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2018 Kawasaki Z900RS first ride review

Dec 18, 2017

Kawasaki bought me a plane ticket and hotel room, some fancy dinners, a truckload of booze, and gave both Spurg and I nifty Z900RS shirts.

I mention this because by the end of this piece, many readers will break out the pitchforks and accuse me of being on Team Green’s payroll. ‘Snot true. This first ride can be summed up in this way: If I built myself a standard motorcycle, it would look and act like a Kawasaki Z900RS. The bike left me very impressed. I wanted to find big flaws. I looked for them. Not being able to criticize a product you’re reviewing enough to appear authentic for The Infernets, so far as I can tell, is a pretty great problem to have.

The Z900RS is not like the Z900

This is not a warmed-over rehash, that’s for damn sure.

Z900 frame
Here's a Z900 frame. Note the broad "shoulders" up near the tank and that aggressively angled tail section. Those are the main reasons Kawasaki developed a new frame for the RS. Kawasaki photo.

Frame, wheels, engine, transmission gearing, headlight, exhaust, electronics, brakes, and suspension all changed in notable and meaningful ways. Let’s start with the skeleton. The frame is different presumably because the Z900’s sky-scraping tailsection doesn’t really jive with the idea of a surfboard-seat throwback bike. (At 58.1 inches, the RS is also a touch longer than the Z9.) The engine has been reworked to provide a bit less power and torque in an effort to move the bike’s power counterclockwise on the tach. Compression ratio was knocked back a bit from the Z900’s. (11.8:1, reduced by one full point. I can’t believe a 10.8:1 CR now is a “low” ratio. Man, I feel old.) Lest ye be fooled, know this: the Z900RS still breathes some fire. It’s a near-liter (948 cc) inline four-cylinder. Care must be exercised.

That dual-tube construction must work pretty well, because those pipes don't look very golden to my eyes. RevZilla photo.

The exhaust also features narrower ports in the same effort of flexing the engine’s muscle right from idle. The exhaust is a real piece of work. Header pipes are polished, welded, and polished again, looking much nicer than expected; they almost resemble a nice aftermarket setup. Further, they are pipe-within-pipe, so there is an air gap that means that the heavy gold discoloration that comes with stainless pipes is not present on these. It also means they can be kept neat by an image-conscious owner.

Kawi says this is their first exhaust they’ve made as a result of exhaust acoustic research, which surprised me greatly. If that’s true, they’re quick studies over there at Team Green, because this bike sounds lovely. And for all the fuddy-duddies out there who bemoan the lack of four pipes like a first-gen Z1 or Z900, note that this looks a hell of a lot like an old Kerker.

And then we get to the small stuff. Traction control, LED headlight, front radial-mount calipers, delicately cast wheels, clickers for compression damping in the front fork, and a differently shaped fuel tank can all be found on the Z900RS. Note too, this bike comes in two variants — one is $10,999, and one $11,199. Note that the difference here goes a bit beyond the paint job. Wheels are black on the black bike, but brown paint also nets wheels with a polished lip and some spokes polished, which are slightly evocative of an old set of Lester mags.

Morgan's feet
Clearance for feet! Spurg and I were not fond of the proximity of mufflers to feet on the Z900. Lovely model and Street Chopper Editor-in-Chief Morgan Gales shows off his size 13 clodhoppers — if those fit on there, odds are good yours will, too. RevZilla photo.

In my estimation, Kawi hosed themselves allowing this bike’s moniker to be so close to its Z900 stablemate. They’re passingly similar, and that’s about all. I actually think the RS’ name hurts it here. (On another note, I’ll never know why they kept referencing the Z1 when an actual Z900 also existed. I don’t understand “retro” and “heritage,” I guess. Whatever. A rose by any other name, I suppose.)

Riding the Z900RS

I walked out very early in the morning to a row of gleaming brown-and-orange bikes to look for the first thing my colleague Buzzsaw mentioned when he saw this bike on display at EICMA: tank width.

