Ask the average person to draw a motorcycle and you’ll get one of two illustrations – a cruiser or a sport bike. But there’s a lot more to the world of bikes than those two offerings, and the American marketplace is starting to reflect that. In the last 5 years, standard bikes have seen a 255-percent increase in sales, and Kawasaki has been trying to carve out its share with the Z family of bikes: the Z125, Z650, Z800, and Z1000. For 2017, the 800 and 1000 are gone from the United States and have been replaced by something that (at least in name) splits the difference: the Z900.
This review was originally published on RideApart. Photos by Drew Ruiz.
This is not the first time Kawasaki has used the Z900 name. Forty five years ago, Kawasaki debuted the “Z” nomenclature for a motorcycle. Depending on your country of residence, you’ll know that bike as the Z1, 900 S4, or as the Z900. It was a revolutionary motorcycle that won multiple “bike of the year” awards and even earned a place on the list of 240 Landmarks of Japanese Automotive Technology – a list put together by the Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan. This time around the name has been bestowed upon a bike that’s more of an evolution than a revolution, but it’s still a fast, fun motorcycle that’s priced just right.
To introduce the Z900, Kawasaki started us off with a night ride in the streets of San Diego. Despite this, there was still enough light to determine that this is – thankfully – a much better looking motorcycle than the Z1000. The motor fired up with a quiet idle, and the assist and slipper clutch made pulling away effortless. The Z900 was a cinch to maneuver at city speeds, and that allowed me take some time to think about who Kawasaki is targeting with this bike.
Croft Long (Kawasaki’s Product Manager) spent plenty of time telling us about the analysis Kawi had done when pinpointing who would want the Z900, and it ended up sounding a lot like yours truly: 30-40 year olds that spend more time on back roads and freeway commutes than track days. These potential buyers also want a vehicle that stands out – 72 percent of Z buyers put a priority on this, as opposed to 42 percent of Kawasaki buyers at large. Whether you like the styling, you can’t deny that the designers did a good job of attracting attention.
Across the Z family, Kawi has used the Japanese word “Sugomi” to describe the design language. The term roughly translates to the aura or energy felt by someone when they see something great. In their words, something possessing Sugomi “inspires awe, leaves an indelible impression, is imposing in stature or ability, and commands respect.”
I think this is the best application yet, mostly due to the revised styling of the headlights.
To my eyes, the Z125 and Z650 don’t look mean enough, while the Z800 (and especially the Z1000) took it too far to the point of being comical. Your mileage may vary – but if you don’t like green there’s also a “Metallic Flat Spark Black” option with a black frame. No matter what color it’s adorned in, the frame was the most important of Kawasaki’s improvements from the Z800 as it is much lighter than before.
On A Diet
The Z800 was released in 2012 around the world but the US didn’t see it until 2014. Reviewers here considered it a capable machine that weighed much more than the competition, as the bike weighed over 500 pounds. The Z900 has shaved off 46 lbs and now tips the scales at a much more reasonable 463 lbs (curb weight). You can also take off another 5 lbs if you don’t order ABS – but you should.
The bulk of the weight savings comes from the new high tensile steel trellis frame, which weighs just 30 lbs thanks to a simple design that eliminates the subframe. The motor helps save weight compared to the Z800 because it is now a stressed member through five rigid mounting points. It gets even better because this new motor puts down more horsepower to move less mass.
The 948cc inline four cylinder produces 126 horsepower at 9,500 rpm and 73 pound feet of torque at 7,700 rpm. If I’m allowed to oversimplify, the new motor is a smaller bore derivation from the Z1000 unit, with a bore and stroke of 73.4 x 56.0 mm and a compression ratio of 11.8:1. Despite the rigid mounting, vibrations are kept to a minimum thanks to a counterbalancer. The buzziest part of the rev range was at 5,000 rpm, but that’s OK because Kawasaki designed power delivery to get exciting once the tachometer needle sweeps up past 6,000 – and you’ll be up in the rev range a lot because the close ratio transmission and the sound of the intake make you want to keep the throttle pinned.
Peak power is just a few hundred rpms before redline, so you’re rewarded for making the intake sing. This also makes it easier to accidentally hit the rev limiter. If you’ve been living with a bike for a while, you know what it sounds like when you want to shift. But with a new bike, you don’t have that audible cue and it’s easier to rely on waiting to shift when you feel the motor running out of breath. I hit the limiter a few times simply because my derrière dyno felt the motor was still pulling strong.
Kawasaki apparently has a department focused on “Sound Research”, and they specifically designed the airbox based on results from acoustic testing in a sound room. The intake funnels are of varying length to make the sound more interesting. And you know what? It’s not just marketing speak – this bike sounds absolutely fantastic while accelerating.
