Ah, the fresh air of unapologetic performance! Kawasaki began the press introduction for the 2012 ZX-14R with a rock-and-roll soundtrack accompanying a video of Rickey Gadson lighting up the rear tire and playing chicken with a Suzuki Hayabusa on a deserted road. The Hayabusa pulled over and let the ZX-14R pass.
The next morning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, we watched Gadson reel off an effortless 9.64-second, 149-mph dragstrip pass on a stock ZX-14R—standard ride height, 42 pounds of air in the rear Metzeler, pump gas in the tank. My first experience on Kawasaki’s new flagship sportbike was a second-gear roll-on that ended at the top of fifth gear at 175 mph before shutting down for the end of the strip. That’s 175 mph in half a mile, with another gear left.
Gadson ran 9.31 seconds at 149 mph on a ZX-14R that had been lowered and fitted with slightly taller gearing. His best performance at LVMS on the previous-generation ZX-14 was a 9.2-second, 146-mph run, and that bike had been slammed 6 inches and equipped with a sidewinder exhaust and an air shifter. An 8-second quarter-mile on the 14R is just a few chassis changes away…
A year after Chevrolet introduced the overpriced, underpowered, coal-burning Volt, Kawasaki launches the new ZX-14R with all the political correctness of a jab to the nose. The Japanese engineers who worked on the project used phrases like “leapfrog the competition” and “fastest-accelerating mass-production bike on the planet” and “total domination.” Subtle…
After the dragstrip testing (9.91 sec. at 149 mph for me), we ventured into the southern Nevada desert, where the ZX-14R easily broke the posted speed limit in even the lowest gears. I saw 130 mph in third gear on the rear tire. Before the street ride, Kawasaki told us that we were personally responsible for any speeding tickets, bail money or jail time. What a concept! Personal responsibility was certainly the undertone of this press launch; I love it and highly recommend the idea to all riders.
If you’re getting the picture of a monstrous 1441cc engine, then my words are painting the correct picture. Kawi bumped compression to 12.3:1, and the revised inline-Four spins to 11,000 rpm. Las Vegas-based Dynojet reported 193-195 rear-wheel horsepower from the five brand-new 14Rs it dynoed. Impressive, but the number you’ll feel with every throttle movement is the 112-114 foot-pounds of torque. The 14R’s pistons move through a 4mm-longer stroke, and the wave of midrange power is the closest I’ve ever felt to a turboed bike. Addicting? Yes!
Kawasaki focus groups made it clear that controlling engine heat had to be a priority on the 14R. “Not only does this engine run cooler,” the engineers told the press, “but we’ve added a second radiator fan.” The fins along the sides of the fairing were redesigned to push hot air farther outward, keeping it off the rider. The bike looks purposeful, and it should: This is no plaything.
External oil lines carry slippery stuff that sprays the undersides of the pistons to help dissipate heat. A pair of counterbalancers makes the 1441cc mill eerily smooth, and a back-torque-limiting (slipper) clutch attempts do to the same for the rider. The engine spins 5000 rpm at an indicated 89 mph. Gadson said the ZX-14R is the first production bike he can remember that doesn’t need to be geared lower for optimum quarter-mile times.
Current ZX-14 owners didn’t want Kawasaki to change the four-headlight and V-shaped-taillight styling, but every other facet of the bodywork was tweaked. Hidden fairing fasteners take a little more time to undo, but the look is sleek and clean. “I can’t think of another bike on which Kawasaki spent so much attention to detail,” said a longtime Kawasaki employee, referring to the classy-looking instruments, factory hand-ported head and overall quality of the machine.
Back to the dragstrip: While the 149-mph trap speed says volumes about the bike’s box-stock performance, underlining the torque output is the way in which Gadson had us launch the bike. He told us to stage at 3200 rpm, get the clutch out in one smooth, linear motion and not get greedy with the throttle. This turned out to be very tricky. Gadson, of course, has mastered it. If you’re Mr. Grabby, KTRC—Kawasaki’s three-mode traction-control program that is similar to the systems used on the Concours 14 and ZX-10R—can turn you into Mr. Almost Smooth.
Kawi also added a two-position—Full and Low—Power Mode selector. “Low” blunts engine acceleration above 6500 rpm. We didn’t sample it. Most of us ran the quarter-mile in KTRC Mode 1 to help with wheelie control and no TC (yes, you can turn it off) on the backroads for maximum wheelie enjoyment. A switch on the left handlebar makes selecting your choices quick and easy.
The gearshift light was repositioned to be more in the rider’s line of sight and can also be programmed as a dragstrip launch light. Ours was set at 3500 rpm to launch, 11,000 to shift, yet it was still easy to tag the rev limiter due to the engine’s eagerness to spin. Bar-mounted switches allow the rider to toggle between TC and power modes, as well as information like battery voltage, ambient temperature, fuel mileage and range.
More important than the electronic aids is the effort that Kawasaki put into the chassis. Despite a wet weight of almost 600 pounds, a 58.3-inch wheelbase (the swingarm was stretched 10mm) and engine output at the rear wheel nudging 200 hp, the ZX-14R is amazingly nimble. To help achieve this performance, rake-and-trail numbers were juggled, and the wheels weigh 3 pounds less than before.
As a result, the ZX-14R ($14,699 for Candy Surf Blue or Metallic Black Spark; add $200 for Golden Blazed Green) is super-comfortable on the freeway, stable as a granite coffee table and roomy enough for big, tall riders. I managed to get the bike to headshake a little under really hard acceleration, but on the medium-fast backroads used for the launch, it was practically flawless. The engineers worked hard on the chassis, and their effort matched that put into the amazing engine.
A quick nod to political correctness: I averaged 31.2 mph on the street ride and traveled at an indicated 35 mph for several miles through a state park. The choice to take advantage of the ZX-14R’s full performance elsewhere—street or strip—was mine. Just as it should be.