2012 Kawasaki ZZR1400 review

Does faster always mean better? We ride the new ZZR1400 to find out

Thinking about it, the new ZZR1400 has to be the most-hyped motorcycle in history. In the run up to the release of this new model we've been bombarded with press releases, teaser videos, dyno charts and head-to-heads with the Hayabusa. Kawasaki's drag-racer Rickey Gadson has eulogised the new model and, rather boldly, Kawasaki claim it's the 'king of all sports bikes' and 'the world's fastest accelerating production motorcycle'.

Kawasaki have thrown everything at it except a touch of modesty. Which is all very well, but it does set the ZZR1400 up to be a disappointment. Unless it really is something quite special.

Well now it's time to find out.

The new ZZR1400 was launched at the Nardò Ring, a closed-doors testing facility in the south of Italy. It features a 7.8 mile perfectly round, four-lane high-speed ring and inside this massive high-speed bowl are various other proving grounds, including a handling circuit, drag strips and more. A petrolhead's dream and the perfect place to put the new ZZR1400 through its paces.

The list of changes to this new model is as long Inspector Gadget's arm, but the main points include a new engine, with a capacity hike from 1,352cc to 1,441cc, KTRC - Kawasaki's traction control, the same as used on the Versys 1000 and very similar to that on the ZX-10R, adjustable power modes, a stiffer frame, longer swimgarm and revised, yet familiar styling. Kawasaki claim 200bhp @ 10,500rpm but 210bhp @ 10,500rpm with the addition of RAM air.

Oh and it's heavier too, but only by a couple of kilograms. You see, despite the 1.4kg Kawasaki have managed to shave off the weight of the wheels, all that extra engine requires stronger engine internals, a larger radiator and a stronger chassis but what's a few kilograms between friends?

Sat on the bike it feels firmer than the previous model, even under my meagre 11-stones, it doesn't sag, it feels more sportsbike than sportstourer. Pulling away, I was impressed with how light the front end feels, despite the bike's visual and actual weight, it feels more nimble than you'd think it had any right to be. It might surprise you to know that the bike wasn't extensively developed on a high-speed ring, instead most of its development was on country roads with a bit of autobahn testing thrown in and it shows.

Our first test was out on track, where bikes like the ZZR don't often tread, usually for good reason. When you take a big bike out on track, at the point of getting on the brakes, to turning in, there's usually more than a few moments where you'd think: 'we're not going to make this' but the ZZR did a very good job of imitating a superbike. It is ferociously fast and it racks up speed in a way that's so decieving. Barely revving the engine, the ZZR pulls and pulls.

If you want to rev it out, you can and it's got a hell of a top-end on it but your braking point approaches just as fast if you feed in gears and keep the motor in the sweet spot.

The ZZR feels as comfortable under heavy braking as my ZX-10R. With stiffer suspension compared to the previous model, the bike feels settled and controlled from the moment you apply any braking force, where the older bike would initially squat. The longer wheelbase also helps weight distribution and instead of feeling like the weight's gone up and over the front wheel, you feel like it's firmly behind it, meaning that your forearm may well give up braking way before the bike wants to.

Being a physically large bike, you do feel like you're leaping a fence when shifting from one side to another through a chicane, but the additional weight means that the bike doesn't get unsettled when you're moving around. Once it's on its way into a corner, it's planted. The front end is really solid. On a bike like this it's usually the moment you tip in that it becomes clear that you're not going to get anywhere near the apex but the stiffer forks mean you can think an ambitious line and end up on that line. Even though it's large, it changes direction without protest and it feels really sure-footed when carrying the brakes in right up to the apex. I'm not sure you could say that about the original ZZR1400.

The trouble with having a big bike that handles well and makes a lot of power - from the moment you tap the throttle - is that you can get carried away. On track, the ZZR's ace is really its traction control. The chassis is good; there's plenty of feel, it holds a line, you know where's you're at. However describing the motor as 'strong' is like describing a shark as 'a big fish'. Driving out of a hairpin in second would - without traction control - require 1 part clenched teeth, 2 parts timing and 3 parts throttle control. When the traction control's this smooth, you can just concentrate on getting the bike pointing in the right direction and winding the motor up. 

You can feel the traction control waving its magic-wand when you really take the piss, but until then, it just encourages you to trust in the bike's natural traction and get the most out of the motor.

It's well worth mentioning Bridgestone's new S20 tyres that are supplied with the bike. They're another part of the new ZZR that slants it much more towards sports than touring. They've got great feel and massive outright grip. Pegs go down with ease and the fairing will go down too if you're feeling ambitious. I'm not sure how they'd cope in terms of outright mileage, but to put a bike as capable as this on a touring tyre would be like getting Heston Blumenthal over to cook a three-course meal for your dog.

Most owners will never go near a circuit but if you did, you'd have a proper laugh hunting down sportsbikes on the ZZR.

Talking of superbikes, the riding position of the ZZR is probably what most superbike riders secretly lust after. It's much more sports than touring but it doesn't pitch you onto your wrists. There's plenty of room between the seat and the bars, meaning you don't feel like your elbows are going to clash with your knees. Think about riding a roomy mid-90s sportsbike and you'd not be far off.

The seat is like Supernanny: large but firm. I don't doubt you could cut through France in a day in comfort, but if I was going to do that, I'd fit a larger screen.

There are two power modes on the new ZZR: Full Power or Low Power. Low isn't strictly accurate, as it limits the engine to 75% output which is still a good 150bhp. The Low power mode also softens off throttle response which makes it slightly easier to get off the line but more of that later.

There are three traction control modes: 1,2 and you guessed it, 3. Mode three is designed for poor use in poor weather or on poor road surfaces. In mode 3 in the dry, the system steps in at every opportunity. It'll also cut out any wheelies. It's ultra cautious and would get on your nerves for day to day riding, but if you're caught out in the rain or if you're riding home after a long day, there's no doubt you'd welcome it.

Modes 1 and 2 feel similar to the S-KTRC featured on the ZX-10R. Mode 2 lets the bike move around to a point where most riders would be entirely comfortable, but stops short of acting like a performance aid. Mode 1 goes that bit further and while you could feel it working on track, it never felt like it was cutting power delivery, just tweaking it. You would probably be faster around a circuit without traction control than with mode 3 enabled, but I don't think many people could hustle the ZZR around any quicker than with the traction control set to mode 1.

Visually the new ZZR looks very similar to the outgoing model but there are a whole host of changes. The front end is sharper and its four projector headlights carry the same - to me at least - daunting look of a tarantula. Fins are the order of the day, with four running through the fairing and more on the mudgaurd and even fairing stalks.

The cockpit feels slightly old-school with its twin analogue rev-counter and speedo. It's understated rather than under-delivering. the central digital display shows what power mode you're in, your traction control setting, engine temp, air temp, gear position, clock, trip, fuel gauge, odometer, last week's lottery numbers. Ok, so maybe not the last bit, but it's got everything else you could ask for.

When talking to the ZZR's engineers it's clear they were focussed on how to make an already really fast, really capable bike even better than it was. It's the outright power figures that have been the subject of all the marketing hype and with that, you can't help but feel the team behind the new ZZR have been short-changed. Sure, it's got the horsepower but all of that hype detracts from the fact the ZZR is a seriously capable bike with a hefty bottom end, sharper handling and performance that's been made much, much more accessible.

If the ZZR was a sportsman, it would be the size of a rugby flanker, with the pace of a sprinter wearing running spikes. You wouldn't mess with that in a hurry would you?

The 2012 Kawasaki ZZR1400 is available in dealers now, priced at £11,499.

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