Enjoy...I didn't write it...
2003 Kawasaki ZX-6R (636): The "Other" 600
Test Ride Report
(By Gary Jaehne)
By getting the first magazine test bikes (the new 2003 ZX-6R: 636) out very
early (earlier than any of the other Japanese 600cc manufacturers), Kawasaki
garnered cover page honors of nearly every sportbike magazine on the planet,
during the last two months. With plans on potentially purchasing one of these
636's, I've read every one of the accompanying articles, with great interest.
What I read was consistently good, resulting in my now taking ownership of a
black pearl colored 636, as of last Saturday.
From the questions and comments that I've been consistently heard from riders
that I encounter at the local sportbike hangout, it appears that these articles
have left most folks with the impression that the new 2mm over-bored 636 packs
enough midrange punch (over the rest of the world of 600's), to be knocking on
the door of a 750. Owning a 2000 GSXR-750, having owned and ridden lots of
600's, and now logging over 500 spirited backroad riding miles on the 636, I've
got to tell you that this is more magazine hype than reality. Don't get me
wrong, as the 636's motor is truly the sweetest 6xx'cc sportbike I've ever
ridden, but what it is, is a VERY FAST "600" . not a mini-750.
There's no denying that the world has already been flooded with test write-ups
on this bike. However, due to the fact that all of these evaluations have been
written by magazine test riders, that are not the actual owners of the bikes
being evaluated, I figured I'd share a more "Real World" view of the bike,
through the eyes of an actual owner. The following is an encapsulated view of
my current impressions of the new 636, in a categorized format (for easier
The fact that Kawasaki has equipped this bike with World Superbike technology
"radial" brakes, has brought incredible attention to the 636. How good are
these brakes? Based purely on 500 miles of gradually increasing intensity
riding on the local backroad twisties, I can honestly say that these are the
BEST brakes of any sportbike I've ever ridden! What's so good about them?
The one thing that stands out foremost in my mind is the absolutely linear
power delivery that they provide. As a rider I feel 100% in communication with
the amount of braking force that the front tire's contact patch is getting, for
each additional 1% of braking force that I apply at the lever. Want 1% more -
get 1% more. This provides me with incredible confidence, especially when
feeling for traction while trail braking on the less than ideal conditions of
the current Winter season backroads.
One other very impressive aspect of the four-piston/four-pad configuration of
the 636's brake caliper design, is the total lack of brake pad "drag".
Spinning the front wheel, when the bike is up on a front stand, results in
multiple rotations before things gradually come to a halt. Less brake drag, is
like free horsepower!
The fuel injection on the 636 is certainly on par with the best of the best.
Throttle response is instantaneous, yet not snatchy as was seen in the initial
version of Honda's RC51. The bike is a 6XX'cc machine, and despite not feeling
like it'd pull stumps from at 4,000 RPM in 6th gear, it certainly does have
respectable power available even at lower engine revs. I have found the bike
to be perfectly agreeable to be left in one gear, working in the 5,000-6000 RPM
range, and rolling the throttle gradually up and down as the twists of the road
I believe that the fuel injection's efficiency at metering the ideal mixture at
all times, deserves a big part of the credit for this ease of riding. I
haven't run the bike to full redline RPM as of yet, but in the few bursts where
the analog LCD tachometer crept past the 12,000 RPM mark, and the roar of the
intake became sweet music to my ears, it really started to RIP! Based on
this onset of serious acceleration that I've already felt, the 12,000-15,500
RPM range should be nothing short of magic!
From my very first miles on the 636, the thing that most impressed me with the
bike (coming off a 2000 GSXR-750) was the incredibly slick shifting
transmission. The lever throw is amazingly short to switch between gears,
with each and every shift being precise and positive. It truly shifts the way
a transmission is supposed to shift, unlike the Model-T feeling that I've
gotten from many other sportbikes that I've owned in the past. The gaps
between individual gears seemed to be closer than any 600 I've ever ridden
before. The narrower gaps make finding the perfect gear for the road condition
very easy, as well as contributing to the buttery-smooth shifting behavior that
the bike shows when shifting between adjacent gears. I REALLY like this
I've measured rider sag and adjusted preload on the suspensions of almost every
brand and model of 600cc sportbike on the market, during the last couple of
years that I've been conducting suspension clinics. I can't remember a single
600cc sportbike that I've seen in that timeframe, where the shock on forks
didn't require a significant increase in spring preload to achieve typical
target rider sag measurements, with a 160lb+ rider.
