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  • October 14, 2012
  • Gabe Ets-Hokin
  • Kevin Wing and Adam Campbell
  • 56 Comments

MD First Ride: 2013 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R (with video)

Interesting MD attended press launches for two Kawasaki sportbikes in four weeks, no? But it’s appropriate—they’re both vastly improved by electronics, slipper clutches, revised styling and a bump in displacement. In the case of the new ZX-6R, 37cc will do for it what 47cc did for the Ninja 300—keep it ahead of its direct competition and broaden its appeal to potential buyers.

Kawasaki decided to go big for the ZX-6R intro, holding it for not just USA media but for Latin American and European journalists as well. The venue: Chico, California, home of Sierra Nevada brewery and equidistant to Thunderhill Raceway and miles and miles of perfect twisty roads in the Plumas National Forest; what more do you need? It was pretty lavish treatment—Kawasaki’s marketing people hope to one day position the company as a premium brand, which means you gotta give the journos (especially European ones) premium treatment. Works for me.

Kawasaki Heavy Industries (KHI) makes all kinds of stuff—aerospace, ships, bullet trains—but the motorcycle business is becoming more important to the company, 18 percent of total business. And in the USA sportbike market, Kawi has moved into the number-two position for middleweight sportbike sales, up from fourth place in 2002.

You don’t stay in second place in a competitive marketplace without constant improvement, so that’s why, about two years ago, Project Leader Yoshihira Masuda and his team started work on making the 6R faster, better handling, better braking and most importantly, he told me, more appealing to street-biased riders.

That means making the motor more tractable and user-friendly. The stroke grows 2.6mm, to improve low and midrange power—the area under the curve on a dyno chart, the power a rider actually uses. The cylinder head gets wider porting, and cams and pistons are also new. Compression drops a bit to 12.9:1 and fuel-injection is now handled by a single injector per cylinder (with increased fuel-flow rates), which frees up room for a larger airbox and longer velocity stacks. All four header pipes are joined by cross-over tubes, further increasing low and midrange torque. All these changes mean about a five-horsepower boost (according to an EPA filing) or, since Kawasaki doesn’t like to discuss raw hp figures (how gauche!), a .2 second advantage in the quarter-mile over the old model.

Some more welcome additions: an FCC assist and slipper clutch, a shorter first gear to make starts easier, and the addition of three-mode traction control (KTRC) as well as two rider-selectable power modes. Absent in the electronic upgrades is a quick-shifter, something which sounds like a luxury but is indispensible once you get used to having one. Masuda-san told me they decided to skip it when they couldn’t source hardware that met the team’s reliability standards. I forgot to ask about an on-board lap timer, also absent, but I don’t think I could use one of those on the track without getting too distracted—they usually work off the rider pushing a button each time he or she passes start/finish, and I usually have other things on my mind.

The basic chassis stays the same, but there are important suspension revisions. The fork is still the outstanding Showa Big Piston Fork (BPF) that we liked so much when we compared the older ZX-6R, but now it’s the Big Piston-Separate Function Fork (BP-SFF). That means the preload adjuster is only on one side, and the compression/rebound adjusters are on the other. Weird, I know, but it does simplify suspension adjustments. In back, it’s the same Uni-Trak linkage and Showa monoshock, just with a slightly softer spring. It’s all tuned to deliver a bit more ride height, and the forks are 2mm up in the triples, which means less rake, more trail, and faster handling. There’s no stock steering damper.

Brakes and tires also go under the knife. The ZX-6R is the first Kawasaki to get monoblock Nissin calipers, combined with larger 310mm rotors in front. Kawasaki’s “Intelligent Anti-lock Braking System” (KIBS) is available for an extra $1000. OEM tire fitment is the new Bridgestone S20, which Bridgestone’s Steve Turner claims is great on the street, track or even in wet, slippery conditions.

Finally, styling is enhanced with new bodywork intended to make the bike look more aggressive and distinctive. There’s also increased wind protection, better headlights and mirrors and improved instrumentation. Fuel tank capacity remains 4.5 gallons, wet weight creeps up a bit to 423.4 pounds and the price jumps a lot to $11,699, making the ZX-6R pricier than all the 2012 Japanese middleweights (we’ll see if that’s true of the 2013s). Colors are white, black, and of course, lime green.

Thunderhill is a great middleweight circuit, a perfect blend of high-speed straights and terrifyingly technical curves—15 turns in 2.86 miles. The Ninja really shone there, showing off its improved power, suspension and braking.

It’s been a while since I rode a ZX-6R, but it was obvious the motor is improved. Third, fourth or fifth gear were all useful at T-Hill, with the extra cubes allowing fast acceleration in all kinds of turns. The power is smooth and fuelling is very good, although off-idle can be slightly abrupt—is it the missing injector’s fault? No worries, as that small niggle is offset by the smooth functioning and light feel of the slipper clutch. The gearbox worked well, though I experienced some notchiness with clutchless upshifts—then again, the bike only had a few hundred miles on it.

