From Z to Shining Z: 2018 Kawasaki Z900 ABS

By Max Klein, with Fish
Photography: Angelica Rubalcaba
Rider: Max Klein

Before I go tell you about Kawasaki’s new Z900 ABS, we need to talk about why it exists. Team Green already had bookendz to this bike: on the bigger side sat the Z1000, a streetfighter staple stateside since 2003, and at the lower end of the horsepower rodeo was the “popular in Europe, recently introduced to America” Z800. Necessity is often the mother of invention, but it was redundancy that birthed a new Z-asaki.

The Z800 had a weight problem: it was 46 pounds heavier than the better-endowed (I’m talking horsepower here) Z1000. It made sense for Kawasaki to either revamp or remove The Ocho from their lineup.

But why not just keep the 1000? In addition to the Z1000, Kawi already had the Ninja 1000, four versions of the ZX-10R(R) and five (!) versions of the H2. Their liter glass runneth over, all over the place. Honestly, who would miss the Z, 800 or 1000?

Kawasaki would. The sporty nekkid segment is hot, and given the international success of the big Zeds, Kawasaki couldn’t do without one.

But why a 900? Well, the OG Z was a 900 back in the 70s, so it coulda been pure nostalgia. But I wondered if it might have been to reduce the overall cost of ownership to make the bike more enticing to frugal riders. After all, less displacement means less gas burned, and let’s not forget the curse of the liter bike: big-bore insurance rates.

I called my insurance agent for a quote on both the 1000 and 900, and was surprised to learn it would only cost 37 bucks a month to add the thou-wow to my policy, while the nine-hundo would add 62 bucks a month.

So much for that theory…

Whatever the reason, the Nine is here.

The Z900’s powerplant is actually a 948cc inline-four throwing down 126 horsepower—12 more than the recently departed Z800, 20 less than the newly-retired Z1000. When you factor in the weight differences between the three—509 pounds for the 800, 463 pounds for the 900, 490 pounds for the 1000—it seems that Kawasaki is on to something.

Kawi tuned the 900 for mid- to high RPM performance, so I expected the power to come on with authority above 5k. I was not disappointed.

The Z’s motor is very strong, but there’s no sense of “oh shit!” danger, even when wringing out fifth gear at triple digit speeds—although maybe there should be.

Anyway, some might say this is due to the lack of soul inherent to inline-four engines, but I’d rather give Kawasaki credit where credit is due, for consistently creating deceptively smooth but brutish motors with fueling done to perfection. The Ninja 1000 was just an aftermarket seat away from glory, and the ZX – 10RR is consistently on the podium in multiple classes at AFM race weekends. It makes sense that the Z900 would be a solid contender in the streetfighter category.

That supple power makes its way to the rear wheel through an “assist and slipper clutch.” The assist part does its thing as you launch, providing a smooth, light clutch pull. The slipper comes into play as you’re banging downshifts in rapid succession with reckless abandon, reducing rear wheel chatter.

Bringing the machine back down to sub-jail-time speeds, and even occasional stops, is as smooth as the bike’s flawless power delivery, thanks to a pair of 300mm petal-style rotors squeezed by four-piston, ABS-assisted calipers up front. Initial bite is firm without being grabby, and the brakes reward progressive pressure with impressive feel even under aggressive or emergency braking.

Repetitive use did not induce fade, inspiring me to push a little harder than I should have at times. Think of the brakes as the little devil sitting on your right shoulder egging you on. Since the throttle’s doing the same “everything will be just fine” act, it’s easy to believe, until you’re on the side of the road mumbling vague excuses for your anti-social speeds to a tan-uniformed pair of mirrored aviator shades.

Rear braking is provided by a single 280mm disc partnered with a one-pot caliper that also benefits from ABS.

Fish does not agree with me on this, but I found the Z’s ABS to be better than most: it mostly came on without getting in my way and it felt like the rear had a faster cycle rate than most. This, combined with the excellent power from the front binders, added up to very short stopping distances when I encountered errant left-turners or kamikaze deer.

