Cape Town - As I left the dealership to ride home in five-o’clock traffic on the 2014 ZX-10R test bike - actually the personal transport of Kawasaki’s brand ambassador in the Western Cape, which did nothing to pacify the butterflies behind my belt buckle - it began to drizzle.
“That’s all I need,” I thought. “My first ride on the world’s most powerful litre-class race replica, in the Friday afternoon gridlock - and it’s raining!”
But I needn’t have worried. Before pulling way I scrolled through the power and traction control menus - activated by a rocker switch on the left handlebar so simple it’s almost foolproof - setting the engine mapping to ‘L’ for low and the S-KTRC traction system to ‘1’ for maximum protection, and sliced gently through the gridlock, revelling in the almost surgical precision of steering, throttle and braking control that has been the mark of the world’s great sports bike since the days of Philip Vincent and James ‘Pa’ Norton.
As the pictures in our gallery show, the rest of our time with Kawasaki’s new sports flagship was clear and sunny, and we were able to explore some of this machine’s astonishing capabilities - starting with the power settings.
The gentlest, ‘L’ mode, knocks off about 40 percent of the bike’s quoted 154.4kW peak output but, more importantly, delivers an almost perfectly linear flow of power for predictable throttle control - so gentle in fact that the clutch, built to handle 150kW full-tilt boogie launches, is a little too firm in its take-up and the bike stalls embarrassingly easily.
SHOWING ITS TEETH
The middle ‘M’ notch feels much the same up to about half throttle; then, wherever you are in the rev range, the bike begins to show its teeth with the suggestion of a growl from the airbox, a faint secondary vibration through bars and seat, and a distinctly steeper power curve.
It’s actually great fun in traffic. Small throttle openings will get you through the gridlock like a Great White through a school of tuna, while a burst of throttle will take you through an unexpected gap before the cagers even realise they’ve created it.
But commuting on a ZX-10R is like using a Hermes scarf to tie up a parcel. Get a sufficiently open stretch of road or track in front of you, toggle the switch with your left thumb (you can change modes any time, on the fly or standing still) dump the clutch on a handful of throttle and yell “Cowabunga, dude!” as the horizon tilts towards you.
In ‘F’ mode the twist-grip becomes a hair-trigger, the power-band kicks in early (from about 5800rpm in the lower gears) the vibration becomes intrusive and the intake roar banishes rational thought.
Then a another surge of urge hits you, somewhere above the middle of the rev-counter bar-graph, as the second set of injectors begin disposing of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves at a dizzy rate and you realise just what a power-to-weight ratio of 768kW/ton (close to that of a Formula One car) feels like.
Kawasaki asserts that the 2014 ZX-10R is electronically limited to 299km/h, so we pointed it down our infamous Six-Kay Straight to find out whether our Garmin GPS agreed.
On each of our four full-throttle runs, however, the Kawasaki went up to an indicated 275km/h (268 true) in top gear at about 12 000rpm very, very quickly and then seemed to run into a brick wall, accelerating steadily but agonisingly slowly, with the bar-graph rev-counter flashing angrily to tell the rider to change up to its non-existent next gear.
At 275km/h the bike is covering more than 75 metres a second (that’s about 40 metres every heartbeat!) and waiting to exhale, with the throttle pinned, while it picks up speed at one click every three or four heartbeats, is a very scary place to be.
So, while I cannot quantify the top speed of a 2014 Kawasaki ZX-10R, I can tell you unequivocally that it is faster than I am.
In later discussions with Kawasaki staffers I mentioned that I had left the traction control setting at ‘1’ - its maximum setting - rather than ‘2’ or ‘3’ to allow a limited amount of slide, or even completely off. We theorised then that the slotted rings had read the tyre creep inherent in high-speed runs as a loss of traction and, accordingly, backed off the power.
Very reassuring from a safety point of view, if ultimately frustrating in the search for big numbers and bragging rights.
The good news is that the bike ran arrow-straight at a true 268km/h, rock steady despite a slight crosswind, refusing to shake its head even on full-bore upshifts, thanks to its new Ohlins electronic steering damper – with a twin-tube layout to reduce bump steer and its own ECU, yet! - that combines the readings of speed, rate-of-change, yaw, turn and tilt sensors to provide maximum stability with the minimum of intervention.
And it works. I couldn’t feel it at all flicking through heavy traffic, or through violent changes of attitude in high-speed S-bends, but the Kawasaki refused to wiggle or wallow once locked into a long sweeper, or with the brakes on hard enough to activate the ABS and make the lever pulse gently under my fingers while the instrument panel threw a minor hissy fit.
The display is comprehensive and neatly laid out, with some scope for personalisation. In general, it’s more than adequately legible; nevertheless, the bar-graph rev-counter sweeping across the top of the screen is easy to see but hard to read without taking your eyes and focusing your attention on it, however briefly.
Which is why all the references to its readings in this review are prefaced by the word ‘about’. There are good reasons why experienced racers - and road riders of high-performance machines - prefer analogue rev-counters even in this digital age.
PLAYING BOY RACER
At 813mm off the tar, the ZX-10R’s firm seat provides a relatively relaxed riding position with plenty of room to move around when playing boy racer through the ride and handling section of our standard test route (averaging 139km/h where 120 is good for a sports bike) and remained comfortable during several long rides and a week of commuting.
Even with my 106kg aboard, the factory median suspension settings were on the harsh side of firm but the payoff in terms of handling was more than worth it.
The 43mm big-piston forks kept the front tyre firmly planted at all times while telling me the name and address of every ripple in the tar, and the slightly offset rear monoshock, with its linkages and their vulnerable bushes above the swing-arm for a more progressive action – (and to keep them out of harm’s way) had enough initial suppleness to preserve the rider’s urinary functions, without any perceptible squat under acceleration powerful enough to unsettle the rider’s depth perception.
The 2014 ZX-10R is astonishingly rideable and, aside from a slightly unforgiving clutch action, user-friendly almost to a fault. But make no mistake: a pussycat it is not.
Kawasaki Heavy Industries set out to build the most powerful, most capable litre-class sports-bike on the planet. We think they’ve succeeded; so, apparently, does Tom Sykes, who has just won the World Superbike championship on one.
Price: R165 995 (plus R7500 for the Leo Vince pipe on the test bike).
Test bike from: Mike Hopkins Motorcycles, Cape Town.
Engine: 998cc liquid-cooled transverse four.
Bore x stroke: 76 x 55mm.
Compression ratio: 13.0:1.
Valvegear: DOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 154.4kW at 13 000rpm (with Ram Air).
Torque: 112Nm at 1 500rpm.
Induction: Digital electronic fuel-injection via four 47mm Keihin throttle bodies with oval sub-throttles and two injectors per cylinder.
Ignition: Digital electronic.
Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: Six-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by chain.
Front Suspension: 43mm inverted big-piston Showa cartridge forks adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping.
Rear Suspension: Horizontal back-link with gas-charged monoshock; stepless adjustement for low and high compression and rebound damping, preload and ride height.
Front brakes: Dual 310mm petal disks with Tokico four-piston radial-mount monobloc callipers and ABS.
Rear brake: 220mm petal disc with Nissin single-piston floating calliper and ABS.
Front tyre: 120/70 - 17 tubeless.
Rear tyre: 190/55 - 17 tubeless.
Seat height: 813mm.
Kerb weight: 201kg.
Fuel tank: 17 litres.
Top speed (claimed, electronically limited): 299km/h.
Fuel consumption (measured): 6.86 litres per 100km.
Price: R165 995.
Bike from: Mike Hopkins Motorcycles, Cape Town.