2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R | First Ride

2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R

The original Ninja warriors were experts in waging covert war… and Kawasaki’s new ZX-14R deserves the moniker: it really is an iron fist in a velvet glove. It’s not that it doesn’t look powerful because it does of course possess a strong road presence, but riding the machine it is a surprisingly smooth, refined experience that’s as deceptively docile as you need it to be. But when the time comes to uncork the bad boy inside, you’d sure as heck better be hanging on.

The all new 1441cc four-cylinder motor is brutally, awesomely, powerful. My description is a cliché, but the result is like nothing I’ve felt before. Kawasaki clearly wants to rule the mega-bike category, but it hasn’t merely moved the needle a bit–it has shifted the whole paradigm. Unusually for a new bike launch, the staffers on hand couldn’t be drawn on claims to either horsepower or torque output, even when pressed by the assembled journalists. Merely smiling knowingly they just let us loose at the Las Vegas drag strip to actually see what the bike could do for ourselves.

The answer for me was an astonishing 10.18 standing quarter mile time, and a jaw-dropping 9.6 seconds in the expert hands of Rickey Gadson. That’s moving for any machine, let alone a stock one straight out of the showroom. For an encore Rickey had the assembled technicians add a Brock’s Performance lowering kit and a rear sprocket with two LESS teeth on it to help hold the front wheel down in first and second gear–yes the ZX-14R produces so much torque it could pull the taller gearing without problem. But that was it; no other mods at all: pump gas, stock pipe, stock fueling. The result was an eye-watering 9.31 seconds standing quarter at 149.86 mph, and I believe had the ambient conditions been a little better this machine could be knocking on the door of an 8 second time. That’s a pretty sobering thought for a street-legal machine that’s such a sophisticated, comfortable ride on the road.

Contrast that mind-warping thrust with how impeccably behaved the big Ninja is at low speed–it was quite happy to putter around the Fire Canyon national park at 35 mph (yes, the speed limit is very, very strictly enforced)–and I found the ZX-14R to be as easy to handle as a gorilla on Prozac. The fueling is exceptional, and the buttery-smooth motor is happy to just trundle along without snatching or sputtering, yet it’s ready to spool up in an instant should you ask it to.

Kawasaki has sensibly added their S-KTRC traction control system from the ZX-10R superbike; it doesn’t neuter the power in any way, but it does modulate the propensity to wheelie when the grip is good. Mode 2 was especially useful when launching at the strip, as I could get into the power early without worrying about flipping over the back–a sort of electronic wheelie bars if you like.

Kawasaki has also added a third setting based on the KTRC from their Concours model, and this will be especially useful in the rain. Although he doesn’t use the KTRC for the really quick times, Rickey ran a couple of demo runs down the strip in setting 1 and I could clearly hear the traction control cutting in at each upshift. How many bikes do you know that can spin up the rear tire changing into fourth gear at a buck-fifty?

The suspension has been firmed up a little, but the ZX-14R is still luxurious to ride. This is a sporting (now with a slipper clutch), comfortable machine to cruise on. An on-board computer with a very handy left handlebar switch makes it easy to select the power and traction control modes as well as cycle through the fuel consumption and range-to-go numbers as well.

Not that the previous iteration was carelessly put together, but the new model with the ‘R’ designation has a fit and finish that is a big improvement; detail changes add up to a precision built, top-quality machine. The most obvious changes are the carefully fitted bodywork with hidden fasteners, and a liquid-deep luminous green-metallic-with-flames paint job on the Limited Edition, which is only a $200 extra.

Kawasaki’s new ZX-14R is a generational shift in the mega-motorcycle category. It’s brutally fast, but it’s also kindly natured and beautifully refined as well. It produced a grin on my face that still hasn’t quit a day later. As soon as Kawasaki let us get our sticky fingers on a ZX-14R of our own, we’ll report back with a full ride review and some real engine output numbers per Danny DiNardo’s dyno at his shop, Peak Performance Motorcycle in Simi Valley.

I’d also like to shout out a heartfelt ‘thank you’ to Rickey Gadson for his help in getting my quarter mile times down to a very respectable 10.18 seconds run. He is a natural and very entertaining teacher; give his school a try. The only downside is you’ll get hooked…




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