By Ken Hutchison

Kawasaki Pops the Low End Cork on its Hyper-Sportbike

When the Ninja ZX-14 was introduced in 2006 it was a purpose-built intercontinental ballistic missile disguised as a motorcycle and aimed directly at the battle-tested bastion of the 'Busa. Like so many state-of-the-art weapons it struck with surprising precision and force, using its combination of a user-friendly 200-horsepower motor, wind-tunnel designed bodywork and comfortable accommodations to depose the beloved bird of prey from its decade-long reign as the ultimate hyper-sportbike during our 2006 ZX-14 vs Hayabusa comparo.

While the mega-Ninja was indeed both stealthy and cunning, it lacked that mind-numbing grunt the masses had come to expect from the ruler of this unruly realm. A raw, unrefined feeling is appealing to the street riders of the world and while the original ZX-14 was a fine first effort, there were things that could’ve been better – if not a bit gnarlier. Those seemingly insignificant shortcomings have been addressed with the 2008 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14, which is a bit more aggressive and even more powerful than before.

While the original claimed 200 hp is impressive, it correlated to about 170 on our rear-wheel dyno during the evaluation of the 2006 Kawasaki ZX-14. That number is certainly nothing to scoff at, but the problem is that the first version was electronically governed to not accelerate very hard in the first 5,000 rpm in an attempt to protect the well-being of unsuspecting users. The peak performance numbers were still there though, so it was easy to overlook at the time, but as the years went by it became a blemish on the 14’s otherwise exciting record.

Modern day motorcyclists are not too keen on being protected from themselves, especially when we’re talking about someone who already wants to own a bike capable of exceeding 140 mph in less than 11 seconds. For 2008, not only does the new bike feature revised engine mapping, which forgoes the low rpm regulation and allows that lovely low-end snort to be accessed anytime the rider wants, but it gets a slight increase across the rev range and a small bump in overall top-end power production.

After a few minutes in the saddle it is easy to confirm the ZX has tossed aside its velvet glove approach to making power for a more manic one, which culminates in a claimed increase to 203 horsepower (up a scant 3 ponies to the previous claimed figure). The new ZX-14 also produces quicker revs, which should fill that emptiness left at the start of the torque curve of the ’06-’07 version. The infinitesimal addition to the curve feels more significant than the numbers suggest. Twist the throttle on this bike and it makes power with authority right out of the gate. No more easing into it, no more pussy-footing around. Hooligans will be happy to know it wheelies with less effort and speed-junkies will revel in the quicker acceleration once that light goes green. Kawasaki’s department of mind-boggling motors has returned to its age-old philosophy of offering big, bad-ass bikes to those folks who like to let the good times roll.

Our first test of the new Ninja’s temperament took place at the drag strip of California Speedway. Readers might recall the epic introduction of the 2006 ZX-14 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, when the journalists of the world were asked to flog the bike mercilessly in an all-day attempt to crack into the 9-second quarter mile barrier. Only a few succeeded and my personal best effort was a 10.3-second run at just over 140 mph. The anticipation of joining the ranks of nasty 9s fueled my desire to soak in every pointer offered up by drag-racing legend and our coach for the day, Rickey Gadson.

"Why aren't you better, Hutch? I'm Ricky Gadson, and I'm teaching you, yet still you fail. If I don't see a nine soon, you're goin to be runnin' laps son. I mean it!"

The champ is no stranger to squeezing the best out of uninformed knuckleheads who think blitzing a quarter-mile is as easy as it looks, because he runs his Rickey Gadson Drag Racing School with ZX-14s as the machines of choice. Yet, despite his best efforts, when the smoke settled after a dozen or so attempts on the stock bike, my best time had only improved to a 10.2 under his duteous tutelage. He said I was doing well, but that didn’t help my ailing ego any. I was optimistic about getting a few runs on a ZX that had been lowered – to help make launches even easier. On the final of four passes on the low rider I ripped off what felt like a near perfect pass. When I returned to the starting line and handed my time-slip I was disappointed to learn I had missed out on the elusive 9-second run by less than half of the time it takes to blink my watering frigging eye. I would have to be content with a 10.006-second run.

