Kawasaki ZX-14R - Road Test

Everything else is officially slow.

Photography by Jeff Allen

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R - Road Test

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R - Road Test

History will show that Cycle World's first ride on Kawasaki's ZX-14R happened at a dragstrip. Think back to the H1 and Z1 of the 1970s, Team Green's first pacesetters, for the pattern this company has developed: big horsepower, industry-leading acceleration, physics-defying speed. The two-stroke H1 Mach III and four-stroke Z1 shocked us with their amazing performance back in the day, and Kawasaki has done it again with this elegant green monster.

Within the first five minutes of the press introduction, world champion drag-racer Rickey Gadson reeled off an effortless, uncorrected 9.64-second pass at 149 mph—stock ride height, 42 pounds of air in the rear Metzeler, pump gas in the tank. An hour later, I clocked a 9.91 at 149. This is a mind-blowing terminal speed from a stock production bike.

When I stayed in the power all the way through fifth gear—shutting off only because the dragstrip pavement was ending—the speedo registered 175. This motorcycle did an indicated 175 in just a half-mile, with a gear to go. When we let Road Test Editor Don Canet loose to top-speed test the 14R, he was stunned: "It was absolutely amazing how quickly and easily the bike reaches its electronically limited 185.1 mph top speed. The ZX-14R doesn't roll over on top and eke out the last few mph like most production bikes do; it bangs into the rev limiter and begins to lurch—at 185 mph—as if it's letting you know the 200-mph club would be well within its capabilities if it weren't for the gentlemen's agreement among manufacturers to keep speeds under 186."

Kawasaki makes no apologies. “We want the 14R to be the fastest, hardest-accelerating production bike in the world.” Read any equivocation in that?

Ask an H1 or Z1 owner about handling and they’ll probably laugh while mentioning anemic brakes and speed wobbles that rival the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders. Notice the “R” immediately following “14,” a designation that wasn’t on the first-gen 14: It’s there to let us know Kawasaki focused its considerable resources on the chassis, too. Thank you, Lord.

We thank the Lord and Team Green for the R designation because, let’s face it, 2012 motorcycles are an increasingly sophisticated group. Running nines at 149 is amazing and terrifying and stimulating, but after those three feelings fade away, we still want to get to work, ride to breakfast on Sunday, do track days, cross the country, get home in the rain. The press intro gave us a small and tempting taste of the 14R on the freeway and backroads, but it wasn’t until we got it back to SoCal that we realized how usable this rocketship is.

Don’t be misled. The 14’s power dominates like King Kong in a parakeet cage. None of us can ride this thing and not be blown away by the massive thrust. The more riding talent the rider has, the more enjoyable this bike proves to be. Newbies were shocked and scared and shocked and scared, and that was just the first two gears. They got more panicked after that.

Kawasaki stroked last year’s 1352cc engine 4mm to get a 1441cc powerplant with a 12.3:1 compression ratio. Redline is 11,000 rpm. All told, you’ll see 192 rear-wheel ponies on top, but the number you’ll feel with every throttle movement is the 113 foot-pounds of torque. For the experts on our staff, it’s the closest thing to a turbo bike we’ve yet experienced. Addicting? Yes! Frightening? Yes! For less-experienced riders, it was the closest thing to a Grizzly attack.

Kawasaki ZX-14R close up shots

“Petal” discs and radial-mount calipers do the job well up front. Exhaust is whisper quiet, giving little hint of the 192-horsepower engine's fury. Left swtichpod is traction-control command center.

But controllable, too, and in various ways. We’ll begin with the most important: killer brakes. Radially mounted Nissin calipers up front clamp 310mm petal-style discs, and the 58.3-inch wheelbase is long enough to make the rear caliper extremely useful, as well. Power and feel are outstanding on both ends, though we did fade the front brakes slightly during an extended, high-speed, stop-and-go photo session. The lever came back toward the bar noticeably, but power stayed strong and progressive, important on a 545-pound bike that pulls with only slightly less urgency than John Force’s NHRA Funny Car. Anti-lock braking is not an option this year, but Kawasaki plans to listen to buyers to see if ABS should be included on future 14Rs. We think ABS is always welcome on a streetbike.

Back to controllability: Human throttle control is assisted by three distinct modes of KTRC traction control (four modes if you count Off). Modes 1 and 2 we described in depth during our testing of Kawi's ZX-10R, but think of them as safety nets willingly blunting wheelspin and wheelies. Mode 2 is more conservative, but Gadson still ran a 9.98 with it engaged. Even on a leash, this thing is beastly—until Mode 3 (borrowed from the Concours), which enables the rider to navigate the most slippery conditions with no drama whatsoever. Several of us spent time trundling around gravel parking lots and on dirt roads with the 14R's throttle wide open, and the Mode 3 electronics always saved our stupidity.

Kawi moved the KTRC switch to the left handlebar, and the bike remembers the mode previously selected when you restart it, except the Off position. Mode 1 probably got the most use around here, but on roads we know and love, the TC was switched off for maximum enjoyment of this bike’s best attribute. Have you ever ridden a Yamaha YSR50 with a 100cc two-stroke motocross engine stuck in its frame? A bike with nitrous? A turbo? If so, you’re getting the idea behind this bike with no TC engaged. Something is happening all the time, and there aren’t many riders in the world who won’t be impressed with how this bike gets up and goes. Maybe Larry “Spiderman” McBride….

