Can Kawasaki give satisfaction with its massive mile-muncher?

Kawasaki's return to the long-distance mile-muncher market has given new hope to Tim Luckhurst
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Engine: Four-cylinder, 1352cc, liquid-cooled four stroke

Max power: 153bhp @8,800rpm

Max torque: 136Nm @ 6,200rpm

Transmission: six-speed gearbox, shaft final drive.

Brakes: front twin 320mm petal discs, rear single 270mm petal disc

Seat height: 815mm

Weight: 279kg

Price: £10,995

Asked to guess the manufacturer of a large-capacity motorcycle fitted with ABS as standard, adjustable screen, and low-maintenance shaft drive, a few enthusiasts might suggest Moto Guzzi, more would say Suzuki, Triumph or Honda, but the most popular punt would be on BMW. Add electronically adjustable rear suspension, a dashboard that displays tyre pressures, and voluminous panniers, and the response would be nigh-on unanimous. So imagine my surprise at a prototype Kawasaki 1400 GTR at the Cologne motorcycle fair last autumn.

This big, comfortable mile-muncher looked likely to be a serious contender in a British market dominated by the Triumph Sprint ST, Honda Pan European and BMW R1200RT. Its estimated top speed of more than 150mph and power to sustain day-long autobahn-pace cruising seemed tailored to my needs. But my interest was diluted by qualms about delivery.

Kawasaki excels at the manufacture of ferociously fast, lean, green thrill machines. But it is more than 20 years since the company launched a dedicated sports tourer, and it was not really worthy of the name. The GTR 1000 was a rocket-fast sports motorcycle cosmetically padded and partially neutered. Initial reports suggest the 153bhp, 1352cc 1400 GTR may have the same, inelegantly divided personality.

I have not yet had the chance to ride this machine. But sports touring is, for me, the closest motorcycling gets to true emotional satisfaction. A properly charismatic sports tourer, such as the Moto Guzzi Norge or my own favourite Triumph Sprint ST, is more than a motor vehicle. It is a partner in adventure that can turn a journey into a voyage of discovery, and end up feeling like a friend.

I have long suspected that European excellence in this sector reflects designers' understanding of their duty to blend charisma and technology to create bikes that appeal to the soul as well as the intellect. Japanese mass-production only occasionally touches the right buttons. But Kawasaki understands personality better than most. It is the cheekiest, least homogenised of the Japanese giants. Has it worked the trick this time?

First reports suggest not. The 1400 GTR's engine is adapted from the unit installed in the ferocious ZZR1400, but with maximum power slashed from 200bhp to 153bhp. Seating, panniers, mirrors and electronic equipment all proclaim competence over distance. So does the riding position and ample pillion space. But first reviews indicate that it feels like another adapted sportsbike.

Critics warn that the hugely powerful engine does not come fully alive below 5,000rpm and that the giant Kawasaki feels at home on motorways, but less accommodating when the tarmac starts to turn and the gradient to undulate. And there is the relatively limited range which, at average fuel consumption below 40mpg, extends to rather less than 200 miles.

But I remain keen to try this bike. Too many machines promoted as continent-crossers have emerged as flawed hybrids. Research and development expenditure is skewed towards the development of pure sports motorcycles, leaving the sports-touring segment to scrabble for scraps. I dared hope that Kawasaki's long-awaited return to the sector would prove to be the catalyst required to stimulate new excellence. The company's daring reputation has the potential to disrupt the image of sports touring as a haven for motorcyclists more prone to Sunday dawdling than fast cornering.

But reports of mirrors too wide for effective filtering, lumpy gear-changes and excessive wind-noise at high speed are disappointing. So is the impression that the 1400 GTR lacks agility when the tarmac gets twisty. But as guided touring and independent continent-crossing become increasingly popular activities, the motorcycle market has plenty of space for fresh ideas.

I am not convinced that many riders honestly cherish the hard work of off-road riding of the type promoted by Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman. There are thousands of miles of exotic tarmac out there to be explored. A good sports tourer remains the ideal way to appreciate them. It is possible to combine range, comfort and genuinely adaptable handling in one motorcycle. The good news is that Kawasaki aspires to a niche in this market. That is encouraging even if the firm has not achieved perfection.