It’s not always a good idea to recreate the past. Sometimes our recollections of history are clouded in a rose coloured hue of sentimentality. Did that leisure suit really look as good as you think? Probably not. Should you regrow those sideburns? I wouldn’t. When it comes to bringing back popular vehicles, many manufacturers have tried, and many have failed. Lightning doesn’t always strike twice and retro can often come across as inauthentic. There are many examples of it not working, but the Kawasaki Z900 RS Café illustrates that it can be done.
The first Z model (Zed, to us Canadians), was introduced nearly half a century ago. The 903cc Z1 was created to combat Honda’s CB750. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the CB was a big hit since 48 years later you still can’t go to a bike event without seeing a handful. So whatever Kawi came out with had to be good. In 1978, the 1,115cc Z1-R was launched, which obviously features visual cues picked up by the Z900 brought out in 2017. The RS Café goes one step further by adding the café-racer style front cowling and vintage graphics paying homage to the Eddie Lawson’s two-time AMA Superbike championship winning KZ1000R.
Three years after being launched, the 2020 Z900 RS remains unchanged, but is no less relevant. Steaming with jealousy as Bertrand attended the press launch, and once again envious as Jeff covered the Café for us later that year, I’ve been itching to get my hands on it. All the reviews I read were positive, leaving me concerned that hopes would be too high, and it may disappoint.
MSRP for the 2020 Z900RS is $13,399, but if you want the Café it’s an extra $500. So, how does it stack up? Despite being a carryover model that I’d been anxiously awaiting, it still managed to exceed my high expectations.
The retro round tach and speedo dials in the dash are complemented by a more modern digital centre screen that tells you what gear you’re in, what time it is, how much fuel you have, how hot the engine is running and how many kilometres you’ve got until empty. The motor offers a nice, retro sounding rumble at idle that befits the styling of the bike, letting you know that more thinking has gone into it than just some panels and paint. The duck tail fender and engine cooling fins offer additional nods to the past.
Horsepower is rated at 111 hp at 8,500 rpm, with torque rated at 72 lb-ft. at 6,500 rpm. Acceleration comes on smoothly and stays strong well beyond legal limits. It likes to go.
The throttle is predictable and easily modulated. Whether rolling up through the gears or blipping the throttle on downshifts, the stock exhaust offers a robust, characterful sound.
Braking duties are managed by a set of radial-mounted four-piston calipers and dual 300 mm discs up front with a single-piston caliper and single 250 mm disc in the rear. ABS is standard equipment.
Reading the spec sheet, I was expecting the Z900 to feel a lot heavier than it does. The 948 cc liquid-cooled DOHC inline-4 contributes to a curb weight of 214 kg (471 lbs). For reference, the Triumph Thruxton 1200 RS is 197 kg (434 lbs). The 820 mm seat height is easily accessible, and the bike straightens easily off the side stand. The weight of the steering feels substantial but not onerous to maneuver; steering feels responsive and turn-in is light. The RS Café makes for a great urban runabout, but also fun to throw into the corners out on the open road. Certainly not intended to be a touring bike, the 17 L tank, neutral ergonomics and added wind protection allowed by the cowling all help make it surprisingly comfortable to ride on longer trips.
The Kawi’s 41 mm telescopic fork is adjustable for preload and rebound, as is the central spring strut under the seat. Engine management is limited to an Economical Riding Indicator, which essentially pops up on the digital display when you’re being gentle or rolling off the throttle.
Emissions regulations, safety equipment and modern expectations can all sully the memory of what was once a wonderful thing, but the Z900 RS Café manages to do its namesake justice and still stands up after being on the market for three years. There are other motorcycles that are lighter, faster, more fuel efficient, and even handle better, but perhaps none that offer as much character as this one. Particularly at this price. It will also no doubt outperform the original models upon which it is based and will get compliments everywhere you go.
The RS café is only available in the one colour scheme. Painting it any other colour feels like it would be blasphemous to the honour of Eddie Lawson, but it is admittedly not for everyone. The Triumph Thruxton RS is quite a bit more money, but it also offers three riding modes, larger brakes from Brembo, a Showa 43 mm big piston fork, Öhlins fully adjustable twin shocks, and is available in Jet Black or Matte Storm Grey and Silver Ice.
If you’re into the Kawasaki green and prefer a lower cost of entry than having riding modes or fully adjustable suspension, then the choice is clear. Buy the Z900 RS Cafe. It’s a wonderful motorcycle and you’ll enjoy it for years to come. So will every rider you come across. And unlike those sideburns or that leisure suit in your closet, the Z900 RS Cafe is still sure to be stylish for years to come.