Overhead shot.
That's definitely a different silhouette than the original Z1's tank, but it's still pretty proportional. I give it a pass. Kawasaki photo.

He was pretty repulsed by how wide the tank was. Me? I think it looks appropriate. Your mileage might vary. One thing we both agreed on was this: the Z1 certainly had a long, slender fuel cell. The Z900RS does not.

I love analog gauges. They just work well. And there's enough information on the board to be very useful without distracting, like a gear counter, fuel gauge, and traction control setting info. RevZilla photo.

I threw a leg over, popped on my lid, and settled in. This is very much a bike you ride on, not in. The seat height is 31.5 inches. I am actually surprised by how small that number is. For whatever reason, the RS felt taller to me. I looked down, and saw a very nice pair of twin clocks with a comfortingly familiar typeface. Turning the key revealed some small but useful instrumentation, including a gear counter, fuel gauge, clock, and traction control setting. Changing the display and traction control (KTRC) was intuitive and easy with the control on the left clamshell.

That paint is pretty killer. Even if you don't like the paint scheme on the 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS, you have to admire the execution. RevZilla photo.

Fit and finish are remarkable, even down to the frame paint. The whole motorcycle looks like it was put together by someone who loves bikes. Even the side of the catalytic converter is polished. There’s a helmet lock. Small stuff was attended to. The paint is about six miles deep, and there are two thoughtful tie-down spots, should you care to lash something to your saddle. The rear axle nut is covered in a smart-looking plastic cap. Kawi sweated details on this bike.

I thumbed the starter and the noise was just right: rumbly without being overly loud. I threw the bike into first, and from here to the end of my riding, the RS did all the things that made the UJM, well, U. Universal and ubiquitous, mayhaps, and maybe also unremarkable, but also useful. The motorcycle had tons of power. My seating position was completely upright, and my feet were right about where I like ‘em for sportier riding: directly beneath me.

Canyon shot
2018 Kawasaki Z900RS. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

I had the bike for about 85 miles, punctuated with several painful stops to take photos, and I wish it had been longer. Kawi reps led us through Cali canyons, some of which were familiar to me. They were actually some of the very same roads Spurg had laid out for me on my first ride through Malibu. We were keeping a great pace; fast but relaxed. My suspension was set just as it comes from the factory, which is not ideal for a man of my size. That said, I was able to adjust the Z900 (non-RS) suspension to my liking; I’m very sure I could have repeated my settings and been pleased. (Front: full preload less half a turn, and five clicks back from maximum rebound damping. Rear: preload at half total, and one and a half turns out from maximum rebound.)

Handling is straightforward, which was a surprise, considering the rake angle on the RS is 25.4 degrees. That’s reeeeal steep, but the bike doesn’t feel twitchy. You put it into a turn, and it stays where you put it. With my hands off the handlebar at highway speeds, the bike was as stable as one could ask for. Speakin’ of that handlebar: it’s very wide, very chrome, and appears to be a 1 1/8-inch bar that necks down to 7/8-inch at the controls. I’d prefer to see continuous diameter, but now I’m probably just being picky.

These are a whopping improvement over the 2017 Z900's D214 tires. RevZilla photo.

I’d like to tip my hat to Kawa for fitting Dunlop GPR300 tires to this bike, in sane and rational 180/55ZR17 rear and 120/70ZR17 front sizes. That’s a cost-conscious tire I really like. Compare this to the Z900 we still have kicking around wearing Dunlop D214 tires. Those are absolute shit; literally the worst tire I’ve ever used that was not wrapped around a cruiser wheel. They’re fine in dry weather, but they’re comically bad in the wet. I’m not sure what the regular Z is wearing for 2018, but I was sure glad to see the GPRs on the RS.

