The sport touring class has traditionally displayed a bias toward the “touring” side of the category name. With the launch of its reborn Concours 14, Kawasaki flips that equation around to showcase the sport aspect of long-distance travel.
Manufacturers build the bikes motorcyclists buy. They know what you’ll buy because they ask, and you tell. To the tens of thousands of ageing sportbike riders out there who aren’t ready to grow old just yet, to the tens of thousands of motorcyclists who’ve been waiting for something sporty, only with a bit more comfort and practicality thrown in the mix, Kawasaki offers its all-new 2008 Concours 14.
Although it could be argued that bikes that fit the description of a more comfortable, more practical sportbike have been around for years now, the fact of the matter is that to most “maturing” sportbike riders, models such as Yamaha’s FJR1300 and Honda’s ST1300, not to mention BMW’s R1200RT and K1200GT, just don’t fit the bill. To them, although undoubtedly comfy and well equipped, none of the above qualify as a truly sporty ride. The new Concours 14 is a sporty ride.
A quick glance at the new sports tourer’s spec sheet actually reveals some uncharacteristically trick stuff for a motorcycle of this class: beefy, adjustable upside-down forks; super-trick Tertra-Lever rear suspension (also adjustable); sportbike-derived, non-linked petal-discs front and rear; and sportbike-spec brake master-cylinders, calipers, wheels and tires are all components never before seen in this category. Oh, and get this: there’s even a slipper clutch, something not even all full-on sportbikes have yet.
While skeptics could rightfully make the point that any of the current sports tourers could look just as sporty with a few sportbike parts bolted to them, the new Concours 14 is actually built the opposite way: Kawasaki started with the ultrafast ZX-14 Ninja, then made it sport touring worthy. The monocoque frame is very similar, but a more relaxed steering geometry and a longer swingarm each add 30mm to the wheelbase. The “tuned-for-low-and-mid-range” 1352cc inline-four uses the industry’s first real, automotive-style variable valve timing while the slick-shifting six-speed transmission gets shorter gearing with an overdrive sixth.
Because of this close family tie with the mighty 189-horsepower ZX-14, some were expecting similar levels of performance from the Concours. It simply isn’t the case. Power is down 33 horses and so is torque, by 12.5 ft/lbs., while weight is up about 60 kg (133 lbs). However, there’s still 56 horsepower to play with, and those 102.5 ft/lbs. torque are delivered over 3,000 rpm earlier than on the Ninja. Plus, all numbers are best in class. So while the new generation Concours won’t win a drag race with a ZX-14 or Hayabusa, it will probably smoke anything else in the category in a straight line, except for perhaps BMW’s potent K1200GT, which might not be too far behind.
The thing about the Concours however is that, unlike the rest of the class which seems to be more touring oriented, it feels right at home with its throttle pinned, whether it’s being launched from a stop, doing silly speeds on a stretch of desert road or rushing out of a curve while slicing through a canyon road.
Power is delivered in a very linear, progressive manner and is generous right from idle. The Concours 14’s big motor begins to flex its muscles by 3,000 or 4,000 rpm and by six or 7,000 rpm all the way to the 10,500 redline, it will entertain even a serious sportbike aficionado.
Maybe even more impressive than the power itself is how civilized and polished the powerplant is. Torque is so good it’s possible to accelerate cleanly, almost strongly, even in the last gear from as low as 1,500 rpm.
Although the variable valve timing system probably has something to do with that quality, it is completely transparent and its work just can’t be felt or heard. The technology is so simple in design and so common in the automotive world one has to wonder why it isn’t more widespread among motorcycles.
Inline-fours mostly can’t be appreciated for their character since by nature they generally don’t have any. Consequently their smoothness tends to become their best asset, the more so in touring-oriented applications. While a slight buzz is occasionally felt in the grips at some rpms, all-in-all vibes are so well controlled I’d say this just might be the industry’s smoothest inline-four.
The light and precise six-speed is a delight to use and the overdrive sixth will definitely make five-speed sport touring bike owners jealous as it noticeably drops revs on the highway and makes for an even smoother ride.
Clutch action is exemplary, but as far as the back-torque limiter is concerned, it is all but useless on a bike of this nature, even at a very aggressive rhythm on the street. Its purpose is tactical: to show that Kawasaki went all the way in making the Concours as sporty as possible.
Of course, no motorcycle could be called sporty just because it’s fast. It needs to handle too and, in that regard, the Concours 14 is even more impressive than in the throttle-related stuff. In this class of motorcycle obviously built more for long distances than for lean angle, Kawasaki’s new Concours emerges as an amazingly pure handler. A heavier sportbike is essentially what it is and what it feels like. The riding position is very reminiscent of the compact sportbike crouch minus the cramped legs and leaned-over stance, respectively replaced by decent legroom and a straight back.
Stability is superb in all conditions from full-throttle starts to super high-speed corners. Although the Concours weighs significantly more than a ZX-14, steering effort doesn’t feel that much greater, at least when initiating a turn. A fast side-to-side transition will demand a certain effort from the rider, but even in that situation the Concours remains surprisingly agile.
