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Kawasaki Ninja 1000 Review Part 1

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Ninja 1000

March 18, 2011. I flew from Sacramento to Denver, got a ride to Sun Enterprises, and bought a new 2011 Kawasaki Ninja 1000, aka ZX1000G aka Z1000SX. Why so many names? I dunno. The secret US name is ZX1000G, but in Europe it's the Z1000SX. I had previously shipped Sun a windshield for my bike; I brought with me a set of Nelson-Rigg CL850 soft saddlebags and a new seat from Baldwin Motorbike Saddles. Just sitting on a ZX1000G in the local dealer showroom convinced me quickly I didn't want to ride 1000+ miles back to Sacramento on the stock seat or with the stock windshield. The stock seat, I later learned when I used it for a week, starts getting uncomfortable in about 25 minutes. I'm told the Ninja seat is made from a 10mm (1/2") thicker piece of wood than the Z1000 seat. Sure, whatever.

Ninja 1000 packed up
Ninja in Sun parking lot, loaded up, new windshield and seat, ready to go.

To my eyes the stock windshield looked like it was designed in 1450 by Spanish priests - that is, a torture device. I've never ridden with my stock windshield, not even 1 foot, but reports across the Internet strongly support my intuition. I changed windshields to one of our tinted large shields in the dealership parking lot.

Ninja 1000 in Colorado
Your author at 8500 feet in Colorado, windshield in goofy 3rd position.
The Columbia down ski jacket has been with me in every one of the 48 states, and every Canadian province.

We were held up in Sacramento at the Airport strip search kiosk for a while. They were more than a little puzzled to see three guys walk through with helmets, esp. the carbon fiber which is black and impenetrable to X-rays. They were quite excited by my tool kit. I had to remove it from the bag and spread it out, showing it was just tools. Then it went back through X-ray a second time to see if the sockets had transformed into rockets or puppies or something. I was told, "Don't take the plane apart, ok?"

Fly and ride: perhaps you wonder if this really works. My son Richard needed a new bike, and at the time of this writing Kawasaki is more or less giving away 2009 Versys. I checked around on CycleTrader.com and Ebay and found my best price at Sun Enterprises. I found my best price on my Ninja somewhere else, but a phone call later Sun offered to match the Ninja price. I accepted. Sun FedExed paperwork out. I signed and initialed in all the places, and included a couple cashiers checks. I imagine you could do this financing the bikes, but I expect it would take a few more days and a few more letters. We waited a couple weeks until Richard had spring break, and we flew back on a Friday evening. Saturday morning we were at the dealership at 9am, begging for coffee. Our bikes were prepped and ready to ride away. We spent an additional hour changing out windshields and seats, installing our saddlebags, getting dressed for the ride back. Of all the bike purchases I've made in my life, the purchase at Sun went most smoothly - paperwork delivered to my desk, I sign etc, slip it into a supplied return FedEx envelop, the bike is prepped and ready when I get there. Since I'm licensing the bikes in California, not Colorado, I still have a DMV trip to make.

Denver is at 5200 feet - the Mile High City - and I have to say the brand new Ninja seemed a little down on power compared to my expectations. 45 minutes later at 10,000 feet, going up a 4% grade, with another son on the back of my bike, I opened up the throttle at 70mph to pass a truck. The result was a lot like doing the exact same thing at sea level on my Harley. Don't worry, later I'll mention that the Ninja at anything close to sea level on the flats is an absolute rocket, but at 10,000 feet and climbing it's quite underwhelming.

Colorado Rockies
Rockies. Lots of Rockies.

An hour and a half later Richard and I stopped at a convenient Walmart, bought some Mobil Delvac 1300 15w-40 diesel oil, and changed our oil. The bikes had about 100 miles on them. In a more perfect world we would have done this at more like 75 miles, and changed oil filters, but when you're crossing the Rockies you make certain concessions. The oil we took out looked shiny and new: new 'cause it was, shiny 'cause it had all sorts of little metal flakes in it. We were very happy to get those out of our beautiful new motors.

stop for oil change
Changing oil in two bikes. 5 quarts total did the trick.

It occurred to me a couple times on the trip that Richard's Versys 650 was almost precisely half the price of my Ninja 1000, and was keeping up with me just fine on almost the entire trip. He also got about 10% better gas mileage than me. Both bikes were sufficiently comfortable, but Richard was sitting more upright and getting better coverage out of his Calsci windshield than I was getting out of my more sporty tinted windshield. Years Decades ago when I was in college, I was asked "How big a bike should I buy?" I answered, "If you just want to commute to and from work, short hops on the freeway, a 350 is fine. If you want to take a passenger around town, or ride solo cross country, you need a 500. If you want to take a passenger cross country, you need a 750. Anything bigger than that is just a sex substitute." My friend then said, "But, um, but you ride a 1000..." I said, "Yah, what's your point?" Well, here I am, all growed up, and I still like a 1000. Draw your own conclusions.

Versys 650 packed up
Richard at 9500 feet with his new Versys, that did pretty much everything my Ninja did.

