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2016 Kawasaki Z800 Review

Kawasaki_z800_img_6642

A “streetfighter” by any other name is a sport bike sans fairings, clip-ons, and the full race tuck. The name conjures up images of a knuckle-dragging brute of a machine, scarred and sinister in its appearance, set to wreak havoc upon any other bike in its path.

Tasked with reviewing the Kawasaki Z800, I wasn’t sure what to expect. This isn’t a bike that is breaking new ground. It’s not introducing any new technology or wild engine designs. It’s just a European model that Kawasaki brought stateside to compete in the growing middleweight streetfighter market, and here in America, we already have our established favorites.

Kawasaki Z800

The bike

The Z800 is new to America for 2016, but it’s far from new. The Z800 was originally introduced in Europe as a replacement for the Z750 in 2013. This bike has been a perennial European best seller for Kawasaki ever since. With the middleweight naked market heating up in America, Kawasaki has finally made the decision to bring the bike to the United States.

Kawasaki Z800 Malibu Canyons

The Z800 is a bare-bones motorcycle. Technology on the Z800 is basic in the form of fuel injection and ABS. No throttle-by-wire, no rider modes, no traction control. I heard others complaining about the dash, but I don’t share their sentiment. I felt the dash was simple and basic, but it gave me a clear understanding of all the information I need with nothing I don't. I do wish that the fuel gauge were more precise, as I felt as if I was always running out of gas.

Kawasaki Z800 Dash

On paper, at 510 pounds, this bike comes across as rather porky. On the road however, it wears its weight well and handled much more nimbly than I was expecting. I have multiple 500-plus-pound bikes in my garage and the Z800 feels lighter than all of them.

It shares a similar geometry to that of its faster, faired brother, the ZX-6R. The Z800 has 24 degrees of rake with 3.9 inches of trail, placing it squarely in sport bike territory. The suspension is extremely capable for sporty street riding. The 41 mm KYB fork up front allowed for 4.7 inches of travel while the rear monoshock provided 5.4 inches. Both are fully adjustable for preload and rebound damping, but at 205 pounds, I had no issues with the factory settings. 

Kawasaki Z800 Rear Shock

I was impressed with the Dunlop Sportmax D214 tires. A 120/70ZR17 and 180/55ZR17 (front and rear) warmed up fast and provided excellent grip in a variety of situations, including riding through the canyons in a huge thunderstorm (“Sunny California” my ass).

At six feet, three inches, I had no problem with the 32.8-inch seat height and found the ergonomics to be extremely comfortable. Shorter riders may not agree. Wide, low-slung handlebars replaced clip-ons found on a traditional sport bike and held me in a sporting tuck, but without causing discomfort for my wrists or lower back on all-day rides. I do not have the same positive sentiments about the seat.

Kawasaki Z800 Spurgeon Dunbar Riding

The dual, four-piston Nissin calipers clamp down on 310 mm rotors up front and provide solid, predictable brake feel. The foot pedal controlling the single-piston rear caliper and 250 mm rotor could benefit from better response and feedback. The Z800 comes standard with ABS, which cannot be disabled.

Kawasaki avoids the triple craze and sticks with an 806 cc inline-four engine in the Z800. While Kawasaki hasn’t posted any official numbers, there are no known changes made from the European specs, which means it should be laying down around 110 horsepower and 60 foot-pounds of torque. The engineers sacrificed top-end ponies for more usable power delivery on the street.

The Z800 derives a lot of its engine characteristics from a modified intake cam and a heavily tuned exhaust. The length of the headers, equalizer connections, and an internal exhaust valve all work together to offer up increased low to mid-range power from this engine. I like the fact that the headers remind me of the old 1970s Honda CB400F, and unlike the Z1000 and Ninja 1000 mufflers, the Z800’s doesn’t get in the way when I ride with the balls of my feet on the pegs.

Kawasaki Z800 Exhaust Headers

“Official” numbers be damned, the Z800 feels subdued, almost lazy, right out of the gate but it picks up power evenly. Between 5,000 and 6,000 rpm, the engine begins to wake up and by the time you’re above 8,000 rpm it is beating its chest, howling all the way to the 12,200 rpm redline. While I am not typically a fan of inline fours on the street, I had a surprising amount of fun with this bike.

