The Kawasaki ZX-14 boasts nearly 200 Ram Air-assisted horsepower and looking as mean and purposeful as a jet fighter and is said to be the first production motorcycle to dip deep into the nines on the quarter-mile.
Japanese manufacturers won’t openly admit this, but they share a common problem, an image problem actually. The fact is, for many motorcyclists, a Japanese bike is just a Japanese bike. There’s nothing wrong with that, because Japanese bikes are generally associated with great performance, reliability and value. Get to the identity part of the equation, though, and things aren’t so clear anymore. You instantly know Harley does classic cruisers and that Ducati is about V-Twin propelled sportbikes. BMWs have always been fantastic road bikes and Triumph is working hard to get it into your head that its business is all about character Triples and nostalgic Twins. But what exactly is Honda’s “thing” these days? And Suzuki and Yamaha and Kawasaki? A little blurred isn’t it?
There used to be a time, not so long ago really, when Kawasaki meant all-out speed. From the mean H1s and Z1s of the 1970s, to the 1980’s revolutionary Ninjas 900R and 1000R to the long reigning Ninja ZX-11 of the 1990s, Kawasaki sportbikes held a decades-long reputation for being the fastest and quickest. And then they lost it.
Blame it on a too long-in-the-tooth ZX-7R, blame it on a ZX-9R that really never was in the same league as the competition, blame the competition itself for getting too fast too quick or even blame the rumoured gentleman’s agreement between manufacturers that prevented the ZX-12R from topping Suzuki’s Hayabusa in pure speed. The bottom line is that for about 10 years Kawasaki hasn’t been making the fastest bikes anymore. Kawasaki’s identity, or at least a good part of it, had been diluted. If you’re thinking the Akashi company wants that reputation back, you guessed right. If you’re thinking it’s a long shot considering the current staggering level of performance from Japanese motorcycles, you’re right again. And that’s how I ended up in late February looking at the Las Vegas Speedway’s Christmas tree, smoking the back tire of a 1400cc monster named the ZX-14, which Kawasaki describes as the embodiment of its performance rich DNA.
The Kawasaki ZX-14 on the Drag Strip
“HEAT IT UP REAL GOOD OR YOU’LL SPIN AND WHEELIE WHEN YOU launch, and that’ll kill your time. For now, keep the revs at 4,000 rpms, no more. Gently ease off the clutch and let the motor do the work.” This was the advice of longtime Kawasaki rider and multi-time drag racing champ Rickey Gadson, who was on hand for the event. On my first try, I made a 10.40-second pass at 139.7 mph. Considering that I’m certainly no drag racing pro, that I was on a totally unfamiliar bike and that I weigh a little over 200 pounds—Gadson is at most 150 lbs.—my time wasn’t bad at all. Actually, I was quite stunned at how smooth, straightforward and effortless it was to achieve such numbers. Later on, with the exact same bike, but with better technique, Gadson dipped way into the nines with a 9.75-second pass at more than 145 mph. As for me, I struggled to substantially improve my times over seven subsequent passes. The ZX-14’s power and ease of operation will make anybody fast, but only technique and lighter body weight will make you real fast.
CONSIDERING THE VERY HIGH LEVEL OF PERFORMANCE THE ZX-14 brings to the streets, its technology is surprisingly ordinary. What you have, technically, is little more than a new and improved Ninja ZX-12R. The second generation of the Twelve’s unique monocoque chassis differs slightly in geometry and in rigidity, but its architecture remains identical. It still holds the battery and still acts as the airbox. For suspension, there’s a fully adjustable 43mm inverted front fork, complemented by a long and unbraced swingarm with rear monoshock. The motor, though, is all new.
Similar in size to the Twelve’s 1199cc inline-four, it packs a little over 150 additional cubic centimetres and benefits from a second balancer that makes it pleasantly smoother at all rpms, this even though the engine is now rigidly mounted instead of semi-rigidly. Featuring the latest advances in head design and fuel delivery management—designs not unlike those of the ZX-6R or ZX-10R—the 1352cc motor is not intended to produce only very high peak horsepower, but also and especially to generate a wide spread of very high torque.