Even though I failed in my quest to become one of the cool kids, I learned that the new Ninja has a quite a bit more aggressive bottom end hit, which equates to approximately a tenth of a second increase in drag strip performance. Everyone knows there’s a government-mandated cap of 186 mph on these hyper-cycles, so the selling point is all about acceleration and after a half day at the strip there is no denying the 2008 ZX-14 has improved its game.

The bike still boasts a bullet-proof clutch which is easy to modulate and never seems to fail despite any type of abuse. Not only is this latest version both faster and more powerful but it is even more environment-friendly as well. By adding a third exhaust catalyzer and larger crossover tubes between the headers, Kawasaki has managed to quiet the bike down in an effort to meet increasingly important sound regulations and Euro III emission standards. All this while being capable of damn near tripling the national speed limit in less than time than it takes Johnny Law to pull the trigger on his radar gun.

Speaking of radar, our street ride was fairly enlightening as we took the long, winding road to the top of the Rim of the World. Not much has changed in the accommodation department since the ZX has always offered a fairly decent riding position for a sportbike. Ample wind protection comes courtesy of the massive front cowling and a fairly protective windscreen. The gauges carry over from last year and are still full of info and presented quite legibly.

Braking and suspension packages are both back in this version, too. Petal-style 310mm front rotors work with radial-mount four-pistion calipers to offer very good feel and excellent stopping power. The adjustable inverted 41mm fork is a great compliment to the stable chassis and the single Bottom-Link Uni-Track rear suspension is more than up to task for either touring or sporting duty.

Overall appearance is still the same as the previous model but a few styling tweaks improve the look a bit. The matte-black finned faux-frame piece is now color matched to each specific paint scheme: Midnight Sapphire Blue, Atomic Silver or Special Edition Flat Black with Persimmon red flames for $11,999 – the others ring in at $11,699.

On the street the smooth and easy action of the clutch along with a slick-shifting six-speed transmission are always welcome. The ZX gear changer is still precise, never once missing a beat or giving reason to gripe. Once in second gear, however, it’s capable of going fast enough to land a person in jail for the night. Fortunately, all we got was a stern warning this time around. There’s not a lot of engine buzz at legal speeds but it does still transmit some vibes through the bars at higher rpm, but the mirrors offer a good view no matter how fast the pistons are churning. There is sure no lack of power on this bike either, since it features a ridiculous 113.5 lb-ft of torque to go along with that claimed two-hundy horses. Whether you are cruising on the freeway or participating in more ‘entertaining’ sport riding, this motor has anything this side of a ZX-10 covered if you are compelled to run at the front of the pack.

The chassis received a few updates including a new casting process that saves some weight, which only a scale will be able to confirm. Otherwise it still handles like a ZX-14. It carries the claimed 485-lb dry weight well at speed, only really showing its mass during parking lot and driveway navigation. This is also a good time to mention its fairly convenient 31.5-inch seat height, which allows easy access to the ground for shorter riders. Geometry also remains the same with 23.0-degree rake and 94mm trail helping it to be relatively easy to muscle through tighter turns, while its longish 57.5-inch wheelbase gives it the high-speed stability necessary for a power-mad beast such as this. In fast sweepers you’d be hard pressed to find anything to complain about. It is very steady and although I hate to keep beating this horse, it’s so dang smooth. The ZX separates the rider from the road, offering up an impact-free experience while providing the feedback necessary to ride it the way it wants to be ridden.

In case you missed it lets recap: The 2008 Ninja ZX-14 is more powerful and retains the agreeable characteristics like comfort, quality brakes, suspension and ergos that allowed it to overtake the Hayabusa as the monster sportbike of choice. Plus, the self-imposed limitation on low-end power has been tossed in favor of a more nasty power production that gets with it right off the bat.

Since this review is based solely off the one-day press introduction, there are still some pressing questions that need to be answered. How much more power does it really make and how much different is the power curve? And then there’s the matter of how it stacks up to the new and improved competition. Expect a no-holds-barred super heavyweight smackdown as our 2008 Kawasaki ZX-14 versus 2008 Suzuki Hayabusa comparison test is already underway.