Test ride: 2019 Kawasaki Z900

Kawasaki describes the Z900 as a “Supernaked” — a term you would think might not be safe to Google at work, but is, I was disappointed to find. It brings to mind a Superbike without fairings, and it’s used to describe all of the “Z” bikes in the Kawi lineup.

However, simply stripping the bodywork off a ZX-10R or ZX-6R, fitting a taller handlebar and calling it a day is not what Kawasaki has done, as tempting as that might have been for the product planners  to reduce tooling costs. The Z900 is a well thought-out package designed from the contact patches up to cater to those with real-world expectations for their sporty streetbikes, and with a few exceptions, it delivers on its promises.

And what are those promises? Accessible performance (A+), comfort (yes and no), versatility (yes and yes), affordability (absolutely!), and style (depends who you ask).

Google “Supernaked” and the Kawasaki Z900 will show up. Plus some other stuff.
What is it?

The $9,899 Z900 packs a decent punch from its 948cc inline-four, putting out 123 horsepower and 73 lbs.-ft. of torque, and its steel trellis frame and aluminum swingarm allow for a just-right combination of stiffness, compliance, light weight and affordability. Seventeen-inch wheels shod with 120 front/180 rear tires match your typical Supersport setup, as do the triple disc brakes with ABS equipped. What else does it have? Not much, but it doesn’t need much else, and not much else should be expected at this price point.

The Z900’s looks might not be to your taste, but don’t let that deter you, yet.

The LCD display is monochrome, instead of the colourful units found on more expensive machinery, but it is very easy to read and quite well laid out. The way the tach fans out as it rises and falls is unique, the centrally located gear position indicator is just right in size and location, and I liked the exposed Allen bolts and faux carbon insert surrounding the warning lights.

The headlights are old-school bulbs, but the tail lights are modern LEDs arranged in a “Z”, which I thought was a little cheezy until I rode behind someone else riding the bike and decided it actually looks pretty cool. Our test bike also came with an accessory solo seat cowl ($299.38) to give the bike that little extra sporty touch, and an excuse not to take passengers when you don’t feel like it.

See that “Z” shaped rear light? That’s clever, that is.
How is it to ride?

Swinging a leg over for the first time, the first noticeable thing is the tight seat-to-peg distance, and the relatively short span from the seat to the ground. The bars are high and wide, and fairly close to the rider. Switchgear and levers are basic, a little cheap looking but functional.  The mirrors give up a bit of useability to obtain their special shape (they taper toward the stalk, taking away mirror space right where you want it), but are still better than many other setups out there.

Thumb the starter, click into first and release the clutch, and the bike takes off smoothly and confidently, even when babying it. Like the Versys I rode recently, the Z900 features an “assist” clutch. This uses a cam system to aid in pulling the clutch plates together, allowing the use of weaker clutch springs that allow for smoother operation and a lighter clutch lever feel.

Launch more aggressively, and the front wheel has a hard time staying earthbound. Clutchless upshifts snick into place like butter, and aggressive downshifts are aided by the slipper clutch (one of the only other mechanical upgrades this bike has), helping to prevent wheel hop. The engine pulls strongly everywhere, making spirited riding an easy affair, with less attention needed for gear selection. In the midrange at part throttle, the engine doses out effortless power.

Crack it open and explore the upper rev range, and the motor sings enthusiastically to redline. Kawasaki tuned the intake “honk” to get the growl just right, making the engine sound more aggressive, especially when giving it the beans. There’s a little buzz at all RPM; some riders found it intrusive, others not so much, me included.

The Z tips into corners easily, with suspension that’s on the softer end of the sporty spectrum. The meaty tires provide an abundance of traction and stability, and for those looking to sharpen things up a bit, dialing in more preload front and rear might help things out (although stiffer springs and heavier weight oil would be the proper route). Both ends are adjustable for rebound damping as well.

The road’s not that smooth, but that’s not much of an issue for the Z900.

Where the Z900 really shone was on bumpier roads, like the ones we found in large quantities on our Haliburton Highlands trip. The Kawasaki was able to soak things up and stay planted even on heavily frost-rippled corners that had some other bikes tied up in knots. The steel trellis frame may have been a contributing factor here, with steel having a little more give than aluminum, and providing a degree of “suspension” when leaned over.