While Kawasaki claims 188 horsepower without the Ram Air effect (198 hp with Ram Air), in all likelihood that number could have easily surpassed the 200 mark if the manufacturer had chosen to sacrifice a wide powerband in favour of peak power. But the ZX-14 is built first and foremost as a street bike.
Plus, with the aforementioned gentleman’s agreement between manufacturers not to exceed 186 mph (300 kmh)—a mark the Fourteen will reach with no trouble at all—horsepower of that kind is much better used at improving everyday rideability and acceleration than top speed. Coincidentally, “accelerate” is one thing the Kawasaki ZX-14 can do with almost magical force.
GOING THROUGH THE SLICK-SHIFTING GEARBOX DOWN THE quarter-mile at Vegas, acceleration seemed effortless, even somewhat deceptive. Get the launch right, put your head and chest down and as forward as possible, twist the right grip hard and the Fourteen just flies, seeming to pull as frantically in second and third as in first gear. Curiously, there’s absolutely no drama about it. The nose stays on—or very close to—the tarmac, stability is impeccable, direction is maintained without any additional input, the engine picks up revs amazingly quick for its displacement and there’s almost no vibration to speak of. Even the sound coming from the Euro-3 compliant powerplant and the huge twin-silencer exhaust is discreet. Although each run is barely more than 10 seconds, there’s plenty of time to look at the tach climbing, or even to note the speed indicated on the large white-faced analogue instruments.
Kawasaki’s event planning had my group doing drag runs in the morning and high-speed passes on the oval in the afternoon. That’s oval as in 1.5-mile, banked, Superspeedway oval, the same on which the NASCAR races are held. To my knowledge, no manufacturer ever attempted anything like this.
Heck, back in 2004 when Kawasaki launched the first ZX-10R at Homestead in Florida, we weren’t even allowed to ride the curved part of the oval, just the straights and the infield.
The Superspeedway is a gigantic structure. Standing in the pits, looking around at the tens of thousands of empty seats, the track seems extraordinarily wide and long. I’ve ridden many tracks over the years, but that was an eerie first for me.
Kawasaki didn’t take safety lightly, advising us to go as fast as we felt comfortable, but also urging us not to take any unnecessary risks. Unlike the drag strip runs, this wasn’t a contest of any kind and times and speeds were not going to be recorded. It was simply the only way to experience the extremely high speeds the ZX-14 is capable of in a closed environment. To prevent overheating the tires, which is always a concern for a motorcycle on a high-speed oval, every journalist was limited to five-lap sessions after which new tires were installed. To prevent machismo-induced risks, only one person at a time would ride the oval.
Going around a totally empty NASCAR oval might seem like big, easy fun, and it is. Well, that is, to steal a line from Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder, right until you drop the hammer. Then, what you’re essentially doing is going straight and very fast for very little time, then jumping on the brakes because a cement wall is coming directly at you at close to 300 kmh. Going around both big 180-degree turns, I had my left knee on the ground at about 240 kmh. All through those turns, you’re still pointing straight at the cement wall, until the track opens up for a few seconds of wide open throttle rush. The fastest I went was a brief but intense 298 kmh … in fifth!
Given enough space, the Fourteen would have easily buried the tach needle past the 300-kmh mark, in sixth. Of course, those are indicated, not measured, speeds, and are thus slightly optimistic, which explains why I could reach 300 kmh with one gear to go.
Kawasaki’s intent in bringing the ZX-14 on a high-speed oval was to show off its latest Ninja’s speed and stability without any kind of contact with public roads or law enforcement, and both were brilliantly displayed.
THE WEATHER FORECAST WASN’T LOOKING GOOD FOR THE STREET portion of the launch planned on the following day, so our little group of Canadian journalists decided to skip the fancy dinner and head for a ride right after the Las Vegas Motor Speedway business. What we won’t do …
It was the right decision, not only because the next day did indeed get rained out, but also because it allowed me to discover there was way more to the ZX-14 than drag strip times. The fact is, the new Fourteen is one really nice street ride.
