2002 Kawasaki ZZR1200 Motorcycle Test

Just your average, mild-mannered, 145-horsepower sport-touring motorcycle

To be honest, we weren't expecting a lot of excitement from the new ZZ-R1200.For some reason, Kawasaki's people seemed to speak in hushed tones whenever its new Euro-tourer came up. They tended to describe it in terms of the ZRX1200R, its charmingly retro, KZ-replica, naked-bike cousin. They gave us the impression the new ZZ-R had a similar, midrange-biased motor, with an even more rider-friendly, gray-at-the-temples power delivery. They stressed its touring emphasis, with an all-day fairing, sit-up riding position and available color-matched hard bags. It came off as a sort of new-millennium Concours: a collection of worthy, though slightly dated sportbike pieces juggled and detuned to make a pleasant, but unspectacular long-haul GT.

Then we rode it. For sure, it had the comfy riding stance, wind protection and friendly, why-bother-to-shift powerband we were promised. And a couple things we were happy to discover for ourselves. For one, a recalibrated chassis that's at once pleasingly nimble and reassuringly stable. And, more important, an irresistible, loft-the-front-wheel lunge on top that will clear out the cobwebs faster than you can say autobahnstrasse.

Funny we should mention the autobahn, because that's exactly where this big boy was designed to play. Kawasaki's U.S. arm had nothing to do with designing and developing the ZZ-R: It was requested by Kawasaki's European distributors, to challenge established Euro players such as the Aprilia Futura, BMW K1200RS, Ducati ST4s and Triumph Sprint ST. But when the Americans saw the completed ZZ-R, they began to see the light--and made arrangements to bring a limited number to the United States.

Good thing, too. Because the ZZ-R1200 is--under its fashionable Prada suit--an updated, even more powerful incarnation of our dearly beloved ZX-11. Which, you'll no doubt recall, reigned as the world's fastest streetbike for nearly a decade, before the new sheriffs in town, the Honda CBR1100XX, the Suzuki Hayabusa and Kawasaki's own ZX-12R muscled it out of the spotlight.

The main goal in building this seminew engine, we are told, was to fatten up the powerband in the places most of us use it most of the time. But a little boost in horsepower snuck in there somewhere along the way, and, as far as we're concerned, that's not a problem. Kawasaki won't talk about peak numbers, but did admit to the ZZ-R making approximately 5 percent more horsepower and about 9 percent more torque than the ZX-11. And our dyno figures back that up--with a bullet.

Our last, best ZX-11 pumped out 134.4 horses. This, safe, sane, soul-of-maturity ZZ-R churned out an entirely adequate 145.2 horsepower at 9750 rpm, an 8 percent gain. And 87.1 foot-pounds of torque, exactly the 9 percent gain we were led to expect.

Which means, dear reader, this ZZ-R, which weighs less than 10 pounds more, can rip a ZX-11 a new one, all the while exuding its new-found aura of taste, innocence and restraint. It also means the ZZ-R conceives more ponies than anything short of a ZX-12R or Hayabusa. It out-studs the Honda XX or any of the liter-class sportbikes, including the mighty GSX-R1000. And don't forget that those 145 horses were not energized by the ZZ-R's ram-air system, lifted straight from the ZX-11.

Why is this thing so much badder? Because it's so much bigger, of course. Displacement went up 10 percent, from 1052cc to 1164cc. Bore is up 3mm, making good use of the space liberated when Kawasaki tossed the ZX-11's iron liners and electroplated the aluminum bores instead. The pistons are reconfigured, much like the ZX-12R's, with scandalously short skirts and new reinforcing ribs, for your pleasure. Stroke was stretched 1.6mm, using the same crank you'd find in a ZRX1200R. The head layout was redone to suit a new bank of 40mm, downdraft Keihin CVKs, complete with Kawasaki's spiffy K-TRIC throttle-position/ignition interfacers. And the rocker-arm tips are now sintered, not chromed, to reduce friction and wear.

