EXTENDED REVIEW: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
Written by Marlon Slack
The reviews are in and the motorcycle industry has spoken. The new Kawasaki Z900RS is the best handling, best looking, most incredible retro bike ever designed. According to the throngs of fawning middle-aged journalists it can do anything. It can tour. It can commute. It can cure cancer, remove blackheads and can bring Israelis and Palestinians together. Such is the power of the new Z900RS.
I’m bullshitting you, but I’m not far off. Reviews of this bike have been so treacley I’m more than a little suspect. Maybe Kawasaki throw the best launch parties. Maybe people are just hailing the returning of a much-loved model. Maybe press release-based motorcycle journalism has reached new lows or maybe – just maybe – it’s actually a bloody good motorcycle.
I’ve had ten days to figure out if the Z900RS is worthy of even half the praise that’s been heaped on it. Ten days of interstate touring, backstreet commuting and weekend scratching to see how the bike holds up. And it’s blown me away. Mark me down as a fan. And soon, potentially, an owner.
SIT DOWN FOR A HISTORY LESSON
The Z900RS has big, 70’s-shaped shoes to fill. Not that Kawasaki Heavy Industries are new to the retro game. They’ve pushed the underrated W650 and W800 line for a number of years as well as the Zephyr series, the inline four throwback bikes that sold mildly well through the 90’s and the 2000’s. But this is the first time Kawasaki have used the ‘Zed’ label with any real effort. And that’s a big thing.
For those of you out of the know, the Z1 was Kawasaki’s explosion into the four-stroke superbike scene in the early 1970’s. Well before the advent of proper rubber or sensible chassis design the early Z1’s caught the imagination of a generation of motorcyclists who used it for long-distance touring, hooning and killing themselves.
Through movies like Mad Max and Stone the Z1 managed to deeply embed itself into the collective psyche of the motorcycle scene. It had everything a chain-smoking, moustache-sporting, hairy-chested, flared-pants-wearing rider of the early 70’s yearned for – gobs of horsepower, dead reliability and a damn beautiful paint scheme. The thing was, and will forever remain, a piece of industrial modern art.
HEY GOOD LOOKIN’
So the first thing the Z900RS will be judged is its looks. Sure, photos are self-explanatory, but there is one thing you might not be able to tell from our happy snaps. It’s the size of the tank. The thing’s enormous. From most angles it looks fine but from certain sides it’s downright jarring. The combination of spindley wheels and forks and a massive belly of tank gives it the impression of being the Z900RS having dad bod of motorcycles. But hey, that’s what you get with modern airbox placement and fuel pumps.
The quality the overall fit and finish itself is exceptional. The paint is gorgeous. I was lucky enough to have the classic orange and brown ‘Jaffa’ colour scheme which Americans call ‘Root Beer’ – I’ve no idea what that is but I like each of them individually. It has a good amount of fleck throughout and it’s applied evenly and thickly. I much prefer this colour to the other options available. Certainly more than the Kermit the Frog green of the ‘cafe version’.
Elsewhere the Kawasaki’s fit and finish is similarly immaculate. The gauge assembly, the headlight and the powder coated frame has a beautiful, deep gloss to it. Even the four into one exhaust has been polished, welded and then polished again. The view forward from the cockpit, with a pair of beautifully clear gauges with chrome surrounds looks fantastic. In between the two there’s an electronic display with a gear indicator and around eight hundred million options to scroll through – trip meter, range, odometer, average fuel consumption and so on.
Sure, there will be people who think that the Z900RS is not quite retro enough, with the large fuel tank and lack of spoked wheels, but I think it straddles the line between ‘modern take on a classic’ and ‘facsimile’ pretty well.
There are only two areas where it falls down. The first is the front guard. It’s overly modern and held in place by ugly grey plastic supports. There’s also a wretched grey plastic cover under both sides of the bodywork, detracting from that gorgeous paint job. It’s the kind of finish you’ll also see on the BMW R nineT. And it looks pretty bad there too. Chrome it or black it, please. Wait a month and there’ll be dozens of aftermarket options to correct both.
WHAT’S IT LIKE TO RIDE?
The spec sheet for the engine itself is typical of a modern four-stroke big inline four. Fuel injected, water-cooled, fairly high-compression, DOHC and everything else to be expected. And it’s derived from the standard Z900 wheelie monster. So it stands to reason the Z900RS will also be a screamer, right? Well, I’ve got a secret for you.
It’s doesn’t feel that fast. But it is. Hell, it puts out around 110 horses and 72ft/lbs of torque at an easy 6500 RPM. Which is certainly nothing to be sneezed at, but it has to be the least threatening, most placid modern water-cooled four I’ve ridden. It’s parent model, the Z900, has a fair bit of anger in its veins but Kawasaki have done quite a bit of work to neuter, er, rework this engine.
And it’s not just a change in injectors and intake size like a lot of the old naked models were dumbed down with. When compared to it’s streetfighter brethren the Z900RS has a heavier flywheel, smaller diameter exhaust, different cam and most importantly, lower compression. All that makes for a very different riding experience. So If you’ve carved up some miles on the standard Z900, you can’t compare it to this.
Now cynics among you will wonder why you can’t have that retro look and all that aggressive horsepower at the same time. And I get that. But it’s all been done very deliberately. After all, it’d be much cheaper to just use the standard engine and not bother with the R&D, right?
Well, the end result of that rework is a bike that pulls willingly from all gears, and never, ever shocks or surprises you. The power is completely and utterly linear and predictable. On most days it’s still fun as all hell. But there are moments you could be riding a XJR1300 and the engine wouldn’t feel too different. It’s about as sensible and well-mannered as a 100HP bike can ever be. It’s not so much Mad Max as Mad Maxmillion.
