If you follow our content here on Common Tread, it shouldn't be a surprise to you that the Kawasaki Ninja 400 was one of my favorite bikes of 2018. It is an approachable, fun, affordable machine that is inviting to new and experienced riders alike. So when Kawasaki announced a Z400 using the Ninja 400 as a platform, I jumped at the opportunity to take one for a ride.
It was snowing in Philly this weekend and the launch was in Southern California, but I am nothing if not a responsible company man willing to take any assignment, no matter how brutal. So I set off to see how the new Z400 measures up against its fully faired sibling.
The Z400’s similarities and differences
The most obvious difference between the Ninja 400 and the new Z is that the Z400’s innards aren’t hidden behind plastic fairings. Kawasaki’s reason for introducing the naked Z400 is one I agree with: Not everyone identifies with the style of a sport machine.
One look at Kawasaki’s model range over the past five years is enough to show how serious they are about differentiating their lineup to appeal riders who prefer sport nakeds. In 2015, Kawasaki had one naked sport model, the Z1000. Fast forward to their 2019 lineup and there are six naked models ranging from the Z125 to the Z900 (Kawasaki counts the Z900, Z900RS, and Z900RS Cafe as three separate models).
Riders who liked the idea of the the Ninja 400, but aren’t fans of the sport styling, now have an alternative. Kawasaki feels that this will help attract more new riders, who are less likely to buy based on spec sheets and more likely to be influenced by styling. So for these potential riders, the Ninja 400 and Z400 are quite different, indeed.
Aesthetics aside, 90 percent of the features on the Z400 and the Ninja 400 are the same. The 399 cc parallel twin introduced in the Ninja 400 is unchanged for the Z400. That translates to roughly 44 horsepower at 10,000 rpm and 28 foot-pounds of torque at 8,000 rpm. The engine is extremely approachable to new riders yet comes alive when you get into the top end of the rev range. There is plenty of fun to be had for the experienced motorcyclist.
You can ride the Z400 conservatively as a commuter and get mpgs in the high 50s. I did not ride it conservatively. Instead, I chose to run the gears long, only shifting when the rev limiter reminded me that it was time. Even then, I averaged 43 mpg.
The chassis remains unchanged, as well. Handling is light and nimble. The Z400 claims an even lighter wet weight than the Ninja 400. At 364 pounds, this is one of the lightest street bikes on the market. Coupled with an unchanged 30.9-inch seat height, that makes this motorcycle extremely approachable.
From the seat down to the slightly rearset footpegs, the ergonomics are unchanged from the Ninja 400. However, while the Ninja 400 uses clip-on-style grips, the new Z400 uses a traditional handlebar which is nearly two inches taller than the Ninja’s. It’s also slightly wider and has a flatter profile. This places the rider in a slightly more upright riding position.
At six-feet, three-inches tall, I felt perfectly comfortable on this bike, regardless of how big I might look on it in the photos. Our group of riders consisted of folks of all sizes and I didn’t hear anyone complain about the Z400 being too small, or too big. That in itself is a rare feat.
That’s not to say everything fit perfectly. The same problems I had with the ergonomics on the Ninja 400 were carried over to the Z400, as well. My right heel smashes into the exhaust shield and the brake and clutch levers aren’t adjustable. For folks with larger hands, the levers won’t extend out far enough for a comfortable reach.
The one problem that presented itself on the Z400 that I wasn’t expecting was the mirrors. On the Ninja, the mirrors sit out on the front of the fairing and offer a clear rear view. On the Z400, the mirrors are mounted on the handlebar and presented nothing but a view of my forearms. I heard other folks complaining the mirrors vibrated too much, but that wasn’t anything I had a problem with.
The brakes are unchanged and while complaints have surfaced regarding the Ninja’s brakes fading with aggressive track use, I think they work just fine on the street. I was using no more than two fingers on the front brake lever to slow the Z400. The one difference is that the Z400 is only available with ABS. Kawasaki USA decided not to import the non-ABS option.
The biggest surprise to me came when Brad Puetz, Kawasaki’s media specialist, announced that they had softened the suspension internals on the Z400. The front fork of the Ninja 400 utilizes a pair of dual-rate springs which are rated at 14-21 N/mm. The Z400 gets a set of straight-rate 13 N/mm springs. The rear shock spring rate was softened roughly 10 percent from 94 to 85 N/mm.
If you remember back to my Ninja 400 review, you’ll recall that I thought the stock Ninja 400 suspension was impressively good right out of the box for street riding. My initial gut reaction was to ding the Z400 for this change before even throwing a leg over it. I weigh 220 pounds and I assumed the new suspension would now be a bit undersprung and “wallowy” with me in the saddle. Brad asked me to keep an open mind and wait until we rode the Z400 before judging it.
He insisted that the springs were changed to make the motorcycle more comfortable in day-to-day riding situations while still remaining plenty stout enough to handle regular sport riding on the street. I begrudgingly agreed to withhold judgment until after our ride, but between you and me, I was secretly already disappointed with that change to the Z400.
Riding the Z400
I got two full days with the Z400, riding it through city traffic, up the snaking back of Palomar Mountain, splitting lanes on the 15 freeway, and over the top of Ortega Highway overlooking Lake Elsinore. The weather was perfect and the motorcycle easily won me over.
