It was inevitable, we suppose. The toughest kid on the block will always have someone looking to knock him off the top of the food chain.
But for Suzuki’s Hayabusa, that reign as the king of brute horsepower (and speed, at least before the onset of industry-wide speed limiters brought on by European government hysteria surrounding the 2000 Kawasaki ZX-12R) has been uninterrupted since the bike’s release in 1999. Even when the Hayabusa underwent a significant update in 2008, it wasn’t as if the Suzuki was in danger of being ousted from its throne; even a concerted effort by the previous generation Kawasaki ZX-14 (“Big Numbers”, April 2008) failed to topple the ‘Busa from its perch atop the sportbike pile.
Granted, there was a small blip on the ‘Busa’s reign when BMW’s reworked K 1300 S managed to come out on top of our comparison (“Warp Speed Ahead”, September 2009) by dint of its better overall performance, rather than just monster power. But BMW was unable to procure us a 2012 model in time for this comparison test; and it’s doubtful the Beemer would have stood much of a chance in this comparison once you read the details.
We’ve already covered both bikes’ tech details ad nauseam, so we’ll skip that portion and head right into the meat of the matter. Suffice it to say that for the loyalists out there (and there are many when it comes to this category…), it won’t matter what bike does what better — they’ll stick with their brand through thick and thin. But for those who are interested in how these bikes compare in daily life and overall performance, read on…
The “Hyper” in Hypersports
Interestingly, the spec sheet on the Hayabusa states its seat height as 31.7 inches, while the Kawasaki is listed at 31.5 inches — but the Kawasaki definitely feels much taller than the ‘Busa from the saddle. Not that the ZX-14R makes you stand on your toes at a stop, but the spec sheets belie how each bike feels when you sit on it. Turning the key has the Suzuki’s analog dial gauges go through a test windup, while the ZX-14R’s LCD panel goes through a startup display depicting the bike’s distinctive front headlight profile.
Although it appears in these front profile shots that the Suzuki’s windscreen is taller to provide more wind protection, the Kawasaki’s is actually slightly taller and the more protective of the two, with less wind turbulence and buffeting on your shoulders and helmet.
While the Kawasaki’s front brakes do an excellent job of easily controlling the massive speed these bikes are capable of generating, the Hayabusa’s are unfortunately the same as before…i.e., mediocre, with a wooden feel and high effort for serious stopping power. Front suspension opinions also leaned toward the ZX-14R’s smoother and more controlled action.
Note to those looking to take along a significant other: While the Kawasaki’s solo tailpiece cover quickly and easily comes off to expose the comfortable latter half of the ZX-14R’s single seat, the Hayabusa’s tail hump must be switched with a comparatively tiny passenger seat.
The ‘Busa’s ergos are much sportier than the Kawasaki’s relatively relaxed position, with lower bars and slightly tighter peg-seat distance that will fold up taller riders in a more unforgiving position for longer rides. The ZX-14R’s seat is also much more comfortable than the Suzuki’s, and that goes for both rider and passenger; unlike the ‘Busa that requires switching the solo seat hump for a relatively tiny pillion perch, the Kawasaki’s solo cowl is easily and quickly removed from the one-piece seat to expose much more supportive passenger accommodations that met with definite approval from our backseat testers.
Both engines fire up readily, but we noticed that our particular ‘Busa was a tad on the cold-blooded side, exhibiting a very slight hesitation and stumbling at light throttle settings unless fully warm. Clutch takeup and effort is noticeably firmer with the Suzuki, but it’s by no means a workout like an old Ducati clutch; the ZX-14R is just more refined in its feel and action (although that tends to make it more difficult to launch — more on that later). The ‘Busa is also clumsier at low speeds, with the steering damper making turning in traffic heavy and sluggish, while the Kawasaki steers and feels much lighter than its rather hefty 582-pound curb weight (just one pound heavier than the Suzuki) would tend to imply.
Dual counterbalancers in the Kawasaki engine make a definite difference in engine smoothness, with the Suzuki’s mellow vibes fuzzing out the mirrors’ rearview images somewhat on the highway. The ZX-14R feels butter-smooth by comparison, and the better rearward view from its mirrors are clear enough to distinguish if that’s a police cruiser stalking you an eighth-mile behind. Wind protection is a tad better on the Kawasaki, with a little less wind hitting you in the shoulders and helmet, despite its slightly more upright ergos. The larger ZX-14R engine is definitely the thirstier of the two, however; while the ‘Busa calmly averaged around 42 mpg despite liberal use of the throttle (hard to resist with these two bikes), the Kawasaki comparatively guzzled its way to a 36 mpg average.
Twist That Thing, You...
For those few of you out there who will be taking these bikes out into the canyons or trackdays, both bikes comport themselves well in the twisty stuff, despite their considerable heft, long 58.3-inch wheelbases, and massive doses of power. It’s in this area of performance, however, where the Suzuki begins to show its age (having last been updated in 2008).
The Suzuki’s dashboard (right) is mostly old school analog, with dial gauges handling most of the instrumentation chores. The ZX-14R’s (left) is less busy and easier to read, with the LCD panel showing relevant information; programmable shift light above LCD is nice touch as well.
The ‘Busa’s suspension — while definitely adequate for its intended use — is harsher and less refined in its overall action than the Kawasaki’s. Although still a paragon of stability, the Suzuki transmits a lot more bump energy to the chassis and rider no matter what adjustments are made. Pavement imperfections that get your attention on the ‘Busa are absorbed with a lot less fanfare on the ZX-14R, with the Kawasaki’s rock-solid feel allowing its rider to concentrate more on the task at hand.
Interestingly, the Suzuki actually requires less effort to flick into a bend — but that’s where its advantage ends. The Kawasaki requires a tad more effort to initiate a turn, but where the ‘Busa demands an assertive pilot at the controls to make any midcourse corrections, the ZX-14R displays a surprising agility for such a big, long motorcycle. Granted, a large part of these steering traits are due to the OEM tire fitment, with the Kawasaki sporting Metzeler’s latest Sportec M5 Interact radials, while the ‘Busa comes fitted with relatively old generation Bridgestone BT-015 OE-specific tires. Traction levels from both tires were good for most part, although we were wishing for a bit more edge grip from the ZX-14R’s Metzelers.