You don’t get long to bathe in the spotlight when you’re a motorcycle. One minute you’re being hailed as the best thing since rear suspension and the next, it’s move over, you’ve been replaced.
That is what happened to the Z800 when it took over from its smaller brother back in 2013, only to be kicked into touch itself three years later with the arrival of the all-new Z900.
Looking back, it was an obvious move, and the poor old Z800, which in itself was a great bike, was only ever a stopgap. Meanwhile, the Big K beavered behind the scenes on a bike capable of fighting it out with the Yamaha FZ-09 and Triumph’s class-leading Speed Triple.
So, is the new Z900 up to the job? Well, before we answer that, seeing as Kawasaki have deliberately used the prefix from probably one of the most famous bikes in their history, it’s only fair that we have a quick look back at the original Z900.
Let’s be clear on this bike’s heritage. In the late 1960’s Honda and Kawasaki were both working on big (for the day) 750cc inline four cylinder bikes. Honda was first to pass the post with the CB750 and they rocked the world for three straight years. Instead of slinking off for a sulk at having been beaten to the punch, Kawasaki went down the bigger, better and badder route.
You may have met the ‘’nicest people on a Honda” but with the launch of the Z1 in 1972, you were more likely to meet a total bloody hooligan on a Kawasaki. The double overhead cam 900cc mill was awesome and blew the poor old Honda (and everything else for that matter) into the weeds. Unfortunately, the handling and suspension on the mighty Z weren’t quite so world-shattering and you were just as likely to end up in those same weeds.
Not that anyone cared, of course, a fact endorsed by UK bikers when they voted it Motorcycle News, Bike of the Year for four years running.
So, there we are, a brief history of the earth-shattering original Z900. A tall order to beat? Well, obviously not in terms of performance, but Kawasaki has certainly given the new Z an awful lot to live up to if it’s to make a name for itself.
Shown for the first time at the 2016 EICMA show in Milan, a show renowned for its grand unveilings of new models, accessories, and clothing, the Z900 was trying to elbow the BMW G310, Suzuki GSX-250R, Triumph Bobber, and even the factory’s own new Z650, out of the spotlight.
Initial reaction to the 948cc 126 horsepower bike was good. Resplendent in its black and graphite bodywork and trademark Kawasaki green frame it certainly looked the part. Furthermore, it was also pretty obvious that it was a totally different bike from the Z800 in every department.
Gone was the old backbone style frame, replaced with a very minimalistic steel trellis unit, extruded aluminum swinging arm, and five-spoke wheels, which dropped the weight down to 443lbs, a staggering weight saving over the outgoing bike of almost 50lbs!
Add to that, the hike in horsepower which, Kawasaki says, has been designed to specifically give tons of mid and high-end boost, and maybe, the new Z900 was going to be the kick in pants bike its great grandfather was after all.
The steel trellis frame also means that the engine castings have now been beefed up in five key places so as to bolt up rigidly to the frame and thus act as a stressed member. Whether this additional casting strength plays any part in smoothing out engine vibration is pure speculation, but smooth, the engine certainly is especially when it reaches certain sweet spots such as 70mph in sixth gear.
Although the engine owes more to the Z1000 than its smaller stablemate. The whole bike is described as a clean-sheet design. This means, Kawasaki boffins started with a blank piece of paper and developed the bike from what they perceived were the requirements needed, and not merely face-lifting an existing model. This is what Yamaha did with the R1 and Honda with their all-new Fireblade so it’s a potentially winning formula albeit a costly one.
And talking of design comparisons, even though the new Z uses a slightly sleeved down version of the Z1000 engine, making comparisons between the two really highlights the difference. The Zed thou’s sheer bulk, with its five-piece cast aluminum frame and more conservative-looking seat and pillion, looks almost dated making the Z900 appear positively svelte in comparison.
