With electronic rider aids such as traction control, ABS and selectable power delivery quickly becoming standard on modern sportbikes, the next step in the digital revolution appears to be smart suspension systems. Imagine ECU-controlled suspension that makes damping adjustments on the fly to cope with changes in road surface conditions.
BMW’s new HP4 S1000RR already has it. In fact, the HP4 is the first production bike to be equipped with fully active suspension, Dynamic Damping Control. The Ducati Multistrada’s new Sachs Skyhook system functions in much the same way as BMW’s DDC, although the Italian company refers to it as semi-active. For contrast, BMW’s ESA II simply allows the rider to select settings electronically, but it isn’t reactive.
Swedish suspension manufacturer Öhlins is bringing semi-active suspension to the aftermarket with its new hypersport Mechatronic shock. The first application is exclusive to the 2011-13 Kawasaki ZX-10R, with fitments for additional models to come. Unlike BMW’s DDC, which senses suspension motion, among other factors, the Mechatronic shock is semi-active in that it continuously changes damping settings dependent upon the aggressiveness of riding. Preload is still adjusted manually.
Hardware is straightforward, utilizing Öhlins EC actuators (stepper-motor-driven needle valves) that retrofit to a standard TTX36 MkII shock, but the real magic is in an Öhlins ECU with proprietary programming. It analyzes signals provided by the ZX-10R’s ECU, such as throttle position, rpm and wheel speed, then automatically selects Comfort- or Sport-focused damping. Within either mode, changes to compression and rebound damping can continuously vary to an equivalent of about plus/ minus six clicks.
Giving the Mechatronic’s added flexibility, the ZX-10R’s trio of rider- selectable power modes (Full, Normal and Low) changes the threshold at which Mechatronic transitions from Comfort to Sport. In Full mode, it takes notably less-aggressive behavior before damping firms up, and the shock then remains in Sport mode for a longer period even after the rider returns to a more relaxed pace. Similarly, selecting the Kawasaki’s Low mode tells the shock to favor Comfort damping, although if you wick it up, the system will transition to Sport to maintain a safe degree of chassis stability.
I was invited to ride a Mechatronic-equipped 2012 ZX-10R out to the Streets of Willow Springs race circuit where I put the shock and Dunlop D211 GP-A race radials to task. My first impression: The transition from Comfort to Sport proved seamless to the point that it’s difficult to detect. You know it’s working, however, if you bounce on the seat when turning on the bike’s ignition. At power-up, the shock quickly runs through a calibration routine and goes from a springy, undamped action to near lockup before settling into its baseline setting. Ultimately, I just concentrated on the ride, knowing that the shock was always working within an adjustment range suited to any pace.
I can attest to the sure-footed stability and grip I experienced when lapping the extremely bumpy Streets course. Perhaps of equal importance for the street/trackday rider, the $1625 Mechatronic TTX shock (only $200 more than a standard TTX) is equally at home on backroads and freeways. That made my ride home simply electric.