As always, Big Pistons mean Big Fun, with smooth compliant action combined with excellent damping and control, even on an undulating track like T-Hill. But the best part is the “Separate Function,” which lets the rider make preload or damping adjustments quickly and easily. With a few turns of a screwdriver, we got our bike’s suspension working as perfectly as a stock motorcycle’s possibly could.

The brakes are a treat as well. Powerful and fade-free, I was doing some very hard braking with one finger—use all four and the bike will hunker down and stop. Even the rocket-fast jocks on the track with us were impressed. On the racetrack, I simply don’t have the riding skill to find fault with the new ZX-6R 636, and unless your last name is “Sofoglu,” you won’t be able to either.

So will the changes broaden its street usability? To find out, Kawasaki unleashed us on Bucks Lake Road, 50 miles of smooth, freshly-paved goodness. That’s the kind of road a bike like the ZX-6R is perfect for—smooth, with well-engineered turns that can be safely taken at illegal speeds. I found the bike was happy pulling out of turns in third, fourth or fifth at any rpm above 6000. The suspension was just right on smooth pavement and good brakes like the ZX-6R’s are always welcome.

As an everyday ride, the ZX-6R would be fine. Wind protection is fine, and fuel economy is tolerable as well—there’s a readout showing MPG and an “eco” icon to inform you when the engine is at its most efficient. I found the hard seat and low bars uncomfortable after an hour or two, but it’s a sportbike. It doesn’t need to be comfortable. You’re lucky it has a seat at all.

Like its competition, the new ZX-6R is a finely tuned racetrack weapon that’s also fun to ride on the street. Is it improved enough to justify buying a new one? Well, it’s probably one of the best middleweights right now, and as the development pace in this class has slowed—only Suzuki has totally revamped its middleweight since 2009—it’ll probably be competitive for a long time. It’s not a question of the bike being good enough for you—are you good enough for it? For additional details and specifications, visit Kawasaki’s web site.

56 Comments

  1. BARRY WELLINGS says:

    $10,000.00 orange dirt bikes sell great and lots of people seam eager to pay up to $5000.00 for a high end mountain bike. This is a high end machine that will spank most ultra expensive sportscars for a Kia price tag.

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  2. EastCoast says:

    Wow, the price? Whats all the gripe about? It’s still cheaper than most toys you can put on the road and they are zero percent interest on loans through GE right now (and you do not need full coverage insurance). They are good on gas, practical, and now safer due to traction control. The payment on this is around $250.00 or less a month with NOTHING down. Compared to the over priced GSXRs and other fan bikes out there Kawasaki has the best value.

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  3. Stone996e says:

    Dear MotorcycleDaily video maker, uh, well uh you got the information wrong on uh, the bump in the motor was not because of a bigger bore uh it is a long stroke uh as called out uh in the uh text. Uh.

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  4. dan says:

    Regardless of the price/performance value, I think the motorcycle manufacturers are in for a lesson regarding the financial condition of their target demographics. Maybe the affluent boomer market can afford their BMWs and Harleys, but the pool of younger folks who can afford the cost of ownership of these expensive toys has significantly decreased in the last 10 years.

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  5. tom says:

    since my salary hasn’t gone up appreciably in 20 years, why should the price of a motorcycle go up appreciably in 20 years? Riddle me that.

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  6. AFW says:

    Why complain about the price? Go find something for $11700 that gives you the same fun. Get a better job or save money until you can afford one. The economy isn’t firing on all cylinders but it’s not all doom and gloom, if you can’t afford a new bike buy a used one later and thank those who bought it before you.

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    • tla says:

      it’s 80 yen to the buck right now, not like just a few years ago when it was 110 yen to the dollar, so yea, Japanese goods are more expensive, just like euro goods.
      Still looks like a good deal for all the technology you’re getting if sport bikes are your thing.
      hey, if 410 candidates are running for prez, why are Obama and Romney the only debaters? I’d ask them why the dollar is so weak and why there are no American middleweight sportbikes in production..

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  7. Jeremy in TX says:

    I guess I am in the minority in thinking that a 420 lb ready-to-ride cruise missile with traction control, a slipper clutch and top-notch suspension is a good deal at $12,000.

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    • Tom Shields says:

      It’s a lot of money, but it’s a lot of bike regardless of its engine size.

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      • Dave says:

        It is a lot of bike. I think part of the reaction we’re having is that this category has been “sleeping” for a couple of years, as well as the gradual change 600′s have made from being more of a value/performance machine (leaving the premium piece @ 750-1000cc) to a stand-alone premium product.

