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.

Got a tip for us? Email: