2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R Review - Motorcycle.com

Kevin Duke
by Kevin Duke

There I was, just a few miles away from the Persian Gulf, hurtling through space at about 184 mph, and I’m glad that the explosive device I’m astride is in no way improvised.

Indeed, a lot of thought and effort has gone into the new ZX-10R, including a powerful electronic brain that contains more than 500 engine-control maps which govern some sort of anti-wheelspin program that Kawasaki says we shouldn’t describe as traction control.

Whatever the Kawasaki Ignition Management System (KIMS) does or doesn’t do, we can tell you this new ZX-10 inspires loads of confidence to twist the throttle hard when exiting corners, as we found out while navigating the Losail International MotoGP Circuit in Qatar a couple of days ago.

Although Kawasaki plays down its KIMS technology because of liability reasons (blame the ambulance chasers who sued Ford over its traction-control system in Explorers), we know you are anxious to learn about it. (More tech details can be found in our ZX-10R preview located here.)

Kawasaki has come up with an incredibly potent and confidence-inspiring package in this ground-up re-do of the ZX-10R missile.

“It curtails sudden spikes in engine speed,” explained Kawasaki’s U.S. Product Manager, Karl Edmondson in Qatar. But he made sure to add that “it’s not a traction control system.”

Basically, the sophisticated ECU retards ignition timing when it senses wheelspin via a myriad of sensors such as engine speed, throttle position, vehicle speed, gear position, , cam position, etc. We were told that the system doesn’t engage when the throttle is twisted hard. Rather, it will engage only when rear-wheel slip is detected at neutral throttle openings. Big K reps note that the KIMS settings are for high-level riders pushing the limits, but we might envision a circumstance in which KIMS might prevent a spill in low-traction surfaces on the street. .

Kawasaki’s Ignition Management System is the headlining news on the new ZX-10R. It senses a lack of grip at acute lean angles and tries to prevent wheelspin at small or neutral throttle openings.
Despite new chassis geometry that would suggest a more sluggish-turning machine, the new ZX-10R proved to be a scalpel when carving up Losail’s flat and featureless but challenging circuit.

How good is KIMS? Tough to say, but it’s worth noting that among roughly 30 riders in attendance during the ZX launch’s first wave, not one crashed during two days of thrashing around the 5.34 km track on the outskirts of Qatar’s capital city of Doha. And we can declare unequivocally that it’s entirely possible to spin up the rear tire under acceleration and that smoky burnouts are quite achievable.We can be much more definitive about the way this newest Ninja feels and performs. The previous generation’s bulbous appearance was mirrored by its porky feeling, so I’m delighted to tell you that this new one feels completely unrelated to that little-loved version.

"The 2008 is smaller, skinnier and sharper..."

You’ll have to take my word for it, because if you perused the spec chart you’d notice four key points that would indicate otherwise. Adding 1.0 degree to the rake angle, 8mm additional trail, a wheelbase stretched nearly 1 inch, plus 8 extra pounds should result in a more sluggish sportbike. Wrong.

The’08 is smaller, skinnier and sharper, sized almost like a 750-sized machine. Most pleasing is that it’s much more reactive to rider inputs, responding sharply and with total cooperation. And despite its incremental weight increase (largely the result of the controversially styled exhaust that includes all the emissions B.S. such as three catalyzers and a large under-engine pre-chamber), it definitely feels lighter. Positioning the bulk of the side-mount stainless steel exhaust system’s weight (and titanium muffler) nearer the bike’s roll center – as opposed to the previous dual underseat cans – must be a factor.

The new Ninja proved to be amazingly cooperative around the Losail circuit for a literbike with such a kicked-out, 25.5-degree rake angle and generous 110mm of trail. I’m not going to hyperbolize that it turns in like a 600, but it does provide sharp responses without undue nervousness. Losail is a track that tests the front end of a motorcycle, and the chassis geometry changes to the ZX allow high corner-entry speeds without drama.

It helps when a bike’s development is assisted by factory Kawasaki Superbike riders like Roger Hayden and Jamie Hacking. The dude pictured here isn’t either of them.
We were skeptical when Kawasaki mentioned a benefit in the amount of “touch points” offered by the new Ninja, but we became believers after rollicking around Qatar for a couple of days.

