Is this the last of the Ultimate sports machines? Quite possibly, as politicians seek to impose limits on the top speed of motorcycles.
But the alleged 200mph performance of the ZX12R isn´t the whole story. This is – like most big sportsbikes at the start of a new millennium – a well balanced, fluid handling rocketship too.
With fantastic brakes, good aerodynamics and a supple, sporting chassis. It is probably a little bit safer than travelling around on a restricted 125 with a dodgy MoT as well… a fact that the average politician usually ignores.
But if the Kawasaki ZX12R is the last of the licence shredding dinosaurs, then what a way to go – stunning.
Before we get any further, the answer´s No.
The Kawasaki ZX-12R won´t crack 200mph, at least in standard form – although given ideal conditions and enough room, it will manage a true 190mph and show a double-ton on the clock. Judging from numerous back-to-back tests around the world, sometimes it´s slightly faster than the Hayabusa and sometimes it´s slightly slower. (It also seems that the Kawa doesn´t make full power until it´s loosened up with several thousand running-in miles on its bores.)
In the real world those top speed figures are irrelevant, of course, but one thing´s for sure. From where I´m sitting, with the adrenalin starting to bubble into my blood stream again as I recall the occasions when I rolled off the throttle on a quiet bypass and glanced down to see the speedo needle coming down through 160mph and more, the ZX-12R is plenty fast enough.
Maybe too fast for our Gatso-strewn roads, unless you´ve got more self-control than me.
The ZX-12R is so seductively, addictively rapid that within ten minutes of picking it up I was giggling into my crash-helmet as I gassed it in fourth gear up a slight incline on a Buckinghamshire dual-carriageway, and the silver bullet shot forward with enough force to make its bars twitch as the speedo needle ripped past 130mph and kept on going.
I took the long route home that evening; made a detour to take in a bypass where the police and traffic are usually scarce. That road had distinctly more curves than normal, as I crouched with my head behind the ZX-12R´s screen, my throttle hand wound back and my heart in my mouth in case a copper with a radar gun should be lurking on one of the bridges. On the fastest bits there was no time to glance down at the speedo, but it was a hell of a buzz all the same.
Sheer speed is perhaps inevitably my most vivid memory of the ZX-12R, but there is much more to this bike than that. Perhaps the most telling quote from Kawasaki´s glossy book on the bike´s development comes from Project Leader Hiroshi Takata: “There were factions within the company who questioned the need for a machine this fast and powerful,” he says. “I had to explain to them that to many riders, a machine´s potential is what makes it so alluring, regardless of whether they themselves will ever exploit that potential.”
Takata knew full well that most ZX-12R owners won´t get near 190mph, and that shows. The big four´s straight-line performance is a major part of its appeal, of course. But crucially its designers seem to have kept sight of the fact that what´s even more important is how the ZX behaves at more sensible speeds – so they didn´t fall into the trap of making compromises in the search for a few extra mph.
There´s none of the Hayabusa´s ugly, wind-tunnel obsessed bodywork here, for example, just a neatly yet cleverly styled bike with a distinct Kawasaki look.
Its innovative monocoque aluminium frame means the ZX is slim by big bike standards. If feels reasonably light and compact, too, although the fairly tall seat gives plenty of legroom.
The motor is awesome everywhere, from the crisp, strong pull of its fuel-injection at 3000rpm, all the way to its creamy smoothness up near the 11,500rpm redline. The Kawasaki is in its element on a fast road with traffic about, where its ability to overtake so fast that it lifts the paintwork from car doors, without so much as a flick down through the slick six-speed box, gives it an edge even over the Hayabusa.
The fuel-injection´s response was excellent, even when feeding in the throttle gently while cranked hard over in mid-corner. My one real engine-related complaint was that the one slight but noticeable patch of vibration occurs at around 4500rpm, which in top gear is annoyingly close to the indicated 85mph that´s a typical motorway cruising speed. Oh, and the induction system´s lack of a traditional Ninja-style howl was disappointing, albeit for a good reason.
Kawasaki´s chassis team have done a good job, too, in managing to produce a bike that is agile enough for cornering fun, yet comfortable enough to make you want to put in some serious distances. On the comfort front the screen, although quite low (being very tall, I couldn´t see the warning lights), was wide enough to give good protection and very little turbulence.
And the real surprise was how well the ZX handled for a bike weighing over 200kg.
Its geometry is fairly sporty, with forks set at a steep 23.5 degrees, 93mm of trail and a wheelbase of 1440mm – all those figures being significantly smaller than their Hayabusa and Blackbird equivalents. When combined with good, well-damped suspension, what that adds up to is a respectably flickable bike that encourages you to tip it hard into corners.
