2017 Kawasaki Ninja 1000 first ride review

Inexplicably, neither Lance nor Spurg was champing at the bit to go ride the 2017 Ninja 1000. 

I still have no idea how I lucked into this assignment. Kawi invited Common Tread to ride their bike about 500 miles over two days from Los Angeles to Monterey to attend the Quail Motorcycle Gathering. Let’s recap: collectible motorcycles, a press ride with enough mileage to get a good feel for the machine, and bike that’s supposed to be both fast and comfy? Is this a trick? What’s the catch?

What the Kawasaki Ninja 1000 is not

The Ninja 1000 is not the ZX-10R, Kawasaki’s 1,000 cc superbike that is currently destroying the competition in the Superbike World Championship. (If Lance had made me do 500 consecutive miles on a ZX-10R on the street, I would have had a temper tantrum privately, followed by “food poisoning” shortly before the departing flight.) Subtle clues give away the Ninja’s predilection for the street, like another half-gallon of fuel capacity over the superbike. A rider’s body is far more upright than it would be on a racing replica. Also, it’s not often one finds an adjustable windscreen on a competition motorcycle. Blame it on Kawi. “Ninja” used to mean “fast-ass race bike.” Nowadays, we got a 300 cc twin, a 650 cc twin, and this hairy-chested thou that’s designed to get you where you’re going quickly, but comfortably. Apparently Ninjas have diversified their skill sets in recent years.

Lem on Ninja

The Ninja 1000 puts the emphasis on “sport,” not “tourer.” Ramfactor from Instagram echoed a question I heard two other writers ask on the press junket. “Does that thing have cruise control or heated grips yet?” No. It doesn’t, and in my view, it shouldn’t. It’s a sport bike with bags. If you want more comfort, buy a Concours 14 or one of those ADV-lookin’ things. (Though in fairness, heated grips are an option. And the Connie has no cruise control either, which is a sin. But that’s another review.) I don’t expect those amenities on a bike that prioritizes performance. Others (like Spurg) disagree. Personally, I think the money and weight those items would require preclude them. YMMV.

Who is it for?

Lance and I talked about this at length. I think that bikes like this — sport-touring bikes — really have two types of buyer. The first is the rider who finds the FJR/Concours/traditional sport-tourer too heavy to be nimble. This rider is generally seeking a lighter bike, and is willing to accept more aggressive ergonomics and give up some wind protection to get it — but the bike better be able to accept luggage. (Kawi told me that 54 percent of their riders buy the bags when the bike is purchased. That number is huge, and it’s going to be bigger soon, because the new Ninja’s bags are better integrated than ever.)

Clean bag mounts

Another rider who may consider the sport-biased sport-tourer is the rider who has had enough of the contortions of a sport bike, but is unwilling to sit completely upright a la an adventure bike or cruiser. Moving from a true race-rep to something like a Ninja 1000 nets a more comfortable ride and a powerplant that’s less peaky and unforgiving than its racier relative without ending up on a fat lard of a bike. In this rider’s case, saddlebags are not nearly as important. Understanding who chases these bikes is key to sizing up the competition, because different riders are likely to see different motorcycles as competing products, depending on what features they value.

So much of the Kaw’s competition is now dead. Up until recently, the Triumph Sprint ST and Honda's VFR1200 and Interceptor squared off against the Ninja, but they are out of production. The BMW R 1200 RS is another sport-centric ST bike, but it costs more than the Ninja. For that rider who doesn’t need a factory bag option, another dog in the fight is the Suzuki GSX-S1000F. Additionally, depending on what a rider is most interested in, Kawi’s own Versys 1000LT may get the job done.

Kawi told us that the household income of a Ninja 1000 rider is about twice that of the average American rider’s, and the rider of this bike has a mean of 19.4 years of riding experience. Ninja 1000 riders have been riding for a while and are of the age and income that they can more or less buy what they like, yet they end up on a bike that I feel is a phenomenal value proposition. Perhaps these experienced riders know how to identify bang for the buck. Or maybe people who make a lot of money have good judgment. You decide.

