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2006 Kawasaki ZX-14 - First Ride
By Ken Hutchison

The evolution of the Ninja has hit a new high with the release of the biggest sport motorcycle Kawasaki has ever created, the ZX-14. Fittingly, the City of Sin was the site where I joined a couple dozen other speed junkies adorned in tight-fitting, brightly-colored leather outfits while a regiment of photographers documented our exploits as we did very dangerous and barely legal things under the watchful eye of the Kawasaki brass who invited us to this weekend of absolute debauchery. Sound like a good time? Well, it was.

Kawasaki brought us to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for two days to explore the limits of the all-new Ninja ZX-14, the bike Kawasaki's Sportbike Product Manager Karl Edmondson described as "The most powerful streetbike in the world." He was keen to point out that the ZX-14 was purpose built to depose the Hayabusa as the baddest bike on the market. He pointed out that during Kawasaki's own private tests the ZX-14 was 22-feet ahead of the Busa in the quarter mile and has a five mile per hour faster trap speed. Everyone knows how fast a Busa is so at this point I was chomping the bit. After that type of introduction we were all eager to get our turn at this bad new bike. There would be a road ride, as well as top-speed and dragstrip testing so that we could experience the true might of Kawasaki's new flagship motorcycle before the monster is unleashed on the unsuspecting general public.

Top-speed testing was not unlike a real-life game of roulette, with all of us journos serving as the marble and the banks of LVMS playing the part of the wheel. Some of us were more eager than others to step up and take our turn at tapping into the insane 186-mph speed the ZX was capable of on the banked tri-oval. No cops, no deer, no dirt - no problem, right? After all, how hard can it be to hold a 200-hp motorcycle WFO through three turns on a banked oval?

Later that same day we would all be subjected to a high-speed crap-shoot at the The Strip, home to Vegas' NHRA-sanctioned drag races and the stomping ground of those crazy motorheads who judge performance by the hundredths of a second. The word on the street is that the ZX-14 is capable of 9-second quarter miles right out of the box, and we all hoped to see that number on our own time slips by the end of the day. How hard could it be to hold a bike in a straight line with the throttle pinned to the stop for 10 seconds or less?

Again, it turned out to be more difficult than it looks, unless your name is Danger, Duke Danger. By now you've probably already had the opportunity to read Kevin Duke's ZX-14 Drag Strip Test - if you haven't, then check it out for a glimpse of one journalist's recap of what it's like to live life a quarter mile at a time.After you finish reading this article. Until then, let's take a look at Kawasaki's new ZX-14.

Kawasaki believes that once this Ninja is unleashed upon society, it will serve notice to the rest of the world that the top of the horsepower hill is where they long to be. If the rest of us mortals care to join them there, all we have to do is go to the local dealer and buy the biggest, fastest Ninja ever made.

From the onset of the development process, the ZX-14 was destined to set new standards in the heavyweight sportbike category. The key selling points include a massive fuel-injected 1352cc motor, slippery new bodywork which give it very distinctive look, a comfortable riding position, and performance numbers which will move it to the top of the food chain and displace the venerable Hayabusa as the street-weapon of choice. At this point we wouldn't be surprised if it does.

The cool thing is the ZX-14 has a split personality designed into it. Not only will it pin your brain to the back of your skull at full throttle, but it will also offer up a silky smooth ride suitable for sport (cough) touring (cough-cough) duties - it's up to you. Just make sure your tank bag is strapped on tight. The power delivery was purposely designed to not come on very hard below 5000 rpm. This makes for a manageable street experience, but by the time the tach gets to that point you are about to jump into warp drive. That happens at 6000 rpm. From there to over 10,000 rpm the ZX-14 pulls like one mean mother.

The ZX-14's inline four-cylinder motor is the natural evolution of the ZX-12R motor, although according to famed tuner Rob Muzzy who was at the event, it has more in common with the latest ZX-10R than the 12R. Muzzy says the motor appears to be a super-sized version of the 10R. It actually is a bit thinner and shorter than the 12R motor, although it features an 84mm x 61mm bore and stroke inhaling and exhaling fresh fuel past 33.4mm intake valves and exhaling spent gasses out 28.3mm exhaust valves and into the stealthy-quiet 4-into-1-into-2 stainless steel exhaust system. The fuel-injection system uses 44mm throttle bodies and works in concert with the 32-bit ECU to produce a claimed 115 lb-ft of torque and a claimed 190 base horsepower. Plus, it's equipped with a centrally located ram air intake similar to the ZX-6R and 10R that helps it fit in with the other new-look Ninjas and boost max horsepower to a claimed 200. Of course we cannot verify those crankshaft-driven numbers, but we can tell you that it feels like it is in the ballpark. Expect about 170 ponies at the rear wheel.

