Kawasaki was kind enough to invite us up to Laguna Seca to watch its current ZX-10R tear up the track under Tom Sykes—who won Race 1 in World Superbike—and nobody can deny what a brilliant motorcycle the 10R is. But I think we can all agree that for getting to Monterey from SoCal, its racy dynamics and lack of road-hugging weight make it not the first pick of the average metrosexual motorcycle “journalist.” One hates to date oneself, since there’s no chance of splitting the check, but I broke into this business just in time to ride the original Kawasaki ZX-10 back in the day before they started appending “R” to everything. On that bike, we could and did ride all day, with stuff stuffed into our bulbous tailsections and bungeed on behind. But, ahhh, that was 20 years ago. Okay, 25.
How refreshing that Kawasaki still makes a bike like that original ZX-10; you can still feel the origin of the species in the Ninja 1000 we rode to Monterey this year, but subtle revisions and big changes—including the addition of very nice new optional hard bags—mean this bike covers a wide spectrum ranging from nearly pure sportbike to not quite sport-tourer. That 1,043cc four-banger (lifted from the Z1000 for the original Ninja 1000 three years ago) was already powerful, smooth-running and super flexible: For 2014, a new intake cam with 0.3mm less lift and 6 degrees less duration (along with ECU, intake and exhaust changes) means it pulls noticeably harder at low rpm, with peak torque happening 500 rpm sooner. And Kawasaki says the retuned engine pulls harder from 7,000 on up, too. (It’s so strong down low and in the middle that I barely ever revved it far enough to find out.) The last Ninja 1000 we dyno’d produced about 125 horses and 75 foot-pounds torque. While that’s 40-some hp shy of a ZX-10R on top, the Ninja in fact makes a little more torque, and it does it at about 7,500 rpm instead of at 10-something. In other words, on 99 percent of public roads, the 10R’s really got nothing on the Ninja except a slight disadvantage.
Get it into top gear, and you can feel free to just leave the Ninja there until you get where you’re going; a taller sixth gear drops rpm to 5,500 at 80 mph. Or, flog the nostrils off it (now tuned for an even angrier intake honk). The 2014 bike gets the 3-mode traction control system like the one on the ZX-14R, and twisting the throttle foolhardy amounts at deep lean angles results not in wheelspin and low-level flight, but instead a tighter line. You’ve also got your choice of Low and Full power modes (Low provides 70 percent of Full power in the mid- and upper-rpm ranges). Riding like a maniac is not the Ninja’s mission really, but it’s nice to know it can do it, and maniacal is even more achievable with its revised suspension: A 3-percent stiffer rear spring and firmer damping front and rear provide a sportier ride that seems no less comfortable, really. And the main source of that comfort is the bike’s excellent ergonomics. You lean just far enough forward to offset what little wind gets past the three-position, adjustable-by-hand windscreen, and rubber-topped footpegs are in a natural, humane place. The passenger seat might not be quite as comfy as some, but there are new and improved grab handles. Gaze upon a big analog tachometer that turns red at 11, and a new LCD window that displays all the KTRC (traction control) info, along with average or current fuel consumption and all the other usual information. With its 5.0-gallon steel tank and a burn rate of approximately 40-42 mpg on our little jaunt, range is right around 200 miles.
Adding anti-lock brakes to the new bike is the main reason the price has been raised from previous version’s $11,099 to $11,999, and if ABS has ever saved your bacon (like it has mine), you don’t need to be told that it’s the best $900 you’ll ever spend. New monoblock brake calipers, a radial master cylinder and a five-way-adjustable front lever slow the 509-pound (claimed curb weight) Ninja ridiculously hard on its custom-tailored Bridgestone tires.
Because of the optional hard bags, Kawasaki built a new aluminum subframe to accommodate them, along with a new seat with which my rear end had no issues. To maintain level flight, a new remote preload adjuster is easy to twist by hand. The bags themselves are based upon a Givi design, and work great, which you’d expect for $1,269.75. And you’ll be having them dealer-installed, since he’ll be the only guy able to key the locks to your bike’s ignition key. Each bag can hold 28 liters or a helmet, and when you pop them off to carry into the Ritz, the bike looks just as svelte without them.
At the end of the day, I am left wondering what bigger, heavier sport-touring bikes can do that the Ninja 1000 ABS can’t, especially if you like to stick to the squiggly lines on the map. I suppose they’re better for a passenger. Electronic cruise control is nice, and a thing the Ninja doesn’t have—but like the gentleman from Vancouver on the bug-encrusted first-gen FJR1300 pointed out when we finally stopped to cool our jets along California 1, it’s really no big deal: A nice Throttlemeister-type throttle lock works about 90 percent as well with about a tenth of the complexity. There’s no denying the sweetness of our Ten Best darling BMW K1600GT, but that bike is more than 200 pounds heavier than the Ninja.
Maybe we call the Ninja 1000 and its ilk (Yamaha FZ1, Suzuki GSX-1250FA, Honda VFR1200F) “supersport tourers,” a market segment Kawasaki thinks is on the uptick. In that crowd, the green bike (which also comes in blue), runs at the front of the pack. I’m trying to think of one motorcycle that does more things better than this one—commute, travel, strafe backroads, promote hair growth while treating low T—and I really can’t.