Kawasaki unveiled their re-skinned 636 cc Ninja ZX-6R on October 11 at the AIMExpo motorcycle trade show in Las Vegas. Minutes after the convention center opened, the green booth was jammed with journalists, dealers, and industry insiders who stood in a respectful semicircle around three shrouded bikes, waiting for the appointed hour of 10 a.m.
Kawasaki execs whetted our appetites by rolling out their latest 450 motocrosser (ridden by some guy named Jeremy McGrath) and then bringing out a carbon-clad H2. Finally, it was the new ZX-6R’s turn. There were some polite oohs and ahhs and hmms as Kawasaki execs outlined the bike’s new features — which I’ll get to in a bit. But when Kawasaki’s Bill Jenkins announced the $9,999 base price to the assembled crowd, there was an audible gasp followed by a long burst of spontaneous applause. I can’t remember the last time a new model got such a reaction from jaded industry types. Even with ABS, it lists for only $10,999.
Every contemporary sport bike is a technological marvel, but the most stunning feature of the 2019 ZX-6R was developed in Kawasaki’s accounting department, because the most important feature is the price.
New(ish) Ninja for 2019
The most obvious difference is that the bodywork has been completely restyled, making this model resemble its big brother, the ZX-10R. The dash is new, but thankfully they stuck with a clear, old-school analog tach. All the lighting is now LED.
Ergonomics have also been tweaked. Although the rider triangle is unchanged, the fuel tank is now slightly more wasp-waisted, and the firm seat is slightly narrower at the front. This creates the impression that the seat’s lower, although the nominal height is unchanged. The clutch lever is now adjustable for reach.
One reason the new model can be offered with a circa-$1,700 nominal price drop is that the motor and rolling chassis have not been updated since 2013. Kawi engineers tweaked the fuel mapping in order to clear more stringent Euro IV standards. They say they achieved that without compromising power. However, the 2019 edition comes with a one-tooth-smaller countershaft sprocket. It’s also now equipped with an (upshift only) quickshifter.
The last significant change is that the ZX-6R now comes with Battlax Hypersport S22 tires. Bridgestone describes this as a tire for sport riding and occasional track days; they put it in the same use category as their better-known BT-016. Compared to the previous S21, the new tires have a different tread pattern and a new compound with finer silica particles that improve wet grip without compromising wear.
Riding the Ninja ZX-6R on the street
The first of our two days of riding was spent on the street on the high-end ZX-6R ABS KRT Edition, which lists for $11,299. A relatively small group of eight journalists followed Kawi’s Brad Puetz on a loop that included a little bit of everything (except rain).
Kawasaki’s Miki Nagase did a good job on the new bodywork, and I think her design really comes across well in the company’s venerable green livery. Right in the parking lot, a few things stood out to me: The dash was very legible, with a large gear indicator and (new this year) a fuel gauge. Unlike some bikes with flashier TFT dashboards and the very latest electronic rider-assistance packages, it was easy and intuitive to toggle through the relatively small number of power and traction-control permutations. Simple is good, IMHO. (But, you can’t turn the ABS off on this model.)
Because my hands are fairly small, I appreciated the clutch lever’s adjustability. Kawasaki says the cable-actuated clutch has both an assist and slipper function. Indeed, the clutch pull is fairly light. Full throttle is achieved with a quarter turn of the twistgrip. I only have about half the normal range of motion in my right wrist, so I’d prefer an even quicker throttle, but most people will find both the rate of twist and resistance to be completely fine.
I’ve always felt that middleweight Ninjas are Goldilocks bikes: not too hard or too soft, footpegs not too high. The slightly narrower seat on this model makes it a little easier for me to flat-foot it with my 30-inch inseam, though the seat felt a little harder than I remember from previous models, with a detectable edge.
Since I’m built like the average test rider, I fit comfortably on most sport bikes. The rider triangle on this bike is quite comfortable for me; I would not change anything about it for the street. Riders over six feet tall would probably prefer a taller seat.
First gear engages with a bit of a clunk, and I found that I usually didn’t get that to happen unless I ever-so-slightly released the clutch lever. (That niggle is more than offset by the fact that neutral was notably easy to engage.)
