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2011 Kawasaki Ninja 1000: MD First Ride

The concept seems simple enough. Take top shelf components designed for a pure sport bike, including adjustable suspension, radial-mounted disk brakes, aluminum twin-spar chassis, and a take–no–prisoners motor and combine these elements with real-world, comfortable ergonomics for the street. Simple, but surprisingly rare among production motorcycles. Kawasaki cannot claim to be the first to do this, as Aprilia and Ducati certainly have followed this formula in the past, but among the Japanese manufacturers the new Ninja 1000 is something special.

The Ninja 1000 shares an awful lot with its naked sister, the Z1000, but this is not a bad thing. We praised  the Z1000, as did virtually every other journalist. The suspension, brakes and engine on this bike put a Japanese naked on the same playing level as the pricier European exotics mentioned above. Moreover, the Z1000 and the Ninja 1000 were developed simultaneously. The Ninja 1000 is not a Z1000 with bodywork slapped on it as an afterthought. This machine was designed from the beginning to serve two purposes, both naked and clothed.

Before we get into our riding impression of the Ninja 1000, courtesy of a romp through the beautiful hills of Marin County, California earlier this week, let’s talk about the essence of this motorcycle, particularly, its engine.

The thoroughly modern 1043cc four-cylinder powerplant is fed by fuel injection and produces awesome power for the street. This is not a de–tuned sport bike engine, it is an engine purpose built to provide more usable street power to the rider than either 1000cc sport bikes or 600cc sport bikes. That’s right, nine times out of ten, this bike is faster on the street than the latest 1000cc superbikes. Most of those superbikes will do 100mph, or more, in first gear, meaning peak horsepower from those engines probably arrives beyond legal speeds in first gear. Will you use that peak horsepower on the street? Generally no, with rare exceptions.

Take a look at this comparison between Kawasaki’s own sport bikes with the Ninja 1000. As our riding confirmed, the Ninja 1000 has power virtually everywhere you will use it on the street… no waiting.

What about peak power? According to Kawasaki, the Ninja 1000 delivers 10% more peak horsepower than the ZX-6R, and 65% more torque. At the same time, although the Ninja 1000 is down on the high RPM horsepower provided by the ZX-10R, it produces the same peak torque at lower RPM.

The adjustable suspension components are slightly smoother and softer than sport bike units, providing a better ride on the street, but still allowing the rider to stiffen up the units for a track day. The 300 mm front disc brakes get radial-mount brake calipers and a radial-pump master cylinder, state-of-the-art for the sport bike class.

Nothing on this bike looks cheap or acts cheap. The swingarm is where many manufacturers save money on a naked, but the Ninja 1000 gets an aluminum swingarm with a built-in eccentric chain adjuster. Unlike a naked, of course, the Ninja 1000 offers excellent wind protection along with a full fairing reminiscent of a sport bike.

That fairing includes a distinctive slat in front of the engine that helps direct hot air away from the rider. During our testing, we did not notice any significant heat coming from the engine, but the weather was cool and hot weather testing would be warranted.

That bodywork and simple, three-position windscreen, provide surprising wind protection, without buffeting. The windscreen assumes one of three positions simply by pushing a button in front of the instrument panel and manually selecting the position desired. No tools and no waiting. You can easily change the position of the windscreen at a stoplight, if you desire.

Along with the frame and suspension elements derived from the world of sport bikes, you get light-weight wheels and sport bike instrumentation. The instruments are taken from the ZX-6R, with different fonts and colors. Included is a very legible, traditional analog tachometer next to an LCD screen that includes a speedometer, fuel gauge, clock, dual trip meters and assorted warning lamps. The fuel gauge is easily read at a glance, it is appreciated when combined with the comfort and long-distance touring capabilities of this bike.

The riding position is just about perfect for this 5’10″ test pilot. The bars are higher and closer than many found on sport tourers. The seat is thicker and more comfortable than that typically found on a sport bike. The pegs are a bit high compared to many sport tourers, but still much lower than those found on a pure sport bike.

