Friday, September 14, 2012

Kawasaki Concours 14 - The Ultimate Test Drive

10 days, 2,016 miles, and 2 up aboard a 2010 C14

Yes, this was the ultimate test drive. It's one thing for your local (ahem, BMW) dealer to let you take out a bike for an hour or two. It's a whole 'nother thing to live with a bike for ten days, two thousand miles, two up. My wife and I rented a 2010 C14 ABS from Mountain to Sound Motorcycle Adventures in Issaquah, WA, just outside of Seattle. The bike had just over 20,000 miles on it when we started, and it was sporting a fairly new pair of Michelin Pilot Road 3 tires.

Our 2010 Kawasaki Concours 14 rental bike

Much of what I write here will be in comparison and contrast to my daily ride, a 2004 BMW R1150RT that is approaching the 50,000 mile mark. I've owned the RT since it was new.
My 2004 BMW R1150 RT, on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia

Just the Facts, Ma'am

According to my Garmin Zumo 550, we covered 2,016.3 miles and our average speed was 46.5 mph. This took a little bit more than 43 hours of riding time (moving time). I will neither confirm nor deny that the Garmin recorded a triple digit top speed; use your imagination. Because of some unforeseen circumstances at the end of our ride (which will be covered later in this report), I neglected to compare the Garmin's mileage reading with the C14's odometer at the end of the ride, so I cannot report on potential odometer error. I will note that I observed optimistic readings on the C14's speedometer starting at about 60 mph (when compared to the Garmin's speedometer) and the C14's speedometer may or may not have been as much as 5 mph optimistic when the Garmin was reading 105 mph.

We were two-up and fully loaded (luggage in the side bags, plus an additional soft luggage tail pack) pretty much the entire time. The C14's on-board mileage computer reported a total average 42 miles per gallon at the end of the ride. I never, not once, put the C14 into its fuel economy assistance mode. When I can get 40+ mpg riding two up in a sporting fashion, that's good enough for me. I'll let others play the high fuel mileage game.

The Route

Our route was a large, counterclockwise loop, starting and ending just outside of Seattle. The green "pins" in the map below show our overnight stopping points.

We started with the Olympic Peninsula, then down the northern half of the Oregon coast before heading east to Bend. From there we wound our way through the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and on up to Lewiston, Idaho. From Lewiston, we turned back west to cut across the state of Washington to get back to Seattle.

Although this post is more about the bike than the ride, notable portions included the amazingly smooth mountain road up to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park, of course US 101 along the Pacific coast, Oregon Route 242 over the McKenzie Pass, the Cascades Lake Scenic Byway from Bend past Mt. Bachelor to the Crane Prairie Reservoir (beyond that it's too straight and boring), the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway through (duh) Hells Canyon, and Oregon 3/Washington 129 across the incredible Grande Ronde River gorge. These are some of the finest roads anywhere, and our ride included just about everything from fast sweepers, to tight twisties, technical mountain hairpins, and miles and miles of straight as an arrow empty and fast roadway.

Rough outline of our route, starting and ending just outside of Seattle

But this post really isn't about the route. It's about the bike...

Gobs and Gobs of Silky Smooth Power. What's Not to Like?

Are there enough superlatives to adequately describe the amazing 1,400 cc (well, technically 1,352 cc, I suppose) inline-four engine in the C14? Gobs and gobs of power, delivered without any fuss, without any muss. It does its job, with smooth, vibration free delivery of as much acceleration as you want, whenever you want. Yet despite having a power-to-weight ratio worthy of a rocket ship, the bike is incredibly easy to ride at low speeds and in a civilized fashion when in town or in traffic. It was so very easy to fall in love with this engine, especially in comparison to the far less powerful boxer twin in my RT. It's not even a fair fight.

The clutch on the C14 is silky smooth with a light pull. This is another area where it was easy to fall in love, particularly when compared to the much heavier pull of the dry clutch on my RT, or even when compared to the clutch on the new BMW K1600 GT/GTL bikes. The K1600 bikes transmit a very noticeable "thunk" up through the clutch lever when shifting that I found very disconcerting during a recent test drive. The C14 clutch, on the other hand, just works much like the engine - no muss, no fuss. Smooth like butter. Advantage: Kawasaki.