Although the bike does not feel particularly small, even at parking-lot speeds it feels responsive and mass-centralized. It doesn’t have a steering damper, and steering effort is minimal.
The first few miles of our ride were spent on a divided freeway, rolling up U.S. 95 at about 85 mph. I felt a little buzz — not bothersome, but present — at all the tactile interfaces: ’pegs, ’bar, seat and at the tank if I leaned into it. Only the frequency changed when I tried different revs and gears; the amplitude remained the same.
Those first few miles also gave me a chance to try some roll-ons in all the upper gears. As anyone who’s ridden a modern 600-class bike knows, they all make (very!) adequate power, although some need to be way up in the rev range before the hounds are released. The ZX-6R’s relatively long-stroke motor doesn’t need to be revved so high. It makes reasonable torque as low as 7,000 rpm. It’s a very good motor for practical street use.
The new windscreen is slightly lower. I did not experience any buffeting problems, although I always prefer taller screens. I suppose I don’t get my way because tall screens don’t look fast on the showroom floor.
The first interesting riding (which was also one of our photo areas) included some pretty gnarly asphalt on Nevada’s Highway 158 to the 8,000-foot level of Mt. Charleston. That two-lane road had obviously been repaved at some point, but the new paving didn’t really bond, so there were a bunch of one-inch surface changes.
That was not conducive to studly photos, but it was a good test of the ZX-6R’s Showa "Big Piston" separate function front fork, and piggyback shock. They handled sharp-edged bumps with aplomb. In hindsight, I would have preferred softer settings. That’s easily done, especially at the front where all the adjusters are right up on top of the fork caps. The S22 tires also did a good job of ignoring seams and cracks in the line of travel. Again, just considering practical street use, I’d rate the suspension and tires as excellent, with the proviso that we rode only on dry asphalt.
Although we did not spend that much time in real twisty stuff, test gigs like this also include dozens of U-turns for photo passes. At slower speeds, and low to moderate aggro levels, the bike changes direction well with low-effort countersteering. Adjusting line or speed, even mid-corner, was easy. Because grip levels were almost always very good, I never triggered either the ABS or TC. Those systems don’t have the advantage of IMU data on this model, but I like knowing they’re there, anyway.
The highlight of the street ride was a long, sweeping descent on Nevada 157 after lunch, through the Red Rocks conservation area, rolling on and off the throttle at 80 to 100 mph in third and fourth gears, on asphalt that must’ve been laid by the same contractors who pave the governor’s driveway.
A particularly, um, "interesting" moment came when we encountered a lot of dust, as fine as talcum powder, right on the apex of a fast corner. That might’ve been a place where ABS would’ve saved my ass, but I had width in my lane to just roll through it on a neutral throttle, then adjust my line on the far side without crossing the yellow.
The bike had a lot more in it, but there were a few Highway Patrol vehicles about and we had the track scheduled for the next day, anyway.
We’d begun our day at a fancy golf course west of town, but since we had to deliver the bikes to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, we ended the ride by crossing the north end of the city in pretty heavy traffic. That was, sadly, the kind of riding most buyers will have to put up with. Again, the flexible motor with reasonable low-rpm power, and fairly comfy rider triangle, were appreciated. I find that some sport bikes’ ergos discourage a safe, heads-up riding position and make it hard to scan traffic for hazards. This ZX-6R, like its predecessors, handles the real world well.
My one note from that section of the ride was that at long red lights, even though the clutch pull is reasonable, I definitely appreciated that easy-to-find neutral so that I could relax my left hand.
Riding the ZX-6R at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The next day, we rode the $9,999 base model (so, sans ABS) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This is a sprawling facility with a number of tracks and layouts. We were on a track that has a "Pirelli Proving Ground" sign above the entrance, but I am pretty sure that’s just Pirelli’s marketing department at work. The Kawasaki guys called the track we were on "the WERA track," because it was the layout recently used for a WERA race.
As usual, we got the full "factory rider" treatment, which included a Kawi technician dedicated to each rider. There were also several Bridgestone techs in attendance to monitor and switch out the "DOT Race" R11 track tires. The R11’s are fantastic, but I would not have minded starting the day on the OEM-spec S22 tires, so that I could have tried pushing them a little harder than I did on the street, under controlled conditions.