Kawi IMU

What’s new for 2017

The Ninja 1000 is not a new model. Rather, it’s a model that received a number of refinements. The changes make this motorcycle superb. For 2017, the Ninja received LED headlights and an electronics package that is alarmingly refined (This thing now has an Inertial Measurement Unit! Whoo!). The bodywork was updated and the mounting system was improved for the optional hard luggage option, which is so well integrated that the aftermarket is probably a non-starter. There also was a new double-bubble windscreen, adjustable clutch lever, wider mirrors, and redesigned seats. The bike got a new instrument panel, gear position indicator, and a shift light. It’s not new… but it’s sure as hell not the same as last year’s bike.

Riding the Ninja 1000

Kawasaki’s reps were quiet but confident during the media presentation. They didn’t hit us with a bunch of marketing bushwah, but clearly and simply explained the Ninja 1000’s mission and what was improved for the 2017 model year. Many of you know I pal around with Joe Gustafson of Cycle World, and he summed it up nicely. “Thank you for not using the words 'urban' or 'millennial' once,” he told the Team Green reps.

Black Ninja

I donned gear and got on a seasick-green model. (The thou Ninja exists in a black color scheme, too, but in my world, Kawasakis and Ibanez Tube Screamers come in one hue only.) Right off the bat, I had to get the bike set up. Out of habit, I cranked in some rear preload to compensate for the fact that I am significantly heavier than the “average” rider. (Remember this, we are going to come back to it later.) I fired up the bike, and had to adjust the clutch cable. Factory free play specs left me unable to two-finger the clutch without smashing my ring finger. After some light manipulation of the cable adjuster and jam nut, I was on my way.

The Ninja 1000 is a sport bike for the rider who’s confident enough to buy a bike that is capable and usable, even if it is not the “best” on paper. Our first date was going really, really well. Right off the bat, I was comparing it to a bike I owned last season, a third-gen Z1000. That Z really required a delicate touch. It was a brute in a suit — good lookin’, but rough around the edges and often unforgiving with incorrect rider inputs. (But it was also fun as all holy hell.) The new Ninja? It has more power, but it also packs a full suite of electronics to help harness the ponies and make riders of varying skill levels faster.

EngineKawasaki does not provide power figures here in the United States, but their Euro website lists the bike at 140 horsepower. (Incidentally, the thou is actually 1,043 cc, making it one of the rare bikes that has more displacement than it advertises.) That is not exactly the same bike Kawi is selling in the United States, but it’s got to be dang close. Considering the biggest Ninja is tuned for streetworthy low-end and midrange powah, I’m pretty impressed with that number. (The bike has two power modes. Full power, and then a reduced setting that cuts output to 70 percent. I spent most of my time in full-power mode, but less power could be great on poor tires or with precipitation on the ground.) And because I’m not the most objective reviewer out there: This bike positively howls higher in the rev range, incidentally. It’s kind of intoxicating.

I did a little bit of highway droning to get out of L.A. proper, and then I found myself surrounded by canyons. Remember my half-assed suspension adjustment? I made the rear too firm. I began hammering that throttle, and the bike fought me a little bit; the rear tire was hopping in some places I didn’t expect it to. In spite of this, the Kawasaki was destined to help. It first intervened with KTRC — traction control. I was brutalizing the throttle. Think “hammer,” not “scalpel.” As I came out of a turn hot, I lifted the front end before I was fully out of the turn. As the front end came up, I cocked the clip-ons, which had gone slack in my hand and stayed on the throttle, praying that St. Vidicon was sitting on my shoulder.

The bike momentarily cut back the power, the front came down a little cocked, and as I got it straightened up, the power flowed back on. The electronics work exactly as intended. I got enough feedback to know I had just hit a limit of something, but not so much that I was afraid or that my ride was interrupted. I repeated similar situations two more times and came away very, very impressed.

Brakes

I also felt KIBS' mojo, too. That’s Kawasaki’s Intelligent Brake System. This system effectively links the engine ECU and the ABS computer. KIBS monitors front brake hydraulic pressure, throttle position, engine revolutions, clutch actuation, and gear position. Remember that new IMU for 2017? KIBS takes lean angle into consideration, too. It then adjusts the hydraulic pressure to the brakes to optimize brake pressure. The whole goal here is to allow the rider to apply brakes in a corner with as much brake as possible, short of standing the bike up and wrecking the line. KIBS also smooths out the ABS pulses during lockup. You know how the brake lever ordinarily feels super-crunchy when ABS is doing its thing? Not the case here. Through one turn, I was coming in hotter than I should have. When I dropped the anchors (too late, my fault!), I could feel the gentlest rhythmic pulsing under my right fingers as ABS did its thing. I knew it was working and I didn’t tuck the front.