Testing the Z800

Picking up the Z800 from Kawasaki headquarters, I was immediately struck with how familiar it felt. There is almost no learning curve for this bike. The controls are simple and basic, the engine offers plenty of power for the street without being intimidating, braking is solid and predictable, and the riding position just feels right. Not so aggressive that it is uncomfortable and not so lazy that it is, well, lazy.

Kawasaki Z800 Spurgeon Dunbar Riding

The mix of city streets and canyon roads around Los Angeles proved to be perfect for testing the Z800, though ironically the bike is not yet street-legal for Californians because it's not certified to meet state emissions regulations. The upright position and smaller stature made lane splitting a breeze. The suspension soaked up potholes around the city as well as cracks in canyon roads. It’s comfortable enough to handle day-to-day commuting while being aggressive enough to have fun on all the great mountain roads surrounding the city. 

I spent two solid days riding the Z800 down almost every canyon road north of Malibu. Apparently 55 degrees proved too cold for most Californian riders and I had almost all of the roads to myself. It was like having my own personal racetrack with a view. I was immediately impressed with the competent suspension while I quickly learned to keep the engine spinning above 6,000 rpm to be able to tap into its mid-range power.

Kawasaki Z800 Spurgeon Dunbar Riding

My daily commute from my hotel in Oxnard to our shoot locations in Malibu consisted of roughly 70 miles of scenic Pacific Coast Highway, round trip. I couldn’t have asked for a much better office view for the week.

Kawasaki Z800 Spurgeon Dunbar Riding

In my five days with the Z800, I covered just over 1,000 miles. My final voyage with the Kawasaki reminded me how much fun lane splitting down the 405 freeway can be with the right bike. Returning to the airport in my rental Hyundai was miserable.

Kawasaki Z800 highlights

The Z800’s suspension stole the show. Normally, the stock suspension on a sub-$8,500 machine is low-hanging fruit for finding fault. That’s not the case with this bike. The capability of the KYB fork and shock is impressive. While I am sure it would do just fine on your local track, Kawasaki built this bike with street use in mind.

The stock settings for preload and damping allowed me to traverse the gravelly, pitted California canyon roads with ease while still providing confidence through aggressive corners. Commuting through downtown L.A., the suspension absorbed all the bumps and bruises of a city landscape. I would be interested to try this bike on Philly’s cobblestone streets.  

Kawasaki Z800 Canyon Shot

Overall handling was fantastic. The handlebars allowed superior leverage for the tight canyon roads where the Z800 almost feels like a large supermoto. Despite its weight, the Z800 felt nimble. The Kawasaki had me riding fast, hard, and confidently in both the canyon corners and the city streets.

These Dunlops are some of the most inspiring stock rubber I have ever dug into. My riding buddy, and fellow Zillan, Matt Broughton has been singing praises of Dunlop tires on the track for years. While he is specifically impressed with the Q3s, it is evident that Dunlop has shared some of their DNA with the Sportmax D214 tires.

Kawasaki Z800

Normally, an inline-four is not my favorite mill for the street, boasting big horsepower numbers from the top end while sacrificing low to mid-range “oomph.” The Z800 surprised me. I ended up liking this engine a lot more than I expected, mainly because Kawasaki does a great job of sacrificing top-end power for more usable mid-range torque out of the Z800’s 806 cc. While the engine will not overwhelm you from a launch, it spins up evenly and predictably with plenty of power for even the most advanced rider to have fun with.

The fueling and throttle response were spot on. I liked the fact that the Z800 still opens its throttle bodies via a steel cable, unlike the throttle-by-wire systems that are becoming the norm on so many bikes these days. The downside to this is that if you are a fan of fancy electronics and throttle maps, you’re out of luck on this bike. For a lot of riders out there, the basic, simplistic nature of this bike will be a welcome twist.  

The overall styling on this bike has a “love it or hate it” quality. Personally, I think it looks cool. It has a sinister presence with an aggressive stance. It looks fast standing still, a look it has no problem backing up.

Kawasaki Z800 lowlights

With an MSRP of $8,399, this is still a budget bike in Kawasaki’s lineup and I expected some corners to be cut. The clutch lever is non-adjustable and feels cheap compared to the five-position adjustable brake lever. At no point in the review could I see anything but my shoulders in the mirrors. Between the placement and the vibration, they were nearly useless. One of the first mods I would make on this bike would be to replace them with a set of CRG Lanesplitter mirrors. I have used the CRG mirrors on a couple of my personal bikes and I find they are a huge improvement over stock.

