Test Ride: Kawasaki ZX-12R Ninja

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Words: Barb Piatkowski   Photos: Richard Seck

YIKES!

What do Editor ‘arris and a Kawasaki Ninja ZX-12R have in common?

They both have a face only a mother could love (Hey, you’ve secured yourself a moped for the next ride, missy – ‘arris).

At first glance I found the ZX-12R to be an awkward looking bike. The Ram Air intake located just under the front headlight is a big black duct that looks stuck on and gives the impression that the bike is sticking its tongue out at you (maybe it is – ‘arris).

Apparently the design is intentional, and the extra few millimetres that it sticks out allows for extra intake efficiency at higher speeds, but it also draws your vision right towards it and takes some getting used to.

Similarly the high gloss black mirrors are an eye catcher too, and not necessarily in the good way. Sure their shape is all part of the reported ‘wind tunnel’ design of the bike, but there’s just no missing them.

Aerodynamics require a severe tuck.

Another unappealing point is the colour scheme for the metallic blue and lime green colour choices this year (the silver one is the nicest, so I’ll leave it alone). Kawasaki has decided to adorn these choices with a pattern that looks like clouds or some sort of tears or flames or something.

They’ve taken a bike destined (hopefully) for a more mature and experienced rider and ‘tarted’ it up to appeal to….who?…younger riders? I’m not sure, but there is no need to spice up the looks of one of the world’s fastest production motorcycles.

FIRST RIDE

I called this review ‘Acquiring ZX-tasy’ because, to be honest, I didn’t fall in love with the ZX-12R during my first ride.

Just in case you forgot what you had.

With a dry weight of 463 pounds, it felt a bit hefty for a sport bike off the side stand, and tight turns into traffic took a bit of practice to avoid feeling clumsy. I could also feel the fuel injected carburetion more than I would have cared to.

The ZX-12’s Nippondenso electronic fuel injection system is supposed to have electronic sensors that aid in controlling fuel injection and improving throttle response, but there was an occasional choppiness to the feel of the throttle that made the fuel injection system noticeable. Often, at slower speeds in lower gears, it felt as if the throttle had been shut off and turned on and the bike responded with a surge.

Later, as I became accustomed to the bike, this aspect became less noticeable and at 5500+ rpms, the ZX-12 purred like a kitten; but fuel injection and the ZX-12 still have some distance to cover before becoming flawless.

THE COMFORT FACTOR

ZX12R provides relative comfort.

One very good feature of the ZX-12 is it’s instant ability to feel comfortable to the rider. There’s a 810 mm seat height that will fit most riders of average height, and it’s quite wide and rather well padded, making for excellent long distance comfort.

The reach to the handgrips and rubber foot pegs is also very reasonable, and manipulation of these controls proved to be both smooth and easy, (although the gear box did feel a bit clunky).

There was a clear view of the simple yet effective instrument cluster that included an analogue speedo and tach, a gas gauge, temperate gauge and a handy digital clock. The windscreen, however is of the typical sport bike height, which channels wind into your neck unless you are tucked right down.

Comfort is also transmitted to the rider re: the ZX-12R’s very effective suspension, which includes amply adjustable 43mm inverted hydraulic telescopic forks up front, as well as the even more adjustable single shock UNI-TRACK system out back. Bumps and irregularities in the road, even nasty ones, are very effectively swallowed up by the big beast.

Unfortunately, the shocks couldn’t do much about the engine vibration, which is particularly noticeable at around 4500 rpm, and proved to be either annoying or exciting (depending on how I was sitting.)

HANDLING AGILITY

In order to reduce chassis flex, and improve handling, Kawasaki employed the use of a monocoque aluminum frame that uses the engine as a stressed member and effectively puts the backbone over the top of the engine.

This design streamlines the bike, allowing for better aerodynamics, and permits other features, like a centrally located fuel tank and electric fuel pump to help lower the centre of gravity.

At any speed above idle, the ZX-12R responds admirable to even the most minute steering inputs, and proved to be surprisingly adept at both high speed sweeping curves as well as tighter, slower speed twisty roads.

I was quite pleased with the amount of range in the lower gears, while riding through some tight and twisty roads during my time with the ZX-12R.

As a fan of using engine braking and compression to adjust my speed as I set up for corners, (as opposed to using my brake pads), I noticed that the big bore Kawasaki was well suited to my riding style and provided a smooth and competent response to small throttle adjustments, as well as rapid acceleration when the road opened up and the throttle was twisted

The weight of the ZX-12R was also a non-issue with the bike responding very dutifully and flickably to inputs and providing quite a well-planted feel. Although twisties were quite enjoyable on the Kawasaki, high speed sweepers were a real delight and quite frankly with a good speed and an open road, the ZX-12R is a great bike to ride.

Simply great.

RUMOURS

Years ago it wasn’t all that challenging to get horsepower specs on motorcycles, even from the manufacturers, but in the last few years that seems to have changed quite a bit.

Pick up any ZX-12R literature and you’ll learn about how it spent more time in a wind tunnel during its development than any other motorcycle in Kawasaki history, but nowhere will you learn about how fast this sucker will fly. Similarly, it won’t be from ZX-12R literature that you’ll learn about the much rumoured and maligned “governor” that Kawasaki was strong-armed into including in the 2001 model by European governments.

Apparently, the millennium version of the ZX-12R went over 300km/h, but the 2001 version, with its unadvertised rev-limiter, will only do about 290km/h. Surprisingly, this is actually an issue for some people. Really!

Unless you have an abandoned airstrip in your backyard, are planning to modify your ZX-12R into a drag racer, or are just plain insane, you’ll never even come close to popping the rumoured rev-limiter on this bike; but if you absolutely, positively have to have the fastest thing on two wheels, there is help in the form of after market speedometer recalibrators that will fool your bike into thinking that it’s going slower than it actually is. Just thought you’d like to know.

AND FINALLY…

Although it wasn’t love at first ride for the ZX-12R and myself, the relationship did blossom in a short space of time, and there were some great things about the big, comfy aggressive sport tourer right from the start. The dual 320mm hydraulic disc brakes up front and the single 230mm disc out back proved to be more than adequate for the engine’s power delivery.

The huge 200/50×17 D207 Dunlop rear tire inspired excitement when standing still and confidence when in motion. The gold anodised engine casings proved to be a good stylistic choice, as the big, all titanium muffler actually begins turning a gold shade after a few thousand kilometres, making a nice match.

Kawasaki also made a nice choice with the stock passenger seat cover that provides a sleek, aerodynamic look to the back of the bike. One other stylistic point worth mentioning is the raised lettering for “Kawasaki” on the gas tank. It’s a small detail like this that can make you smile when you look at your bike.

(I know that’s the case for members of my household, because earlier this year we acquired a little silver ZX-tasy of our very own.)

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