Grab a handful of brakes, and the 210 kg Z pitches onto its nose predictably. The 300 mm front discs with Kawi’s signature petal design and four-pot calipers bite hard and provide linear response to lever pressure. The ABS is there (it says so right on the front fender), but I never felt it engage, nor did the brakes ever show a hint of fade, although even spirited street riding won’t tax most brake systems these days.

123 horsepower and 73 lbs.-ft. of torque, smoothly accessible throughout the rev range. How much do you really need?
Real-world touring

The first day that I rode the Z900 was quite windy, and even at lower speeds, the wind blast was uncomfortable. With a 200-km ride planned up to Haliburton, I was worried the trip would be a painful affair, but the ride to cottage country (in far less windy conditions) was surprisingly pleasant; the lack of any real wind protection was not a major issue, except for the large number of bugs stuck to my jacket upon arrival.

I strapped on a tank bag, bungeed my rain suit to the tail section (in hopes it would prevent any rain from falling by its mere presence), filled my Ogio backpack with clothes, and was able to put in more than 200 km with one fill-up of the 17 litre fuel tank.

The Z is no Concours 14, but it was a better touring partner than I expected. The seat is uncomfortable after less than an hour, but the lack of wind protection and the tight seat-to-peg distance meant that frequent stops were necessary anyway, and to be honest, I was expecting the comfort to be far worse than it actually was. For those who want to tour on a Z, an aftermarket windscreen and taller seat (Kawasaki offers one) would likely do wonders.

Dean, at front right, happily defends the Z900 to imposters Jeff and Mark.
How does it stack up?

The Z900’s closest rivals would be the Yamaha MT-09 ($10,199), Triumph Street Triple ($11,250), and Suzuki GSX-S750Z ABS ($9,399). The Yamaha and Triumph are lighter and offer a slightly more sport-focused ride, but all three competitors are down on power compared to the Kawasaki.

For the extra money, the Yamaha and Triumph offer some extra technical wizardry and suspension adjustability, while the Suzuki’s lower price also includes traction control like the MT and Street Triple. As the second cheapest but most powerful, the Z900 makes a good case as the best all-around performer of the group, but with bikes so closely matched as these in price and performance, things like aesthetics can have as much of an impact on choice as anything else.

So what do we think about the looks? The red wheels and frame of our test unit was liked by some, but not all, and CMG’s Jeff Wilson preferred the black and green colour scheme of the Z900 he bought just a few weeks before our test. The overall look of the Z900, described by Kawasaki as “Sugomi”, meaning a predator ready to pounce, is futuristic without being overdone, and it’s an improvement over the strange proportions of the Z800.

It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but neither are the bugeye goggles of the Street Triple, nor the robotic-eyes look of the MT-09. At least one of our testers hated the Z’s looks, but he wears flannel and sports a full beard, so he may just be a Luddite.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion of its looks, the Z’s ability to carve corners and gobble up straights in the real world is undeniable. It feels comfortable in the twisties, with a calm demeanour when other bikes get a little overwhelmed, although long-range comfort is compromised by the hard, low saddle. Despite the seat issues, it made for a decent short-distance tourer, with supple suspension and useable power characteristics.

A stripped naked ZX-6R would certainly be faster on smooth asphalt, but the Z900 was made for the post-apocalyptic pockmarked roads most riders encounter these days. This Sugomi Supernaked certainly satisfies.

Dean gets ready to tip into yet another corner with the Z900. Looks like he’s not quite ready to hand the bike over yet.

4 thoughts on “Test ride: 2019 Kawasaki Z900”

  1. Kawasaki is the best Japanese motorcycle company these days, by a mile and a half! I see more and more of them on the road. Common sense bikes people actually want to ride.

    1. What I’ve grown to like about Kawasakis is that they have the engineering and durability one expects from a Japanese brand, but they’re not soulless like some of their competitors.

  2. Kawasaki has always prioritized the ‘motor’ in motorcycle and that’s alright with me!! An awesome, real world ‘streetbike’ that’s also excellent value for money. Bravo Kawasaki.

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