Story from our digital magazine, available for free at the Ultimate Motorcycling App.It’s no secret that naked sport bike sales have skyrocketed in the United States in recent years. Kawasaki has long offered a Z1000, but along with the Z800, it will not be returning to the US for 2017—the two have been replaced by the new Z900. Kawasaki’s introductory, mid-level naked bike offerings haven’t been seen roaming the American countryside since the briefly imported ER-6n.
Filling that void is the spunky 2017 Kawasaki Z650, which is designed to take on entry-level naked competitors such as the Suzuki SV650, the Yamaha FZ-07 or the more exotic (and expensive) KTM 690 Duke. This, of course, is a critical piece of the overall motorcycle market. It is a place where riders can get their feet wet, riding a middleweight machine until their skills or desires grow beyond the motorcycle’s capabilities. For this role, the Z650 is certainly up to the task.[Visit 2017 Motorcycle Previews]Let’s get a few facts straight first. The 2017 Z650 and the 2017 Ninja 650, aside from the fairing, are virtually the same machine. They share an engine, chassis, and suspension—you get the picture. While that might seem duplicative, Kawasaki assures us that it isn’t.According to Kawasaki’s market research, the naked sport segment has grown 382% since 2011. More importantly, the naked bike buyer and the sport buyer (Ninja 650) tend to avoid one another’s paths—these are two distinct demographics that need to have their individual interests catered to.The Z family, at least since its reintroduction, has been hallmarked by its radical styling. Extreme and raucous, I’ve personally been a fan of the predatory stylistic cues. Of course, not everyone agrees with me; in fact, the Z1000’s styling was polarizing. This aesthetic was dubbed Sugomi—“The Sugomi kanji character is the beating heart,” Kawasaki tells us.All of that is present in the 2017 Kawasaki Z650, but in a far more approachable manner. The iconic Z-styled headlight is there, along with a sporty stance, an eye-catching trellis frame, silver crankcase and head covers, and finished off with an attractive, svelte tail. The Z650 is a bike with great lines, and a particularly good fit-and-finish. Plastics match up quite well, and the components feel sturdy.The newly updated dash, which is easy to read in direct sunlight, has plenty of information that novices, as well as veterans, can appreciate. You will find a gear indicator, fuel level and range, among some of the standard offerings. It’s worth noting that there are three different display options available, allowing the rider a say into how information is presented to him.Now we have the business out of the way, it’s time to get into it. Found at the heart of the Z650 is the tried-and-true 649cc, liquid cooled, DOHC, four valves per cylinder, parallel twin engine. Though we don’t have access to horsepower numbers, the engine is said to produce a peak of nearly 50 ft/lbs of torque at 6500 rpm.For 2017, we aren’t seeing a complete redesign of the motor, but there were some changes—all in the name of low to mid-range use, and reliability. The main changes, according to Kawasaki, include a redesigned camshaft for increased midrange power, a 36mm Keihin throttle body (down 2mm from last year), and slimmed intake ports to improve, once again, low to mid-range throttle response.In practice, Kawasaki has improved upon a strong foundation in regards to its 650 powerplant. Below 4500 rpm, the engine is relatively benign—great for dealing with urban sprawl, relatively quiet and unimposing, and wearing the commuter hat with glee.The engine’s strengths then lie in how tractable it is. Fueling feels nearly flawless at virtually any rpm, and power is delivered in a progressive, predictable manner. Throttle response isn’t soft by any means, nor will you find it to be finicky – a novice throttle hand would have no issue with the Z650.I found myself making use of a large percentage of the rev-range while scooting around the Cleveland National Forest, rolling hefty portions of throttle out of superb twisties. With torque kicking in nice and low, the Z650 has a sport-inspired nature, and one that allows a rider to really develop their skills, at any level.Of course, the motor also shines above 5000 rpm. There, the Z650 sheds its subdued personality. If the rider chooses to twist the throttle with gusto, the reward is a grin-inducing exhaust tone, as well as an inspiring induction howl.Another aspect of user-friendliness I’m particularly excited about is the Kawasaki Assist & Slipper clutch. It wasn’t all that long ago that slipper clutches were relegated to the high-end of motorcycling. Like many technologies, the once exclusive, has now become the commonplace.The assist function lessens the clutch pull, which