2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R First Ride

Ken Hutchison | December 26, 2011

The arrival of the 2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R signals the start of a new era in stock motorcycle performance. Although Kawasaki makes no official power claims for its 2012 ZX-14R, it has come to our attention that we can expect to see nearly 200 horsepower at the rear wheel. Shattering the previous benchmark of roughly 186 horsepower seen on the previous generation ZX-14 was not the only goal for Kawasaki, as the appearance and handling of the 14R has evolved as well. This major redesign was intended to set the bar so high in the hyper-bike class that its rival, the Suzuki Hayabusa, would be literally left in the dust.

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Watch the revitalized ZX-14R in action on the road and at the drag strip in this 2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R First Ride Video.

Kawasaki makes no bones about that statement as the focus of the 2012 Ninja ZX-14R press intro was centered-around market domination, class-leading power production and performance that humbles the mighty ‘Busa on the track, on the dyno and, hopefully for Kawasaki, on the showroom. At the heart of the all-out assault is a new and improved 1441cc engine (Increased from 1352cc on the ’11 model) complemented by a host of rider-aid components, highlighted by the latest iteration of the Kawasaki (KTRC) Traction Control System and a slipper clutch.

Internally, stroke was increased 4mm to 65mm and compression receives a bump from 12.0:1 to 12.3:1, but there’s more to the head work than these slight numerical improvements. One of the more notable changes is in the implementation of hand-polished ports, a long standing tradition with Kawasaki sportbikes that has been implemented on the 14R this year.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R
Traction control is a relative term… With 200 horsepower at your disposal, it doesn’t hurt to have some electronic aides. Thankfully, the ZX-14’s new KTRC system has three settings.

A tasty electronics package includes a three-mode selectable KTRC traction control system, adjustable via switch on the left handle bar, as well as a two-mode digital ignition that allows for full power or basically a 50% power option. The ZX-14R fuel injection system features automatic idle speed adjustment, which helps the bike meet Euro III emission standards and keeps the big Ninja running smooth right out of the gate. Throttle lag is non-existent and response is what we’ve come to expect from Kawasaki sportbikes: Sharp and spot-on. That lag in the mid-range that we hated in the previous version has been replaced with smooth, fistfuls of unadulterated Ninja power.

The signature look for the ZX-14 starts with the quartet of projector beam headlamps, the four ribs down each side of the bodywork and ends at the V-shaped taillight. The headlamps are now more tightly integrated into the upper cowling, giving it a modern, slightly more-sinister look. The ribs along the side fairings are spaced wider and are cleaner than before. The triple clamp and steering stem nut are machined for a more stylish look as well. Almost all the bodywork fasteners are hidden, which makes dis-assembly more of a chore but is sure to be a hit with custom bike builders.

The chassis receives important updates as well. The aluminum monocoque frame is narrower and more rigid than last year. Suspension components are the same, with refined settings but the swingarm is longer, extending the wheelbase a half-inch to a drag-strip friendly 58.3 inches. Lighter, 10-spoke wheels reduce un-sprung weight by a total of three pounds but overall the 2012 ZX-14R weighs in at a claimed 584.3 pounds, which is more than seventeen pounds heavier than the 2011 version.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R
It’s not until the corners kink up tight that the ZX-14R feels its size, but in sweeping corners its smooth, steady… and fast!

On the street the ZX-14R is no longer a gentle giant. It retains the exact same riding position as the previous model but is more of a brute. Its huge horsepower punch is held back only by the rider’s wrist, or the KTRC. The 14R is designed to appeal equally to the power-hungry hooligans among us as well as the silent but deadly types. Over 100 lb-ft of torque helps the front wheel get light in the first three gears despite the added heft.

In the turns the Ninja requires some effort to hustle through tight corners, but it never was intended to be a threat in the twisties. Don’t get me wrong, it is awesome in the sweepers, stable and easier to maneuver than you would expect from a bike weighing almost 600 pounds. But there’s a ZX-10R if you really want to etch your name in the canyon carving lore or win some club races. The ZX-14R is about hauling us in style. Keeping all the power civilized through the KTRC and dual power modes is critical to the success of the ZX-14R since the majority of them will be subjected to commuter duty, weekend rides and rarely will see time at the one place you can take advantage of all the delicious power: The Drag Strip.

Once again our drag racing experience on the big ZX would take place at The Strip located within the confines of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This straight stretch of tarmac has hosted its share of ZX-14 quarter mile runs and we were there to rack up a few more on this cool, clear Nevada evening. Kawasaki enlisted the aid of drag racing legend Rickey Gadson, who would call upon his years of instructional and racing experience to make sure we got the most from the more powerful 2012 ZX-14R.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R
Launching a 200-hp drag bike under the master’s watchful eye. The elusive nine second quarter-mile still taunts us.

