“Have fun and do lots of wheelies!”
These were the final words of advice from Croft Long, Kawasaki’s Two Wheel Product Manager, as he handed me the key to Team Green’s newest release. It’s rare in this day and age of lawsuits and carefully scripted PR memos that you would hear someone encouraging such shenanigans on a bike they were ultimately responsible for. But then again, this is Kawasaki, and the bike is their new Z900.
Kawasaki’s Z line
Kawasaki’s Z family has a rich history of success. Call them what you want: nakeds, streetfighters, standards, the list goes on. Regardless of how you want to define the category, there is a reason that naked sport bikes are quickly gaining on race replicas as the bikes to have here in the United States.
Sales of standard motorcycles have increased 66 percent over the past three years to command 9 percent of all motorcycles sold in the United States. Naked sport bikes make up 80 percent of all Standards sold with the remaining 20 percent being divided between Retros and Scramblers. By comparison, sales for race replica sport bikes are stagnant. Holding steady at 13 percent of the market, sales haven’t dropped off, but they haven’t increased either. So why the recent interest in the standard segment?
Because they’re fun.
When Kawasaki introduced their air-cooled, 903 cc Z1 in 1973, it blew the doors off any other bike on the road. It had a neutral upright seating position, made over 80 horsepower, and was clocked at speeds over 130 mph. That was earth-shattering in its day.
But as time went on, motorcycles designed for speed became more track-oriented. Fairings were introduced in production models, clip-on style controls replaced handlebars, and footpegs were pulled further back and higher off the ground. By the time the ball dropped, ushering in the nineties, sport bikes shared little resemblance to the bikes that spawned them.
Modern naked sport bikes split the difference (they’re also the one segment of motorcycles that Lem, Lance, and I can usually always agree on). They offer sport performance but with an upright seating position and components designed to handle real-world street conditions. When the Z800 was introduced to Europe in 2012, it became Kawasaki’s best-selling model. Here in America, the entire segment has been slower to catch on. But the times, they are a changing.
Unfortunately, by the time Kawasaki decided to bring its mid-sized Z stateside in 2016, it was pretty well long in the tooth. Especially when pitted against the competition, both externally as well as internally (the Z800 weighed more than a Z1000 but made significantly less power). According to Kawasaki, it wasn’t their intention to set the U.S. market on fire with that bike, but rather whet the American appetite for an all-new bike to follow: the Z900.
And that brings us to this ride. For the purpose of this first ride review, I am going to focus on three specific areas of the Z900: the weight, handling, and ergonomics.
Kawasaki Z900: Losing weight
In order to cut weight, engineers had to focus on two main areas: the frame and the engine.
The frame on the outgoing Z800 was really nothing more than a modified Z750 frame. In order to shed pounds, engineers started from the ground up with a steel trellis frame that would utilize the engine as a stressed member.
The new frame is an exercise in minimalism. Any scrap of metal that wasn’t necessary was removed. The focus was placed on straight lines and minimal bends. The sub-frame was eliminated to save weight. Kawasaki claims that the result is a lightweight design that disperses stress extremely well while finding the optimized balance of torsional and lateral rigidity.
The final product is a frame that weighs only 30 pounds.
Deciding to make the engine as a stressed member of the frame meant that engineers couldn’t utilize the Z800’s engine as a starting point. “We needed rigid engine mounts,” Seiji Hagio, Kawasaki’s Project Leader explained. “Because of that, we needed a counterbalancer in the engine.” A counterbalancer shaft that was already engineered into the Z1000’s block.
So, the decision was made to sleeve the big Z’s engine down from 1,043 cc to 948 cc. While the bore decreases from 77 mm to 73.4 mm, the stroke remains unchanged at 56 mm. The rest of the motor (pistons formed utilizing the same process as that of the H2, an open-deck cylinder-head design, and lightweight crankshaft) was designed specifically for this engine with weight savings in mind.
While Kawasaki was quick to let us know that the Z900 was producing 73 foot-pounds of torque at 7,700 rpm, an 18 percent increase over the Z800, they weren’t forthcoming with horsepower numbers. Luckily, Kawasaki’s European execs aren’t as tight-lipped and from what I could glean from internet chatter, the Europeans claim the new engine makes around 123 horsepower. That’s roughly 10 percent more juice than its predecessor.
The result is an engine that produces more power with less weight. Combined with the redesigned trellis frame, the new Z900 weighs 46 pounds less than the Z800 and is about 25 pounds lighter than the Z1000. The non-ABS version tips the scales with a wet weight of 459 pounds, with ABS adding four pounds. That weight savings directly correlates to the Z900’s handling characteristics.
Handling the Z900
While the Z800 handled pretty well in its own right, the new Z900 handles like it’s on a razor’s edge. Look where you want to go, lean on in, and next thing you know you’re shooting out the other side.
The 41 mm KYB inverted fork and horizontal back-link shock have adjustments for preload as well as rebound damping. The suspension has more in common with the Z800 than it does the Z1000. According to Kawasaki, one of the common complaints with the Z1000 was that its suspension is too harsh for regular riding. The Z900 feels almost plush by comparison.
The one thing that you’ll notice is that the Z900 is completely void of advanced electronics. ABS is an available option for a $400 premium over the base MSRP of $8,399, but other than that you're on your own (Much like the Z800, there is no button to turn the ABS off).
