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Common Tread

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX first ride review

May 22, 2020

At one point in life, my daily rider was a Kawasaki ZX-6R supersport.

I’d commute into the heart of Los Angeles during the week, take it to the track once a month, and occasionally strap a tailbag to the Ninja’s pathetic excuse for a passenger seat and crack off a 1,000-mile weekend tour to NorCal. At the time, the bike’s sporting prowess was worth the cost of cramped wrists and a sore back. 

That was more than 10 years ago, and my preference in motorcycles has, shall we say, evolved. Performance is still very much a priority, but so are comfort and overall practicality. In light of all that, real-world sport bikes like the Ninja 1000, which Kawasaki introduced in 2011 to fill the gap between its crouched-over race replicas and the Concours 14 super-tourer, are a sweet fit for folks like me.

And for 2020, the Ninja 1000SX has a boatload of new features that make it all the more appealing, all while only adding $200 to last year’s MSRP of $12,199.  

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX
Kawasaki has done a great job unifying the Ninja aesthetic among the family's many models. Even with side cases, the 1000SX looks sharp and fast. Photo by Zack Courts.

Lots of not-so-little changes

The Ninja’s mirrors, fairing, and front fender are subtly redesigned, with the new “double bubble” windscreen set a steeper angle atop a four-position bracket that’s adjustable via a hard-to-reach tab below the dash. Other obvious alterations are the switch from petal rotors to regular round discs and a change (thank goodness!) from two ray gun Sugomi-inspired mufflers to a single, conventional silencer. The new pipe is Euro 5 compliant and is said to save fourish pounds, which brings the Ninja’s curb weight down to about 514 pounds with its five-gallon tank full of premium unleaded. That's by no means light, but it's only 60 pounds heavier than a ZX-10R. 

All the colors of the rainbow, right there in the cockpit! Vibrant hues aside, the display is detailed and complete. And if you don't like the layout, it's adjustable. Photo by Zack Courts.

LCD dashes are about as cool as wired headphones these days, so Kawasaki adorned the SX with a beautiful 4.3-inch TFT color dash that offers multiple display modes. Throttle action feels the same as before, but the cables are go to a potentiometer, not throttle plates. Going fully ride-by-wire allowed for the addition of cruise control — an obvious boon for a sport-touring bike — plus three preset ride modes that combine different levels of engine power and traction control (KTRC is Kawispeak). A fourth Rider mode is customizable, which includes turning off KTRC.

The clutch gets a rotary dial that makes it five-position adjustable, but using it is optional once you’re moving, thanks to a bi-directional quickshifter. Other changes include new foam for the seats, Bridgestone’s latest S22 tires, and the addition of bleed ports in the fork’s compression-damping circuits to improve compliance.  

That's a five-foot, 10-inch rider, for reference. The Ninja strikes a great balance in size — large enough to be comfortable, but small enough to still feel agile. Photo by Zack Courts.

The 2020 Ninja 1000SX on city streets

A lot has changed since I lived with a ZX-6R, but my love for long days in the saddle and twisty roads persists. To scratch that itch and get a taste for this new Ninja, I rode around the San Francisco Bay area, then bolted down the Central Valley to L.A. The ride offered a good mix of city, open highway, and winding roads — exactly the type of mix the Ninja 1000SX was designed for.

Setting out across San Francisco on a quintessentially foggy afternoon, the Ninja feels like a sport bike with a sensible side. The clip-ons rest on risers so you sit fairly upright with no weight on your wrists, the footpegs are far enough back to provide good leverage while cornering without cramping your knees on the highway, and the seat is appropriately wide and supportive. The way the tank splays your legs is classic Kawasaki inline-four, and one reminder that there’s a massive 1,043 cc engine bolted between the frame spars. 

The other reminder is… torque. There’s somewhere around 75 foot-pounds of the stuff, and much of it is available as soon as you let out the light-action clutch. There’s immediate, assertive acceleration regardless of your gear choice, which makes dispatching Munis and Ubers a breeze. With plenty of steering lock, excellent throttle response, good inherent balance, compliant yet supportive suspension, and low-speed agility that belies its weight, the Ninja feels surprisingly at home while navigating congested city streets.

