The ZX-11 inspired ZZR is the sportiest of the bunch and that includes the riding position. Unfortunately, Kawasaki's sport-tourer is a torture rack compared to its two competitors.
Able to consume huge gulps of pavement with an almighty lunge forward, the 1298cc Yamaha offers an acceleration rate beyond what the friendlier Honda can provide. There is strong torque available from as low as 3000 rpm, and this is one bagger that can wheelie off the throttle if your skills (and wife) will allow. The expansive powerband from the biggest-in-class motor has no hiccups, so a rider barely has to row the slick and positive 5-speed gearbox.
Passengers and riders alike will appreciate the delicate throttle response offered by the FJR's superb fuel-injection system. We especially enjoyed how the Yamamonster is free of annoying abruptness when reapplying throttle, which the FJR does better than the others in this trio, ensuring a minimum of helmet bopping with your pillion.
The north side of 33's mountainous section exits into a wide-open and poorly maintained section. Here, the ZZR showed some of its shortcomings. The fork's compression damping proved to be too harsh on this pockmarked pavement, and there are no provisions to alleviate the condition. However, the rear suspension suited our testers, big and small.
Later on we had an opportunity to really open up these big-cube sport-tourers. If you've got to get somewhere in a hurry and are buddies with the local constabulary, grab the keys to the Silver Bullet.
At its peak, the Zizzer cranks out 135 horsepower, so if you're in the right gear, you're leading this pack. Power comes on with a big hit at 5500 rpm, followed by an even harder jab upward of 7500 rpm, and from there the 1164cc four-cylinder builds speed almost unnaturally and it made the roadside pistachio farms pass by in a hyper-drive blur. The 593-lb machine, lightest in the group, accelerates like a ground-bound ICBM. It's likely we won't ever ride anything with saddlebags that is faster. The other bikes have ample power; the ZZR's is intoxicating and exhilarating.
Unfortunately, this pavement-pounding peak-power punch has a semi-precious price, as we found out during the ride west on Highway 166, a road notorious for lurking radar guns. While trying to maintain a legal pace, the vibration from the Kawasaki, the only member of this group not to be equipped with an engine counterbalancer, is fed through the frame spars and tank, as well as into its relatively low-set clip-ons. The omnipresent vibration is not bad enough to ruin the riding experience, but the mill's more frantic personality can make a long day in the saddle just a bit longer. Its worst zone is at 5000 rpm, so it's encountered on virtually every run up through the gears. A 6-speed transmission (compared to the five cogs in the others) helps avert the buzz zones, but the vibes can't hide for long.
The ZZR has gorgeous paint and a sleek profile that is somewhat spoiled by its squinty-alien headlight arrangement.
Meanwhile, the Honda's handy ambient air thermometer had reached into the triple-digit range and we were all feeling the effects of the oppressive heat. We pulled in to the only sign of civilization for 70 miles in either direction, New Cuyama, for fuel for bodies and machines. This small town is a place where, according to a local gas station attendant, "You meet somebody on Monday and by Friday you're married with two kids."
Further on up the road, we rejoined the four-lane morass that is Highway 101. Now back aboard the Yamaha, we had time to notice its nicely finished cockpit and handlebars, the most attractive in this group. Its bars are slightly forward compared to the Honda, which is either good or bad depending on your taste. While the FJR has a fairly supple seat, the rear portion of the rider's seat is angled upward, making it a bit less comfy than it could be.
Soon we made our way to the backroads surrounding the ocean-side town of Cambria, our destination for the night. But first we met up with photog Eric Putter for some late-light shots in the surrounding vineyard-filled hills. I amused myself during the countless photo passes by watching the ST1300's computer estimate fuel consumption, dipping down near the single digits during the slow-speed starts and stops and turnarounds.
Finally, we settled in for the night at the Bluebird Motel, a convenient waypoint in Cambria just south of the gateway to the most spectacular and entertaining portion of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Removing the hardware from the ZZR exposed the bridgework, which turned this bike into a fugly beast.
Awaking to a light rain shower, as is typical for coastal morning weather, we strolled over to one of Cambria's quaint coffee shops for a hearty breakfast. The ride ahead would again not stop until after the sun dipped itself into the Pacific.
The Wife and I began the day on the ZZR1200, scooting past the magnificent Hearst Castle just north of Cambria with poise and speed. The ZZ's seat is narrower and less thickly padded than the Honda and Yamaha. Footpegs are placed higher, so there's more available ground clearance, but they also force a more acute knee bend from its rider; the same goes for the ZZR's passenger.
Shorter riders like myself complained about the longish reach to the 1200's bars, but this more sporting riding position pays dividends when it comes time to do some horizon tilting. With more weight on the front end, a rider gets better traction and more direct front-end feedback. This, combined with the steepest rake, makes the mad Kaw the sharpest tool when it comes time to ride the curves aggressively. Yet the Zizzer has a slight tendency to fall into corners, and it takes considerable effort to right it or flick it, likely due to the narrowest bars in the group. Still, this is probably the only bike of the trio we'd seriously consider taking to a track day.