        600′s have vacated that place and we’re starting to see the fill-in products emerging. It’ll be interesting to see what emerges.

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  8. JasonB says:

    Funny, I don’t remember anyone freaking out when the 2011 GSX-R600 got announced at $11,599, and that was two years ago! And it’s not nearly the bike this is! I realize we want it all for nothing, but in today’s economic climate if you want the latest and greatest this is the price tag attached to it. I for one have never understood why everyone thought the best bike should cost less just because it was Japanese. If you want to be different that’s your call, belly up to the euro bar. If you want the best bike then unfortunately you’re going to have to pay market value for it now.

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  9. daniel says:

    On top of the $12K how much to replace the plastic the first time it tips over in your garage? The price + cost of ownership and impractical ergonomics rules it out for this old guy.

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  10. Dave says:

    I hadn’t kept up with 600cc sport bike prices and this one’s shocked me so I looked at the others, which are all $11-11.5k. This sounds like a genuinely better so while I no longer consider the Kawi’s price out of line, I do consider the price of all 600′s out of line. I guess the makers are all happy with the volume. They can obviously make cheaper bikes, they just won’t win races with them.

    I think with things like the Ninja 300 and CBR500 on the way, this industry is headed for a huge reset.

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  11. Nocklhiem Verstadt says:

    I rode the old version of the 636 and have to say it was a great ride. Gotta agree with most everybody here, though, too much moola for a 600(or 636). I do think there is a price ceiling on bikes around 600cc’s and the amount Kawasaki is asking is going to hurt sales. It’s not the 50 year old guys that are financially secure that are attracted to these things, but the under 30 crowd struggling to make ends meet. Who wants to pay $12,000+ and then add sportbike insurance rates to the cost of this motorcycle when all the performance improvements this bike has can only be experienced safely on the racetrack? I hope that Kawasaki does sell a lot of these, but the used market is where a lot of riders are turning to get their kicks.

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  12. Brian Phillips says:

    I rode one of the Kaw 636 bikes at Thunderhill at Keith Code’s California Superbike School about 8 years ago… Even though I owned an R1 at the time, I was really impressed with how wide the powerband was for that displacement. I’m sure the new one is even better.

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  13. HalfBaked says:

    For what this thing costs I could buy 2 300′s and ride them twice as much.

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  14. andrew says:

    “…it’s a sportbike. It doesn’t need to be comfortable” … and this, right here, is why sales of sport bikes such as this one are in free fall! This sort of thinking is now completely out of step with what the bike buyers want.

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    • JasonB says:

      Funny, I don’t remember anyone freaking out when the 2011 GSX-R600 got announced at $11,599, and that was two years ago! And it’s not nearly the bike this is! I realize we want it all for nothing, but in today’s economic climate if you want the latest and greatest this is the price tag attached to it. I for one have never understood why everyone thought the best bike should cost less just because it was Japanese. If you want to be different that’s your call, belly up to the euro bar. If you want the best bike then unfortunately you’re going to have to pay market value for it now.

      Report this comment

  15. chipper says:

    A MV 675 looks better and better

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  16. chipper says:

    Dam for I believe 13 and change you could also get the new MV 675 with eletronics etc Now that is a sexy bike, and a bit more exclusive.

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  17. Ken says:

    I hate the Green.. love everything else.. its an insane value, a machine you can beat on for 15 years and sell for $2500 when you’re done and only have changed tires,chains and brake pads. Kawi rocks, the ZX-6 only keeps getting better but PLEASE that effin shade of green is terrible…

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  18. Jorge says:

    I bought my year 2000 ZX6R new out the door for just a bit over $7K. The value compared well to the more expensive Italian brands at the time.
    Now with the Yen/Dollar so high this price is insane, you can throw $3K more into the bucket and ride out on a new 848 Evo. You would have to be a huge fan of the green paint to go this route.
    Financing an extra $3K isn’t a big deal so I just don’t see this moving off the floor well. Guess that explains why Ducati sales in the States are way up.

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    • Gabe says:

      The 2000 ZX-6R’s MSRP was $8099. Adjust for inflation (http://www.bls.gov/data/inflation_calculator.htm) and you get $11,249. That means the price has gone up $449, and that $449 gets you incredible brakes, suspension that many racers say works better than Ohlins, 15 less pounds, 15 or more extra hp, traction control, etc.

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      • Random says:

        That’s the point, it gets almost the same techno-gizmos as superbikes. As some industry insiders revealed, the costs of making a 600 are almost the same as making a bigger displacement bike equipped with the same tech. So it’s not surprise prices heve to be higher with a higher yen, because the bigger profits are on bigger bikes. Even if you find it expensive, margins are probably lesser here than on the 1000′s.