This is luggage done right. Each 28-liter case will hold a full-face helmet, and the latching/locking mechanism is beautifully simple to use, even with gloves on. Photo by Zack Courts.

One thing that’s especially appealing in a city with fingers as sticky as San Francisco is lockable luggage, and while the Ninja doesn’t come with cases as standard, I can’t imagine anyone would opt for this bike and not spring for the matching saddlebags. In a word, they’re excellent. It’s true, $1,130 is pricey for 56 liters of storage, but the bags are color-matched and keyed to the bike, use existing mounts that are integrated into the grab handle and footpeg brackets, and tuck neatly against the tail in a way that actually makes the 1000SX look more proportionate and purposeful. Along with the broad functionality that’s baked into the Ninja 1000 platform, the cases are what make this bike so versatile. 

The 2020 Ninja 1000SX on the open road

With those superb saddlebags packed with clothes and snacks and a few turns of preload spun into the shock’s handy remote adjuster to offset the weight, I point the Ninja south on the 101 freeway to test its touring chops.

Once again, the engine is on point with gobs of thrust. Kawasaki went to great lengths to reduce vibrations emanating from the Ninja’s big motor, and by and large it was successful. The Ninja is relaxed on the highway and deceptively fast, making it pretty easy to obliterate the speed limit. Time to cue the new cruise control system. You can tune your speed with the push of a button, but, frustratingly, the system tops out at 85 mph, despite an actual top speed of 154 mph (what can I say, I wanted to know if it was as fast as a ZX-6R). In other words, not fast enough to keep pace with free-flowing traffic south of San Francisco. Kawasaki didn’t have an official statement regarding the limitation, but I’m guessing it’s meant to coincide with the highest posted limit in the country. 

New switchgear beside the left grip operates cruise control, ride modes, and other functions. It's a tidy, practical arrangement. Photo by Zack Courts.

Assuming 85 mph is fast enough for you, you’ll likely find that the new windscreen isn’t quite suitable for those speeds. It’s simply too small and too far away to be useful. The same goes for the mirrors. The good news is that the four-position windscreen bracket is prime real estate for a taller aftermarket screen that’ll surely make the Ninja’s cockpit a quieter, calmer place to log highway miles. As for the mirrors, just get used to looking over your shoulder before switching lanes. 

See those little mirrors way out there? Kawi gave them a wider range of adjustment for 2020, but you'll still need to rely on a glance over your shoulder to get the full rearview. Photo by Zack Courts.

I averaged 40 mpg on the highway, which means a range of 200 miles if you’re bold enough to run the tank empty. I wasn’t, but I slammed out 170 miles in one sitting just to test the limits of the seat and ergonomics. Even with suspension that effectively smooths out sharp bumps, staying in one position for two hours is liable to make you uncomfortable. I’m happy to report, however, that my butt, knees, and everything else still felt fine once I finally pulled in for gas. If you’re looking to cross county or state lines, the Ninja 1000SX is a great choice.

KTRC allows small power wheelies, but having this much fun requires turning KTRC off entirely. The Ninja doesn't have separate functions for traction control and wheelie control. Photo by Zack Courts.

Enter the twisties

Speaking of county lines, if you travel State Route 198 from Monterey County to Fresno County, you’re going to want a sport bike. Thankfully, the 1000SX fits the bill and was up to the task of untangling this delicious section of secluded twisties.

Here, yet again, the motor is the star of the show, dishing out thrilling acceleration if not an exciting exhaust sound. Sure, power trails off beyond 9,500 rpm, but with such a robust midrange there’s no need to rev it that high. There’s really no need to shift, either, but I still did for the joy of using the new bi-directional quickshifter. It’s not perfectly calibrated, but it’s also completely superfluous, so kudos to Kawi for including it as a means of making this new Ninja feel a lot sportier.

The TFT dash will display and log your lean angle. It’s a fun feature, but it’s only useful for telling you that the footpeg feelers don’t drag until 52 degrees of lean, as seen here. Photo by Zack Courts.

Front-end feel is especially good in corners, and I love the way the bike holds a line while trail braking. Excellent stability and cornering confidence are status quo for the Ninja, though the new compression bleed ports in the fork may be contributing.

