In my recent comparison of the Kawasaki Ninja 400 and the Yamaha R3, I noted that the former might just be the best bargain in motorcycling. Well, turns out there’s a new Kawi that deserves the title – the 2019 Kawasaki Z400.
Photos by Kevin Wing
THE Z FAMILYI got my first taste of the Z400 at the Long Beach International Motorcycle Show, where I got to see it in a very un-Kawasaki-like shade of red. Ken Essex, Kawasaki’s Manager of Public Relations, said that they “built this model for a particular customer, one that wants to make an impression.” The targets are someone that’s just getting into motorcycling or an experienced rider that wants a small two-wheeler to commute on. Either way, it’s someone who prefers a naked bike.
Two years ago, I attended the launch of the Kawasaki Z900, and Kawasaki representatives emphasized the surge in popularity of the naked bike category. At the time, standard motorcycles had seen a 255% increase in sales over the previous 5 years, and the number has continued to rise. But in 2015, the only bike Kawasaki had in that segment was the Z1000. Since then, Kawasaki has invested quite a bit to grow their Z family of naked sportbikes. Over the years they’ve released the Z125, Z650, Z900, and Z900RS/Cafe. The new Z400 fills the gap between the 125 and the 650, and it’s their smallest full-size option.
Seeing as you’re reading this review, there’s a good chance that you’re a motorcyclist who’s been riding for years and already knows what their preferences are. But try to go back in time to when you were first interested in bikes. Did you know what the differences were between a standard and a sportbike, beyond the styling? All I knew was that I wanted something with fairings that looked like a sportbike, which is why I ended up with a Ninja 250. Croft Long, Kawasaki’s Manager of Market Analytics and Product Education Group, told us that there was a specific image of motorcycling that hooked him when he was a beginning rider – the Yamaha RD400. For some newbie today, it could be the Ninja 400, which has been very successful for Kawasaki so far. But when Croft spoke with potential customers at shows like Long Beach, he’d hear from people who dismissed the Ninja 400 simply because the styling made them assume it’d be too aggressive. Naked bike buyers have different desires, so here’s Kawasaki’s attempt to satisfy them.
WHAT’S DIFFERENT?You share 99.9% of your DNA with the person next to you – that minuscule .1% difference is what leads to all the variation. Similarly, the Z400 is nearly identical to the Ninja 400. Yet a few minor changes lead to a significant difference in the riding experience. If you want a refresher on what the Ninja is like, check out this review. Otherwise, let’s focus on what makes the Z400 unique:
StylingThe full fairing bodywork is gone. In its place are a couple of side pods and a headlight assembly that contains 6 LEDs – a pair each for the running lights, low beams, and high beams. This is apparently a “class-leading” number of LEDs in the headlight, but seeing as 2 of the lights are basically parking lights, I don’t think anyone’s getting too excited. What’s more important is that they do a decent job of illuminating the road and an excellent job of aiding visibility in terms of catching the attention of other drivers.
On top of the headlight is a small black windscreen that sleekly covers the back of the gauges. The dash looks to be the same as the units found on the Z650 and the Z900, with the exception of where redline is indicated. Compared to the dash on the Ninja 400, it’s a little underwhelming visually but it works well. My only real gripe is that the clock is not permanently displayed – you can only see the time if you cycle through other options such as instant fuel mileage, average fuel mileage, and range.
To put it mildly, Kawasaki’s styling has been quite aggressive as of late. It’s all due to a design language called Sugomi, which has different meanings depending on who you ask. When I was at the Z900 launch, Kawasaki said that something possessing Sugomi “inspires awe, leaves an indelible impression, is imposing in stature or ability, and commands respect.” If you look up the term in an online Japanese dictionary, it returns “weirdness, ghastliness, dreadfulness, awesomeness“. One assumes Kawasaki was going for the last option. It seems that Team Green’s definition has evolved over the last two years, as this time around they instead focused on the “crouching stance, low-positioned head and upswept tail“. It’s supposed to evoke a predator about to pounce on its prey.
ErgonomicsTwo points of the rider triangle remain the same – the footpegs and the seat height (30.9 inches, but a +1″ seat is available as an accessory). The sole changes are to the handlebar, which is now 1.97 inches taller. It’s also wider with a flatter bend. Kawasaki emphasized that the bars are still “optimally sized for lane splitting” despite the extra width.
Between The AxlesThe drivetrain is exactly the same as the unit in the Ninja, so I’ll just summarize the basics: the motor is a 399cc liquid-cooled parallel twin that produces a claimed 45 horsepower at 10,000 rpm and 28 ft-lbs of torque at 8,000 rpm – I think the motor feels stronger than that, for what it’s worth. That output gets sent through a 6-speed transmission with a slipper/assist clutch and then through a chain final drive. Braking is handled by a 310mm semi-floating single disc and 220mm single disc, both with dual piston calipers and standard ABS.
The main change is in the suspension. While the forks are still 41mm units from Showa and the 5-way preload adjustable shock is still from KYB, the spring rates have now been lightened by 10% as Kawi expects Z400 riders to spend more time in the city than their Ninja 400 counterparts.
The shedding of bodywork means that the Z400 is also a little bit lighter – it has a curb weight of 363.8 pounds while the Ninja tips the scales at 366.0. Note that Kawasaki defines curb weight as the machine with “all engine fluids and 90% of fuel filled”.
