California Scientific
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Oak Grove, MO 64075

Kawasaki Ninja 1000 Review Part 2

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Ninja 1000

The stock handlebars are just a bit low for my tastes, but tolerable in terms of height. The angle, however, is all wrong and puts a bit of a strain on your wrists, which is quite noticeable after a couple 10 hour days on the bike. How can they screw up something so basic? Well, the air box is on top of the engine so that they can use downdraft throttle bodies for more horsepower. The gas tank is wrapped around the air box, with a couple large dents in it for the handle bars at full lock. And the handlebar angle is chosen to fit into those dents, not to keep your wrists healthy. And at that there's not much handlebar lock on this bike, there's no way you're doing a u-turn in one lane of road. I've talked with the guys at Genmar and Helibars, and they have no plans to do something for this bike. I considered switching to the Z1000 top triple clamp and using normal handlebars, but the triple clamp and handlebar clamps total about $450.

Saturday night, after a long hot shower, I watched the weather channel. It confirmed what I had already planned for: Donner Pass over the Sierras at Reno was snowed in. For the next 5 days highs in the pass would be in the mid-30s with snow and rain showers every day and all night. Lows in the teens. Extremely bad weather for biking. So from Salina we turned south to Saint George, Las Vegas and Barstow, running the Barstow to Vegas race route backwards and on concrete. This added about 300 miles to our trip, but probably saved us a crash or three. If you live back east, you might wonder why the huge difference. If you can't go over the mountains, you have to go around. The Sierras run from just north of LA to the Oregon border; that area was out for us. Had the pass over the Rockies been snowed in, I think we would have had to wait a week or three to make our trip. The Rockies run from Northern New Mexico to well into Canada.

original trip route revised trip route
Original and revised route home.

Utah was another day of 20mph to 30mph head winds, except for perhaps a quarter of the day they were cross winds. I really dislike strong crosswinds. In Utah on I15 the speed limit is 80 for much of the way, so we were doing 85 to 90, just keeping up with traffic and being passed every few minutes by someone in a bigger hurry. Those Mormons are in church every Sunday, and in between time they like to get where they're going and get things done. My kind of people, frankly. The bad part was the inconstant icy cross wind, blowing us back and forth a few feet at a time and bleeding heat from us.

Most of I15 is arrow straight, but between Utah and Nevada there's about a 15 mile stretch of twisties through an Arizona canyon, paralleling a very beautiful little river. Furthermore, there's no way to get to this stretch directly from Arizona, so I have always held the unexamined belief that it's not patrolled by Arizona cops. The traffic was light, and there was a guy in a Corvette who shared my religious beliefs, so we played a friendly little game of tag through the canyon, running from 90mph to about 115mph. Very entertaining. When I hit Nevada the canyon and the fun was over, so I pulled over to let Richard catch up. I15 was back to laser straight, the winds were back, and once again we were just making miles.

Dwight at Arizona and Nevada border
Dwight, your intrepid photographer, at the Arizona / Nevada border.

About 25 miles from the California border, we hit traffic. Serious traffic. Open desert on both sides of us, and stop and go on the freeway. I'm a Californian, so my animal hind-brain was whispering at me non-stop, "Go ahead, split the lanes, don't just sit here, we could be doing 30." Unfortunately it's highly illegal in Nevada, so I compromised - I worked the traffic hard, never quite splitting lanes, but popping through spaces 2" longer than my bike. The Ninja is a decent bike for this job - lots of power in any gear, very responsive handling, very precise. The only drawback is 1st gear has a top speed of about 70. so at any speed below about 15 you're slipping the clutch. 30 minutes of slipping the clutch is hard on everything - clutch plates, oil, engine temperature, and your wrist. That transmission thing again: it would have been nice if 1st gear topped out at more like 60, 5th gear at perhaps 160, and 6th gear just for freeway cruising. Close ratio gearboxes make a lot of sense on the racetrack, but are ridiculous on the street. At the border of the People's Republic of California, the reason for the traffic jam became instantly obvious: Nevada maintains 3 lanes, California maintains 2. I was all set to take off splitting lanes, but traffic quickly adjusted to the two lanes and sped up to 65mph or so.

