It’s a phenomenon of the sportbike category that as the high-end models become ever more racetrack oriented, their predecessors begin to seem a bit tamer and better suited for sport touring, even when they haven’t changed significantly. Such is the case with the 2006 ZZR600, which Kawasaki calls its sport tourer in this displacement category. Actually a rebadged version of the 2002 Ninja ZX-6R sportbike, for long-range comfort the rider’s seat is more accommodating than it looks, but it can start to feel wooden after a couple of hours. Although not as low as its more-focused contemporaries, the ZZR600 still has pretty low bars-you’ll be much happier with them on long rides than your buddies on, say, a Ninja ZX-6R or Aprilia Mille, but the ZZR’s handgrips are still the first thing we’d want to swap for something from the aftermarket. The footpegs are sporty but reasonable, and the fairing is wider than most in this category and provides a lot of protection. Mirrors are set apart enough that you can see half elbow and half road-about 50 percent more road than on some sportbikes.
The ZZR’s aluminum perimeter frame follows sportbike convention, and suspension is handled by a fully adjustable 46mm cartridge-type fork and fully adjustable single-shock rear suspension. Stopping power comes from six-piston front calipers gripping dual semi-floating front rotors, backed up by a single rear disc brake. The conventional fork, instead of male-slider, and a lack of radial stoppers are giveaways that this is not the latest technology, but they still work well.
Power comes from a liquid-cooled, in-line four with dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder; again, sportbike all the way. Kawasaki’s Twin Ram Air Induction system feeds air into the four 36mm carburetors. Yes, carbs, not fuel injection, which actually work better in many respects. The engine always starts right away, but it is a bit cold-blooded and can stall if you don’t use enough choke for the first mile or so.
Power is excellent for such a small-displacement engine, with a surprisingly wide band of usable rpm that makes it easy to ride. Highway speeds require a lot of revs, with 5,000 rpm indicated at 60 mph in sixth gear. Yet you can lug it down to 30 mph in sixth gear or idle along in heavy traffic at 5 mph in first gear without the herky-jerkies. Redline is 14,500 rpm, which may not be as high as the latest crop of 600s, but can still open your eyes wider than ever.
To meet emission requirements, all models have a pre-catalyst in the pipe leading to the muffler. California models also have a catalyst in the muffler and a fuel vapor recovery canister to pass muster.
Lever effort with the cable-actuated wet-clutch setup is low; takeup is smooth and chatter-free. The six-cog gearbox is a model of what quick, effortless shifting should be. Although we have hit a few false neutrals when the transmission wasn’t shifted firmly, we’d chalk it up to sloppy technique. Braking is chatter- and fade-free, powerful, quiet and easy to modulate with low lever effort. Who needs radial-mounted brakes anyway?
Metzeler’s Sportec M3 radials-120/65-ZR17 front and 180/55-ZR17 rear-mounted on aluminum-alloy wheels deliver good traction and stability, and don’t chase freeway rain grooves and seams. The ZZR can be flicked into a corner quickly and tracks through turns so well it instills confidence in the rider. Suspension is firm, but well damped, and the bike isn’t so stiff that it chatters over bumps like some sportbikes do. This is a real plus if you ride long distances.
Lighting on both low and high beams is excellent and the instruments are easy to read day or night. Besides the usual tach and speedometer, there’s also a digital clock and coolant-temperature readout that you can toggle between, but no gas gauge.
Fuel mileage varied from a low of 38.9 mpg to a high of 50.1, averaging 43.5. That calculates out to 208 miles to empty; we rode as far as 172 miles on one tank before wussing out and refueling. Thanks to the steel gas tank, you can use a magnetic tankbag. A seatbag works well in back, although tiedown points are scarce. The right-side muffler limits saddlebag size, but it is possible to use them.
Considering its genesis, it’s hard to fault the ZZR for anything it is or does. We actually put several thousand miles on a 2005 model before turning it in for this 2006. Both bikes have identical specifications, except for color, and both operated for months and thousands of miles, all problem-free. Quality, fit and finish are all excellent. If you’re looking for a light, easy to handle sport tourer for local riding and occasional jaunts farther afield-at a reasonable tariff-give this Kawi a serious look. You can use the handful of Benjamins left over for luggage, a track school or fuel for that trip up the coast you’ve been thinking about.