2002 Kawasaki ZX-12R Motorcycle

Godzilla gets civilized

The new ZX-12R comes not to praise its predecessor but to bury him. Although they share the same name, the Maximum Ninja you see inhaling fine mountain swervery on this page shares few functional similarities with the bike ordained to be the fastest on the planet two years ago. This is a different time and place. The speed wars of 2000 fell victim to international detente, putting a 186-mph lid on fast sportbikes sold by those who wish to keep selling fast sportbikes. Kawasaki couldn't let the paying public cash the 200-mph check they'd written, so the ZX-12R engineers shuffled back to the virtual drawing board for a more sensible go.

That's fine with us. The 200-mph streetbike thing was an exercise in overkill, anyway. Like using a 1500-pound Kodiak bear for home protection: impressive, but potentially messy. Besides, well-heeled seekers of wretched excess ready to dispose of the requisite $10,999 ($1000 less than the '00 edition) don't want a motorcycle that does something they can only lie about at church softball games. If you ask Kawasaki, and we did, people want acceleration, quickness--and lots of it.

If you're all about what happens when the light turns green, pay attention. Our extra-large blue projectile covered the quarter-mile in 9.87 seconds, rolling through the lights at 146.29 mph. That, as Rickey Gadson would say, is quick, man. Especially from a motorcycle that can double as practical transportation.

OK, so maybe practical is a stretch for something with those numbers. Nevertheless, the new ZX-12R does come with accouterments such as headlights that cut a realistic swath after dark and a horn that's audible inside a Cadillac Escalade above the new Britney Spears CD, all at no extra charge. Tossing top speed as a prime directive let Kawasaki make a lot of little changes--140 by official corporate count--that add up to a much better motorcycle that still runs like stink at full wallop. Call it evolution: The feisty carnivore becomes the maximum omnivore. Whereas the old 12R was ill-suited to much beyond going fast in a straight line, the new one eats just about everything.

Obvious changes include the pleasantly menacing new ram-air maw, tastefully integrated into a shorter, wider front cowling that allegedly cuts aerodynamic drag despite a 20mm-taller windscreen. Changes behind the new bubble are more subtle: Plastic panels covering previously exposed wiring and bracketry tidy up the cockpit. Tiny numerals and a confused layout make reading the speedometer tougher than it should be. And despite slightly lower bars, the seating position feels more natural to the Editorial We than before.

A few too many of those pounds live between your knees, but the package proved eminently well mannered and quite manageable during our duly appointed urban rounds. New fork and shock internals make for a smoother, compliant ride, especially getting on and off the throttle. Remapped for more low-end and midrange push, the fuel injection makes the engine more cooperative in the morning. A heavier crankshaft and reshaped flywheel make getting off the line easier. Aside from some stickiness getting in and out of third gear, the ZX-12R's only urbane irritant is spastic on/off idle response. More muscle in the bottom of the rev range means the throttle is scarcely cracked around town, and inadvertently closing it is like flipping the kill switch.

The nicely contoured seat remains a fair stretch from terra firma at 31.9 inches. Despite an airbox and fuel tank packaged as tightly as your own viscera, the tricky monocoque frame wrapped around a bulky 1199cc four makes for one tall motorcycle. Still, weighing in at 547 pounds--complete with a full 5.3-gallon fuel payload--the '02 edition gains not a pound over last year. That's a few pounds lighter than comparable liter-class ueber GTs and an embarrassing 10 pounds less than Honda's new VFR800 Interceptor.

The new bike is much easier on the eye, also. A new nosecone and taller windscreen expand the 12R's comfort envelope with a considerably more generous pocket of serenity.

Nudge the throttle off its stop toward the nearest on ramp and you're whistling along at 80 mph in top cog--that's sixth if you haven't read the specs yet--showing 4500 rpm on the tach. Aside from a rash of vibration at 4000 rpm, the counterbalanced four sends just enough high-frequency tingling through the bars and pegs to let you know it's running. It's not enough to fuzz some of the best mirrors ever attached to a sportbike. Maximum kudos to whomever designed these things. The rear view remains broad and clear enough to let us spot those cute black-and-white cars skulking around off the stern and slow down before things get expensive.