On the ride down from the Continental Divide, we got our first taste of twisties - something I have to admit would be a bit lacking in this little trip. Both bikes responded well. The Ninja is extremely responsive: you think left, you're moving left. It's rock stable even at rather impressively illegal speeds, but you have to pay attention. It's most certainly not a Harley where you can set the cruise control and zone out.

Somewhat later that evening we made the crossing from Green River to Salina Utah. It's important to gas up in Green River - as you leave town, there's a helpful freeway sign that says "Next services 107 miles." Richard was very excited to make this leg. 12 years ago Richard and I flew back to Detroit and picked up a new Honda Superhawk and rode it back to California. This leg of Utah was one of his vivid memories. It didn't disappoint: colored rocks and hills, broad valleys, sweeping corners in the roadway, this part of Utah is a real pleasure to ride through. Unless it's March and the sun goes down. Again the Ninja was rock solid and completely responsive, but the marginal wind protection offered by my 12" wide windshield and the 38 degree temperature meant I was getting quite cold. You might wonder, with all riding the experience I have, how I managed to get so cold. Three things: 1) no heated vest, there was no time to wire one up; 2) marginal windshield, the Ninja is not your preferred ride below 45 degrees; and 3) I grabbed a pair of large snowmobile pants and threw them in my saddlebags - when it cooled down and I took them out, I discovered I had grabbed a pair of large women's snowmobile pants. It was Levis for me all trip long. Richard and my other son Dwight had brought rain pants, which are reasonably warm too, as they block the wind and let you build up a bit of heat in your legs.

The entire first day of riding we had been pulling a 20mph to 30mph headwind, and cruising at an indicated 80mph to 85mph. At 5000 feet to 10,000 feet elevation. I was getting 32mpg to 34mpg, Richard on his Versys was getting 35mpg to 37mpg. He was also using much of his available power to keep up. Both of these bikes are geared a bit low for my tastes. The Ninja is a 6-speed, but it's a close ratio racing gearbox. 6th gear is calibrated to top out at about 165 mph, roughly the bike's top speed (sorry, I don't know my bike's exact top speed yet.) This means you're doing about 4,000rpm at 60mph, about 5,500rpm at 80mph. The engine seemed a bit busy to me. I would have appreciated if the bike was geared to do its top speed in 5th gear, and 6th gear was a true overdrive. I also wondered if I would get better gas mileage with 10% to 15% higher gearing. I expect I'll be testing that.

Kawasaki has claimed that the new fairing design keeps hot engine air off your legs, something that's a serious problem with the ST1300, FJR, and Concours. At the temperatures I was riding this is easy to test. In fact, if you spread your knees about 5" or so on each side, you immediately notice a blast of quite warm air hitting your ankles. Pull in your knees, the blast goes away. There's no question that Kawasaki has made a dramatic improvement over other fully-faired inline four bikes. I'll report further on this in a couple months when we have a day or two at 100 degrees, but right now I'm feeling quite positive. By contrast, my 2003 ST1300 gave me 1st degree burns (reddening) on 100 degree days, and I've seen pictures from guys reporting 2nd degree burns (blistering).

Back in the late 90's, I bought a Suzuki 1200 Bandit. The bike was quite buzzy as many Japanese 4-cylinder bikes are. I find this 4-cylinder buzz very annoying, always seemingly egging me on to go faster, faster, faster. I decided back in '97 no more 4 cylinder bikes for me, hence my Superhawk 1000 twin, my VStrom twin, my various Harley twins. I really quite prefer the vibration and sound of a twin. However, this Ninja has an extremely effective counter-balance shaft, and over my 1380 mile trip home I only noticed any buzzing for a few minutes total, and it was never annoying. This is my first Kawasaki, and I must say these guys really know how to make an engine. The mufflers, which I personally think win the "all time most hideous muffler on any motorcycle" award actually sound ok. It's nothing like the authoritative bark of my Superhawk through its Jardine high pipes, or the rolling thunder of my Harley through my barely-legal fishtails. It's more like the turbine whine of an F-4 Phantom at take off. Quite endearing in its own way.

I tried out the three settings on my Calsci windshield. I quickly rejected the low setting as completely inappropriate for our speeds and weather conditions. The middle position is the best looking position, I think. The Calsci shield is very quiet in that position, blocking much of the air to your chest and leaving undisturbed high-speed air on your helmet. I ride with an HJC carbon fiber, it's a very quiet helmet in undisturbed air. The 3rd position on the shield looks rather goofy, it's just too upright for this bike. It gives you better coverage of your torso, but more noise on your helmet - no buffeting, but a bit more noise. If the temperature had been over 60 I would have put the shield in the middle position and left it there, but it was well under 50 for most of the ride, so up into the warmer, noisier and goofier position it went and stayed.

Even with my Baldwin seat, the passenger seat is a bit thin and narrow, and Dwight complained. Had we been using the stock seat he certainly would have spend the trip on Richard's Versys. The saddlebag straps only made things worse. Fortunately for him, I had brought along a sheepskin pad, and that made things livable for him.

Part 2