I was similarly suitably impressed with the suspension. It never felt upset. It never wallowed. It never bottomed. In every respect here, the C14 beat my RT hands down. It even has me thinking of looking into aftermarket suspension upgrades should I decided to keep the RT. Despite this difference, though, I found little actual difference in the two bikes in terms of pure handling. Both are incredibly nimble bikes, whether doing parking lot U turns, fast and accurate twisties, or mountain hairpins. And other than me knowing when I'll be stressing the RT suspension when viewing rough road, I thought the two bikes felt like, well, the sport tourers that they are.

One area where I do vastly prefer my RT over the C14 is on the brakes. I'm certain this is more of a feel difference than any stopping distance performance difference. And I account my preference to two factors, well maybe three: the BMW's Telelever front end, the BMW's servo assist, and the cumulative feel at the brake lever. I fully realize that many people have negative reviews and reactions to BMW's servo assist on the RT, but I happen to love it. The RT's front brake lever has a firm, hard feel to it that, frankly, is tricky to master. But I have mastered it, and the end result is a fantastic feel. I'm certain the C14 probably has as much, or heck maybe even more, stopping power. But the front lever felt softer to me, and I didn't have quite the feeling of braking authority as I do on my RT. I found little difference to the brake pedals on the two bikes, but for me, lever feel is more critical than pedal feel. Again, before any C14 owners and lovers start to pull out stopping distance facts and figures, I fully realize that my preference is likely due to a perception difference, not a performance difference. But for me, advantage BMW.

Rider Comfort - An Ergonomics Mixed Bag

A sport touring bike should be both sporty and long-haul comfortable. You might say that's what the entire category is about. We already know that the C14 excels on the sporty front. How did it did do on the comfort side?

Let's start with the truly awful. What the hell was Kawasaki thinking with those handlebars? What size human are they designed for? Somebody way taller than me? Or way shorter? Longer arms, maybe? I don't know, but I pure hated those bars. After thirty minutes of riding, the pressure on my palms and wrists was annoying as all hell. I could not find a position that ever worked. This is a serious fail on Kawasaki's part.

Before any C14 owners respond with "that can be fixed", sure I understand that. That's not the point. This isn't about what can be changed by aftermarket parts, but what I thought about the bike as it is, out-of-the-box, as it were. I don't expect any bike to be perfect in all respects, but I certainly do expect a sport tourer to at least be adequate in terms of all-day ergonomics. And the stock C14 bars simply fail here.

On the other hand, I found the stock windscreen perfectly acceptable. If I were to own a C14 might I replace the stock windscreen, as I did on my RT with a Cee Bailey? Sure, I might. But the stock screen does a perfectly acceptable job, with a minimum of buffeting, and a minimum of wind noise - for both rider and passenger. Nothing to complain about here, other than the stupid (stupid, stupid) default for the windscreen to lower itself all the way when the bike is shut off and then to stay there when the bike is started again. I was infuriated with this. It was like a car that made you adjust the car seat every fricking time you started the car. For the first couple of days I cursed the bike with an ever increasing loathing every time I started it. Then my brother taught me how to change the default setting so the windscreen would raise when the bike was started. I picked setting 3, which raised the windscreen three-quarters of the way up. From that point on, I was a happy camper. However, if you ask me, the default behavior should be to return the windscreen to the position in which the rider last had it.

I didn't really have any problem with the seat, although I do vastly prefer the stock "comfort seat" on my RT. The stock RT seat has a wider and deeper (front to back) seat pan, and gives me lots of ability to move around. The C14 seat basically felt like one position. I know that some people complain about its forward slope, but I did not find that to be a major annoyance. The seat wasn't stellar, but it was OK. Unlike the bars, I thought it was perfectly acceptable for a stock item. If I were to own a C14 I would probably upgrade to an aftermarket seat, but mostly to change the seat to foot peg relationship. I found that after about 4 or 5 hours on the bike I would feel a cramping in my hips. I suspect a higher seat would eliminate that issue.

Overall, however, I think the RT is more ergonomically friendly for the rider than the C14 - even taking the C14's handlebars out of the equation. Part of this is the ability to move around in the RT's stock seat, but another part has to do with the width of the tank. Either the RT's tank is narrower at the knees, or the pegs are positioned such that it allows more knee inward and outward movement. I can ride the RT with my knees tucked right up against the RT's tank knee pads, or I can just relax my legs and have lots of airspace between the tank and my legs. Not so on the C14, where I found my inner thighs and knees were pretty much always in contact with the tank. We had mostly very pleasant temperatures with low humidity. But I suspect in higher temperatures and higher humidity, this could get annoyingly hot and uncomfortable.