The new bike is much easier on the eye, also. A new nosecone and taller windscreen expand the 12R's comfort envelope with a considerably more generous pocket of serenity. The cockpit is relatively calm on the legal side of 80 mph; seating arrangements are comfortable enough for a full day of rapid transit, though gangly types will wish for more legroom.

Parsimony, however, is not among the supreme Ninja's virtues. A gallon of gas--91-octane super unleaded only, please--goes approximately 31 miles. A conservative throttle hand can squeeze 190 miles between fuel stops, though the appallingly cynical fuel gauge will have you pulling in to fill 40 to 50 miles sooner. Better safe than pushing a big empty 12R, it seems.

Range is more than adequate for a weekend of mountain-road swervery on certain stretches of a certain lightly patrolled highway we won't name no matter how many e-mails you send. Afford it the respect any 550-pound, 161-horsepower behemoth deserves. Given those numbers, bike and rider are happier through fast, sweeping corners than the diabolically twisted bits. Still, if you've got the skills, it will chew up just about any kind of pavement. Clever chassis machinations such as dropping the swingarm pivot 2mm to put more weight on the front wheel and cutting fork offset to improve feedback make getting in and out of tight corners easier than before, but it still takes some work.

Setting shock spring preload on the stiff side helps the twisty-road cause considerably. Because spring preload is a middling way to optimize chassis attitude, Kawasaki also sells a set of ride-height adjusting shims that slot into the upper shock mount. Up front, longer topping springs and stiffer damping through initial travel keep the chassis relatively stable despite the Denso fuel injection's spastic on/off throttle transitions. Aside from overabundant rebound damping, the 43mm Kayaba fork is a giant step ahead of its ancestors. We backed the rebound screws all the way out with 15mm of spring preload, and compression damping stayed at two turns out of a possible three and a quarter when the right-side adjusting screw seized. The piggyback-reservoir shock is 5mm shorter than before, using a softer spring this time and more accurate check-valve damping internals in place of the previous needle-valve arrangement.

The new basement full of torque means third gear is good from 30 mph to just over 100 mph. A two-speed transmission would suffice on most roads. Any references to kinder, gentler or user friendliness are null and void when the tach strikes 7500 rpm. All 91.3 foot-pounds arrive at 7750 revs, followed by 161.4 determined horses at 10,000 rpm. Numbers nuts will bemoan the glaring 1.3 horsepower shortfall vs. the '00 ZX-12 at that point. Meanwhile, the rest of us are busy praying for a clear road ahead, no representatives of the law-enforcement community behind, and more suitable real estate for playing fast and loose with the time/space continuum.

Given the inevitability of that particular scenario, we're happy to report the brakes are as good as anything out there, and better than most. Even in full attack mode, scrubbing off obscene velocity rarely takes more than one finger on the lever. Our only gripe is frighteningly heavy steering once you're into the front brake. Credit a triangular profile on the new D208 radial for most of that little quirk. Dragging a little rear brake toward the apex proved a less sphincter-clenching experience. Dunlop's latest skins are marvelously sticky, and predictably short-lived under ZX-12R mass and horsepower. An aggressive rider can turn them to toast in 1000 miles. Again, thriftiness isn't in the open-class omnivore's creed.

So where does this thing fit into the Big Picture? Masters of the Obvious instantly lump the new ZX-12R to other members of the '02 ueber-GT club with Suzuki's Hayabusa and Honda's CBR1100XX. But this more refined, better balanced '02-spec rendering plays to a bigger audience. OK, so it's 110 pounds heftier than a GSX-R1000 and the 12R's 17 extra horsepower can't compensate for that much fat. Any of the liter-class superbikes makes a better track-day tool, including Kawasaki's own ZX-9R. But the King Ninja is more comfortable, and unlike more tightly focused sporting tack, it handles most real-world riding--from commuter duty to interstate sport-touring--with equanimity. In a market sliced into an ever-increasing array of niches within niches, few motorcycles do it all as well as this one. And if you want to do it all with 161 rear-wheel horsepower, this Ninja is a class all by itself.

