Road Test Review
In the large-displacement sport-touring segment this year, our motorcycle cup runneth over. Off the top of my head, the lineup includes the Aprilia Futura, Honda Interceptor, Triumph Sprint ST, a passel of BMWs and Buells and the Ducati ST2 and ST4s. Others, like the Honda ST1100, Triumph Trophy, BMW R1150RT and Kawasaki Concours have larger fairings, and, in some cases shaft drive, but you can argue that they should be on that list, too. And by the time you’re reading this, the new Honda ST1300 and Yamaha FJR1300 will be on their way to dealerships.
A squinty-eyed look at that list of sporty tourers tells you–what? For one thing, the Kawasaki Concours is a nice motorcycle, especially at $8,199 for 2002, and it practically created the category in which it’s pegged. But we’re talking essentially a 1986 design, and next to that crowd of newer machines, the Concours is showing its technological age. The Ninja sportbike line has been getting racier by the year, too, so until this model year the sport-touring Kawasaki was slowly becoming an endangered species.
Filling the gap is the new 2002 Kawasaki ZZ-R1200. When Kawasaki announced the imminent arrival of this silver Euro sport-touring bike, on paper it sounded promising. Essentially a cross between the current ZRX1200R and Ninja ZX-11 sportbike last seen as a 2001 model, at the heart of the ZZ-R1200 is the liquid-cooled, transverse in-line four from the ZRX. But instead of its 36mm CV carbs, the ZZ-R gets a new water jacket and head bolt layout to accommodate a bank of 40mm downdraft CVs with a throttle-position sensor. Kawasaki says the larger mixers enhance low- and midrange power (though larger carbs are usually added to gain top end). Tougher pistons from the Ninja ZX-12R are used in the ZZ-R, and the bike’s rebalanced crankshaft is said to increase torque.
The revised powerplant is hung in a ZX-11-type aluminum perimeter frame with tubular-steel front downtubes that are removable for engine service. Thicker rails and a new reinforced steering head stiffen the aluminum chassis for better handling. Steering rake and fork offset were both reduced to “maintain a light-steering feeling,” and the aluminum box-section swingarm was lightened and pivots slightly lower in the frame to improve traction and squat characteristics. To accommodate the extra weight and stress from a pair of hard saddlebags, the original aluminum seat subframe was replaced with a stronger steel unit.
To firmly position the ZZ-R as a sport-tourer, Kawasaki says it will offer a pair of color-matched hard saddlebags for it made by Givi in Italy. Although not yet available at press time, they are similar to the aftermarket company’s E360 series (www.giviusa.com) and will cost about $700 with mounts. Corbin is also finishing up a color-matched pair of his Beetle Bags for the ZZ-R as I write this-see www.corbin.com. And you can always stick some clear shelf paper or the motorcycle-specific equivalent over those bulbous side panels to protect them if you go with soft saddlebags.
To compensate for changing loads, the ZZ-R’s 43mm cartridge fork has adjustable spring preload, and the new single shock in back offers both a remote hydraulic adjuster knob for preload and a four-position rebound-damping adjuster. Hot days in the East Texas hill country and cold nights and electric vests require more cooling and electrons, so a more powerful 600-watt alternator and larger 14-amp-hour battery help power a pair of radiator fans and an accessory outlet under the large dual seat.
Stylish new bodywork on the ZZ-R affords more wind protection with a larger fairing and wider, taller windscreen than the ZX-11’s, and that cushy new dual seat sits atop a fatter tailsection with a new taillight/clear turn-signal combo that looks from behind like the face of an alien. Searingly bright and sleek-looking twin-beam headlights and integrated clear turn signals cap the front of the bike, and the expanded instrument panel houses a digital clock and analog fuel gauge, as well as the usual indicators. The coup de gr‚Äöce was moving the ZZ-R’s handlebars back and its footpegs down and forward, which Kawasaki says gives the bike all-day touring capability with a new and comfortable riding position.
Our ZZ-R test bike fired up instantly every time, and a gear-driven counterbalancer in the engine makes it very smooth throughout the powerband. Twist the grip hard and the ZZ-R will flatten your eyeballs against the back of your skull, too-nothing stays in its way for very long. Even at a standstill on the Borla Performance dyno and therefore without any benefit from its twin ram-air induction system, the ZZ-R delivered 137.1 peak rear-wheel horsepower at 9,650 rpm, and 81.3 pounds-feet of torque at 8,100. That’s almost 25 more horsepower than the ZRX1200R (remember those bigger carburetors?)-for that matter it’s more than most bikes we’ve dyno-tested. The torque curve stays above 70 pounds-feet from 4,100 to 10,000 rpm, too-redline is at 11,000-so no matter when you ask something of its powerband, the ZZ-R delivers right now. The clutch is a bit stiff at the lever, but shifting through the ZZ-R’s gears is otherwise smooth and clean.
