its racing intentions.more
Showa's Balance Free Fork returns on the ZX-10R, this time with softer springs and tweaks made to the damping circuits.more
What the rider sees.more
There's lots to be excited about on the left bar, including buttons to switch the ride modes on the fly, (optional) heated grips, and cruise control!more
If you want the best Kawasaki has to offer in the literbike field, it's gonna cost you. more
While internet and social media commenters are up in arms about the admittedly polarizing nose section, they might have missed the fact Kawasaki designers integrated downforce-generating winglets into the cowling.more
The new air-to-air oil cooler. Note also the exhaust header pipes that Kawasaki says are similar in diameter and length to the race bikes.more