We blame the government for everything. Taxes. War. Crime. Reality TV. OK, maybe not everything, but the bad stuff usually gets stuck on Uncle Sam's shoulders. Well, now you can thank the government for something good: the '08 Kawasaki ZX-14. It turns out that tightened emissions and sound regulations for this year called for some cleaning up of the big Kawasaki-which was first introduced just two years ago-and company engineers saw it as an opportunity to simultaneously address complaints about the original model's poochy bottom-end power. And heck, while the CAD files were open they might as well boost midrange and top-end too. A mouse click here, a touch of the tablet there...
Most of the updates for the '08 ZX-14 are in the exhaust system and cylinder head to meet those new emissions regulations. The details can be found in the accompanying sidebar, but the important news is that the 14 is quieter, cleaner-running and more powerful across the board. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Uncle Sam. A two-part press junket set in California's inland empire served as the '08 ZX-14's introduction; journalists took a morning street ride to Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino mountains and followed that with an afternoon of quarter-mile passes at Auto Club Dragway, California Speedway's NHRA dragstrip.
With plenty of traffic on the freeway portion of the street ride and nonstop sightseers on the twisty bits, the ZX-14 was like a chained puppy, practically begging to be given free reign on any kind of road. In spite of that confinement, it was easy to tell that the Kawasaki is friskier in the lower range. The noticeable step in the old bike's powerband is gone, replaced by a more linear increase in steam as the revs rise. It's what you'd expect from a big-bore hyperbike, and the newfound power definitely makes a twisty mountain road more entertaining.
In other aspects the new bike keeps the original's good traits: The low, narrow seat is plenty comfortable for a day's ride, wind protection is excellent and the engine is quite smooth at cruising revs. Steering is light, linear and predictable, especially considering the bike's heft, and the 14 is nimble yet stable at sane speeds. And when the playful Kawasaki is let off the leash, its outstanding radial-mount petal brakes do a fine job of slowing things down. One not-so-good trait carried over from the old model is the stiff transmission; it's still a bit clunky-especially at lower speeds-and the only detraction from an otherwise polished package.
The afternoon drag-strip festivities were, of course, the fun part of the day. Kawasaki had eight-time AMA Prostar champ Rickey Gadson in attendance to offer launch advice, and two of the four bikes on hand were lowered with straps and links. Just as on the first-generation ZX-14, the stock clutch has a wide, linear engagement-unusually so for a hydraulic clutch-that may be due to the radial-pump master cylinder. In any event, the clutch and wide spread of power make the 14 a great learning tool for dragracing.
On the stock-height bikes, it took me a handful of runs to set my best time of 9.922 seconds at 143.75 mph. Ironically, my best time at the '06 bike's intro at Las Vegas was 9.921 seconds at 144.52 mph. The lower trapspeed of the '08 bike would indicate less peak horsepower, but the Strip in Vegas is at significantly higher altitude and Cal Speedway's dragstrip is slightly uphill. And while the times are quicker than the 10.041-second, 143.29-mph run I posted at the recent Hayabusa intro ("Higher 'Busa," Jan. '08), I only made two passes on the Suzuki. We'll find out for sure which bike gets down the quarter-mile quicker when we line them up at the same strip on the same day. Meanwhile, it's almost a moot point (unless you're someone like Rickey Gadson, of course) to fuss. A couple of horsepower at this level is like Bill Gates making a few hundred dollars more this year than last.
I had never ridden a lowered bike before, but after a few runs on the strapped and linked ZX-14 I notched a 9.761-second, 143.29-mph pass-my quickest ever at a dragstrip. The lowered bike, not as anxious to wheelie as the stocker, could be launched way harder, but it was difficult for me to adapt to after years of running stock-height bikes. For sure there's more potential there with practice, but it's incredible that such a decrease in time can come from those simple modifications.
The burning question now, of course, is how the Kawasaki stacks up to the new Suzuki Hayabusa. While we've got a full big-dog blowout scheduled for an upcoming issue, I attended both bikes' introductions and can make some comparisons based on those. The Kawasaki's unchanged ergos feel more comfortable than the Suzuki's, thanks to the 14's softer seat and closed-up riding position. The Kawasaki's more upright position helps it to steer a bit easier, but I would say the Suzuki turns quicker overall. At the dragstrip the ZX-14 has a much nicer clutch and is way easier to launch. The Hayabusa still feels to have the edge in bottom-end and midrange power, while top-end is a draw until we can get both bikes on the dyno. As you can see, both bikes have their strong points and it will take a proper test to find out how they compare-and that's exactly what we plan to do once we have them in the shop.
According to Kawasaki's press material, the '08 ZX-14 has been "fine-tuned for extra firepower" with more bottom, midrange and top-end power while still complying with more stringent emissions and noise regulations. To meet Euro-III standards the ZX-14's exhaust collector now sports a honeycomb catalyzer in addition to those already present in the silencers. The header connecting pipe has been enlarged by 75 percent to accommodate the catalyzer, and inside each silencer the individual chambers have been reconfigured. The secondary air ports in the cylinder head flow more air to match the new exhaust, and the air switching valve also handles more air. Rather than strangle the engine with a more restrictive exhaust to reduce overall noise levels, engineers reshaped the piston profiles and added a urethane sheet inside the cam-chain cover to lessen mechanical noise. The revised cylinder head also has new intake porting, and the subthrottle injectors' spray angle has been increased from 15 degrees to 20 to disperse atomized fuel over a wider area.
The only change to the 14's chassis is a switch from gravity casting to die casting for the frame's steering head and swingarm pivot areas to reduce weight. Peak power is claimed to be increased by approximately three horsepower, with midrange and bottom end also improved. Dry weight is up by 11 pounds-no doubt due to the additional catalyzer.
($11,999 in Metallic Flat Spark Black)
Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC inline-four, 4 valves/cyl.
Bore x stroke: 84 x 61mm
Compression ratio: 12.0:1
Induction: DFI with subthrottle valves and one injector/cyl., 44mm throttle bodies
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Bridgestone BT-014F SL
Rear tire: 190/50ZR-17 Bridgestone BT-014R L
Rake/trail: 23 deg/3.7 in. (94mm)
Wheelbase: 57.5 in. (1461mm)
Seat height: 31.5 in. (800mm)
Fuel capacity: 5.8 gal (22L)
Claimed dry weight: 485 lb (220kg