First Ride – 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS

In Japan, Reviews, Standard by AbhiLeave a Comment

Kawasaki’s wide range of motorcycle offerings (there are 60 different options on their website right now) can mostly be broken down into 4 families – KX, Ninja, Vulcan, and Z. The last letter of the alphabet represents Team Green’s brand of street motorcycles, for those of you that spend your time on surface streets and back roads instead of race tracks.

Making the commute look good.

For 2018, the Z family gets a new member that’s just like baby Benjamin Button – it’s brand new but it looks old. That’s because it’s styled like the patriarch of the Z family, the 1973 Z1. That bike was an instant classic, and there’s a reason why we’ve featured so many for sale over the years. Back in 2014, I featured #151 for sale and it did not meet reserve, even though bidding got up to $61,100! When Kawasaki was developing the Z1, they used menu items for internal project names – as this bike would be the biggest and best, it was called “New York Steak.” It had a rocky start – it was originally supposed to be a 750cc inline four, but Honda beat them to market with the CB750. Wisely, Kawasaki decided to hold off until they could shove an 81 horsepower, 903cc motor in instead. It’s considered by many to be the world’s first superbike, and Kawi helped that reputation along by taking a bike to Daytona and setting 46 different speed records, including the World 24-hour speed endurance title.

Photo courtesy of Kawasaki

Long story short, it was great. But that’s enough about the past. What about the future (especially if you don’t have $60k lying around)?

Unfortunately, I was only able to ride the RS for about 60 miles, so please consider this a first date. I should be getting a test unit for a long-term relationship soon and I’ll be able to give you a better idea of what the RS would be like to live with. Until then, here are the basics:

Kawasaki proves that retro styling and modern performance can complement each other well, but a snatchy throttle gets in the way of perfection. Still, the RS is the best rebirth of the UJM yet and it’s an audiovisual delight thanks to a tuned intake and exhaust that ensure it sounds as good as it looks.

Unlike the Z1 of yesteryear, this is not your answer for all-out power. However, if you want a bike with modern performance that will take you back to a time when styling departments weren’t inspired by Michael Bay’s Transformer movies, the Z900RS is well worth a closer look.

Check out the 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS!

Photos by Drew Ruiz.

First Impressions

The Z900RS is available in two paint schemes: Metallic Spark Black and Candytone Brown/Candytone Orange. The latter is obviously a tribute to the Candy Root Beer Brown and Orange livery of the Z1, and it’s particularly striking in sunlight.

The Metallic Spark Black bike also has completely black wheels. Compared to the optional two-tone scheme that costs an additional $200, the black bike gets a resounding “Meh.” Study this picture closely – this will be the only time I show you the black option.

When the Z900 was released earlier this year (click here to see my thoughts on that bike), Kawasaki used a slogan of “Refined Raw”. It’s a little hokey, but it is a fair way to describe a street bike that’s aggressive yet easy to ride. The RS puts an emphasis on refined, and Kawasaki’s reps said that this bike is focused on giving the rider a “stress-free” experience. That was evident from the moment I sat down. The rider triangle is much more neutral, and I found the ergonomics very comfortable, save for a longer-than-expected reach to the handlebar.

My speed date with the RS consisted of some surface streets in dense LA traffic as well as a loop of twisties in the Santa Monica mountains, many of the same roads I used to ride every weekend for fun. I did not get a chance to experience the bike on a highway, but if you promise not to tell anyone, I’ll share that I spent some time above highway speeds on the straight portions of Mulholland.

Kawasaki went on a market research blitz when they were considering the RS, and their findings were fairly straightforward. Their target for the RS is 35-55 year olds who think that “show” is just as important as “go”. This group thinks super nakeds are too extreme but they want something unique and consider motorcycling to be a strong part of their identity and lifestyle.

$11,199 would actually get you a decent (but not amazing) example of an original Z1. What would you pick?

More Than a Pretty Face

It’d be easy to say that this is just a restyled Z900, but Kawasaki has made plenty of changes which result in a significantly different riding experience. I don’t want to make this review all about how the RS compares to the Z900, because that’s only helpful to people who have ridden the Z, but I do want to illustrate that Kawasaki has put in a lot of effort to make this bike unique, to the point that they might have made a mistake giving it a model name so similar to the Z900.