Immediately I remembered why I had become so smitten with the Ninja 400. The Z400 is so light and nimble, there is nothing intimidating about it. The fueling and throttle response on the engine is perfectly mapped. In fact, it is so good in its stock form I wouldn’t recommend messing with it. I have been riding our Ninja with a Power Commander and full system exhaust, and with that it has a bit more of an on/off throttle response that I’ve almost gotten used to — until riding the Z. The throttle response on this bike is so good it has me rethinking that particular mod on our Ninja 400.
Throttle response is very linear. For those of you who are new to riding, that just means that the power comes on very evenly, without spiking in any particular place. Although, once you get the revs above the 7,000 mark, the power builds nicely and I liked keeping the engine just above that speed and holding on to third and fourth gears a little longer before shifting when I was pushing the bike in the corners.
I was afraid the new handlebar would place the rider in too much of a relaxed, upright position. After all, the Ninja 400’s clip-ons were already high enough to be comfortable. In reality, I found that I actually liked the handlebar of the Z400 better. It was more comfortable for all-day riding, yet low-slung enough that I could tuck down for more aggressive riding. I enjoyed its flat profile and wide stance. It made it easy to leverage my weight for effortless turn-in while still being narrow enough to lane split my way through Los Angeles traffic (I’m a huge advocate for lane splitting).
Just like the Ninja, the Z400 chugs along smoothly at 70 mph while turning a mere 6,500 rpm. With a redline of 12,000 rpm the Z can comfortably hold its own at highway speeds without feeling like it's wound out. You will, however, get blasted by the wind a bit more than on the Ninja 400, due to the lack of wind protection. If I was going to use the Z400 for any considerable amount of regular long-distance highway riding, I’d consider adding a small windscreen, much like I did with our Z900.
The Z400 is outfitted with the same slipper assist clutch as the Ninja 400. Clutch pull is extremely light, which makes it ideal for new riders. For more aggressive applications, however, it’s almost too light. At times, it even feels like the clutch is slipping, but the folks at Kawasaki say that it’s just super sensitive and even the lightest touch can begin to engage it. Just something to think about if you’re buying this for a fun little second bike.
My concerns with the suspension proved to be unwarranted. Around town, the Z400’s suspension soaked up the bumps and bruises of the city streets quite comfortably. My buddy Abhi Eswarappa from Bike-urious and I chased one another up Palomar Mountain and regrouped at the top to compare notes. We have both spent a considerable amount of time on the Ninja 400 and agreed that if Brad hadn’t told us that they’d softened the suspension on the Z, we’d have been hard-pressed to notice. I think my main problem is that I’ve been riding the Ninja 400 with Öhlin’s suspension installed both front and rear, so I am a little spoiled to begin with.
I would imagine that the majority of folks considering the Z400 will be more than happy with its suspension right out of the box. And while you won’t need to upgrade it right away, it’s nice to know that there are suspension upgrades available as your skills progress. I would just encourage you to take the same advice that I was given and ride it before judging it. I could ride the Z400 all day long in its stock form and have an absolute blast.
The Z400’s MSRP is $4,799, undercutting the Ninja 400 with ABS (arguably one of its closest competitors) by $500. That’s a huge difference at this price point. While Kawasaki doesn’t consider these bikes to live in the same segment based on their looks, I could see the Z400 cannibalising some sales away from the Ninja.
The other two bikes that come to mind are the KTM 390 Duke and Honda CB500F.
The 390 Duke had an MSRP of $5,449 in 2018 and pricing for 2019 has yet to be announced. This was a bike that I really enjoyed when I rode it at the launch back in 2017. Its TFT dash, electronics package, and fit and finish are really impressive. But KTM doesn’t have the dealer network that Kawasaki does and the bike is slightly more aggressive. Its seat is also nearly two inches taller than that of the Z400, making it a bit more intimidating for shorter riders and new riders. However, I would imagine that the biggest difference for a lot of folks is that $650 premium over the Kawi.
For 2019, Honda’s CB500F is getting a price bump to $6,499 for the ABS version. Along with a new price Honda is upgrading the CB’s power, throttle response, clutch, suspension, and electronics, as a TFT dash will now be the standard layout for the CB500F. While I have yet to ride this new one, the previous version always just felt vanilla to me. Despite the Honda’s displacement advantage, I always thought the Kawi’s engine had more character and bite. That being said, I’ll have to reserve final judgment until I get to ride the new version. But even so, it’ll have to be pretty darn good to make up for the $1,700 price difference between the two models.
If you ask me if the Z400 is better than the Ninja 400, I’d have to say no. But that's because they are different, more different than I expected.
I really liked the Ninja 400, especially as a lightweight track machine. But if I was just looking for a street bike, with no intentions of heading to a racetrack, I would pick the Z400, hands down. Personally, I prefer the naked look and the feel of the wider, flatter, handlebar setup.
It’s perfect for ripping around the city or tearing up a mountain road. I doubt I would have been any faster getting to the top of Palomar Mountain on a larger, more powerful machine. Whether you’re a new rider looking for your first bike, or an experienced rider looking to add a second bike to the garage, the Z400 is a fun motorcycle that will bring a smile to your face.
And, at $4,800, it’s going to be hard to argue with the value of the Z400.
|2019 Kawasaki Z400|
|Bore x stroke||70 mm x 51.8 mm|
|Front suspension||41 mm telescopic fork|
|Rear suspension||Bottom-link Uni-Trak swingarm, adjustable preload|
|Front brake||310 mm semi-floating single disc, ABS|
|Rear brake||220 mm single disc, ABS|
|Seat height||30.9 inches|
|Fuel capacity||3.7 gallons|
|Curb weight||364 pounds|