Kawasaki could write the book about playing the tease. For most of 2007, they coyly titillated the motorcycling world with hearsay about their long-anticipated replacement for the venerable Concours. Rumored release dates, tantalizing photos, and thinly veiled specs fluttered by, and each tidbit hinted at a machine that would share the DNA of the mind-numbingly fast ZX14. With all of the winking and nudging that was going on, Team Green obviously had something up its sleeve.
Over the last few years, the mercury in the sport-touring arena has been rising. Yamaha's much-improved FJR1300 and BMW's K1200GT came stomping in to set the genre afire with superbike levels of horsepower and torque. Kawasaki, on the other hand, seemed content to tend their coals - but for 2008, that all changes. In today's showrooms, yesteryear's technology will only go so far, and the folks at Team Green have stepped up to the plate, big time. Their old warhorse Concours, often said to have been Methuselah's daily ride, has been put out to pasture in favor of a completely redesigned tour-bred stallion, the Concours 14.
For any touring enthusiast who has ridden the mighty ZX14, it's all too evident that the velvety smooth sixteen-valve, 1352cc mill would make the perfect traveling companion. Sure, at 6000 rpm and higher, you'll feel like you've just been fired from a howitzer; but if used responsibly, this engine also rewards serenely, with a real-world roadworthiness rarely associated with a supersport model.
Shortly after the introduction of the biggest Ninja, the bags-and-fairing rumor mill began to churn. Then last winter at the nationwide IMS extravaganzas, an apparent working model of a Concours 14, roped off and displayed far from reach, had showgoers snapping photos like a horde of paparazzi hovering over Paris Hilton smoking a joint in Larry King's hot tub.
Finally, this past June, rumor became reality and the rubber hit the road. Kawasaki called in a bunch of us journalists, fed us breakfast, and then cut us loose in the wine country surrounding Santa Rosa, California. The finished product is a bold stroke indeed, an enticing combo of sportbike deployment and long-distance enjoyment in a package not so subtly branded a Transcontinental Supersport Tourer. All that's left to be determined is whether this new hotrod road (t)ripper lives up to the hype.
Be Careful, It's Loaded
There's no doubt the ZX14-based engine is the real name of the game here. It's essentially the same beast that has left a trail of torched rear tires worldwide. The mission for Kawasaki's engineers was to retune the big four-banger, channeling its incredible energy into a sport-touring power band that delivers more usable muscle across the low and mid range. That said, don't read retuned as detuned. Conventional wisdom might lead one to believe that tweaking for more bottom-end tractability ultimately sacrifices that famously stout top end. But "au contraire, mes amis," Kawasaki exclaimed. An all-new VVT (Variable Valve Timing) system nullifies this potential pitfall with remarkable results. The intake cam timing is advanced and retarded hydraulically in response to rpm and throttle position. When the C14 is slogging along in traffic or slicing through the twisties, the standard tuning delivers super-strong yet highly usable power at lower speeds. But when the guy driving the rental RV decides to slow down to snap a pretty picture, it's terribly easy to go ahead and add a blur to the image despite having a provocatively short passing lane. Just roll on the gas and hold on tight as the VVT alters the camshaft profile to a speedier bias, smoothly yet unquestionably transitioning the Concours into hyperspace mode. Thanks to this nifty new development, along with a digital fuel injection system controlled by the 32-bit ECU, the power is abundant, linear, and perfectly controllable from dead stop to triple digits across the entire rev range. Even the choppiness associated with fuel injection is negligible at best.
Smooth-shifting transmissions are commonplace on Kawasaki's sporty models, and this one is no different. The gear ratios match up with almost any situation, and the clutch, actuated by a radial-pump hydraulic master cylinder, is quite responsive and doesn't exhibit any fade. And for those who rejoice in twisting it up when the road twists out, this bagger comes stock with a back-torque limiting slipper clutch that works like a charm. Aggressive downshifts are now met with a slight pulse through the clutch lever instead of a hopping rear wheel. A maintenance-free shaft drive, dubbed the Tetra Lever, puts the power to the ground. This four-link design not only reduces driveline lash, it completely eliminates those funky rises and squats often experienced with a driveshaft. I tried in vain to get an adverse reaction from the system, but finally gave up and forgot all about it. That in itself speaks volumes.
You Scratch My Pegs,I'll Scratch Yours
Though the Concours 14's chassis is brand new, it does borrow heavily from the sporty ZX14. The monocoque aluminum frame is a narrow, hollow box arching over the engine from the steering head to the swingarm pivot. Because the engine is rigidly mounted, thus making it a stressed frame member, torsional rigidity is increased while eliminating approximately four pounds of potential structural weight. Out on the road, this extra stiffness is apparent and appreciated. Despite being a rather large machine, boasting a nearly 60-inch wheel base and tipping the scales at over 600 pounds dry, the competitive lineage of this chassis comes shining through. At no point was any frame flex apparent and even the roughest roads were handled with solid confidence. Keep in mind: with over 150 horsepower and 100 foot-pounds of torque on tap, a spindly superstructure and overly compliant ride are the last things you need when your foot pegs are flirting with the asphalt.
