Bigger is definitely better when it comes to engine displacement in the middleweight supersport class. Kawasaki is once again convinced that formula is the ticket to sales success in a market segment in which only European manufacturers Ducati (848 EVO), MV Agusta (F3 675) and Triumph (Daytona 675) have recently been willing to take risks. In the case of the 2013 ZX-6R, the modest bump in engine capacity from 599 to 636cc feels like all the difference in the world when you open the throttle.
This isn’t the first time that Kawasaki has broken with tradition and built an oversize 600: Between 2003 and ’06, the company also produced a 636cc ZX-6R. But unlike this latest version, the original 636 achieved its displacement increase via 2mm larger bores than its 599cc predecessor.
I got plenty of practice on both street and track during a two-day press launch in Northern California that included laps at Thunderhill Raceway and on the twisty mountain roads above Chico.
Although sales of Japanese 600cc sportbikes have recently taken a big hit, Kawasaki says the ZX-6R has been a consistent seller and is predicting that the new machine will be its second-most-popular model in 2013. To help its product stand out in a class inhabited by so many strong contenders, Kawasaki not only bumped up displacement by stroking the existing four-cylinder engine but also totally revised the twin-beam aluminum chassis and introduced the most sophisticated electronics package found on any Japanese supersport.
Superior performance is guaranteed to get you noticed, and I only needed a few seconds in the saddle of the ZX-6R at Thunderhill to appreciate the engine’s newfound torque. When learning a new racetrack, you have to figure out your shift points and the ideal gear for each corner. In most places, the 6R gave me the option of either screaming or lugging the engine. At times, carrying a taller gear out of a corner and letting the midrange torque pull me through to the next section of track was a better option than keeping the tachometer needle hovering between 15,000 rpm and the engine’s 16,000-rpm rev limit.
In fact, options are something that the ZX-6R has in abundance. The new electronics package offers four traction-control settings (including Off) and two power-output choices, plus available ABS, endowing the midsized Ninja with perhaps the best rider-aid system available on a middleweight supersport.
On the racetrack, I preferred Full power and TC 1 (least intervention), which provided exceptional drive with a bit of a security net. The following day on the street ride in the nearby mountains, I found that TC 2 was the most confidence-inspiring in the chilly conditions without taking away too much performance. Low power mode delivers identical performance up to roughly 7000 rpm, at which point output is clipped to 80 percent of Full—ideal for rainy or slick surfaces.