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.
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 back.
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?
This page was last updated on Monday, February 23, 2004.