is especially noted by urban riders. Sport riders will appreciate the slipper-clutch’s ability to prevent wheel-hop, thus allowing for a greater degree of stability during deceleration. As someone who has botched more than a few downshifts in his day, that’s an aspect of the 2017 Z650 well worth noting.Binding all of that together is the newly developed chassis, one that is shared between the 2017 Z650 and the new Ninja 650 and makes use of the motor as a stressed member for the steel trellis frame. Kawasaki engineers utilized as many straight lines as possible in an effort to reduce weight, without sacrificing performance. In fact, they endeavored to enhance it. Seeing as the Z650 comes in at a claimed wet weight of 410 pounds, we would say that they have achieved their goals.The Kawasaki Z650 is a low-slung, slim profiled machine. With a seat height of just under 31 inches, and a comfortably narrow chassis, my 5’ 10’’ self was able to be flat-footed at stoplights. For someone of my arm length, I found the riser bars to be amicable as well, and I didn’t feel cramped.The gas tank plays a critical role when it comes to ergonomics. Aside from having an engaging, sculpted look, the four-gallon tank acts as a great anchor when cornering, or braking; one can lean in without being impeded by a bulbous container.With a nimble 55.5-inch wheelbase, aggressive 24 degrees of rake, and 3.9 inches of trail, the Z650 is agile, without becoming nervous or finicky. It requires an impressively small amount of input when entering corners, and holds lines wonderfully. This allows you to drive out of the apex with a well-earned smirk. Should you choose to push it, you won’t be met with resistance, except from the suspension.Sprung somewhat light, the suspension soaks up potholes and other rough spots to a commendable degree in city riding. However, that lighter spring-rate becomes a problem when a rider wants to get aggressive. In those scenarios, the rider can upset the chassis feel, especially on entry and at mid-corner.Another issue comes in the form of front-end dive under hard braking. Experienced, more aggressive riders have the potential to over-ride the front end, and novice riders can dive the forks if they are ham-fisted with the brake lever. It’s an issue that we see across many bikes of its class, but if the experienced rider reigns it in a tad, or the novice gets a bit more control, these problems aren’t as pronounced.Braking duties are taken care of by dual 300mm petal rotors up front, and a 220mm petal disc in the rear, working with three Nissan calipers. Braking feel isn’t overly aggressive; in fact, it seems to be a bit of a Goldilocks moment.The brakes are not underpowered for the weight and speeds that you’ll be hitting on the Z650, and certainly not overkill for the scope of work. Front brake feel is confident, and gives a good amount of feedback to the user. If a rider wants a bit more attack, a quick fix is to upgrade from the rubber brake lines to steel-braided, and make use of a more performance oriented set of pads. We spent time with the ABS model, which uses a Bosch 9.1M system—highly recommended for an additional $400.From a styling perspective, it has the some enthralling allure that premium bikes have always maintained, giving a bit of class to a machine at a much lower price point. The trellis frame and gullwing swingarm add a high-end touch to the Z650.In all, the Z650 satisfies nearly all of the prerequisites for an affordable, mid-level, sport inspired machine. In terms of performance, nearly all of the systems found on the Z650 have massive amounts of potential to take a rider with little to no experience, and allow for a great deal of maturation to take place; a rider can develop their skills for a good while, before stepping to the next rung on the proverbial ladder.Nestled in with other competitive mid-level machines, the 2017 Kawasaki Z650 is a worthy addition to an ever-important market segment. But above all, it’s just downright fun.Photography by Kevin WingRIDING STYLE
This week, Senior Editor Nic de Sena rides the all new Ducati Monster. Big changes have been made by Ducati–has the company ruined the considerable heritage of the iconic Monster–or are the changes worth it? In the second part of the show, we chat with Nick Ienatsch, Founder and Head Instructor at the Yamaha Champions Riding School. He says: “We aim to change your riding life by introducing you to Champions Habits: The techniques, approaches, skills, and the mindsets of the best riders in the world. These Champions Habits are the foundation of safety and consistency to whatever speed you ride, in any venue on any bike. Street riders, this is just as much for you as track riders. The best way to make safe riders is to make good riders.“ We hope you enjoy this episode!