PriceWhile the Z400 weighs less, it will let your wallet weigh more. MSRP is $4,799 (plus a $380 destination charge), making it $500 cheaper than the Ninja. In addition, it will be cheaper to insure and to repair if it goes down, which beginner bikes often do.
HOW DOES IT FEEL?Kawasaki gave us approximately 115 miles with the Z400 on our first ride with a route that included in-town streets, a highway slog with lane splitting, and the twisties of Palomar Mountain. I prefer naked bikes over sport bikes, and the upright posture afforded by the taller handlebars instantly had me feeling right at home. The manageable weight, adequate power, and super light clutch make the Z400 an excellent in-town runabout. In fact, the clutch pull is so light that Mr. Long warned us about it in advance – if you’re wearing heavy gloves and aren’t paying attention to your fingers draped over the lever, you can accidentally preload the clutch and it will feel like it’s slipping.
I was very happy with the Z around town, and I have to confess that I wouldn’t have noticed that the spring rates were lightened by 10% if I had not been told about it in advance. It’s well suited for the task.
The Z400 is obviously not built for extended highway use, though the ergonomics help. The bike will easily sit at 70 miles per hour all day, where the engine will be revving at 6,500 rpm in top gear. It’ll even top 100 (not that I would ever do such a thing), though the increased drag of the naked bodywork means you’ll take longer to get there than with the Ninja. The only time I ever wanted more power was when I tried to make a pass while already going over 80, which is another way of saying that I never felt like I needed more power.
A more relevant note is that the mirrors vibrate more with the Z than with the Ninja. I believe that’s because they’re mounted to the handlebars, while the mirrors on the Ninja are attached to the bodywork. Above 5,000 rpm, I could tell that there was a motorcycle behind me but I could barely identify the helmet/jacket combination to figure out who was riding it. The main obstacle to highway comfort carries over from the Ninja – a thin seat. It’s good for about an hour at a time before I have to stand or shift my butt around. The bike’s good for plenty more – I’ve kept the Z400 for further evaluation and I’m getting about 185 miles per tank. With 3.7 gallons of fuel, it works out to approximately 50 miles per gallon, though I’ve been somewhat aggressive with it. I suspect that a normal rider would see 55 mpg, if not more.
The highlight of the day was Palomar Mountain Road, which is sometimes called the ‘road to the stars’ because it leads to an observatory at 5,617 feet of elevation. We weren’t able to make it all the way up to the top, but we still got to enjoy hairpin after hairpin in 2nd and 3rd gear. The Z400 is tremendous in these tight corners because the wide bars make it easy to point the front wheel wherever you want and the light weight ensures you’ll feel confident. Mid-corner corrections are no trouble and I have no faults with the suspension, even when ridden at an aggressive pace. Higher speed track day work might stretch the limits, but at that point you’d probably be looking at the Ninja 400 anyway.
Something Kawasaki has been emphasizing in their latest machines is how the intake sounds, and it shows even with this little Z. The downdraft airbox is under the tank, which means you get to hear an intake sound that you’ll actually look forward to as you wind the throttle out, instead of the asthmatic wheezing sounds typically associated with machines of this displacement. Don’t get me wrong – the Z would definitely benefit from an aftermarket exhaust, but this intake sound is still a nice touch on a small bike.
Halfway up the mountain, I was riding at a decent clip (and having a tremendous blast in the process) when I realized something surprising – I wouldn’t have been able to go any faster if I was on a bigger bike. The Z400 is fast enough to have fun on the short straightaways of Palomar Mountain Road, and it’s just so effortless to corner with that I was able to maintain higher entry speeds than I would have on something like the Z900.
VERDICTWhen I went bike shopping for the first time over a decade ago, I got a Kawasaki Ninja 250 because I wanted a small sportbike. Little did I know that the future version of me would eventually develop a strong preference for naked bikes instead. If I was a first-time buyer right now, I’d want a Z400 for the styling, ergonomics, and the $500 discount off the Ninja – I’d only look at the latter if I knew I’d be doing track days regularly.
Mr. Essex concluded his introduction of the Z400 to us editors by saying that Kawasaki is offering the bike “at an amazing price point. We think it’s going to be a home run for us.” I’d say he’s right. Kawasaki’s newest effort is an excellent commuter, a joy in the canyons, and it’s even serviceable on longer journeys. I’m having more fun on the Z400 than I’ve had with some bikes that cost twice as much. Speaking of money, Kawasaki currently offers 16 accessories, and the aftermarket already has plenty of engine and chassis products based on the Ninja 400 platform. Considering the target market of this bike, I suspect many riders will use some of their $500 savings towards the $254.95 frame slider set. From a styling standpoint, I also have a soft spot for the $321.95 lower cowl to hide the hideous catalytic converter and the $159.95 cowl to pretty up the passenger seat.
When I reviewed the Honda Super Cub, I got lots of emails from readers who had one when they were young and were hoping it could recapture America’s youth and get them back on two wheels. I like the Cub, but at the end of the day it feels like more of a nostalgia grab at old riders rather than something that will attract new ones. Bikes like the Z400 are what the motorcycle industry needs – cheap, competent, and so much fun. It’s the best bargain in motorcycling, and it’s going to be an awesome first bike for lots of happy future riders.Check out the 2019 Kawasaki Z400!
Candy Lime Green, Candy Cardinal Red
Uni-Trak w/ preload adjustment
310mm semi-floating single disc
220mm single disc