Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R | First Ride

A Vulgar Display of Power

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kevin Wing, Adam Campbell

They Say:
"The 'R' equals more race-winning power."
We say:
"Almost too much power!"

Kawasaki didn’t hesitate to demonstrate the straight-line supremacy of the new 2012 Ninja ZX-14R, revised for the first time since the ZX-14’s ’06 introduction. First stop was Sin City’s other “Strip”—the timed quarter-mile at Las Vegas Motor Speedway—where moto-journalists watched drag-racing legend Rickey Gadson flex the alpha-Ninja’s muscles. Gadson’s first run was dispatched in just 9.64 seconds at 149.83 mph—remarkable numbers for a bone-stock bike, on a 50-degree morning, at an altitude of 2100 feet.

Raw, tendon-stretching torque defines open-class sportbikes. With a new 4mm “stroker” crank boosting displacement from 1352cc to 1441cc, the ZX-14R makes way more torque than its competitors. Political correctness keeps Kawasaki from making specific claims, but a dyno chart leaked on Gadson’s Facebook page revealed a remarkable 195.06 bhp and a chain-stretching 114.41 lb.-ft. of torque. Not even Yamaha’s 1679cc, 109 lb.-ft. Star V-Max can match that.

In addition to the displacement bump, this mountain motor also gets a race-ready cylinder head with surface-milled—not cast—combustion chambers and polished ports, plus higher-lift, longer-duration cams and lighter, higher-compression pistons. Thicker crankshaft main journals and stronger connecting rods beef-up the bottom end, while heat/surface-treated transmission gears and a slipper clutch reinforce the drivetrain. The 44mm throttle bodies are fitted with finer, 75-micron-droplet injectors and “de-neutered” with more aggressive programming that opens the secondary throttle plates faster. A higher-flow air filter, larger-diameter head pipes and larger-volume tapered mufflers all improve engine response.

Kawasaki’s three-mode KTRC traction-control system, switchable on the fly via thumb control, makes such cray-cray power almost manageable. Modes 1 and 2 both optimize acceleration, with Mode 2 adding wheelie control, while Mode 3 is reserved for extreme low-traction conditions. KTRC can also be deactivated, but this is only recommended for those with Gadson-grade wrist control. There’s also a two-mode power selector that swaps between Full and (ironically named) Low power, the latter reducing output by 25 percent beyond 6500 rpm.

Second-gear roll-ons in Mode 1 highlighted the tire-shredding torque. There are no adequate adjectives to describe how fast and effortlessly the ZX-14R accelerates from 20 mph to triple digits. You’d swear the rumored supercharger is actually hidden beneath the subtly updated bodywork. Wide-freakin’-open throttle in first gear with TC set at Mode 2—a true leap of faith—proves the electronics operate as advertised, straining to keep the front wheel down and the rear tire inline and engaged. It’s not shocking to feel so much intervention in first gear, but when the electronics protest just as strongly at the top of third, you begin to appreciate how much power this new Ninja packs.

Only after developing a healthy respect for this beast were we turned loose for full-power passes. The ZX-14R is so torquey and eager to rev that you have to launch below 3500 rpm and release the clutch completely before twisting the throttle, or else revs rise too quickly and an inevitable wheelie destroys your drive. This is hardly as easy as it sounds, even with electronic assistance. None of the journos matched Gadson’s times, proving that power and programming won’t automatically make you fast.

Straight-line acceleration isn’t the big Ninja’s only attribute. An afternoon street ride through Valley of Fire State Park revealed a first-class mile-eater that rivals Kawasaki’s own Concours14 in terms of comfort and refinement. Ergonomics are unchanged and significantly more upright than the rest of the Ninja line. A reshaped saddle is now wider at the rear for improved hip support and narrower at the front for a shorter reach to the ground. Dual counterblancers eradicate vibration at all engine speeds and extensive cooling-system upgrades—including new under-piston oil jets, external oil lines and a second cooling fan to reduce engine temps, along with reconfigured side fins that route hot air away from the rider—greatly improve heat management.

The over-engine monocoque frame has been retuned with a stiffer steering head and swingarm pivot plates, and the gusseted swingarm is 10mm longer. Stiffer springs and firmer damping keep the bike higher in the suspension stroke, while new 10-spoke wheels shed 3 lbs. of unsprung mass. Carving up the Valley of Fire Highway at peg-scraping lean angles, you could be convinced Kawasaki overstated the 584-lb. curb weight by at least 100 lbs.

The ZX-14R feels so relaxed on the open road that you might forget it’s also the fiercest-accelerating streetbike ever made. To refresh our memory, Kawasaki brought us back to the dragstrip, where a ZX-14R had been lowered and fitted with a two-tooth-smaller rear sprocket. Taller gearing actually makes the ZX-14R easier to ride quick, Gadson says. He then demonstrated, blasting off a 9.31-second pass at 151 mph.

Suzuki’s Hayabusa is dead. Long live Kawasaki’s ZX-14R—the new undisputed quarter-mile king!

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