Although the scales say the ZX-12 needs a weekend or two with Jenny Craig, it doesn't shy away from canyon running.
The ZX-12R has been the flagship of the Kawasaki fleet since 2000 when it was commissioned to replace the legendary ZX-11 as the premier green machine. The new-age Ninja boasted an enormously strong powerplant that was rumored to be capable of breaking into the 200-mph barrier. If not for the grumblings of a few politicians it very well may have. Instead, the public had to be content with a 186-mph bike (electronically speed-limited) which, for all intents and purposes, should be plenty fast for the common folk.
So, how good is the revised ZX-12R? I can save you a bit of time by summing it up in two words: Bad-ass! This bike is wickedly powerful and fun. Not only does it look good with its updated bodywork, but it hauls butt and is comfortable almost to a fault. This bike is intended to be an asphalt-consuming beast and I must say it is just that.
The 2002 ZX benefits from a needed face lift and a number of improvements aimed at making the bike more rider friendly than ever before. In the interest of keeping power manageable, the crankshaft weight has been increased by 4.4 lbs., which is partly responsible for the smoother delivery of power. A quartet of 46mm throttle bodies are actuated by a new oval-shaped throttle pulley, helping a rider feed fuel gradually to give smoother throttle response when first cracked open.
The new ram-air intake has been cleverly incorporated into the front cowling to create a more aesthetically pleasing nose, while the 30% increase to its surface area makes the system more functional than the snorkel intake it replaces. Although the bodywork was only slightly tweaked, it nets a one-point reduction in drag coefficient to let it slide through the air easier. The 12R still retains the wings on the lower cowling, which effectively do nothing but give you something to BS the spectators about. "Yes sir, those help keep the thing stable when its on the rear wheel under acceleration - it's so fast it wants to do wheelies everywhere."
The majority of the aluminum monocoque frame is hidden deep beneath the bodywork, but the portion of the design that is left uncovered is innovative enough to keep the onlookers entertained. The powder-coated alloy frame and the flat-black plastic covers blend together well with the faux carbon fiber exposed fuel cell. Spent fuel exits through the stainless steel headers of the 4-2-1 system before being quieted by a gorgeous titanium muffler that provides the necessary square footage of gleaming alloy to deliver the finishing touch on the new-look Ninja.
Roll on wheelies on the big Ninja are effortless and fun...the only problem is it stretches the stock chain in a hurry.
I pointed the nose of the ZX toward a favorite stretch of fresh blacktop that undulates with high-speed sweepers that's located near of Ruch, Oregon. Here alongside the picturesque Applegate reservoir the ZX-12 was in its element. With nary a curve that can't be taken at over a ton, the redesigned Ninja felt smooth and planted. Up front, the 120/70-17 Dunlop is situated between adjustable 43mm inverted forks which are stiffer than those of the previous model. This change and the new 5mm-shorter shock compliments the latest chassis alterations. A fat 200/50-17 Dunlop puts the 160-plus rear-wheel horsepower to the ground out back. With an occasional straightaway connecting these luscious lines, I quickly found the arm-straightening power intoxicating and difficult to resist. At these speeds, the excellent wind protection of the big Ninja was much appreciated.
It's in the twisties that a big, powerful bike is usually most challenged, but even though the Kawi tips the scales at a meaty 510 lbs. (nearly 100 lbs. more than a GSX-R1000 or a CBR954), the ZX-12 carries the extra bulk well. Rake has been increased to a rather steep 23.5 degrees for quicker steering, and the fork offset was reduced, providing improved turn-in characteristics. Changes made to the 12R chassis revolved around shifting the weight forward in the interest of keeping the front end planted, and it seems to have worked since it was plenty capable of carving up the canyons alongside its track-happy brethren.
When attacking a truly twisty road, it was a welcome revelation that the ZX was actually capable of being flicked from side to side in the tight stuff without an inordinate amount of muscle. When pushed hard in the 30- to 50-mph corners, the additional weight does finally become noticeable, but nothing that warrants a huge rant. It just didn't feel like a carving tool the way more sporting machines like a GSX-R or CBR, but the ZX is not designed to shine in this environment. The fact that it pulls its own weight so well (no pun intended) is just a big fat bonus. I doubt a bike like this will be regularly ridden that hard on roads that tight by the majority of prospective owners, so only those who dare to take it to a track day will likely ever complain about its weight. About the only time the bike truly felt heavy was at parking lot speeds, but again that's more of a genetic shortcoming than a flaw in the bike, now isn't it?
Once it comes time to slow this black and gold missile, an awesome set of 6-piston Tokico calipers and 320mm rotors scrub off speed quickly. With the kind of velocity this thing generates, it's good to know you've got the tools to slow it down. When turning in trailing the brakes, the mega Ninja does have a tendency to resist, but once you get used to that extra effort it becomes academic.
The ZX-12R is just as at home in the twisties as it is on the salt flats. The bad news is the flats are a long way away and it is illegal to go 186 mph in most states.
Bottom line: If you own a smaller displacement sportbike and get the urge to outrun a 12R owner down your favorite canyon (after losing to them in a drag race), make sure it is not their favorite road, too. You might be in for a big surprise.
When ridden at a law-abiding pace the ZX exhibits slight vibration between 4000 and 5000 rpm, which will make its way without too much ill feeling to the riders hands. Although it is nothing more than an irritating phenomenon on short trips, it becomes more of an issue during extended rides. At 70- to 75-mph you're right in this buzz zone, so you have to
keep the thing at a modest 65-70 mph or go up into the 80s in order to avoid the undesirable rpm range.
Shifting the ZX couldn't be much more pleasant - its 6-speed transmission is as smooth as anything I have tapped a toe against. Improved shifting characteristics come courtesy of an increased shift-shaft diameter that reduces clearance between the gear dogs for a more precise feel. With the exception of one false neutral between 4th and 5th, the transmission was fantastic throughout our test proceedings. Clutch action was easy to modulate, and the lever pull wasn't tough enough to warrant any complaints.
The most important piece of the ZX puzzle is definitely its motor. In the true Kawasaki essence, this mill is more than ready to take on all comers, anywhere, anytime. With a truck-load of power on tap, the ZX-12R accelerates out of corners at an incredible pace. Its deep and powerful sound that accompanies the rapid acceleration is the acoustic complement to the wind noise ripping through your helmet. Passing cars? No problem. Twist the throttle in any gear and reach Warp 12 a few moments later. Click a downshift and pin it and you may see God.
Once you have arrived at a destination and gathered your senses, you may have time to notice the some of the little things that make this bike functional. The instrument panel includes a digital display that hosts the fuel gauge, two tripmeters, odometer and clock, all of which are handy stuff no matter who you are or where you're riding. The traditional tach and speedo gauges look good and are easy to read whether you're tucked behind the windscreen or cruising along with your nugget exposed to the wind.
So what is the 2002 Kawasaki ZX-12R good for? Just about everything you can think of.
It's smooth, comfortable and, of course, fast as hell. The big Ninja can be flogged down any canyon road or it can help you tap into terminal velocity on a deserted highway near you.
If you are like me and you find yourself commuting as often as riding for pleasure, the $10,999 ZX-12R is an excellent mix of touring comfort and sporting performance. However, inexperienced riders need not apply. But if you've got a few years riding under your belt, the cash and the cajones, the ZX-12R is one wild ride. The biggest cost to a 12R riders may be their licenses.
A special thanks goes out to our favorite Army Recruiter Sgt. Ron House for his assistance during our test.