The thought of packing rain gear hadn’t even crossed my mind when I was tasked with riding the new Kawasaki Z650 in Southern California.
I expected an escape from the trials of winter in the Northeast, but instead, raindrops exploded against my hotel window as I picked up my helmet and headed out to Kawasaki’s offices. It was going to be a wet ride.
It’s rare that a company hosts a press event for a new model launch out of their corporate offices, but Kawasaki recently moved into a new facility and it’s worthy of showing off. Visitors are immediately greeted by a slew of rare and museum-grade vintage and pedigreed race bikes. It was here, among these historical gems, that we were introduced to Kawasaki’s newest addition to the “Z” family of motorcycles, the Z650.
Naked vs. faired
If the Z650 looks similar to the Ninja 650, it should. It shares the same foundational components as its faired brother. According to Kawasaki, the “Naked” market has grown 382 percent since 2011 while the sport bike segment has held steady. The conclusion drawn from this data is that while new riders are gravitating toward stripped-down sport bikes, this trend isn’t at the expense of the faired siblings' popularity.
The thought being, if Kawi can introduce a new bike and capitalize on a growing segment without cannibalizing sales from an existing model, they would be foolish not to. Therefore, the Ninja has dropped its drawers.
Kawasaki tried this recipe before with the Er-6n, a naked version of the first-generation Ninja 650 that was imported to the U.S. market until 2008. Glancing back at those earlier statistics, maybe Kawasaki was a bit premature in pulling their naked middleweight from American shores.
In any case, the real story now is the changes that Kawasaki made to the existing Ninja 650 for 2017 and, in turn, the new Z650.
The new Z is not just a 2016 Ninja 650 without bodywork. The Z650 gets a new engine, clutch, trellis frame, swingarm, brakes, wheels, seat, tank, dash, and handlebar, among other odds and ends. While the Ninja 650 gets even sportier this year with redesigned fairings and clip-on handlebars, the Z650 retains a traditional handlebar setup and sheds its plastics, exposing the redesigned frame.
Kawasaki isn’t laying all their cards on the table, at least not right away. While they teased certain differences to the engine over its predecessor, they wouldn’t come right out and give us a side-by-side comparison. They were insistent that this is an all-new engine and therefore should be examined independently of the old mill.
We know the cams have been redesigned and the throttle bodies have been reduced by two millimeters, from 38 mm Keihins to 36 mm units for improved fuel atomization. There also appears to be a secondary throttle valve system. It’s tuned for more low-end and mid-range punch, something that’s evident as soon as you pop the clutch. That clutch, by the way, adds a slipper assist feature for smoother downshifts and a lighter pull as you work your way through the six-speed gearbox.
The entire bike is narrow, the four-gallon tank is quite svelte between the rider's legs. The Z650 is small and compact, if not a bit cramped, for a rider of my size (six feet, three inches, 205 pounds). The handlebar is pulled back a bit too far and has too much rise for my taste. I would love an opportunity to swap the handlebar with one a few inches wider, lower, and straighter.
Over dinner with Kevin Allen, Kawasaki’s PR Manager, we discussed the possibility of adding Kawasaki’s “Ergo-Fit” system found on their Vulcan S to the Z650. I think that would be hugely beneficial on a bike like the Z650, which has the potential to appeal to such a wide variety of riders. It would be great to see this incorporated at some point in the future.
Changes to the frame are probably the most noticeable feature over the previous Ninja 650. The new Z650’s backbone is now a stylish and functional trellis frame attached to a gull-style swingarm made of hollow pressed steel. These changes play a significant role in the handling and weight savings on this motorcycle, which tips the scales at 410 pounds with ABS (406 without).
With its low weight and slim body design, the Z650 feels more like you're riding a naked Ninja 300, and ride it we did. Especially once those early morning rains passed through, leaving us with a sunny afternoon more suitable to what I expected from Southern California.
Riding and sliding
Even though the rain cleared up, the roads were wet and gravel and mud had washed out onto the street in some areas. We slowed our pace as we traversed the Ortega Highway, heading toward Lake Elsinore.
