Long-Term Motorcycle Test
Chalk one up for the power of the Internet. After learning I’d be the lucky long term tester of a 2007 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14, I immediately logged on to the manufacturer’s website to become better acquainted with my options before embarking upon what will hopefully be a beautiful relationship with the “it” bike of speed fanatics everywhere. Months ago, I enjoyed quality time with a “Passion Red” 2006 ZX-14, which led me to wonder what sort of styling cues might befit its extraordinary performance capabilities. Sure enough, Kawasaki’s online gallery featured shots of an ’07 ZX-14 billowing plumes of white smoke at the dragstrip. The bike’s color? White with red and black flames.
A quick call to Ultimate MotorCycling‘s editorial offices and the color was ordered (the “Limited Edition” paint scheme is a $300 premium), and a few weeks later I picked up the bike from RRMC’s Malibu headquarters. “It’s very you,” one staffer said with a smirk. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I wondered, as I rode off towards the Santa Monica Mountains, hoping not to hit too much freeway traffic.
Riding the ZX-14 was everything I remembered, and more. It’s a large bike that isn’t particularly nimble, yet feels wonderfully satisfying when the throttle is twisted, an action that sucks in the landscape with relentless alacrity. It was, in fact, perfectly suited to Kanan-Dume Road’s large-scale sweepers, and it took superhuman willpower not to dip into breakneck speeds when traffic cleared. Lags in mid-range torque were not as irritating as I remembered (stepping down to lesser-powered bikes in the interim—which would be just about every other motorcycle on the market—can have that effect), and the powerful rush at higher rpm was even more vivid than I recalled. Minutes later on the Ventura Freeway, lane-splitting just a few ticks faster than the 40 mph traffic enabled heat from the massive 1,352cc engine to radiate across my leather-clad torso—nice on a cool winter’s day, but an effect that, come summer, will no doubt lose its charm. Brake feel was phenomenal, and allowed the avoidance of haphazard lane changers to be executed with near-balletic grace. Who says performance is only about going fast?
My first stop with the ZX-14 was the home of Bird Betts, Von Dutch’s nephew. I was there to photograph Dutch’s personal bike—an imaginatively pinstriped and louvered BMW R60 with a sidecar—for a book I’m working on. Rolling up on the Kawasaki, self-consciousness quickly set in; what would the nephew of the father of modern pinstriping have to say about my rice burner with decaled flames? “Dutch taught me there’s something to appreciate about all types of bikes,” Bird told me, which I interpreted to mean that even misfit overpowered Japanese superbikes deserve love, too. The photo shoot went swimmingly, and the ride home was blissfully uneventful—except for the nagging sensation that the bike, with nary 950 miles on the odometer, was begging to be flogged, a task nearly impossible in rush hour traffic, let alone most public roads.
The ZX-14 looks great in my garage, and I’ve already spent some quiet time regarding it, pondering my love/hate relationship with those garish flames. Though a “Special Edition” sticker in a cheesy Zapf Chancery font rests on the tank, the bike’s personality is anything but; it’s fierce but friendly, a force far more dominating than a decal or a paint scheme. I can’t wait to become more intimately acquainted with its wiles, and get past the first few millimeters of its skin.
It’s late winter, and the mountain roads are beckoning. Only in California can such an impulse be acted upon at this time of year (outside temperature is 72 degrees), so I threw on my leathers and jumped on the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14 for what would be its inaugural joy ride. I live in Los Feliz, a small community nestled between Hollywood and Glendale, and enjoy its centrality within the massive geographic expanse that is Los Angeles. Nonetheless, those amazing Malibu canyons are still a bit of a haul, so I decided to hit Angeles Crest to get my twisties on.
Angeles Crest Highway is 66 miles of two-lane road that connects the oddly named quaint suburban town of La Cañada Flintridge, to Wrightwood, a tiny ski town nestled in the mountains. The road ranges from tight hairpins to expansive sweepers, and naturally, its treacherously curvaceous path attracts some of the most adventurous bikers. Not surprisingly, many a rider exceeds the limits of mechanical grip and finds themselves thrown over the edge (not all sections have guardrails), while others wipe out only to make contact with the pavement or the rugged mountainside; either way, it’s both a delight and a challenge to ride Angeles Crest, an excursion that offers both stunning vistas and the opportunity to really mess things up. Given the long-legged abilities of the ZX-14, I wasn’t interested in becoming a casualty so I swore to attack the road with a modicum of restraint.
Taking the Glendale Freeway up to La Cañada, which is only about 15 minutes away, revealed the first sign of my weakness. “Man,” I remember thinking, “this thing really takes off from about 50 mph!” Sure enough, restraint was in short order because I immediately saw how quickly triple digit speeds were easily attained, while surrounded by more slack jawed, Saturday traffic than I care to admit. The Ninja’s powerband, after all, hits its stride above lower rpm, and the freeway is the perfect place to experience the rush of power. The flamed Ninja got plenty of attention (including thumbs up from the station wagon full of adolescent girls—nothing I could take personally, considering the full face helmet and sunglasses).
Finally off the freeway and onto the highway, civilization quickly dissipated as pine trees replaced tract homes and the fear of law enforcement diminished…until an approaching rider tapped the top of his head, which of course translates to “Warning: Law enforcement ahead.” The Ninja was quite rapidly and effortlessly climbing uphill, mostly in second gear, when the nonverbal warning was issued and I decided to slow down. So far, so good; about five miles of undulating road later, and a California Highway Patrol officer was ticketing a Honda CBR600RR rider, undoubtedly for excessive speed. Once out of range, I twisted the throttle again and reveled in the amazing tractability of the 1,352 cc inline-4. The engine was so flexible that tight turns could have been negotiated anywhere between second and fifth gears, and I tended to choose second in order to pour on the power when space allowed.