At 472 pounds, the RS is no featherweight. It’s 42 pounds more than an Yamaha XSR900, probably its closest competition, and some of that weight feels like it’s upstairs. Still, this is hardly unreasonable — a Suzuki Bandit 1250S, a modern-appearing big-bore naked, rings in at 560. The RS sure doesn’t feel like a supermoto in the wind-y parts, but you’re also not fighting it, either. It’s very middling to get it to turn in. The longer wheelbase makes it feel just a little bit less athletic and nimble than the regular Z900, but it’s nothing to write home about.

Rear brake
Also an effective stopping option. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

The rear brake on this machine is surprisingly effective. The fronts slow this bike down more than successfully. Put it this way: I wasn’t really ever thinking about the brakes, which usually means they're fine.

Front brakes
Sintered pads, eh? Maybe Ol' Lem didn't use the "Oh, shit" lever quite right. RevZilla photo.

I learned after I rode the bike that the pads are sintered, so it's very possible I wasn't being aggressive enough to get them to really bite into the rotors. And, since you've asked for it, here are my unscientific notes on engine heat: it wasn't that bad. I think. It was 80 degrees out in Los Angeles, and the powers that be placed me in a waxed-cotton jacket. I was hot. Everything was hot. I don't think the bike was really to blame.

Mode button
Well hell, even I can figure that out. 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS. RevZilla photo.

There are two traction-control settings on what Kaw calls its KTRC system. I left it in Mode 1, the default setting. (You can turn it off totally, but that setting is not “sticky.”) Kawi was a bit vague in their presentation about how this works. Mode 1 specifies front and rear speed (presumably the differential to calculate slip), and “various engine, machine, and rider input parameters... Complex analysis predicts when traction conditions are about to become unfavorable and the system acts before wheel slippage exceeds the range for optimal traction.” Lem translation: You can bring the front wheel up 12 or 14 inches if you really twist the wick, then the RS pulls the plug on super-happy-fun time. Supposedly, Mode 2 has “higher sensitivity and controls ignition timing, fuel, and air for ultra-smooth operation.” Truth be told, Dear Readers, I failed you. I was busy being "that guy" and popping the front end up at every stop sign and light, so I never really tried Mode 2. I have let you down.

Lemmy Z900RS
"Not now, testing. Please stand by." Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Truth be told, the ride was exactly what I expected: uneventful and very fun. I always have high expectations for larger Japanese standard bikes because they tend to fit my riding style so deliciously well, and the RS delivered. I pushed the bike as hard as I felt like, and it simply did as asked. There’s no prayer of keeping up with a race-rep six-hundo or thou in the twisties, but who cares? That’s not why you buy one of these. You can run the gamut from “putt-putt” to “shoulda bought a race-rep,” and you should be happy with the RS. (But for real, I was ballin’ the jack for a while with this bike. Slow it ain’t.) Me? I think I actually prefer the Z900’s powerplant, but it’s a touch more high-strung. The RS is noticeably less effective at the top of the rev range. I wouldn’t think twice about it if I owned an RS, however. Both setups are A-OK in my book.

Lowlights (Alternate title: Lem is a Kawasaki shill)

In re-reading what I’ve written thus far, I wouldn’t blame someone for claiming that. At the price, I certainly wouldn’t have the same expectations I do when we test a bike costing twice as much… but if I did, this bike would probably fare well. I compared notes with a writer friend from another group, and he said, “Man, Lem, I’m glad you aren’t having big problems with this bike. I thought I was getting rusty at reviewing these things, but I have no complaints other than not liking the seat."

Footpegs are maybe a little bit low, but it didn't really matter. There are some small feelers on them, and they're in a crazy-comfy spot. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

My complaints are so minor here. I already mentioned that the name is too close to the Z900. The footpegs on this bike are low enough that I would have scraped them when really stretching the RS’ legs, if it wasn’t for the fact that my boots overhung them and got lifted off the footpegs when I touched down.

