Imagine for a moment, living in a terrible place where people are only allowed to have one motorcycle. Suppose the government claims that multi-bike ownership leads to a life with too much enjoyment, deemed unfair to the rest of the non-riding population. So, in this terrible fantasy, legislators declare multiple motorcycle ownership strictly forbidden.
What’s a rider to do?
For many, the answer would be protests, pitchforks and upheaval, but there may be a more peaceful way to carry on. A very strong case could be made for either Kawasaki’s all-new Z900 or Yamaha’s thoroughly re-thought FZ-09 as the last bike you’d ever need.
Of course, if you’re only into choppers, long-haul touring bikes with all those steamer chests affixed to the back, or serious air-catching dirt bikes, these machines won’t be the answer. But chances are, if you’re reading this test, it’s because like me, you also want your cake and to eat it too. I believe the Z900 and FZ-09 are fun and capable enough to get me to put down my pitchfork and torch, and get on with riding.
Here in the Great White North, our riding season is limited by Mother Nature’s cruel, cold and wet seasonality. And ’round these Southern Ontario parts, most of the asphalt spaces are congested with crossover SUVs, driven bumper-to-bumper by far too many people who care far too little about motorcyclists.
The fairing-free sporty bikes you see here can conquer urban commuter traffic, not embarrass themselves at the occasional track day, and if you’ve got a capacious tail bag, you can happily hit the backroads for a multi-day adventure.
To put it succinctly: these are two wickedly fun, multi-purpose machines.
Despite the inherent differences in their hearts – the Kawi features an inline 4-cylinder engine versus the Yamaha’s widely-celebrated 3-cylinder – these two are much closer than I expected.
After the first 30 or 40 kilometres, my riding partner and I had already picked a unanimous favourite. Then we rode a bit further and changed our minds. Then rode farther still and changed them again. Dammit, this is harder work than we’d hoped.
Make no mistake, dear reader, doing motorcycle reviews is strenuous and highly challenging work.
Kawasaki took the Z800 naked machine I thoroughly enjoyed last season (https://canadamotoguide.com/2016/09/07/ride-review-kawasaki-z800-abs/ ) and threw it out the window after only a year in North America (Stateside, it also tossed the Z1000). In its wake, this new Zed has emerged that is better in every respect.
The first impressions of the Kawasaki are extremely favourable. By removing some of the flat black cladding that adorned last year’s bike and exposing more luminescent green trellis frame, the Z900 looks more artful than before.
Walking around the bike, the finishes and details are beautifully done. The “Kawasaki” wordmark on the tank isn’t just a cheap sticker slapped on, but has relief to it. The paint finish is immaculate, and if you don’t care for the new brighter green accents (because, for instance, your riding gear matches the old Kawi green colours), you can order your Z900 in a more sinister all-black livery. There’s a marbled texture to the seat and even the taillight’s LEDs are arranged in a mirrored Z-pattern.
While significantly updated from last year’s Yamaha FZ-09, the new model still shows a lot of cost-cutting measures, even to the point of appearing unfinished from the front. Above the new twin LED headlights (which provide vastly superior illumination to the Z900’s halogen unit), Yamaha has left a styling void with black plastic and exposed screw heads where a simple cowl should be.
Likewise, Yamaha must be the only manufacturer still sourcing those hideous pumpkin turn-signal lights, surely knowing full-well that they’ll be the first easy cash-grab replacement accessory most riders will spring for.
Credit must be given to Yamaha for the stellar finish of the red paint on the tank and their creative way around the ugly fender extensions required by law, by implementing a hugger treatment instead, effectively tidying up the rear and profile of the bike.
Since its inception in 2014, one of the most polarizing aspects of the FZ-09 is its almost dirtbike-like riding position. You sit bolt upright, arms stretched wide to the grips, on a tall, skinny saddle. For those raised in the country who put a foot out for cornering in the fields, there’s precious little on earth more fun than flinging about a bike as powerful as this Yamaha.
On the other hand, if you’re accustomed to contorting yourself pretzel-like around a sport bike, tucked safely behind a fairing, hiding from the wind, the Fizz-9 will be a strange and alien-feeling machine.
The constant bombardment of breeze on the rider’s head and chest is fatiguing, but there’s virtually no strain on the rider’s wrists, either. Give a little, take a little.
