Bullet Train

Story by Uwe Wachtendorf// Photos by Glenn Roberts
July 1 2012
the new Kawasaki zx14r speed bike in green

Some consider land missiles like the new Ninja ZX-14R to be ostentatious displays of reckless excess. Others see them as technological marvels of motorcycle engineering. In an effort to find out who is right, three Mojo staffers do their best impersonations of Slim Pickens and throw a leg over Kawasaki’s latest bomb.

It’s big. It’s brash. And it can reach 320 km/h.

There’s no question that the 13,360-horsepower Kawasaki Heavy Industries’ Series E5 bullet train is a fast people mover. Or that the Shinkansen, which operates within Japanese railways’ ironically named Hayabusa service, is a technological marvel.

Much smaller and a lot less powerful – yet equally fast – is another Kawasaki people mover, the completely revised-for-2012 Ninja ZX-14R.

The newest Ninja is a motorcycle so brazen that it’s impossible to avoid hyperbole when describing it. Just looking over its Golden Blazed Green finish, embellished with flames, is enough to make you question if the motorcycle was born of a drug-induced dream. Green is, after all, a colour associated with hallucinatory inspiration. Fleetwood Mac’s Peter Green was an addled LSD user when he wrote the song Green Manalishi, and many an author has worked under the influence of the Green Fairy, a muse that appeared when drinking the wormwood-derived spirit absinthe, itself naturally green in colour.

I’m not one to speculate on the state of mind of those responsible for the ZX-14R, but there are some who question the sanity of hyper-fast motorcycles. Not so the denizens worshipping at the altar of speed, who readily accept Kawasaki’s assertion that the ZX-14R is the King, the Bomb, the all-singing, all-dancing flagship sailing at the forefront of the company’s performance fleet.

Test riding the new 2012 Kawasaki zx14rRevisiting the design of an iconic motorcycle is no different than walking a tightrope, as Suzuki discovered during the styling of its second-generation Hayabusa. Maintaining fan loyalty while creating new interest requires retaining the motorcycle’s character and recognizability. Consequently, changes to the original ZX-14’s exterior were more subtle than some had anticipated. The curved and rounded surfaces of the previous design were augmented with sharp creases to create a more dramatic appearance, and although the signature quadruple projector headlights were retained, they were given a more aggressive appearance. Similarly, the fins in the side panels were also kept, but their enhanced profiles now make a greater statement.

Kawasaki wanted the ZX-14R to have a significant presence, so from every angle the bike looks big. With what has to be two of the biggest silencers ever fitted to a motorcycle, this Ninja has a lot of junk in its trunk. A sporty seat cover, which can be easily removed for the use of an optional passenger tail grip, nicely completes the look.

An extremely windy day that threatened to rip the socks off the poles at the airport provided a good test of the Ninja’s bodywork. More than any other motorcycle, bullet trains like the ZX-14R rely on aerodynamic precision to cheat the power-sapping drag that occurs at extreme high speeds. While strong side gusts slightly altered its course, head on, the big bike punched a hole through the wind like a pro wrestler stepping through a balsa-wood door.

Conveniently, there’s actually room on board the Ninja for a pro wrestler. Kawasaki describes its ergonomics as “very relaxed and compact without being cramped.” Technically that’s a fair assessment if you’re comparing it to a pure sportbike. However, it remains a physically demanding riding position that requires a rider to lean forward and puts pressure on the wrists. Still, there’s more room than I can use – for my upper body – as the seat provides plenty of space for fore and aft movement.

What didn’t work for me was the distance between the seat and non-adjustable pegs, which felt cramped for my long legs. The windscreen wasn’t ideal for a person of my height, either. It turned the wind into an uppercut that filled my helmet with air, but it’s a small problem easily resolved by an accessory screen. During fast riding, it was easy to tuck behind the fairing; the multi-faceted fuel tank has an indent to fit the chin of your helmet and notches at each side to fit the handlebar during tight turns at low speeds.

One aspect of the bodywork’s redesign focused on heat management, with a goal to improve dissipation (and reduce how much hot air was reaching the rider). With changed fairing outlets and a second cooling fan attached to the radiator, it was only when trundling through town on warmer days that I felt the heat wafting up from the engine bay.

