2012 Kawasaki ZX-14 R Test
Kawasaki forged their reputation as a powerhouse in the 1970s with such hard-charging motorcycles as the infamously manic H2 750cc two-stroke triple, and the awesome Z1 900cc inline-four that considerably out-powered the competition at the time.
Since then, Kawasaki motors have popularly been the muscle yardsticks by which others are measured. They haven’t always been the most refined, but Kawasaki engines habitually deliver in the horsepower stakes and the motorcycle riding public loves them for it.
However, in the flagship mega-motor segment of the market, Kawasaki has not always had its own way. Suzuki’s Hayabusa was first out of the gate, using a combination of monster power and slippery aerodynamics to create a top-speed icon that was hard to beat. In 2006, Kawasaki answered with its own version of the hyperbike, the Ninja ZX-14, and both machines subsequently created a cool custom sub-culture, where the bikes are stretched, lowered, and fitted with ultra-fat rear tires.
However Kawasaki was very keen to get their horsepower crown back, so for 2012, it considerably upped the ante. The new iteration of the hypersport Ninja ZX-14 adds a simple “R” suffix to its nomenclature, yet the changes to the machine are anything but minor. The ZX-14R is a complete redesign – this is a new motorcycle that uses design-cues from the previous model, and that’s about all.
In the metallic black or candy blue options, the ZX is a good-looking machine, but for a mere two hundred bucks extra (and still under $15,000 total), the Special Edition is a lock-up-your-daughters kind of traffic stopper. The deep, liquid, metallic Golden Blazed Green paint, accented by flame graphics, is absolutely stunning. Color matched side fins and dash cowling are paired with two-tone wheels (that are three pounds lighter) on the Special Edition. Other detail touches on the 14R, such as a sculpted top triple-clamp, drilled billet steering stem nut, and hidden fairing fasteners, are precision items signaling the 14R’s premium build quality.
Viewed from the front, the quadruple projector-beam headlights flanking a large, gulping air-intake, redefine the word menace. Parked outside a Starbucks, the 14R just stands there, glaring at everybody. In my experience, appreciative second glances and thumbs up signs are more typical with red Ducatis.
However, the sparkling green Kawasaki ZX-14R is an attention-grabber at a level I have never seen with a stock machine. When a local law enforcement officer pulled up on his Harley and started asking enthusiastic questions, I knew we had a hold of something special.
Sitting astride the Ninja’s new gunfighter-style seat, the cockpit appears nice and compact. Conventional side-by-side tachometer and speed gauges have an easy-to-read LCD information center between them that tells you pretty much everything else you need to know. The usual fuel gauge, gear position indicator, trip meters, odometer, and clock are enhanced with additional functions including current and average fuel mileage, remaining fuel range, and ambient air temperature. A novel ECO graphic appears if you are riding in a manner to get the best fuel economy; it is an interesting touch‚Äîbut who cares?
The heart of the ZX-14R is a familizar across-the-frame four-cylinder motor. The bore is unchanged, yet the stroke is lengthened by 4mm, increasing capacity to 1441cc – and you know what they say about displacement.
Other detail changes include box-style forged pistons (six grams lighter) and a new external oiling system which results in less reciprocating mass and lower overall temperatures. Compression ratio is increased to 12.3:1, and new camshaft profiles have longer lift. The exhaust ports have been revised, while the new intake ports are now polished.
Breathing‚ and therefore performance‚ has been increased by a new type of air filter that reduces air intake resistance by a claimed 60-percent, and larger volume mufflers at the rear are not as heinous-looking as they could be. Heat management has been considerably improved for the rider, and a second fan has been added as well.
The net result of all these changes is a machine claimed to be the most powerful mass-produced motorcycle ever – a heck of a statement, especially coming from the usually conservative-talking Kawasaki. When asked exactly how much power the ZX-14R puts out, Kawasaki staff couldn‚Äôt be persuaded to reveal actual figures; they merely smiled knowingly and gave the Rolls-Royce-esque reply of “enough.”
So we took the ZX-14R to Peak Performance Motorcycles in Simi Valley and put it in the capable hands of Danny DiNardo and his Factory Pro dynamometer. This particular type of dyno outputs true horsepower numbers (torque x rpm, divided by 5252), as measured at the rear wheel, corrected for atmospheric conditions per SAE 1349, and factored by the accepted 1.15 to give the more standard Dynojet horsepower number.
As DiNardo strapped the ZX on to the drum, I was fully expecting to be impressed. In my novice drag-racing hands (with some serious coaching from Rickey Gadson), this bike clocked a 10.18-second standing quarter-mile on The Drag Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
I turned off the traction control, and DiNardo cranked the big ZX quickly through the gears to sixth. I was not prepared for the result that popped on to the monitor in front of my bulging eyes: Peak horsepower of 191.18 at 10,000 rpm (redline is at 11,000) and peak torque of 111.23 ft/lbs at 8000 rpm at the rear wheel and without ram-air effect. That is easily the most powerful stock motorcycle we have ever tested.
