Stand back a few feet and you might think of the Ninja 1000 ABS as the middle sibling between the Concours 14 and the ZX-10R, which is precisely what Kawasaki wants you to believe. That illusion gets a big shot of throttle now that the Green Team has given the Ninja ‘thou a set of dealer-installed hard bags that look nothing like afterthoughts.
Of course, the Ninja 1000 shares virtually nothing with those bikes on a mechanical level. Derived from the Z1000 and first offered in 2011, the current bike is more like a more sit-up/fly-right version of the Z and a lot less like a shrunken Connie.
That’s all good. The Z/Ninja 1000’s 1,043cc inline-four belts out respectable power across a wide rev band. For 2014, the engine receives minor modifications, including equal-length intake funnels, an intake cam with 0.3mm less lift and 6 degrees less duration, and revised injection programming for a “more direct throttle response.” In the end, Kawasaki says the engine makes more torque lower in the rev band but also has a slightly stronger top-end hit; none of these attributes is given a numerical value, so we’ll have to see what the Ninja does on our dyno to be sure.
On the road, that engine is a real-world peach. Thanks to an engine-driven counterbalancer, it’s very smooth off the bottom and through the midrange, picking up just a bit of high-frequency buzz in the upper third of the range. Throttle response is very, very good, with remarkably little driveline snatch and a delightfully progressive nature overall. I couldn’t get it to misbehave.
Further engine-related changes include a different exhaust header with larger, oval connectors between cylinders 1 and 4, and cylinders 2 and 3. There is no more exhaust tuning valve in the system, and the mufflers have been tweaked with brushed covers and larger outlets. They’re also slightly smaller, says Kawasaki, to clear the optional saddlebags. A large (very large, actually) under-engine pre-chamber permits these stubby exhausts, for better or worse aesthetically.
The big news on the drivetrain front is the adaptation of ZX-14R-style traction control and power modes. As with the green monster, the Ninja’s setup has three levels of TC (plus off) and two power modes, full or limited to 70 percent of max (along with milder throttle response). For a bike intended to actually go places, these technologies (along with new, standard ABS) are a great thing. Even so, my initial evaluation of the bike, heading up to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for the World Superbike round, gave me few opportunities to test the TC, since it was warm and dry the entire time. A bit of fooling around on dusty/gritty roads showed that the system is just as effective here as on the ZX-14R, allowing a very slight amount of wheelspin in Level 1, but the intervention cycles are smooth and predictable. Better yet, when the ECU hands the bike back to you, it does so in a direct, intuitive way, unlike some of the more conservative systems that take way too long to give you back the helm. But here’s the thing: Except for forays into bad weather and really crummy roads, the Ninja 1000 doesn’t really need TC. The engine doles out power in such a beautifully predictable way—and, truth be told, there’s not nearly as much of it as on the ZX-14R—that the old analog TC works pretty well. Still, nice to know it’s there.
Along with the TC hardware comes a revised dash, with a handy trip computer, fuel gauge, and large analog tach. No gear-position indicator, curiously, but that’s probably not a big deal; you’ll find yourself in the newly taller sixth gear often enough given how much torque this engine puts down. My only serious complaint is that the small numbers on the LCD panel can be hard to read under certain lighting conditions. I did complain that the trip-computer modes should have a switch on the cluster—not just on the instrument face—but then discovered that the TC/power mode rocker works for that purpose. Tick the “up” button and the trip computer cycles through its readings; tick the “down” button to choose between the clock and a coolant-temp readout on the lower right corner of the display. My inner geek did a little jump for joy.
Kawasaki kept the chassis changes modest. Perhaps the biggest is a new rear subframe that is strengthened for the luggage but also rests slightly lower on the frame so that the seat, which is the same overall shape as before, can have slightly thicker padding. It’s a fine saddle, though our two-day trip from Los Angeles to Laguna didn’t offer extended periods on the road, so a final analysis will have to wait. In shape and thickness, it hits the marks, but you never know until you’ve spent a few tankfuls at a time there. Speaking of which, the Ninja 1000 retains its 5-gallon tank, and I saw the trip computer average 35-37 mpg during the admittedly frisky test ride. The trip computer always defaulted to a sub-200-mile range when filling up, which may be Kawasaki telling us something. Better range might come with a lighter hand on the throttle.
I had no reason to spare the whip over California’s scenic Highway 33 out of Ojai, or the increasingly pockmarked (but still very fast) Highway 58 on the way out to the coast, in part because the Ninja handles quite well. On the baseline settings, it felt a little squatty in the back, and certain kinds of bumps got the suspension moving more than I’d like. At one of the fuel stops, I added 20 clicks of rear preload through the new hydraulic adjuster and turned all the damping screws half a turn in. You get rebound damping adjustability out back, rebound up front on both legs, and compression only on the right leg. (I’m guessing that the ABS hardware on the left leg would interfere with a compression adjuster there.) Firmed up slightly, the Ninja turned in more readily and was less prone to standing up on the brakes. Kawasaki says the shock spring is 3 percent stiffer than before, with damping setting at both ends “revised” for the new balance of the bike with bags. Still, even with these settings, the Ninja was not super eager to turn in and had a small amount of bar resistance when leaned over. It’s interesting to note that the bike continues to use a 190/50 rear tire and that the eccentric chain adjusters come with the axle at the highest setting, which drops the rear. I’d love to keep working on the Ninja’s chassis attitude to see if there’s a lighter-steering sweetheart in there, bearing in mind that we’re still talking about a 509-pound (claimed curb weight) machine.
For most Ninja 1000 ABS owners, comfort is as high up the ladder as catlike agility and steamroller power. Here, the Ninja delivers marvelously. The cast bars are unchanged from the previous model, but offer a very neutral, sportbike-like stance that puts very little weight on the wrists. In fact, the Ninja felt more like an old standard machine in the vein of the Suzuki Bandit or Yamaha FZ1. Wind protection is yards better than either of those, however, thanks to a multi-adjustable and effective windscreen and full bodywork. Kawasaki really doesn’t want you to change the screen’s rake on the fly—the release lever is inside the fairing to the right and there are stickers warning that such an operation is fatally dangerous—but it can be done. In the low position, the bike felt like a regular sportbike, with the air hitting just below my collarbone. In the high position, which is a difference of 30 degrees’ rake, a stream of surprisingly non-turbulent air reached my helmet chinbar.
From the standpoint of riding position, wind protection, engine smoothness, and general demeanor (the taller sixth helps), the Ninja 1000 earns high marks for both clarity of the mission and execution on the idea. At $11,999, there’s a great deal of performance and practicality here. Add another $1,269.75 (plus installation) for the 28-liter bags (officially downgraded at the press launch from the previously announced 29-liter capacity) and you have a smooth, entertaining, terrific long-distance runner that’s a little cheaper but a lot lighter and spunkier than your average big-rig sport-tourer. For all the Motorcyclist readers who chided us for heaping praise on 600-plus-pound STs, here’s your bike.
|Engine type||l-c inline-four|
|Valve train||DOHC, 16v|
|Front suspension||KYB 41mm fork with adjustable spring preload, rebound and compression damping|
|Rear Suspension||KYB shock with adjustable spring preload and rebound damping|
|Front brake||Dual Tokico four-piston calipers, 300mm discs with ABS|
|Rear brake||Tokico two-piston caliper, 250mm disc with ABS|
|Front tire||120/70ZR-17 Bridgestone S20|
|Rear tire||190/55ZR-17 Bridgestone S20|
|Seat height||32.2 in.|
|Fuel capacity||5.0 gal.|
|Claimed curb weight||509 lbs.|