In Europe, naked sportbikes rule the road. The combination of a powerful engine, nimble handling and “all-day” ergonomics has helped to push this category to the premier position for riders across the pond. However, here in America, they’ve been slow to catch on.
Over the past five years, however, we have seen increased sales in the naked-bike segment as riders have come to realize their potential for everyday use in a real-world environment. This uptick in interest spurred Kawasaki to introduce its best-selling Z800 to the United States last year in an effort to test the waters for future models.
While the Z800 was a fun bike in its own right, it was received with mixed reviews as being a bit dated, overweight and underpowered compared to the competition in this market segment. Kawasaki knew this and was already working on its replacement: The Z900.
My first impressions of riding the Z900 are coming soon, but to set the stage I talked with Seiji Hagio, Kawasaki’s Project Leader for the new machine, to learn more about the driving factors behind the design of this new bike.
Q: The Z800 has been one of Kawasaki’s best selling motorcycles since its introduction in 2012. (It wasn’t introduced in the United States until 2016.) What pressure did you feel when setting out to redesign such an important bike?
A: The Z800 was the popular naked bike for the Kawasaki lineup. It’s a lot of pressure. Pressure to make a noticeable improvement for the Z900. Cutting weight was my main focus. [Physical] weight, but also to make the bike to look lighter. That look had to be another constant focus.
Q: So of all the changes made, was the weight savings the most significant?
A: It was about losing weight, but also about increasing power. Because [people] will notice the displacement getting bigger as well. So, it’s a combination of things, but really weight and increasing horsepower.
Q: We’ve seen an increase of electronic rider aids across the board over the past few years, mainly with traction control. This tends to be a polarizing topic among riders. Some like it and others don’t. What was the reasoning for not including any type of traction control on the Z900?
A: So if you go with a track bike you have to have traction control, fly-by-wire, all those controls. All of that is there to get you a faster lap time. Our focus, as you noticed today, was to make [the Z900] pretty easy to ride. It’s so controllable, so we didn’t really pursue those kinds of traction control. We wanted to keep it as a basic package.
Also, that is going to keep it more affordable for the customer. (The Z900’s MSRP is $8,399 for non-ABS and $8,799 with ABS.) The price range was an important factor for us. For riders younger in age and riders looking to save money, we wanted an eye-catching pricing point.
Q: In the United States, the Z900 is replacing both the Z800 and the Z1000. In other markets, the Z1000 still exists, placing the Z900 and Z1000 very close in performance. What do you see as the main points off differentiation between the two bikes? What’s the reason a customer would pick one over the other?
A: The Z1000 will be more powerful of course, more aggressive for sport riding. If you compare the Z900, it’s going to have more of that “easy” factor. It’s not as harsh.
In the U.S. market, there is the Z650, as well, which got even closer to the Z800. So we introduced the Z900 and everything kind of moved parallel. It all stepped up. So while the Z900 and Z1000 were getting quite close from a market standpoint in America, in Europe some people still enjoy the extra power of the Z1000 and the stiffness and handling. So we left the Z1000 in that market.
Q: So the Z1000 is more track-focused, while the Z900 becomes more of your everyday bike of choice?
(At this point, Croft Long, Kawasaki’s Two Wheel Project Manager, interjected to add that one of the reasons the Z1000 is still so popular in Europe is they sell an upgraded version with an Öhlin’s racing suspension. That adds further distinction to the models, but the extra technology drives up cost. The future of the “Z” line in America is a more affordable position.)
Q: When you set out to design the engine for the new Z900, was there a reason behind starting with the Z1000’s engine as the platform and not boring out the Z800’s?
A: It goes back to reducing weight. We needed rigid engine mounts. Because of that we needed a counterbalancer in the engine. The Z1000 engine already had the counterbalancer, so that’s where we started from.
We based our downsizing of the Z1000 engine on the ability to make the engine part of the frame structure. This allows us to makes a steel frame super lightweight. Overall, we reduced the weight 46 pounds over the Z800.
But remember, while these engines might be similar looking, this is an all-new engine made for the Z900. The Z1000 is a rubber-mounted engine in an aluminum frame and this is a steel frame with rigid mounts. So even with the machine work, it’s pretty different.
Q: Do you see the Z900 being as successful in America as the Z800 was in Europe?
After talking with Hagio, I continued my discussion with Long, who spoke about the geographical differences between Europe and the United States. Here, he noted, many riders gravitate toward touring bikes or cruisers, because the physical landscape is more spread out, with larger distances dividing us than in Europe. So while standard bikes are seen as number one in Europe, and Kawasaki has high hopes for their new Z-line flagship, they are realistic about the future of naked bikes in America.
There is no doubt that the Z900, because it is replacing two other models and sits atop the Z lineup, is an important bike for the company. Check back in a few days for my riding impressions to see how they've done.