2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R - First Look

Rumors and innuendo about the next liter-class Ninja.

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When a new model is delayed, rumors come out like leaves in the spring. What’s making this bike so late? It’s gotta be fantastic—especially if it’s a Superbike-eligible machine.

Kawasaki's 2011 ZX-10R is late, so let's list the rumors: Australian Motorcycle News says the new 10R will have a big-bang engine with a 540-degree, no-fire zone in its 720-degree cycle. That's different from Yamaha's "cross-plane" 90-degree crank, whose aim is to reduce the tire disturbance from piston starts-and-stops. A big-bang engine delivers its power in pulses by clustering firings close together, seeking to increase traction by letting the rear tire lay down a fresh, stress-free footprint between big shoves. The rumored 540 degrees of silence leave 180 degrees, which could mean one cylinder firing at 540, two at 630 and the last at 720.

Why do this when the concentrated torque pulses require redesign of the whole driveline (as happened in 500cc Grand Prix)? The aim in racing is more traction. The aim in commerce is a unique sound—a “signature.” Brand is everything in commerce.

The rumors continue, saying that a close-coupled motor alternator would supply bursts of torque below 3000 rpm to keep the engine from stalling through that long 540.

Now, we leaf through France's Moto Journal, and WHAMMO!—here's a Photoshop rendering of a Ninja (above) with its crankshaft above the gearbox and with super-radical horizontal cylinders. Hmm, while ever-higher cornering angles do need narrower or higher-mounted engines, this, by shifting the crank rearward, would unload the front wheel, making such a bike squat and push in corners. Inspiration for this image comes from three recent Kawasaki patents.

The first is for horizontal cylinders stacked atop the gearbox. The next is for pneumatic valve springs and the third for variable valve lift and timing. Okay, Kawasaki’s ZX-RR MotoGP engine had pneumatic valves like all the others. Each company surely has its own patents, but none has put pneumatics on a production bike. Variable lift and timing, too? Google “BMW Valvetronic with Double Vanos” to get an idea how ambitious this would be—lots of extra levers between cam and valve finger, plus a lift-shifting cam positioned by a stepper motor, allowing variable valve lift to function as the engine’s throttle. Plus, cam phasers. This requires us to believe that Kawasaki, the smallest Japanese manufacturer, has financed a giant, risky project in a time of drastically reduced sales. And solved problems that have kept BMW Valvetronic from operating efficiently above 6000 rpm.

Cast your eyes over the image. No intake downdraft? And that looks like a narrow single-overhead-cam head—what you expect to see on dirtbikes, not sportbikes. Could that be the real meaning of the patent?

Also on the rumors list are multi-level traction control and ABS. After taking a whacking from BMW and Ducati on the electronics front, the Japanese majors must fight back. Ditto ABS, which may soon be mandatory on larger bikes in Europe—and maybe even in the U.S.

What’s the skinny? I’m no oracle, but credibility and practicality go to big bang, ABS and real traction control.