The Ninja’s frame has been extensively retooled. The leader of the ZX’s chassis development, Masato Morii, told Motorcycle.com that the bike’s structure has higher overall rigidity. About the odd donut-shaped holes in the frame spars, he explained that without them, the bike’s dynamics gave the impression of two flex points that didn’t offer a singular cohesive feedback. Apparently, factory Kawasaki Superbike racers Roger Lee Hayden and Jamie Hacking had some participation in this development. The frame has reliefs on its inner side in which donut-shaped pieces are welded in from the inside for optimum structural integrity.

Another factor in the confidence the ZX offers is enhanced rider feedback from a greater number of touch points between the bike and rider. A new fuel tank has a flared area around its top so a rider can rest the inside of their arm while railing around a turn. A similar theme is played out at the frame area where the knees touch and at the cup-like rear edge of the seat. Kawi also claims an improvement in rider feel via the new die-cast subframe which consists of two sections, allowing the rear portion to be easily removed for racing.

Scything through the 16 corners of Losail, the big Ninja felt anything but. It won’t be a favorite sport-touring mount for NBA players, but its ergonomics work well on the racetrack. A large fuel tank indentation at its top allows for a tight race tuck, and its mirrors actually proved to have a useful view. The seat is a bit shorter front to rear but is still roomy, and its narrow section up front allows legs a straight shot to the ground. The tall tailsection forces a skyward leg swing to clear it when climbing aboard.

All previous ZX-10s were never short on power, and this year’s model is no exception. According to Kawasaki-supplied data, this latest Ninja boasts an increase in crankshaft horsepower of 6, now up to 179 horsepower at 11,500 rpm compared the paltry 173 hp of the previous iteration. With the assistance of force-fed air to the pressurized airbox, we’re told it churns out 189 hp at its peak. We expect 160-plus at the rear wheel. A maximum torque figure of 83 ft-lbs is achieved at 8700 rpm.

Throttle response is crisp and immediate without being abrupt, aided in part by the addition of dual-stage fuel injectors. There is so much power on tap that full-throttle corner exits in second gear are accompanied by inevitable wheelies, assisted by a one-tooth larger rear sprocket and shorter gearing in 1st, 4th and 5th gears. Despite the lower gearing, the Ninja doesn’t feel any torquier than in years past. But at the end of Losail’s 1-kilometer straight, the mighty ZX is approaching redline in fifth gear with 184 mph showing on the new, easy-to-read gauges with a handy gear-position indicator, so there’s certainly plenty of juice on board to frighten yourself silly.

With that kind of speed potential, it’s good to know there’s a powerful set of binders ready to turn velocity into friction. The front brake calipers now use two pads in each caliper instead of four, and the rotor diameter is up 10mm 310mm, balanced by a 0.5mm reduction in thickness to 5.5mm. The new discs are attached via aluminum carriers instead of the steel ones of the previous bike, now using 10 attachment buttons rather than the seven previous. The whole goal was improved heat dissipation, and there were no fade issues at Losail even after repeated stops from 180-mph-plus.

The liter-sized Ninja has always been a rocketship, and for 2008 it’s even rocketier.

"Throttle response is crisp and immediate
without being abrupt..."

The Ninja has been trimmed down in size for 2008, making the diminutive Duke almost appear man-like.

A minor nit to pick is a slightly mushy feel at the lever due to the use of rubber brake lines. Feel could undoubtedly be more direct with the addition of braided steel lines. A Kawi rep told me that steel lines aren’t used because the sharper initial bite could be a bit much for the average street rider. For example, the ABS-equipped Z1000 sold in Europe has steel hoses, but the version without ABS has spongier rubber lines. Gotta protect ourselves from ourselves…

It was difficult to judge the ZX’s suspension at Losail because of the perfectly smooth GP-level surface, but it’s worth noting that the bike I shared with two other journalists at the track was able to be set up optimally despite rider weights that varied by more than 40 pounds. Partial credit goes to a new rear shock that incorporates separate high- and low-speed compression damping circuits and a 43mm Kayaba fork that uses a low-friction Diamond-Like Carbon (DLC) coating on the inner fork tubes. And it didn’t hurt to have legendary AMA Superbike wrench Joey Lombardo performing the knob twiddling in my pits!

