The Next Level
Kawasaki held the 2011 ZX-10R press launch at the challenging 12-turn, 2.5-mile layout of Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia. A racetrack peppered with numerous blind approaches and major elevation changes, Road Atlanta is one of those circuits that will expose any weakness in a modern sportbike.
Although claimed power figures are slightly higher for the 2011 model, the new ZX-10R doesn't feel any more powerful than the previous version, which can surely be attributed to the stringent EPA noise and emissions tests that have forced the manufacturers to keep their top-end power levels in check (of course, the previous ZX-10R was certainly no slug...). We were also given the opportunity to ride a "Power Up" ZX-10R with slip-on exhaust and race kit ECU, and while the difference in power was noticeable, the fueling wasn't quite dialed in, dulling its real potential. Another reason is that the Kawasaki's powerband is smoother, without the in-your-face upper midrange hit of the previous generation.
The S-KTRC is adjustable to three levels, as well as switched off. Level 3 is meant for low traction (wet) conditions, so it was too intrusive on a dry racetrack - we'll reserve judgment on its performance there when we get a ZX-10R for test. Level 2, however, was very transparent; it seemingly allows the same amount of wheelspin as the Race setting on the BMW S 1000 RR, while simultaneously providing more drive. In fact, it's this transparency where the S-KTRC system excels; instead of coarsely reigning in power to the point that the bike either isn't giving you the power you want when you ask for it, or the tire ends up going into a spin-grip-spin series of gyrations, the Kawasaki simply continues smoothly driving forward even with the rear tire spinning and hung out slightly. The reduction of power is so subtle that often the only way you can tell is by the bar graph that displays the intervention level on the bottom of the dashboard's LCD panel.
While the amount of tire slip Level 2 permits is fairly high, the intervention threshold of Level 1 is basically experts only. You really have to be aggressive with the throttle and spin the tire in order to activate the system, and because of its high threshold, the system is obviously not idiot-proof. Grab a handful of throttle and spin the tire while cranked over at maximum lean in a slow corner, and the system will let the tire slip continue to the point that if the rider backs out of the throttle instead of picking the bike up onto the fat part of the tire, the resulting sudden gain in traction will upset the chassis enough to possibly put the rider on his head.
We also tried the ZX-10R with the S-KTRC system turned off, and found its powerband to be amiable in the right hands, allowing tire spin off corners to be accomplished with confidence and ease. And the Kawasaki's acceleration was just as fierce, showing that the traction control system was indeed very transparent and non-intrusive in most riding conditions.
The S-KTRC is sophisticated enough to detect and reign in power wheelies, again without the use of a gyro sensor. In Level 2, the system worked well for the most part, pulling back just enough power to keep the bike accelerating, instead of abruptly cutting power and slamming the front end back down as with the BMW when running in all but its top-level Slick mode. In Level 1 though, the S-KTRC was fairly hands-off, leaving the job of dealing with wheelies to the rider.
The ZX-10R also has three Power Modes: Full, Variable Middle and Low power. Full power mode is as the name suggests; Variable Middle power is said to provide 75 percent of full power output with a milder power curve, "although full power can be accessed depending on the throttle's rate of change," while Low power only allows 60 percent of maximum power. Full power provided crisp throttle response without being abrupt, while the Variable Middle power setting provided a softer response that would probably work well on the street and tighter canyons - but on the track, it was a bit too lazy. And Low power was just, well, too low to be useful in our opinion.