2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R

First Ride Review

At the dawn of the 21th century, as the Kawasaki Ninja ZX-12 and Suzuki GSX-1300R Hayabusa duked it out for top-speed bragging rights, motorcycle manufacturers agreed to limit production machines to 186 mph (300 kph), avoiding legislative restrictions then being considered in Europe. Everyone grumbled but the voluntary cap had little practical impact. Only a tiny handful of people ever get anywhere near 186 mph–on a drag strip or salt flat, mind you–and the gentlemen’s agreement among OEMs said nothing about how quickly a motorcycle can get there. The primary objective changed, but escalation continued. Kawasaki released its 1,352cc ZX-14 in 2006, sending a stampede of 163 horses to its fat rear tire, and Suzuki responded by stroking the 2008 Hayabusa’s in-line four to 1,340cc.

After a brief period of tranquility, Kawasaki has once again gone on the offensive, crowning itself king of the open-class sportbike domain. With a 4mm longer stroke, the 2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R’s engine displaces 1,441cc. Team Green has made no claims about horsepower, but dyno results we’ve seen elsewhere put the rear-wheel number over 190!

In addition to an extra 89cc and a higher compression ratio (12.3:1), Kawasaki massaged other engine internals, machining rather than casting the combustion chamber, polishing the intake ports, hardening valves and their seats, adding lift to the cams and using stronger, lighter forged pistons. A new external-feed piston oil-jet system helps cool the engine and a new hydraulic, serrated-tooth cam chain tensioner reduces mechanical noise. The ZX-14R breathes easier thanks to less air filter resistance, a new tapered header pipe and larger volume mufflers. And a new ECU prioritizes fuel efficiency over power when the throttle is used judiciously, with an ECO indicator on the dash like the one found on the Concours 14. Kawasaki claims the ZX-14R is up to 20 percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor despite its higher displacement and power.

The new engine’s power increase necessitated strengthening the ZX-14R’s aluminum monocoque frame, transmission gears and 10mm-longer swingarm, adding a slipper clutch and firming up the suspension settings. A dual-mode power selector was added, with the low setting cutting output by 25 percent and easing throttle response. And Kawasaki added a four-mode KTRC traction control system that blends the functionality of the ZX-10R’s S-KTRC system with the Concours 14’s KTRC system. Modes 1 and 2 (S-KTRC) favor maximum acceleration on dry roads, Mode 3 favors stability on slippery roads (KTRC), or the system can be turned off.

New 10-spoke wheels reduce unsprung weight by 3 pounds (overall weight is up about 20 pounds), brake disc and pad material have been improved, revised bodywork and a second radiator fan better manage engine heat, and the instrumentation has been upgraded. The ZX-14R has a new LCD selector on the left handlebar that scrolls through functions, as well as programmable launch and shift lights. A new gunfighter-style seat is slimmer at the front for easier flat-footedness and sculpted at the back to help riders feel more planted during takeoff.

To demonstrate the new ZX-14R’s capabilities, Kawasaki organized test runs at Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s drag strip. Drag racing legend Rickey Gadson was on hand to coach us, and to show that in the right hands, a stock ZX-14R was capable of quarter-mile times in the low 9s. Even an inexperienced oaf like me eked out a 10.37-second ET on a cold track. Traction control, which could be dialed down or turned off as my confidence and technique improved, kept me from melting the rear tire or smacking myself in the chinbar with the triple clamp! Throttle response was very controllable and clutchless upshifts were effortless.

Afterwards, we hit the road. Visions of sport touring danced in my head as I cruised comfortably up I-15 to the Valley of Fire, the ZX-14R’s long, spacious cockpit suiting my long, bulbous body to a T. Huge gobs of torque made roll-ons in any gear a treat and absolutely mind-bending at high revs. With a 58.3-inch wheelbase and a curb weight over 580 pounds, the ZX-14R is a bullet train of stability yet steers easily through bends thanks to sporty geometry. As the road followed the contours of the desert, the Big Ninja’s suspension absorbed dips, cracks and bumps without harshness, and the mondo brakes freeze-framed reality as quickly as the engine distorted it. ABS seems appropriate on this bike but isn’t offered.

Kawasaki elevated its game with the new ZX-14R, giving it a bigger, more refined engine, sophisticated electronics, a better chassis and improved fit and finish, including hidden bodywork fasteners, a sculpted triple clamp and standard seat cowl. For an extra $200, the Golden Blazed Green Special Edition gets color-matched fairing fins and dash cowling, flame graphics, machined two-tone wheels and a machined triple clamp. The ZX-14R is not only the most powerful production motorcycle, it’s also one of the most civilized. Kawasaki reps were tight-lipped when we asked if the 1,441cc engine will end up in the next-generation Concours, but if I were a betting man I’d go all in.