Kawasaki Z800 Spurgeon Dunbar Riding

Kawasaki claims that the Z800 “offers generous range” with a 4.5-gallon fuel tank, but by the time I hit 120 miles, the fuel light started winking at me. I was never able to get more than 3.6 gallons into the tank, even after letting the fuel warning light stare at me for nearly 20 miles. I didn’t mind averaging around 35 mpg, but I didn’t enjoy constantly thinking I was running out of fuel.

The fact that the Z800 includes ABS as standard equipment is a nice addition compared to similarly priced bikes in this class. The only downside is that you can’t turn it off. A button to disable the ABS would appeal to more advanced riders. Overall, I was quite happy with the brake response and feel from the front brakes. The rear brake, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. It was extremely vague, with a stiff, wooden feel. I felt that I was literally standing on it before getting it to respond.

Kawasaki Z800 Brakes

If you're thinking of using the Z800 for touring or a commute that involves highway miles, comfort becomes an issue. The complete lack of wind protection makes the Z800 absolutely miserable for long stretches on the highway. By the end of the review, I felt like I had been head banging my way through "Seek and Destroy" at a Metallica concert for a week and I had no protection from the early-morning temps ranging between 33 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit. For highway commuters, adding a windscreen is a must. Plan to upgrade the seat as well, while you’re at it. The seat on the Z800 definitely hails from Kawasaki’s sport bike lineage. It’s great for sporting rides but about as comfortable as sitting on a two-by-four for anything over 50 miles. I found myself standing on the pegs a lot.

Kawasaki Z800 Pacific Coast Highway

While I have heard peers complain about the buzzy nature of the engine in the higher rpm range, I didn’t find it to be as bad as others seemed to. There is definitely a vibration that can be felt in the footpegs and seat, but I didn’t notice it as much in the handlebars. I can say with certainty that it didn’t detract from my experience with the bike.

The competition

Whether you call them streetfighters, hooligans, or nakeds, this class of motorcycles has become increasingly popular over the past few years. With the popularity of the bigger liter-plus bikes has come a demand for smaller displacement bikes to fill a hole in the market.

Kawasaki Z800

It could be argued that Ducati first filled this gap with a smaller displacement version of their Monster followed by Triumph’s wildly popular Street Triple. The current Monster 821 and Street Triple R are going to be the top-shelf competition facing the Z800. At $11,499 for the Ducati and $10,400 for the Triumph, both are a considerable premium over the Z800’s $8,399 MSRP.

In 2014 Yamaha took the naked market by storm with the release of their FZ-09. At $8,190 the 847 cc triple engine produced 115 horsepower and 65 foot-pounds of toque while tipping the scales at just over 400 pounds wet. The FZ-09 became an overnight sensation and the “bang-for-your-buck” bike to beat. The Z800 is going to attempt to tackle it by offering up a better out-of-the-box suspension and ABS as standard.

Lastly, the bike that is most comparable to the Z800 is Suzuki’s GSX-S750. Much like the Z800, the GSX-S750 is an existing European model brought to America in an effort to fill a gap. At $8,000, it undercuts Kawasaki’s MSRP by $400. This cost cut can be seen in the Suzuki’s brakes, suspension, and overall performance.

Conclusion

The Z800 surprised me. I wasn’t expecting to like it as much as I did. With that being said, I think Kawasaki has an uphill battle in front of them as far as penetrating the American market with the Z800. The bike is really good, but it’s not breaking any new ground here in the United States as it did when it was released in Europe.

Kawasaki Z800 Spurgeon Dunbar Riding

The Z800’s smooth power delivery, solid suspension, and approachable nature make it an excellent candidate for existing riders who have a few years of riding under their belt but are unfamiliar with the world of sport bikes. Folks coming from cruisers, smaller displacement bikes, or dual-sports who are looking for ease of entry into the world of sport riding will find the Z800 to be a welcoming fit.

My immediate reaction to this bike was that it felt completely approachable. Like meeting an old friend for a drink or slipping into a well-worn leather jacket. No fancy electronics or specialized buttons to figure out. Get on, thumb the starter, and ride. The Z800 didn’t try to wow me or dazzle me, but rather, it just made me feel comfortable from the get-go. It’s simple and fun and gives the established American favorites a run for their money.

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