2006 Kawasaki ZX-14 - A Sin City Coronation for the New King of Quick

A Sin City Coronation for the New King of Quick

Photography by Tom Riles

Las Vegas is the natural habitat for a heavyweight contender. Everything is larger-than-life there. You can redraw the lines between fantasy and reality 24 hours a day, or at least as long as the money holds out. What better place, then, for Kawasaki to give us a go on the all-new ZX-14, its latest high-velocity two-wheeled projectile. Considerably larger than life and allegedly packing a 200-horsepower, ram-air-assisted punch, the most powerful off-the-rack motorcycle in captivity can erase the boundaries between fantasy and reality altogether--as long as you can hang on.Forget the ZX-12R. Kawasaki won't mind. Aside from internal-combustion propulsion and monocoque-chassis architecture, the latest Maximum Ninja shares nothing with the last. The 200-mph implications that preceded the 12R have been erased by an international gentleman's agreement that electronically limits liter-class GTs--the ZX-14 included--to a somehow-more-reasonable 300kph (186 mph). Dissertations on drag coefficients and frontal area are thus conspicuously and happily absent from the proceedings, as are all members of the European motorcycle press, who are more wound up about the whole 200-mph thing than we are. Booking the Bonneville Salt Flats would be anticlimactic when you know everyone will leave with the same number.

Some things that happen in Vegas stay in Vegas. But thanks to Nevada Highway Patrol radar and the miracle of interstate reciprocity, high-speed laps of Nevada on this thing could be hazardous to your driving privilege. All of which means our very first taste of the ZX-14 happens not at Las Vegas Motor Speedway's twisty road course but at its 1.5-mile tri-oval--42,000 tons of asphalt that form four very different, very fast and very scary 12-degree banked corners. And that's OK; the lack of an R designation in the bike's name means this is no repli-racer.

Kawasaki did enough testing on the tri-oval to make sure any reasonably sane person would actually live to tell about it, but the motorcycle press corps has never been tainted with an overabundance of sanity. So no radar guns. No racing. Everyone goes one at a time and pulls in after five laps. We're rolling on stock Bridgestone BT014 radials. This thing only goes 186 mph, so what could go wrong? Our own Barry Burke doesn't scare easily, but this place has his full, undivided attention. "When I first got on the bike, I thought, `this is a lot of motorcycle.' I was nervous at first, thinking about vague steering, soft suspension and stock tires. But the bike's tires and aerodynamics are fantastic. There was some crosswind and generally weird air out there, but even with the speedometer pegged on the other side of 180 mph, this thing cut right through it and stuck firmly."

Softly sprung suspension, ridiculous G-loads and a vast expanse of concrete wall mean you don't want to do anything to unsettle the chassis or provoke Mr. Sphincter at Big Speed. Smoothness is key on the banking. The 14 seems more comfortable with ludicrous cornering speeds than the 12R. Burke clicks into sixth rolling out of turn 4 for the start/finish straight, then back to fifth for the other three corners. Running 7.5 miles somewhere to the right of 160 mph draws a fine line between exhilaration and visions of memorializing oneself with a Candy Thunder Blue smudge on the turn-3 wall.

The fact that there's ample power to spin the tire at will and leave big black marks on the asphalt surprises no one. But given the excitable, asocial tendencies of its ancestors, the ZX-14 is a revelation. Power feels more hydroelectric than a product of internal combustion, flowing from idle to the 11,000 redline in a steady, linear stream with no sudden spike to complicate rapid forward progress. That progress is distinctly more rapid once the tach needle crosses 6000 rpm. Think 6.0-liter twin-turbo Mercedes V-12. Then think quicker.

Making the segue to the LVMS's quarter-mile dragstrip later in the day, thoughts of pulling the trigger on the world's strongest production motorcycle engine induce indigestion in some contestants, followed by another definition for "launch"--especially if you've ever tried to launch the taller, shorter, peakier and infinitely less-cooperative ZX-12R. Seven-time national champion Rickey Gadson offers information and sincere encouragement: precious commodities to a roadracer like Burke who's a rookie at this drag-racing thing. He looks a little edgy. As it turns out, he had nothing to worry about.

It's hard to imagine a friendlier beast, even at the strip. Can you fog a mirror? Then you can put a ZX-14 in the mid-11s at 120-something. Your little sister could clock an 11.48. Aim for the traps. Put 3500 rpm on the tach. Now ease the clutch out and wind the throttle in one fluid motion. Shift three times at 11,000 rpm without lifting the front wheel higher than your head--or hitting the rev limiter--and you're there.

Covering 1320 feet in less than 10 seconds, however, is more complicated.

