Electronic suspension continues to encroach on the aftermarket suspension category with the introduction of Öhlins’ new Mechatronic System for the Kawasaki ZX-10R, an electronically adjustable shock that uses algorithms to understand riding conditions and modify damping characteristics. Compared to the majority of electronic suspension systems that we’ve covered in the past, this technology is different in that it makes adjustments without rider input. Alternative electronic suspension dampers, like those found on the Ducati Panigale S and 2013 MV Agusta F4RR for comparison, function via rider-manipulated settings.
The Öhlins Mechatronic System is developed entirely around the already available TTX36 MKII shock, a second-generation TTX unit that features reinforced tubes along with a new piston, piston bands and check valves. As a recap, the twin-tube design of this unit offers multiple advantages over a conventional shock, including completely separated functions for rebound and compression damping, more precise tuning capabilities and increased grip. Compared to the standard TTX36 MKII, the Mechatronic System varies only in its use of electronic stepper motors.
Unlike the TTX36 MKII, however, which is available for a wide selection of bikes, the Mechatronic System is currently only available for the 2011-2013 Kawasaki ZX-10R. The reason: Öhlins was already working on an EC (electronically controlled) steering damper for the ZX-10R and had unlimited access to the bike’s ECU, CAN bus and sensors, all of which they’ve managed to adapt their EC suspension to. Systems for other CAN bus-equipped sportbikes are likely already in the works, although Öhlins representatives aren’t quick to spill the beans.
So how does the system function? Essentially, it uses the Kawasaki’s three riding modes (Full, Medium and Low) to set thresholds and guidelines for how to act. It then switches between its two modes (Comfort and Sport) based on your riding style and how long you remain on the opposite end of these thresholds. As an example, when riding the ZX-10R in Full power mode, aggressive riding will almost immediately send the Mechatronics System into Sport mode, which offers stiffer damping rates for increased stability. Once you roll out of the throttle and go back to a more casual pace (say you get stuck behind a car in the canyons), the system will then contemplate a return to Comfort mode.
The interesting — and complicated — part is this: the length of time during which the system contemplates going back into Comfort mode depends directly on which power mode you’re in. If you’re in Full power mode for instance, the system will stay in Sport mode longer, essentially assuming that you’ll soon go back to riding aggressively. If you’re in Low power mode on the other hand, the system will wait a shorter amount of time before dropping into Comfort mode and softening up the damping rates.
In an effort to highlight the benefits of its system in a way that words simply can’t, Öhlins invited members of the press to test the shock back-to-back against a stock ZX-10R unit in the hills surrounding Lake Hughes, CA and at the Streets of Willow Raceway in Rosamond, CA. The manufacturer claims that the Mechatronic unit is intended for everyday riders and track-day riders who ride in myriad environments, a claim that this all-encompassing test would validate or disprove in a hurry.
One of the truths regarding sportbikes is that they can be especially abusive during long stints down the freeway, but with the Öhlins-equipped ZX-10R toggled over to Low power mode and the Mechatronic shock running in Comfort mode I couldn’t find anything to complain about in terms of bump absorption out back. I will say however, that the now-plush rear immediately had me hoping for Öhlins to announce a similar-spec front fork, as the stock front damper now feels harsh in the company of Comfort mode.
The Öhlins’ advantages are more apparent once your speed and riding style begins to fluctuate more drastically, like up in the canyons, where tighter sections warrant an aggressive riding style and longer, open stretches justify a more lackadaisical pace. Not to be misconstrued, leave the power mode switch toggled to Full and the Mechatronic will pretty consistently offer supersport-esque damping characteristics. One of the neat things regarding the Kawasaki/Öhlins combination, however, is that switching between power modes is extremely easy, meaning you can fool around with the options and your riding style to coax the system into providing the damping characteristics you want for the road ahead.
The power-mode hunting and selective riding goes out the door at the track, but the Mechatronics’ advantages roll on. The benefits are strewn well across the board too; the shock is more compliant over bumps (especially when compared to a stock ZX-10R shock with track settings), offers better stability through the corner, improved grip at the exit of the corner, better tire wear and, as a whole, more sufficient damping characteristics through its travel. What’s more, even the most sensitive of riders can’t feel the shock adapt throughout the course of a lap.
I’ll admit that the system has room for improvement. Among the chief complaints is that there’s no display to indicate which mode the shock is in, meaning there’s no way to know for sure whether you’re in Comfort or Sport mode. The cycling rate is a bit slow at 50 times per second too, and bigger damping changes are made in an elongated .2 seconds, meaning a more powerful system will be needed down the road if consumers want to use this system in competition.
The Mechatronic System offers many advantages as it sits though, especially to those who want to commute on their bike during the week then head to the track on the weekend but don’t want to mess with their suspension for fear of messing things up. Consider it like having a certified Öhlins technician by your side for every commute, every track day, and every sprint through the canyons.
Retail for the ZX-10R-compatible Mecahtronics System is $1625, which is surprisingly just $169 more than the retail price for the mechanically adjustable TTX36 MKII shock it’s built around.