PHOTOGRAPHY BY DREW RUIZ
Damn, this thing is exquisite.
This ain’t no hastily put together Café or Scrambler. This is retro, done oh so right.
This is the 2018 Z900RS, a tribute to one of the most significant motorcycles of all time, Kawasaki’s record setting 1973 Z1, and I freakin’ love it.
LOS ANGELES, CA.—Just as with baggers, the term retro isn’t always deserved. At the low end of the, let’s call it, “respect scale”, is the simplistic and sometimes clumsy retro-ish restyle of an existing model. If you want to move toward the top of the respect scale, that takes a lot more effort, creativity and taste. Triumph is one of the best at it. Its designers actually play with the retro theme, sometimes pushing it to the extreme as with a Bonneville T100 or, in other cases, blending classic and modern as with a Thruxton. And as BMW demonstrates with models like its R nineT Racer and Urban GS, the Germans are pretty good at it too.
Japanese brands, on the other hand, haven’t shown as much talent. I would argue this isn’t surprising, because style isn’t what they’re most renowned for. So, then, what happened here with this Kawasaki? Because good Lord, this thing’s gorgeous!
I haven’t seen a modern Japanese bike styled quite like the Z900RS. The Honda CB1100 comes closest, but its retro theme is different, more replica-like, somewhat like the T100. There’s a brief temptation at first glance to call the RS a replica too, but it’s not.
During the model’s press launch here in L.A., much fanfare was made about the original 1973 Z1’s special place in Kawasaki’s history, with stories from people involved in its development and, of course, a beautifully preserved original motorcycle. Strangely, despite its 46 or so records and its game-changing specs, the original ’73 didn’t look like much more than an old Japanese bike, one you’d easily confuse from 20 feet away with a same-era GS or KZ. The RS parked just beside it, however, looked stunning and surprisingly different.
The family resemblance is there, that’s unarguable, but the new RS is much more than just a replica: it mixes classic cues with modern technology in an extraordinarily tasteful way. Its styling isn’t retro just for the sake of retro – on the contrary, it’s smart and thoughtful. It’s both respectful of the brand’s heritage, and remarkably modern.
The tank and tail section are very good examples. Compared with the same parts on the original bike, they show none of the simplicity of the old design, but instead seem like a modern reinterpretation of the latter. It’s a very interesting bike to examine up close, especially if an original Z1 is nearby. But it’s when the whole bike is observed from a few feet away that the gorgeous styling job is most appreciated. The neo-retro body parts, the cast wheels with spokes so tiny they fool the eye into thinking it’s a spoked wheel, the flat seat, the raised handlebar, the classic analog instrumentation that discreetly hides a small digital multi-info screen; all of it blends gracefully in a package that just keeps you staring at it.
So, the Z900RS ($12,999 in black, $200 more for black and red) looks the part, but how does it ride? To be honest, although the whole package functions very well, it’s not actually remarkable in any way. It’s a good-handling streetbike powered by a torquey inline four that generally feels refined, as Japanese bikes do. To be completely frank, it’s quite ordinary to operate: everything functions very well with nothing in particular standing out.
It almost feels as if it’s not built to be anything special, which essentially means it doesn’t have a specialty. In a market where every bike is expected to be very good at one thing and built for one type of rider, it can be confusing to ride something with such a blurry nature. You keep asking yourself on the RS, at least at first – what is it exactly?
But then, after a while, after some fun in some twisty Malibu canyons, and after some relaxing moments admiring the sun sparkling on the Pacific, and after dancing between cars and trucks while lane-splitting during L.A.’s rush hour, it becomes obvious. The RS is just a bike. Not a sportbike, not a cruiser, not an adventure bike, not a touring bike … just a bike.
You sit on it as if it was specifically fitted to you, it handles gracefully, doing no more and no less than what your inputs tell it to do, it brakes hard without surprising you (bravo Kawasaki for offering ABS as standard), its seat is as comfortable (the low version less so) as its suspension is reasonably plush, the nice-sounding 115 hp four is full of grunt down low and pulls hard enough on top (where it could be smoother) to make you feel you’ve got enough, and everything you touch and operate works flawlessly (except maybe for the jerky throttle).
If the RS feels weird, it’s only because we forgot about bikes like this. Over the past four decades, motorcyclists have asked for and received bikes ever more specialized. And they’ve really gotten good at their thing. I mean, really good: look at how amazing a GSX-R1000R is as a superbike or a 1090 Adventure R is as an adventure model. But go back in time and you’ll find that bikes like the RS used to be extremely common, so much so their brands were almost forgotten in the process; they became known simply as UJMs, Universal Japanese Motorcycles. They weren’t particularly good at one thing. They were just bikes. And that’s exactly what the Z900RS is.
The funny part is, it now feels so different from anything else: motorcycles have become so specialized we forgot what a motorcycle even feels like to ride. The RS is a reminder that it feels so good.