'(still) the king'
One mile away, a single point of light breaks the horizon on a desolate
stretch of desert two-lane. Twenty seconds later, the light has come and gone,
leaving only swirling turbulence and a 175-mph reading on the radar gun's
display in its wake.
Source: Motorcyclist, October 1995
That, friends and neighbors, is fast. Fast enough to cover roughly the length
of a football field each and every second. Tick. Tick. Tick.
How about a warm welcome, then, for Kawasaki's ZX-11, still the fastest
land-based piece of single-track ordnance in the known universe.
With a target that impressive painted on its svelte black flank, you'd think
someone else would have come gunning for the Viceroy of Velocity with
something faster. Meaner. More menacing.
But five years after the original ZX-11 took its toll on the Editorial
Adrenals, the Editorial Driving Privilege and the Editorial Sphincter, nothing
else in anybody's showroom comes close to that velocity mark. Nothing betters
its 130.92 rear-wheel ponies or its 10.25-second, 135.7-mph quarter-mile
Surprised? Don't be. Kawasaki has defined and redefined motorcycle
performance for nearly three decades. From the 1967 A1 Samurai 250 twin to
the '69 Mach III and '72 Mach IV triples, through the omniscient 1973 Z-1,
the '81 Gpz 1100 and the 1984 Ninja 900, Team Green has led the horsepower
war on every front. Stretching the 900 Ninja's bore and stroke numbers to
997cc produced the nasty black 1000 Ninja in 1986, which would flirt with 160
mph on a good day thanks to large stacks of horsepower and some very tall
And after all bloody heck broke loose with Suzuki's GSX-R1100 and Yamaha's
FZR1000, Kawasaki countered with an '88 ZX-10 that would perforate the
160-mph barrier at will.
Even then, it didn't take the Amazing Kreskin to figure out what was next.
What came next was exactly what Kawasaki intended from the beginning: the
fastest, most powerful motorcycle in creation. Strapped securely to the dyno,
the 1990 ZX-11 cranked out a herd of nearly 127 rear-wheel ponies with no help
from its new ram-air system-the first such arrangement ever fitted to a production
With ram-air assist, it would spit out nearly 10 percent more; enough for low
10-second quarter-mile passes and 175 mph on top. For most companies, that
would have been enough, but this is Kawasaki we're talking about. And so in
1993, amid a funnel cloud of rumors about electronic air management and
180-mph-plus speeds, the ZX-11D was born.
Essentially identical to the '95 model you see here, the most immediately
obvious '93-spec changes centered around a new, lighter, stiffer aluminum
frame that stretched the wheelbase sixtenths of an inch and massaged rake and
trail numbers in favor of a tad more high-speed stability, as well as a
fatter rear tire and 10 mm larger front brake rotor. Hmmmmm ... we thought,
all the better to back up an even more obscenely powerful (and thus even more
obscenely fast) ZX-11 engine. Yes ... and no.
The most eagerly awaited and energetically embellished alteration was an
extra ram-air intake under the menacing trapezoidal headlight. Twin ram-air
channels force a reported 33 percent more air into an even bigger pressurized
airbox en route to 30 percent larger mufflers. This, in addition to bigger
main jets inside the semi-flat slide CVKD 40 carburetors, crams more air into
and, thus, gets more horsepower out of a 1052cc, twin-cam, 16-valve four that
was otherwise largely status quo.
The larger airbox and mufflers amplify low and midrange power, as well as
increase the ZX's maximum output to 130.92 hp. At top speed, where ram effect
pays the biggest dividends, that horsepower probably rises to a little over
140. But aimed down the same stretch of road at the same radar gun, we came
up with the same 175 mph top speed. What gives?
The latest fairing sacrifices some pure wind-cheating ability to better
protect the human tucked behind it-enough of a drag to cancel out the D
model's power advantage and turn any top speed contest into a push. The
amount of horsepower required to gain even a few mph rises exponentially with
the speed, meaning the slightest decrease in slipperiness takes a herd more
ponies to overcome.