Those pegs deserve special comment. It is always interesting to note whether a manufacturer paid attention to the important details. Here, along with the smooth engine, Kawasaki took great pains to eliminate any unwanted vibration traveling through the footpegs to the rider’s feet. Both the front and rear pegs are rubber-coated, but the front pegs are also rubber mounted and feature a counterbalancing weight on the heel guard to further reduce vibration. The result is an extremely smooth riding experience that was even a bit surprising when we first pulled out of the parking lot for our test.

Kawasaki even made the passenger seat thicker, longer and wider than those typically found on a sport bike, so that a passenger can experience something short of the torture-rack found at the back of most super sports.

Although the engine is virtually the same as that found in the Z1000, rated at 138 PS at the crank, it has slightly taller final gearing (41 tooth rear sprocket versus 42 on the Z1000). This change reflects the distinct likelihood that the Ninja 1000 will be used for highway touring, but it is not enough of a difference to blunt the stupendous acceleration offered by the bike.

As you might expect, Kawasaki is working on plenty of accessories for this bike. We saw a Ninja 1000 with saddlebags attached, but those are not yet available. Kawasaki promised they would be available soon, however, and you can expect pricing to be similar to the pricing of this accessory on the Versys, since they are the same bags. Different windshields, heated grips and a trunk are also under development.

What is it like to ride the Ninja 1000? Not surprisingly, it is similar to riding a Z1000, with the added comfort provided by the windscreen and fairing protection. The bars are in a similar position, but are actually angled a bit more towards the rider. The result is a seating position that was hard to criticize. Sporty enough, but offering comfort worlds beyond a super sport. Most of the time, we ran the windscreen in the middle position. The stock photos you see typically have the screen in its lowest position, but we found the middle position to provide excellent upper body wind protection without buffeting at the helmet level.

Wind protection for the lower body was also excellent. Combined with the low vibration levels, this bike could easily be toured on, and Kawasaki knows it. Our only criticism would be the fact that the seat seems to push the rider forward onto the tank more than it should.

As we have previously reported in the Z1000 test, engine performance is outstanding. The fuel injection is very well dialed in, and transitions from closed to open throttle are quite smooth. The bike will pull from under 3000 RPM smoothly, and provide decent forward thrust above 4000 RPM. Corner exits above 5000 RPM are plenty strong, allowing the rider to roll the throttle on as he stands the bike up, and then feel a bit of a power bump at 7000 RPM as the Ninja 1000 squirts towards the next corner.

The handling of the Ninja 1000 was, perhaps, the most surprising thing about our test. The upright ergonomics and relatively wide bars, coupled with the relatively light weight, and well centralized mass (which the horizontally-mounted shock absorber contributes to), results in a machine that changes directions almost effortlessly relative to other open-class bikes. This nimble nature is coupled with excellent stability and confidence from the front end. Although the front wheel can get light on corner exits, and we sometimes found ourselves slightly crossed-up when hard on the gas.  we never experienced anything remotely resembling head shake, and really learned to trust the front end of this bike.

The transmission performed its duties without complaint, and without requiring much attention from the rider. The brakes are strong and progressive, although we could have used a bit more feel from the powerful front binders.  Our test bike came with excellent Bridgestone  sport bike rubber.

The Ninja 1000 is an excellent motorcycle. After just one day of testing, coupled with our knowledge of the Z1000 from earlier tests, we can confidently say the Ninja 1000 is an outstanding motorcycle, and one of the most versatile motorcycles we have ever ridden. There is very little compromise in this machine. Can it run with sport bikes in the twisties? No question about it, and it will exit corners harder than most sport bikes without paying too much attention to where the tachometer is pointing when you pull the trigger. Does it  work droning along in a straight line on the super slabs? Absolutely, and rider fatigue won’t be much different than the fatigue experienced on a modern sport tourer.  Touring, commuting, play riding on the weekends . . . the Ninja 1000 can clearly do all of these things, and do them quite well. The 5 gallon fuel tank (1 more gallon than the Z1000) should provide plenty of range (although we didn’t take fuel consumption figures at the press launch, we traveled over 120 hard riding miles without refueling, and the bike seemed to have a fair amount of gas left).

