When Kawasaki introduced the Z900 in 2017, the plan was to replace the Z800 and Z1000 models with a machine that would deliver the best aspects of both in performance and useability. The Z900 has been updated for 2020, and now that we’re a few years out from it stepping into the spotlight, it seems like a good time to take a ride and reflect on whether it really is the best of both worlds.
Before we get going here, I should recognize that the Z1000 is still available in Europe. However, it’s not for sale in the United States anymore. Hence the past tense. From a specification standpoint, let’s remember the Z900’s former siblings for what they were. The Z800 claimed 113 horsepower, had a 32.5-inch seat height, and weighed more than 500 pounds with a full tank. The ultra-sugomi Z1000 boasted 142 ponies, flexed a 32.1-inch seat height, and tipped the scales at around 490 pounds all fueled up. On paper, the Z1000 was much better — it was lighter (amazingly) and packed more power. Then again, at $12,000, it was nearly $4,000 more than a Z800.
An elegant solution
The first-generation of Z900 was already lighter than both bikes, only a shade more expensive than the Z800, and pumped out a claimed 125 horsepower. Arguably an ideal blend or compromise, and for 2020 much of that is the same. The 943 cc engine is largely unchanged, except for a tweak to the intake funnels in the airbox to help keep up with emissions requirements. Most of the chassis architecture of the bike is the same, as well. Kawasaki updated the tubes of the frame around the swingarm pivot to be stronger, and the rear shock spring is now stiffer. Mechanically, it remains a fairly basic inline-four-cylinder powerplant, bolted to a trellis-style frame with a flat handlebar and not a lot of frills.
Electronic features really differentiate the 2020 model from the previous version. It’s more than just ABS now, with switchable traction control, individual power-mode selection, and four ride modes to choose from. Plus, all of it is controlled via a new, 4.3-inch TFT display in the cockpit. This is standard-issue hardware for Kawasaki in 2020, being applied to the Z H2 and Ninja 1000SX, as well. The full-color screen also offers Bluetooth connectivity to Team Green’s Rideology app, not to mention changeable night/day backgrounds. As a cherry on top, there’s refreshed styling — little bits around the LED headlight, more compact shrouds, and an updated fuel-tank cover.
The updated ride
My first impression of the 2020 Z900 was simply that it looks and feels premium. The shine on the plastics is bright, the rim stripes are exactly the right kind of flashy, and the TFT dash is sharp. Even if the reptile-skin effect on the seat cover or the honeycomb graphics aren’t really my style, there’s no denying that the Z900 has presence and kickstand appeal. Cranking the engine to life you get what you expect from a full-size Japanese inline four — a smooth grumble at idle and quick revs when you twist the grip.
Fiddling with the dash, I linked my phone and got set to track my ride. I’m an old millennial, admittedly, but I immediately felt a little baffled by the switchgear. An up/down rocker with a “Select” button in the middle offers most of the same functionality of Kawis gone by. Tap the lower part of the switch to toggle through options on the lower part of the screen (range, mpg average, etc), and tap the upper part for the options resting above (trip meters, odometer, etc.). Simple enough. Two rubber-coated buttons on the bottom of the screen essentially mirror these functions for cycling through information. But, in order to reset the trip meter, for example, the button on the dash must be held down rather than the rocker. That’s in part because holding up or down on the rocker also moves through the ride modes.
It’s a little tricky, but no worse than some other bikes. Unfortunately, it got worse when I dove into the menu (by holding down the right-side rubber button) and found a vertical list of settings. Oddly, the up/down rocker and “Select” button are useless here, and you have to navigate through the list by tapping the left-side rubber button. What followed, for me, was a hilarious and frustrating trial-and-error session of trying to figure out what button selects, how to go back, and trying not to screw up the stock settings.
I don’t want to make a federal case out of this; if you owned the bike you would figure it out, and it’s not like most of us live in the menus before every ride. But I can’t help but feel like the beautiful TFT dash is betrayed by some pretty basic user-interface hurdles, and I think that’s notable.
Fortunately, dropping the bike in gear and taking off got me right back to thinking what a nice machine the Z900 is underneath. The clutch feel is excellent, the throws on the shifter are short and quick — it just feels like it was tuned by people who know what they’re doing. The big, four-pot Nissin binders are sharp, with lots of power, and make me wonder why some other companies don’t bother to make their brakes feel like this. Scooting along city streets, the suspension is firm and sporty. For 2020 the shock spring got about four percent stiffer, which I’m not sure it needed. Still, it’s not the hardtail torture rack that the Z1000 was.
While we’re on the topic of comparing to the other bikes, the Z900’s 31.3-inch seat height came to mind early on in my ride, too. That’s nearly an inch lower than the Z1000, and 1.2 inches lower than a Z800. The scoop on the seat is a little extreme for me at six feet, two inches tall, and it makes the legroom feel a bit cramped. However, at a stoplight I can easily put both feet flat on the ground and stand up with daylight under my buns. I would want a thicker, softer seat for more comfort and legroom, but I appreciate that the Z900 has brawny performance and is approachable for riders of all sizes.