Kawasaki had already spent a couple of days at the track with one of their fast development riders, getting a baseline for track settings. That involved using a shim to add 8.5 mm of effective shock length. The shim — a factory part available to anyone — had the effect of noticeably raising the rear of the bike by what felt like an inch or so. It steepened the fork angle to make initiating turns even easier and helped transfer a little more weight to the front tire. The track settings also included more preload (and presumably more damping). The net effect was of a bike that immediately felt taller, tauter, and quite racy.
After the first couple of sessions, I had to admit that my inputs were too tentative for their track settings. I had my tech, Alex Dell, split the difference between their "stock" and "track" suspension settings. I left the ride height alone. (Alex’s day job at Kawi is in Quality Assurance, and — get this — his daily rider is an H2.)
I found the WERA layout easy to memorize but hard to really learn. It runs clockwise, with (by my count) six right turns and two lefts that turn through about 180 degrees each. The surface is generally smooth and grippy. At the end of the day, as I was reviewing my notes, I realized that, corner-by-corner, almost every important characteristic of the bike revealed itself. So over the next several paragraphs, I’ll take you around the track in the same order I was taking those corners, beginning and ending on the start-finish line.
A lap of the "WERA" road course on the ZX-6R
Although there are no really intense braking zones on the track, I had to scrub off at least 60 mph in short order at the end of the front straight. That was a good place to feel out the twin four-pot Nissin calipers gripping 310 mm stainless discs. Braking performance was very good and I can’t imagine that I would have found it to be a limiting factor, even on tracks with more extreme speed differentials.
Turn one was basically a 90-degree right with a bumpy apex. Although I could definitely feel the bumps, the bike remained composed, even without a steering damper. That was reassuring, because it exited onto a short chute that was fairly narrow, making it important to hold the line on the way to the faster but bland turn two. (That was a spot where I got comfortable quickly and the only turn that I didn’t make any specific notes on.)
The next interesting part of the track was turn three, which is really an A-B complex of a right kink and deceleration zone leading into a deceptive left turn. This was a turn that I never, ever nailed even once, although I got closer to a good line through there by experimenting with my body position.
The ZX-6R is pretty easy to move around on, though I think that for me, personally, rear-sets and some grip pads on the tank would give me a little more of the feeling that I’m riding the front wheel — always my preference — and allow me to better index my body position on the bike. (After making that note, I realized that you would have to replace the end can to create room to relocate the pegs, but I suppose some people will do that anyway.)
Turn four begins as a slow right, with an increasing radius and a wide, forgiving exit. I found myself wanting to shift up while still leaned over on the exit, and it was nice to have the KQS quick upshift at my disposal there. A couple of times over the course of the day, I found that I’d upshifted by accident but overall it was definitely better to have it than not; it’s a distinct improvement over the previous model.
A fairly long back straight leads to the fastest turn on the track — which, by the way I count ’em, is turn five. This is a spot where my knee didn’t even touch until I was doing a legit ton. Needless to say, it’s a place where the bike’s ability to inspire confidence comes into sharp focus. "Confidence-inspiring" is a vague term for such a technical sport. But on the track, confidence doesn’t just allow you to get closer to your (and your motorcycle’s) edge; confidence actually moves the edge.
That fast turn leads onto another short chute where I caught the first of two downshifts while still carrying a little lean angle. The slipper clutch made that easy.
Turn six was an interesting right-hander that seemed to flow best by squaring it off, motocross-style; catching a first apex early, then tightening the turn to catch a second apex late. Unlike in MX, there’s not a berm to help initiate the second half of the turn. So, using that technique on a road course requires faith in the front end.
Turn seven was my nemesis. A long, looping left that tightened on the exit. We’d been warned by Kawi’s development rider to stay inside a barely visible seam on the track, because earlier, grip levels had seemed poor towards the outside of the track. That narrow approach had the effect of decreasing the radius even more and it was very hard to pick out any kind of landmark to know where the apex was. Finally, I identified a pathetic little wildflower, the one thing growing in a field of gravel, but it won’t be there if I ever go back! That was another place where I found that adopting a more aggressive body position, especially using my head weight to the inside, helped (perhaps because I have a very heavy brain). I got better over the course of a long day but it was another place where I often had to adjust my speed or line in mid-trajectory. It was nice to know the bike and tires could easily handle those extra demands.