Will the Ninja 1000 sell well in the United States? That is hard to predict, but American attitudes certainly work against it. Younger riders want pure sport bikes, regardless of the fact that these bikes are generally slower on the street. These riders won’t think about the fact that they can’t live above 10,000 RPM on public highways. Nevertheless, there seems to be emerging a more mature, thoughtful American consumer for motorcycles.  This could be the Ninja 1000′s saving grace. These consumers will get an extraordinarily versatile motorcycle. They will get a motorcycle at a price significantly below the price of the latest-and-greatest, open-class superbike, while benefiting from many of the same top shelf components and performance capabilities. Oh yeah, and they might also save some money on chiropractor visits and Advil purchases.

The Ninja 1000 will be in U.S. dealer showrooms in the two colors pictured shortly after you read this at an MSRP of $10,999.  Visit Kawasaki’s web site for additional details.

Motorcycle Daily attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

96 Comments

  1. CurtyD says:

    OMG, the green w/saddlebags shown above is the ticket and I save 200lbs on the 2007 C-14 I’m riding now!!!!

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  2. Gritboy says:

    A Ninja…no! A kick-ass Kawi…yes! I saw and sat on it this weekend at the International Motorcycle Show in San Mateo. Once I get to do a demo ride on one of these, I’m pretty sure my FZ1′s days are numbered.

    I wish they’d call it something else just to avoid the Ninja confusion, but hey, aside from the Vulcan and Versys Kawi seems very afraid of names instead of alphanumerics — I even like the Z1000ST suggested, though I’d prefer a name over a number.

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  3. RobG says:

    I have a 2010 Z1000 and LOVE it. The Ninja 1000 will be a great bike. I still prefer the Z for its “naked” style though. I doubt the name choice is going to affect insurance. When I replaced my ER-6n with the Z1000 on my insurance policy, my rate DOUBLED. I knocked it down a little by switching insurers, but I doubt the Ninja 1000 will be much less. Besides, the Ninja 650R has about as much business being called a Ninja as the Ninja 1000. I see the Ninja 1000 as the big brother to the Ninja 650R. Both are upright sport-type bikes.

    Ride quality of my Z1000 is excellent. It’s better than my ER-6n for sure, but is still firm compared to my DR650. Handling is outstanding. I highly recommend both the Z1000 and Ninja 1000… pick the one that fits your needs best and enjoy it!

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  4. nile says:

    max this machine’s introduction corresponds with the 25th anniversary of the original NINJA 1000R way back in 1986, a bike which was VERY similar for its day.

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  5. Max says:

    I agree, stupid as hell to call it a ninja. If I owned it I’d call it the Z1000 ST. Ninjas are for racers and under 30 riders. MOST of the buyers of this bike will be likely 35-50. We want this bike, but would not brag that it’s a NINJA.

    Exhausts would be a piece of cake to replace, and add hp, tq, less weight, and moderate sound. Two Bros makes a very nice looking set of slip-ons for this bike. For me the stock pipes should be ditched for slip-ons before the bike leaves the dealership.

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  6. kirk66 says:

    It’s a marketing disaster from a motorcycle insurance perspective. They should have used the z1000sx name like in Europe. Insurance companies will slot this bike into Superbike categories and leave bikes on the sales floor because of this. I should know. I make my living selling motorcycle insurance.

  7. sam says:

    They praise this bike without reserve, even comment twice on the lack of vibration, yet with that much attention put forth to isolate it in the pegs, it does beg the question why they did not specifically comment on bar vibes. Bar vibes are the hardest vibes to address if they are bad. And also the kind that parks your average ST wannabee.
    Big displacement I4′s (especially Kawi’s, although excluding the ZX1400) are notoriously not smooth. Better than their big twins though I will admit. Versys feel and sound like swarm of bees are coming.

    I agree the bike should be available with ABS, but I suspect they have built to a price point and hope to sell a few before tooling up for the ABS. If the bike is good, news will spread that it is worth the extra cash for ABS. But personally I think it was a mistake to not make the option avail from the start.

