When Kawasaki launched the new ZX-6R in India at a super-attractive Rs 10.5 lakh, we couldn’t wait to find out if the new Ninja would be enough of a bike to really take on the sportsbike scene. So to find out, we went on an epic road trip
Just when you thought the supersport sector was falling by the wayside, thanks to most of the main manufacturers ploughing their sportsbike R&D budgets into 1000cc (and sub 500cc, if you can call them sportsbikes) models, Kawasaki have pulled an all-new ZX-6R out of their magic green hat. It’s not really an all-new model – it uses the same 636cc motor and chassis as the outgoing ZX-6R 636 – but with some clever tweaks here and there.
The decision to use the 636 motor in the new ZX-6R sparked a reasonable amount of controversy when it was announced, with die-hard racing fans arguing a 636cc engine would rule the new model out of supersport competition. But there was method behind Kawasaki’s apparent madness. You see, with Euro 4 (and very soon BS VI in India) doing its level best to castrate smaller capacity bikes as best it can, had Kawasaki brought out a new ZX-6R with the same 600cc as the previous 600cc version, due to Euro 4 emission constraints, it would, more than likely, have been considerably less powerful that the previous model (a la 2017 Yamaha YZF-R6, whose claimed power, as standard, is 17bhp down on the model which it replaced). In actual fact the new 636 is 1bhp (if we are talking about ‘claimed’ power figures) down on the old model, which in the current climate, can be forgiven. Aside from the fact that Euro 4 would have stolen less power from the 636 than it would have done from the 600, a source close to us reckons that the 636 was already ‘nearly there’ when it came to the new rules, and so cost less to get through the more stringent laws.
Which brings me nicely onto the sticker price. The new ZX-6R starts from `10.49 lakh – a price bracket in which there isn’t any other sportbike after the demise of Daytona 675 a few years ago. It’s a segment that is ripe for the picking and Kawasaki have pulled off a coup here; to put it into perspective you will have to spend a minimum of `14 lakh for a propah superbike – and that’ll get you a Panigale 959 or the ZX-10 RR. If you wanted a middleweight supersport there’s nothing, except for this new Kawasaki. If only Yamaha were to bring the R6 to India... alas, we are being wishful here.
The question is whether a sub Rs 11 lakh 600 float your boat? These days, with bigger and faster (granted, less affordable) bikes in the showrooms and, more importantly in your mates’ garages, is the little 636 going to be enough of a bike to tickle an out-and-out sportsbike fan’s fancy? Has it got what it takes to keep a rip-snorting 1000cc sportsbike honest, or will it be left for dead when you head to the race track for your annual California Superbike School pilgrimage? Well we wanted to find out, so before the bike makes it to Indian shores Frodo and I packed our suitcases and headed off on an epic road trip, taking in everything from mountain roads and motorways, to circuits and Spanish cities. And to gauge just how well the new Kwacka coped, we took along one of the finest measuring sticks money can buy, the Suzuki GSX-R1000R.
It’s fair to say that Kawasaki haven’t reinvented the wheel with the new ZX-6R. In fact they have been pretty clever really. They have taken an old model and made a bit of a fuss about chucking a handful of saucy upgrades at it. Well considered saucy upgrades, might I add. Styling has been modernised with sharper looking bodywork, new LED headlights and new, slightly higher tech (but hardly space-age) dash. Electronics-wise, the ZX-6R has upped its game with KQS (Kawasaki Quick Shifter) now complementing the Kawasaki Traction Control (KTRC) and power mode selection. Engine tweaks have not only ensured that the 636 passes the Euro 4 emissions tests, but have added a little more mid-range power and bottom end grunt. Kawasaki have also shortened the final drive gearing to give the bike a little bit more punch. So it’s far from a ground-up overhaul, but we were really excited to see if the ‘improvements’ were exactly that.
We’re both massive fans of the GSX-R1000R, but on this occasion Frodo and I were arguing, instead, over who would be the lucky first rider of the box-fresh Ninja. To stop the quarrelling, I produced a coin of the realm which I duly tossed. Frodo, on this occasion, wasn’t sharp enough not to fall for the old ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ trick, so when the coin landed tails side up he lost and it was decided. The ZX-6R was mine, for the time being anyway.
