Replacing an iconic model is always a tough job. However, replacing two motorcycles in one fell swoop only adds to the difficulty. In this case, the Kawasaki Z1000 (a classic) and last year’s Z800 (a one-year stopgap, in retrospect) have been supplanted by the all-new 2017 Kawasaki Z900.A flagship above the Z650 twin and Z125 Pro single—also both new for ’17—the Z900 inline-4 takes a different approach to the naked upright near-liter class. Eschewing the electronic aids that are becoming commonplace on high-performance sportbikes, the Z900 is a back-to-basics machine that competes aggressively on price. In ABS-free trim, the Z900 runs $600 less than the Yamaha FZ-09 (upgraded this year) and just $100 more than the upcoming redesigned 2018 Suzuki GSX-S750.
That’s not all—Kawasaki also has tuned the engine in a way that goes against conventional wisdom. Instead of concentrating on low-end and mid-range torque, the Z900 is soft on the bottom and all about revs.Perhaps counter-intuitively, that makes the Z900 incredibly easy to ride around town. It is positively docile below 6000 rpm, so it tools around like a bike that’s much smaller.Weighing in at 459 pounds (wet, claimed), it’s 34 pounds heavier than the FZ-09. Still, the narrow Z900 is agile when splitting lanes and making your way through urban traffic. The lack of hit from the engine means no surprises in tight confines.Perhaps one reason Kawasaki went this route is that it lacks any power modes. You get one, and you better like it. This makes the Z900 more attractive and controllable to less experienced riders moving up to a near-liter motorcycle for the first time. In reality, it’s a clever idea that will satisfy more people than it will alienate.Now, for those of us comfortable with spinning up a decidedly oversquare 948cc four-cylinder powerplant, the Z900 is nicely rewarding. The magic starts at 6000 rpm, and takes you right up to the 11,000 rpm redline with no power plunge at the top. It’s not an overwhelming push and it doesn’t spin up at an alarming rate, yet it’s fully satisfying for the overall focus of the machine.The gearbox uses close ratios for 1st through 5th gears, making it easy to keep the Z900 in the power-producing zone, should you choose to do so. Rest assured that 5th will take you far above the speed limit, so 6th is positioned as an overdrive to allow the motor to relax when doing the inevitable freeway duty—nicely done.Kawasaki is certainly positioning itself as a top-end power company. The Z900’s rigid lightweight pistons are manufactured using the techniques developed for creating the pistons for the over-the-top Ninja H2R hyperbike. Additionally, the use of cylinder corridors to mitigate pumping loss at high rpm reminds us that the Z900 is about revving.A nice bonus of letting the quartet of downdraft 36mm throttle bodies do their thing is an intake system designed to spread the power around a bit, while producing a satisfying intake roar. With the expected quiet exhaust note, the intake becomes the primary sound field and muscles its way into your head, taking center stage quite effectively.Like any successful bike, the Z900 is balanced. The wheelbase is over 57 inches, and the 24.7 degrees of rake are aggressive, though not overly so.The frame is something of a curiosity. While Kawasaki describes it as a trellis design, when stripped down it is very much a combination of perimeter, traditional steel tube and, yes, trellis. The engine is a stressed member with five mounting points, and the rear subframe is permanently mounted for simpler construction.I would certainly want the gray version of the Z900 just to get the striking green frame—it’s a showstopping look. The black-on-black version is dull in comparison, though not bad on its own.Compact and narrow ergonomics give the Z900 the ability to change direction without the requirement of undue effort, yet it still has the stability the likely owner will crave. Neutral best describes the behavior of the Z900 in the corners.The Z900’s Dunlop Sportmax D214 tires continue the theme of moderation. Most Z900 riders will appreciate the balance of performance, wet weather competence, and longevity that the D214 offers. More demanding riders can easily swap out for something stickier.The suspension is fairly basic, and oriented toward comfort—Kawasaki doesn’t want you to get pounded around town, yet it’s still firm enough to perform in the twisties. Both ends have spring-preload and rebound damping adjustment. The fixed compression damping is about right, as long as you aren’t an outlier in weight or aggression.Braking is linear after a very soft initial bite from the Nissin calipers and resin brake pads. This is what will work for newer riders to the class, who don’t want any sort of extreme reaction from the bike.The back brake is useful, as back wheel lifting isn’t likely with the 300mm front discs and predictable front braking. The effective ABS is a $400 option, and I would suggest that you not pass that up; it only adds a paltry 4.5 pounds to the Z900.The Z900 has the expected slip-and-assist style clutch. I wasn’t able to chatter the back-end on overly enthusiastic downshifts, and the clutch does have a friendly light touch.I did try the Z900 out with the Kawasaki Genuine Accessories Ergo-Fit 1-inch Extended Reach seat. It is about an inch taller, as you would expect, and softer than the standard seat.There is certainly not a thing wrong with the stock seat, but I preferred the slightly higher perch. It gave me a bit more legroom, and had the effect of dropping the position of the wide, flat-bend bars for a more aggressive lean-forward body position. That’s especially welcome at high-speeds on a naked bike.Sure, you don’t get much in the way of electronic “control” on the Z900—traction, wheelie, cruise, and launch are all on you and your right hand. Fortunately, Kawasaki did a good job of making it easy for even a big-bike neophyte to learn the fine art of control.With an attractive price and appearance, the 2017 Kawasaki Z900 also has the appeal of a docile in-town motor and a willing screamer down in the canyons. The handling won’t scare anyone, and the Z900 is a great way for an improving rider to up his game. Photography by Drew RuizRiding Style
This week we ride two genre-departing motorcycles from the established American manufacturers. Jess McKinley gives us his thoughts on the all new Harley-Davidson Pan America Special, and Ron Lieback gives his on Indian’s latest version of the FTR 1200 S.