The Kawasaki Z900RS Is Modern Performance and Tech, With Retro Styling—and Just Enough of Everything
Killer styling, great ergonomics, and plenty of power from a characterful engine—but does it really deserve the mantle of the legendary Z1?
The rumblings of 40 cylinders rattles through my feet and into my stomach, the sound echoing off an empty school bus as 10 motorcycles stack tightly at an intersection. Past the bus is the ocean; back across the road, a truck driver smiles and bumps his horn while another driver holds his phone out the window to film our line of four-cylinder Kawasaki Z900RS. It's a callback to a time where everyone loved motorcycles—or at least, a time when it felt like everyone did. When gas was cheap, the sun always shone, manufacturers built every flavor of bike, and every neighbor, son, daughter, dad or brother owned one.
According to the Bureau of Transportation U.S. Sales statistics, in 1970, one in every 200 people in the U.S. purchased a new motorcycle. In 2015, that figure was one in every 700 people. Total number of yearly motorcycles sales dropped by more than half. It makes sense that brands want to relive those glory days with new models that harken back to that Golden Age of motorcycling.
The Return of a Legend
The Kawasaki Z1 was introduced in 1973 as a slap-in-the-face response to Honda’s CB750. Magazines of the era coined the nickname "King" when it was first introduced, and it might have been more than hyperbole: the Z1 broke 46 speed records, was responsible for 80 percent of Kawasaki's profits during a single year, helped establish Kawasaki in the U.S., and arguably redefined the motorcycle journalism industry. The 2018 Z900RS had a lot to live up to.
(Even the bike's unveiling was a notable event: Kawasaki invited the major American motorcycle magazines of the time for a top-secret trip to Japan, and unveiled the Z1's specs while on the airplane. Each editor on the group press ride—a first—received a personalized gold key for his test bike.)
“If it’s going to be built for the American market, it’s gotta be fast, and … have fairly good handling,” said Bryon Farnsworth, one of the few Americans involved in the early development of the original Z1. “We developed this motorcycle with America in mind. We had the H1 and H2, but they lacked that superbike character.” The Z1 also marked the start of Kawasaki’s four-cycle performance efforts (the H1 and H2 being two-stroke motorcycles).
“Kawasaki was going to leapfrog the other brands and create an American R&D,” Farnsworth says.
It may seem the new Z900RS is going after customers who owned a Z1 back in the day—or those potential buyers who simply lusted after one in their youth. The age checks out: according to Kawasaki market research, the ideal customer is a 35- to 55-years-old male who is “modern-minded, yet values heritage,” and “uses their bike as a lifestyle statement.”
The marketing target had me suspicious. As a motorcycle enthusiast and potential buyer, I could care less about my “lifestyle statement.” A motorcycle must be high-quality and ride well in order to convince me it’s worthy of that much dough.
Where is It? Pricing and Market
From afar, this Z900RS could be the upscale, modern, retro-styled performer that Kawasaki claims it to be—that is, more than a Z900 with a root beer-brown paint job and retro badging. On paper, the bike fits into the growing market of retro-stylish, low-horsepower, high-torque bikes, like competitors from Triumph, Moto Guzzi, or Indian. But Kawasaki has set out to create a more boutique motorcycle. It’s retro styling but enhanced by modern technology: just push a button and go, and feel free to leave the carb-sync tool at home.
Thanks to the wide variety of offerings in the marketplace, it’s hard to find an apples-to-apples comparison. The closest may be the Yamaha XSR900 that's the more aggressive performer and, with a $9,499 base price, is also cheaper. But the Yamaha tiptoes around the retro styling; some slight throwback influences aside, it's essentially a modern naked bike with retro parts and paint scheme. Not knocking it, but it’s a different animal.
Then there’s the Ducati Scrambler 1100cc, which is an Italian Scrambler V-twin at $12,995—so, not the same at all, really. Finally, the 2017 Honda CB1100, which has similar pricing at $12,199 but is built with some lackluster components, like traditional telescopic forks and twin-shock rear suspension.
Before arriving for the launch, I expected to find a Z900 with a paint job, slathered in PR-speak about retro styling. (If you are aching form some marketing word-salad, this is for you: "Kawasaki Z motorcycles are the real brand of street motorcycles that optimize rider immersion in their environment through engagement of the 5 senses [sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch], providing a high level of rider excitement which makes daily errands or commutes a thrill.”) Instead, we were spoiled with a new chassis, significant engine changes, internal fork setting changes, beautiful cast-spoke wheels, and traditional standard motorcycle ergonomics.
