As with all bikes manufactured since the dawn of motorcycling history, Kawasaki's new Ninja ZX-14 accelerates when the rider applies throttle. However, unlike any mass-produced bike before it, the ZX-14 produces horsepower that has been measured within a few clicks of the 200 mark when ram air is in effect, essentially making it the fastest motorcycle on the market, at the moment. Judging by the thumbs up and approving nods on Southern California highways, there is an acute public awareness of this bike's tremendous capabilities, as well as the well-circulated buzz of it being a “'Busa Beater”, a not-so-sly reference to the Suzuki Hayabusa 1300.
Straight-line power alone does not a champion make, so Kawasaki wrapped the 1,352cc inline-4 with aerodynamically slippery panels intended to reduce drag and increase high-speed stability. Though its body appears dauntingly long, wide, and low, the bike is actually comfortable. When straddled by a rider, the 14's exterior appears less visually extreme, with the human form adding a sense of proportion to the bike's otherwise alien shape.
Speaking of alien, a quadruplet of headlights wrap around the 14's front end, a la the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, while the ram air intake just below the windscreen is sculpted in the spitting image of a jack-o'-lantern's smile. Side slits recall the Ferrari Testarossa's iconic 1980s visual trademark, and the overall design seems connected by the theme of bulges interrupted by upswept linear accents.
Riding onward towards California Highway 74, a serpentine road that connects Orange County to Palm Desert, the ZX-14 finally has sufficient room to bare its true personality. The first half of the powerband is unremarkable, though power is adequate enough to enable a reasonable pace while short shifting. However, spin the engine past 6,000 RPM and this bike's raison d'être, the very purpose for which it was put on earth, is revealed. The eagerness with which the engine winds from 6,000 to 11,000 rpm is breathtaking, as though the bike's mechanical well-being were solely dependent on its capacity to push the tach needle to redline.
Without the refinements of modern engine metallurgy, tuning, and construction, a bike of this power would have the untamed characteristics of a MotoGP racer. Instead, the ZX-14 is remarkably smooth, well behaved, and manageable, never unveiling its ultimate performance potential until that magical 6,000 rpm mark. Shifting is precise and the clutch is easily modulated, resulting in power transitions that are as smooth or aggressive as the left hand dictates. After a ridiculously quick alternating sequence of redlining and cog swapping, foolhardy riders will learn that top speed is electronically limited to 186 mph (300 kph), thanks to a “gentleman's agreement” among motorcycle manufacturers. Incidentally, those “gentlemen” must be of a heartier stock than most automakers, who tend to limit their cars to 155 mph.
Handling is perhaps the single component that seems out of step with the ZX-14's incredible acceleration and braking. A lengthy wheelbase reduces a bike's tendency to wheelie, but it also inherently diminishes agility. Unlike its predecessor, the ZX-12R, the 14's engine meets the frame via solid engine mounts, making it a stressed frame member, which results in a lighter and more rigid chassis. However, suspension feel is a bit soft.
Although the bike settles into turns with confidence in all but the tightest of turns, handling is naturally not as crisp as its smaller and more agile sibling, the ZX-10R— a bike bred for track days. The silver lining, at least for non-expert riders, is that the bike's tame suspension setup makes it comfortable, stable, and predictable; a pleasant (and possibly lifesaving) counterpoint to the prodigiously powerful engine that can run the quarter-mile from a standing start in fewer than ten seconds.
Few motorcycles feel as delightfully satisfying as those that offer an element of unbridled excess, and in that respect the ZX-14 boasts what are perhaps the ultimate bragging rights. Its king of the hill powerplant may beg the question as to whether or not public roads possess enough open pavement to fully exploit its capabilities, and that answer is usually an inevitable “no”. But if that's your criteria for determining whether or not this bike is for you, you've missed the point of the ZX-14.