First impressions were good. It seemed a comfortable bike. I had half expected that, being a ‘600’, it would be rather small and scrunch me up. It didn’t. Before I had even turned a wheel on the Kwacka, I was pleasantly surprised. With a turn of the
key, the dash sparked into life. That was less impressive. The new Ninja does have a new dash, but it’s far from all-singing, all-dancing (it’s more R2-D2 than C-3PO). It features an actual needle (how novel), some digital bits, and a bunch of LED warning lights down the left hand side. It does the job though, and unlike some ultra-modern dashboards that seem to have way too much going on, everything was nice and simple to read.
Fired up, the 636, at tick-over, sounded reasonably sedate; there was certainly no danger of causing any damage to my ear drums. And with a mere 16km on the odometer, I decided the best course of action would be to take the first few fairly steadily. The initial part of our route was a 160 kilometre motorway slog. I’m not particularly a fan of riding sportsbikes on the motorway, but to give the little Ninja its due, it coped remarkably well – it was way more spacious than a ‘600’ ought to be and after a full tank’s worth of 120 clicks-an-hour my backside was happy to take even more abuse. And luckily, as it would seem, so was the ZX-6R.
Once we had got the first motorway stint out of the way, we headed off-piste. And it wasn’t long before we really started getting to grips with what the ZX-6R had to offer. The tweaks that Kawasaki have made to the engine have really made a difference – for the better. The 636 always had a little bit more midrange than the 600 version, but now not only does the bike have a decent portion of power between 4,000rpm and 10,000rpm, it seems to be able to deliver it so utterly smoothly. It wasn’t just good, it was bloody impressive. Driving away from junctions and out of corners was way more exhilarating than I have ever experienced on a Supersport.
And the extra grunt didn’t only help keep things exciting either, it massively aided the bike’s usability, too. With gearing that has been shortened, and plenty of poke towards the bottom of the rev range, I found myself plonking the Ninja in top gear and pootling quite comfortably along when a bit of town riding was needed. The 636cc motor could quite easily cope at as little as 32kmph in the sixth gear, and even then there was still quite a bit of power to be had when twisting the throttle.
With the engine newly loosened up, I started to let it sing a little – and boy could it sing. As the revs built, so too did the sound, until it crashed into its 16,500rpm rev limiter, and with the needle pointing skyward, the noise that emanated from the Ninja’s exhaust would have sent shivers down the spine of Satan himself. Oh, what a difference 14,000rpm can make.
Now, I’m not going to pretend that the ZX-6R is as fast as a Gixer Thou’. It’s not. But on our road ride, at no point did I feel as though I couldn’t keep up with the Frodo/Gixer pairing – and not because his hair was in his eyes. On the road, the ZX-6R was sublime. But to really put it through its paces, we needed to put it on a track. So we did…
We arrived at Circuit de la Ribera in Spain in good time for our track session as neither of us could wait to see how well the Kwacka performed on track.
Circuit de la Ribera is a tight and twisty little circuit, not much bigger than a kart track, so the first few laps on the 636 were a bit of a struggle. Once I figured out where the track went left and right, I started to relax and make the bike work a little bit under me. The first thing that hit me on track, which had seemed less noticeable on the road, was just how sharp the brakes felt. There was an instant bite that required a bit of respect. And they were fairly powerful too, with ABS that doesn’t kick in too abruptly. Even with the ABS on (it only has one setting) I was able to pop the back wheel off the floor, even if only fleetingly – something plenty of stock ABS systems won’t let you do.
As I upped the pace, I found myself changing gear frequently. I put it down to the new, shortened gearing. The quickshifter works nicely on the Ninja (I made good use of it) but with no blipper, I seemed to be working extra hard on the way into corners.
I tried altering my technique; rather than revving its nuts off, I decided to use the bike’s torque through the corners, thus giving myself and the gearbox an easier time. Almost every corner on the tight little circuit was as fast, if not faster, when attacked in a gear higher than I had originally been doing.
The circuit was way too tight for anything over 600cc and I didn’t envy Frodo, as I saw him wobbling round the tight hairpins and chicanes on the Gixer Thou’. The 636 didn’t embarrass itself though; it was light enough to turn in as quick, if not quicker than I wanted, and at the pace I was hustling round at, there was never any drama. I was impressed by how the new Bridgestone S22s dealt with corner after corner of serious abuse, with no real respite to speak of.