Okay, so we´re not talking GSX-R750 style agility here, but the ZX holds its cornering line flawlessly, soaks up minor bumps effortlessly, and grips hard thanks to its fat Dunlop radials. On a few occasions I got a slight wiggle from the front end while hard on the power. But the Kawa never got out of shape, and didn´t feel as though it needed a steering damper. There´s loads of ground clearance, plus potential to set up preload, damping and ride height just as you like it. And its front brake blend of 320mm discs and six-pot calipers gives heaps of power and feel.
At more sensible speeds there´s plenty to admire too. Personally I prefer the new breed of digital speedos to a cramped old-style dial, especially on bikes this fast. But there´s a handy LCD display alongside with fuel gauge and clock, the huge mirrors are much more efficient than they are attractive, and you get handy bungee hooks (though no grab-rail) at the blunt end.
After all the hype and speculation about its top speed over the last couple of years, the ZX-12R hasn´t comprehensively retaken the ultimate performance crown for Kawasaki after all. But ironically, that helps explain why it´s such a great bike. It is not tuned for top speed at the expense of midrange torque, like the original Super Blackbird, and it´s not shaped purely for speed like the Hayabusa.
Instead, it´s a stunningly fast, superbly flexible, impressively agile, comfortable and versatile superbike that looks good in silver, green or red. It costs £8995 (plus up to £385 otr), with the book on the bike´s development thrown in. If only Kawasaki could provide a book of spare driving licences too, it´d be just about perfect.
Most of the fuss surrounding the ZX-12R concerns its engine performance, but the bike´s key technical feature is its frame. While the motor is a liquid-cooled, dohc 16-valve dohc straight four like all the rest – albeit a stunningly powerful one – the frame is a radically new aluminium box-section monocoque like nothing previously seen on a production bike.
By dispensing with the normal beams running outside the motor, Kawasaki engineers claim they have been able to design a structure that is equally stiff yet allows the fairing to be narrower, improving aerodynamics. The hollow frame also forms the airbox, and is fed by a plastic ram-air scoop that sticks out from the front of the fairing to take air from an undisturbed high-pressure zone, which was found to boost power.Most of the fuel tank is under the seat, which helps lower the bike´s centre of gravity.
Suspension comprises multi-adjustable 43mm upside-down forks plus a vertical monoshock that can also be adjusted for ride height using shims. Six-piston Tokico front brake calipers with differential pistons (two 27mm and one 24 each side) grip 320mm rotors. The 17-inch wheels wear Dunlop D207 rubber, with a huge, specially developed 200/50 section rear radial on a six-inch rim.
Engineers from Kawasaki´s aircraft division were involved in the ZX´s development from the beginning. Their input resulted in features such as the small wings on each side of the fairing. These are not for downforce but are flow separators, preventing turbulent air off the front wheel from disturbing flow along the upper fairing. The big pointy mirrors and the fork sliders´ tiny cast-in deflectors, which push air out round the fairing, also play a part.
But in the end, the Kawa´s speed is mostly due to its engine, which officially produces 175.5bhp, along with an equally hefty 98.4ft.lb of torque. The liquid-cooled 16-valve unit is essentially a larger version of the ZX-9R motor, with the addition of fuel-injection and a balancer shaft. Its 1199cc capacity comes from dimensions of 83 x 55.4mm, an identical bore/stroke ratio to the ZX-9R and ZX-6R.
The cylinder barrel is a new aluminium construction with sleeveless, electro-plated bores. This reduces cylinder spacing and allows the motor, whose camchain is on the right, to be very narrow.
Get Kawasaki motorcycle insurance for the kawasaki zx 12r.
Engine Liquid-cooled in-line four
Claimed power (bhp) –
Compression ratio 12.2:1
Front suspension 43mm upside-down cartridge fork, 120mm travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Rear suspension One shock absorber, 140mm travel, adjustments for preload, compression and rebound damping
Front brake 2 , six-piston Tokico calipers, 320mm discs
Rear brake- Twin-piston caliper, 230mm disc
Front wheel 3.50 x 17in; cast alloy
Rear wheel 6.00 x 17in; cast alloy
Front tyre 120/70 x 17in Dunlop D207 Sportmax
Rear tyre 200/50 x 17in Dunlop D207 Sportmax
Rake/trail 23.5 degrees/93mm
Seat height 810mm
Fuel capacity 20 litres
Dry weight 210kg
Instruments Speedometer, tachometer, LCD display with odometer, tripmeters, clock, fuel gauge, coolant temp, lights for neutral, high beam, turn signals, low oil pressure
Current price £8995 (plus up to £385 otr)