Riding through the long sweepers and switchbacks of California Highway 74, the Z650 was extremely nimble and compliant. I attribute the handling to a few specific changes. The steering angle was steepened to 24 degrees and the trail shortened to 3.9 inches. The trellis frame has been designed to provide varying degrees of flex where it’s needed and increased rigidity where it is not. The 55 or so pounds the Z650 has shed over the old Ninja 650 doesn’t hurt either.
The new 649 cc liquid-cooled, parallel twin was peppy and fun. Kawasaki claims it has 48.5 foot-pounds of torque hitting at 6,500 rpm (no horsepower numbers were provided). The engine pulls strong, and evenly, in a linear fashion. For you new riders in the audience, it’s not so powerful as to be intimidating, but there is plenty of engine for you to grow into. When we talk about power being delivered “in a linear fashion,” we simply mean it is delivered evenly. So you won’t be surprised by any spikes in power at any particular point in the rev range. It’s extremely approachable, yet if you really romp on it you can have some fun.
While Kawi told us the power output is nearly identical to the previous engine, the new mill feels more refined. There is still some buzziness that can be felt in the seat at mid to higher rpm, but personally, it wasn’t enough to bother me. However, if engine vibration is a concern for you, it is something you should be aware of.
Riding back from lunch at the Lookout Roadhouse, the rain had ceased and the sun had dried most of the road, allowing us to pick up the pace on the way back down the mountain.
The suspension, while still a budget option from KYB, proved to be more capable than I would have guessed. It is undersprung for a 205-pound rider like myself, but it felt balanced overall. There is a preload adjuster at the rear but I didn’t have time to play around with the settings. We weren’t able to really push the bike at higher speeds due to traffic and conditions, but I am guessing that most riders looking at this bike will be just fine with the suspension for the first few years of riding.
For riders looking for more performance, Kawasaki discussed the fact that the aftermarket should soon have plenty of options for upgrading this Z650.
The one area where I wasn’t completely won over by the mid-sized “Z” was with the brakes. There was a lack of initial bite, they felt wooden, and require a strong pull on the lever. This is not a new issue with Kawasaki's 650 line, and some riders upgrade to steel braided brake lines and different brake pads, while others are OK with the stock setup. Your opinion may depend on your frame of reference.
On the other hand, the ABS engaged smoothly without disrupting the bike while slowing the Z650 to a swift halt in the wet conditions. ABS comes by way of a Bosch unit, which regulates a pair of dual-piston, Nissin calipers paired to 300 mm rotors up front and a single-piston caliper with a 220 mm rotor in the rear.
The dash has been updated and provides a clear readout with just the right amount of information. It includes a digital tach needle the can be set to display three different ways, a fuel gauge, a gear indicator, and a digital readout for the indicated speed. Most importantly I can actually read it in the light of day with minimal glare interfering. We wrapped up the ride as it began to get dark and I thought the dash looked even better at night.
So what’s the price?
For 2017, the MSRP of the Z650 will be $6,999 without ABS and $7,399 with ABS, which should make it competitive against its two closest competitors: Yamaha’s FZ-07 and Suzuki’s SV650. Most riders will compare these three mid-sized models, especially considering how close they fall in price. For 2017, both the SV650 and FZ-07 are $7,499 when outfitted with ABS. For riders who bleed green, it’s great to see Kawasaki providing an option for this market segment.
Speaking of green, the Z650 will be offered in two different color schemes, Metallic Flat Spark Black/Metallic Spark Black or Pearl Flat Stardust White/Metallic Spark Black. Translated: Black on black or white with a green frame.
Mid-sized naked bikes have become increasingly popular over the past few years, and rightfully so. They are affordable, easy to ride, and appeal to a vast array of motorcyclists, from beginners looking for their first bike to experienced riders looking for a lightweight canyon carver or commuter. The Z650 fits in perfectly.
With ABS, a finely tuned trellis frame, slipper clutch, and sporty engine, it benefits from engineering that trickled down from older, pricier siblings in Kawasaki’s lineup. It should prove to be a strong competitor against the bikes already established in this segment. I hope we'll have an opportunity to try this bike alongside the competition.
As I wrapped up my day with the Z650, my only regret was that I didn’t have more time with the bike. I felt a bit slighted by having to put up with the rain and only getting half a day of California sunshine. I suppose when you’re an east coaster escaping a dreary winter, zipping around sculpted canyons on a fun, sporty bike, there will never be enough time.