Kawasaki ZX-14

Text: Neale Bayly • Photography: Neale Bayly, Adam Campbell

Boasting an inline four-cylinder engine that displaces 1352cc, the new ZX-14 is currently the biggest and most powerful sport bike in production. With the assistance of its ram-air system, the bike is said to produce 187 crankshaft horsepower at 9500 rpm. Even without the aid of forced air, stock engines have been pumping out over 170 bhp at the rear wheel on various dyno charts. But either way you measure it, the new Kawasaki has some monstrous levels of power available.

Pumping out enough raw horsepower to top 180mph without breaking a sweat, the new Kawasaki ZX-14 seems like an unlikely machine to be featured in RoadRUNNER. Our focus is usually directed toward touring and sport-touring rigs, with the occasional sport bike review or track day article thrown in, so this 10-second quarter-mile, drag-strip demon seems better suited splashed across the pages of a sport-bike magazine. But after spending a day in the saddle around Sonoma, California, with a passenger perched on the ZX-14's rear, I have to say this is one book you can't judge by its lurid cover.

The new liquid-cooled powerhouse has a pedigree that goes back to Kawasaki's original 1198cc ZX-12R. As the bike that came tantalizingly close to unseating the 1299cc Suzuki Hayabusa for the honor of being the world's fastest production motorcycle (a title recently usurped by MV Agusta's F4-1000R), it unfortunately came up a couple of miles per hour short in the top speed wars. Nor has it gained any on the cult status of the Hayabusa, as witnessed by the amount of support that bike garners in the aftermarket.

Inside the new ZX-14's engine, lightweight 84mm pistons move up and down inside 61mm bores and run a healthy 12:1 compression ratio. To help claim the mantle of the world's most powerful sport bike, four enlarged valves in each cylinder take fuel and air in, before expelling the burned gases. These escape through an all-new tapered stainless-steel exhaust system, which uses no form of power valve. Apparently, the monster bottom end and mid-range grunt from the engine are significantly aided by this tapered system and, as far as that goes, you won't hear any complaints from me.

The new ZX's engine might have been enlarged, but it has remained compact, and its physical dimensions are only a tad larger than the Z-12R. A triangulated, stacked transmission sits up behind the cylinders to reduce width, and there are new internal ratios to best harness the large increase in power. The cam-chain tensioner is now operated by oil pressure for reduced mechanical noise, and a secondary balancer helps damp out engine vibration. The engine is rigidly mounted inside the frame rails, and very little vibration makes its way to the rider - at freeway speeds, the new fourteen is as smooth as it gets on two wheels.

With such gargantuan amounts of horsepower at hand, Kawasaki has done a great job making the power delivery smooth and predictable. This level of refinement depends on a new 32-bit Digital Fuel Injection (DFI) which fires fuel into a bank of 44mm throttle bodies. You may experience a slight amount of hesitation at very small throttle openings; and although shifting earlier and using more throttle eliminates this, the situation isn't serious enough to spoil the ride.

Ensuring that only good clean air finds it way into the engine, the new ZX-14 has its air filter located and accessed by a small door inside the monocoque aluminum frame. Called the "next generation," the frame takes a lot of cues from Kawasaki's pure sport bikes. Running the frame rails over the engine makes the bike more compact, narrowing the space between a rider's knees.

In the suspension department, a set of fully adjustable 43mm inverted forks are used up front, and a single shock in the rear works in tandem with a new, longer swing arm. This, like the front fork, is also fully adjustable for pre-load compression and rebound, and features new linkage. As delivered, the suspension performed very well on the smooth open roads, but out on the choppy California back roads it soon became evident some adjustments would be needed for anyone wanting to maintain an aggressive pace on these less forgiving surfaces. However, bear in mind that this bike is longer and heavier in comparison to a sport bike. Easing off the throttle some got me back to my limousine quality ride in short order.

With the ZX-14 capable of inhaling the horizon with its mind-bending forward motion, I am happy to report the brakes are up to the job of hauling the 550-lb monster back under control. A pair of four-piston radial mount calipers bite down on 310mm wave rotors up front, and a single two-piston caliper gets the job done out back. As good as the system is, it stills lacks the bite of something like Kawasaki's ZX-10R or similar sport bikes; but for a heavy sport-touring machine these brakes are fantastic.

During my time with the new Kawasaki, we were offered the opportunity to run the bike down the drag strip a few times. A complete novice to drag racing, I decided to take it easy and not do anything to tempt fate, meaning no wheel spinning or wheelies.

Within a few passes I had eased the bike down the quarter mile in 10.7 seconds, with a top speed of 140mph.

Speaking volumes about the bike's controllability, rather than my riding skills, I felt confident that with a few more passes I could have easily lowered times closer to the ten-second mark - outstanding stuff for a stock street bike that can potter around town with a passenger just as easily.

Visually, the bike stands out with its unique, aggressive-looking fairing and louvered side panels. It has six separate headlights: the four main lights are for high beam and the two center lights for low beam. Switchgear, gauges and mirrors are all Kawasaki clean and efficient, and the fairing does a reasonable job of keeping the wind off the rider. For long-haul duties I would probably request a taller windshield, as the fairing is still more on the sporty side. Ride position follows suit, with the bars low and the pegs fairly high. The sport crouch is not severe though, and the wind helps keep weight off the wrists at higher speeds. Riders more intent on touring purposes might be calling Heli for some bar risers while looking for the taller windshield.

Priced at $ 11,999, it is hard to get my mind around how much the ZX-14 does for the money. Blitzing sub 10-second quarter miles in the right hands, topping 200mph at speed trials with a minimum of modifications, or taking the missus and some luggage across country in comfort, the big K does it all. Although it falls a little short of measuring up to the pure-sport parts of the equation, the bike's other abilities fully compensate for any deficiencies there. And the fact that you could own one of the fastest production motorcycles on the planet should be reason enough to commit your motorcycle-spending coupons to Kawasaki this year.