As with the frame, the suspension and brakes are perfectly suited to handling a brisk country road pace. Out back, the Uni-Trak single-shock system features rebound settings optimized for sportbike handling and long-distance comfort, along with a remote hydraulic preload adjuster. Up front, an inverted, 43mm fork offers both preload and rebound adjustability. Kawasaki informed us that they had preset the suspension to the sporty side for our ride. And though the highway jaunts did feel a little bouncy, once we entered the twists the prowess of the Concours was nothing short of amazing. Never has a 600-pound bike felt so nimble. The harder I rode, the more settled the bike felt. Adding to this confidence is a fine set of sportbike-inspired brakes. On the front, twin radial-mount, four-piston, four-pad calipers clamp down on large, 310mm petal discs while rear stopping duties are handled by a single 270mm petal rotor. My test machine was equipped with the optional, independent ABS - but I have to stress that this is not a linked system. The haul-down rate was strong and very predictable with my only quibble being that the rear brake's anti-lock feature kicked in a bit too easily.
Did Someone Say Road Trip?
The Concours 14 is a no nonsense sport-touring mount, period. Newbies need not apply. And if you like having stereos, teddy bears, and trailer hitches around as your travel tagalongs, look elsewhere. But if a comfortable ride tempered with a super-sport attitude sounds interesting, read on.
While Kawasaki makes no bones about this bike's aggressive stance, there are plenty of traveling amenities to make long days in the saddle a joy. The fairing's aerodynamics offer great wind protection and the addition of an electrically adjustable windshield, designed for minimal front-end load, even when fully extended, is a great touch. It's hard to honestly evaluate a touring saddle in just two days of riding, but after logging over 400 miles on all sorts of Northern California roads, I give the seat a tentative thumbs-up. The riding position is commendable too. Compared to the ZX14's bars, these are four inches back and nearly six inches higher, and the foot pegs are 1.2 inches lower and further forward - short increments that represent a vast step forward in the comfort department. At the same time, you will still be wearing a sly grin whenever the sportbikes pull in behind you.
Speaking of seat time, it's hard to amass very much of it without bringing some gear along, and that base is covered quite nicely. Truly quick-release, color-matched saddlebags come stock, and though slim in design they're large enough to hold a full-face helmet. And should more room be desired, there's an optional top case. The instrument cluster is flanked by a large, legible analog tach and speedo. In the middle, a sizeable LCD screen displays the fuel gauge, odometer, dual trip meters, fuel range and mileage meters, and a clock. Another neat aspect is the TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitoring System). Sensors located in the wheels monitor tire pressure and display that information on the LCD.
And if you're like me and you sometimes - OK, nearly always - manage to put on the gloves before getting the bike key out of your pocket, you will really appreciate KIPASS (Kawasaki's Intelligent Proximity Activation Start System). This "keyless" ignition system includes a key for the bike and a transponder fob which is carried on your person. The engine won't start nor can the key be removed unless the fob is within five feet of the bike. Essentially, you never have to remove the key from the ignition. But should you drop the fob or ride off without it, a red indicator light illuminates along with a "No Transponder" message on the LCD. Some of the other riders were skeptical, but my gloved hands vote "yea" for KIPASS.
It's true, it's true. I am completely smitten with the new Concours 14. Yes, the rear ABS is a little sensitive and, though our riding days were delightfully cool, I sensed that heat-dispersion issues may arise on warmer days. But that's as far as it goes in the beef department. For dedicated touring riders with supersport souls, the all-new C 14 is right on target. Whether I'll ever own one ultimately depends on my world's greatest passenger, Kathy. It shouldn't take too much convincing, though. She's already happy to scramble aboard the ZX14 for a couple of hundred miles. And if she digs the C 14's touring pillion as much as I think she will, I could be clearing out some garage space in no time.
Kawasaki Concours 14
Distributor Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA
MSRP $ 12,899 / $ 13,799 ABS
Engine four stroke, DOHC, 16 valve with VVT
Bore x Stroke 84mm x 61mm
Fuel System digital FI
Power 156hp / 103 ft-lb torque
Ignition TCBI with digital advance
Transmission six speed
Frame aluminum monocoque
Front Suspension inverted, 43mm fork with adjustable spring preload and rebound damping, 4.4in travel
Rear Suspension single shock Tetra-Lever with adjustable spring preloadand rebound damping, 5.4in travel
Rake/Trail 26.1º/4.4in (112mm)
Brakes Front/Rear two 310mm petal discs with four piston calipers /single 270mm petal disc
Tires Front/Rear 120/70-ZR17 / 190/50-ZR17
Dry Weight 606lbs (275kg) ABS-615lbs (279kg)
Wheelbase 59.8in (1519mm)
Seat Height 32.1in (815mm)
Fuel Capacity 5.8gal (22l)
Fuel Consumption n/a
Colors Neutron Silver