After a strong handful of laps on the Ninja, somebody released the hounds and before I knew it I had Spanish children passing me left, right and centre on everything from Metrakit 80s to CBR600RRs and everything in between. Not only did I feel like an idiot, I’m sure I looked like one too and poor old Frodo was having just as torrid a time on the big Gixer. To avoid any further embarrassment, we pulled in to the pits with our tails between our legs. We later found out that among the super-fast Spaniards were GP race winners Arón Canet and Philipp Öttl, so Frodo and I feel a little less inadequate.
After being shooed off the main track, we decided we were enjoying the bikes and having far too much fun at Ribera to ride back to the hotel – so we decided to demote ourselves to the kids’ track. The kids’ track was an actual kart track, but we couldn’t resist having a go at it on the 636 and the Gixer, and nobody seemed to mind. However, neither of us got either bike out of first gear – and had the kids, nay the infants, tearing past us. It was all quite embarrassing, but a hell of a laugh.
Despite getting absolutely annihilated by all and sundry on both tracks, the ZX-6R really impressed us. The power was easy to use, the chassis worked well, and the brakes resisted all the abuse we threw at them. Frodo and I both agreed that while on track aboard the ZX-6R, the only thing that we wanted was some talent.
The decision to pitch the big Gixer thou’ R against the new ZX-6R stemmed from a bar bet over the Christmas period. It was more of an argument. My friend's argument was, as far as sportsbikes go, 600s are just for racing and can’t hold a candle to a proper ‘superbike’ on the road. The friend in question has had tons of Gixers over the years, so though we agreed that the current GSX-R1000R is a fab bike, we couldn’t agree on whether or not we wanted to see a resurgence in the Supersport sector. So once we'd finished flipping tables over, I thought we would settle it once and for all. And not just a test to find out if the 2018 Suzuki GSX-R1000R is more of a bike than a 2019 Kawasaki ZX-6R; it was way more important than that. In some respects it was purely incidental as to what colour or badge each of the bikes sported on their fairings. Superbike versus Supersport. 1000cc versus 600cc (well, 600-ish).
If all you care about is speed then it’s a no-brainer. Of course the Gixer is faster than the Ninja – there is no replacement for displacement, and with another 400cc (364cc to be exact) you get 70bhp more. No amount of tucking your head behind the bubble is going to make up for that. But what surprised us was how similar the two bikes were on initial pickup. We did a few roll-on tests and every time it took a good second or two for the Gixer to Foxtrot Oscar. When the big bike was allowed to stretch its legs, you had to really stretch the 600s throttle cables to keep up, but isn’t that what it’s all about? It was a hoot making the little Ninja sing, as we tried to hang on to the shirt-tails of the Gixer.
Being a `19.98 lakh bike rather than a `10.49 lakh bike, the Gixer, like most top-spec litre bikes, comes with just about everything bar electronic suspension. Again, if spec-sheet top trumps float your boat then the Gixer is the bike for you, but if you fancy saving `9.5 lakh (by buying a ZX-6R), you still get two power modes, three levels of TC, LED lights and a quick shifter – not a bad deal.
For sportsbikes, both the Ninja and the Gixer were bloody comfortable to tell the truth. The riding position was spacious on both but the taller screen was a massive help on the Gixer during our motorway jaunts–the front end of the 600 not really offering much protection.
On the road I was just as happy on the ZX-6R as I was on the thou’ but it wouldn’t have been a complete test if we hadn’t taken the bikes on track too, which we of course did. But since that, the track we took the bikes on was more a go-kart track than a GP circuit, it could be argued that the 636 had an unfair weight advantage, though the Kwacker is only 7kg lighter than the Suzuki, fully fuelled and ready to go.
On the tight little track, the 636 was certainly the easier of the two to muscle round, mainly due to the Suzuki’s abrupt throttle response low down in the rev range. Opening the taps when cranked over doing 190kmph in fourth gear probably wouldn’t have highlighted this problem, but even on the ‘big’ circuit at Ribera there was none of this; in fact it was rather the opposite– with futile attempts at opening the throttle at 30kmph in first gear gently enough to avoid lurching forward and running off line.