At the drag strip in KTRC traction control Mode 1, the big ZX was putting out so much grunt that the electronics would cut-in at every gear change, even going from third into fourth gear at over 150 mph. How many other stock machines do you know that can spin their rear tire at over a buck-fifty?
Another aid to the spectacular drag strip times – nine-time world drag racing champion Rickey Gadson clocked a 9.6-second standing quarter while I was watching‚Äîis the well-engineered transmission; the gearbox is smooth yet positive to operate. First gear is now much longer on the R, and the rear sprocket has added one tooth from 41 to 42. Optimum launch at the strip only needed 3500 rpm and some major clutch slippage.
From second gear onwards, it is quicker and easier to clutchlessly upshift. The clutch is now a back-torque limiting slipper for smoother downshifts and reduced rear-wheel hop; it showed creditable resilience at the drag strip and took all the abuse without complaint.
The comprehensive electronics package is another highlight of the Ninja ZX-14R. The various options are selected by an intuitive left-thumb operated toggle switch couldn’t be simpler to change settings and it can be done on the fly.
The two power level choices are Full (self-explanatory) and Low, which has a milder throttle response and reduces output by 25-percent. Each power mode works with the three traction control choices. Modes 1 and 2 are straight from the ZX-10R superbike, and Mode 3 is taken from the Concours model.
Mode 2 is obviously more intrusive than 1, and also inhibits wheelies. With a rolling start in first gear, whacking the throttle open won’t cause the front to come up at all. In Mode 1, you couldn’t possibly get away with that. Mode 3 is for wet, very slippery conditions. Riding across a dirt parking lot, it was amusing to open the throttle hard and yet have the bike trundle slowly across the dirt with the power totally capped. As I reached the tarmac and the rear tire found grip, the power flooded back in and the bike instantly took off, though still well under control.
The monocoque frame from the ZX -14 has been completely revamped; the 14R has a 10mm longer swingarm, and overall the chassis is more rigid and better balanced. Stiffer fork springs and revised damping settings allow the suspension action to occur higher in the stroke. The net result is a slightly firmer feel than its predecessor; the ZX-14R is definitely a sportier ride, yet it doesn’t sacrifice a Cadillac level of comfort on the highway.
The ergonomics are not as committed as the pure-sport Ninjas, so the lean-forward sporting position and high footpegs are relatively comfortable. At the drag strip, the limiting factor on the 14R’s acceleration is keeping the front wheel down. Gadson is supreme when it comes to floating the front wheel about six inches off the track surface; for the rest of us, it is all about trying to keep your weight over the front and hanging on. The ergonomics are a good compromise between strict performance on the quarter-mile, and long distance comfort.
Despite the fact that the drag-bike enthusiast will probably be the main market for the 14R, for those of us with twisty roads to ride, the bike delivers just as capably in the corners as it does in a straight line. Although no heavyweight, it is a physically large machine that feels substantial on the road – the revelation is how precise and accurate it is on turn-in. It does not flop into corners, nor is it reluctant either; the 14R feels especially well balanced.
The footpegs are high enough that on hard cornering, I was not able to touch anything down. Riding our local canyon roads, the perfectly fueled, uncannily smooth motor meshes with a taut chassis that turns precisely and completes each corner without running wide. For such a big beast of a bike, the ZX-14R is deceptively easy to control. Smooth, fast cruising is the name of this Ninja’s game, and rides like these are why I am into motorcycles.
There is no steering damper on the 14R, and it does not need one. Stability is excellent in both a straight line, as well as fast, bumpy corners. Elevation changes in the road occasionally allowed for third- and fourth-gear front-wheel lifts; despite a couple of slightly wobbly landings, the chassis remained calm and the minimal headshake was controlled.
Unfortunately, only Euro-spec machines will have the ABS option, but these brakes have plenty of feel. Nissin radial master pump and calipers bite down on Kawasaki’s signature drilled, petal rotors. The system works exceptionally well and brings the bike’s claimed wet weight of 584 pounds (a 17-pound increase) to a swift, controlled stop. I would still like the ABS, though.
With all the blatant, brutal excess of the ZX-14R, perhaps the most surprising thing about the bike is how completely sanitized and perfectly behaved it is at low-speed. When visiting Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area west of Las Vegas, I was warned at the entry gate that the blanket 35 mph limit is rigorously enforced – a sort of on-pain-of-death scenario.
However, I was keen to see the spectacular scenery and so I rode several miles in third gear at no more than 30 mph. After a while, it dawned on me how the 14R was behaving. Its ability to trundle along without lurching or snatching was down to impeccable fueling, a precision drive train with zero slop, and a gorgeously smooth motor. The bike felt light, beautifully balanced and perfectly controlled; it was striking.
Kawasaki’s 2012 Ninja ZX-14R is a logical but quantum leap forward for the hyper-bike category. There is something very self-satisfying about being able to pull up at the traffic lights and glance around at the other vehicles, knowing that you could absolutely annihilate them if a gauntlet was thrown down.
I talked with Shohei Naruoka-san, the ZX-14R’s softly spoken, 30-something engine designer. I told him how impressed I was with his work and he asked me what suggestions I had for improvements on the next model. I thought for several moments, and then looked at him. “Nothing I can think of,” I replied.