I was never a big fan of the ZX-12R, or even of the ZZ-R1200 for that matter. I always found the first to be way too uncomfortable for a bike that has no place on a racetrack and the second not to be comfortable enough for a bike intended for sport touring use. Riding the ZX-14 on the street sort of proved me right on both counts as I finally discovered a big, fast Kawasaki that also offers a very decent level of comfort.
There’s nothing new to the concept of a fast but comfortable open class motorcycle, and there certainly isn’t any doubt in such a concept’s appeal. Honda’s CBR1100XX and BMW’s K1200S are two excellent demonstrations of that point. The good news about the ZX-14 is I wouldn’t hesitate to put it in the same league as the Honda and the Beemer.
Although the ZX-14’s riding position is compact, it isn’t cramped. There’s definitely a sporty feel to it as your wrists still have to carry some weight, but it’s all very tolerable. The seat is quite nicely shaped and cushioned and remains comfortable even over a couple of hundred kilometres. Weather protection is excellent, thanks to the front fairing and windshield’s generous size.
Aerodynamics is also very good as no intrusive turbulence hits the rider’s head at speed. All inline-fours generate high-frequency vibrations. Some are obnoxious, some are moderate and some, rather rare, are very well controlled. Again, the aforementioned Honda and BMW come to mind, and again, the ZX-14 gets to join that group. More often than not, you feel like the big 1400 is humming under you rather than vibrating, and it is only at very, very illegal speeds that the first somewhat intrusive vibes appear.
Of course, a motorcycle capable of sub-10 quarter-mile times is a rocket on the street. With a mere twist of the grip, the Kawasaki ZX-14 transforms present into past with an extraordinary hurry, especially if the tach needle indicates 6,000 rpms or more.
Now you may want to call me names and throw rocks at me for saying so, but I found the big Fourteen to be somewhat soft under that mark. How can I manage to call a nine-second bike soft? I’m not sure I know myself, but the bottom line is I was expecting a more arm-stretching pull at low revs from a machine with such a pedigree. Twisting the throttle anywhere under 6,000 rpms, whether in lower or higher gears, the big Ninja is certainly very strong, but it’s not amazing.
During repeated roll-ons, I felt like there was a voluntary restriction on the power produced at low rpms. The injection’s secondary butterfly, the one controlled by the ECU, didn’t seem to match the opening of the butterfly linked to the throttle.
After a discussion with Kawasaki techs and after going extensively through the press kit, which clearly hints at an “afterburner-like rush past 6,000 rpms,” I concluded that the ZX-14 could probably be much more aggressive between idle and 6,000 rpms.
The trouble is, such levels of instant horsepower could also be hard to manage for the average rider. Gone would be the ability the bike has to stay horizontal during hard launches, and traction management might quickly become an issue.
Although I understand the manufacturer’s concern and its wish for the Fourteen to be a widely accessible machine, I’m not sure I agree with the decision to “restrict” power at low rpms in gears, say, above second. Still, the Kawasaki ZX-14 IS a nine-second bike, so maybe I’m just confused from all that Bridgestone smoke I inhaled at the launch, and maybe I should just take all that back …
WHILE THE Kawasaki ZX-14 IS MARKETED IN NORTH AMERICA AS THE ULTIMATE Ninja with huge power as its star quality, the same model is sold as the ZZR1400 in Europe where it’s presented more as high-power sport-tourer. Hard bags and ABS are optional equipment over there. That double identity is partially explained by the fact that the Fourteen has to replace both the ZX-12R and the ZZ-R1200. I like it. I like bikes that simply fit their mission, and this one does.
The power is definitely real and, finally, there’s no more uncomfortable seating position or unjustifiably harsh suspension to deal with. Handling is remarkably light and the styling is distinctive and very representative of the machine’s purpose. A gentle, extremely fast giant is what I discovered in the Fourteen.
by Bertrand Gahel Canadian Biker #222