Kawasaki Concours 14 goes all Super Ninja

The new 2008 Concours 14 comes in a single color that's more appropriate for Seattle than SoCal. It's gray.

Or, as Kawasaki calls it, neutron silver -- a shade that transforms the world's quickest production sport tourer into a bullet-like blur on the street but says nothing about the excitement around this long overdue remodel.

It was 1985 when Kawasaki introduced the Concours, based loosely around its KZ 1000. At that time, Ronald Reagan was president, Simple Minds dominated radio and Mike Tyson had yet to bite Evander Holyfield's ear.

A lot of things changed in the years following, but the Concours wasn't one of them. It was virtually the same bike until the Concours 14 rolled off the freighter last month, tearing off the hinges as it raced out of the crate.

As its styling and name indicate, the new Concours is derived from the Ninja ZX-14 hyperbike that Kawasaki introduced last summer. So, its engine is an evolution of that power plant, with new variable-valve timing (to maximize torque throughout the power band); the secondary balancer (which reduces vibration) and the ram air (which increases power and blows away everything else on the road) were on the ZX-14.

But because it's a sport tourer, the Concours is more than a dumb jock. It doubles as a bellhop, with 22 pounds of carrying capacity in each of its easy-to-use side bags and a bigger brain to manage its Q-like spread of high-tech gadgetry.

Operating from its new Ninja headquarters, the Concours 14 is positioning itself as the sportiest of sport tourers -- quicker than the Yamaha FJR1300 and less cush than the BMW K1200 GT.

Still, it's got a lot of the bells and whistles that some manufacturers use to justify the term "luxury" and charge a higher price. Kawasaki's just skipping the rhetoric and, accordingly, keeping the price low. The Concours 14 comes in two versions -- one with ABS ($13,799), one without ($12,899). Each has a high-security key-fob system, an electronically adjustable windshield and a tire pressure sensor.

My first day with the bike, I took it out on a glorious 250-mile greatest-hits selection of canyon roads, where the bike handled better than I would have expected, considering its 140-pound touring-package weight gain. The following morning, I intended to pick up the action where I'd left off, but when I peeled out of my driveway, the bike, through no fault of its own, rode like it was drunk.

If you're going to pick up a nail in your rear tire, like I did, the new Concours is the sort of motorcycle you want to do it on. It lets you know right away. Shortly after I'd rolled on the throttle, the digital display alerted me with a red light and a dash that alternately flashed "low pressure" and "Tire R."

Other information I could retrieve at the touch of a finger: fuel range, as well as current and average miles per gallon, which is important on a tourer. Taking the bike between L.A. and San Francisco, I averaged 34 miles per gallon. Unfortunately, the engine wants each gallon to be the expensive, 91-octane variety.

The good news is that the Concours is such a fun ride that I almost forgot how much I paid at the pump. For the long haul, the saddle was comfortable enough that I wasn't aware of my glutes until about 200 miles in, and the electronically adjustable windshield, although not quite tall enough, sent unwanted air swirling away.

The part of my body that fatigued most easily was my wrist; the throttle, which uses new, smaller diameter bores to increase intake and improve low- and mid-range response, was fairly stiff. After holding the throttle open on the freeway for long stretches, I had to shake out my wrist periodically.

In the twisties, that wasn't so much of an issue. The throttle was plenty responsive as I rolled on and off, paragliding through sweeping turns and switchbacks. On hard accelerations out of corners and straightaways, the new Tetra Lever shaft drive prevented any unwanted "chassis jacking," while the slipper clutch kept the rear wheel hop to a minimum during high-rev downshifts.

In my 1,500 miles with the Concours 14, I was already impressed with the engineering, but it was after borrowing a friend's 2001 model Concours that I really appreciated how much the bike has improved. On the old version, which is smaller-boned, the brakes weren't as strong, the throttle was less responsive and the suspension was more floaty-boaty. Overall, there's a level of finesse and refinement to the new Concours that wasn't there before. What a difference 22 years can make.

2008 Kawasaki Versys

Base price: $6,899

Powertrain: four-stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC, parallel twin, four valves per cylinder, fuel-injected, six speed

Bore and stroke: 83 mm x 60 mm

MMaximum torque: 44.9 pound-feet at 6,800 rpm

Seat height: 33.1 inches

Dry weight: 399 pounds