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      • Dave says:

        I would challenge that inflation adjustment. In 2000 everyone was making more money and everything was cheaper. Now we’re looking at $11.5k in a down turned economy where people are paying more for everything and not making any more money. It’s not $449 different, not by a long shot, and I would bet my bike that the sales numbers back it up.

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      • Jorge says:

        Using your same formula the 2000 Ducati 748 MSRP was $12.5K, adjust for inflation and you get $16,797. That means the 848 Evo for $15K has seen its price drop by $1800 and I’m getting improvements across the board as well.

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  19. carl says:

    Gezzzz for that money I would buy a gsxr750.

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  20. BillyGoat says:

    Why all the whining about cost? Do you know what kind of value that you’re getting here? Compare the features on this bike to a KTM 530 EXC (street licensable) for a couple of bucks less than $10K. Are you still whining?

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  21. MGNorge says:

    As much racetrack prowess as this bike is said to have, under what class would it race?

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    • Dave says:

      Whichever class the Triumph 675 and Ducati 848 race in. Racing is hurting too badly to turn away a willing participant. They’ll get them in there somehow if Kawi wants to play.

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      • Nicholas says:

        Probably true. They’ll most likely apply some kind of rev limit, intake restrictor, or similar performance limiting measure to keep things fair. I can’t imagine they’ll kick Green out, though. On the other hand, Kawi may release a race-spec RR version as they did when the first 636 dropped.

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      • MGNorge says:

        Wouldn’t competitors on “lowly” 600′s cry foul? Who could blame them especially if those extra cc’s proved to give them the commanding edge. Whether Kawasaki wants to play or not or how well racing is going I can’t see the extra cc’s being allowed unless being a twin. What would everyone think if Suzuki then showed up to play with a 700?

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        • Dave says:

          Sure they would, and do. WSBK and Ducati, AMA Sportbike (Aprilia, Buell, Triumph, Ducati) continuously go through it. They add weight, restrictor plates and whatever else to level the playing field (still don’t know what they do to an 850cc Duc to keep it behind 600′s..).

          600 makers don’t like it while the rules neuter the displacement advantage but they recognize that a half-full grid of 600′s is not going to continue to attract fans and sponsors either.

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  22. Neil says:

    I think most of us are lucky to afford the new Ninja 300, never mind over 11k for a 600. It begs the question why we cannot build one in the USA with non union labor. We could outsource many of the parts as all manufacturers do these days. We complain about unemployment but we are not doing much about it. I think they should also offer their own version of helibars and cables for street use. It would be nice to feel like a racer on occasion but in the real world we would rather ride a Z800. We just need some AMA racers and Hollywood types marketing them. Nice machine. Great review but still lean towards naked bikes which will still tackle any twisty road just fine.

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    • blackcayman says:

      This is where Indian could come in to play. If Polaris would pull their head out, they could make Indian brand more like the resurging Triumph and bring out a whole range of “modern” street bikes. It’s unlikely that two American Motorcycle companies would follow the identical path of slavishly following the Big, Heavy, V-Twin only route.
      Make an 800CC triple in a standard, light ST and Adv. Americans wouls snap them up.

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  23. Wendy says:

    EVERYBODY wants to be a luxury brand, to paraphrase Lewis Gosset Jr. in An Officer and a Gentleman”. This is more than a big price for a mid sized bike. It is a leap into dream land. The weakness of the dollar versus all currencies is to blame, but really? 12k is way too much for this bike, bleeding edge or mot.

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  24. craig says:

    Almost $12,000!?!? For 600 that doesn’t even have a steering damper? No thanks.

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    • Zammy says:

      You COULD just settle for a much lesser 600 for a couple of dollars less a month I guess. Kawasaki is just the best . If you doubt it or don’t know it , go ride one.

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    • chris says:

      I’ve not owned a bike that needs a steering damper, do all the 600 supersports have them now because of the frame and front end geometry? I’d be surprised if the most recently updated 600-class modern sporter would need a steering damper off the factory floor unless maybe it’s going straight to the track to live out its life, but I’m probably missing something . . .

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      • Jake says:

        chris says:”…I’m probably missing something”

        Quick-handling bikes — many racers and repli-racers — shake their head in full-on acceleration. “Punters” are often put-off by head-shake and holler for a steering damper.

        Similar to: I skidded the back tire — so, the bike needs ABS…:o)

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      • Nicholas says:

        It is nice to have a damper for the confidence factor, if nothing else. I find my Daytona 675 exhibits headshake at WOT, and just knowing the damper there gives me the extra “meh” attitude I need towards that behavior to keep it pinned. It wouldn’t be a buying factor for me unless everything else lined up and the competitors offered the same performance along with a damper.

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