With all that smooth, nearly silent thrust on tap, it's easy to stack on too much speed between corners. Luckily, the Ninja’s brake package is terrific. A radial master cylinder feeds huge radial-mount calipers by way of a KIBS (Kawasaki Intelligent Brake System) ABS module, and it all works together to provide precise, strong stopping power. Unless, of course, you start getting too aggressive for the IMU-informed KIBS. 

Does anyone riding on the street really need a quickshifter? Nope, but they sure are fun! Especially when they're bi-directional. Thanks for the treat, Kawi. Photo by Zack Courts.

Dial up the speed and the force of your steering inputs and the Ninja starts to show its weight, as well as the conservative tendencies of its KHI software engineers. KIBS, which polls information from myriad data channels to develop a comprehensive view of what the bike is doing, seems as concerned with maintaining chassis composure as maintaining traction. That’s a good idea in theory, but when you’re having a blast hustling your big-bore sporty tourer down a magnificently twisty back road and KIBS kicks in because you transitioned quickly while trail braking, it’s a little annoying. Similarly, aggressive straight-line braking can trigger the front ABS, not because there’s a loss of front-tire traction (honestly, not even close) but presumably because the IMU doesn’t like how much the bike is pitching forward. I could cheat the system and delay ABS interference by applying the rear brake a moment before squeezing the front to help keep the chassis settled, but I found it a bit paradoxical that I had to outsmart the “intelligent” braking system in order to enjoy the bike.

Big, 300 mm discs and radial calipers (plus a radial master cylinder) slow the Ninja down with authority. The KIBS could use a little refinement, though. Photo by Zack Courts.

At the other end of the spectrum, KTRC is smooth and transparent. It would be great if there were different levels of KIBS sensitivity like there are with KTRC, but as it stands the parameters are the same whether you’re riding in Sport mode or Rain mode. And no, you can’t turn KIBS off. As Zack alluded to in his recent article on ABS, it’s ultimately up to the OEM to fine-tune the resolution of the electronics, and in the Ninja’s case, KIBS and the quickshifter could use a little more refinement. 

Final thoughts on the Ninja 1000SX

The only other complaint I’ll lodge against the Ninja’s updated electronics is the inability to change ride modes without closing the throttle. On other bikes you can switch modes while maintaining throttle (you still need to close the throttle to activate the change), but with the SX the throttle must be closed to even scroll through the menu, so you’re looking at coasting for a few seconds or pulling over. Nitpicks, sure, but the Kawi is now boasting features that are easier to use on competing models.

City streets, open highway, or mountain roads. The Ninja is a practical sport bike for those who want one motorcycle to tackle every form of pavement. Photo by Zack Courts.

In the end though, these are indeed just nits. When it comes down to it, the Ninja 1000SX is a nearly ideal solution for those of you who, like me, are drawn to sport bikes but can’t stomach the compromise of a purebred supersport. From city streets to the open road to your favorite section of serpentine blacktop, the 1000SX excels thanks to a brute of an engine, sensible ergonomics, a well tuned chassis, and useful features.

And since you’re a sensible consumer and know you need the accessory saddlebags, your all-in price is $13,529. That’s a reasonable sum for this much performance and functionality, and you can get it without the backache or wrist pain.

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 1000SX
Price (MSRP) $12,399
Engine 1,034 cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve, inline four
Transmission,
final drive
Six-speed, chain
Claimed horsepower NA
Claimed torque NA
Frame Aluminum twin-spar 
Front suspension KYB 41 mm fork, adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping; 4.7 inches of travel
Rear suspension KYB shock adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping; 5.4 inches of travel
Front brake Tokico four-piston calipers, 300 mm discs with ABS 
Rear brake Nissin single-piston caliper, 250 mm disc with ABS
Rake, trail 24.0 degrees, 3.9 inches
Wheelbase 56.7 inches
Seat height 32.1 inches
Fuel capacity 5.0 gallons
Tires Bridgestone S22, 120/70R17 front, 190/55R17 rear
Claimed weight 514 pounds (516 pounds for the CA model) 
Available Now
Warranty 12 months
More info Kawasaki.com