Passenger Comfort - A Nice Surprise

We were a little apprehensive when we discovered that our C14 would not have a top case. Mountain to Sound has two C14s, one with a top case, one without. We were slated for the top case bike, but it came back from a previous rental in dire need of a brake job. Thus, we had a last minute bike switch. I don't fault Mountain to Sound for this at all, and they were very accommodating and gave us a nice waterproof soft bag and bungee cords to use instead of a top case. This turned out to be a wonderful surprise! It gave Patti just enough support behind her so that she felt secure, and it also allowed her to have a great amount of upper body movement. In fact, we're even thinking of experimenting with taking the top case off the RT! Who knew?

Patti was also happy, overall, with the C14's seat. She says the seat was really comfortable, maybe even more comfortable than on our RT's seat. "I would be perfectly happy with that seat,", she said. Even more importantly, she was happy with the C14's foot pegs. Surprisingly, she thinks the fact that the pegs are not covered in rubber contributed to her liking them; not being covered in rubber made it easier for her to get on and off the bike. Rubber peg covers tend to twist. But the pegs were comfortable too. In fact, during the trip she remarked that she had never before felt so comfortable on a bike with foot pegs instead of floorboards. So for passenger comfort and ergonomics, the C14 scored big points.

Knobs and Dials

Let's cover a few additional details that aren't about long-haul comfort, but more about the fit, finish, and feel of the C14.

First, the mirrors. The mirrors on the C14 are quite good. They are well positioned, large, and vibration free. Much better than the mirrors on the RT, which are positioned lower and don't give as good of a rear view.

As I mentioned above, my legs were always in contact with the C14's tank (well, its bodywork, really). Why the heck doesn't Kawasaki ship the C14 with some sort of paint protection, especially in that scalloped area where your legs go? The RT has glued on contoured knee pads to protect the body. The C14 should have something like that, or at least a layer of paint protection film. The rental C14 was severely scratched here, and I even wondered if a previous rider had riding pants with inside leg zippers instead of outside zippers because the scratches were so deep and visible. Similarly, painted side cases look great when they are new, but it is so easy for both the rider and passenger to scuff them up when mounting or dismounting the bike. For crying out loud, ship the bike with protective film in the most vulnerable places. I wonder how many C14 owners have had to scramble to apply aftermarket film kits only after learning the hard way?

I was fairly pleased with the C14's side cases. When empty, each contains a full face helmet with room to spare. And they swallowed up my BMW side case bag liners (actually I think mine are an aftermarket, not a BMW branded product) with ease, even though they were both stuffed with two weeks worth of clothing. The latching system worked OK, although it felt fragile in comparison to the RT's latching system. This was especially noticeable when the side cases were stuffed to the gills, like when adding a jacket liner on top of the stuffed bag liner. I kept having this nervous feeling that I was going to break some internal part of the latching mechanism. Never did, but it just didn't feel robust.

And that last point holds true across the two bikes. The RT's controls and latches all have a solid, well built feel. It's the sort of feel that makes you think, "oh, German engineering." But the feeling I got from the C14's pieces and parts, the latch mechanism on the side cases and the turn signal switch are two that come immediately to mind, was that Kawasaki sourced the components from low bid suppliers. The components just plain felt cheaper, because, well, I suspect they are cheaper. And sure, I understand that this is what keeps the cost of the entire bike way down in comparison to a BMW; I get that. But given a choice, I'll take quality switches and latches any day. Another example of this is the inclusion of just a single cigarette style accessory outlet, rather than the more expensive (but arguably better) Powerlet style (also known as BMW style) outlet.

Oh, and what's with that sad excuse for a glove box? Heck, I couldn't even fit my reading glasses in it - it wasn't deep enough. Besides that, anything you do put in the glove box is going to toast - the heat build up in it was nasty. Darn near useless.

I like the idea of the dashboard computer display, but it didn't take me long to realize that the Range (distance to empty) display was utterly useless. How could they have gotten this so wrong? I love the distance to empty readout in my car (a Nissan) - it is rock steady and deadly accurate. But the C14 must be calculating the range based on very short intervals using throttle position and engine load. It wasn't unusual to see 70 to 80 mile swings in the readout at almost any time. Stupid. Bad software programming.