Members of the press corps who specialize in such things were clicking off high-9-second runs at more than 140 mph in short order. Sport Rider's Andrew Trevitt--triggerman for Motorcyclist's dragstrip data--notched a 9.92 at 144.5 mph, and others shaved a 10th or three off of that. The key to that magic 9-second kingdom is covering those first 60 feet in about 1.7 seconds and doing everything perfectly from there to the end of the strip. (Times quoted at an altitude of 2100 feet. Sea-level times will be considerably quicker.)

"This bike makes horsepower in a totally predictable way," Burke said. "And that, along with all that clutch feel, makes it really easy to launch." By the end of the day, Burke had that part mostly figured out, but keeping his 6-foot/175-pound chassis motionless behind the 14's fairing while making those three perfect shifts was easier said than done. Still, 10.24 seconds at 140.3 mph ain't bad for a rookie.

With professional fingers on the trigger--Ryan Schnitz for example--the stock bike reels off a 9.65-second run at 147 mph. Armed with a few bolt-on bits from Muzzy's catalog--a lowering strap on the fork, plus a rear lowering link, exhaust system and VP race gas--Rickey clicked off various 9.3-second passes at 150 mph. At that rate, consider the Hayabusa officially dethroned.

Smooth, obedient power and excellent feel from a bulletproof, ZX-11-sized clutch get the job done like nothing else. The old ZX-12R would never have survived this kind of abuse. And the longer, lower chassis parks you closer to the sticky asphalt where drag racers like to be. Despite the Hayabusa's hard-earned reputation, there's no way a bunch of variously talented amateurs could go this quick on one. The cool thing is, the same friendly demeanor we noted on the strip makes the 14 more fun on the Vegas strip, as well.

Saddle up and you discover a riding position somewhere between supersport and sport-touring. It's more upright than the new ZX-10R, but less so than BMW's K1200S. Sitting 31.5 inches above the pavement (about an inch lower than the ZX-12R), the comfortably shaped seat gives vertically challenged riders more confident footing. The downside is a minor legroom shortage for 34-inch inseams. Thumb the starter and Kawasaki's biggest fuel-injected four is marvelously cooperative at any rpm. A new radial master cylinder makes the clutch smooth as well as bulletproof. Power delivery is a bit soft below 3000 rpm, but otherwise flawless right to the bike's 11,000-rpm redline. Kawasaki engineers finally must have gotten tired of all the whining about stiff shifting and driveline lash because there's none of either here. This all-new six-speed is its best yet.

Put it all together and the biggest Ninja flows through congealed Vegas traffic more easily than anything with a claimed dry weight of 474 pounds should. Deep-background, not-for-attribution sources put wet weight at 555 pounds: not quite 10 less than an '05 Hayabusa. The 14 is genuinely agile, steering around clots of taxis and hotel shuttles with much less effort than any of its 1198cc ancestors could have. Rake and trail numbers are only marginally different than the 12R, while the new 57.5-inch wheelbase is a bit longer. The difference is that the new aluminum monocoque frame shifts the engine and other heavy bits down and forward, centralizing mass and making the big boy a lot more willing to change direction.

We weren't on the sort of roads that force hidden handling foibles into the open, but a quick blast on some acceptably twisty pavement told us plenty. Flick may be a strong word, but Mr. Ninja rolls into fast corners much more readily than his ancestors--or Suzuki's highly capable Hayabusa. Aside from being a bit high-effort, Mr. 14's brakes dispense with Big Speed nicely. And there must have been a shakeup in the damping department at Kayaba, because the fork and shock are refreshingly compliant, with none of the harshness of previous efforts.

Dual balance shafts make Kawasaki's biggest sportbike engine its smoothest. There's nothing discernable as vibration at 70 mph in sixth. Fairing protection is fine for sporty sport-touring use. Mirrors are wide enough to deliver a useable rear view. And if the onboard trip computer is to be believed, getting 200 miles and change from one 5.8-gallon tankful should be easy. The seat seems comfy enough for an hour or three. The only glitch is that minor legroom shortage for taller folks; but still, this thing should make a great weekend tourer.

That distinct shortage of glitches may be the most remarkable facet of the new ZX-14. From the 1973 Z-1 to the 2000 ZX-12R, Kawasaki has earned a reputation for building some of the quickest, fastest things on two wheels. That speed came often at the expense of refinement, but not any more. From tip to tail, the ZX-14 seems as sophisticated and well finished as anything out there, and more so than most. Welcome to brutal horsepower and clich-shattering acceleration with no unpleasant aftertaste.

And what of the Hayabusa? It'll take some serious testing on our home court to settle that score. But right now, we're thinking Suzuki's meanest is starting to taste a little like chicken. MC

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