The Ninja’s turnsignals and license plate bracket can be unbolted in minutes to make trackday transitions a cinch. Same for the mirrors.
Say hello to a new Superbike contender!

Major revisions were also made to the Ninja’s gearbox (see the aforementioned tech preview for more info), and the tranny tweaks work quite well. I didn’t experience a single missed shift, and corner entries were aided by a highly forgiving slipper clutch that is also adjustable.

One aspect to the bike’s personality that seems to have a differing opinions is its appearance. It’s no doubt a big improvement over the previous chunky version, although it doesn’t appeal to all. Keishi Fukumoto, KHI’s Styling Designer, said the ZX was inspired by Japanese swords – sharp, strong and artful.

Personally, I’d ditch the heavy stock exhaust in favor of an Akropovic or Muzzys pipe, ending up with what I’d consider to be a handsome motorcycle. If you’re capable of qualifying for an AMA national roadrace, you might find that you can drag the distinctive muffler when on race-compound tires at the track. The 99.8% of the rest of you should have no ground clearance issues.

The other questionable styling move is the unique front turnsignals mounted on the mirror stalks. Owners can gain some satisfaction in knowing they purportedly help channel oncoming air around the rider.

A big part of my job is to discern deficiencies in every bike I test, and I often take great pleasure at pointing out where a manufacturer has come up short. Sadly, I’m nearly at a loss to find fault with this incredible ZX-10R. From my experience during two days of exhausting but satisfying riding, I can find only small deficiencies.

First, although equipped with an Ohlins steering damper, the way this new ZX-10R accelerates means that the front tire often has tenuous contact with the road, so this radical machine can occasionally waggle its bars with a hint of instability. Second, we’re never thrilled with a bike that weighs more than previous, and at a 394-lb claimed dry weight, it’s sure to scale in with more pounds than the all-new, highly anticipated Honda CBR1000RR. Finally, any ZX owner who plans to spend long days in the saddle might want to invest in a taller, more protective windscreen.

But, really, these aren’t problems that would prevent me from considering owning such a potent package. It’s sure to be as fast as anything, it’s way more controllable than you’d expect from a literbike, and it’s a thoroughly developed instrument that makes its rider look like a hero.

Kawasaki’s got a winner with this green machine, and it’s going to take an amazing new CBR from Honda run with this stellar motorcycle.

2008 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10R Specifications

Engine: Four-stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC, four valves per cylinder, inline-four

Displacement: 998cc

Bore x stroke: 76.0 x 55.0mm

Maximum torque: TBD

Compression ratio: 13.0:1

Fuel injection: DFI with 43mm Keihin throttle bodies with oval sub-throttles, two injectors per cylinder

Ignition: TCBI with digital advance and Kawasaki Ignition Management System (KIMS)

Transmission: Six speed

Final drive: O-ring chain

Rake / trail: TBD

Front tire: 120/70 ZR17

Rear tire: 190/55 ZR17

Wheelbase: TBD

Front suspension / wheel travel: 43mm inverted fork with DLC coating, adjustable rebound and compression damping, spring preload adjustability and top-out springs / 4.7 in.

Rear suspension / wheel travel: Uni-Trak with top-out spring, stepless, dual-range (high/low-speed) compression damping, stepless rebound damping, fully adjustable spring preload / 4.9 in.

Front brakes: Dual semi-floating 310mm petal discs with dual four-piston radial-mount calipers

Rear brakes: Single 220mm petal disc with aluminum single piston caliper

Overall length: TBD

Overall width: TBD

Overall height: TBD

Seat height: TBD

Dry weight: TBD

Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal.

Color choices: Lime Green / Flat Super BlackMetallic Diablo BlackCandy Plasma Blue / Flat Super Black

MSRP standard / Special Edition: $11,549

Warranty: 12 Months

Related Reading:

2008 Kawasaki ZX-10R Preview

2008 Honda CBR1000RR First Look

2007 Literbike Shootout

Kevin Duke
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