Traction control and rider aids are often a polarizing topic among motorcyclists. Some riders welcome the technology and the advantages it provides while others prefer a back-to-the-basics approach to riding on two wheels. I am not going to get into my personal philosophies, but I will say that I was surprised that the Z900 didn’t get at least some type of rudimentary traction control. However, if you’re looking for a naked bike that stays true to its minimalist roots, the Z900’s got you covered.
If sport bike performance is the first half of why this category of naked bikes has become so popular, the riding position defines the second half. By utilizing a handlebar and altering footpeg location, engineers can design a bike that is more comfortable for everyday use while still allowing riders to leverage their weight when burning down their favorite mountain road.
Where the new Kawasaki Z650 felt too upright to me, the Z900 felt just right. It takes a more aggressive stance, pitching the rider forward and allowing for a bit more of a tuck when needed. I tackled roughly 500 miles spread over three days with this bike and I walked away completely comfortable.
The 31.3-inch seat height is about average within the class and at six feet, three inches tall, I had an extremely easy reach to ground. Kawasaki has an accessory “tall” seat which adds roughly an inch of height to the bike for taller riders looking for more room to spread out. I got a chance to try it out, and while I like the concept (so often there are low seat options for short folks but there are a lack of options for increasing seat height for taller riders), I wasn’t impressed. From a performance standpoint, it was too soft, I kept moving around and had a hard time planting myself in the corners. From a comfort standpoint it was pitched forward at such an angle that I kept smashing my manly bits into the tank. Personally I would just stick to the stock seat and make sure to leave time to stretch my legs every 150 miles are so.
Riding the Kawasaki Z900
Kawasaki changed things up on this launch, as they wanted us to experience the duality of the Z900. We started with a night ride through the streets of San Diego. The city was quiet as we ripped around. If you’re looking to blend in, a dozen motorcyclists hopped up on caffeine and riding lime-green motorcycles is not the way to do it.
The bike handled the city terrain well. The suspension soaked up the bumps over manhole covers, pot holes, and railroad tracks. Its narrow chassis made splitting lanes a breeze (lucky Californians). Throttle response is even and fueling is smooth, which makes it an easy motorcycle to ride at lower speeds. My only real complaint is that my hands get pinched against the tank when attempting to make low-speed technical turns. Riders with larger feet will also have a problem with their right heel hitting the exhaust.
The next day, we headed to the outskirts of town to open it up and let the engine sing. The engine spins up extremely fast. It’s rather docile and forgiving below 5,000 rpm but transitions quickly, yet smoothly, between 5,000 and 6,000 rpm, where it howls like a hellcat until it maxes out at 11,000 rpm. In spite of the engine's dual counterbalancers, it’s still a little buzzy at higher rpm, which is most noticeable in the seat.
When the folks at Kawasaki talked about how they spent a considerable amount of time tuning the intake tone, I wrote it off as marketing hype. I was wrong. I’ll take a raging intake note over a roaring exhaust any day of the week.
We followed Highway 94 out of town as it winds itself down along the Mexican border before turning north and heading back to town. Long sweepers and sharp technical turns kept us busy guiding the Z900 back and forth. The sharp handling impressed me the most, especially considering the bike's price point.
Talking to some of the folks over lunch, I learned that it is sprung for a rider weighing in at 178 pounds. I found that even at 205 pounds (I am back down from my Christmas weight of 215), the suspension was extremely compliant while riding through the twisties yet comfortable enough to handle the bumps and bruises of everyday, real-world riding. With a bit more time with the bike, I would have tried to dial in more preload and damping, but for an out-of-the-box suspension setup on an $8,400 motorcycle, I ain’t mad at it.
Riding back into the city at the end of the day, my butt was a little sore. The seat definitely leans to the side of sport. It handled highway speeds with ease, but if you’re planning on any longer trips on the super slab you’ll want to consider a windshield.
More power and less weight is a tried and true recipe for success. And for the Z900 it works well. But is it enough to go toe-to-toe with the new crop of naked middleweights like Yamaha’s revamped FZ-09 and Triumph’s all-new Street Triple line?
Out of all of the questions we saw come through via social media, the one we got the most was from folks wanting to know how this bike compares to Yamaha’s revised FZ-09. I haven’t ridden the new FZ, so I can’t speak to the revised fueling and suspension, but I can draw a few conclusions based on my time with the older version as well as Yamaha’s other triples.
The engine is going to be the biggest difference. Yamaha’s 847 cc triple comes on harder and faster with strong torque launching you forward with a sense of urgency. The Z900, on the other hand, has a smoother transition of power as well as more of it.
The suspension and fueling on the new Z900 is easily better than the original FZ-09. The new FZ-09, however, gets its suspension revamped this year, along with the addition of traction control and ABS. At the end of the day, these are two bikes living in very close quarters, but they should be different enough to co-mingle. The only way to truly determine the better bike is to get them side-by-side and back-to-back. Hopefully Lem and I can make that happen this year.
Kawasaki set out to create a bike that not only improved upon its predecessor but also replaced its superior; two birds, one stone, if you will. I feel like this bike is an improvement over the Z800 in every sense of the word with enough left over to please about 85 percent of the Z1000’s customer base.
If you're looking to "have fun and do wheelies" without breaking the bank, the Z900 packs a big, nearly liter-bike punch for the money. And for those of you who want just a little more, Kawasaki tells me there should still be a few leftover Z1000s lying around for a few more months.