I ended up just leaving the dashboard display on temperature, and Patti and I both got a chuckle out of the fact that Kawasaki decided it was important to tell us that this was the "outside" temperature. Yea, thanks, I would have never guessed. That label would have made perfect sense if the C14 had another digital readout telling me about engine coolant temperature, but it doesn't. Yet another cost cutting measure, perhaps?

Given the size of the LCD, I thought the whole thing could have been easily designed to show me much more information all at once. Even just two pieces of information, rather than one. For me, I'd like a digital speed readout in a permanent spot, and then the ability to cycle through other information in an adjacent spot.

I also found myself accidentally hitting the display cycle switch on left handlebar. It took me several days to realize this. I'd have the display set to temperature, and then would be baffled when the display seemed to randomly switch over to mileage. I kept wondering if there was some sequence of events that was causing the bike to decide to switch the display, but after a while I figured out that I must have been hitting the switch without knowing it. I never did catch myself actually doing it, but it must be what was going on.

I didn't have any issues with the KIPASS (Kawasaki Intelligent Proximity Activation Start System). I kept the KIPASS fob in a zippered breast pocket of my riding jacket, since I never (never ever) get on the bike without the jacket on. I used the large ignition switch key for the fuel door and side cover locks, not the smaller key stored in the KIPASS fob; I wonder whether I'd change that behavior if I actually owned a C14. I found the ordering of the ignition switch positions puzzling. From lowest left, counterclockwise they are: Steering Lock, Off, On, and FSS (Fuel, Seat, Storage). You can only remove the ignition key when it is in that last position, FSS. What's puzzling to me is if you have the bike in Lock or Off, then to remove the ignition key you have to pass through On. Similarly, if you have the ignition key out, say to unlock the side cases, then to put it in lock you again have to momentarily pass through On. Why didn't they just order them differently, say Lock, FSS, Off, On? Do C14 owners bypass this oddity by just using the smaller FOB key?

Whew! This was a long section, I know! But these details are important when it comes to living with a machine. And I think my bottom line in this whole area is that, well, the Kawasaki is not a BMW. Perhaps just a little less attention to detail. Perhaps just a little cheaper in terms of component quality. For the new bike buyer, this area might represent the ten thousand dollar question, as this is about the price difference between a C14 and a K1600 GT. Everyone's mileage is sure to vary on this front. Is a higher level of fit, finish, and quality controls worth ten grand? I don't know. I just don't know.

Can I Get Another Gallon of Gas Please?

I'm sorry, but you ought to be able to go 200-miles on a sport touring bike without thinking about refueling, confident in the knowledge that even at 200 miles you have an easy 60 or more miles left in the tank. I never felt that confident, given the C14's 5.8 gallon capacity. Sure, I suppose that theoretically since I was averaging 42 miles per gallon that I should have been able to fuel up at 200 miles, but with no real confidence in the Range display and a precipitous drop in the LCD gas gauge bars when pushing 150 miles or so, I was not going to push my luck. If Kawasaki found room to put another gallon of gas somewhere in there, I'd be a whole lot happier.

Beauty Is In the Eye

I like to fall in lust with the vehicles I purchase, even when they have flaws. My RT is the last of the 1150cc engine, but more importantly is the last of that swoopy, sexy, curvy bodywork. I love the curves of the 1150RT, and often field positive comments about the bike's looks. The C14? Eh, it's sorta Plain Jane to me. It's not ugly, but I don't find it to be eye candy either. Part of this might be color (and come on Kawasaki, how about at least two color choices every model year, instead of just one!), but that's not all, I think. The C14 body work just doesn't seem as sleek to my eye. Too many wide seams in it. Too many unnecessary visual flourishes, like the horizontal bumps in the side cases. The lower fairing cowling, and the headlight glass seem ham-fisted to me (although I will say that the headlights are excellent). The Kawasaki badge seems unbalanced (too large). The whole visual package just doesn't make my heart go thump, thump, thump. I wish it did. Oh, how I wish it did.

All Good Things Must Come to an End, Some More Suddenly Than Expected

At about noon on our last day, just as we crested Stevens Pass on Washington Route 2, I saw something odd in the road ahead. I had just enough time for these thoughts to pass through my mind: "What's that? Oh shit!" before we hit the 10-foot long piece of pressure treated 4-inch x 4-inch lumber that was lying across our lane of travel. I had enough time to brace for the impact, but not enough to roll off the throttle, or to brake. We hit it, thankfully at right angles, at about 60 mph. There was one hell of a "bang" when the front wheel impacted the lumber.