When we got to Barstow the sun was just going down. I had planned to make it that night to Tehachapi. At Boron a very light rain started. We were about 40 miles, perhaps 35 minutes from Tehachapi, so I didn't think anything of it and we rode right past the Boron motels. 10 miles later it was raining rather heavily, and the temperature had dropped to perhaps 35. Remember I mentioned back there that I had the wrong weather gear with me? I was cold, cold, cold, wet, wet, wet. We made it to Mojave, I was shivering those bone-moving shivers that most Southerners and Westerners will never experience. We checked into the local Motel 6. 20 minutes later the bikes were unloaded and covered, I was in a hot shower, and the rain had turned to snow. For the last 5 years I've been a single dad raising my kids, doing almost no riding beyond commuting. These are beginner mistakes - riding into weather after sunset in March, without rain gear, on a sport bike. I'm an old guy now, and my new rule is November 1 to May 1, the sun goes down, I go down.

Monday morning we slept in a bit. The boys were tired, and I saw no reason to get moving before about 10am. Dwight, my youngest, was simply heart-broken to sleep in on a Monday and miss a day of school. I wanted to give the road plenty of time to warm up over Tehachapi pass. When we got started, the sky was a brilliant blue - the weather front had passed over us in the night. The road was clear, but a bit wet at the top of the pass. We tip-toed through. I've ridden on black ice, when the gyroscope effect of the wheels and Jesus are all that's keeping you upright, and I must say I didn't enjoy it at all. We passed a vanagon slid into the center divider, CHP and tow trucks in flashing attendance. When you're stuck in 4 feet of snow, slid off the road, and a couple motorcycles ride by you without problem, I think you have to seriously wonder if you're a decent driver. A few miles later we dropped into the central valley into Bakersfield. The quick way north would have been to turn onto 99, but that runs along the east side of the valley, where any remaining clouds would stack up against the Sierras and dump their remaining rain right on us. I chose to go another 15 miles out of our way to get to I5 on the west side of the valley. We hit a couple very brief patches of rain, but nothing that lasted even one minute. To our east we saw several much more severe rain events, so apparently I made a good decision.

Once on I5 I ran into a couple, um, persons of lower genetic heritage who wanted to race me. You see a Corvette, a Porsche, a Ferrari, these guys never want to race. They know we trash them up to about 150 mph. It's always the guys in the 'sporty' Lexus or 6-cylinder Mustang who think they have something hot. One such guy pulled alongside me at about 90. I matched his speed, then we crept up to about 106. His eyes were twitching over to his right every few seconds to see if he had lost me. After a couple miles of this, there was a car in front of me in my lane, so I hit my throttle. 6th gear, about 6500 rpm. About one-and-a-half seconds later I'm 100 feet ahead of him doing 125. Did I mention that I love this engine? A thought passed through my adrenaline-addled brain, "If I had a bumper, I could put a sticker on it:"

Your car dusted...

This bike is all about the engine. There's a small hit of power at about 5,000rpm, but the bike will pull 6th gear down to 2,500rpm, about 35mph, and accelerate cleanly and authoritatively up to top speed. There's a bit of jingle from detonation below about 3,500rpm. The detonation doesn't seem to change if you switch between 89 and 91 octane. If I lived back east I'd try a tank of Sunoco Blue, but it's been several years since I had a chance to buy that.

I hit the brakes hard once. I was a bit disappointed; others have said the same thing. Perhaps some kevlar pads will improve matters. I was expecting nearly GSXR performance, I got more like VStrom performance. Perhaps they'll improve with more break-in. The rear brake is all but useless, but I expect that on a sport bike like this.

