Apprehension and sheer curiosity were the sensations rattling around inside my head the first time I thumbed the starter on the Kawasaki ZX14 Ninja. Though we ride bikes of all different stripes, I was uncharacteristically anxious about this particular model. After all, this is a machine capable of sub 10-second quarter miles and a top speed electronically limited to 186 mph, bone stock. Is there touring potential here, or am I merely astride a big bad ego stroker?
From the second the 1352cc inline four fires up, it's obvious that this machine means business. I didn't need a blast down the local drag strip or an elbows-in run across my favorite deserted road to know that this is one powerful ride. A mere blip of the throttle established that. The throaty wail emanating from the long, twin tail pipes serves to reinforce the point that the Highway Patrol does indeed have a special place for anyone unable or unwilling to exercise restraint. Power is, admittedly, a tremendously appealing aspect of motorcycling. But can there really be too much of a good thing? Here at RoadRUNNER, we don't run our test bikes on the dyno. Comfort, handling and the ability to go the distance check in as our benchmarks. But the purported dyno numbers that Kawasaki has provided are hard to ignore. I'm confident I can corral the ZX14, but after I rack up a few hard miles will I want to?
There's no doubt that the engine is the headliner here. Rocking the displacement chart at 1352cc, this sixteen-valve, DOHC, inline four packs more than enough love to go around. Sporting a 32-bit ECU that takes care of fuel, fire, and actuation of the secondary throttle valve for less abrupt power delivery, this mega-mill pumps out a claimed 187 horsepower, though most published rear-wheel dyno readings are closer to 165-170. Granted, this level of output may seem sheer madness, but there really is method to it.
One of the first things noticed about the ZX14 is just how smooth it is. During my first ride, I was quite surprised that such a powerhouse could exhibit so much civility. Two gear-driven counterbalancers (one located in front of the crank and one behind the cylinders) work together to all but eliminate vibrations. Whichever cruising speed I chose - and there were many - the bars remained pleasantly buzz-free. Just the ticket for those daylong rides.
The delivery of those near 200 ponies chained to the rear wheel gets another big thumbs-up too. The sophisticated engine management computer is actually programmed to somewhat muzzle the engine's output at lower rpm. While this may be a bit of a bummer for the tire-torchers out there, it works out perfectly for the rest of us who prefer the eye-bulging thrill as an accent, not the norm. For around-town use, the ZX is a perfect gentleman. At lower speeds, it will happily and tractably lug around all day long. Although plenty of juice is certainly on tap with an easy twist, that elbow dislocating snap one would expect from such an engine can be kept in check effortlessly. But don't get the idea there's no full moon for this beast either. When the tach needle sweeps past 6,000 revs, all bets are off. I'm not kidding - you better be holding on. Regardless of the gear you're in, how many bags you've loaded, passenger or not, when that magic six-grand is realized, the world suddenly becomes a blurry place. Even my copilot Kathy got hooked on the rush. And though I never had the stones or the legal venue to push near the 186-mph top end, I've got to say, when the road opens up, staying under the ton is easier said than done.
With an engine this powerful, gear choice and working through the cogs isn't nearly the issue it is with most bikes. Still, shifting action remained effortless from the get go and the hydraulic clutch's radial pump master cylinder maintained its perfectly smooth action and excellent feel no matter the load or riding conditions.
Having monster muscle is great, but if the skeleton isn't capable of buoying all that brass, the ride experience can be interesting at best. Thankfully, Team Green's chassis engineers were up to the task. They started with an all-new alloy, box-style, monocoque frame that runs over the top of the engine instead of wrapping around it. Because of this arrangement, the rather large ZX14 maintains an unexpectedly girlish midsection, despite its substantial power plant. The air box is housed within the frame, as is the battery, which is accessible with just a few basic tools. And due to its well-balanced and smooth-running characteristics, the engine is solid-mounted to the frame. This helps to increase the bike's overall rigidity and planted feel. For a big, powerful machine, the Ninja remains remarkably stable, exhibiting no unusual or unsettling handling characteristics. Even while you're traveling two-up, with luggage, the curviest back roads are dispatched in a confidence-inspiring fashion that guarantees miles of pure fun.
Equal props should go out to the competent suspension and brakes. The 43mm inverted fork works nicely with the Uni-Trak® rear shock, and both front and rear are fully adjustable. It only took a couple of minor preload tweaks to get the legs dialed in the way I like them, and they were good to go regardless of the road, the load, or the pace.
No problems cropped up with the binders either. Twin four-piston calipers grabbing 310mm petal-style rotors take care of the front while a single twin-piston unit squeezes a 230mm disc out back. Each end offered excellent feel and proved neither too soft nor too abrupt. Quite simply, there were no issues with the brakes, no matter what we threw at them. On the whole, the ZX14 proved to be a remarkably well-rounded and forgiving machine.
Does It Work?
From a touring rider's perspective, it's easy to be leery of a sport-styled bike. And while the ZX14 does strike the aggressive pose, there's so much more to this package. Sure, the bars look low and the pegs high, but don't go digging for that introductory offer to the chiropractor just yet. Once aboard, it's apparent that this is indeed a fairly large motorcycle, and that's not a bad thing. I'm 5' 10" and I had plenty of room to move about. The bars, though short, fell comfortably into my hands with no stretching or undo back strain. The seat is wide enough to offer impressive support and still allow for that hanging off thing that's so much fun when twisties turn up. At no point did an aftermarket saddle cross my mind. Even after numerous daylong rides solo and tour loaded, my only ailment came down to a slight case of stiff 42-year-old knees. But again, that's only after riding all day.
