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2008 Kawasaki ZX-14: MD First Ride

To say that we were surprised when Kawasaki announced that the 2008 ZX-14 would feature significant changes would be an understatement. You have to understand that this category of motorcycles (to the extent it exists as a “category” at all) tends to gestate quite a while before anything happens. Take a look at Suzuki’s Hayabusa (finally revised this year) and Honda’s CBR1100XX, which soldiers on in the European market without any major changes since 1999.

So what is Kawasaki thinking? To begin with, the changes to this two-year-old model are far from dramatic. At least, when you look at the bike you would think so. There is nothing external that really gives anything away.

While we wouldn’t call the changes dramatic, they are nevertheless significant. Focused mainly on engine performance and emissions, the 2008 ZX-14 even features frame changes (the old frame’s cast aluminum sections are now produced with a “die casting process”, which saves weight).

The big news is in the engine and exhaust system. Although the 2006/2007 model certainly had plenty of peak horsepower (and could be coaxed by lighter riders into the 9s at the drag strip . . . totally stock), the way that power was delivered (particularly, down low) could stand some improvement. Addressing this, as well as ever-tightening emissions’ regulations, Kawasaki tore into the relatively new motor to make several changes.

The cylinder head and cylinder head cover are different this year with secondary air ports 20% larger to flow more air into the exhaust, which flows through yet another catalyzer (the third in the system) for reduced emissions.

Overall noise is down thanks to a revised muffler section to keep the exhaust quieter, as well as a changed piston profile and the addition of a urethane sheath inside the chain cover to reduce mechanical noise.

While they were at it, Kawasaki decided to improve power. Working with the exhaust changes, as well as the cylinder head changes described above, Kawasaki changed the intake porting and changed the spray angle of the sub-throttle injectors slightly to improve dispersal of atomized fuel. Kawasaki also changed the header design by dramatically increasing the size of the connecting pipe.

According to Kawasaki, the sum of all these changes is “reduced emissions and mechanical noise with more peak power and low-end torque for 2008.” We decided to send big Jeff Whitmer to investigate.

Jeff rode the old bike to get a baseline before attending the press intro. The first thing he noticed about the new ZX-14 was better low-end throttle response and performance. The old bike seemed to have a stumble just below 5,000 rpm, but the 2008 model has addressed this and pulls much more smoothly, and consistently, at low revs.

Beyond this, Jeff actually noticed an increase in engine performance everywhere on the tach. Although more subtle than the improvement down low, Jeff felt the bike pulled a bit better everywhere between idle and red line. He did complain about less-than-perfect transitions from closed throttle to open throttle, however.

Although Jeff was not quite as quick at the drag strip as the 140 pound Alex was on the older bike, he did get into the low 10s, and some of the lighter journalists were comfortably into the 9s on the new machine.

This big brute of a motorcycle continues to impress with its smoothness and comfort, as well as its power. For everything up to a brisk pace, whether in a straight line or in the twisties, Jeff found the bike’s engine character and suspension impressive. When pushed hard in the tight stuff, particularly for a bigger rider like Jeff, the bike could use stiffer suspension and stronger brakes.

Jeff found the 2008 ZX-14 one of the most comfortable bikes he had ever ridden. He had high praise for the ergonomics . . . finding everything exactly where he needed it to be. Even for his long frame, Jeff felt like he could stretch out on the bike. The pegs are low enough for all-day comfort without creating significant ground clearance issues. Excellent wind protection, without buffeting, is part of the comfort equation here.

The transmission continues to be smooth and consistent. Even while trying to hustle down the drag strip, Jeff never missed a shift.

So the story for 2008 is that Kawasaki has delivered a ZX-14 with more of everything we already like about the original model. More power, more smoothness, more comfort (via less mechanical noise), and even more color choices.

The 2008 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14 is available in Metallic Midnight Sapphire Blue, Atomic Silver, and Metallic Flat Spark Black/Metallic Persimmon Red (which is a “Special Edition”). U.S. MSRP begins at $11,699 ($11,999 for the Special Edition paint job). For additional details and specifications, visit Kawasaki’s web site here.