The throttle is sensitive with traction control off and in Mode 1. I don’t know that I would call it twitchy, but it is what I might describe as overly responsive. Adding maintenance throttle was a bit of a chore. That said, I got used to it pretty quickly. It was a minor niggle for me. Brake feel was the opposite; I got less feedback from the otherwise top-notch brakes than I expected and desired. I’m nearly certain some braided lines would fix that right up.

Earl filter
That's...that's not where that goes. RevZilla photo.

Oil filter placement is somewhere between questionable and insane, sitting out there totally exposed to damage from road debris. Hell, Kaw, at least tuck it in behind the headpipes. The odds of anyone having a problem with this are probably really low. The problem with the problem is that the stakes are incredibly high.

Another area of concern was range. Fuel mileage seemed to be OK (a claimed 38.1 mpg with aggressive riding), but the range probably sucks. I was getting disconcertingly close to needing fuel well under the hundred-mile mark. The fuel capacity is 4.5 gallons, but I'm not sure how much of that is A) usable and B) devoted to "fuel light" fuel. More testing is required.

Kawasaki also offers cool 70s-replica tank badges... as an accessory. Most people wanting the retro paint scheme will likely want to purchase those (and probably the people grabbing the RS Café version, too. I’ve taken the liberty of assuming that Kawi’s people have a few brain cells to rub together and realize that the Café is probably going to make a lot of people’s naughty bits tingle rather pleasantly and that subsequently it will come to America.) In my estimation, the black scheme should have the modern logos, and the root-beer and seasick-green versions should get the old-timey lookin’ badges.

Centerstand price
The centerstand costs how much? LOLWUT. 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS accessories. Kawasaki illustration.

And the final, most egregious oversight is the centerstand. You may have looked at the photos and thought, “Ol’ Lem must be off his meds, that bike ain’t even got no centerstand,” and you’d be right as rain. At the price, I don’t fault Kawi for not including one. It’s 2017; unless riders are heavy tourin’ types, most don’t care about the omission too much. That’s not my gripe. My gripe is with the cost of the accessory one they sell. Four hundred bones? That’s right up there with the nine-hundred-buck BMW subframe. I’m pretty sure steel tubing is still reasonably priced, and I have trouble believing centerstand technology has advanced to the point where the R&D is driving centerstand price up. Greedy. Bad Kawasaki.

Lem's final words on the Kawasaki Z900RS

I like it. I like it a lot. This bike’s going to hit the right notes for a lot of riders, from duffers to serious go-fast riders, second-bike buyers right up to salty oldtimers, ages 25 to 75. Part of the appeal for me is that this bike is not trying too hard to be a retro, or a neo-retro thing, or any other silly thing. (Though it does have fake engine fins. I’m torn. They look nice, but, uh… they’re fake.) The bike is a modern design that stands on its own, and pays a little tribute to an earlier Kaw that comes before it.

It’s not neo-weird like the XSR (so many speed holes, but a patently fun bike), not as costly as the BMW R nineT family, isn’t hitting some contrived history that never even existed (what the hell is a “Scrambler Café?”), isn’t a blatant ripoff of an earlier Brit bike, and doesn’t assume that performance doesn’t matter (Harley-Davidson Sportster or Moto Guzzi V7 Stone).

Black tank
2018 Kawasaki Z900RS. RevZilla photo.

If I were to buy one of these, it would be the black version, with the modern tank graphics. ‘Cause here’s the thing: that doesn’t look retro to me. It looks like the logical evolution of the UJM. If the USA hadn’t gone sportbike-crazy when I was in my motorcyclin’ salad days, this is what motorcycles would have looked like: the sensible standards that sold (and still do sell) like hotcakes in Europe. Maybe I’m a dimwit, but this motorcycle, a plain-jane black standard motorcycle, is what I want to ride. It’s just a bike, and its looks are largely a product of its purpose. And for the folks who want some retro flair, the brown-and-orange livery with some of those nifty badges should get the job done. (And the Café, if/when it arrives.)

I want to ride this bike more. That’s the best feeling I can have when I end a ride, and I think it’s probably one of the better points upon which I could end a review.