You’re riding along on one of these new 2008 supersports, and suddenly slow down to contemplate the moment you’ve been waiting for. The road before you sweeps down into a valley, runs tidy and direct for several miles with nary a home or driveway or traffic, then climbs the other side–clear, cold and straight. So you downshift a few gears, nail the throttle, feel the bike shudder and roar and launch.
The front end goes light, the engine wails to redline, you quick-shift up a gear, and another, and hunker down, the wind tearing and the speedo needle sweeping into triple-digitland. Despite the fact your cerebellum has been pinned against the back of your skull you retain sufficient cognition to understand that this bike can continue accelerating long past the point at which you’ll need a change of underwear. Soon, somewhere out there, your primal survival instinct elbows aside your spirit of adventure and your right wrist goes limp. Ah, but it was a Major Moment!
The more things change, the more they stay the same. As of this spring I’ve been testing motorcycles for 30 years now, and have seen many big streetbikes come and go. What brought this home was that I was there as a member of the now defunct Cycle magazine staff when Kawasaki invited the press to ride its new KZ1300 six-cylinder from Las Vegas to Death Valley in November of 1978, and now here I am in 2008 riding a four-cylinder Kawasaki ZX-14 (along with a Suzuki Hayabusa) on yet another Rider magazine test. Man, I just can’t seem to get out of this wonderful rut!
But motorcycles today are definitely not in a rut, as evidenced by this pair of four-cylinder, six-speed, chain-drive supersports. The ZX-14, which debuted in March of 2006, has been significantly updated for 2008. Suzuki, on the other hand, offers the first total remake of the Hayabusa that was introduced in 1999. In the past 30 years the more such high-end bikes have changed, the bigger, faster, better and more controllable they have become. And that’s a very good thing indeed.
The ZX-14’s changes are mostly in the interest of helping it meet the new Euro-III emissions standards, which limit both pollutants and sound. A third honeycomb catalyzer was added to the exhaust collector, and the secondary air ports in the heads were increased in size by 20 percent for cleaner exhaust burning. While the 1,352cc engine’s 84.0 x 61.0mm bore and stroke have been retained, Kawasaki claims that despite meeting stricter standards the internal changes give the engine more power than before. Also, die casting rather than gravity casting the cast-aluminum sections of the frame has resulted in some weight savings. Its price is a new and improved $11,699.
Suzuki’s long-lived and well-established Hayabusa has been in need of a revamp, and gets a new engine and frame for 2008. Sure, it’s still a DOHC liquid-cooled four, with four valves per cylinder, but displacement has been bumped slightly from 1,299cc to 1,340cc, and compression raised from 11.0 to 12.5:1. Bore and stroke have been fiddled to 81.0 x 65.0mm. Suzuki also adds new ram air and dual injectors per cylinder, lighter titanium valves and a larger volume 4-2-1-2 exhaust system with a large-capacity catalyzer. According to Suzuki, the new ‘Busa delivers 11 percent greater performance than its predecessor, and its price is now $11,999.
The chassis includes a twin-spar aluminum frame with a new bridged aluminum alloy swingarm for greater rigidity, and the single shock and new fork are both fully adjustable. While retaining the ‘Busa’s signature bird-of-prey profile, styling has been tidied up and the bike’s flowing lines sharpened.
Our own young Mr. Troy Siahaan attended the Hayabusa introduction, where his single timed dragstrip run got it into the low 10s at 146 mph. Others, after a number of runs, got it into the 9s. Later, Troy reports, he buried the speedometer in fifth gear at the Road America track at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, then shifted up to sixth and it was still pulling. These machines have been dyno tested elsewhere at more than 160 rear-wheel horsepower, so there’s no question that they possess all the power and performance any sane (or otherwise) rider would want or need. Being in a dither about whether they make more power than before is, to me, like wondering if Jennifer Lopez would be more attractive if she parted her hair differently.
We understand that Rider‘s readers aren’t the kind of people who would jump on bikes like these and head for the nearest dragstrip or track, so for our test we did what the great majority of our readers will do–we took them on tour. What…my partner on the ride will be Troy, the young guy? The hotshot? Look, Tuttle, I’ve got T-shirts older than him! And I’m old enough to be his dad! What? OK, maybe there is something to the old guy/young guy perspectives, the hotshot vs. the bloodshot.
As supersports, neither of these bikes can handle much luggage. Each has a steel fuel tank, and though the front of the Kawi’s is covered by a plastic panel there’s still room enough for a magnetic tankbag. It also has adequate anchors for a seatbag’s hooks. The Hayabusa comes with a plastic “hump” that fits in place of the rear seat (with a small storage area underneath); it’s designed to enhance aerodynamics at elevated speeds. At my age, I’m just trying to avoid a hump settling in my midsection. We substituted the rear seat for the hump, and attached a seatbag. One could fit soft saddlebags to these bikes, but they’d likely scuff the prominent side panels.