A hint of metal flake sparkles in the sun on the Root Beer Brown paint. Fun details, like a Z logo hidden in the red overlaid strip, set the Z900RS apart from competitors. I normally don’t like cast wheels, but these are designed to imitate spoke wheels, and they look stylish. Most attention-grabbing are the wide rim lips, which mimic those of early spoked racing wheels. The styling is on-point.
Simply put, the Z900RS is a modern Universal Japanese Motorcycle—which I didn’t know was possible in 2018. It can also be called a Standard motorcycle, or a middle road between a sport bike and cruiser.
Compared to the Z900, the Z900RS handlebars are 30mm wider, 65mm higher, and 35mm further back. The footpads are 20mm lower and 20mm more forward. The seat height is 31.5 inches, with an optional lowered seat.
Throwing your leg over for the first time, it becomes quickly apparent that the triangle is opened up compared to the Z900, a true naked bike. The neutral stance is also evident, as you’re no longer up and over the handlebars, but instead on top of the seat and behind the grips. The bars come up and back for a more relaxed position. The seat is wide and comfortable. The analogue dash with bullet-pod gauges is positioned in front of the bars for easy sight, with a tight LCD display in the center. The overall look is old-school, but with modern tech well incorporated.
The upright ergonomics inspire confidence, but the rest of the motorcycle should add to this confidence. At 472 pounds ready to ride, it may sound like a heavy bike—and in fact, it weighs about as much as a 1000cc sportbike—but it handles its weight well and is superbly balanced at low speeds. The bike is wider than it feels, and with help from that upright seating position, it's unexpectedly nimble.
The lightweight trellis frame chassis, like the engine, has significant changes compared to the Z900. It features a slimmer top section to accommodate the teardrop tank, but more importantly, the rear section (the welded subframe) is more flat and in line with the headlight to taillight. This creates the straight profile to which custom builds typically aspire.
The rear suspension features 140mm rear suspension travel, which feels comfortable if spongy. Kawasaki calls it a balance between sporty and comfortable. It's an apt description, but for some this may not be the ideal combination. A slight increase in rebound dampening stiffened up the rear to my preference, and provided a little more sportiness in the mix.
Up front are KYB 41mm forks, similar to those on the Z900 but with internal setting changes for a softer ride. The soft settings resulted in a comfortable and flickable bike through the corners. A very fast and very experienced rider could notice some slight shortcomings during aggressive riding, but within the less than 200 miles we rode, I didn’t push the bike past its suspension limits.
The ability to change positioning easily, even in mid corner, softens that initial riding intimidation. If you’re worried about rocks or sand covering your line, you simply change it with a slight shift in body weight. The Z900RS felt like a beginner’s liter-bike—all the power, without the scary bits.
The seat is wide and cushy, but it doesn’t allow for too much shifting around. That’s the Z900RS attitude: it’s not a sport bike; you won’t be shifting your butt off the edge of the seat. Here, you need to use your upper body and keep your butt planted, because the seat won’t allow for it. After a full day’s ride, my inner thighs were hurting from the wide seat. For a big, plush seat, I expected more long-distance comfort.
Does the engine compare to the original Z1, or the Z900? A little of both, actually. The original Z1 was the first DOHC inline-4 cylinder in a production motorcycle. Naturally, the Z900RS is a modern 948cc equivalent, liquid-cooled with 16 valves per cylinder, with a 73.4mm x 56mm bore and stroke.
The Z900 is designed to be an aggressive-riding motorcycle; the Z900RS is designed for what the Kawasaki PR team called “carefree riding.” This means less compression (10.8:1 compared to the Z900’s 11.8:1) and smaller diameter exhaust (20 percent slimmer than Z900). There are also new camshafts (exhaust: 244 degrees compared to 256 degrees on the Z900; intake: 248 degrees compared to 270 degrees on the Z900) that, among other changes, helped shift the torque curve downward in the RPM range and added to that sexy exhaust note.
I4 engines are typically high-revving, high-horsepower engines with low torque—but for fun around-town riding, it's torque that you want.
"Linear power throughout the rev range, and revs which build in a manner that gives you a connected feel between throttle and the rear wheel,” Kawasaki noted about the Z900RS, and again, the brand's description was accurate. You still have to twist the throttle and wait for RPMs to build to make that hold-on-tight power, like a traditional inline-four. The thrill of the bike was to ride around all day in low-RPMs, and twist it on the first straight-line opening: the power builds, and the motorcycle becomes a completely different machine above 6,000 RPM.
Inside the intake, there are separate lengths of intake tubes to help tune for best low- and mid-power. The EFI uses a similar setup to other Kawasaki sport bikes, with a cable throttle and a secondary set of ECU-controlled butterflies that control fuel flow when you snap the throttle. Imagine a modern-day solution to CV carbs stumbling off idle.
