Full Spead Ahead

Honda CBR1100XX vs Kawasaki ZX-11:
Don't blink - you'll miss 'em.

Source: Sportbike 1997

America's motorheads have a serious speed addiction, and you're looking at the fix. Honda's CBR1100XX and Kawasaki's ZX-11 aer the fastest production motorcycles on the market, serving up a warp-speed helping of adrenaline on demand to quell your speed shakes and horsepower withdrawels.

For genuine big-bore junkies, one of these bikes will get the job done better than the other. The question is, which one? For the answer, we gunned them both down the best stretches of asphalt we could find, including Los Angeles County Raceway's quarter-mile dragstrip and our two-mile top-speed venue.

So, strap your helmet on tight, glue your butt to the seat and make sure you're pointed in the right direction; when you pull the trigger on the fastest guns available, you don't want to bite the bullet.

Street savvy

A string of knotted backroads punctuated by miles of freeways and interstates illustrated just how differently Honda and Kawasaki go about producing the fastest motorcycles on the road.

On the Honda, smoothness is the key word. The CBR's 1137cc motor runs eerily smooth, producing a turbine-like rush of acceleration anywhere above 6000 rpm. A dual internal balancing-shaft system nearly eliminates vibration, though some still creeps through the bars around 5000 rpm.

At lower engine speeds, the CBR's huge, 42mm Keihin flat-slide carburetors hamper throttle response due to the low velocity of the air passing through them. But as the revs jump, the slides rise and let 135 ponies loose at 9750 rpm, shoving the scenery into fast-forward with a simple twist of the wrist and a click through the somewhat notchy six-speed tranny.

If you're looking for a big bike that feels small, the CBR fills the bill. A somewhat narrow fairing, a low, flat windscreen and bars that are fairly close to the rider make the XX feel more like a 900 than a big-bore Open-classer. Wind protection is excellent and, coupled with a comfortable seat and rational ergonomics, makes the Honda a perfect allday mount.

At 557 pounds full of fluids, the XX is no Tonka toy, but it flicks through the tight stuff with ease. A healthy push on the bar is necessary to transition the CBR quickly, but precise, neutral steering and decent front-end feedback give the rider confidence to maintain a spirited pace.

Still, why Honda saw fit to slap a 43mm, non-adjustable Showa fork on an $11,499 motorcycle we'll never know. Its excessive low-speed compression damping is the only hitch in the CBR's otherwise flawless swing, causing enough movement in the front end over rippled bumps to shake the rider's confidence. With the addition of a properly calibrated, fully adjustable fork, the CBR would be nearly without fault.

Actually, making the XX perfect would require the deletion of Honda's newest Linked Braking System (LBS). Although the brakes are extremely powerful, the hobby-horse effect caused by the linked system had some of our testers cursing the system - especially those who use rear-braking as an aid to refine corner-entry speeds. On a Gold Wing, linked braking is fine, but we don't think it belongs on one of the fastest production sportbikes ever built.

If you think words like "smooth" and "refined" are for sissies, the ZX-11 may be your kind of hyperbike. Its 1052cc inline-Four feels more like a small-block Chevy V-Eight than a motorcycle engine, bellowing a gruff, throaty exhaust note while hammering out just over 130 horsepower.

The Eleven just feels meaner than the CBR, like a bucking bronco waiting for just the right moment to catch its rider by surprise. A hiccup in the ram-air-fed, 40mm Keihin carbs causes a stumble at just over 4000 rpm; but once the tach needle passes 5500 rpm, the bike accelerates hard enough in first gear to let the sun shine beneath the front tire. The Kawasaki's six-speed gearbox is far from buttah, but it's a step up from the Honda's.

Unlike the CBR, the Kawasaki feels every bit as big as its 601 (wet) pounds suggest. An enormous windscreen, and fairing stretch in front of the rider, effectively shielding him from the elements -though our shortest tester's head was buffeted when carrying a passenger. The seat is the best found on any sportbike, and remains comfortable even after long days in the saddle. Riders with shorter arms may find the reach to the bars a bit lengthy, but the ergonomic package is otherwise well laid-out.

Because the Eleven has considerable heft and an outdated suspension, it's a bit more work in the twisties. its 43mm fork is adjustable for spring reload and rebound damping. When the pace quickens over a bumpy road, the bike bucks front and back, and the chassis never seems able to settle down. Steering is lighter than you'd expect from such a big motorcycle, but the rider never feels totally in touch with the raked-out front end.

What's more, slowing down over a quarter-ton of ZX and rider overworks the Kawasaki's two, double- action Tocico calipers and 320mm rotors; if the ZX is ridden aggressively, stopping power diminishes noticeably as heat builds in the rotors. Just one more indication that Kawasaki's king of speed, now in its eighth year, is showing its age.

Quarter-mile maulers

In America's favorite measure of performance - timed acceleration over a 1320-foot distance - the Honda's hydraulic clutch didn't like upper-rpm launches, which cause it to heat up excessively and engage abruptly. The best launch was made below 6000 rpm, and the Honda still wheelied to a best time of 10.30 seconds at 134.9 mph. A more slipable clutch would bring the Black Beast down into the mid 10.20s.

A superior clutch and enough power to pull a train helped the ZX-11 nip the Honda with a 10.28-second, 135.1-mph run. The Kawasaki's only problem at the dragstrip came as a result of a big wheelie; the landing loosened the steering-head bearings enough to allow the front tire to shudder back-and-forth more than a quarter-inch. After a quick adjustment by a local dealer, Palmdale Honda, we were back in business.

Top speed

In the Mojave high desert, it's either windy or it's really windy. On the day we chose for top-speed testing, it was really (expletive) windy. The ZX-11's fairing apparently doesn't like high winds, so the front end sometimes gets light above 140 mph, forcing the rider to steer with the pegs. With the wind at its back, the Eleven pulled a 179-mph run out of the bag, but it dropped to 164 mph running into the wind. That averages out to 172 mph - impressive, considering the conditions.

 Honda CBR1100XXKawasaki ZX-11
Top speed (mph) with wind180179
Against wind160164
Quarter mile10.30 sec @ 134.9 mph10.28 sec @ 135.1 mph

The CBR-XX didn't fare quite so well, even though Honda has gone to great lengths to make it aerodynamic. A piggy-back headlight helps reduce drag in the steeply raked fairing, and the front turnsignals are located on the backsides of the well-placed mirrors. Still, when bucking a headwind, the Honda could only manage 9900 rpm, in sixth gear, or 160 mph. With the wind, it pulled an incredible 180 mph, but its 170-mph average still wasn't enough to best the Kawasaki. On a calmer day (a rare occurence in the high desert in January), both bike would have managed higher average speeds.

So what?

In the performance ratings, the Kawasaki pulled ever-so-slightly ahead; but for everyday ridability, the CBR1100XX kicks ass. If you're looking for a big-bore bruiser for the street, the Kawasaki can still fight it out with the best of them. But if you're after an equally impressive performer with civilized manners to match, the Honda wipes the slate clean.

By: Jason Black