There are a lot of differences, and almost every single one of them is an improvement. The trade-off is that you have to pay to play. A Z900 with ABS costs $8,799. The Z900RS costs $10,999, but let’s be real, you’re going to spend another $200 to get the two-tone paint, so you’re actually going to be on the hook for $11,199. If you’re awful at math, that’s a $2,400 price difference. Let’s see what that extra money gets you.

Is this facelift worth $2,400?

The obvious change is the styling, which I think looks great in the retro paint livery. I asked Croft Long, Kawasaki’s product manager, what the predictions were for how they expected the different colors to sell and was surprised to hear that they thought 60% would be in brown/orange and the remaining 40% in black. I would have guessed it would be closer to 85%/15%! I felt slightly vindicated when he told me that the first round of orders from dealerships were approximately 70%/30%.

I also had a long conversation with multiple Kawasaki employees about the wheels, which were specifically built for the RS. They’re cast wheels designed to look like spokes, and part of me thinks they should actually be spokes. The counter-arguments I got were all valid – these require less maintenance, they’re cheaper, and they weigh less. Basically, “it’s a modern bike so it gets modern wheels.” I’m still on the fence. The draw here is the styling. If performance is a priority, you should be looking at the Z900 instead. It would have been nice for spokes to be an extra cost option, just like BMW offers with the RnineT Scrambler.

Do you like the modern take on spoke wheels? On the two-tone bike, the wheels are polished so that the outer rim and outside edges of the “spokes” are silver. As you saw above, the black bike is equipped with entirely black wheels.

If you go further than skin deep, you’ll see that the trellis frame has been redesigned to fit the teardrop fuel tank and the stance has been made more neutral by lowering the rear and raising the front. The seat height is .2″ taller (a 1″ thinner seat is available), the handlebars are 65mm higher and 35mm further back, and the footpegs are 20mm forward and 20mm lowers. All of that simply means that the rider triangle is more neutral and upright than the Z900. My one complaint is the seat, which felt great when I first sat down but after a few miles I felt pressure points all over the place. I think (but I need more time to confirm) that the seat is just a little too wide for me.

It’s a comfortable riding position, but the seat did not agree with my butt. Maybe I’m getting old.

From a 0’s and 1’s standpoint, the RS gains KTRC compared to the Z900. That stands for Kawasaki TRaction Control, which is better than regular Traction Control, I guess. (It’s definitely better than Honda’s name, “Honda Selectable Torque Control”). Ignoring the off-position, KTRC offers two levels of interference control. Mode 1 is the default, and it allows a little wheel slip before it reins you in. It’s also smart enough to differentiate between someone getting hard on the throttle and lofting the front wheel a few inches off the ground for a quarter mile versus someone who’s had a case of whiskey throttle and is about to loop it. Mode 2 is stricter, but I also noticed (thanks to feedback from Nic de Sena over at Ultimate Motorcycling) that it smooths out the throttle which I otherwise considered to be too abrupt. More on that later. If you turn KTRC off (which you can only do at a stop) and shut the bike off, the traction control will reset to Mode 1 the next time you turn the power on. Otherwise, if you leave it in Mode 1 or Mode 2, the traction control will remember your setting and keep it there the next time you start the RS up.

If it wasn’t obvious, this is in kilometers, not miles. I really enjoyed the combination of analog/digital gauges. KTRC indicator is in the middle of the digital display, and everything is easy to read while you’re on the move.

How a Retro Moves Forward

Obviously, the RS motor shares a lot with the 948cc inline four from the Z900. Some of the basic numbers are shared (like a bore and stroke of 73.4 x 56.0 mm), but there have been plenty of modifications made to the drivetrain, in addition to the cosmetic changes highlighted above.

The engine has a few styling cues that pay homage to the Z1, like the bumps in the valve cover and the fins that have been cast onto the cylinder head. It’s a good-looking motor, and I particularly love the headers. Unfortunately, like with most water-cooled bikes, the radiator and associated plumbing don’t look great.