In all fairness to the Gixer, had we been on a circuit, like Valencia or Jerez, the ZX-6R wouldn’t have come close to the thou. But I bet it would have been just as much fun as it was on the road. Both bikes were a great big barrel of fun, but I’m not entirely sure if the Gixer provided either of us with `9.5 lakh worth of extra laughs.
We were so impressed with the power figures of the 636 that we thought we ought to see for ourselves just what sort of bhp the thing delivers at the back wheel. So off we went to see our mates at Black and White Bikes in search of some real life power and torque figures. Once we had strapped the ZX-6R down to the test bed, and helped Paul locate a pickup for the rev counter on the dynamometer (actually I think we just got in the way while he located it himself), the little Ninja was fired up, warmed up, and then given a right good pasting.
After a few power runs, the best reading we saw was 115bhp, so we asked Paul what he made of it.
“That’s not bad power at all. It seems to step in between about 7,000rpm – 8,000rpm and it looks pretty nice – it’s reasonably flat. That extra 36cc seems to be making itself known, you are going to feel that over the likes of an R6. The speedometer said 265kmph when we were on the limiter in top gear but in truth it was only doing 240kmph. The rpm was also a little bit out. When it hits its redline at an indicated 16,000rpm, it’s a realistic 15,200rpm. But that is fairly typical of most modern bikes – the manufacturers build them so they always over-read rather than the other way round, so that if you are sat at an indicated 50kmph, you are probably doing nearer 35kmph than 55kmph – the manufacturers would be in and out of court like nobody’s business, paying people’s speeding tickets for them, if that was the case! The Kawasaki is 10% out but that is fairly typical.
In all fairness all the 600s have really similar power these days – if you are buying one because it makes the most power, well you’re buying it for the wrong reason. You’ve really got to take into account what it’s like to ride, how well it fits you, and even whether or not you like the looks of it. A dyno is a great tool, but peak power figures aren’t the be all and end all.”
While we were there with the bikes, we chucked the GSX-R on too. The Suzuki made 185bhp at the back wheel which didn’t surprise Paul in the least.
“All the modern Superbikes are fairly similar, I haven’t seen the new 2019 BMW S1000RR yet, but with 185bhp the Gixer is definitely on the money, especially as it is completely stock with a standard can.”
Of course, peak power figures are a massive talking point. In fact they are more than that, they are a massive selling point, particularly in the sportsbike market. But Frodo and I learnt something during our epic road trip through sunny Spain. We learnt that you, genuinely, can have as much fun on something with 115bhp as you can on 185bhp. It’s true that the Gixer is a lot more of a motorbike than the Ninja – it has everything the Ninja has, and a lot more besides. If you’re drag racing, the Gixer (or the Fireblade, or the R1 etc), just like if you were to be trackdaying at a (normal) circuit, would blitz the 600. But on the road, whether we were munching motorway miles or scratching round Spain’s stunning sierras, the ZX-6R was more than a match for the GSX-R.
We learnt from our dyno time that the 636 will only manage 240kmph, flat out in top, and the GSX-R will do 292kmph flat out in top which is only worth worrying about on an autobahn – in real life, be it on the Gixer or the Ninja, if you do make it up to the dizzy heights of 240kmph, you are unlikely to be there that long. Flat-out top speed and peak power might be figures that get bandied about but they really aren’t that important, because you are only ever there fleetingly.
What is important is what the bike does when it’s on its way to peak power, and terminal velocity. And how it makes you feel when it’s doing that. Frodo and I both loved the Suzuki; in fact we will have a hoot on almost any 1,000cc sportsbike you’re daft enough to throw at us. They’re great but they need to be treated with a fair amount of respect, and an even fairer amount of commitment if you want to make one really shift.
And I’m not suggesting that the 636 doesn’t command respect, it does, just not to the same degree. You see, with the 115bhp, you can take liberties with the throttle that you wouldn’t dream of on a thou’. You can ride a 600 like you mean it, stretching the cables and making it sing – and to us, that’s what riding sportsbikes is all about. It’s not a 200bhp superbike, and it might be the other side of `11 lakh compared to anything else in the sector, but the 2019 Kawasaki ZX-6R is a proper sportsbike, and we loved it.
Words: Mike Booth