A pair of gear-driven balancers quell the majority of the motor vibes which, combined with a surprisingly minimal intake honk and neighbor-friendly exhaust note, make the 14 feel almost mundane as it makes the jump to light speed. When you look at the speedo a few seconds later and find that you're doing triple digits, you realize how silly calling it 'mundane' really is.

A very smooth and precise heavy-duty six-speed transmission makes sure all that horsepower results in forward momentum. It incorporates a direct-actuation shift-lever, which eliminates the need for any linkage and provides a very good connection to the rider's foot in all the situations we tested it in. Modulating the bulletproof clutch is a piece of cake thanks to the 14's radial mount hydraulic clutch master cylinder. The pull on the lever is very light and provides incredible feel under drag racing conditions. Muzzy claims to have made more than 80 runs with racers Rickey Gadson and Ryan Schnitz during shakedown testing prior to the intro, without changing as much as a single plate. In the hands of ham-fisted journalist hacks, the eight test mules were abused for two days, and just a single clutch began to slip at the end of the second day of constant hammering.

With all that power at your disposal, it could be easy to forget how comfortable the bike is. Long and low is the name of the game here. It all starts with the latest version of Kawasaki's monocoque aluminum frame that wraps over rather than around the motor that is used as a stressed member, increasing rigidity while allowing the frame itself to be lighter. The engine is positioned forward in the chassis to contribute to the mass centralization philosophy, helping the ZX to be well balanced. Both the airbox and battery box housing are integrated into the frame as well. The thin layout makes for a roomy riding position that is comfortable on the street, on the strip, or in full tuck at 180 mph.

The footpegs are low, which keeps your legs from being stuck in a cramped position, and the reach to the bars is not difficult to reach, even for riders with stubby arms. As a few journalists found out, you can drag the pegs at the track. The seat is soft, supportive and it narrows near the front which, when combined with the thin frame, narrow sculpted fuel tank and 31.5 inch seat height, allows for a direct reach to the ground even for short dudes like me. After a street ride it was obvious that this bike is going to make a lot of people very happy with its comfortable riding position that compliments a bountiful performance envelope.

After checking out the ZX-14 in the minimal twisties available in both Nevada and Florida, it seems to be a competent corner carver, although I would like to get a chance to really try to twist it up on a good canyon road before singing too much praise about it. Wheelbase measures in at 57.5 inches which combined with a short 23.0 degree rake and 94mm of trail is an equation that adds up to decent maneuverability from a bike this humungous. A fully adjustable 43mm inverted fork and bottom-link Uni-Track rear suspension combo provides a plush, comfortable ride on the street and track. Now, if you bolt a 2-foot extended swingarm on it, like you know many of these bikes are destined to, it probably won't handle quite as well, so you may want to avoid that.

Whether you're in the drag racing arena or the sport-touring environment, the ZX has a few more quality hard parts to offer. A pair of radial-mounted, 4-piston, 4-pad front brake calipers will slow things down in a hurry once they bite down on massive petal-design rotors. Feel at the lever is very good and they provide excellent stopping power for such a massive machine. A single petal disc is more than enough to keep the rear wheel in check whether you're doing wheelies or just adding some additional power when slowing down.

Aerodynamic bodywork provides both form and function, although we're sure it will get mixed reviews from the public. At the front is a quartet of projector beam headlamps, turnsignal indicators that are integrated into the bodywork, along with an LED taillight out back. This keeps with the aerodynamic theme the whole bike is slathered in. Even the mirrors and front fender have louvers that are supposed to help stabilize the bike at speed. Well, at least it looks cool. The mirrors provide an excellent view of what is going on behind you, they didn't seem to blur-out since vibes were at a minimum, and they were positioned high enough that my elbows didn't block the field of vision.

It's important to keep your eyes forward when you are riding a bike, so there's plenty of quality instrumentation at your disposal in the high-tech dashboard. Dual white-faced analog tach and speedo provide the two most important pieces of information, but the LCD display in the center is also a wealth of useful data. A fuel gauge, gear-position indicator, odometer, dual tripmeters and clock are just the beginning. Other accessible modes include current and average fuel consumption, remaining fuel range, battery voltage and the all-important shift light. All this info is transmitted by a wireless high-speed Controller Area Network (CAN) interface with the ECU.

Here at MotorcycleUSA, we have found a special place in our hearts for technologically advanced systems such as the one found on the ZX-14. If this bike isn't destined to be both a drag strip dominator and a sport touring platform, I don't know what is. Further proof of this theory is that both Europe and Japan will have ABS-equipped ZZR1400 versions available while we here in the U.S. will not see it on the first go-around.

