Thursday, March 21, 2013

Test Ride: 2011 Kawasaki Ninja 1000

Kawasaki has a long history of producing excellent race replica motorcycles, sport touring motorcycles, and commuting motorcycles, but in recent history, they have not had a single motorcycle that could fit the bill in all of those categories. That is, until 2011, when Kawasaki introduced the Ninja 1000 (sold as the Kawasaki Z1000SX in other markets). This bike, based off the hooligan favorite Z1000 super-naked, shares the same powerful inline-4 cylinder motor, excellent ergos, and strong suspension, but adds a full fairing for improved wind protection. I had the opportunity to take an extended demo ride of the Ninja 1000 through a variety of different roads and see for myself the amazing work that Kawasaki did to make this one of the best all-around motorcycles one can buy.

The morning of the demo ride did not bode well. The skies were heavy with thick rain clouds that opened up and dumped gallons upon gallons of rain on the area within a matter of minutes. Taking precautions to try to remain as dry as possible, I braved the weather and headed out to the demo location anyway, hoping that the weather would cooperate and allow the demo rides to proceed as planned. Arriving at the demo site just as the rain let up, the parking lot was filled with a motley collection of fellow riders who had also chanced the weather hoping to still be able to squeeze in a demo ride. The demo ride truck, canopy fully deployed, had been unloaded despite the horrible weather and a line of various Kawasaki models were laid out on display. Huddled under the tent, we all waited patiently hoping that with the rain stopped, the ground would dry up sufficiently and we could get out on the road to ride.

Throughout the morning, many people, unwilling to wait, left in disappointment, but those of us who waited it out were rewarded when the demo team confirmed that the planned route had dried sufficiently to start the rides. Going out with the first group of the day, I selected a red and black Ninja 1000 and mounted up. With the motor fired up and idling, I had the chance to familiarize myself with the layout of the bike and play around with the adjustable windscreen, setting it for the middle level. The dash readout is clear and simple, clearly inspired by the ZX-6R, though lacking the race replica's gear indicator.

Moments later, we got underway. The clutch take-up is smooth and the motor has excellent power in the lower rev range, allowing for easy riding around town. In fact, down low, it feels like the power profile is very similar to Triumph's 1050 inline triple, one of the great motorcycle engines in recent memory, though the exhaust note definitely lacks the triple's unique character. The shifter has excellent feedback and clicks through each gear with a satisfyingly positive detente.

The ergonomics are excellent, with plenty of room between the seat and the pegs for even taller riders, and the reach to the bars offers a slight forward lean, but without putting much weight on the wrists, making this a very natural seating position that should be comfortable for commuting and longer rides. The seat itself is very narrow where it meets the tank, allowing even riders of average height to be able to reach the ground at a stop and possibly even place both feet flat. However, the seat foam is a bit on the hard side, as is typical of many Kawasaki motorcycles, and is an area that could stand some improvement.

Out on the open road, I open up the throttle and the bike surges forward, riding waves of thrust between gears. Even at the top end, the bike pulls hard, almost feeling as though there is possibly more power to be had from this motor beyond its redline, but cut off by the electronic limiter. The fairing does its job, deflecting the wind nicely around me and the adjustable windscreen's three levels provide clear differences in where the wind hits my body. One area of weakness, however, is the brake lever feel. While the brakes themselves are excellent, hauling the bike down from extra-legal speeds with ease, the lever itself requires a fair amount of travel before it seems that the brakes finally respond. This is an easy enough fix with a quick brake master cylinder swap, but, while I understand Kawasaki's desire to make this bike more user friendly given that ABS is not an option for the US market (though would be added with the 2013 model year), I do wish for a more confidence inspiring setup.

Off the highway, we transition into a series of back roads that offer a nice collection of sweepers and tight corners, giving me a chance to get a feel for the bike's handling. Despite its 500+ lbs of weight, the bike hides it well, allowing for easy transitions when changing directions. The weight helps settle the bike at speed, offering a smooth ride, while the the suspension, which offers few adjustment options, is a good balance between handling and ride comfort. That said, this is clearly not a bike set up to compete against the race replicas, but is definitely a willing companion on a twisty road.

Returning to the parking lot where we started the ride, I was left with a grin on my face. The Ninja 1000 is one of those great all-around motorcycles that just cannot help but bring a smile to one's face after a ride. Sure it will not handle as well as a race replica, but it handles well enough that you can just as easily rip through a mountain canyon almost as fast as one without all of the contortionist seating position. Using it to commute, the ride is comfortable and the bike is easy to maneuver through traffic, with all the power you can possibly need. Throw a couple of bags on the back, and the bike is comfortable to go one longer touring rides, gulping down freeway miles with ease. For those who want to do all those things, but does not have the pocketbook or the garage space to house three different motorcycles, this could be the best compromise you will ever find.