There's always been plenty of respect for big Kawasakis where serious motorcyclists gather to talk about the meaning of life (that's life in the fast lane). Like the glorious big Zeds of yesteryear - the Kawasaki Z1 900s that were the affordable mega-bikes of the early '70s - the 2005 Kawasaki ZX-12R is a big bike that makes a big impression.
The first part of the impression is visual. It's a big handsome bike that wears its metallic blue bodywork stylishly. It's a good example of the nose-down, tail-up, sportsbike look but it has a physical presence that the smaller, more delicate, litre sportsbikes can't quite muster. The prominent ram-air mouth under the headlight looks ready to ingest any small to medium-sized creatures that stray into its path. A huge 200 section D208 Dunlop and one of motorcycling's biggest exhaust cans give the back end heaps of authority.
A little visual bonus comes as you mount up and switch on the ignition - a quick full-scale flick from the tacho and speedo needles and then back to zero, ready for you to fire it up. I don't know about you but I find 13,000rpm and 300km/h to be a fascinating set of numbers. As a response to the spirit of the times we live in the highest numbers on the speedo are at the 280 mark. The graduations still run on to 300 though.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
At walking pace as you manoeuvre your way out on to the road you can feel that the 12 is a bike of substance - you know you're not on a pared-down race-replica - but the extra kilograms melt away as you get the thing motoring. It's a joy to ride.
Extracting huge power from a 1200cc engine makes for a more tractable machine than one that pulls big numbers from a "mere" 1000cc. The big Kawasaki's engine has flexibility that lets you ride as calmly as you choose. Some 160 horses-plus bikes let you know they're not totally joyous about being held back in traffic, but this one's a very happy commuter that will lug along fairly contentedly at low rpm in high gears.
The riding position is certainly in the sports-bike area but the ergos are a couple of notches more comfortable than its more-compact rivals because of its larger dimensions. The ride is taut and firm as it needs to be for a proper sportsbike. It's a very quiet motorcycle for all normal riding - the induction system and exhaust are well-muffled. There's just a slight whine from the gear train that rises in pitch with increasing revs.
The 100km/h cruise is maintained at a very calm 3500rpm in top gear. Measured fuel consumption during a return trip from Melbourne to Phillip Island gave 16.5km/l. In town my estimate is 14.5km/l. No complaints there.
The gearbox, while feeling indestructible, can be clunky at times during changes. The occasional false neutral showed up and it baulked once or twice on down-shifts. It's no great worry - but you need to be really definite with the lever to minimise the problems. Kawasaki should have improvements to the selector system on its list, if the test bike is typical.
These brakes are excellent. The huge braking power that a pair of six-piston, radial-mount calipers can generate is, perhaps, not too surprising. It's the sensitivity, the feel, the controllability that's remarkable. The rear perfectly complements the fronts with a predictable, minor contribution. Overall the ZX-12's braking system is well up to the task. It's a real confidence builder.
The big Kawasaki shows a healthy appetite for swift riding on your favourite route through the hills or around the coast. It has a lovely neutral handling style, doing the business without nervousness, tipping in readily and delivering cornering-speed capabilities second to none. Yes, my impression is that it's as quick through the twisties as the litre-class superbikes.
A word of warning. If rapid cornering is your thing, treat the throttle, of a bike with this much torque, with great respect when you're about to fire it out of the corner exit. There's only so much torque that the edge-of-the-tread contact patch of a heeled-over tyre can handle. We had a couple of instances of the bike giving us nasty surprises by suddenly stepping out as we accelerated out of corners. Admittedly the road-surface temperatures were low and we were pushing the thing but we were, by no means, on the "ragged edge". Dropping the rear tyre pressure by about four psi under Kawasaki's recommended figure got more heat into the tyre and restored our confidence. If that's your sort of riding then you need to involve yourself in technicalities like tyre choices, road temperatures, tyre pressures and, above all, sensitive throttle use.
SILENT ASSASSIN OR SCREAMING NINJA?LIKES...
When you open the taps in earnest on the Boss Ninja you have a choice between two quite different experiences. Running rapidly through the gears with changes at around the 7500rpm torque peak (riding the meaty torque curve) the bike accelerates very strongly and incredibly quietly. This "stealth bomber" mode is tricky; you really have to watch it or you'll be whisked to highly illegal velocities, almost unawares. Amazing! ("But officer, I had no idea.")
If, instead, you run it right up to the red line through the gears a whole different scenario happens. Between 7500 and 8000rpm the intake trumpets come on song and then punch out their surreal harmonics all the way to the limiter. No longer quiet, the Ninja screams its rapid progress to top whack like a true superbike. Any serious acceleration in first and second gears takes you straight to mono city. Interestingly, as the speed rises in second and beyond, the weight and wheelbase of this big Zed exert a calming effect on the front wheel as the horizon rushes at you. But in this "red-line" mode there can be no excuses. The howl from the intakes will have you well aware of what's happening. Awesome!
The sensational full-throttle acceleration and top speed capabilities of the ZX-12R are impressive, if impractical, features. A more real-world consequence is its ability to maintain very high cruising speeds effortlessly and confidently on minimal throttle openings at moderate engine speeds while delivering good fuel economy. It leaves me dreaming for a moment about being back in Europe again, aboard the big Zed. The more liberal speed limits there, combined with the higher skills and better attitudes of the motorists you share the highways with, would allow the ZX-12R to strut its stuff. Lightning-fast holiday dashes down to Italy and the Mediterranean would be a piece of cake - a piece of well-iced cake.
That engine Those brakes Effortless performance
DISLIKES... Ordinary Gearshift Lack of roads to suit
Specifications - Kawasaki ZX-12R
Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC, in-line, four-cylinder
Bore x stroke: 83 x 55.4mm
Compression ratio: 12.2:1
Fuel system: Denso fuel-injection with 46mm throttles and sub-throttles
Type: Six-speed, constant-mesh
Final drive: Chain
CHASSIS AND RUNNING GEAR
Frame type: Pressed aluminium backbone
Front suspension: 43mm, fully-adjustable, inverted forks
Rear suspension: Uni-Trak monoshock, fully adjustable
Front brakes: Dual 320mm discs with six-piston, radial-mounted calipers
Rear brake: Single 230mm disc with two-piston caliper
DIMENSIONS AND CAPACITIES
Dry weight: 210kg
Seat height: 820mm
Fuel capacity: 19 litres
Max power: 176hp at 10,500rpm (187hp at 10,500rpm with ram-air effect)
Max torque: 13.7kg-m at 7500rpm
Colours: metallic blue, metallic black
Test bike supplied by: Kawasaki Motors Australia Pty Ltd
Warranty: 24 months