Kawasaki ZX-10R

Kawasaki ZX-10R 2021 – First Ride Review

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The $16,399 Kawasaki ZX-10R is a superbike for everyone… from Jonathan Rea to the guy who wants a sweet street ride.

“The secret to getting results that last is to never stop making improvements,” says Atomic Habits author James Clear. “It’s remarkable what you can build if you just don’t stop.” While the above quote is taken from a book that has sold over one million copies, it could easily be applied to Kawasaki and the continual evolution that is the ZX-10R superbike.

The 2021 model year presents us with a revised, although not completely new, Kawasaki superbike. In the style of the true greats, the now seven-time WorldSBK champion Kawasaki ZX-10R (one for Tom Sykes, six for Jonathan Rea), has been in a constant state of evolution since the all-new model was debuted over a decade ago. It’s been a nip here, a tuck there, with each iteration proving faster than the last but also with a defined link to each other down the years.

The $16,399 MSRP Kawasaki ZX-10R’s motor is essentially unchanged from the unit that debuted in 2016. There’s a new exhaust, new oil cooler, a gearbox with shorter ratios in the first three gears and a shorter overall final drive to help get the green hulk out of the corner hard on full throttle. But aside from that, it’s the same light crankshaft, oversquare motor we got six years ago.

That’s not a bad thing because the ZX-10R is one of the best units for making big, reliable horsepower, especially in racing trim with minimal modifications (exhaust, basic ECU flash, etc).

On the chassis side, the frame and swingarm are also unchanged although the wheelbase is 10 mm longer, achieved by a 2 mm greater fork offset and the wheel sits further back in the swingarm, thanks to a longer length adjuster. The swingarm itself sits one lower in the frame and the rider is tilted a mere 0.2 percent closer to the front-end to help put more weight over the front under braking and cornering.

Kawasaki was the first to use the fantastic Showa Balance Free Front Fork and the Balance Free Rear Cushion shock on the 2016 ZX-10R and thus we shouldn’t be surprised to see them retained. They’ve been slightly altered, with a softer 20N/mm front spring and a heavier 95 N/mm rear spring used.

Where the ’21 10R is different is in the bodywork. Rea and the boys were begging for winglets in WorldSBK and as per the rules, the production bike needs to come with them so that’s what we’ve got. The winglets are discreet, tucked in either side of the fairing and help increase downforce a significant 17 percent while reducing drag by a claimed seven percent.

The winglets are paired with a more aggressive, wider stance from the handlebars, and the screen has grown 40 mm to help you tuck in when in full send mode.

LED lighting abounds in the new 10R, the lights hidden inside an all-new face that’s caused quite a stir among sportbike beauty debaters. I’m either way on it. It’s not the ugliest but it ain’t the prettiest, either. Hey, if it wins races, it’ll be pretty. Winners always are.

Kawasaki ZX-10R

As for the electronics, Kawasaki has finally joined the rest of the world in giving cruise control and preset riding modes in Rain, Road and Sport, and you also get the programable Rider mode that lets you individually set traction control and power modes (Full, Medium or Low).

While those last few mods were mainly to make the ZX-10R a better streetbike, there’s no denying its heart is well and truly at the track, and pinning a green beast in sixth gear down Auto Club Speedway’s front straight is one of life’s great pleasures.

It’s not the motor that’s impressive but the stability. At 170 mph, the ZX-10R was bulletproof, the increased wind protection making it feel like 120, not 170. It’s blisteringly fast but wholly unintimidating to ride, offering superb balance when you heave on the admittedly aging Brembo M50 calipers for the fast left-right flick of turn one.

When you come out of the chicane, you’re hard on the gas on the side of the tire to the almost dead stop of turn three, another area the new 10R shines. Under brakes the chassis talks to the rider. It’s so confidence-inspiring, allowing you to maximize turn speed and use every last ounce of grip from the Bridgestone V02 racing slicks we had for our test.

Back on the power once again, I began to have a few issues with the quickshifter not letting me get full power, high rpm shifts between second and third gear. This was a repeating problem, and one that was only solved if I dropped the revs about 1000 rpm and thus missed out on some vital top-end horsepower. Rider error? Perhaps, but I’ve ridden thousands of laps on superbikes at Fontana and not had this issue in the past.

Kawasaki ZX-10R

Regardless, everything else on the ZX-10R was superb. It’s a bike that has power for days, is easy to ride for almost every level of rider, and with a few creature comforts like cruise control and variable ride modes, is now in the tech game with the rest of the class.

This is a superbike for everyone… from Jonathan Rea to the guy who wants a sweet street ride. And that’s one of the best compliments I can give it.

Kawasaki ZX-10R
Image: Brian J. Nelson

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