Off the Record

Marc Cook

Executive Editor

I find it wonderfully ironic the turn of events that should have killed the ZX-12R--the agreement by the Japanese to limit top speeds to 186 mph--ultimately saved the bike. With the pressure off the top-speed game, Kawasaki was free to make the 12R a very good--get this!--street motorcycle. It's a dramatically different and improved motorcycle over the original 2000 model and makes me happy to know Kawasaki hasn't lost the whole sportbike plot. Now, can you imagine what, say, Ducati could do if it were convinced an aggressive, racebike-replica riding position wasn't necessary for its sportbikes' success? --M.C.

Mitch Boehm


I'm literally shocked at how functionally excellent this tweaked-on 2002-spec ZX-12R is. It's worlds better than the original, and strikes me as the bike Team Green should have built in the first place. (OK, so hindsight's 20/20.) But the real shocker came when I compared the 12R's weight and horsepower numbers with those of the new Interceptor, a bike I--and most of the VFR-leaning public--have developed a distinct love-hate relationship with. It turns out the Blue Beastie weighed 10 pounds less than the VFR--and makes roughly 60 more horsepower. Combine these numbers with the 12R's newly refined manners and excellent fit and finish and I'm thinking I may have to find a new long-termer. Nice work, Kawasaki. --M.B.

|||| |---|---|---| CHEERS AND JEERS|Engine|9| Now, 161 horsepower is almost practical | |Drivetrain|9| Stronger clutch, smoother shifting | |Handling|7| Obedient for a 550-pounder, but too tall | |Braking|9| Only a bridge abutment will stop it harder | |Ride|8| Comfortably taut, just the way we like it | |Ergonomics|7| Little legroom for the long-limbed| |Features|8|100 percent beef, no filler| |Refinement|8| The original is officially agricultural | Value9 A cool grand cheaper than 2000|Fun Factor|9| Happiness through horsepower | _verdict: Released from the tyranny of trying to go 200 mph,
Kawasaki built a monster you can actually live with. _

|| |---| 2002 Kawasaki ZX-12R|PRICE $10,999| |ENGINE Type: l-c inline-four Valve arrangement: dohc, 16v Bore x stroke: 83.0 x 55.4mm Displacement: 1199cc Compression ratio: 12.2:1 Carburetion Denso electronic fuel injection Transmission: 6-speed Final drive: #530 chain | |CHASSIS Weight: 547 lb. (wet) 515 lb. (fuel tank empty) Fuel capacity: 5.3 gal. Rake/trail: Rake/trail 27.9deg./4.5 in. (114mm) Wheelbase: 58.8 in.(1493mm) Seat height: 31.0 in. (780mm) | |SUSPENSION Front: 36mm inverted cartridge fork adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping Rear: single shock adjustable for spring preload, compression and rebound damping Brake, front dual six-piston calipers, 320mm discs Brake, rear single two-piston caliper, 230mm disc Tire, front 120/70ZR17, Dunlop D207ZR Tire, rear 200/50ZR17, Dunlop D207ZR | |PERFORMANCE Corrected 1/4-mile*: 9.87 sec. @ 146.29 mph 0-60 mph: 2.97 sec. 0-100 mph: 5.54 sec. Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph* 3.17 sec. Fuel mileage (low/high/average): 27/36/31 | |*Performance with test-session weather conditions corrected to sea-level standard conditions (59 degrees F, 29.92 in. of mercury)|

The new modesty panels tidy up the cockpit, covering wires, brackets and other naughty bits. Speedo is hard to decipher at a glance.
The 2002 nose job improves wind protection dramatically. Carving 80mm off of the front fender allegedly improves air flow around the fork and front wheel.
Popping off a plastic cover reveals a reasonably serviceable pillion, assuming passengers are short of leg or limber.