For all its benefits, the close relation between the new Concours 14 and the sportbike world doesn’t always makes things easier. The most evident example is how differently the bike behaves according to how suspension is set. A few clicks front and/or rear are enough to make the Concours go from annoyingly wanting to stand up while trail braking into a turn, to getting through a bend in a precise and intuitive fashion.
What this means is that, in order to fully enjoy the new sport tourer’s potential, buyers will have to make an effort at understanding suspension adjustments. Get it right, though, and the Concours will shine.
PART OF THE SUGGESTED ROUTE FOR THE BIKE’S PRESS LAUNCH IN Santa Rosa, California was a tight, twisty, bumpy KLR-style piece of road on which the big Concours 14 should have been out of its element. Yet, with its suspension set just between firm and soft, the bike flew through it, turning sharply and staying planted even on bad pavement. And then came this amazing 20-minute stretch of uninterrupted 120-kmh sweepers, up and down through brown hills so typical of this part of the country. It was the fourth of July and aside from a few local riders on sportbikes (who didn’t seem too appreciative of the fact that we went so easily around them on our Concourses), the road was absolutely empty. Pegs merely millimetres off the ground in every turn, on the gas hard leaving one corner, and braking hard coming into the next: this pleasurable routine was repeated time and again.
Even though a similar environment and rhythm might have been a bit of a challenge for some of the Concours 14’s competition, the Kawasaki felt more at home during those moments than at any other part of the launch event. Brakes needing a firmer and longer squeeze because of the amount of weight to slow down, more substantial weight transfers and the sport tourer’s relative bulk, were essentially all that distinguished riding the Concours through those dozens of turns from a ride on a much sportier bike.
The quality of what Kawasaki calls the Tetra-Lever rear suspension needs to be brought up at this point since it contributes greatly to the way the bike handles by totally eliminating any kind of torque reaction from the shaft final drive. Even power wheelies, which the Concours 14 easily pulled in first gear without too much convincing from yours truly, weren’t affect by shaft reactions, something I’ve never experienced before. It is without a doubt the world’s best shaft drive.
While it may feel like a sportbike as far as handling goes, not much separates the Concours from its more touring-oriented peers where comfort is concerned. An extremely smooth engine, a compact but well-balanced riding position, a very good seat and supple suspension (when adjusted appropriately) form the basis of the bike’s comfort equation.
Although not particularly large, the electrically adjustable windshield does a good job of keeping wind pressure off the rider’s torso and his head when in its higher position. A wider and taller version, available as an accessory, offers even better protection. Although wind flow is clean and stable in the lower position, bringing the windshield up does generate some noise and turbulence around the helmet.
It never ceases to amaze me how difficult it seems to be to produce a windshield that will not cause turbulence around the head when adjusted to its highest position. The Concours 14’s windshield isn’t bad by any means, but it’s certainly not at the level of a BMW R1200RT. Nor is the competition’s, by the way.
Speaking of competitors, it is a well-known fact that heat management has been a problem for most of them.
The Concours 14 does well in that regard, especially with the removable lateral winglets in place. The first published photos of the model didn’t show the winglets, which seem to be an add-on designed to push hot engine air away from the rider. They can be removed to generate more heat around the legs in colder weather. In very hot weather such as we experienced during some parts of the launch, heat does reach the rider even with the winglets, but under normal circumstances heat management seems to be under control.
Sport touring is invariably synonymous with equipment and in this regard, the Concours 14 does all right, but no more. The electric windshield, the available ABS and the roomy, easy to operate bags all boost the score. So does technology such as the live tire-pressure function on the ZX-14-style, computer equipped instrumentation, and a FOB recognition system that allows you literally to never have to carry a key. Though Kawasaki says it stayed away from features such as heated hand-grips, heated seat and cruise control because of the sporty nature of the model, this is all highly-prized equipment among most sport touring riders. So I wouldn’t be surprised if future versions of the Concours offer these features as options at the very least, especially since Kawasaki admits it’s already considering them.
The new Concours 14 isn’t just another fantastic addition to Kawasaki’s lineup, nor is it just more tangible evidence that the manufacturer is on an amazing roll. More than anything, it represents a great new option in the touring-biased category. At last, it brings to the sportbike lover the possibility of graduating to less extreme, less demanding machinery without feeling he has somehow aged too quickly.
Nice bits: The Concours 14 is loaded with goodies not yet seen in the sport touring class, such as a slipper clutch—something not even all full-on sportbikes have yet. Petal discs front and rear, and other sportbike-spec brake components bring a whole new meaning to the Kawasaki Concours name. “It feels right at home with its throttle pinned,its throttle pinned,” says Mr. Gahel.
A sporting personality: Though it’s built more for long-distance travel than holding extreme lean angles, the Concours 14 emerges as an extremely capable handler. Stability is superb, from full-throttle starts to super high-speed corners. “A heavier sportbike is what it feels like,” says Gahel.
No shaft jacking: Kawasaki’s Tetra-Lever rear suspension contributes greatly to the Concours’s road manners by totally eliminating any kind of torque reaction from the shaft final drive. Even power wheelies, which the Concours 14 performs with ease aren’t affected by shaft reactions
By Bertrand Gahel