Turn eight, the last right onto the front straight, was straightforward. Getting onto the front straight and into a tuck, I found that the top edge of the windscreen was, frustratingly, right at my eye level. That would really only be an issue on the track, and easily resolved as soon as there’s a taller screen available.
Would you rather hear the last word from me, or from the best Supersport racer of all time?
Funny story: I had an awesome, super-fun day. But in a typical year, I only get two or three days like this. They always remind me that I’m older than those other journos’ dads. To be safe and get invited back, I need to keep an eye on my rear view mirrors (which, come to think of it, worked pretty well on the new Ninja).
Anyway, now those guys might know how I feel, because after lunch another rider showed up: Miguel Duhamel. Seriously. The man with five AMA Supersport titles, the most career wins in the class and, IMHO, the best Supersport rider of all time, appeared in his leathers.
He’s mellowed, because when I pulled offline to let him through, he gave me a little wave instead flipping the bird. But he was still immediately — like, within half a lap — the fastest guy on the track. Once, right after he pulled in, the Bridgestone techs checked his rear tire with a second pyrometer because the first reading they got was so high.
In our last break, I asked Miguel to do a little mental experiment. “Imagine we had a time machine here, and we could transport this bike back 15 or 20 years to when you were dominating the AMA Supersport class,” I asked him. “How would this bike, bone-stock, with the lights and license plate and everything, compare to his fully developed Honda factory race bike?”
“Oh! This bike is way, way better,” he said. “No doubt in my mind.”
Then, continuing the "time machine" line of thinking, he added, “If you could put the 20-year-old me on that bike, just as it is, I would win the championship next year.” He still has that elite-racer confidence, but having seen Miguel race back in the day, I believe him.
Does that mean the 2019 ZX-6R is a championship winner? Only if someone with a real time machine travels back to the early 1990s to kidnap young Miguel Duhamel. In a world where clocks and calendars progress in only one direction, none of the changes made between last year’s model and the bike I rode would have any effect on lap times in Supersport trim. So there’s no reason to think the ZX-6R will usurp the Yamaha YZF-R6 at the top of the Supersport class, such as it is.
That said, the ZX-6R was great fun, and I appreciate the effort and expense Kawasaki went to, in order to ensure that over two good days, I got a very complete "first ride" impression.
Let’s be honest: Judging from sales figures over the last decade, a lot of motorcyclists have written off this whole category. If you happen to be that rare customer who is already shopping for a new middleweight race-rep, it’s hard to imagine a better value. If you are one of the "supersport skeptics" who’s written off the category, maybe it’s time to reconsider a bike you can commute on, that will still be surprisingly comfortable after a long day’s sport ride, and which you can turn into a sharp-edged track day weapon with nothing more than a suspension adjustment.
Way up at the top of this essay, I wrote that the biggest contribution to this new model came from Kawasaki’s accounting department. The Kawi guys I spoke to have high hopes that, at $9,999, the 2019 ZX-6R will reboot the entire middleweight race-rep category, and fill Supersport race grids. I’ll address the 636’s history, the challenges facing the entire category, and its prospects in the Supersport class, in a follow up story coming soon.
|2019 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R|
ABS KRT: $11,299
|Engine Type||Liquid-cooled, inline four, four valves per cylinder|
|Bore x stroke||67 mm x 45.1 mm|
|Torque||52.1 foot/pounds @ 11,500 rpm|
|Transmission||six gears, quickshifter for upshifts|
|Front Suspension||41 mm inverted Showa SFF-BP fork; adjustable preload, stepless rebound and compression damping|
|Rear Suspension||Stepless compression damping adjustment, 25-way adjustable rebound damping, fully adjustable spring preload|
|Front Brake||Twin 310 mm discs, Brembo four-piston radially mounted monoblock calipers|
|Rear Brake||Single 210 mm disc, single-piston caliper|
|Tires front/rear||120/70ZR17; 180/55ZR17|
|Steering head angle/trail||24.5 degrees/4.0 inches|
|Seat height||32.7 inches|
|Tank capacity||4.5 gallons|
|Wet weight||430 pounds|