...the ZZ-R1200 is an updated, even more powerful incarnation of our dearly beloved ZX-11. Which, you'll no doubt recall, reigned as the world's fastest streetbike for nearly a decade...

The ZZ-R has two of a lot of things, among them two fuel pumps, two radiator fans and two headlights. And a new, higher-output alternator to run 'em all, along with any electric lingerie you might care to hook up.

The pumped-up mill is held captive in a ZX-11-esque frame. A new cast-aluminum steering-head section is internally ribbed for added flexlessness, and ball bearings replace the ZX's tapered rollers. Rake is pulled in from the ZX-11's 26.5 degrees to an even 25.0 degrees, and trail snuggles in from 107mm to just less than 106mm, all to lend the steering additional lightness. The aluminum side rails are thicker walled, to help keep the front and rear wheels pointed in the same direction. Wheelbase grows an inch and changes from 58.9 to 60.2 inches, due to a longer, lighter and more-rigid hex-section swingarm. The swingarm pivot has moved lower in the frame, to improve rear-wheel traction--a good move, we'd say, with 145 horses in the house. And the rear subframe is now steel, rather than the ZX's aluminum, mostly to hold the weight of the optional Givi-built, color-matched hard bags.

The accommodations have been redone to suit the ZZ-R's new long-range emphasis; the handlebars have been moved back, and the footpegs slid up and forward to afford a more upright, politically conservative pose. The cockpit almost feels more like a car's than a motorcycle's: The tach and speedo are big, round and analog, set along with the temp and fuel gauges in a four-ring-circus instrument panel.

Kawasaki allowed the stylists get their way with the ZZ-R, let there be no doubt. The overall shape is pleasant enough, but the front and rear views have a certain Roswell-esque feel to them. Coming at you, the ZZ-R looks a bit like a surprised alien, and going away, with the red taillights lit, like an angry one. That said, the design fairs the front and rear turn signals in nicely, leaving only the mirrors to break the visual flow. In front, two-piston calipers grasp big 320mm discs, much like the ZX-11's. The rear brake is an artful mix of pieces we've seen before: The 250mm disc would look right at home on a ZRX1200R, and the caliper came from the ZX-12R.

If the motor and frame have been upgraded, the suspension pieces have not, at least in terms of their adjustability. Where the ZX had a right-side-up, 43mm, noncartridge Kayaba, said fork was at least adjustable for compression and rebound damping. The ZZ-R cartridge fork still has 43mm tubes, but its only adjustment is preload. The ZX shock was two-way-tweakable, dampingwise--but the ZZ-R shock adjusts for preload and rebound only. As you will see, this disappoints us more than a little, because with its amazingly wide performance portfolio, the ZZ-R deserves the adjustability to tune it for widely different mission profiles, from long-distance bombing runs to back-road close-support.

But what, as you might ask Tommy Lee, is it like? It takes full choke to get it fired on a cold morning, and a few blocks before it wants to run without. After that, this motor gives us one big, goofy happy face for the rest of the day. It's obviously hell-for-strong, from idle all the way to the ignition cutoff, and yet, for all its urge, it manages to feel friendly, eager, almost puppylike in its willingness to please. There's a slight buzz in the bars and the mirrors between 4500 and 5500 rpm, which migrates to an equally slight sizzle in the seat as the revs rise. But overall, vibration is admirably controlled. The powerband is as wide as Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico lined up end-to-end. You could stay under 6000 rpm forever--and still leave anything with four wheels way behind you. And when you want to simply disappear, just drop the six-speed down a couple, let 'er spin up past 8000 or so, and hangeth thou on. You get a great moan out of the intake system and a determined launch into the middle distance. There's no dramatic burst of power as the revs rise--like an F-18 on afterburner, it just keeps pulling. And pulling. And pulling.

