2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R | The New King Cometh | First Ride

No playing around this time—Kawasaki's new maximum Ninja puts the Hayabusa squarely in its sights and scores a devastating hit

Yes, the dual exhaust canisters are large (and probably heavy), but that capacity allows them to flow well while keeping noise levels in check. Swingarm is definitely beefier than previous version to handle the extra power.
Instrument panel was slightly revised, with the LCD providing more info. Programmable shift and launch rpm lights sit atop the dash.
More than 50 percent of the aluminum monocoque frame has been strengthened in order to keep the ZX-14R’s monstrous power in check, including the steering head section and the swingarm pivot halves.
A 4mm stroke increase in addition to a host of other upgrades has boosted the ZX-14R’s output considerably…enough that it’s undoubtedly the strongest mass-produced powerplant we’ve sampled yet.
The Nissin four-piston monobloc calipers are basically the same as before, but braking upgrades include stronger material for the 310mm discs and different pad compound. Performance was thankfully up to par with the monster engine.
Radiator cutouts have been slightly revised to direct hot air away from the rider’s legs.
The seat has been reshaped, with a narrower front section allowing easier feet placement at a stop, and sculpted rear providing more support for longer rides.
Kawasaki had a stock ZX-14R on hand that they lowered and geared two teeth taller in the rear (to help smooth out the launch). Gadson promptly ran two uncorrected 9.3-second runs without breaking a sweat.

Although it’s become common practice in the auto industry for advertisements to make direct product comparisons, there’s always been a measure of respect and civility among the motorcycle OEMs. Rarely has any motorcycle manufacturer mentioned another in its promotional material, and God forbid that an OEM should trumpet that its product trounces one of the others — directly or indirectly. That territory appeared to be off-limits, as if a gentlemen’s agreement between the factories prevented toes from being stepped on, even if a manufacturer wanted to promote its product as a winner of a magazine comparison test.

That agreement appears to have been shredded to bits with Kawasaki’s new ZX-14R. The company released a series of promotional web videos just before the bike’s national debut featuring multi-time national motorcycle dragracing champion Rickey Gadson, with the most popular (or perhaps controversial would be the better word, depending on your brand loyalty) video involving a comparison at the dragstrip between the Suzuki Hayabusa and the new Kawasaki. There was no messing about with “Brand S” obscure references or blurred-out images; the video clearly and unmistakably featured the Suzuki Hayabusa getting its tail section handed to it at the dragstrip by the new ZX-14R, in numerous ways. A bit audacious, if you ask us — although perhaps not so much if you look back on Kawasaki’s history of pavement ripplers…

Thus, it was no surprise that Kawasaki chose a dragstrip to introduce the latest ZX-14R to the motorcycling press. And after being given the opportunity for a day of multiple runs on Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s nicely prepped NHRA dragstrip under the tutelage of Gadson — in addition to a nice street ride on the undulating road leading to Nevada’s infamous Valley of Fire — we can say this: those videos weren’t just ad agency promo-speak. The new ZX-14R’s mind-boggling power will indeed put the hurt on the Hayabusa, and any other stock production motorcycle in a straight-line speed contest.

YOU DON'T GAIN THIS MUCH POWER WITH JUST DISPLACEMENT

We’ve already covered the majority of the upgrades to the ZX-14R (Late Braking, January ‘12), but there was plenty more unveiled during the technical briefing on the new maximum Ninja. The engine grows 89cc in displacement from 1352cc to 1441cc via a 4mm-longer stroke, with overall connecting rod length increasing 3mm to 115.5mm for better leverage and the rods’ small end increasing by 1mm in diameter for improved durability. A completely new cylinder head design features machined (instead of unfinished cast) combustion chambers for a more accurate combustion chamber shape, and all-new forged pistons that are six grams lighter each force a higher compression ratio of 12.3:1 (from the previous 12.0:1 spec) via revised crowns and combustion chamber volume.

Reshaped intake (with Kawasaki’s usual hand-polishing done at the factory) and exhaust porting work with hotter cams sporting increased lift; the maximum intake cam lift goes from 9.1mm to 9.3mm, while the exhaust increases from 8.5mm to 9.3mm. In response to some complaints regarding the startup clatter that often results from the hydraulic cam chain tensioner getting up to proper oil pressure, the tensioner has been changed to a combined hydraulic/ratcheting type unit for less noise. A new valve hardening process and valve seat material increase durability in the top end, while a new externally fed oil jet system cools the underside of the pistons that Kawasaki reps say demonstrably resulted in lower running temperatures during testing.

