Design Analysis: 2011 Kawasaki ZX-10R

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Superbike design is, perhaps, the least forgiving segment in this industry to work in, because the intense competition and the colossal pressure to be the “best” tends to force conservative decision making. From choosing engine layout, to altering suspension geometry, to styling and Industrial Design, taking risks on the flagship model is frowned upon by top management. We see the orthodox thinking in even radical-thinking companies. BMW’s entry into the superbike realm, the S1000RR, is in every way an amalgam of the best existing engineering and styling ideas already out there, refined and rolled into one. Kawasaki seems to have followed the path of least resistance with the all new 2011 Kawasaki  ZX-10R as well.

History has shown us how fickle the market can be towards radical departures, and it scares companies. Take Ducati’s seminal 999 for instance. It was, in every measurable way, a superior motorcycle to its predecessor the 916/996/998, but it never captured the hearts of real enthusiasts.

The ZX-10R is very current, featuring all the upgrades necessary to compete with the S1000RR or CBR1000RR, as well as flaunting the must-have styling cues for 2011. Dual, highly angled headlamps flanking a central ram-air duct; a truncated, dual material tail; and “aerodynamic aids” in the form of winglets, popularized by Yamaha’s 2007 R6 (yes, the aforementioned 999 had lateral winglets first, but no one copied those). Whether or not people find the whole package attractive will depend on individual tastes, but what I think everyone will agree on is the anonymity of the design. Looking at the all-black model, seen from a distance, like from across a street, it is unlikely anyone will recognize it as a Kawasaki, which is a shame.

Bright green bodywork aside, Kawasaki has struggled to find an easily identifiable design language for most of the past decade. Each model family, from the Ninja’s to the Versys and ER-based twins, and even the sport-touring Concours and open sports ZX-14 all have completely different frontal arrangements, lights, tail architecture, even body language.  Razor sharp hard angles, fluid-organic, highly original ideas and cookie-cutter details.  They are all there.  The ZX-10R takes some ideas from the smaller Ninjas, but does nothing really new with them, other than squishing the nose into a lower, longer form.

But its in the nose that we see one relationship with the Kawasaki brand. It appears to be with the very first 1985 Ninja 900 (or GpZ900 if you live outside North America).  Looking at the pointed, almost beak nose, and the way it protrudes from the sides of the fairing at almost 90 degrees is something original to the Ninja that started them all. The windscreen unsupported from the sides, even the way the engine cases are exposed from the sides are similar.  True, the proportions are completely different, giving way as they have to to modern engineering, but the essence is there.

Anyone old enough to have watch Tom Cruse on one of those in Top Gun will remember what a ground breaking motorcycle it was, from both a performance and styling point of view, and how much it catapulted Kawasaki onto the front row of sport bike sales. If this was part of the inspiration behind the new ZX-10R, then Kawasaki have done good to dig onto the brand lore.

Design Analysis is an ongoing series in which Michael Uhlarik, designer of the 2003 Yamaha M1 and MT-03, discusses the design of significant new motorcycles from a motorcycle designer’s perspective.

  • specialist

    I’m digging the swingarm in a huge way.

    Any word on what this rev’s too? High horsepower’s great, but less fun on the road if you have to rev to 18,000 and its all hidden at the redline. Prefer low and mid range oomph.

    Ah well, I happily swore off buying a new bike ever again. Rather let some other sucker cop the depreciation this time and leave me some change for better brakes/suspension.

    So all of you, go buy this in large numbers, then sell it in 3years time when the next “must have” comes out.

  • Mark D

    Good catch between the Ninja 900 and the new ZXr. The early ninjas actually all have a very definable style; even the ex-500 and second-gen ninjas have a lot of those styling cues. Of course, its probably best to give subtly the finger and just slather it in Team Green (which a surprising amount of non-motorcycling people know as “Kawasaki Green”)

  • cdsv

    The new ZX-10R has something going for it. I appreciate how open the fairings are. Combined with the lack of windscreen supports (enabled by the stiffness the edge contours impart) it gives the bike a very light look. The mix of surface finishes is also nice with the exception of the gloss tank and fender on the green colorway which make them look as if they were from a different bike. I also like how many of the lines sweep down and back rather than up and back as so many bikes have over the last ten years. And I have to applaud the near Triumph-like decal restraint. That should not go unappreciated.

    I think my main gripe would have to be how forced the headlights look. The bottom edge is flat and doesn’t follow the contours below it, while the upper corners are uncomfortably close to the fairing edge.

    It has it’s derivative points as well, like the previous gen R1 fairing’s leading edge panel, but all-in-all it’s a solid effort that’s a bit better than what I had expected from Kawasaki.

    • Random

      +1 for the headlights. Except for the beak the front screams “I am a bland japanese bike! Just like the CBR600RR!”. The previous generation, while a little lost with their mirror-mounted turn signals, had much more personality. Then again, 200hp and a lot of electronics is enough to turn ugly bikes into desirable icons!

      • Random

        That said, the references to the previous bikes (that I would never get without seeing this analysis) are nice. But the bike is too similar to the others in their category.

        As Uhlarik noted, Kawa is struggling to find identity for each bike in each segment – a result of no unifying style cues for the whole brand.

        This means each bike is another experiment, that either turns out too bland (like this ZX-10), in a field where’s easy to be conservative, or a bit too much excentric (like the ER6-N or the Versys), in segments where their bikes are an alternative take on the rider’s needs or the young owners like exotic styling.

  • Emmet

    Styling is somewhat reminiscent of the original Ninja, hopefully this will become the new iconic look for the brand. Maybe if Kawasaki is the first to do away with the garish color schemes of sportbikes, they’d see some recognition over the other power ranger rides. That matte black race bike is amazing!

  • andehans

    Very good. Articles like this make put all other motorcycle publications to shame.
    My older brother bought a new GPZ900 in ’86.
    I remember beeing amazed by the design. Especially the front with the two vertical blades potruding from the fairing was radical. Compared with his old Z1000R the 900 was a giant step forward. My other favorite bits on the GPZ was the excenter on the swingarm and the footrest support. Kawasaki built quite a few distincive sports bikes in the mid-80′s; The GPZ600, GPZ750, GPX750 and the GPZ1000RX.

  • deckard

    I may be wrong, but the new green ZX10R may be the first bike I’ve ever seen where large sections have been painted black to change the silhouette of the bike. The back 1/3 of the tank and the leading edges of the side fairing are black, which really slims this bike down. I’d like to see the bike in a solid monochrome, I bet it looks a bit thick around the midsection.