The riding stance feels just about right, if biased a touch toward the bigger guys among us. Some shorter folk felt the reach to the bars was a bit much, but overall it's right in there with the BMW sport-tourers, the Aprilia Futura and the like. The moved-back bars and moved-up pegs take most of the load off the wrists, compared with more sporting-oriented GTs such as the Honda XX and the Hayabusa. The seat is nicely shaped, but heavier riders found themselves bottoming out on the seat base now and again. And the new fairing works as advertised, protecting well from the neck down and giving you a clean, turbulencefree blast to the helmet zone. At serious speeds, the tall, tapered bubble gives one plenty of room to hide, along with the visibility to still see where you'll soon be.

So on the highway, at any conceivable speed, almost everything is hunky-dory. Suspension compliance is the exception--for some, excessive high-speed compression damping in the fork made the action over concrete expansion joints too harsh for a long-haul sport-tourer. We raised the preload to check the pace of the bobbing front wheel and this helped some. But we couldn't help but wish for the completely adjustable fork that comes on the ZRX1200R. If you get full adjustability on an $8000 nudie, why not on a high-zoot super-sport tourer that sells for more than $10,000?

We expected the ZZ-R to get along well on the straight and slabbish. But we were pleasantly surprised at how well this long, tall, 609-pounder works when the pasta melts from straight to squiggly. Steering is light, linear and predictable, and the wide bars and upright stance give you all the leverage you need to point it where you want it, when you want it. The huge powerband and excellent carburetion let you squirt from corner to corner with little effort--on most twisty roads, shifting is purely an option. The brakes are just about perfect for street use, with great initial bite and smooth, progressive power. And the chassis stays pretty much unflappable until you get way into the crazy zone. The front end feels confidently planted, more so than the old ZX-11's, and the suspension actually shines here, soaking up most midcorner bumps without drama and keeping chassis motion well controlled.

There is one place the ZZ-R falls short--or, at the very least, falls ugly. The European sport-tourers from Aprilia, BMW, Ducati and Triumph can be ordered with their own, custom-designed hard luggage. You can get luggage for the ZZ-R through your Kawasaki dealer, but it's actually off-the-shelf Givi stuff. The function and quality is there, but the looks, we're afraid, are not. The Givi bags are a little (OK, a lot) on the bulbous side, and their big, black tubular-steel brackets would look more at home in an oil refinery than on a classy let's-ride-to-Paris Euro-tourer. We hear that Corbin is also working on a set of Beetle Bags for the ZZ-R, and we're hoping they fit in better with the ZZ-R's styling.

So where, we hear you ask, does the ZZ-R fit in the sport-touring/GT firmament? Well, its Goliath motor puts it in another league compared with its intended European competition, the Futura, K1200RS, ST4s and Sprint ST. If your idea of touring involves speeds over 160 mph, the ZZ-R is a hands-down winner. Its surprisingly competent chassis even lets it hang with lighter twins such as the Ducati and Aprilia in the corners--it just does it in a much bigger, more magnanimous style. And its price, round approximately $5000 under the Germans and Italians, makes it a real, raging deal.

Up against its steroid-addled Japanese cohorts, the Honda XX, the Suzuki Hayabusa and the Kawasaki ZX-12R, the ZZ-R claims its own small, if distinctive, niche. It's closest to the Honda XX in terms of its overall place in the riding universe, but until the Honda gets its expected boost to full 1200 status, the ZZ-R trumps it with more power, more long-haul comfort and approximately equal handling. The Hayabusa is still the king, thanks to its silky, religiously strong motor, amazingly nimble chassis and impeccable detailing. But its relatively hunched riding position, bullet-train styling, and world's-fastest-bike image make it much more of a testosterone-laced Sunday ride and much less of a balanced long-hauler. And after you've ridden the calm, self-contained ZZ-R, the ZX-12R snaps into focus as its pierced, tattooed younger brother, much rougher around the edges, and much more likely to come home late with a black eye.

Do we like this new ZZ-R? Oh, yes indeed.