Living with excess: 2006 Kawasaki ZZR1400

Special excess: a claimed 197bhp

Saturday 15 July, 2006. 11.15am. Put leathers on, open garage, wheel out ZZR1400. Head down the M40 into London, ride through the centre of town and out the other side to London City Airport. 12.30pm, arrive at LCA and sit around for a bit. 2pm, increase front preload. 2.15, set unofficial London Land Speed Record of 183.4mph. Back off preload, ride home again.

Such is the versatility of Kawasaki's ZZR1400 that it can lunge from easy-to-ride ultra-urban commuter to imperious standard setting rocketship without batting an eyelid. And it does this via all-rounder, scratcher, tourer and effortless two-up transporter.

Waking up in the knowledge your daily workhorse is the most powerful production bike on the market comes with a certain air of smug arrogance. You know, you just know, that any other vehicle you come across on your way to work is toast, it's an irritant, in the way, it's dog shit on your shoe. Move aside, dopey, I've got the fastest thing on the road. What do you know? And all this for less than nine grand.

And blow me down but they do get out of the way. There's something about the ZZR's reflected front profile that melts drivers of other vehicles into submission. I ride a hectic stretch of M40, M25 and M3 each day and I've never had so many cars make so much effort to get out of my way so quickly as on the ZZR1400. Its squat, almost shark-like nose and stubby, recessed laser eyes smirk with superiority. It's a good feeling.

How much power? Kawasaki claim 197bhp; we measured 171bhp at the rear wheel and 103lb.ft of torque. That's a lot. Except the ZZR is a bike of paradoxes. The way power is delivered is disappointing, at least at first. Low down the ZZR lacks urge - Kawasaki says to make the bike less intimidating, which is topsy-turvy madness; a 175bhp bike should be intimidating - and it doesn't take off until 6000rpm. But boy does it take off. The acceleration is almost overwhelming, for both mind and motorcycle. The ZZR's massive power, and the rush with which it arrives, isn't so well integrated as part of the whole in the same way it is on, say, a Fireblade or GSX-R1000. Their power, while less at peak and with less torque to back it up, is punchier, more instant and accessible. Instead the ZZR's post-6000rpm grunt arrives in one huge surge of mayhem.

But I found myself forced to do the inconceivable on the ZZR: pottering home on the motorway, traffic slowed to 50mph or so. I was in top, and as the cars sped up again I had to change down two gears to get any drive. That's ridiculous. In top gear 6000rpm is 110mph. That's where you need to be to start driving.

But the motor still amazes. The ZZR will nip up to 160 without clearing its throat, then cruise at 125mph while returning over 40mpg, according to the onboard computer. The tank holds 22 litres, and a 160-mile range, plus reserve, is the norm. Including top speed testing, London riding and motorway commuting the ZZR averaged 36mpg. Over 50mpg is easily achieved. Remarkable.

But that 1352cc inline four belches out heat making riding through town on hot summer days uncomfortable. The clutch is a little grabby (well, ours was after record-setting abuse... ) and the gearbox clunky, especially engaging first, and the change up to second. On the whole though the ZZR's weight distribution, low speed poise and light steering make it remarkably easy to ride through town. Only the enormous sticky-out mirrors hinder real filtering progress, but at least they give a proper rear view.

Of course there's more to the ZZR1400 than motorways and filtering. It handles and stops too. As standard though it's soft. The forks bottom too easily (hence the added preload to cope with on-the-limit braking from flat-out) and there's too much weight transfer under hard acceleration. The ZZR's acceleration is barking, and the suspension needs fiddling with to better deal with its demands. Too low at the back for my liking, the standard toolkit appears not to come with a C-spanner, which is annoying. A bike so adept at taking passengers needs suspension that's easily adjusted should one fancy a trip on the back. Threaded preload adjuster rings may look marginally tricker, but a step-position adjuster is far quicker and easier to use. Bikes with this much performance need to be easily adjustable to cope with it under all conditions. The ZZR isn't.

As it is though, more of everything front and rear reaped rewards. Not as flickable as a focused sports tool, the ZZR can nonetheless cut some mustard in the turns. All that weight requires a touch more caution setting up and turning in, but it's stable and yet responsive with pretty good feedback. A gentle scrape from the footrests at big-ish lean is enough to know things probably shouldn't be pushed too much further, though.

The ZZR1400 packs a neat range of ability into an impressive package. Not perfect, and with a few rough edges, but it's big and imposing like a proper fast bike should be. While the sub-6000rpm deficiency of power is inexcusable, on the whole the ZZR rocks. The trick to managing all that power is knowing when not to use it. Which of course is nearly all the time. 171bhp doesn't get you round corners any quicker, it just gets you to the next one sooner than you're ready for. But if you're cautious and respectful enough the ZZR's power is usable and massively entertaining. Add to that everything else it does so well and excess never seemed so appealing.

Friday 28 July, 2006. Take ZZR1400 back to Kawasaki. "Er, can I maybe keep it just a bit longer..?"

Kawasaki Kawasaki ZZR1400 Specifications

PRICE NEW - £8995
POWER - 171.1bhp@9600rpm
TORQUE - 103.4lb.ft@7800rpm
WEIGHT - 215kg
SEAT HEIGHT - 800mm   
TOP SPEED - 183.4mph
0-60     - n/a
TANK RANGE - 160miles