Ride Review: Kawasaki Z800 ABS

This review introduces Jeff Wilson to the CMG family. He’s been riding all different kinds of bikes for years and driving cars, too, and when he’s not writing about them, he’s photographing them or filming them.

Jeff is a producer for television and commercial video in Hamilton and we’re pleased and proud to welcome him to Canada Moto Guide. – Ed. 

Damn it feels good to ride naked.

Before you get your leathers in a bunch, it’s not my 40-year-old dad bod flapping in the breeze I’m referring to (as freeing as that would be), but the stripped-down Kawasaki I’ve been riding.

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There’s no wind protection to speak of on the Z800, and that pays off with agile handling. All photos by Jeff Wilson.

Peeling away the fairings and frivolity of a traditional sport bike, and getting two-wheel-naked means a purer riding experience.  If you’re going to whine about a little wind in the face at speed, look elsewhere for a bike covered in Tupperware and Plexiglas – this Zed ain’t it.  If you can’t handle a little breeze, maybe I can interest you in something with four wheels?

Apparently I’m not the only one who feels this way.  North Americans finally seem to be getting on board with this whole naked thing – a phenomenon those open-minded Europeans embraced long ago – and the manufacturers are responding.  In 2014, Yamaha sent riders reeling with the unveiling of an all-new, budget-friendly FZ 09 powered by a hooligan-ready 3-cylinder engine intent on out-muscling the Aprilia Shiver 750 and Triumph Street Triple.  Last year, Suzuki scrambled to slap some new stickers on the tried-and-true Euro market GSR 750 (now known here as the GSX-S 750) and the party started to grow.

Now Kawasaki brings us the Z800 middleweight standard and it’s well worth a look.

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It even looks kinda evil, doesn’t it? Like it’s about to break into this old house and make off with the silverware.

THE ENGINE

Like Suzuki, Kawi’s offering has been on sale overseas for a few years already, and it’s finally begun shipping them to this side of the pond.  Also like the Suzuki, the Z800 is powered by an urban-friendly inline-4.

Where sporty four-cylinders can be a hoot to thrash at stratospheric revs on a race track or out in the countryside, in town, the drought of low-end grunt can become a little tiresome. The Z800’s 806 cc four-banger is urban-friendly since it not only pulls smartly from around 3,000 rpm, but it’s got enough mid-range thrust to make zipping through traffic easy and fun.

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If you need to keep track of the revs, the clocks are easy to read.  Batman would love this bike.

What’s more, up to 6,000 rpm, the Kawi’s engine has a satiny smoothness that keeps the grips and pegs from vibrating annoyingly.  That also means in top gear, the Z800 can cruise along at 120 km/h without making you all tingly.

Between 6,000 -12,000 rpms, things get increasingly buzzy, but the tradeoff is reaching the Z800’s estimated 111 peak horsepower (based on European information).  Acceleration is very lively indeed and even at highway speeds there is plenty of gusto for passing without needing a downshift.  That said, while the Kawasaki’s engine has great flexibility, it never feels anywhere near as frenetic as Yamaha’s triple.

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Out on the road, Jeff’s feeling a bit tingly. Fortunately for all of us, it’s only the bike that’s naked.

THE RIDE

The Z800 feels like a better all-round package than that hooligan-engine-with-discount-suspension-bits bike from Yamaha.  The Kawasaki’s throttle – operated by cables instead of computers – is lovely, functioning with a precision lacking in so many of the modern ride-by-wire throttle systems.  I’ll take an ‘old’ system like this over a hundred half-baked rider mode variations any day.  The clutch does its job without drawing attention to itself, though an adjustable lever would be nice.

As good as the Z800’s engine is, it’s the suspension that really stands out in this class.  Kawasaki’s engineers have given the Z the geometry to eagerly dive into corners, but also to hold a line with considerable stability, even if the pavement is less than smooth.  Out of the box with the KYB front and rear suspension set to factory specs, the bike feels just right.  Preload and rebound damping are adjustable both front and back, showing that costs weren’t cut on the Kawi’s suspenders.

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See the little Zs woven into the seat? That’s a nice touch. Almost a shame to obscure the seat with your ass.

Z800 riders will notice a more aggressive riding posture than on its fully upright (and dirt bike-like) competitors.  That said, despite leaning forward a few extra degrees, the Z800’s wide bars still give proper naked bike leverage for low-speed, around town manoeuvers, while not torturing wrists the way a set of sporty clip-on bars would.

At 231 kg, the Z800 is the portliest of the pack, and with a full tank of fuel, the mass can be felt, especially when moving around in a parking lot or garage.  Once at speed, the Kawasaki hides its weight well.  The two 4-piston, 310 mm front (and single piston, 250 mm rear) brakes do a fine job of hauling all that mass down from speed, and ABS is standard fare.  A little more initial braking bite would be welcome, but with a good squeeze, the operation is at least smooth and linear.

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ABS is standard on the Z800, and the brakes do a good job of pulling you back down to safe respectability.

THE VALUE FOR MONEY

Unlike the Z800’s bigger Z1000 brother, whose styling is completely overwrought, I think the smaller Kawi looks pretty good – especially in my test bike’s black and green colour scheme.  It’s nice to see some design restraint here that’s not always exercised in Japanese sport-bike styling.  The matte black exhaust and black-painted details throughout the Z800 make it look like a more expensive machine than many of the other bikes in the class – and at an MSRP of $9,299, it is.  It should be noted that Kawasaki currently has a $600 factory discount, pricing the Z800 much more aggressively against the competitors.

All this adds up to a pretty positive account of the 1,000 kms of seat time amassed on the Z800, and it is a great machine, especially at this price.  The few gripes I have are either ones that can be fixed in the aftermarket (the mirrors give mostly a view of my arms, and the seat is uncomfortably firm-and-flat), or are fairly insignificant (the small graphic gauges are not easy to read at a glance).  The transmission, too, occasionally resists first gear, but for the most part operates crisply, and finding neutral is never an issue.

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More little Zs here at the back of the bike, which is all that most car drivers will see of it once it’s moving.

Riding naked (bikes) makes a lot of sense.  They offer most of the fun of more overtly sporting machines without most of the physical discomfort.  What’s more, insurance rates are generally lower (Shhhh! Don’t tell the insurance industry we’re having affordable fun!), and the styling is usually more mature than those repli-racers.  Kawaski’s Z800 is a particularly well-rounded and compelling offering in this growing naked bike segment.

Just remember to keep your gear on, okay?

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