Helping with lowering running temperatures in traffic is a second radiator fan on the right side of the huge radiator. Transmission gears have an improved heat and surface treatment for more durability and smoother action, while a slipper clutch keeps aggressive downshifts from upsetting the chassis. First gear is now taller, while a one-tooth-larger rear sprocket (41 to 42 teeth) drops the overall final drive ratio for even better acceleration.

The 44mm Mikuni DFI throttle bodies remain, but a larger and thicker air filter with 10 percent more surface area and 40 percent more flow capability allows the larger engine to breathe better. The exhaust system features tapered header pipes (from 38.1mm diameter at the exhaust port up to 42.7mm) for better exhaust flow, and larger-volume mufflers maintain that high flow for improved performance without excessive noise. A new ISC (Idle Speed Control) valve automatically adjusts idle rpm for lower emissions during deceleration, permitting the use of smaller catalyzers for better performance. And the ECU now automatically changes fueling for improved economy without affecting drivability in response to rider throttle input during highway cruising, resulting in a claimed maximum 20 percent improvement in fuel economy.

Considering the power levels it was looking to achieve with the ZX-14R, Kawasaki equipped it with the latest version of KTRC (Kawasaki Traction Control). There are three levels of intervention that can be accessed via a switch on the left handlebar; Mode 1 and 2 are “ultra-sport” oriented with similar characteristics to the ZX-10R’s S-KTRC system, and Mode 3 is for maximum traction on variable surfaces in the vein of the Concours 14’s KTRC system. Naturally, the ZX-14R’s TC system can be turned off as well. Two Power Modes are also available, with the Low power mode providing 75 percent of full power with a milder throttle response for sketchy pavement conditions.

Keeping the ZX-14R’s substantial power under control required beefing up the aluminum monocoque frame, with more than 50 percent of the castings and forgings modified for increased rigidity. A longer (by 10mm) and stronger swingarm complements the stiffer chassis, while extending the wheelbase 0.8 inches for a total of 58.3 inches to try and keep the wheelies at bay. Suspension rates for the fork and shock were tweaked to handle the increased power, with stiffer springs and damping designed to have more of an effect earlier in the suspension travel. New 10-spoke cast aluminum wheels drop a substantial 3.3 pounds of unsprung weight, with the front wheel just under one pound lighter and the rear wheel more than two pounds lighter.

The seat has been re-sculpted for easier reach to the ground and better support for your derrière. The dashboard has also been subtly redesigned, with not only a shift warning light, but a launch rpm light (both adjustable, ‘natch) added to the top above the tachometer, along with a LCD panel whose various displays can now be toggled via a left handlebar switch instead of having to push buttons on the dash.

BUT DOES IT DELIVER?

So what does all this add up to? Basically this: one run through the gears is all it will take to tell you that Kawasaki has indisputably reclaimed the title of most powerful production sportbike — and that’s without a Hayabusa alongside for direct comparison. No maybes, no “stand by until…” — the Kawasaki’s power and acceleration are brutal enough that we can easily state it is hands down the most powerful mass-production sportbike we’ve ever ridden.

Even with its hefty 584-pound wet weight and 58-inch wheelbase, the ZX-14R will easily go vertical with the front tire in the first two gears with just the throttle (provided the traction control is turned off — more on that later). Snap the fairly grippy 190/50 rear Metzeler M5 Sportec Interact tire loose with the clutch, and you can keep it spinning with barely any throttle. There’s so much torque on tap that you can lug the bike at 35 mph in sixth gear, take your hand off the throttle, and the engine will easily keep the bike rolling along just by idling.

Throttle response is silky smooth, yet the engine is very responsive; the Kawasaki’s engine gains rpm very quickly for a powerplant with this much torque. The power builds in a linear fashion for the most part, although there is a major increase in steam at 6500 rpm that begins the launch into hyperspace. From that point on up to its 11,000 rpm redline, the ZX-14R pulls like no other motorcycle off the showroom floor. Our butt dynos are predicting about 190 horsepower to the rear wheel, a quantum leap above the old ZX-14 (nevermind the latest gen ‘Busa).