Right, the performance. Sorry, where are my manners? If you’re reading a Z900 review you might be wondering if it screams up to the rev limiter and power wheelies off corners. Yes to both. The engine isn’t a snarling beast — it’s tremendously linear, with a silky rush of power that builds in a predictable but exciting way. Below 5,000 rpm it’s strong without being impressive, but if you fan the clutch and tug on the handlebar in third gear, be ready. You’ll get a proper wheelie. At the same time it’s as polite as can be, with smooth throttle response and an easygoing character at low rpms.
It’s worth mentioning that the suspension, which feels a little firm in the city, really comes into its own on a smooth, twisty road. The bike feels planted and confident, and might even coax you into leaning over a little too far. I never dragged anything, and by the time I was at full lean it occurred to me that if I want more than that I should go to a race track. It’s no race bike, but a track day here and there would be a blast on the Z900, in part because it’s capable but also because it has a fancy new set of electronics.
Controlling power output through engine maps is something Kawasaki has been doing for a while now — typically “F” for full power and “L” for low power. Similarly, the KTRC system (Kawi-speak for traction control) has offered other green bikes the option of three levels of TC adjustability plus the option of turning it off. All of those controls have been added to the 2020 Z900, in addition to Rain, Road, and Sport riding modes, which use predictable combinations of power modes and TC for their namesake conditions. The fourth option, Rider, can be adjusted to any combo of power mode and TC you choose.
I already complained about the controls being a little clunky, but let me be clear: The software behind these systems that Kawasaki has developed is great. Level 1 of KTRC will quickly save a rear-tire slip over a manhole cover or patch of sand, and yet it allows gentle power wheelies. Best of all, when the TC does limit power it rapidly puts control back in the rider’s hand — it’s a performance system, always wanting to keep driving forward as long as it’s doing so safely. As much as I like the Kawasaki suite of safety settings, I love that KTRC can be turned off as well. Plus, if you have TC off and cycle the key, it stays off. Every kid’s favorite chaperone is the one that understands boundaries.
Maybe it’s because I’ve tested Kawasakis against some oddball bikes over the years, but it often strikes me that the company understands how to properly mix practicality with fun, and affordability with build quality. The Z900 is flashy, and a little futuristic, but the mirrors work pretty well and the levers are adjustable. It’ll blow your hair back on your favorite strip of tarmac and still putt around town or cruise gently down the highway, getting about 45 mpg along the way.
Give me context
When I posed the question on social media of what people wanted to know about the Z900, most asked for a comparison to Yamaha’s MT-09. Not having ridden an MT-09 recently, I’m not going to pretend to compare them fully. What I will say is that where the MT-09 is often dinged for being too soft in the suspension department the Z900 delivers just the opposite, with a firm, planted chassis. On the flipside, the Yamaha’s engine snarls with an energy that this Kawi doesn’t match, even if the Z does make more power.
Others wondered about BMW’s new F 900 R, which uses a similar-sized (albeit two-cylinder) engine, a TFT dash, and costs about the same. The F 900 R offers a little more refinement and certainly more factory options, but at its core the Beemer is mild and mature compared to the Z900. If the Z900 is your fun-loving college buddy, the F 900 R is his girlfriend who is always rolling her eyes and making sure he has his wallet. Whatever bike you’re using as a yardstick, the Z900 will compete one way or another.
Three bikes in one
One could complain, if they were so inclined, that the green on the plastic doesn’t quite match the green of the frame, or that the seat is too stiff. And yes, I whined about the dash controls being convoluted. But when I step back after a spirited ride along a twisty road or a blast across the city, this is a nice motorcycle. It’s satisfying and exciting to use, intriguing to look at, and at $8,999 is priced very, very reasonably.
The bottom line here is that Kawasaki absolutely made the right call in creating this Z900 and pushing the Z800 and Z1000 toward the museum. It doesn’t have the heavyweight punch of the Z1000 but it’s nearly as strong, and sprung for human skeletons, not to mention it’s oh so much cheaper. And the Z800 never stood a chance, with less power, a taller seat, and 40 extra pounds. This Z900 is the best bike of the group, and is a worthy competitor to any machine in this category.
|2020 Kawasaki Z900|
|Engine||948 cc, liquid-cooled, 16-valve, inline four|
|Frame||Trellis frame with twin-tube rear section|
|Front suspension||KYB 41 mm fork, adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping; 4.7 inches of travel|
|Rear suspension||KYB shock, adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping; 5.5 inches of travel|
|Front brake||Nissin four-piston calipers, 300 mm discs with ABS|
|Rear brake||Nissin single-piston caliper, 250 mm with ABS|
|Rake, trail||24.5 degrees, 4.1 inches|
|Seat height||31.3 inches|
|Fuel capacity||4.5 gallons|
|Tires||Dunlop Sportmax Roadsport 2; 120/70R17 front, 180/55R17 rear|
|Claimed weight||458.6 pounds (463.1 with ABS)|