2011 Kawasaki Ninja 1000

Story by Uwe Wachtendorf// Photos by Adam Campbell, Kinney Jones and Joanna Tichauer
March 1 2011

Canadian motorcyclists are wimps. For such a rugged and diverse nation, one with a national pastime that takes place on a sheet of ice, we sure are a namby-pamby group when it comes to motorcycles.

I reached this conclusion after numerous dealers and manufacturers told me that the supposedly rough-and-tumble Canadian rider more often than not would opt for a motorcycle that comes equipped with wind protection for them to cower behind.

Europeans, by comparison, prefer motorcycles that have been stripped down to their bare essentials. In a continent where men with purses are considered fashionistas and it is customary to kiss others on the cheek in lieu of a firm handshake, riding naked motorcycles is a desirable activity. The manufacturers once believed that the preferences of the purse-swinging Europeans would be similar to our own. Instead, they discovered that although Canadians say they like the muscular lines of a naked bike, they won’t go so far as to actually buy one.

Cognizant of the Canadian rider’s desire to be coddled, Kawasaki has followed last year’s introduction of the naked Z1000 with the Ninja 1000. The new 2011 model joins the Ninja 250R, Ninja 400R, and Ninja 650R in redefining a Ninja’s role in Kawasaki’s line-up away from its previous pursuit of uncompromising performance. Conceding that the ever-sharpening performance of sportbikes makes them less suited for street use, the Ninja brand now places an emphasis on engine, handling and suspension characteristics that contribute to a more useable street machine.

The Ninja 1000 was developed alongside the Z1000; however, scheduling conflicts at the engineering and development level prevented the two bikes from being simultaneously introduced. Based on the same platform, they share the same frame, engine and suspension (though the Ninja uses a different preload adjuster for the shock). The Ninja differs from the Z1000 in that it has a larger fuel tank, a more robust aluminum sub-frame to handle the extra load of packed panniers, a larger seat, a different front fender, and two individually mounted handlebars as opposed to the single bar found on the Z1000. With less emphasis on acceleration and more on speed, the Ninja also has slightly taller gearing, as it uses a 41-tooth rear sprocket versus the 42-tooth sprocket found on the Z1000.

However, the most important difference for Canadians – of course – is that the Ninja features a full fairing. Combining aerodynamics for the bike with wind protection for the rider, the slim fairing has a slat on its leading edge to push oncoming air outward, while a distinctive flair at its mid-section works to conduct engine heat away from the bike and rider.

Within the first few kilometres it was apparent that the Ninja was a real-world sportbike, and that its relaxed, almost fully upright riding position is a perfect compromise for an aging rider demographic that typically is more concerned with aching knees and fragile backs than it is with absolute speed. Both the rider and pillion seats are a little broader and plusher than those on the Z1000, and although it made moving around the seat in turns slightly more difficult, the added comfort was a welcome trade-off. Further pampering is provided by a manually adjustable, three-position windscreen operated by a lever inside the fairing beneath the instrumentation. I found it was possible to adjust the screen on the fly, provided you’re the type of person who is comfortable clearing ice off a moving wiper-blade while driving a car. This is probably frowned upon by Kawasaki. In its lowest position, it deflected air toward my upper chest, which on a sportbike is desirable, but on a bike with an upright seating position, it forced my upper body back at highway speeds. With the screen in its highest position at 120 km/h, most of the air was being deflected away from my body and I could only feel a slight push on my shoulders.

Even though the fairing-mounted mirrors are quite large, their mounting position toward the front of the bike caused an obstructed view to the rear. What I could see without moving my arms out of the way remained clear throughout the rev range and at all speeds. As with the Z1000, the Ninja’s straightforward and well-executed instrumentation, with its massive tachometer, was easy to read at a glance.

Kawasaki’s route through the drastically varying terrain north of San Francisco was an ideal testing ground for the Ninja 1000 and highlighted the versatility of the new bike. While riding under the canopy of a dense forest, the twisting road that manically carved its way up the side of the mountain felt like a rollercoaster inside a subway tunnel, and its rhythm of tight turns required full concentration. Without warning, the forest suddenly stopped and I plunged into the blinding light of a clear sky and straight into a tight right-hand turn. I felt like I had emerged from a womb, and as my eyes adjusted, I was momentarily overcome by the fear of riding off a cliff.

Riding at a reasonable pace in these environs required confidence in the ability of the machine, and the Ninja proved itself up to the task. I appreciated the engine’s flexibility, which enabled the bike to pull hard from down low in a smooth and linear manner. With plenty of available power from seemingly everywhere in the rev range and good low-end torque, the 1034 cc inline-four would at times lull me into complacency, and I found myself riding without much need of the gearbox.

When the speeds quickened and the revs were allowed to build, the Ninja’s persona changed, much like Jekyll and Hyde. At normal revs, the engine was a compliant and capable partner that delivered ample thrust for every law-abiding riding situation. However, once allowed to spin, it became a sharper, more purposeful instrument that meant business. At around 7300 rpm, a noticeable increase in thrust coincided with a hair-raising induction howl, signalling that the engine had entered a manic state and was propelling me forward at a respectable rate. Although there was notable high-frequency vibration when the engine was spinning at high revs, it’s not a point of complaint. Under situations when a rider is preoccupied by a rapidly passing road, he’s not likely to be disturbed by anything short of extreme vibration.

With a curb weight of 228 kg (503 lb.), the Ninja 1000 isn’t exactly a welterweight. However, it felt light on its feet, responded to steering inputs without hesitation, and it was easy to throw onto its side. Quick transitions through chicane-type back-to-back turns did require a little effort, but not enough to discourage anyone from sustaining a quick pace. Enhancing the taut feel of the Ninja’s handling was its five-piece aluminum frame, which is not only very rigid, but narrow enough to provide a good grip on the tank for your knees. At low speeds, the Ninja was well balanced and could easily be turned at its full steering lock with just a little brake drag.

Sharing in the credit for the bike’s handling was its suspension, which also did a good job of keeping the tires planted over less than ideal road surfaces with marginal traction. Highly tuneable to your riding mood, the fully adjustable, 41 mm, inverted Showa fork can be softened for a compliant touring mode or tightened up for more sport-biased riding. At the start of the day, the bike was launching me out of the seat when I rode over harsh bumps, but a simple adjustment of the shock’s rebound damping at the first rest stop improved things considerably. The rebound and preload adjustable rear shock and its linkage is mounted horizontally above the swingarm, a design element Kawasaki claims improves weight distribution and minimizes the effects of exhaust-pipe heat on the shock body.

Having looked over the specs for the Ninja’s brake components, I expected it to shine in this department and wasn’t disappointed by what I experienced. The bike is fitted with a pair of radially mounted, four-piston brake calipers on the front wheel, actuated by a radial-pump master cylinder. The setup provided powerful braking with excellent feel and easy modulation, and worked well in conjunction with the rear brake for trail braking into the numerous blind turns on our route.


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