Chassis feel is almost prophetic and enhanced by the wide, flat bars. The steel tube trellis frame bolts directly to the motor, as does the aluminum swingarm, giving the powerplant the second job of keeping things stiff. Taking the suspension out of “budget” and landing it firmly in the “kinda sweet” zone is a 41mm inverted fork featuring preload and rebound adjustment, matched to a “horizontal back-link” shock with the same preload and rebound adjustability. Travel up front is 4.7 inches and the rear signs in at 5.5 inches of East Bay pothole-absorbing bounce.

Collectively, ride is firm, without being stiff—think Bob Dole on half a Viagra.

Scratch that. Never think about Bob Dole on half a Viagra. Sorry.

The abundant bumps on our secret test track (Redwood Road) were managed without issue, however I would have spent some time tweaking (the suspension) if I was going to spin some track laps. That said, unlike some of our other recently-reviewed streetfighters, the Z-ABS was consistent in the cornering department, no matter how I rode it.

Whether sitting as bolt-upright as the machine allows (more on that in a moment) or in full Ricky Racer tuck, initiating a turn required the exact same amount of effort—minimal—and mid-corner adjustments were equally easy. Flicking left, right, and back again is accomplished with simple countersteering—no moving around on the seat required—at all but the fastest speeds I was willing to travel on the street.

It’s not quite 600 supersport flickable, but I didn’t really expect that given its 57.1 inch wheelbase.

As enjoyable as the motor, suspension, and brakes were, I never got fully comfortable on the Z-ABS. Per Kawasaki’s plan (probably) the riding position is reminiscent of the Z650, with everything slightly rolled forward, as one would expect in a sporty machine. This is helpful in keeping weight over the front without having to hunch over in a manner deserving of a chiropractor’s side-eye. The bars, while a little on the spindly side, offer a functional position for both comfort and performance.

But below the waist, the accommodations left me wondering where everything was supposed to go.

Phrasing!

Obviously, my ass knew it belonged on the seat, but once firmly planted, did not feel fully welcome. On the Z900, you don’t sit on the seat as much as behind the gas tank. I found this trait endearing on the Z-650, but felt overly confined when mounted behind a bigger fuel tank.

Additionally, when in motion, the forward slope of the seat is a little too steep for my liking, and because of the tank’s styling I sometimes felt like a wadded up tissue, long since lost between the couch cushions.

But that wasn’t the biggest problem. There’s enough of a gap between the seat and the tank that my inner thighs would get pinched when stopping. As you read in the private confines of your own home, that may sound like a great start to a Friday night, but it’s much less fun at every single red light between CityBike World Headquarters and my house in the Far East Bay.

I was the only one of the Wrecking Crew that had this issue, so maybe I just have thick thighs. You know, like Beyoncé.

Also filed under “why the hell did they do that,” the right side exhaust mount / passenger peg combo does not allow for anything but a non-racey foot position for those of us with feet sized to match our beefy thighs, let’s say size 10 or bigger. This really limits mobility and increases the likelihood of dragging a toe through right-handers.

Honestly, Kawasaki could have completely deleted the passenger pegs as the pillion is basically a single large, foam-covered anal bead.

Riding on the back of this machine is probably illegal in  states where sodomy is outlawed, and the Z-ABS may be the first bike ever with more space under the rear seat than on top of it.

But(t) complaints aside, it’s a good-looking bike. Styling is consistent with the rest of the modern Z line, including the bikes that the 900 replaced. The signature Z tail light is there, along with the already mentioned sit-in-not-on ergos. Also present is the glorious intake noise and resulting aural pleasure. Kawasaki has done a great job in making the entire lineup recognizable without the pretentiousness of slapping their logo on every available space from bolt heads to sidewalls, even if you don’t care for the complex, angular styling.

All things considered, the $8,799 Z900 ($8,399 if for some reason you want one without ABS) is an aftermarket exhaust, seat, rearsets, and passenger pegectomy away from being my favorite non-Italian “streetfighter.” It’s on the podium for its dolled-up yet stripped-down style, powerful-yet-smooth motor, and dreamy handling characteristics.

Max is the SF chapter Director of the AFM and one of the early testers of the moto-sectomy technology first introduced on Kawasaki’s 1000cc motorcycles, now in use on the Z900’s pillion “seat.”

Fish: Fourplay

Kawasaki’s Z-series bikes have always been under my radar. I can count the number of Z650s, Z800s, and Z1000s I’ve encountered in the wild on both hands. Maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention.