Patti, unaware this was about to happen, was launched out of her seat. She doesn't believe, however, that her feet ever left the foot pegs. Nor did I feel her go up, or come back down again.

For a brief moment after the impact I thought to myself, "Huh, we didn't blow the tires." But then the bike landed, and the wobble was immediately noticeable. The dashboard was also reporting a zero PSI warning, which Patti noticed immediately.

I brought the bike to a safe, controlled stop without any difficulty. The front tire had zero PSI, and the front wheel was toast. The rear tire was still holding some pressure, although the rear wheel was also bent - just not quite as badly as the front. Here's a photo of the front:


Our ride, clearly, was over. We were just about 80-miles from completing our 10-day loop. But we were upright. All of us - me, Patti, and the bike.

Amazingly enough, the Washington Department of Transportation had a crew working at the exact spot where all of this happened. They didn't have anything to do with the lumber in the road, but they were working across the road installing electronic speed limit signs. The WSDOT (Washington State DOT) crew had watched as the lumber fell off a flatbed 18-wheeler that was about 30 seconds ahead of us. Two crew members were headed out to remove the road hazard just as we came around the bend. There was nothing they could do but watch in horror as the scene unfolded. They told us that they all reflexively pulled out their cell phones in anticipation of having to call 911. They were amazed when the bike stayed upright.
By the time I brought the bike to a stop, and Patti and I dismounted, the WSDOT crew had a truck in front of us, and another truck behind us, and they were setting out perimeter safety cones around us! These guys (and one gal) were great! They gave us water, and made sure we were OK, and stayed with us the entire two hours it took Mountain to Sound to get out to us with their trailer to take us back to Issaquah. Patti and I cannot express how grateful we were for their assistance, although we have written to the WSDOT to let them know. I also want to give a shout out to the Washington State Trooper who responded to my 911 call and took my report; he got to us as quickly as he could, and he was kind and courteous. And I would be remiss in not expressing our gratitude to Mountain to Sound. They handled everything with a calm grace, letting us know they were on the way with a trailer as soon as we called them with the news. I highly recommend them for anyone considering renting a motorcycle in the Pacific Northwest.

And I have to praise the C14, too. It was bent, but certainly not broken. It took the impact, and it was remarkably easy to bring the bike to a controlled stop. Not once did I feel any concern or danger after we landed.


I feel entitled to preach. Hitting that 4x4 only reinforced my belief in ATGATT - All The Gear, All The Time.

Would a lesser motorcyclist gone down? Would a better one have been able to avoid it all together? Those are unanswerable questions. But I do know this... I have been a street rider for 35 years, and I have somewhere around 180,000 miles under my seat. In that time, this was only my second "incident." The first was a self-inflicted lowside just about 30 years ago. And both incidents had exactly two things in common:
  1. neither was planned, and
  2. they both happened in an instant.
Now, you can tell yourself that you know what you are doing, that you are skilled, that you are prepared, whatever. But if you are out there in sneakers (or worse), blue jeans, t-shirt, or no helmet, I say "bullshit." I don't care if you are 6,000 yards from home going 30 mph (as I was in my first incident) or if you are 3,000 miles from home going 60 mph - when it happens, it happens unexpectedly, and it happens damn fast. It is all about risk management, and I say that you are an idiot if you are not wearing boots, gloves, helmet, and full riding suit that includes protection at the knee, hips, back, shoulders, and elbows.

Final Thoughts

Ah, the big question - am I going to get a C14, or stick with my RT? And the answer is... I don't know.

Oh sure, I freaking love the C14's power and smoothness. No question. And most, if not all, of my ergonomic complaints can be addressed with aftermarket fixes. I probably could overlook the (relatively?) minor complaints I have about switches, knobs, dials and whatnot.

I sure wish the body design made my heart go pitter-patter though. But truth be told, none of the current bikes are as visually appealing to me as my 1150RT. Not the 1200RT, not the K1600 GT, not the C14. I do want to take a test ride on a K1600 GT, though, as I have only tested the GTL up to now. I suspect I will like the GT a lot more than the GTL. Whether I like it enough to come to grips with a greater than $20,000 cost is another question though.

But the C14? Awesome bike. Powerful. Smooth. Competent. It is worth all of the praise it has received in the bike magazines. Without a doubt.

Saturday, September 8, 2012