I had one more opportunity to ride the bike during Bike Week 2006 and the ZX-14 commanded a lot of attention from the sporting crowd. A lot of 'Busa boys and big-bore sportbike riders who happened to find themselves stuck in traffic alongside me were keen to know what I thought of the bike. Many said that seeing it in person sold them on it. All wanted to know how fast it was and how fast I had gotten it up to. Of course I couldn't resist saying I had it nearly tapped on the oval at LVMS and pulled off a 10.3 in the quarter mile at 145 mph on my tenth run down The Strip, hoping they would think I was cool. Many did, some didn't. A few probably thought I was lying. The fact is, both are true.

The first taste of what the ZX-14 was capable of was dished out on the banks of Las Vegas Motor Speedway two weeks earlier. It was early in the morning, I was a bit sleepy because we had a bellyful of Las Vegas from the night before, and it was freakin' cold. Isn't this the desert, for crying out loud?

Each rider was sent out on the track alone, for safety reasons, and had five laps to do what they came here to do. The wind protection was pretty good as I tried to tuck in behind the big windscreen, and the seat was plush, too. But it was still freezing cold and after two laps, snot was pouring out of my nose like a leaky faucet and streaming down and around my neck. Not glorious, I know. I didn't really care, though, because hauling ass at 160-170 mph required my undivided attention.

Once I was confident in the Bridgestone tires our test bikes were equipped with, I was ready to push it for the last couple laps. When I crossed the painted finish line stripes on my first good run, the front end wiggled and pushed a bit. That would haunt me on every lap thereafter. I couldn't help but think about how much it would hurt to crash at that speed, so I couldn't bring myself to uncork the thing on my next lap. I pulled into the pit, jotted down some notes and discussed the overwhelming feeling of danger we all experienced while we awaited our next turn.

After everyone had a shot and was done, trying to scare each other with talk of the sheer terror of riding that fast, with only the walls to slow you down if anything happened, was to say the least, disconcerting. Yet every one of us was eager to give it another try. Of the next five riders to finish up, only two claimed they had the balls to hold it till the rev-limiter kicked in. Both said they had big slides going across the paint at the finish line each time too. Now, it was my turn and all I was hoping for was to see the speedo needle sweep past 180 mph this time around.

After the first couple 170-mph warm-up laps were in the books I was ready to turn it up a notch. I tried to cling to the bike like a monkey humping a football as I rounded Turn 1 at who knows what speed. Roll on the throttle after the apex until it's hot, then hold it pinned along the Nellis Straightaway wall until the snot was flowing and the speedo was well past 160. Now it's time to ease off a bit and downshift going into the second turn of the tri-oval, so I could try to get a good drive through Turn 3 and onto the chute leading to start-finish. This is where the Kawasaki test riders said we could hit the speed limiter at 186 mph. I hit redline in fifth and then clicked it into sixth, holding the throttle to the stop. The bike accelerated like a ZX-10 with a Tomahawk missile in its ass as I watched the speedo climb and climb past 170, 175, 180. Whoah, nelly, that wall is approaching fast! I almost forgot that it's important to watch where you're going when you're approaching 200 mph.

It was still accelerating but I couldn't hold it pinned any longer, so I rolled out and crossed the line with the flagger showing a white flag at the stripe - one more lap to go. I about wet myself when my knee puck skimmed the ground and I realized I had just bent the ZX into Turn 1 way faster than I had on any of the previous laps - something in the area of a hundred and who cares what. Just let me live, Lord. Yikes, that sucked. In retrospect that is a testament to the bikes stability. When I touched down it startled me because I didn't think it would happen. I was thinking for a moment that was good enough and that maybe I shouldn't try again on the next lap because my heart was pounding so hard. But what the hell, you only live once, right?

Again, blasting past the wall into Turn 2, click a downshift and try to time the shift at the exit of Turn 3 perfectly, so that I could get the acceleration done early. Again the ZX-14 tach starts sweeping towards the red zone. I didn't watch the speedo this time, just the tach in my peripheral vision. Getting the last 1000 rpm and then the last 500 rpm to disappear seemed to take an eternity. I couldn't resist glancing at the speedo. It read 180-something and when I looked up the start/finish line and walls were approaching with a blur. I held it open across the line for about another quarter of a second before my brain took over and forced me to ease off and get on the brakes. I know it didn't hit the speed limiter, but the tach was in the red. Damn it, Jim!

In all honestly, however fast that was would have to do. After 10 hot laps I had my tail between my legs and was officially convinced that the ZX-14 was really, really fast. In fact, it's faster than anyone needs to be going in all reality. After letting the endorphins dissipate for an hour or so, I found myself chomping at the bit for one more turn. Unfortunately that turn would be with a helmet camera and that just complicated things for me. After I handed the bike off to the next roulette-ball, er, journalist, I was ready for the dragstrip.

