Church Of MO – First Ride: 2002 Kawasaki ZX-12R
When the hyperbike wars were taking off at the start of the new millennium, Kawasaki was caught with its pants down, so to speak, as Suzuki had lit the field on fire with its Hayabusa. Team Green’s response? No, not the ZX-14R we know today, but the ZX-12R. A fast bike by most measures, when placed against the ‘Busa it simply couldn’t keep up. For this week’s Church feature we have our first ride review of the 2002 Kawasaki ZX-12R, the result of Kawi reimagining the 12R (slightly) for hyperspeed touring duty since it wouldn’t win any drag strip wars.
First Ride: 2002 Kawasaki ZX-12R
Monterey, California, February 20, 2002 — Speculation and wishing will get you nothing but disappointment. Our case study? That’d be the introduction of Kawasaki’s then-new Super Size sport bike in the Y2K, the ZX-12R.
Suzuki had the Hayabusa, and it was absolutely tits. It had the highest top speed of any production bike and the quarter-mile times to match. It would be a tough act to follow, but Kawasaki was confident of its new machine, and the advertisements and general media hype indicated a changing of the guard. But then, much to the chagrin of the two-wheeled press (not to mention Kawasaki US), the suits in Japan started making decisions that affected things that should have been left alone.
The two largest print magazines ran the two heavyweight contenders through the usual gamut of tests and diagnostics. The result? The 12R fell short of expectations, and no amount of hype could overcome that disappointment. And though quite a few units were sold, there was no way to fix the damage that had been done.
It’s now two years later, and Kawasaki is once again certain its ZX-12R will be an absolute smash. You see, they’ve changed tactics mid-stream, or so we think. Where they used to tout the bike’s still-impressive horsepower and torque numbers, these figures seem to get second billing nowadays, just aft of the stuff that says something about additional user-friendliness and increased wind protection.
Externally, the bike doesn’t look much different than before. About the only visual clues that jump out at you are the new colors and the windscreen which is now 20 millimeters taller. But once you’re on board the new bike, things have a familiar ring to them. Though the handlebars are now situated a few millimeters lower, the feeling is familiar. There’s a lot of bike beneath you, and the raspy idle hints at the power lurking beneath.
Leaving the parking lot of our seaside hotel, getting the bike moving is a no-brainer. The re-worked clutch and the amount of grunt available just off idle makes short work of leaving a light. And though we haven’t had our test bike on the drag strip as of yet, a few impromptu drag launches confirmed a lot of positive feel at the lever. There wasn’t any sign of fade or slipping after repeated launches, either.
Enjoying the scenery at a leisurely 65 mph in top gear, there are no intrusive vibes coming through butt, hands or feet. And as the throttle gets rolled on and cruising speeds increase, there’s only one real spot of vibes to mention. Right at 75 mph, things are a bit vibey, though they’re not intrusive or annoying by any means. They’re just noticeable because the rest of the power band is so smooth. By the time you get into another section of vibrations, you’re well into the triple digits and have more important things to worry about.
Between the big motor and the long, stable chassis, there’s a feeling of imperviousness that comes over you as you ride through a twisty stretch of road at a rapid clip. Heaving the bike from side to side requires effort, though you’re rewarded with a large amount of feedback from both contact patches. What they tell you, time and again, is that you’re doing just fine. About the only clue that the bike may be less than thrilled at your aggressive antics is the oscillation of the suspension.
The 12R’s boingers have a tough chore, more so than most. There is a lot of weight they have to keep in check, and Kawasaki’s engineers have done a pretty good job of things, but there’s still room for improvement.
We left the rebound damping adjustments alone up front, though we did add a touch of compression and rebound damping to the rear. The end result of these changes is a more balanced ride. The chassis now feels more planted than it did before through abrupt left-right-left changes and mid-corner ripples at high lean angles. With the suspension changes made, everything stayed planted and on-line as it should. It certainly gave us the confidence needed to keep up a seriously quick pace by using the bike’s stability and huge motor to drive us into the next bend.
On the brakes after a long straight, you’re reminded how large of a bike this Kawasaki is. Still, getting it slowed is never a concern as the revised Tokiko brakes do a wonderful job of getting things slowed down. Of course, the lever requires quite a tug to get seriously rapid deceleration, but that’s to be expected. Thankfully, modulation of the binders, both front and rear, is quite easy since they provide excellent feel.
Despite the fact that we could run through miles of corners and straights in one gear, the Kawasaki’s six-speed box is wonderfully precise and shouldn’t be ignored.
Changing up or down was always clean, and there wasn’t a missed shift to be had, with or without use of the clutch.
By the time we’d finished our photo shoot and continued our nighttime drone down the interstate, back into Los Angeles, we were going on a solid 10 hours of seat time on the new Kawasaki.
Is it better than Suzuki’s Hayabusa? We can only say it’s going to be a very close call when we get the two bikes side-by-side.
Engine: 4-stroke, DOHC, inline fourDisplacement: 1,198cc Bore x Stroke: 83.0 x 55.4mmCompression ratio: 12.2:1Cooling: LiquidFuel injection: 46mm throttle bodiesIgnition: DigitalTransmission: 6-speedFrame: Aluminum monocoqueRake/trail: 23.5 degrees/3.7 in.Suspension, front: 43mm inverted hydraulic telescopic fork w/ 12-way adjust compression and rebound damping, adjust spring preloadSuspension, rear: UNI-TRAK® system w/ single shock, 20-way adjust compression and rebound damping, adjust ride heightWheel travel, front: 4.7 in.Wheel travel, rear: 5.5 in.Tire, front: 120/70x17 tubelessTire, rear: 200/50x17 tubelessFront brake: 320mm dual hydraulic discsRear brake: 230mm single hydraulic discOverall length: 81.9 in.Overall width: 28.5 in.Overall height: 46.7 in.Ground clearance: 4.7 in.Seat height: 31.9 in.Dry weight: 463 lbs.Fuel capacity: 5.3 gal.Wheelbase: 56.7 in.Colors: Pearl Mystic Black/Metallic Crescent Gold, Passion Red/Pearl Cosmic Grey
Troy's been riding motorcycles and writing about them since 2006, getting his start at Rider Magazine. From there, he moved to Sport Rider Magazine before finally landing at Motorcycle.com in 2011. A lifelong gearhead who didn't fully immerse himself in motorcycles until his teenage years, Troy's interests have always been in technology, performance, and going fast. Naturally, racing was the perfect avenue to combine all three. Troy has been racing nearly as long as he's been riding and has competed at the AMA national level. He's also won multiple club races throughout the country, culminating in a Utah Sport Bike Association championship in 2011. He has been invited as a guest instructor for the Yamaha Champions Riding School, and when he's not out riding, he's either wrenching on bikes or watching MotoGP.
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