I’ve been on a run with this “sporty standard” style of bike lately, so with Suzuki’s GSX-S and Aprilia’s Shiver fresh in my mind, the Z was right in the pocket.

Making the trade for whatever press bike awaits me at World Headquarters is often done after work, so in winter I often get my first miles on a new bike in the dark. Due to recent road repairs, that ride consists of a few surface streets and then a freeway run. While not ideal, that darkness provides quick insight into a bike’s controls and interface, and the Z900 stood out as one of the simplest bikes to just get on and ride in a long time.

The “she loves me, she loves me not” tachometer was not my favorite feature when I first encountered it on the Z650, but it grew on me. I’m apparently predictable enough that Max was excited to inform me that there was no need to scroll through a menu to disable traction control, as there is none.

That lack of TC is irrelevant, it turns out. The 948cc four-cylinder center of the Z is one of the most tractable, docile I-4s I’ve ridden.

 “But Fish, you only like violent engines.”

It’s true, I do have a bias for aggressive powerbands. The Z900’s engine does deliver typical four-cylinder facemelt up top, but manages to do so with tractable midrange and useful bottom-end power. The tune is well matched to the chassis, at least in the incarceration-free speed zones we (mostly) stay in on the street.

That chassis is one of the things that really demonstrates the difference Max’s and my own perception and opinions. He refers to the handling as “dreamy,” but I’d call it more demanding.

I’m not using that term derogatorily, but the Z’s cockpit-style ergonomics don’t readily reward anything but textbook track style inputs and body position. Being the street-biased lazybones I am, backroad enjoyment took about half a day to achieve. Once I came to terms with having to hang off slightly and move my body more than the bike, the Z’s handling prowess became more evident. Worth noting is that adjusting the tire pressure downward a bit, to 36 PSI in the rear, 32 PSI up front, really transformed the bike and allowed me to rethink my feelings on the ABS, as the bike’s previous skittishness disappeared.

Once I agreed to the Z’s terms, I was able to push it a bit more, leading to my next attitude adjustment. I tend to be heavy on rear brake for mid-corner adjustments, and Kawasaki thankfully equipped the Z with an appropriately sized caliper and rotor for such antics. The ABS was moderately permissive of my behavior once the tires were working—but not encouraging.

As Max pointed out, the front brakes are constantly baiting you to push a little deeper, to brake a little later, and I pushed hard enough that I noticed the softer feel of the rubber lines. It’s far from bad, though, and this is probably the first rubber lines-equipped bike that worked well enough for me to feel comfortable pushing that hard.

Max’s assessment of the Z’s rider accommodations is spot-on, but my discomfort was solely focused on that gas tank. I apparently have longer shins than Max or any of our other test riders, so I found my knees to be just outside the recesses of the tank, offering me no real positive engagement to keep the forward-tilted seat from reshaping my groin to match the bike’s rearward tank edge. This, combined with those wonderful brakes, forced me to apply use my arms and the bars more than I’d like, in order to keep things from getting painful.

But I only noticed this when I wasn’t riding aggressively. When rocking and rolling, the need for constant shifting of body weight kept me from really getting to know the tank’s hard surface, unless I was on boring, straight roads.

The same 4.5 gallon tank that made straight roads no fun allowed me to spend a lot more time on the fun stuff. It’s placed high, so a full tank is noticeable when transitioning through switchbacks. The first half of the tank lasts a while too, a good reminder that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

This is something I hope to remember when complaining about 100-mile fuel ranges on other bikes. Remind me if I forget, ok?

I did manage to a respectful average of 40 MPG on the Z, something of a feat considering the spirited nature of the riding I subjected the bike to.

The Z-ABS is sort of a two-wheeled introvert: initial impressions are pleasant, but not necessarily memorable. If you dedicate the required time to get to know the bike, it’s willing to reveal itself as a focused sport machine best suited for spirited riding. It’s not a fan of cruising through town or being the focus of attention, but instead is happiest in the intimate settings of less populated areas. While it can hypothetically accommodate another person, extreme preference is given to one-on-one encounters.

This story originally appeared in our May 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

We feared we’d have to bribe Fish with NOS Buell parts in order to get him to ride the Z-ABS, as he was still “recovering” from the unspeakable four cylinder-ness of the GSX-S 750. But he went willingly into the arms of the Z, no giant brake rotors required.

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