The Strip is where things would be much more simple. After all, it's only dragracing. Pin it, dump the clutch and row through a couple gears - how hard can that be? Like I said earlier, it is more difficult than it looks. You will want to read Kevin Duke's impression from the dragstrip because this is now his domain. The little Canuckle-head is a dragracing machine and proved it from the word go. We were the second group to test at The Strip and the best run from the previous group, which included former motorcycle drag racers turned magazine editors, was a 10.18. Duke's first pass was a 9.98. That's our boy.

As for me, the dragracing experience was an exercise in humility. My first six launches were so pathetic I was surprised that I managed to crack the 10-second barrier on all but two passes, with trap speeds over 140 mph. That really is a testament to how fast the ZX-14 is - its crazy fast considering its claimed dry weight is 480 lbs, exactly the same as the benchmark Hayabusa. On the second day, I was enlightened by dragracing legend Rickey Gadson, who was there coaching us all at the starting line. His lesson: Relax. Bring the revs up, feather the clutch, and try to keep the rpm up so that you find a perfect balance between lofting the front wheel and keeping it skimming just off the ground.

Easier said than done, I thought to myself before nodding my head in agreement. I staged. The light went green and again I bogged the start. Great, another high 10. Apparently, launching a 190 hp motorcycle at 5,000-6,000 rpm is difficult. My brain wouldn't let me do it and it was getting embarrassing. It was time to step up and find my groove or continue to look like a fool in front of peers. No pressure. I dug deep into my soul and found the off-switch for the left side of my brain and let the child in me take over.

With only four passes remaining, I swallowed my pride and asked Duke Danger for some pointers. A few minutes later I was at the line again, hoping that Duke's input would put me over the top. With apologies to Dr. Seuss, here's what happened.

I did a burnout to get the tire all hot and all sticky
Then I rolled to the line, right next to ol' Rickey
He said, "get a good launch and just have some fun
And keep your head down, cause this might be the one"
I stared at the lights and held the rpm high
I saw Rickey watchin' intently from the corner of my eye
The light went green and I fanned the clutch freely
About that time the big bike, it started to wheelie
No problem, I thought, it was all good
I balanced clutch & the throttle, like Duke said I should
The motor growled nasty and the tach needle sailed
I had gotten a good launch, so I pinned it and wailed
The wheel skimmed the ground, I grabbed the next gear
I clung onto the bike, my mind full of fear
Shifting at redline, oh, three or four times
I was sure this was it, had I just broke the nines?
When I rolled up to Duke he had an ear-to-ear grin
"You just did a ten-five, go do it again!"
I thought to myself, great, this is just fine
Only two passes left, this was run number nine
Ricky said this was it and that my launch was way better
I'm sure it was Rick, but now my panties were wetter
Dropping the hammer on my penultimate pass
Was actually quite, hell, a kick in the ass
It started to make sense, more like good fun
I liken it to being, shot out of a gun
Now back to the pits to see what I had done
"That was a ten-four," said a grinning Duke Danger
"You have one more chance, go turn one in anger"
Ricky said something as I rolled to the line
But I couldn't hear nothin', I just wanted that nine
I held the tach steady between the six and the five
When that light turned to green, the 14 came alive
Another good launch and a precisely timed shift
Had me hoping inside that this run would be swift
I was going so fast and was having such fun
All my shifts, were precisely and perfectly done
Too bad it was slow, not at all what I wanted
It felt the same as before, I gave up on the nine
I thought maybe a ten-one as I rolled back into line
"Nice job" said the Dukester, "a 10.3's your reward
Now lets head to the stripclub, man am I bored..."

I flipped the old brain switch back to reality and tried to soak in what had just happened. The ZX-14 is definitely a rocket-ship, and the fact that people are able to go out and buy a motorcycle that can reach 150 mph in 11 seconds for only $11,499 is why I love this era. Kawasaki has put up an amazing contingency program for the ZX-14 because they want this bike at the dragstrip. Muzzys already has performance exhaust systems and other accessories ready to go, and dealers everywhere have people on the waiting list for the big Ninja. Look out, Suzuki, they're coming to get you.

From what I experienced, the ZX-14 is so user-friendly that anyone who has ever dreamed of dragracing can take their bike out and have a shot at a 9-second quarter-mile, without changing a single thing. Then they can ride it to the track, compete with anything there, and then ride home in comfort on their bone-stock, 186-mph, 9-second, sport-touring motorcycle. Isn't technology grand?

Source: Motorcycle-USA
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