Climb aboard the Hayabusa and it immediately locks and loads you into a tight seating position from which you’ll have to raise your neck (excessively for my old bones) to see forward. You sit down in it, the windscreen low and in your lap, somewhat obscuring the gauges. The feet are placed relatively high for cornering clearance on both machines.
Troy and I, with photographer Rich Cox on another bike, headed north from Rider‘s avant-garde but faded offices in Ventura, California, on a clear, cold winter’s day. The Hayabusa’s power was immediate yet easily predictable and controllable, and came on with a rush past 8,000 rpm to its 11,000-rpm redline. The bike has a loud, raucous feel, like a brawler, though its short-throw six-speed shifts well and its suspension is a little less fine than the Kawasaki’s.
Over the summit of 5,200-foot Pine Mountain we encountered glare ice; there I was able to take advantage of a curious feature on the ‘Busa called the Drive Mode Selector. By utilizing a switch on the handlebar, the rider can instantly select A Mode (full power), B (10 percent less power below 8,000 rpm), or C (30 percent less power overall), a system that retards timing and makes appropriate engine tweaks to prevent unwanted wheelspin in chancy traction situations. Well, the glare ice had me so spooked that for all the power I was putting to the ground I may as well have been riding a Cushman Eagle scooter…you remember those, don’t you Troy?
The most striking aspect of the ZX-14 is its four projector-beam headlights flanking that ram-air duct. Its dark bodywork, which appears black, becomes a dazzling metalflake blue in the sun. From the side, other than those horizontal raised styling strips, it presents rather generic sportbike styling.
Back on the fast two-lane roads I hopped on the ZX-14 and found that I sat more on than in the bike. Its engine is not only notably smoother, but revs more freely than the ‘Busa’s. With a seating position that’s more spread out than the Suzuki’s, and with less protection, the ZX rider eats more wind. Everything about the Kawasaki, including its engine, suspension action and one-finger braking (from dual four-piston front calipers gripping petal rotors) is smoother and more refined than the Hayabusa’s.
In the afternoon we were back on tight roads, all second and third gear, and here the Hayabusa shined. Because the rider fits into it, like a jockey, he becomes one with it. Steering feels lighter and more precise on the ‘Busa, and soon to my surprise Troy had disappeared from my mirrors. Granted, Troy can perform impressive wheelies on either bike while I keep both tires on the ground, but at least the old guy wasn’t holding him up. Harrumph–another Major Moment! Braking, with its dual radial-mounted, four-piston front calipers, requires a heavier hand.
We spent that night in Kernville, up in the mountains, where the bikes amazed us in town with their tractable, easily managed power. Gone and good riddance to the bikes of the ’70s with their light-switch power (you remember the ’70s, don’t you Troy?). We could see our breath as we walked to dinner, and the puddles froze overnight.
Despite freezing weather the bikes started easily in the pre-dawn darkness, and we performed much of our photography the next morning. When we returned to the tight twisties I was now on the Kawasaki with Troy right on my tail; I just couldn’t put any distance on the kid. Hmmm, could it really be that the Hayabusa just works better on tight roads? Yeah.
At the end of such comparison rides I always ask those involved which of the bikes they would choose if they were to retrace the route, but could only ride one machine. Here, Young Man of Troy and I agreed on many things. If the route were made up primarily of tight, twisty roads where the Hayabusa’s handling shines, we would have chosen it. However, our route of more than 500 miles also included much fast, straight two-lane roads, and each time I got off the ‘Busa my neck and back were crying out for chiropractic attention. Though Troy’s youth spared him the degree of aggravation I suffered, we both agreed that the stretched-out ergonomics, smoothness and easy modulation of the Kawasaki were more to our liking. We both would have chosen it to repeat the trip. However, the Kawi traversed only 32.3 miles for each gallon of premium, while the ‘Busa went 40.
Comfort? Ergonomics? Touring amenities? Economy? Naw, these bikes aren’t about any of that. They’re about power, performance and Major Moments. And whether you started riding in the ’60s and have seen bikes steadily improve, or are a young guy who just recently fell into this motorcycling nirvana, you’re going to enjoy plenty of throttle-induced Major Moments on either of these two bikes.
If you’re interested in the 2008 Kawasaki ZX-14, you may also be interested in Rider‘s 2006 Kawasaki ZX-14 Review.