Onward towards the sky, the Ninja’s suspension setup felt a touch soft, particularly during tighter, more transitional turns (note to self: tighten front and rear suspension). Wide, constant radius sweepers were a bit more stable, and the bike was better suited to the larger sections of road. While the Kawasaki’s gear position indicator is particularly useful on long rides when you’re likely to forget which gear you’re in, there’s often a momentary lag between shifts and the moment the LCD display changes; this is fine at a more leisurely pace, but a bit annoying on technical, fast paced courses. Kawasaki could take a cue from Triumph’s Daytona 675, whose gear position indicator works virtually instantaneously.
Veering off the main highway towards Mt. Wilson, temperatures continued to drop until I finally saw melting snow by the side of the wet road. Speeds decreased accordingly, and after looping around the observatory I got a 40-minute long opportunity to enjoy the ZX-14’s phenomenal brake feel while descending back towards the city. Law enforcement once again appeared busy busting other motorcyclists, so I’ve gotta say it was a good day. In spite of the Ninja’s relatively relaxed ergonomics, I consciously lifted weight off my wrists during the twisting downhill ride. By tightening my thighs around the tank and relieving my upper body, strain was avoided. Back in the city, the Ninja once again caught the attention of freeway traffic before I exited in Los Feliz and proceeded to get on with my weekend. My ZX-14 “to-do” list is long and there are plenty more roads to explore, so stay tuned for updates.
It never rains in Southern California, right? That was the idea, at least, when I stared out the window and saw partially cloudy skies. “Not a bad time,” I thought, “for a little ride.” I had a lunch appointment in nearby Burbank, and the 14 needed some exercise.
Nary two miles away from home, and a curious mist formed on my visor. “Funny,” I pondered to myself, “that car ahead must be squirting its windshield.” Not so funny, actually, was the sea of cars around me, their wipers activating in reaction to what was, in fact, a steadily increasing downpour. No biggie, really; one of my first riding experiences, while I rode my first bike home for the first time, was through a rainstorm on the 405 freeway. This was really quite routine, actually.
By the time I hit the 5 freeway, the downpour had become a dump. I was soaked, helmeted head to booted toe, and the winds had kicked up to quite a phenomenal degree. The ZX seemed strangely susceptible to crosswinds, and keeping the bike inside my lane was becoming more of a challenge (as was finding the rain grooves on the road, since much of the lanes were forming a hydroplane-friendly layer of water.) This was a pucker up moment if there was one, a stretch where I knew I had to focus all of my attention towards keeping away from wayward cars, on the relatively driest (but least oil-soaked) portion of the lane, all the while occasionally applying the front brake in order to squeegee off accumulated moisture that might reduce braking distance. Ah, the joys of motorcycling. So pure, so carefree, so utterly relaxing… I think I’m having an aneurysm.
After what seemed like far too much life-risking for a casual ride to lunch, I pulled up to the restaurant—Mo’s, a low-key watering hole frequented by folks from nearby NBC, Disney, and Warner Brothers studios—and mercifully shed my sopping jacket as I walked in looking like something dredged up from the bottom of a lake.
Lunch was relaxing (in spite of my firm refusal of a libation) and by the time I stepped outside again, the weather had mysteriously cleared up. It wasn’t until I returned home and read following headline that I realized that the Kawasaki’s apparent susceptibility to crosswinds was, in fact, the result of powerline-snapping gale force winds: “Wild Weather Strikes Los Angeles.” The news claimed that, “Tuesday’s storm startled residents, who watched as clear morning skies quickly darkened and gusting winds ripped roofs off several buildings, capsized boats and downed power lines and trees.”
Note to self: check the forecast next time, and never believe 1970s song lyrics.
Especially after my brief run-in with bizarre weather, it was time to finally face the inevitable: washing the Kawasaki.
Week-long loans allow sufficient opportunity to get a general idea of whether or not you like a motorcycle, but there’s nothing like a long-term test to become truly acquainted with a bike; it’s like the difference between a couple of hot dates, and moving in together and having to wake up next to each other in the morning every single day. One particularly unique form of bonding—in addition to long rides or hands-on mechanical work—is the washing process. You have to touch essentially every surface of the bike; running your sponge over the curves of the gas tank, the chin spoiler, across the fairing ducts, etc. Doing so allows you to take in the three-dimensionality of the machine far more palpably than can be done with your eyes alone. Strangely, one of the most intimate things you can do with a vehicle is to wash it.
The ZX-14’s proportions are large, and its sparkle white and flame paint job seems to only heighten its perceived size. Up close and personal, body panels don’t fit quite as perfectly as they could, but then again, on a $12,000 two-wheeled land missile, what do you expect? The tank’s more voluptuous than might appear to the naked eye, and the rear seat cowl balances the bulbousness of the nose nicely. The long, shiny cans resemble .444 Marlin hollowpoint shells more than typical supersport bike exhausts, and their brightwork dimishes any illusions of no-nonsense functionality; contrast them to the GSX-R1000’s carbon fiber ovals, and you get an idea of the less focused, more mass-appeal touches of the ZX-14.
The bike’s now sparkling, ready to get dirty once again; and as its tires dry in the springtime sunshine, I feel like I know the ZX-14 just a bit more than before.