Once a year Kawasaki hosts a get-together for its friends, the media, as well as past and present racers. The event is always scheduled to coincide with the AMA races at Infineon (formerly Sears Point) Raceway in Sonoma, California, and special guests at this year's gathering included Gary Nixon, Jay Springsteen, Rickey Gadson, Jimmy Filice, Jason Britton and others.
The Saturday and Sunday racing highlights were rounds one and two of the premier superbike class competition. And on each day the superbike results were amazingly similar, as Ben Spies held off the pack with a lead of several seconds, followed by his teammate Mat Mladin. A few seconds later Jamie Hacking took third place, with a tight group hotly contesting their positions finishing close behind.
Other than our attendance at the races, we were able to get in some good seat time on a number of models in Kawasaki's current street lineup, including the Concours 14, Versys, KLR650 and Z1000. Our route took us over the coastal mountains just north of San Francisco and along the coast near historic Point Reyes, an area encompassing a lovely mix of vineyards and wineries, old-growth redwood forests, babbling brooks and awe-inspiring ocean views.
Riding the Concours 14, we were reminded just how powerful it is - and how nice it is to have more power than you really need. Propelled by a husky 1,352cc four-cylinder, DOHC mill with gear-driven dual engine balancers, variable valve timing, and digital fuel injection, there's a surplus of power, even when riding two-up.
Along the way, the power-adjustable windscreen became our next best friend too. As blazing hot inland temperatures gave way to chilly ocean fog, the screen could be moved up to block the cold wind or down to cool us off. The optional ABS and tire-pressure sensors are great features, but we'd like to see the steering made lighter, heated grips and perhaps an audio system option. The MSRP on the Concours 14 ranges from $ 12,899 to $ 13,799, considerably less than some competing sport-touring machines.
The Versys, a recent addition to Kawi's model lineup based on the major mechanical components, includes the 649cc parallel twin found on the Ninja 650R, although the fuel-injected, DOHC engine has been modified to deliver more low-end power and torque. A long-travel inverted fork, aluminum gull-wing swingarm and adjustable windscreen help differentiate this model from the 650R, and it also offers a plusher suspension, an upright riding position and all-day comfort.
The steel trellis frame is pleasingly narrow at the knees, and a Showa rear shock with progressive damping firms significantly as the shock compresses, initially feeling soft, but stiffening to near sportbike levels. The Versys, with a reasonable suggested price of $ 6,899, is - I can't help myself - very Versytile. But alas, this model is not available in California.
The KLR650 - for 21 years a perennial favorite of long-distance adventure riders and folks who want a proven, sturdy dual-sport that's both inexpensive and has a plethora of aftermarket accessories available - was redesigned for 2007. All-new bodywork and a taller windscreen improves wind protection, a 6.1-gallon gas tank retains the KLR's long range between fill-ups, and the revised seat design utilizes new urethane foam for greater comfort.
In addition to its major restyling, the big KLR features new suspension, engine and brakes updates, which make it a hoot to ride on tight, twisty sections. A redesigned cylinder head, plus revised ignition mapping and cam timing improve low-end torque, throttle response and high-rpm performance. The new 41mm front fork and redesigned rear linkage now have less static sag, and suspension travel is reduced, which aids street handling at the expense of off-road prowess. Stopping power has also been enhanced with a new 280mm petal-style front brake rotor and a new rear brake caliper.
Other changes to the KLR have made it a better touring companion, too. There's a rear luggage rack that's longer and wider now, and a narrower tail section that simplifies mounting saddlebags. With an optional Kawasaki tank bag and soft luggage on this larger rear rack, there's room to tote enough gear for an extended trip, and thrifty riders will certainly appreciate the price: $ 5,349.
Kawasaki's naked Z1000 continues to be a rider-friendly performance model, combining reasonable ergonomics with quick handling and plenty of power. Fed by four 36mm Keihin EFI throttle bodies, its 953cc four-banger is designed for low-end through mid-range power. An exhaust valve on the right side, just upstream of the muffler, varies back-pressure for optimum torque.
The Z's Uni-Trak rear suspension has a gas-charged shock with piggyback reservoir, matched with an inverted 41 mm fork, delivering a plush ride in the top half of the stroke and firmer damping in the bottom half, for a good balance of comfort and quick, sporty handling. Radial-mount front brake calipers offer strong braking and precise lever feel. However, the rear brake takes a surprising amount of pedal force to operate. Still, at $ 8,899, the Z1000 is a strong liter-bike package at a competitive price.
After the races were over, we dove into some excellent track time at Infineon Raceway, where we sampled more bikes, including the latest ZX-10R ($ 11,549) which now has even more power and an adjustable Öhlins steering damper as standard equipment, the ZX6R ($ 9,099 and up), the Z1000 (as described above) and the Ninja 650R ($ 6,499) with its compact fuel-injected, DOHC, eight-valve, 649cc parallel twin engine.
Starting out on the Ninja 650R allowed us to warm up and get the cobwebs cleared away while enjoying a light, flickable machine that makes a good track-day bike. We then sampled the Z1000, which does well on the track but is more at home on the street, followed by the ZX-6R and ZX-10R. We really like the ZX-6R on the track, due to its sharp handling, excellent brakes and controllable power.
The ZX-10R has a new engine tuned for even more power, along with a slipper clutch that allows more-aggressive downshifts, an updated chassis and larger radial brakes. While it feels quite similar to its 600cc ZX-6R sibling, the liter version is so powerful that it requires an expert rider to wring out the limits of its performance envelope. But let's leave that to the top-class racers and just have fun! Hopefully we'll be invited to hang out in the pleasurable confines of Kamp Kawasaki next year, too.