To me, the most significant tweak is a 12% increase in mass of the crankshaft flywheel, which dramatically tones down the aggressive nature of the Z900. Complementing that is a lower compression ratio (11.8:1 to 10.8:1), shorter intake (270° to 248°) and exhaust (256° to 244°) durations in the cam profile, and ~20% narrower headers – changes made to improve low and mid-range performance for the RS. Note that Kawaski built an outer shell around the headers so that they still look thick and purposeful, and there’s a side benefit that they won’t turn blue over time.

The headers, pre-chamber, and silencer are stainless steel and are given a buffed finish. Double walls in the header should help them age more gracefully than the rider will.

All those changes should yield a much more relaxed riding experience to back up Kawasaki’s “stress-free” claim, but it’s nearly impossible to operate the throttle smoothly when it’s just cracked open. If the throttle is closed and you open it up (whether you’re leaving a stop or accelerating out of a corner), you’ll get jerked around. This is especially annoying in slow speed curves. Mode 2 of KTRC helps smooth this out a bit, but that shouldn’t be necessary. However you control the power, there’s going to be less of it. As the priority in the powerband has been shifted lower, peak horsepower is down to 111 from 125. You shouldn’t care – it’s still fast enough.

If 14 horsepower is a deal breaker for you, you’re looking at the wrong bike. 111 is still more than enough to get in trouble with.

Those 111 horses now get sent through a revised transmission. First gear is shorter for better acceleration from a stop, and top (6th) gear is taller, for a smoother ride and better gas mileage on the highway. The final gear ratio is increased as well. The assist + slipper clutch from the Z900 is retained, and just like before, it requires very little effort to operate. Ignoring the snatchy throttle, all the controls are light and easy to use. The fuel tank holds 4.5 gallons, and I averaged 38 mpg on a trip that consisted of lots of stop-and-go portions for photography.

With the newest wave of Z bikes like the 650 and the 900, Kawasaki has dedicated the resources of a “Sound Research” department to specifically design airboxes based on results from acoustic testing in a sound room. The intake funnels are of varying length to make the sound more interesting. Based on my experiences with those bikes, I think it’s a worthwhile pursuit. The RS benefits from the same design, but this is the first bike Kawasaki has built with research into the exhaust note as well. At low RPMs, the exhaust gases are routed through a straight line. As the revs get higher, an additional passage route is incorporated. In layman’s terms, this thing sounds absolutely fantastic between 4k-7k when you’ve got the throttle pinned.

Stopping and Turning

The specs here are just about identical to the Z900, so I’ll keep it short. Up front, you get dual semi-floating 300mm petal-style rotors with radially mounted monobloc dual-piston calipers. The rear has a single piston caliper clamping down on a 250mm petal disc. They work great, though I occasionally wanted a little more feel from the rear brake pedal. ABS is handled by Nissin and that also works well. There is no switch to turn it off, and I think that’s fine in this case.

The RS uses the same suspension components as the Z900, but it’s adjusted for comfort. Still, if you want to get aggressive in the twisties, the KYB suspension will keep up with no problems.

The same goes for the suspension – it’s identical to what you’ll find in the Z900. Both ends are adjustable KYB units, and they are well suited for the style of riding Kawasaki expects consumers to put the RS through. I initially felt the front suspension was a little too adept at transferring impact forces to the handlebar, but a quick couple of adjustments to soften the front and rear made everything better. Suspension travel is 120mm up front and 140mm in the back.

Make It Yours

As you’d probably guess, Kawasaki expects riders to customize the RS in a variety of ways. There’s some comfort-oriented options, like a shorter seat ($399.95), heated grips ($329.95), and a smoked short windshield ($349.95). There’s also cosmetic options meant to evoke the Z1, like a passenger grab bar ($179.95), side grips ($149.95), or my favorite option of them all – tank emblems in the ’70s font ($89.95). If I was putting one in my garage, it would be the brown/orange version and I would order the center stand ($399.95), heated grips, and the retro tank badges. An Akrapovic slip on will also be available, but Kawasaki did not have pricing information for us just yet. From an aftermarket standpoint, I’d snag a Power Commander to deal with the throttle (but it’s silly that I’d have to do so) and hope that someone develops a 4-2-4 exhaust. Yes, I know it weighs more, and no, I don’t care. A side benefit is that the exhaust would get rid of that tumor underneath that Kawasaki calls a pre-chamber. I can’t blame them for having it – it’s a byproduct of Euro 4 regulations. I just want to get rid of it.