The 636 certainly broke new ground in this area! I found that with my 170lb.
weight aboard, I actually had to REDUCE the factory spring preload settings on
the forks and shock, to get those same target rider sag measurements. Can we
say "racetrack ready"?
It only took me a couple hundred yards, on my very first ride, to realize that
the compression side of the bike's suspension needed some serious softening up.
On the racetrack the bike's stock settings may be closer to spec, but they're
certainly not well suited for riding done on the far less groomed pubic roads.
At the very first stop point, the factory toolkit was pulled out from under the
cowl, and a few quick turns out on the compression damping adjuster screws (on
the shock and forks), resulted in an amazing transformation. The fillings in
my teeth were soon insured of not being bounced from their mountings, by the
unforgiving nature of real world roads.
The faster I pushed the 636, the more I began to appreciate the more
performance oriented spring rates that Kawasaki has obviously installed in this
bike. The combination of firm spring rates, and nearly unlimited ground
clearance, provided a higher level of confidence in pushing through dips and
bumps, even while at mid-corner, than any streetbike I've ever ridden.
The 355 lb. dry weight of the 636 is something that becomes immediately
apparent on the first ride. The combination of light weight, and aggressive
riding position, makes the 636 feel more like a racebike that's been fitted
with lights; than an off-the-showroom-floor streetbike. The bike has a very
"up in back" feel to it, leaving the rider always feeling like they're on the
verge of sliding forward on the seat. The combination of the upward angled
rake, the relatively high and rearward position of the incredibly petite
footpegs, and the below-the-triple-clamps mounting of the handlebars, make it
difficult prevent the rider from resting more than a desirable amount of weight
on their wrists.
Experimenting, I eventually found that by squeezing my knees tightly together
in the wedged shape area of the contours of the gas tank, I could help keep
myself from sliding forward . and prevent the undesired loading of the
There are a couple of additional aspects of the bike worth mentioning. First
is the very high-tech LCD tachometer. Admittedly this is very "trick", but my
impression quickly grew to see it as "more show than go" when riding the bike
in the real world. Due to the 15,500 RPM redline, the space between adjacent
digits on the tachometer are very close (about 1/4").
The combination of this tight granularity, the slightly off angle of the gauge
panel to the rider's line of sight (while in a normal riding position), and the
glare of ambient sunlight, makes it very difficult to quickly assess the
current RPM of the motor. It's difficult to quickly glance down while riding,
and be much better than 1,000 RPM accurate of the current engine RPM. The
problem is most pronounced in the 5,000-8,000 RPM range, as that this is where
the display is closer to the 90 degree portion of the arc. Given a choice, I'd
opt for a nice analog sweeping needle type tachometer within this display
The second area of the 636 that I've not quite adapted to yet, is the process
of locating neutral in the transmission. Kawasaki fits most of their
sportbikes (including the 636) was a "positive neutral finder" design. This
means that once the bike is brought to a complete stop, when the rider clicks
the lever upward, once the bike has previously been clicked all the way down
into first gear, it will always go into neutral, and never reach 2nd gear.
This works great as intended, when the bike is at a complete stop, so I can't
fault the Kawasaki engineers for their design. However coming from a
background where my standard procedure is to locate neutral while I'm still
rolling, as I'm approaching a stop light, I found neutral locating under these
conditions, a 1-in-5 tries (at best) kind of proposition. The bike wants to go
from 2nd right to 1st, without ever stopping in neutral.
From the perspective of performance riding, this actually could be viewed as a
"plus" as I highly doubt the 636 will ever find itself coming up in a
false-neutral, when downshifting or upshifting between these two gears.
I'm planning on getting the 636 out to either Thunderhill Raceway or Laguna
Seca racetracks (here in Californai), sometime in the next few weeks. The 636
has already shown me that this will be the environment where it will truly
shine, and the environment that it is quite obviously what Kawasaki's engineers
had in mind when they designed this bike. I have no doubt that the 636's
performance on the track will be nothing short of amazing .. especially for a
I hope this "real world" first impression report of an actual "off the showroom
floor" unit of this newly released model from Kawasaki, was of some interest to
those that have not yet had the opportunity to personally experience this bike