From the pillion view, Kathy had no problems climbing aboard for extended stints. She could easily see over my head and had no complaints about the seat quality. Granted, the passenger pegs are a bit high, but not so much that it kept her from enjoying the ride; we just had to stop to let her stretch every now and again. Two to three hundred mile days were easy propositions for her. As stated earlier, the incredible smoothness of the well-balanced engine means there is very little buzz through either set of foot pegs.
After spinning the odometer under every condition imaginable, I'm able to recommend the ZX14 as a superb starting point for a tailor-made sport touring project. Surprisingly, however, Kawasaki hasn't addressed this with any luggage options. I'm guessing they'll steer you to the Concours 14 for those needs. Even the design of the rear tail is unfriendly to aftermarket bags. It flairs wide and cuts in severely toward the wheel, providing little to no base for bags to rest against. Subsequently, soft panniers tend to shift one way or the other, becoming unbalanced. And while the smallish windshield provides decent wind protection, there's still a noticeable amount of buffeting, which can get old after several hours. On a positive note, the 5.8-gallon steel tank offers good range and a nice perch for magnetic tank bags of any size.
Overall, the ZX14 is a truly amazing piece of equipment and an absolute blast to ride. With a power range that runs the gamut from perfectly civilized to downright mind-boggling, this bike has the ability to inject a real "Wow" factor into even the most mundane commute or errand. Then, when the weekend rolls around, the stable chassis and all-day comfort practically beg for a tank bag or a tail pack and an extended trip to the twisties, or even the next state. Granted, this is not a ride for everyone. The inexperienced or faint of heart need not apply. But if you're confident that you possess the right stuff and the measure of restraint needed to take the helm of a true land missile, the ZX14 is poised to punch your ticket.
ZX14 Touring Accessories
After just a few hours aboard Kawasaki's mighty ZX14, the urge to exercise this big banger beyond the city limits becomes nearly insatiable. The smoothness, comfort, and stability of this ride are a sport touring rider's dream come true. Because of this, we thought it might be fun to see how we could make the big Ninja a little more tour savvy.
It's a sport bike at heart, and the handlebars can be a bit of a reach for an all-day ride. Bar risers would seem to be the obvious fix; but in looking at the ZX's control setup, that scheme appears to pose problems. The design of the fairing severely limits any upward placement of the bars. Undeterred, we called our friends at Heli Modified to see what they had to offer. They agreed with our initial assessment regarding extended handlebars, but were quick to offer their Tour Performance Bar Relocator Riser Blocks. Very quick and easy to install, these blocks raise the stock bars 3/4 inch and offset them 3/8 inch while still allowing them to safely clear the fairing's cutouts. While this may not seem like much, it makes a big difference on those longer rides, especially if highway riding is involved. CNC machined from billet aluminum with a quality, anodized black finish, and with all hardware included, these units are a bargain at $ 64. But the best part is, they don't affect the sporty aspect of the ZX's handling.
Because traveling requires bringing stuff along, a quality set of bags is a definite must. With no offerings to be found in Kawasaki's catalog, we turned to Dowco for a set of their Fastrax™ Elite Sport and Adventure Luggage. Even a cursory inspection reveals that these are some fine sport touring bags. The 1680-denier polyester feels rugged to the touch and the seams and stitching are first-rate. The fastening system consists of numerous adjustable straps and sturdy plastic hooks that snap securely into place. With just a little tweaking, the saddlebags fit perfectly across the seat of the ZX14 despite the fact that the bike's body design is not very "bag friendly."
The roomy tail pack sits nicely atop the passenger seat and attaches to the saddlebags for one nice, neat package. The magnetic tank bag features a scratch-resistant padded base, removable map pocket, and room for an optional hydration system. All bags in this system are expandable by four inches, feature waterproof zippers and attached rain hoods which withstood an entire day of steady downpour with only the slightest weep at the bottom of the saddlebags where exposed to water flung from the rear wheel. Not only do these bags feature a lifetime warranty, they also come with nine separate colored panels you can insert beneath racy cutouts for that custom look. Each component of Dowco's Fastrax™ Elite Sport and Adventure Luggage is an excellent and economical addition to any sport tourer's list of gear.
+ Speed and power, surprisingly nimble, nice two-up sportbike
- 100+mph way too easy, gets cramped on long rides, obeying posted speed limits
Distributor Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A.
MSRP $ 11,499 ('06) $ 11,699 ('08)
Engine in-line 4-cylinder,
DOHC , 16-valve
Bore x Stroke 84 x 61mm
Fuel System DFI, 44mm throttle bodies
Power 187hp/113ft-lb torque
Ignition TCBI with digital advance
Frame monocoque aluminum
Front Suspension 43mm inverted fork,fully adjustable, 4.6in. Travel
Rear Suspension single shock Uni-Trak®, fully adjustable, 4.8in. Travel
Rake/Trail 23º/3.7in. (94mm)
Front Brake twin 310mm petal discs, 4 piston calipers
Rear Brake single 250mm petal disc, 2 piston calipers
Front Tire 120/70 ZR 17
Rear Tire 190/50 ZR 17
Dry Weight 474lbs (215kg)
Wheelbase 57.5in (1460mm)
Seat Height 31.5in (800mm)
Fuel Capacity 5.8 gal (22l)
Fuel Consumption 41mpg
Colors 2006: Ebony, Candy, Thunder Blue, Passion Red