On the highways, and in the canyons and corners on our two-day ride to the Central California coast with the ZZ-R, we found that it absolutely loves smooth, fast sweeping turns, where it feels like it’s on rails. On the highway you’ll find yourself streaking along at 90 mph without even realizing it, thanks to the prodigious power and smoothness.
Tighter turns and bumpier, slower roads aren’t as pleasing, as the bike turns slowly and heavily for a sport-touring machine, and a good bump mid-corner can overwhelm the softer suspension settings that work best everywhere else. Braking from the triple discs is very good front and rear-linear in feel, with no locking of the rear brake-but hard, downhill braking sometimes requires four fingers on the front lever. Stock tires are reputable Bridgestone Battlax radials that stick well, but we noticed some wiggling on freeway rain grooves-a more compliant set would probably help the ride, too.
Though all of the changes made to create the ZZ-R add a little more competence on long rides without any additional weight, the ZZ-R still measures 603 pounds wet-only one pound less than the old ZX-11, and the ZZ-R holds 0.2-gallon less fuel. True, it will smoke any of its competition in a straight line, but most of those bikes weigh about 10 percent less, even with bags, or have more wind protection, standard saddlebags, shaft drive and other features and weigh 5-15 percent more.
The ZZ-R’s revised powerplant does make gigantic power and torque, but if memory serves, it actually steers more heavily than the old ZX-11 and still puts a lot of weight on your wrists-the handlebars are too low for such a large motorcycle, so riding it is work. Kawasaki seems to realize this, as it says that a pair of 1-inch risers will be available, either through its accessory department or directly from the American vendor. Still, on anything but the smoothest roads the bike’s harsh suspension beats on you and pitches you out of the saddle, even on the softest settings, so that after a full day on the ZZ-R I needed two aspirin and a hot tub. Bar risers will help a little, but the bike really needs adjustable compression damping, too.
True, I’m getting old, and Danny DeVito is probably in better shape. But if it tells you anything, I’d much rather ride a powerful, light, nimble sportbike like the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-9R (Rider‘s 2002 Top 601cc and Over Sportbike) than the ZZ-R1200. The ZX-9R’s seating position may seem slightly less comfortable at a standstill, but after several hours in the saddle its lighter steering, lower weight and more supple suspension will not have worked you over as badly.
The ZZ-R’s passenger accommodations are excellent, with good grab handles and legroom, and no buzziness. There’s lots of storage under the seat, a large 6.1-gallon fuel tank (though we only averaged 33.5 mpg-shhhh), and plenty of wind protection and ample tank-top space for a magnetic or strap-on tankbag. And we generally like Givi’s luggage products, so the hard saddlebags should be pretty cool.
Some of the other details on the ZZ-R are good, others not so good. Mirrors, headlights, instruments-all super. Both the brake and clutch levers are adjustable, and there’s a useful helmet lock. Kawasaki’s Positive Neutral Finder system makes finding neutral at stops a snap, and load capacity is pretty good at 391 pounds. The remote adjuster knob for the rear spring preload is very handy for quick changes. But the fork adjusters are half-covered by the clip-on handlebar design, limiting you to short swings of an open-end wrench for adjustments-don’t slip. A solid centerstand comes on this bike as well, but it requires too much effort to put it on the stand, even without bags or a load on the back.
Kawasaki has an excellent line of motorcycles, from the Ninja 250R to the ZX-12R (see sidebar), from the KL250 dual-sport to the Voyager XII. At $10,499 the new ZZ-R1200 is priced OK, and for dedicated Kawasaki fans, it fills the gap between the plusher Voyager and Concours on the one side, the sportier Ninjas on the other. But to our minds the ZZ-R either needs recalibrated suspension, lighter handling and less weight, or more wind protection, more upright seating, and maybe shaft final drive and factory integrated bags. Kawasaki says the new ZZ-R was originally conceptualized for the European market, and I can see it blazing down the autobahn or autostrada at triple-digit speeds, its rider tucked in and confident in the bike’s firm stability and sleek aerodynamics. Until we lose the speed limits on our highways and freeways, however, most American riders will find the translation incomplete.