First Ride Review
These days retro bikes are everywhere you look. Instagram is full of millennials with tattoos and trucker hats showing off their old Honda CB-turned-café racers (there are more than 2.5 million posts tagged with #caferacer). Triumph has been making its “modern classic” Bonnevilles since 2001, but in recent years other manufacturers have jumped on the new-bike-that-looks-old bandwagon. There are BMW R nineTs, Ducati Scramblers, Honda’s CB1100, Moto Guzzi V7s and V9s, Royal Enfield’s Continental GT and Interceptor, Suzuki’s VanVan 200 and Yamaha’s XSR models. (Of course, as far as American-made V-twins are concerned, classic styling has always been the name of the game.)
Arriving fashionably late to the retro party is the Kawasaki Z900RS, a new-for-2018 model based on the Z900 sport standard that pays homage to the company’s legendary 1973 Z1, a 903cc superbike designed to beat Honda’s groundbreaking CB750. To prove its mettle, the Z1—codenamed “New York Steak” during development because it was full of flavor and packed with protein—was put to the test, setting 46 speed records, including the 24-hour endurance world record, averaging 109.64 mph for 2,631 miles at Daytona International Speedway and beating the old record by nearly 20 mph. Yvon Duhamel rode a Yoshimura-tuned Z1 to a Daytona lap record of 160.288 mph, and, a few years later, Reg Pridmore piloted a Z1 to win the 1977 AMA Superbike Championship. That sort of performance got everyone’s attention, and during the motorcycle-mania of the mid 1970s, the Z1 sold so well that, according to Kawasaki’s American R&D and public relations manager at the time, Bryon Farnsworth, “the Z1 accounted for 80 percent of Kawasaki’s profits on motorcycle sales.”
Although the Z1 was considered a superbike in its UJM heyday, by contemporary standards of styling and ergonomics it slots into the sport standard segment. For liter-class track dominance, Kawasaki has its Ninja ZX-10R, the bike on which Jonathan Rea won his third consecutive World Superbike Championship in 2017. But for street-ready performance and a sensible riding position, Kawasaki’s Z family is the way to go, and the Z900, which debuted for 2017, was the perfect platform for creating a modern-day Z1.
Creating the template for decades of performance to come, the original Z1 was the first production superbike powered by a DOHC in-line four-cylinder engine (the CB750 was SOHC until 1979). That’s been the engine configuration of choice for Japanese sportbikes ever since, and the Z900 is no different. What was record-breaking performance in the ’70s, however, is quaint by today’s standards. The air-cooled, carbureted Z1 made 82 horsepower at the crank and weighed 542 pounds, but the liquid-cooled, fuel injected Z900 makes 113 horsepower at the rear wheel and weighs 462 pounds.
Building a proper retro bike starts with the styling, and Kawasaki did a bang-up job. Like the Z1, the Z900RS has a round headlight, bullet-shaped gauges with analog faces, a teardrop tank and a small kick-up on the rear fender. It even has real bungee hooks and is available with the iconic root beer-and-orange metallic paint job (Kawasaki calls it Candytone Brown/Candytone Orange, and it costs $200 more than the standard Metallic Flat Spark Black). Sadly, the Z1’s quad chrome exhaust pipes didn’t make the cut. Instead, the RS has a 4-into-1 with the muffler on the right side, a full stainless steel system that’s buffed to a mirrored finish. And instead of wire-spoke wheels and tube-type tires, the RS rolls on cast wheels with flat spokes designed to resemble wire spokes and Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300 tubeless radials.
But the RS is not just a styling exercise. To give the RS the right feel and sound, Kawasaki also revised the Z900’s engine, exhaust, chassis and ergonomics. For more low-to-midrange power and smoother running, the 948cc in-line four has revised cam profiles, lower compression, a heavier flywheel, a second gear-driven balancer and narrower exhaust headers. A first on a Kawasaki, acoustic research was used to develop the RS’s exhaust note. Purring at idle, it emits a sharp, metallic howl when the throttle is twisted and jams like a classic rock anthem when rowing through the gears.
Mated to an assist-and-slipper clutch, the easy-shifting 6-speed transmission has a shorter first gear, taller sixth gear and increased final gear ratio to help the RS get off the line quicker, accelerate smoothly and cruise comfortably. There’s no throttle-by-wire or riding modes, but since the bike is targeted at a sensible demographic (35-55 year-olds), ABS and traction control are standard equipment. Triple disc brakes, with a pair of 300mm front rotors squeezed by 4-piston radial-mount monoblock calipers, slow things down, and a fully adjustable upside-down KYB fork and a rebound- and preload-adjustable KYB Horizontal Back-Link shock keep the chassis under control.
Throwing a leg over the Z900RS for the first time at the press launch in Los Angeles, it took me right back to the carefree days of my youth, when Dad took me on leisurely motorcycle rides in the country and I’d have a front-row seat, wedged between him and the gas tank. Settling into the RS’s wide bench seat, I was greeted by a pair of chrome-bezeled gauges and, between them, a big, red oil pressure light and a tasteful white-on-black digital display (functions include gear position, fuel level, clock, engine temperature, TC level, odometer, dual tripmeters, fuel consumption and an economical riding indicator). Round mirrors on long stalks provide a commanding rearward view. Compared to the Z900, the RS has a slightly taller seat height (31.5 inches), a wider, higher handlebar that’s closer to the rider and footpegs that are lower and farther forward.
My initial test ride was less than 100 miles, and it involved dozens of stops and U-turns for photo passes, but every bit of it was on city streets and canyon roads that I know intimately. Having put test miles on the Z900, the RS felt like an entirely different motorcycle, with a less sporty riding position, a more refined engine feel and a casual, laidback attitude. But, quite unexpectedly, throttle response was overly sensitive, making it difficult to maintain smooth throttle over bumpy pavement and in tight, technical corners. The standard suspension settings felt too soft for fast-paced riding, but dialing things in for my weight and riding style could very well solve that problem.
The Z900RS possesses two key ingredients—more than 100 rear-wheel horsepower and less than 500 pounds of curb weight—for having a good time on back roads. And with its engine solidly mounted in a trellis frame, there’s none of that “hinge in the middle” quality of true vintage bikes. With a more neutral stance, a longer wheelbase and a tad more rake (but less trail) than the standard Z900, the RS strikes a nice balance between straight-line stability and curvy-road nimbleness. There’s plenty of cornering clearance and tire grip to lean the RS way over on your way to the apex, plenty of power to blast out of the corner and plenty of brakes to scrub off speed and do it all over again. Or, if you’re in a mellow, sightseeing mood, the RS makes for an ideal easy-like-Sunday-morning cruiser.
Even though the Kawasaki Z1 came out around the time I was born and was long gone by the time I got interested in motorcycles, it still appeals to me. There’s something timeless about bikes from the golden era of the ’70s. But as cool as the Z1 looks, I know that it had way more engine than its chassis, suspension, brakes and tires could really handle. And I have zero interest in keeping 44-year-old carburetors clean and synchronized. That’s what makes the Z900RS—a new bike with old-school styling—such an attractive proposition. You get the best of both worlds: a bike that scratches the nostalgic itch as well as the benefits of modern engineering. Throw on a few accessories like the chrome passenger grab rail, throwback tank logos and a centerstand, and I’m in.