2006 Kawasaki ZX-14 – Road Test Review

Kawasaki and Suzuki have been engaged in, shall we say, friendly fire for the past four years, battling it out for the title of manufacturer of the most powerful production motorcycle. With the introduction of the Ninja ZX-14 for 2006, Kawasaki has officially dethroned its own Ninja ZX-12 as well as Suzuki’s Hayabusa.

With a claimed 200 horsepower, the Kawasaki ZX-14 has more power than most of us mortals will ever be able to use. (That’s the European rating with ram air at the crankshaft-our run on the non-ram-air Borla dyno recorded 163.4 at the rear wheel.) You have to admit, though, there’s something fascinating about a bike that can do 0-60 mph-or 0 to the voluntary 186-mph limit-nearly as fast as you can read 0-60. And if you can tame your throttle hand and take it easy, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how long you can legally ride in comfort on the ZX-14. Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound-and a suitable, comfortable sport tourer? How did they do it?

Egad, it’s the fly! ZX-14’s outer lights are position lights and high beams, center lights are low beams.
Egad, it’s the fly! ZX-14’s outer lights are position lights and high beams, center lights are low beams.

The ZX-14’s all-new liquid-cooled, 1,352cc, 16-valve DOHC in-line four evolved from the bygone 1,199cc ZX-12. Bore and stroke have been upped from 83.0 x 55.4mm to 84.0 x 61.0mm. The chassis design is an advanced version of Kawasaki’s aluminum monocoque lightweight frame. The monocoque is also very strong, especially since the engine is rigidly mounted. All this power and excitement is wrapped up in a compact engine design that’s no wider than the ZX-12’s. The airbox is parked in the frame, another slenderizing feature, and the ZX-14’s 190mm rear tire is actually smaller than the standard 200-series on the ZX-12. Despite all of this talk about compactness, stand back and take a look at the ZX-14with its 57.5-inch wheelbase, and you’ll find this is still a big motorcycle. Looking at the ZX-14 from the rear, you’ll note that its dual mufflers help make it wider than its predecessor with the four-into-one. If you compare dry-weight figures, the 14 also weighs in at about 11 pounds more.

Instruments include high-contrast analog gauges and an LCD display with a trip computer.
Instruments include high-contrast analog gauges and an LCD display with a trip computer.

Hop aboard the big Ninja and the comfy combination of a sporty, somewhat upright seating position, a well-padded wide seat and a windscreen that deflects windblast without sending your helmet bobbing, is rather unexpected. The distance between the triple clamp and the seat is long for a liter-class bike, so our short-armed staffer is more leaned over and positioned closer to the tank. And while a 6-foot, 4-inch rider was sitting upright, he found the footpeg position cramped. For my 5-foot, 10-inch frame, the ergonomics are just about right, and I have no issues with comfort, even after putting on 2,200-plus miles. Overall ergonomics are similar to the ZX-12’s, the slightly higher bars on the ZX-14 being the most apparent difference, at least for me.

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Last year I bought a 2004 ZX-12, so I have a basis for comparison. Naturally, just when I buy one of the fastest production motorcycles, it becomes obsolete! Fortunately, I bought it because I can ride long distances on it in comfort. Since we had a ZX-12 and a ZX-14 side by side, you can imagine what happened next. Road trip! With the old- and new-generation Ninjas as our steeds, our plan was to ride freeways and twisty back roads, into the mountains and along the coast on an overnighter.

On our first day, with Southern California temperatures surpassing 95 degrees, the heat coming off the ZX-14’s engine was excessive. This is a big, powerful engine wrapped up in plastic so heat is amplified, even though it’s baffled to blow air out the sides. A fan kicks in but I’m wondering if it’s enough to cool the engine in really hot weather. Windblast is directed at a lightweight, slightly curved Denso radiator with high-density cores that Kawasaki claims provides efficient cooling. The bar graph on our test bike’s temperature gauge has maxed out several times, though a Kawi representative assures us there’s a calibration issue with the gauge and that the bike is not overheating. So while apparently the bike won’t boil over, I stuck my legs out into the breeze to ensure they would not spontaneously combust. Of course, when we reached the cooler coast, my whining turned to praise.

Four-into-two exhaust has enormous mufflers that are mounted low to clear luggage.
Four-into-two exhaust has enormous mufflers that are mounted low to clear luggage.

Riding along at reasonable speeds on the highway, the ZX-14’s Uni-Trak linkage rear suspension works well and absorbs bumps and pavement irregularities, and keeps me well planted in the seat. The rear shock has adjustable spring preload with stepless adjustable rebound and compression damping, and the 43mm inverted cartridge fork is also fully adjustable. Adjusting the ring-and-locknut shock preload is a time-consuming chore, as you’ll need a hammer and drift-not supplied with the toolkit. Heavier riders found the suspension a bit mushy. The toolkit is about the only thing easy to get to, as you’ll have to remove plastic to reach just about everything else.