And what’s going on with the new Zed’s subframe? Looking at the photos of the bare frame, that rear section is set at almost 45 degrees. Ok, it certainly gives it the streetfighter look, but it also puts the pillion (on what has to be said, is very skimpy accommodation), quite literally head and shoulders above the rider. Obviously, I can’t say how this will affect handling and even comfort levels for the passenger, but I guess we’ll find out once the bikes start flying out through salesroom doors.
Theoretically, the suspension should be up to that particular job, though. On the front, we have a 41mm inverted fork with compression and rebound damping and spring preload. To match this, the rear shock is an adjustable horizontal back-link with rebound damping and spring preload.
With both ends being adjustable, experimenting will let the rider dial in pretty much any requirements he/she may have, but straight out the box, the settings were just about right, giving a nice feel that fell between, kick in the spine sports set-up and over squishy soft.
Kawasaki says, that they’ve also paid particular attention to the position of the rear shock too. Moving it away from the exhaust so that any build-up of heat won’t negatively affect its performance as well as keeping it nice and accessible when you need to adjust rebound damping and spring preload.
That wonderful torque filled revving engine can get you spinning up to highly license debilitating speeds indecently quickly, but the bike not once felt anything but planted and reassuring in the bends. With plenty of feel from the front, good feedback from the rear, and the Dunlop Sportmax tires playing their part perfectly.
Something else that’s very apparent as soon as you let the slipper-assist clutch out is the Zed’s ease of maneuverability. The low seat height (795mm), lighter frame and wheels, and comparatively wide bars allow it to easily trickle through snarly traffic and weave its way through car parks.
When it comes to slowing the party down, dual semi-floating 300mm wavy discs are covered by a dual opposed four-piston caliper on the front. Whilst the rear is slightly smaller at 250mm on a dual-piston caliper. The brakes, particularly the front, have a nice, quality feel, being both powerful and predictable, with good feedback. There is also an option for ABS so as to conform to Euro-4 standards.
I have, to be honest, when I discovered that the Z900 didn’t come with any electronic rider aids, I was quite literally, delighted. Ok, so I may be the only one, but don’t forget I was around for the first Z900, there’s old school, then there’s pre-school.
Anyway, although I understand why some bikes need them and believe it or not, how they actually work. I still maintain that a lot of motorcycle manufacturers believe that they’ve got to include all that electronic voodoo or their bikes will be shunned in favor of those that have.
So, Kawasaki, even though your decision to leave them out of the equation was more down to keeping the ticket price as low as possible, and not because you were making an anti-wheelie/traction control, inertia measuring, ride by wire stance, I still salute you.
Yes, it does come with a slipper/assist clutch, but that’s it. Instead, it relies for its ‘rider aids’ on the hands, feet, skill, and ability of the rider. How strange is that? Similarly, if you want it to wheelie, just snap the throttle in the first three gears, and off you go, don’t want to wheelie? Don’t do it. Simple.
Incidentally, gear ratios on the Big Zed have been deliberately keeping pretty close in order to take advantage of that free-revving torquey motor, with sixth gear being a noticeable overdrive. Don’t think, however, that accelerating in top gear is a snooze fest, quite the reverse. Even from low revs, the engine is so tractable acceleration is nothing less than linear and exhilarating all the way to the 11,000rph red line.
The view from the seat gives you good visibility of the handlebar clamp mounted single clock. Two-thirds of which is taken up by the analog-style rev counter, with a gear indicator in the center. The lower half contains the information center, which tells you fuel level/range/average mpg, coolant temp, odometer, indicators, and an economical riding indicator! All in a rather nice little carbon-look surround.
The headlamp nacelle is cleverly angled along with the clock instrument cover to give just enough relief from buffeting at medium speeds to be noticeable, but obviously taking advantage of that wonderful engine is going to give you those neck muscles you’ve always dreamt of. An aftermarket screen will probably be on most new owner’s shopping lists.
So, will potential buyers get past its lack of electronic aids and see it for the hard- accelerating, great handling, maneuverable bike it is? It’s one of the few super-middleweight bikes available that lets you make all the decisions. I just hope people still appreciate that. Maybe it’s a chip off the old block after all.