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THROTTLE JOCKEY / SUSAN CARPENTER

Hold on and pray

Aboard the world's fastest sport bike, The Times' new motorcycle reviewer gets off to a quick start.

June 07, 2006|SUSAN CARPENTER

I had barely kicked it into third and was minding my own business when it happened the first time. A low-slung sport sedan was pacing me two lanes to the left, and the driver's eyes, which at that speed should have been stuck to the road, were instead glued to my Slurpee red Kawasaki ZX-14.

Riding the world's fastest production sport bike, I did what anyone else in my position would do: I taught the guy who's boss and twisted the grip, and -- so long, sucker!

Juvenile? No doubt, but I wasn't nearly as juvenile as I could have been. With 200 horsepower and 80 mph more at my disposal, I could have easily blown the guy into another dimension. But part of riding a bike as powerful as the new Ninja ZX-14 is restraint. It isn't about using all the juice you hold in your hand, it's about knowing that it's there -- and knowing that everyone else knows it's there, too.

Boasting a quarter-mile time of just over 9 seconds, the new Ninja can reach top speeds of more than 180 mph and crank out enough fast and furious fun that I felt genuinely depressed dropping it down to first and wheeling the little beast into my garage for the night. The in-line four, 1,352 cc ZX has been given a pet name at Kawasaki -- the "Hayabusa beater." For those who don't speak sport bike, the Suzuki Hayabusa GSX-1300R is the 155-horsepower stud that has defined and dominated the so-called hyperbike category since 1999.

No more. The ZX-14 is the largest displacement sport bike Kawasaki has ever built -- and its quickest out of the gate with stock parts. Ride one, and you've got instant bragging rights.

Thanks to Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, a gentlemen's agreement now exists among sport bike manufacturers that limits their motorcycles to a maximum (though still outrageous) straight-from-the-showroom-floor speed of 186 mph. It's a relief such a cap exists. Even so, the result may actually be making accidents more likely because the hyperbike battle is now fought in getting to speed more quickly, not in actually reaching the top speed, which few street riders are foolish enough to attempt anyway.

Knowing the ZX-14's rep as a rocket on two wheels, it was with equal parts excitement and dread that I first approached riding it. On the one hand, I love to go fast. There's no better feeling than rolling on the throttle and blasting down the street on a perfectly engineered machine. But on the other, while I had no intention of testing Kawasaki's quarter-mile claims, I knew it would tempt me. I wanted to ride the new ZX within my limits and as fast as I felt comfortable, but I feared I might lose control with so much power at my disposal.

Firing it up and throwing a leg over, I clicked into first, took a deep breath and twisted the grip. It being downtown and lunch hour, riding conditions were not ideal for a bike that could drag race a fighter jet, but that was just as well, considering my trepidation. The traffic was molasses, forcing the bike to do something it's not known for but nevertheless does well -- go slowly.

Weighing in at about 500 pounds with a full tank and fluids, the ZX-14 doesn't handle like the anvil one would imagine. Thanks to its lightweight aluminum frame and low center of gravity, the bike is surprisingly stable and easy to handle. It isn't a workout to maneuver past cars and take corners at slow speeds.

Still, breaking away from traffic is where the bike truly shines. The digitally fuel-injected throttle is so smooth and linear, it didn't result in the unintentional wheelie I was expecting. It kicked me back a bit but not enough to lift the front end off the ground. Progressive at the launch, the torque delivery was far from slow off the line, but it had even more teeth once I'd revved the bike to about 6,000 rpm, and the power just kept on coming -- at 7,000 and beyond.

What goes up must come down, of course, and that's especially true of speed. Flying off the 2 Freeway onto regular streets, when the lights so unfairly turn red, I was happy for the braking stability provided by the bike's radial-mounted front-brake calipers and master cylinder, the latter of which brings the front brake piston in line with the brake lever. Squeezing the lever on this "direct-action" brake, there was no lag in response. Same for the direct-action clutch, which engaged immediately when pulled.

The front brake and clutch weren't just highly responsive. They were easy to reach because the riding position of the ZX-14 is more relaxed than many smaller-displacement sport bikes. I was still positioned forward, but instead of stretching for far-away handlebars like a kid clawing at an out-of-reach cookie, I could comfortably extend my arms to the grips. The bars were also at a height that didn't induce carpal tunnel syndrome; they're slightly higher, so my body weight didn't rest on my wrists. The bike's foot pegs were a tad lower as well, so my knees weren't jammed into my armpits.

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