The ZX is equipped with a re-located launch light that is positioned at the top of the tach to make it more useful at the strip. Believe it or not our launches were set at 3500 rpm this year, a bit lower than our rpm for launches on the previous generation 14. For 2012 the torque is so gnarly that you can get away with a low-rpm launch and focus instead on throttle modulation to get a good run.

We were given roughly 12 passes and as I experienced in the past, it wasn’t easy to crack the 9-second barrier. Besides Gadson, only four riders managed to pull it off: Our old pal Kevin Duke and Brock Davidson, owner of Brock’s Performance, did it in our group with Duke Danger pulling it off on almost every pass and Brock netting just a single 9-second run while drawing on his wealth of drag racing experience. It’s not easy launching a high-horsepower beast like this, if you’re looking to scrape hundredths of seconds off your time, even with the electronic assistance.

With Traction Control on setting TC2 we were dang near able to drop the clutch and dial on the gas but the resulting wheelies were almost always the cause for a lower than expected ET. It keeps the power in check but the bike still hauls ass. As the temperatures dropped, so did track traction and as a result we had a bunch of riders breaking the rear tire loose through the 60-foot mark, which any drag racer will tell you is an ET-killer. Despite the KTRC and my own internal preservation instincts, during the day my best run was a 10.06 at 145 mph. That gave me hope that I could pull off a good showing in the Editor Showdown later that evening.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R
Burnout. Staging. Rev it to 4K. Feed the clutch… Pow!

We drew starting position from a hat and lucky me, I was set to go last. Everyone expected Duke to rip off a 9 and walk away with the title so we were all surprised when his best pass was a 10.01. The Canucklehead left the door open for someone to sneak in and steal the prize. One by one the editors came up short but there was a surprise pass by Cycle News Editor Paul Carruthers. He ripped off a 10.06 which put him second fastest as I rolled into the box for my final runs. How sweet would it be to dethrone my mentor and rival? The pressure was on me. If I could pull off a 9 then all my hard work would pay off.

After a long burnout I was staged and ready. It was cold. My throttle hand wasn’t holding a steady rpm so it wavered from 3000-4000 rpm. The light went green and a got a decent launch. As I dialed in some throttle the bike burned out a bit so I panicked and shifted a little early. Despite that bobble I crossed the stripe with a 10.33 at 141 mph so I was a ways off.

My next burnout was longer as I put more heat in that wide rear for my final run. Rickey said I knew what I had to do and left me to my own devices. I was nervous as everyone was watching to see if I could pull off the upset. No pressure, right?

I got a great launch and dialed in some juice. The front wheel came up so I had to hold steady for a moment while I got that under control and that netted me a 4.57 330-foot time. I grabbed second with the bike still on one wheel and leaned forward with the throttle to the stop. The run felt decent as I grabbed two more gears. I crossed the traps at 143 mph. It felt like a pretty strong pass but it didn’t feel like a winner to me. Unfortunately, it was only a 10.10 so I was relegated to fourth best on the night while Duke Danger got to run away with top honors.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R
More power, refined styling. An already exhilarating package just got more invigorating. Watch out Suzuki!

After the fact there was a lot of talk between Rickey and the experienced drag racers about barometric pressure and corrected times. It turns out that we could legitimately correct about 0.3-seconds off all our ETs on that chilly evening, which would give us the right to claim to have run a 9 – but that’s not good enough for me personally. The number on my time slip is what I was looking for, so the quest to break a nine on the 2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R must go on.

In the world of hyper-bikes horsepower is king. After years of playing bridesmaid to the Hayabusa, Kawasaki finally said enough is enough and swung for the fences with a stroked, polished and fine-tuned super-Ninja. What we get as consumers is the new 2012 Kawasaki ZX-14R. The R at the end symbolizes the addition of legitimate monster power and a more sporty approach that, combined with the sleek new look, is best described as the natural evolution of the ZX-14.

The new ZX is more powerful and features the latest in electronic rider safety measures to help harness that 200-horsepower engine and focus it on getting down the road. When the dust settled on our afternoon in Vegas there was no doubt the ZX-14R is faster and more of a handful on The Strip. Even still, it remains a very comfortable sportbike that will appeal to all fans of high horsepower motorcycles. Heads up all you Busa owners, there’s going to be a few new ZX-14s in town and they will all want a piece of you.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R2012 Kawasaki Ninja ZX-14R

Ken Hutchison

Editor |Articles | The ulcers keep piling on for the warden of the MotoUSA asylum. With the inmates running rampant around the globe, Hutch has opted to get in on the madness more these days than in years past and is back in the saddle again.