That being said it’s got plenty of torque and overtaking maneuvers are always simple. No matter where you are above 3,500RPM you can just lay on the throttle and get a steady run of power to zap past whatever caravan, truck, van, car or Harley Davidson rider is holding you up. No lag, no clicking down a gear – just a big ol’ wave of acceleration on tap from anywhere. The only time it’ll bog or stutter is down low – under 3,800RPM when laying off the throttle mid corner it’ll buck a little. You can work around that, but it can still be a little jarring.
Everything is done so neatly and with so little fuss and so few downsides or foibles it feels like motorcycling with a cheat mode enabled. But if you’re after a butt-clenchingly peaky, neck-snapping, pursuit-starting, snarling inline four you’re going to find this an inline snore. But for me, and the vast majority of people who are like me, will love the flexibility of this donk. Combined with possibly the lightest, smoothest clutch pull I’ve ever felt on the bike the overwhelming feeling is of a big, friendly, torquey bike that will do anything you chuck at without the slightest hesitation or complaint.
And it’ll do it while sounding damn good too. When I first thumbed the starter of the Z900RS I walked back to the rear of the bike to see if Kawasaki Australia had snuck on an aftermarket can. It was stock. Thanks to careful testing acoustic (apparently the a first for Team Green) the Zed has a nicely warm exhaust note. We’ve come a long way from the quiet whine of just a few years ago.
There are people will want something louder – and I think a 4-2 stainless system, while costing about as much as a new house, will be a popular option for people to who want the classic 70’s look. For me, I’d be happy to keep the exhaust system stock. And there aren’t too many bikes I can say that about. Ask the old Nonna that I live next door to.
HOW’S IT HANDLE?
At low speeds, splitting through traffic and dodging drunk pedestrians the Z900RS handles far better than it has any right to. Some combination from frame geometry, excellent wheel sizes and general cleverness by the team at Kawasaki have managed to turn a bike that, ten years ago, would have been a bit of a porker into something that can carve up traffic beautifully. The only thing that holds it back is a bit of a wooden rear brake that lacks initial bite and feel. The front is great though, at all speeds. It’s firm, gives good feedback and is very ‘stoppy’. Though I didn’t try any stoppies.
Out on the open road nothing changes. It holds lines exceptionally well, and the front always feel sure and firm footed. The lean angle is good and it changes direction quickly. There were a few occasional sharp moments of rebound from the rear but apparently both front and rear suspension is fully adjustable. If it’s yours, go for it. When it comes to suspension I have a tendency to absolutely ruin settings and forget where I started. I got a literal kick in the arse a few times for my laziness, but remember – it can be ironed out.
Thankfully, the three stage traction control system is completely unobtrusive and can be switched off altogether. Amen.
WILL IT CARRY A CASE OF BEER?
It all sounds like I’m damning the bike with faint praise, doesn’t it? It’s slower than you’d expect, less raucous and handles beautifully, although feeling completely neutral. It carries its weight well and is an exceptionally well-ordered, well-mannered bike. But there’s a few things that push it into the realm of fantasticness for me.
It’s all the practical things that make the Z900RS an excellent proposition for just about anyone out there. Firstly, it’s got tie down points. There’s a spool halfway back under the seat and at the rear, behind the side reflector, there’s a loop for the other end your occy strap. It’s also got a helmet lock. Can you believe it?
Pillion comfort is okay too – under the bum at least. But my girlfriend, at 5 foot 8, started to get cramps up and around her legs from having to adopt the ‘frog taking a dump’ position. It’s okay for shorter stints, but tallish pillions will begin to struggle. For the pilot, it’s great. I did a 13 hour day on the bike at one stage with no complaints at all.
THERE HAS TO BE SOMETHING WRONG WITH IT
I’m well aware that this article may well read like something straight out of a Kawasaki press release. But if you know me, I try to be as much of a contrarian as possible. No small part of me wanted to rally against everybody else and tell you what a flawed, terrible bike it is.
But it’s not. It’s one of the most well-rounded, niggle-free motorcycles I’ve ridden. The closest I found to anything that irritated me is the bevelled dash. In direct sunlight reflected the red from the tank onto the instrument surround so at a slight glance it looked like a warning light being thrown up.
That’s it. That’s all I can really complain about with any enthusiasm.
WHAT’S NOT TO LIKE?
In so many ways the Z900RS has everything I find unappealing about a motorcycle. It’s ultra-smooth, slick, water-cooled and dead reliable. It handles beautifully. It stops and starts and will likely have an exceptionally long, trouble-free life. But there’s something about the whole thing, when taken as a package, that works so damn well it’s hard not to see the appeal.
So what is there not to like? A lot of people will know the answer right away. They’ll give you twelve thousand reasons why they don’t like about Z900RS. That’s right. It retails, in most of the US, for $12,000. In Australia that’s $18,000 South Pacific Pesos.
And that’s a lot of money by anyone’s standards. But I really do think it’s worth it. So much so I’m likely going to buy one. The Z900RS will do everything I ask of from my main motorcycle. It’ll commute, it’ll tour, it’ll be reliable and it’ll look damn good while doing so. Sometime in the coming months I’m going to waddle into my local Kawasaki dealer and put my money where my mouth is.
Everyone’s right. The Z900RS is an exceptional motorcycle.
– Gorgeous paint, fit and finish
– Great handling at all speeds
– Gorgeous engine
– Some snatchy fuel injection
– Minor styling faux pas
– A bit pricey for some