A secondary balancer drive off the 6th web of the crankshaft helps reduce vibration. It’s a feature on other models, but the Z900RS has a 12 percent heavier flywheel than the Z900, making for a smoother ride and more linear power delivery.
At first glance, you notice the beautiful header pipes. Three-stage buffing, then assembling, welding, and more buffing. The headers feature two walls of piping to keep them from bluing and discoloration due to excessive heat.
Kawasaki often speaks of creating an immersive environment and fully engaging motorcycles. The Z900RS is claimed to be the first motorcycle to use what they call "sound research" to enhance and tune the exhaust note. It worked: my hands-down favorite part of this motorcycle is the combination of down-low power and exhaust note.
Rip on the throttle without downshifting, listen and feel the engine’s deep growl as it steadily builds more power until it screams. When exhaust pressure builds at high RPM, a secondary passageway in the exhaust opens, adding a boost of sound. Like hitting the powerband on a two-stroke, the power feels adequate until you reach around 7,000 rpm—and the it screams to life all the way to 10,500 RPM. It tickles your hearing senses.
First gear is shorter and 6th gear is taller than the Z900, along with a taller final drive. This combination further aids in creating a smoother, more linear ride than the aggressive Z900, while still getting off the line quick.
Kawasaki offers the assist and clipper clutch on most all models now, it’s a hugely popular set-up. The assist function reduces stalling and the slipper function allows for less wheel lock up when downshifting too soon. It makes for an incredibly easy clutch pull for a 900cc bike, and safe downshifting to boot.
The Z900RS is only available in the U.S. with ABS. Luckily, the Kawasaki TRaction Control (KTRC) is simple to use and seamless while riding. Mode 1 allows full power and less restrictions, offering wheelies short of 10 o’clock, and some wheel slippage. Mode 2 acts like a rain mode, reducing wheel slippage and wheelies. They system monitors wheel speed, and throttle position, and can control ignition timing and fueling. It’s a super simple system that fits this bike well.
Wheels and Brakes
Those stylish, faux-spoke wheels are 17 inches front and rear and wrapped in Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300 rubber. Sizing: 120/70 ZR17 front and 180/55 ZR17 rear.
I found myself making excuses for the subpar aspects of the motorcycle, though I was unsure why. The clutch and gear box are good, but not perfect. Occasionally, I had a hard time finding neutral, but the pull is easy. The suspension is soft with little rebound dampening out of the box, but the soft suspension meant comfortable riding. For me, it was perfect; there may come a day when active, flip-of-the-switch suspension is cheap and affordable on a motorcycle like this. Until then, it’s all about compromising. It’ll be too soft for hardcore racers, though.
Right now there’s no word if the Cafe will come to the U.S. The lime green model with the bikini fairing has been blowing up the internet since it’s ECMA unveiling, but Kawasaki isn’t ruling it out just yet. The company says there's no official word whether it will come here or not.
If I Owned it
If I owned this bike I’d immediately cut off the unsightly license plate mount, but I’d leave the turn signals. After that, I’d reupholster the seat for some more back support, and maybe some color in the stitching. Possibly some more aggressive clutch plates. That’s it! I wouldn’t switch the tires, or the wheels, or even the exhaust. This bike is a performer, and a major contender for a customer looking for a stylish, all-around bike … and, I suppose, a "lifestyle statement."
The pull through the RPMs and secondary boost of power as the exhaust opens up, screaming, filling your senses. You don’t need to shift very much to find power, it’s there through the RPM range, and it tugs at your stomach.
The Z900RS has me seriously rethinking my next purchase. So one of my very few slams against the bike has to be the name. The Z900RS is mislabeled as a Z; it should be considered its own machine. If you ride it like it’s designed to be ridden, and consider it for what it sets out to do, it hits all the sweet spots. It's an awesome all-around motorcycle. Ride it like Rossi would and you’ll find weaknesses—but Rossi can pass me on my carefree ride on the Z900RS. I’m ok with that. It's what it was meant for.
But it’s right there with other large-engine, low-horsepower standard motorcycles. Kawasaki would make a cheaper motorcycle if they could—but what are you paying for? Comparing the bike in-house, it’s $2,200 more than the Z900 ABS (again, the Z900RS only comes with ABS), which retails for $8,799. While there’s lots of engineering development and other large changes between the two bikes, you aren’t gaining a lot of hard performance parts for extra money. You do get the stylish wheels, body work, handlebars, seat, and a much improved and smoother powerplant. The price is partly the market’s requirements for competition, as well as the stylish bits and ride-ability you don’t get with a Z900.
You can’t build a Z900 into a Z900RS, but luckily, Kawasaki made the motorcycle so good, I’d pay the difference.
Candytone Brown/Candytone Orange or Metallic Flat Spark Black