I am an idiot who forgot to get a photo of the retro tank badges Kawasaki slapped on a bike in the presentation, so the top right of this image is the best I can do. Sorry!

Should You Test Ride One?

Yes, absolutely (and your local dealer should already have one!). Here’s the thing – in many objective performance categories, the $2,400-cheaper Z900 is a better motorcycle. Plus, the RS has a couple of annoying niggles that the aftermarket will rectify – the throttle issue is pretty stupid, if I’m being blunt. But you know what? I don’t care, because the Z900RS makes me feel good, and that’s what I want in a motorcycle. It looks amazing, the ergos are excellent, the components are well-suited for the build, and it’s the best modern UJM I’ve ridden in recent memory. Have I mentioned that it looks amazing? Every time I park the RS, I can’t help but look back at it. It tugs at my heart in a way that the Z900 never did, and I’m hoping it’ll inspire the same feeling in you as well.

Somehow, it looks better in person.

Officially, “RS” doesn’t stand for anything, though a couple of Kawasaki employees told me that they consider it “Retro Sport”. Croft Long told me, “It stands for whatever you want”, and right now I’m thinking it stands for “Rather Special“.

Helmet: Arai Signet-X in Place Red livery
Jacket: REV’IT Zircon
Jeans: REV’IT Philly 2 Loose Fit
Gloves: Velomacchi Speedway
Boots: Aerostich Combat Touring
Backpack: Velomacchi Rolltop 40L

But Wait, There’s More!

A few days ago, I asked you if there was anything specific you wanted to know about the Z900RS. I tried to answer everything up above, but there were a couple of questions/comments I couldn’t address in the natural flow of my story:

From Andy Whitten:
There needs to be an uprated suspension option; ala the Thruxton/Thruxton R…

Bikes that hold a positive legacy are the ones that distinguish themselves because they still perform relative to the contemporary market, not for looking and performing like their 30-40 year old inspiration. It appears Kawasaki has already recognized this relative to at least Honda. Nice job! I want to keep up ( I didn’t say compete) with the hyper-bikes while riding this cool tribute to the past. We’ll have to see how they did on the chassis when the test rides come out, but again, it appears, “Nice Job!”
Andy – Kawasaki deserves a “Nice Job”, indeed! Unfortunately, you’re out of luck on the upgraded suspension for now.

From Jacob Atherton:
I would really like to know how well suited this bike is for day trips (3+ hour of riding), and for two-up riding if it’s comfortable for the passenger (to a reasonable degree as this isn’t a touring motorcycle). Have fun at the launch!
Jacob – as you probably read, I had an issue with the seat. With that said, only a couple other of my colleagues noted a similar complaint – plenty of others did not seem to have a problem. Either way, the ergonomics are great and would easily facilitate a long day trip. As mentioned above, I only got about 60 miles on the RS. When I get one for extended testing soon, I will get you an answer about the passenger seat.

From David Najarian:
“I want to know if it’s buzzy for old hands. I drive mostly standard bikes. My CB1100 is the first I’ve driven in long time that does not make my hands numb no matter how long and many hours of ridging. I’ve ridden other Hondas and Kawasakis, Yamaha too. The CB1100 is, (OK flame me here) the best inline standard UJM I’ve ever ridden. Folks say its slow, but I don’t need a sport bike. Just a good everything bike. Does the Kawi improve it?”
David – no problems with the vibration, though I haven’t had hours on the bike at a time yet. I agree with your sentiment that the CB1100 is a “good everything bike”, but I think Kawasaki has one-upped them here. To be fair, I haven’t ridden the new CB1100EX but at least on paper the Kawi is cheaper ($11,199 vs $12,199), more powerful (111 vs ~85 hp), much lighter (472 vs 562 lbs), better equipped (traction control, more adjustment options in the suspension), and I think better looking.