Kawasaki brought over multi-time dragracing champion Rickey Gadson to show the ZX-14R’s quarter-mile prowess, as well as school the assembled press on how to properly launch Team Green’s new ballistic missile. Gadson nonchalantly reeled off a couple of uncorrected 9.7-second/147-mph-plus passes on a bone-stock, non-lowered machine just to drive home the point of how powerful the ZX-14R is, then went about coaching each motojournalist as they made their own dragstrip runs.

This was a good thing, as it turns out the ZX-14R is so powerful that it requires a deft touch to launch properly. The engine is so responsive and torquey that you need to keep the revs below 3300 rpm at launch (yes, that’s right, 3300 rpm) in order to load the engine, otherwise it will spin up the clutch and cause the front end to skyshot when you fully disengage it, ruining the run.

Some are probably worrying that the traction control is too intrusive, but those fears are unfounded. The KTRC system on the ZX-14R is developed to the point that even in Mode 2, the bike is still plenty of fun to ride. Wheelies are curbed for the most part, but there’s still major acceleration available as long as the traction is there. Mode 1 allows enough wheelspin to have serious fun as long as your riding skill is up to the task, and is hands-off on wheelies for the most part (although we could hear the ignition fluttering just a bit during extended power wheelies). Forget about Mode 3 unless you’re attempting to ride on a dirt road or in conditions that most riders would call extremely risky.

Just how torquey is the ZX-14R? Gadson and Kawasaki brought out a lowered ZX-14R with bone-stock engine that the dragracing ace used to swiftly uncork an uncorrected 9.31-second pass. Gadson revealed before making his run that they had actually increased the gearing on the bike by dropping two teeth on the rear sprocket in order to smooth out the power enough to allow the rear tire to maintain grip off the line. When’s the last time you heard of increasing the gearing in order to go quicker?

As far as the bike’s other attributes — oh, right, there’s other riding it can do besides scorching any straight chunk of pavement it sees — the updates to the Kawasaki’s suspension and chassis have paid off handsomely. During the street portion of the launch into the Valley of Fire, we found the suspension to be much more controlled while still offering a smooth ride, with much less chassis pitch during braking and acceleration. The slightly upgraded brakes (the petal-style discs are still 310mm diameter but made from a “more rigid” steel, along with new brake pad compound) offer superb power and feel, a good thing considering the ZX-14R’s monster power and acceleration capabilities. The revised saddle is more comfy for long rides, and the dual counterbalancers do an excellent job of canceling out engine vibes. In fact, slap on some soft luggage and we think Kawasaki may just have the ultimate supersport-tourer on its hands — nevermind the fact that the company has basically wrested the Most Powerful Sportbike crown away from the Hayabusa with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the forehead…

THERE'S A NEW SHERIFF IN TOWN
Kawasaki reps were keeping tight-lipped on any questions referring to horsepower claims with the new ZX-14R, which is probably a by-product of memories stemming from the 1999 pre-release debacle that surrounded the ZX-12R. All they'd do is crack a smile and say, "We'll let you find out for yourselves when you dyno it…" That type of confidence means bad news for the competition. And good news for those of you out there whose unspoken motto is "Too much is never enough."

Needless to say, we can't wait to get our hands on a test unit. Stay tuned…SR

SPECIFICATIONS

2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R
**MSRP: $14,699/$14,899 **(Golden Blazed Green Special Edition)

ENGINE
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse, DOHC inline-four
Displacement: 1441cc
Bore x stroke: 84.0 x 65.0mm
Compression ratio: 12.3:1
Induction: Mikuni DFI, 44mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.

CHASSIS
** **Front tire:
120/70ZR-17 Metzeler M5 Sportec Interact
Rear tire: 190/50ZR-17 Metzeler M5 Sportec Interact
Rake/trail: 23.0 deg./3.7 in. (94mm)
Wheelbase: 58.3 in. (1481mm)
Seat height: 31.5 in. (800mm)
Fuel capacity: 5.8 gal. (22L)
Claimed wet weight: 584 lb. (266kg)