I haven't fiddled with the suspension yet. The stock suspension is quite solid, giving you excellent road feel and control, but a bit busy for a touring bike. This is not a Concours, and most certainly not an UltraGlide. As delivered my bike falls into corners a bit - perhaps my front tire is a bit low on air. I haven't had a chance to check carefully on that. Follow-up: the front tire was at 30psi, that was perhaps even 25-28psi in the colder weather of my ride. I set it to 40psi, handling is completely neutral now.

Once home, I looked the bike over carefully. The Nelson-Rigg saddlebags were burned through on both bottoms due to sliding side to side a bit on the nearly 1400 mile ride and hitting the fugly mufflers. Those mufflers gotta go. I've ordered some replacement mufflers, more on that later. Also I need some sort of support bracket the next time I'm using soft saddlebags. Kawasaki, of course, wants you to wait for a few months then buy their over-priced $1000 tiny little hard saddlebags. I prefer my $95 Nelson-Riggs, which tuck in tighter and hold more. Um, when they're not burned through.

My Baldwin gel seat had an unfortunate seam right under my thighs that had given me a bit of a saddle sore. I called Loren, and he very graciously said I should return him the saddle and he would move the seam, no charge. Future saddles will have the improved seam. Great guy. The seat was pretty decent. It's not as good as the seat on my touring Harley, but Kawasaki didn't leave Loren much room to work with. This ride would have been torture with the stock seat. Follow-up: With the moved seam, in more reasonable temperatures like above 60, I expect with this seat I could do 600-700 mile days, perfectly reasonable for a bike like this.

My large tinted shield had held up well in the ride, but didn't give me nearly enough coverage in the sub-45 degree weather we spent much of our time in. A couple re-designs later and I now have a shield that's about 3" wider, and I think better looking. Not the coverage you would get from one of our FJR or R1200RT shields, but pretty good. I wish I'd had this shield for my ride. The revised shield is shown at the top of this page.

Many have characterized this bike as a lighter weight sport-touring alternative to the FJR and Concours. The adjustable windshield, effective fairing, and higher handlebars / relaxed riding position compared to the Z1000 certainly seem to point to this potential. 500 pounds wet coupled with the intoxicating engine and razor sharp handling certainly seem to point to an interesting alternative to the Concours - riding through the Rockies or Sierras for a couple days on this bike sounds like a great way to clear out your head and possibly lose your license. This bike produces 122hp v. 135hp for the 1400cc Concours, in a package 190 pounds lighter. Motorcycle Consumer News got a quarter mile result of 10.50 seconds at 129mph for the Ninja 1000. In their August 2010 sport touring comparison this would have beat the Concours and FJR. However, as delivered stock, this bike would be all but useless for riding more than about 250 miles per day. With the modifications I've made to date, seat and windshield, I managed 500 miles per day, but without successfully carrying saddlebags - my brand new Nelson-Rigg CL850s were ruined after only two days.

In the table below we see that numerically the Ninja 1000 stacks up nicely against the other Japanese sport-tourers. It's lighter, has comparable HP, carrying capacity, and performance is near the top. It also revs the engine quite high on the freeway. Due to the close-ratio transmission, that number can be improved to perhaps 4300, which still leaves it with the highest revving engine. Changing the gearing like this would almost certainly lower the quarter mile times and speed. Note that at the time of this writing, Kawasaki has a bunch of 2009 Concours sitting the their warehouse waiting to be adopted, and some really quite good deals can be had on these slightly older bikes.

VFR - Ninja 1000 - Concours - FJR comparison with MCN data
VFR Ninja 1000 ConcoursFJR
Price $16,000 $11,000 $14,600 $15,000
Wet Weight 590 498 690 660
Carrying Capacity400 434 482 447
Horsepower 149 122 135 121
rpm @ 65mph 3925 4750 3166 3476
rpm limiter 10,500 10,750 10,000 9,000
Quarter Mile 10.16@13510.5@129 10.8@11911.14@119
Top Speed 157 153 152 146
Braking from 60mph149 123 134 121
Gas Mileage 45 41 43 45
Range Miles 225 200 247 295