The compliant and well-controlled suspension helps the big Ninja transition nicely from straight road to curving. It stays planted in turns, especially long sweepers-lean it in, and it glides through with ease and precision. Apply light pressure on the bar and the Ninja reacts without wavering. Even in a series of left-right tight, slow-speed turns, it changes direction freely, but you’ll feel its 556-pound (wet) weight.

To tame vibes, Kawi uses dual gear-driven counterbalancers, which obviously work very well, as my question is, “What vibration?” The engine is so smooth that shaking is barely perceptible at any rpm. It’s not coming through the seat, can’t feel much through the pegs, and the fold-up mirrors are free of the vibes and provide a clear, wide rear view. I could feel a teensy bit of buzz reaching my knees via the tank. The tank is shaped wider on top, and then curves inward so my knees snug into the curves, a feature that makes me feel connected to the motorcycle.

A fairly relaxed seating position and room for soft luggage (or accessory hard bags) help make the big Ninja a good sport tourer.
A fairly relaxed seating position and room for soft luggage (or accessory hard bags) help make the big Ninja a good sport tourer.

The ZX-14 is very stable on the highway, as the engine is positioned forward in the frame, centralizing mass, and the fuel tank is centrally mounted below the seat for a low center of gravity. The readout on the LCD tells me it’s averaging 37 mpg at 75 mph. Overall, our test bike averaged 37.59 mpg. The ZX-14 gets about 1.5 mpg less than my ZX-12, but the 14 has a larger tank, holding 5.8 gallons for a longer range, and was able to go as far as 181 miles on one fill-up. When the fuel gets low, you’ll have fair warning, because the LCD is taken over by an alternating flashing “Low Fuel” readout and a gas pump, plus a flashing “E” on the bar graph. The instrument cluster lights up red at night and feeds you lots of info with an LCD displaying gear position, a clock, fuel range, average mpg, battery voltage, dual tripmeters and an odometer. The tach and speedometer are analog, with bar graphs showing engine temperature and fuel.

The big Ninja just wants to go. Power comes on so smooth and linear that many times I enter the freeway without realizing that, in second gear, I’m already exceeding the speed limit. The engine has an 11,000-rpm redline, and it takes a reasonable person-or one with sheer willpower-not to whack that throttle open just to see how fast it can accelerate. I can almost picture it yawning out of boredom as I do my daily commute at 70-75 mph, and that evil-and-angel-on-the-shoulders scenario runs through my mind. Devil: “C’mon, is that all you got?” Angel: “But I’m already exceeding the speed limit.” Fuel is delivered via 44mm Mikuni throttle bodies, and with a 12.0:1 compression ratio, recommended fuel is 90-plus octane.

The ZX’s transmission is silky smooth and it eases into and out of any of its six gears without abruptness or clunking. Clutch pull is light, and finding neutral at a stop is easy. The hydraulic clutch and front brake use radially mounted master cylinders, making them more efficient because the pressure is applied more directly. As expected on a bike with this much power, the dual front radial disc brakes haul the big boy to a stop quickly and precisely without any fade. Radial brakes can be lighter and more rigid, and separate brake pads for each of the ZX-14’s pistons ensure even brake-pad wear.

The Good Stuff: Radial mounted, opposed four-piston brake calipers and wave rotors up front.
The Good Stuff: Radial mounted, opposed four-piston brake calipers and wave rotors up front.

After a day of riding, we reached our destination with no aches or pains. We “checked into” our safari tent (no keys) at the most luxurious campground I’ve seen, and had enough energy left to take a mile-long walk along the beach before cruising down to a barbecued dinner, complete with a bonfire and a great band playing oldies. How many fireside bands have you seen in a campground?

An invigorating five-mile hike the next morning got us going and then we headed out along the cooler coast. The helmet lock on the ZX-14 came in handy so I didn’t have to lug my helmet around town when we stopped for lunch. The ZX-14 has such niceties that make us wonder if Kawasaki’s engineers had the touring rider in mind when designing it, like hooks under the passenger seat for soft luggage or bungees and a steel tank so it can be outfitted with a magnetic tankbag. I have a low-profile magnetic tankbag that sticks well but some may not work as there’s a plastic insert at the top of the tank. There are also mounting brackets above the passenger pegs so we’re speculating that Kawasaki is coming out with saddlebags for it. Rumors abound of a purpose-built sport-touring version in the pipeline as well.

Kawasaki ZX-14.
Kawasaki ZX-14.

Our test ZX-14 has performed flawlessly, and my only concern (besides having to give the bike back) is the excessive heat put out when ambient temperatures rise. Our 2,200-mile heated relationship has been a good one, based on comfort and reliability, and the engine is so smooth. The big Ninja’s unmatched power, decent ergonomics and fuel capacity, and canyon-carving prowess should keep both the sport-touring rider and the long-distance sprinter more than satisfied. In fact, I like it better than my ZX-12. Maybe I need a bike with a little more top end like the ZX-14.

If you’re interested in the 2006 Kawasaki ZX-14, you may also be interested in Rider‘s 2008 Kawasaki ZX-14 vs. Suzuki Hayabusa review.

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