Back in the land of double-nickel speed limits and the long, humorless,
radar-equipped arm of the law, the benefits of ram air are less glamorous:
steady flow of cool, dense air to the 40mm Keihins.
Sitting around in the driveway, the '11 feels big-heavy, too. Still, the
riding position is comfortably upright, steering is lighter and more precise
than the 601-pound curb weight would project. The most noticeable glitch is
some off-idle abruptness around town and generally indecisive carburetion
under 3800 rpm.
Otherwise, the ZX pulls away from lights with the kind of 'Sorry, Officer...'
urge you expect from something that does 92 mph in second gear. Aside from
some lash in the lower gears and slightly stiff shifting, driveline
performance is pretty good.
Swinging the tach needle through 6000 rpm through a gear or two up the next
onramp provides a sort of PG preview of the XXX-rated evil that lives at
10,000 rpm. Turning 4250 rpm into a smooth 70 mph through hapless freeway
traffic, the ZX-11 is like Mike Tyson in the prison shower: most everybody
instinctively gets out of the way. And a nudge on the throttle dispatches
what few dullards don't.
Aside from suspension that's nearly harsh enough to powder kidney stones over
segmented freeways, you can actually tour on the ZX. The firm, nicely
contoured saddle is comfy enough, and vibration remains a gentle buzz until
8000 rpm in top gear, at which point you're doing roughly 136 mph anyway and
will soon have other things to think about. Tired of the prevailing panorama?
Use the throttle like the "FF" function on the VCR remote and cue up something
more stimulating-just don't try putting gas stations more than 200 miles apart.
Playing fast and loose with the time space/continuum plays heck with the old
mpg. Any undue attention to fuel consumption is a sure sign you're in the
wrong auditorium here. Try the EX500... third door on your left. The ZX-11
isn't about mpg. The ZX-11 about mph... lots of 'em. It's about That Engine,
and finding places to commune with the patron saints of acceleration and
velocity-somewhere in a fast, deserted back road, perhaps?
So long as the surface never gets much rougher than your average Brunswick
billiard table, light steering and Swiss-bank stability let the ZX pick and
roll better than any 601-pound anything has a right to. Our '95 bike's
suspension was more compliant than previous editions, but the Marquis de Sade
is still skulking around Kawasaki's High-Speed Compression Damping Department
with a lab coat and a screwdriver. A rash of little mid-corner bumps still
get the otherwise adequate Bridgestone Battlax radials struggling for grip and
skittering toward Big Trouble.
Spirited ZX-11 chicanery favors a certain calculated discretion over wild,
raging abandon. As those of us with significant seat time in, say, a
440-cubic-inch 1970 Chrysler New Yorker know, big horsepower and massive mass
are a combination that commands respect.
The Kawi's brakes are linear and plenty powerful enough, though they'll fade
in the heat of expert road butchery.
Handling manners are Emily Post excellent, up to a point. Trouble is, muted
front-end feedback makes it tough to tell how far you are from Big Trouble at
any given point. Luckily, the road starts nibbling at foot pegs, both stands
and assorted other scary-sounding hard parts to say it's time to throttle
Other bikes will get down a convoluted stretch of back road quicker. So what?
To the ZX-11 pilot, that doesn't matter. What does matter is That Engine.
That Engine can stir up 175 mph in slightly more time that it takes to read
this sentence, but it doesn't have to. Just knowing it can is enough, thanks.
Because That Engine cleans out the old adrenals with one quick trip through
the gears and you don't even need any corners.
Which is great if you happen to live somewhere like South Texas where there
aren't any. The fact that Kawasaki also managed to make the thing start and
idle with all the drama of Aunt Trixie's Altima is only icing on one very
fast cake. Someday, somebody will build something faster. And why do we get
this funny feeling it's going to be Kawasaki?