While KTRC jumps in to help the rider when opening the throttle, a back-torque-limiting (slipper) clutch sits in the cases to help smooth sloppy downshifts and soften the effects of high-rpm throttle closures. And speaking of clutches, this one is tough, tough, tough, with nary a problem when subjected to our severe beatings at the dragstrip. In fact, Gadson told CW that he had more than 100 runs on a single clutch with no drama. There's no lockup mechanism or anything super-drag-racing trick to help the clutch hook up, but the slipper makes any decel issues smoother.

Kawasaki engineers also made a big deal about improved idle control and off-throttle fueling, and their bragging was proven in our testing: The bike fuels (we used to say carburets) wonderfully and gives the rider every chance to feel the grip of the rear 190mm-wide Metzeler.

Kawasaki gave a single slight nod to political correctness with another choice offered to the rider: the ability to select Full Power or Low Power Mode. Both modes run the same off the bottom, but the horsepower chart begins to differ at 6500 rpm, and Low Mode finally delivers three-quarters of the output of Full power mode. Why? No, really. We’re asking. Why? Is it for your friend to try this bike? Don’t let your friend try this bike.

The third arm of controllability Kawasaki offers 14R owners is a chassis revised significantly over Gen One. The monocoque frame is 50 percent brand-new, the swingarm is 10mm longer and, most importantly the front and rear KYB suspension wears firmer springs, with revised damping to match. We completely closed the fork’s compression and rebound damping at the strip, and ran standard settings during our backroad flogs.

Handling is impressive for a bike this heavy (545 pounds dry on the CW scale). Steering is neutral, stability excellent and the 14R is definitely in its element through smooth, fast sweepers. On a tight road, you'll never forget you're on a big un', but it is really easy to ride fast and rolls down to full lean with little effort.

We also really like the 14R’s low-speed handling feel. It’s quite a contrast to the higher-effort Suzuki Hayabusa at parking-lot speeds. Shift action is also tops, and it’s super-easy to make fluid gear changes up or down. Drivetrain lash is close to nil.

Our metallic-green 14R states in no uncertain terms that the glory of performance motorcycles continues. A year after Chevrolet introduced the over-priced, under-powered, coal-burning Volt, Kawasaki launches the ZX-14R with all the political correctness of a jab to the nose. The engineers used phrases like “leapfrog the competition” and “total domination,” subtleties like that. For just under $15,000, Kawasaki has once again produced the hardest-accelerating mass-production vehicle on our planet; included in that price is all the equipment needed to stop and turn. Team Green has come a long way since the Mach III.

List price:|$14,899
Importer:|Kawasaki Motors Corp., USA P.O. Box 25252 Santa Ana, CA 92799 www.kawasaki.com
Customer service phone:|949/770-0400
Warranty:|12 mo./unlimited mi.
Type:|liquid-cooled, four-stroke, inline-Four
Bore x stroke:|84.0 x 65.0mm
Compression ratio:|12.3:1
Valve train:|dohc, four valves per cylinder, shim adjustment
Valve adjustment intervals:|15,000 mi.
Induction:|44mm throttle bodies
Oil capacity:|4.9 qt.
Electrical power:|581w
Battery:|12v, 12ah
Weight: tank empty|545 lb.
Weight: tank full|582 lb.
Fuel capacity:|5.8 gal.
Wheelbase:|58.4 in.
Rake/trail:|23.0°/3.7 in.
Seat height:|31.4 in.
Ground clearance:|5.0 in.
GVWR:|970 lb.
Load capacity (tank full):|388 lb.
30 mph indicated:|29 mph
60 mph indicated:|57 mph
Tube diameter:|43mm
Claimed wheel travel:|4.6 in.
Adjustments:|compression and rebound damping, spring preload
Type:|single shock
Claimed wheel travel:|4.9 in.
Adjustments:|compression and rebound damping, spring preload
Front:|120/70ZR17 Metzeler Sportec M5
Rear:|190/55ZR17 Metzeler Sportec M5
1/4 mile:|9.47 sec @ 152.83 mph
0-30 mph:|1.2 sec.
0-60 mph:|2.6 sec.
0-90 mph:|4.2 sec.
0-100 mph:|4.8 sec.
Top gear time to speed: 40-60 mph|3.3 sec.
Top gear time to speed: 60-80 mph|2.8 sec.
Measured top speed:|185 mph
Engine speed at 60 mph:|3320 rpm
High/low/avg.:|42/22/33 mpg
Avg. range inc. reserve:|191 mi.
From 30 mph:|30 ft.
From 60 mph:|121 ft.
Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R Dyno Chart
In-action: Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R

Kawasaki ZX-14R: MSRP $14,699 ($200 more for metallic green)

2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R in-action

ZX-14 owners didn't want Kawasaki to change the four-headlight and "V" taillight styling

Ninja ZX-14R sportbike in-action

Crushing horsepower and incredible torque are delivered by the ZX-14R's 1441cc inline-Four

Rickey Gadson on a modified Kawasaki ZX-14R

Rickey Gadson turned in a 9.31-second, 149-mph run on a modified ZX-14R

Side profile: 2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R

2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R: the look is sleek and clean

Front brake close-up: Kawasaki ZX-14R

"Petal" discs and radial-mount calipers on the ZX-14R

Left switchpod: 2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R

Left switchpod is traction-control command center: Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R

Speedometer console: Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R

Political correctness dictates the ZX-14R speedometer reads up to "180"

Fuel tank: Ninja ZX-14R

Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R fuel tank

Tail section: Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R

2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R tail section with "V" taillight styling

Exhaust pipe: Kawasaki ZX-14R sportbike

Exhaust pipe on the Ninja ZX-14R is whisper quiet

Studio shot: 2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R

2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R studio shot