The transmission features short gear ratios from 1st through 5th. Sixth gear functions as an overdrive. It’s paired with an assist and slipper clutch that Kawi claims has been developed based on feedback from its World Superbike Racing program. At regular RPMs, the operating plate and clutch hub are pulled together, compressing the clutch plates. This means it takes impressively low effort to pull the clutch in, which is nice. You could shift this just with your ring finger alone, if you want. On a couple of shifts, I actually thought it was too light and it took away some of the feel, like early versions of power steering in cars – its takes less effort but you lose the mechanical feedback that you’re used to. This sensation was a rare occurrence and overall I think the clutch is better off for having the assist functionality. It should be noted that it’s also a slipper clutch, so tire hopping and skidding are minimized when deceleration occurs from excessive engine braking.
Slick features like this are why Kawasaki has used the term “Refined Raw” to describe the Z900. It’s an aggressive naked bike designed to stand out and show off some attitude, but it’s easy to ride and put together well.
Traction control, ride by wire throttle, launch control, riding modes, cruise control – these are all things that you won’t get with the “Raw” Kawi. The only electronic goodies are optional ABS and a ride computer integrated into the instrumentation. The gauge cluster does a good job of conveying all the necessary information in a small amount of real estate. The negative-lit LCD screen is very easy to read, even in direct sunlight. A minor complaint is that the display is so low past your peripheral vision that you have to move your entire head and look away from the road to grab a glance. I don’t mind it too much because it helps with the feeling that this is compact machine for the category. A bigger annoyance is that the “remaining range” display just shows dashes once the range is under 20 miles. Whoever thought that was a good idea is my new nemesis. (We’ve encountered that on other Kawi bikes, too, and we HATE it – Ed.)
Stopping and Turning
The ABS is a Nissin unit and it works well, though there’s no switch to turn it off. If you want to goof around, your only options are to pull the corresponding fuse or, as a colleague of mine entertainingly demonstrated, pop an extended wheelie. That’ll confuse the front wheel speed sensor and disable the anti-lock brake controller.
Front braking duties are handled by 300mm petal-style rotors with dual-piston calipers, while the rear wheel is stopped by a 250mm petal-style rotor with a single dual-piston caliper. The brakes are adequate but initial feel is lacking. A swap to some pads with more bite would be a cheap and worthwhile upgrade for future owners.
The suspension has been taken care of by KYB, who supplies 41mm inverted front forks and a horizontal back-link shock – the latter was chosen for improved mass centralization and heat management. Both the front and rear suspension are adjustable for rebound and preload and they do a decent job, though I wouldn’t mind a little more feedback from the front wheel. I suspect Kawasaki was trying to distance themselves from the way-too-stiff front suspension on the Z1000. For street riding and freeway commuting, it’s fine. If the majority of your riding is canyon carving you may want to throw some heavier fork oil up front. Suspension travel is 120mm up front and 140mm in the back.
Kawasaki offers several accouterments for the big Z. If this was my bike, I’d be spending the extra money on the seat cowl (US $229.95) and frame sliders ($249.95). I’d also snag the DC power outlet ($119.95) while bitching about the price (Or you could buy one from a marine/boating store for A LOT less – Ed.). One of the options I assumed I would want is an “ERGO-FIT” 1-inch taller seat.The seat cowl, I like. The taller seat, not so much.
Kawasaki kindly let me try out the seat for part of our ride. While it was more comfortable at a stop, I actually found it worse on the road for two reasons. First, the shape of the seat slid me into the tank too much. Second, the seat introduced a vibration at 7,500 rpm that I found very distracting – though it should be noted that my colleagues who also tried the taller seat only felt the first of my complaints. I asked Kawasaki to put the regular seat on for the rest of testing, including my 100+ mile jaunt back home on the freeway.
Bring A Friend
After the launch, I brought the bike back home to Los Angeles to continue evaluating it. One of the things that’s tough to determine at a launch event is two-up comfort, so I had my 5-foot-1 girlfriend hop on the back for a few miles to get her thoughts. For context, she has about 50,000 miles of experience on the back of several motorcycles, but she’s spent the most time on BMW boxer twins. Her quick assessment was that the ride was very smooth throughout the rev range and that she was surprisingly comfortable considering how stiff the passenger seat was. Still, the size of the seat alone should tell you what you already know: this is really only suitable for in-town trips.
Kawasaki’s got a lot riding on the Z900, though it will play a more important role in Europe than it will in the United States. The obvious rival here is Yamaha’s new FZ-09, and the two are begging for a comparison review. Until then, I’ll just leave you with what I know about Kawasaki’s biggest Z in the US lineup: it’s a significantly better overall package than both the Z800 and Z1000. It’s quick, it’s nimble, the intake sound is delightful, and the price is right: taking one home will cost you $8,399 w/o ABS, or $8,799 with ABS.
Some of you will immediately tune out when you hear that this bike doesn’t have traction control, and I understand that. But for those of you that want a motorcycle that’s simple and entertaining (or should I say “Refined Raw?”), Kawasaki’s got a competitively priced option waiting for you in dealerships right now.
Helmet: Arai Signet-X in Place Red livery
Jacket: Aerostich Transit
Gloves: Alpinestars Oscar Robinson Leather
Boots: Aerostich Combat Touring