The engine is the physical and spiritual centre of the ZX-14R bullet train, and was given a thorough going-over to give it even greater performance. Kawasaki states that the new engine makes the Ninja the world’s fastest-accelerating production motorcycle. You won’t hear me arguing the claim; it makes more torque off idle (93 N-m/69 ft-lb at 2000 rpm) than most mid-displacement motorcycles produce at their peak. Backed by prodigious horsepower, the engine is an omnipotent powerplant.

Compared to the 2011 ZX-14, the 2012 ZX-14R, with its longer stroke and increased displacement (now 1441 cc), has more torque throughout the entire rev range and makes more power at higher revs. The combustion chambers, which were previously cast, are now precision milled to increase compression and performance. Lighter and stronger forged pistons with thinner crowns and revised skirts are now used, their undersides cooled by a new oil jet system positioned on the exhaust side of the engine.

The engine’s lengthened stroke required new connecting rods – now with stronger small ends and stronger big-end bolts – and a beefed-up crankshaft that uses a 40 mm main journal diameter instead of the 38 mm size that was previously used.

Other engine mods included reshaping and polishing the intake ports and enlarging the exhaust ports. Complementing the port work are longer intake valves and reprofiled cams that allow an increased lift. A stronger cam chain and a new ratchet tensioning system were added to improve reliability and reduce mechanical noise when the engine is cold.

According to Kawasaki, one of the biggest contributors to increased engine performance was the reduction of power-robbing pumping losses, which was accomplished by widening the bypass holes between the cylinders.

Feeding the beast are 44 mm throttle bodies and a larger air filter that is claimed to decrease flow resistance by 60 percent. On the exhaust side, larger headers and a reshaped collector sit ahead of the massive dual silencers; these sound good from the cockpit despite having a politely subdued tone from the curb.
Helping to reign in and focus the Ninja’s potentially overwhelming power is an advanced electronics package that includes Kawasaki Traction Control (KTRC) and two selectable power modes.

The KTRC on the ZX-14R is a simple-to-use, three-mode version. In Modes 1 and 2, the software-driven system, which samples traction conditions every 5 milliseconds, allows some wheel spin by balancing complete traction loss with the tire slippage required for maximum acceleration. Mode 3 is programmed to provide surefootedness on slippery surfaces, or as I discovered, to keep the motorcycle moving forward when riding aggressively on cold days. At its most intrusive level, KTRC employs a three-way control that manipulates ignition timing, fuel delivery and airflow to reduce engine output.

In operation, KTRC was almost completely transparent. It was often only by its seven-segment bar graph and yellow indicator light in the instrument panel that I knew it was intervening on my behalf. Unlike some of the traction control systems used by other manufacturers, KTRC will not prevent intentional wheelies. Torque wheelies are permitted in Modes 1 or 2, provided that acceleration is being maintained. Sudden wheelies, such as those experienced by dumping the clutch lever, are prevented. Wheelies in Mode 3 are strictly verboten.

KTRC can also be turned completely off, which livens up the ZX-14R riding experience and lets you fully appreciate how well KTRC works when it’s switched on. In the interest of safety, KTRC is automatically activated whenever the motorcycle is first started.

Along with KTRC, riders can also choose between running the bike in full or low power modes. Low power limits engine output to approximately 75 percent of its maximum and provides a more docile throttle response. But don’t let the low power mode lull you into a false sense of security. Even with a 25 percent power handicap and softened power delivery, the Ninja is still one of the most powerful machines on the street.

The rigid-mounted engine’s performance is characterized by its smoothness; even at full revs, it impressed by convincing me that it wasn’t even breaking a sweat. Dual secondary balancers can take some of the credit for quelling mechanical vibration, but it was the liquid throttle response that conspired to keep me oblivious to the sheer ferocity of the engine and that it possessed enough grunt to shed the bike of its paint. A mere pulse of thought and twitch of the hand will propel you to 100 km/h in less time than it takes to read this sentence. Turn the throttle slightly more, and you’ve already doubled that speed.
The gearbox, which never required more than just a two-finger pull on the lever and the gentle nudge of a toe, could almost be considered redundant. The engine is so broad reaching that it almost doesn’t matter if you use first or sixth gear anywhere between a walking pace up to legal highway speeds. Clutch pull – although smooth – was significant. You won’t give it a second thought when on the move, but it does become work in prolonged stop-and-go traffic.
Boosting the Ninja’s acceleration performance over that of the outgoing model was the use of a taller rear sprocket. Now a 42-tooth version, it’s spun by a stronger 530 chain with larger pins and inner plates. Backing up the drivetrain is a slipper clutch, which not only helps to prevent rear wheel lock-ups caused by aggressive downshifts, but also protects drive components during excessive back-torque conditions.