    Sure not impressed with the ‘new’ exhaust can looks. Suzuki started it, so I blame them. And noise laws are starting to crimp our aural pleasures; combine that with probable mandatory emission levels testing, the OEM cans have that much more responsibility to not look ridiculous.

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    • KOTH says:

      ABS is available in other countries where it is sold as the Z1000SX so it is not a matter of “tooling up” for it. But to your point they are trying to market it at a certain price in the US to jump start sales.

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  8. Max says:

    I’ve been waiting for this bike. I have an FZ-1, and a CBR1000RR, and am seriously considering trading both for this one bike. The only things I would change are the pipes and the windscreen. Other that that, this bike is just about perfect for the 40+ year-old that wants speed, but comfort, too (that’s me). And I’d shut off the ABS anyway, so it doesn’t bother me that ABS is not offered, but not a bad idea to make it an option. It will likely show up on this bike soon, from the ZX-10R unit.

    Great job Kawasaki!

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  9. Pacman says:

    Second Bob and Roxx motions. XX rider here. Thought I found the replacement for the good old bird. But no ABS, no Ninja for me. I’ll keep the XX. Maybe 2012?

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  10. Mark says:

    Perfect bike once it comes out with ABS. I shake my head at Kawi USA for denying our market this option. I will not buy another new bike without ABS, or fuel injection. I hope it is an option in 2012 otherwise I may buy the Triumph GT.

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  11. AndyZA says:

    And it looks awesome in candy-lime too!

    http://img180.imageshack.us/img180/352/ninja1000.jpg

    UK version

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  12. Bob says:

    When all the other STs are getting much longer, way bigger and mega heavier, Kawasaki saves the year with a small and agile solo tourer! (Sorry Triumph and Honda) That’s what I will use it for anyway. There’s still a large percentage of people who don’t drag their significant others around with them. I ride for me and me alone. 400,000 miles of solo touring to 49 US states, 6 Mexican states and 6 Canadian provinces. I need to carry my stuff but still like flicking it into the corners with the best of them. But I also like my ABS. I want it but I won’t buy this until ABS is offered in the USA. Too bad it’s an I-4, but to me, it’s a package deal and the package Kawi is offering wins my money.

    2013 is the year for Europe to mandate ABS on all bikes over 250cc, BTW.

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    • Justin says:

      Yeah, loving this bike more the more I think about it. If you’re like me, you want to be able to take a passenger for a few hours, tops. Wouldn’t want them to get too comfortable…

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  13. ziggy says:

    Great idea…but that fugly tail section has to go (easy fix) and the exhaust cans, particularly left side (no so easy fix).

    I can’t recall EVER seeing anything in motorcycling as bad-ugly as that left side exhaust with the bike leaned over.

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  14. ROXX says:

    I ride a 99 Honda Blackbird XX, and it’s getting a little long in the tooth.
    Simply put, THIS is the bike I have been waiting for someone to build.
    All I can say is FINALLY!

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  15. Easy1958 says:

    I think this is a great looking motorcycle. I would love to see a comparison between the Ninja and the Honda VFR1200. And throw in the BMW too. A sporty-sport touring comparison?

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  16. Jay Mack says:

    Sorry, I just put money down on a Motto Guzzi 1200 Sport. My test ride put me in love. I am sooo tired of the same old Japanese in-line fours. The Breva is already non-current, so it cost substantially less than the Kawasaki MSRP.

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  17. Mark says:

    How was the suspension in terms of compliance and comfort? (I ride on some terrible roads here in the Four Corners area, and right now my street triple is just about killing me!)I am looking at the new Tiger 800 (like many here!) but this seems like an option as well.

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  18. Justin says:

    I hope you guys buy tons and tons of these, so that I can get one almost-new in a couple years without having to pay extra for the aftermarket seat and exhaust.

    Also, if Kawasaki sell a ____load of these maybe the other manufacturers will realize that America is not completely full of idiots.

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  19. Dan says:

    I think the bike actually looks better with the saddlebags. Sounds like this could be the VFR replacement that Honda should have built!!!!!