When you think about it, there doesn’t seem to be much room left, if any, for a big step forward by a production motorcycle in the horsepower wars. Aren’t we already at the point where we can’t use more? Aren’t we just measuring levels of overkill, at this point? If we don’t live on a drag strip, or a race track with a mile long straightaway, can we even use, much less appreciate, two wheeled vehicles with more power than is currently offered?
The questions posed in the first paragraph might lead you to conclusions you consider obvious, but I submit that they are more subtle. A 600cc supersport that delivers the vast majority of its horsepower above 10,000 rpm is in many ways less “usable” than a far more powerful bike that offers highly entertaining thrust below 5,000 rpm on the street. That entertainment is even greater when the power comes on as smooth as a turbine. Enter the 2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R.
Kawasaki set out to end the horsepower wars with the new ZX-14R, at least for as long as it could. Not content to play the traditional leap frog, this new machine leaps the competition and lands well in front. 195 horsepower at the rear wheel (see the dyno test reported in Part 1) sets a formidable target for the competition. Moreover, putting more horsepower than offered by your typical 3,500 pound family sedan through the relatively tiny, single contact patch of a motorcycle rear tire poses its own challenges when the vehicle must be reasonably safe and rideable on the street.
What Kawasaki has created with the new ZX-14R is a product that will undoubtedly be embraced by the drag racers, original ZX-14 and Hayabusa owners, and those who simply want the street cred of having the world’s most powerful production motorcycle. Possibly lost in this pure horsepower euphoria, however, is the simple fact that the ZX-14R is a great bike to ride for plenty of other enthusiasts outside these categories.
Here is how Kawasaki summarizes the important changes made to the original ZX-14:
- Massively more powerful 1,441cc inline-four engine features a 4mm longer stroke, reworked cylinder head assembly, polished ports and lighter, stronger pistons for more power across the rev range
- KTRC traction-control system features three different modes for varying conditions and is controlled by a handy switch assembly on the left handlebar
- All-new slipper clutch assembly controls rear-wheel torque effects while braking and downshifting
- All-new exhaust system features tapered and reshaped head pipes and an all-new muffler assembly for low noise and emissions
- Redesigned aluminum monocoque frame is narrow, strong and rigid
- All-new swingarm assembly is longer and features strengthening gussets to cope with the engine’s newfound power
- Transmission gears are more durable thanks to new temperature and surface treatments
- All-new bodywork package builds upon the slick aesthetic image of the previous machine, includes a rear seat cowl and adds better air management to the mix for improved rider and passenger comfort
- All-new 10-spoke wheels are more than 3 pounds lighter in total than the previous machine’s units; this reduces unsprung weight, which aids handling and maneuverability
- New disc material and pads improve the 14R’s radial-mount braking system
- Revised suspension settings front and rear add wheel control and compliance to an already plush ride
- Higher overall finish quality than before, including hidden bodywork fasteners
Gabe discussed these changes in our preview article, and I am not here to bore you with technical details this time around. Nevertheless, I think a few of the changes are worth highlighting.
This isn’t just a stroke job resulting in 1,441cc. As Kawasaki puts it, the “reworked cylinder head assembly, polished ports and lighter, stronger pistons” work with the larger displacement, a higher compression ratio and a 60% increase in air flow through the intake and redesigned exhaust to create the amazing horsepower numbers you have already seen.
Just as much effort went into making this power usable and safe for responsible riders. The KTRC traction-control system allows that small rear contact patch (not small by motorcycle standards, as it features a 190 section tire) to seamlessly and safely put all that power down to the asphalt. With three levels, including TC1 for normal riding, TC2 for rain and TC3 if you want absolutely no possibility of wheel spin whatsoever (on gravel, for instance), the power is not so much tamed (it is still there when you remain in Full Power mode) as controlled. You can also turn traction control completely off to perform those burn-outs that impress your friends, or to warm your tire at the drag strip.
A Low Power mode limits you to 75% of peak horsepower, but provides similar low-end performance. This might be useful when your adrenal glands are tapped.
Turn the key on and traction control defaults to TC1, which is where I recommend you leave it for all normal riding conditions. As you can imagine, with traction control turned off, even experienced riders could encounter problems. TC1 and Full Power give you the complete performance experience without the drama and danger of the “Off” position. It should be noted here that motorcycle journalists testing the bike in Las Vegas, including those without specific drag racing experience, were routinely in the 10s (even the low-10s) at the strip with the bike in TC1. If you’re Ricky Gadson, of course, turn TC off at the drag strip and throw down stock 9 second runs.
Traction control isn’t the only way Kawasaki created a refined, usable riding experience with this much horsepower. Throttle response is outstanding, offering seamless transitions from closed to open throttle, and overall engine smoothness is quite impressive. I would be interested to hear feedback from a Honda Blackbird (CBR1100XX) owner on the relative smoothness of this inline four. It is that good.
The new slipper clutch allows corner entries to be smoother and more predictable, as well. The revised suspension settings and lighter wheels offer up better turning (lighter tip-in) and a sportier feel to the big 584 pound (claimed wet weight) machine this year. A 10mm longer swingarm also reduces drama by reducing polar moment and improving rear traction.
The ergonomics are essentially unchanged from the earlier model, but this is hardly a negative for this reviewer. Kawasaki has found, and kept, an excellent triangle (footpeg, handlebar and seat relationship). A “VFR-like” ergonomic package will allow most riders vastly improved comfort versus a 600cc supersport or 1,000cc superbike. I also found the seat very comfortable on longer rides . . . plush and supportive at the same time.
While riding the bike, I imagined the experience was similar to piloting a big European GT automobile, such as a Bentley Continental GT (which does not have a 16 cylinder engine, as I mistakenly stated in the video below), or certain models from Aston Martin or Ferrari. Effortless power and thrust, combined with handling limits and composure suitable for a gentleman.
These sensations are courtesy of corner exits from as low as 3,500 rpm with ample push and heretofore alien acceleration further up the tach . . . together with a totally unstressed, even unhurried feeling from the big machine. The ZX-14R shrugs off all of your performance requests with the same indifference King Kong displays while swatting airplanes from the top of the Empire State Building.
The brakes are strong and very predictable. Progressive and easily controlled without too much initial bite. Even gas mileage seems dramatically improved from the prior model, with mid-40s achievable on freeway cruises. Expect 30 mpg or less if you are riding, or racing, the bike hard.
Kawasaki stresses that the clutch plates are well up to the job of transferring the massive torque on offer, and even the transmission (which worked faultlessly during our test) has improved reliability this year.
The 2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R isn’t just for drag racers and burnout buddies. It is a package that appeals to a much broader audience. It is a significant step forward in engine performance coupled with surprising levels of refinement, comfort and usability. The U.S. MSRP is $14,699 for the Metallic Spark Black and Candy Surf Blue models, while the special edition Golden Blazed Green comes in at $14,899 (with color matched side fins, dash cowling, as well as machined wheels and top triple clamp.). For further details and specifications, visit Kawasaki’s web site. Be sure you watch our new video review below, as well as the video of the dyno test we posted last week.