The long, flat seat also made it easy to mount our tail bags, and the Yamaha’s saddle is definitely softer than the Kawasaki’s flat plank. After the second day of riding, I smartened up and grabbed the keys to the Z900 each subsequent morning, knowing that the latter half of our travels would have my precious buns perched on the softer Yamaha following our mid-day switch.
By comparison, the Kawasaki feels more like the rider sits in it than on it. The wind blast is lessened slightly, and there’s a bit more pressure on the wrists due to a more forward lean. The Kawasaki also crowds the hips and knees more than the Yamaha, but never so much that it felt uncomfortable for my 5’9” frame.
Neither bike has a great instrument panel: Yamaha utilizes a small LCD display with a linear tachometer, and Kawasaki executes a polarized LCD version featuring a weird fan-like tachometer. On the plus side, both provide easily readable speedometers, a fuel gauge and gear indicator, as well as rudimentary trip computers. The fuel read-out on each bike proved non-linear at times, jumping from half-full to “Oh crap! How long has the fuel light been on?!” For those who care, we averaged around 250 km between fill-ups with one or the other bike usually igniting its warning light by that distance.
Enough of the nitpicks, what are these things like to ride?
They’re brilliant. Both bikes are wickedly fast, not terrifyingly so the way modern litre-superbikes are, but enough to be properly scintillating throughout the rev range.
And it’s that flexibility from either engine that’s so remarkable. Experience suggests we’d need to wring the poor Kawasaki’s 4-cylinder neck to get any appreciable power, and while it doesn’t feel like it has quite the low-end urgency of the Yamaha’s triple, it is actually rated for more peak torque (73 lb-ft. versus 64) and horsepower (123 hp versus 115).
The real world acceleration feels so close, the numeric differences mean nothing. It’s more in the way the power is delivered that personal preferences arise. The Kawasaki is a smooth operator, from start to finish. With elevated revs, the buzz-saw wail is intoxicating, though so too is the Yamaha’s rawer growl. But the throttle calibration on the Z900 is every bit as precise, linear and magical as I had remembered it on the Z800 and it makes managing all the bike’s output so much easier than on the Yamaha.
That said, if you haven’t tried an FZ-09 since the first batch came out in 2014, you’re missing out. The toggle-switch throttle response has been smoothed out considerably, though admittedly, the aggressive “A” drive mode is still too twitchy for my tastes. The more upright riding position and softer suspension contributes to the sensation that the FZ-09 is always on the verge of lofting its front wheel, whether the rider intends it or not, so we found ourselves exercising more restraint with our right wrist action when riding the Yamaha.
Into the corners, the Yamaha’s new adjustable front forks (left at the factory settings, as were the Kawasaki’s) give the bike a more planted feel than the last generation’s bobbing and weaving front end. But much like the engine tune, the Z900 feels smooth with its handling too, with unflappable poise and a more fluid ease to leaning the bike into corners.
Toward the end of our loop to Manitoulin Island and back, we came upon a serpentine road in the Muskokas that enabled us to really exercise the handling and braking of each of the bikes. Both machines utilize excellent, powerful binders that help give great rider confidence, though the Yamaha’s are a bit grabbier. Of note, for 2017 Yamaha has added ABS (plus traction control and a slipper clutch) to the FZ-09, and our Z900 was equipped with the optional ABS, adding $400 to its base price.
The gearboxes are equally matched between these two as well, with 6-speeds in each, and good precise action, never struggling to find neutral. The Yamaha’s requires slightly more effort, but consequently feels more robust than the light Z900 ‘box.
The Z900 is the bike that first won us over. A combination of its appearance and accessible, easily managed power and perfect throttle calibration make for a fantastic first impression. But after a few days of riding, the subtle differences in character became more prevalent and we continued to waffle back and forth. The Z900 is a more refined machine and one that looks like it costs thousands more than the FZ-09 (in fact, with ABS, at $9,699, it’s $50 cheaper).
The FZ-09 remains the bike that will appeal to more hooligan riders, which admittedly I am not. It’s more raucous and raw, and frankly, it needs cash thrown at it for beautification. But this new generation has been tamed just enough with both refinement and technology that makes it more enjoyable for non-hooligan riders too. And oddly enough, the Fizz-9 is the better choice for commuting thanks to its manoeuvrability, and the seat makes it a better choice for touring. Plus, the addition of a slipper clutch and LED lights are tough to ignore.
With that in mind, if it’s got to be just one of these bikes to live with, it’ll be Yamaha’s FZ-09 for me. But I’m still getting my pitchfork ready, because one bike is never enough.