Kawasaki’s hard-hitting Ninja ZX-14 has a well-deserved reputation for outputting prodigious amounts of power. Capable of swallowing miles quickly and easily, it snarls derisively when confronted with the possibility of a long-distance ride. However, true sport touring actually requires more than a fearsomely capable motor. Kawasaki clearly agrees, and has produced a touring-specific version and leaves the vaunted muscle-bike to the dragstrip heroes and salt lake junkies.
With a powerful silhouette and low screen angle, it is only the hard luggage that gives away the Concours’ intentions. The almost upright riding position, shaft drive, and roomy proportions confirm the touring objective, while the adjustable damping male slider forks, radial caliper brakes and generally aggressive stance paradoxically suggest somewhat harder-core sporting intentions.
The already awesome four-cylinder engine is an enhanced version of the ZX-14. Displacing the same 1,352cc, it is now equipped with Variable Valve Timing that improves flexibility by altering the camshaft profiles through different rpm ranges. Although a big fan of its sibling, I prefer this friendlier version with its enhanced midrange wallop. The compact motor has gear-driven secondary balancers to further quieten vibration, and ram-air ducts help maximize engine output. Powering out of tight corners in first and second gear produces huge, but useable, torque (a maximum of 100 ft/lbs at 6,250 rpm) and the Digital Fuel Injection gives a highly intuitive throttle connection, especially noticeable at small throttle openings and when transitioning back on to the throttle.
Riding the roads around Petaluma in northern California threw just about every road type and condition at the bike. The initial freeway slog confirmed the Concours’ stability and decent aerodynamics, and the electrically adjustable screen works nicely. Unlike some barn door-like windshields, this one works with minimal buffeting in the cockpit.
The twin analog gauges of tachometer and speedometer are split by a large LCD readout where one can cycle through the usual clock, mileage, trip, fuel range, and mpg information, as well as tire pressures, which is a useful addition. I would prefer to see the speedometer become a digital indicator in the LCD screen; it is easier to read at a glance and would leave room for an onboard GPS unit.
Once on twisty roads, I upped the pace. Despite the touring heft, handling is wonderfully neutral, with no flop into slow corners and minimal understeer when hard on the throttle on exit. The frame is a hollow, aluminum monocoque that arches over the engine—it is narrow, rigid, and very light, and uses the engine as a stressed frame member. The complex-looking tetra-lever rear swingarm negates the torque effects of the shaft drive so well that I could have sworn I was riding a chain-drive motorcycle; this makes the Concours confidence inspiring when coming on to the power in corners. (Click image to enlarge)
Some of the roads were tight, twisty and bumpy. A bike like this surely has no business tackling this sort of terrain, but the Concours 14 was well up to the challenge. I tightened the preload on the rear shock by two full turns (easily accomplished from the saddle), calming the rear down nicely; the front fork has no hint of any problems in the stock setting. Both the calipers and pump of the brakes are radial action; they work flawlessly with plenty of progressive feel at the lever. Bringing 600-plus pounds of motorcycle down from speed on relatively tight roads was accomplished without drama.The optional ABS system cut in only once—on a bumpy downhill section into a slow hairpin that caught me by surprise. After a heart-fluttering moment, the ABS took over and the bike slowed perfectly. Would I have lost the front wheel without the ABS? I cannot say. Certainly, ABS is a good thing and may well save a tip-over—especially if you are on unfamiliar roads or caught out in treacherous conditions.
The Concours handled quick left-right-left transitions with an astonishing aplomb. The bike is definitely no lightweight, and it certainly conveys an impression of heft. But, helped by high, wide handlebars with decent leverage, and Kawasaki’s huge effort to centralize the mass, the motorcycle actually turns relatively quickly and is well balanced.
Also proving to be one of the most comfortable bikes I have ever experienced, the Concours’ seat is almost gel-like. My regular passenger reports that the Concours seat is the most comfortable she has ridden on; the tacky feel and strongly supportive quality really helps her feel secure. For such a high-performance motorcycle the side handles and thoughtful gap between the hard bags for her hands really helps too. It is much less fatiguing for a passenger to be able to drop her hands next to her and hold on, rather than twist them behind for a conventional grab rail. The passenger’s comment of "one of the Kawasaki design team has obviously ridden on the back of this" speaks volumes.
As for myself, after two consecutive 250-mile days of hard-core sport riding, I fully appreciate the thought that has gone into the seating and ergonomics. Typically, the full fairing offers somewhat compromised protection, but careful attention to heat-management ensured a comfortable temperature and, unlike other bikes in the past, I experienced no problems.
On our recent tour of Kawasaki Heavy Industries in Japan, our hosts were asked, "If Kawasaki were an animal, what would it be?" The answer that came back was emphatic: a tiger. And the Concours 14—even if not fitting the description precisely—certainly falls within the big cat family. It is large, incredibly powerful and yet somehow also lithe and responsive. Its road manners are more housecat than snarling carnivore, but with the Concours 14, Kawasaki has perfectly integrated sporting performance into a comfortable touring package.