The brakes are as strong as you would expect a 140-horse bike to have. Feel was great to me, and they were very progressive. Fronts are four-pot differential-bore calipers bearing down on 300 mm petal rotors. For 2017, the rear pad friction material was reformulated, and those pads squeeze a 250 mm petal rotor.

I’d said many times about my Z that it was a bike that would bite you. You couldn’t just go ride that bike lazily; you had to be on your game to harness that beast. The new Ninja is totally different. I was able to relax mentally and physically and the bike helped me ride it faster than I ever could on my Z.

Preload adjuster

Once I softened up that rear suspension a little more, I was pretty happy. (Big ups for the remote preload adjuster!) So many of the refinements made the ride really nice. The adjustable clutch lever was great. The new windscreen worked great for me, at six feet tall, in the lowest position. I only got a chance to test the headlights in a tunnel, but they look sharp. The seat is very wide for a sport-oriented bike. Bag capacity was plenty (28 liters in each bag) for a bike that’s not a tourer. The bag system integrates beautifully and they pop on and off very, very easily. The bags (with color-matched trim) retail for $900, but in the real world, there’s some labor to assemble them and get them keyed alike to the ignition tumbler, so the price is a little closer to $1,300. It should be noted that use of OEM bags precludes the use of a topcase. The shift light is nice to have; it lights off 1,000 rpm before redline. I found it — and the rest of the dash — just a touch difficult to see under bright sunlight. 

Whiffs

The list of Bad Things is very, very short. The first is a recurring Ninja 1000 problem: insurance rates. They are sky-high. Before I came to Cali, I ran full-coverage insurance quotes through a major insurer. (35 years old, male, some college, owns a home in Philadelphia.) A Ninja 1000 was about $3,300 per year. The problem is that many insurance companies lump it in with the ZX-10R, which is obviously a different bike ridden by different riders. To their credit, Kawasaki has spoken with at least one major insurer (Nationwide), which reduced its premium on the bike. Still, though, if you have a four-year loan on this bike, you’ll likely be required to carry comp and collision, and by the time your loan ends, your insurance premiums over the life of the loan would have bought you a second Ninja. Perverse. This is also not really Kawasaki's fault.

Mufflers

Another complaint I had with this bike relates to the exhaust. The short, stubby exhaust has been a Z1000/Z1000SX trademark for a while, and I get it: Keep the pipes short and centralize the bike’s mass. Here’s the problem: It’s really close to a rider’s heels. Every test bike I saw (which was about a dozen) had heel marks on the matte-black shields. Comfort wise, I was fine. I like to ride with the balls of my feet on the footpegs. The shields served almost as a heel rest, which was actually comfortable, but they looked like shit in short order due to the soles of my boots "shining" the matte-black shield. A muffler swap won’t fix this — a whole exhaust is the only reasonable way to prevent this that I can think of, and that seems like an expensive way to fix a minor problem.

Shields

Final item of note: KTRC settings are only “sticky” if the system is turned on, and you can’t turn it off above very low speeds. There is no way to default to system off. It has to be manually turned off every time you go for a ride. For me, this is not a deal-breaker, but if you want to click it off to pull a second-gear wheelie for a cutie, you’re SOL.

My final complaint had to do with American Airlines. Due to their schedule of flights from Monterey, I got to spend about 30 minutes at The Quail, which is almost as perverse as those insurance premiums. First-world problems.

Conclusion

I love this bike. I would absolutely spend my own money on one, because it fits in well with my riding style: long and fast. With an MSRP of $12,199 (that's without the bags but includes ABS and the electronics), the value here is nothing short of amazing. This bike has race bike-quality electronic controls, very healthy performance numbers, and just enough of the sharp edges knocked off a racing machine to make it streetable. And Kawasaki delivers this for less than thirteen grand. I cannot believe how much bike a rider gets for the money — and how much technology. It's a shame this was a first look and not a long-term review; I'd have put so many miles on this machine that Kawi wouldn't have wanted it back.

I wish I could get off all the bikes I test and say, “I love everything but the heel guards.”

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