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.