Kawasaki set a goal of redesigning the chassis to maintain the original ZX-14’s neutral handling while improving its sport-riding potential. To achieve this, a more rigid aluminum monocoque frame was coupled with a sport-tuned suspension. A number of construction methods were used to fine-tune the frame: the steering head uses a gravity casting, the main monocoque area is a pressing, and the swingarm pivot section consists of high-vacuum, die-cast pieces. The swingarm, which is now 10 mm longer, was also made more rigid.

To provide a tauter ride, the suspension system was given stiffer springs and its damping was revised to cope with the increase in power. Rubber dampers were added to the front fork to shore up its resistance to bottoming, which is less likely, as most of the suspension’s work is now performed at the beginning of the compression stroke compared with the ZX-14, which handled its bump absorption at the bottom end of the stroke. Lighter wheels shod with Metzeler Sportec M5 tires have also helped by decreasing unsprung weight, and since there’s less mass spinning around each axle, there’s also less rotational inertia to fight when changing the motorcycle’s direction.

Overall, the ZX-14R’s chassis strikes the balance you would expect from a grand touring vehicle; it provides reasonable comfort on unruly roads and the control and agility required to entertain on the more involving ones. Not a lightweight motorcycle, its 265 kilogram, fully fueled mass is only noticeable at slow speeds, but even then it’s well balanced – it never posed an issue.

Fast bikes need exceptional brakes. The ZX-14R uses petal discs at the front and rear with radial-mounted calipers and a radial-pump master cylinder that provided good lever feel and strong stopping power.

Don’t let the presence of the wheel sensor rotor mounted on the front brake disc fool you into thinking that the ZX-14R has ABS. It doesn’t. All set to chastise Kawasaki for not importing the ABS version of the motorcycle into Canada, I realized that the blame would be misplaced. Canadian riders are to blame; Kawasaki’s sales data proves that penny-pinching motorcyclists in this country still don’t appreciate the value of the indispensable safety system and will rarely opt for ABS when it’s made available.

An analog speedometer and tachometer banking a multi-function digital display make up the motorcycle’s instrumentation. The display, which includes a gear position indicator and fuel consumption data, is controlled by a multi-function button on the left handlebar. It’s been improved for 2012 with an ambient air temperature readout and a more precise remaining-fuel range function and fuel gauge. Precise appears to be a loose term. The Ninja’s remaining range is calculated by the ECU as it tracks the injected fuel volume, but the displayed distance varied wildly, at times jumping up and down in 40 km increments.
Even though Kawasaki claims that the ZX-14R’s more advanced ECU makes it eight percent more fuel efficient at constant speeds than its predecessor, this motorcycle is not a teetotaller. And be warned: It has a minimum requirement of 90 octane fuel, which means it likes the expensive stuff. A round trip to the drag strip – approximately three hours of riding and eight quarter-mile runs – was enough to almost completely drain its 22-litre tank and return a 7.3 L/100 km fuel economy rating. And it was only through a conscientious effort to achieve good mileage that I managed to achieve a 6.1 L/100 km rating.

Conspicuous consumption be damned – the ZX-14R is a brilliant motorcycle. It only takes one fervent ride while in a wanton mood to figure that out. And contrary to the uninitiated opinions of tree-huggers, self-serving politicians, and other killjoys who argue that motorcycles this powerful have no place on public roads, the ZX-14R has real-world usefulness. For an experienced rider, it is infinitely easy to ride and can be a very sensible motorcycle (providing you’re being a sensible rider). Just don’t bother defending it to anyone by mentioning that its top speed is electronically restricted to just shy of 300 km/h; it’s like suggesting that a 5-megaton nuclear bomb is safer than one with a 15-megaton warhead.

Few motorcycles draw such a disparate following. The allure of the green machine juxtaposes quarter-mile junkies, mature sport-touring enthusiasts, and those immersed in the seedy underbelly of midnight motorcycling who buy the Ninja for the street cred it provides. There is one thing that they all have in common: a need to adjust their perception of time and space. As every new owner discovers, when riding a ZX-14R, you always reach destination far earlier than expected.


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