Zed’s Alive and Well, Baby: Kawasaki’s New Z900RS

By Fish, with Max Klein
Photography: Max Klein (motion) & Surj Gish (details & stills)
Artwork: Mr. Jensen
Rider: Fish

The Z900RS’s semi-modern-retro bike concept isn’t new. The modern incarnation of Triumph built a big part of its business on updated Bonnevilles, eventually adding water cooling and an inverted fork to some versions, without losing retro-cred in the process. Yamaha has gotten into the game with their XSRs, Ducati has their Scrambler series, BMW the R Nine-whatevers. Hell, Kawasaki even made the conceptually similar ZRX1200 models a while back.

Triumph’s approach seemed to be starting with a shape and fitting modern components into it, while Yamaha took modern motorcycles and wrapped vintage-looking (sort of) trim around them.

Kawasaki has employed a similar but subtly different strategy, starting with modern components and assembling them in the form of a vintage motorcycle that while not “period correct” is closer to Triumph’s level of legitimacy than Yamaha’s funky duckling pseudo-retro style. The finished product is more than the sum of its parts and history, and a lot more than just a pretty shell over a good bike.

The $10,999 Z-RS ($11,199 in the color scheme we rode) is certainly a convincing “vintage” bike. I used it as a pit bike at a LeMons event at Sears Point and was repeatedly asked how I restored my Z1.

Every time, the inquiring mind would notice the radiator a few seconds into the conversation, and then the higher tail. I’d mention that the bike is actually a 2018 model, and the conversation would turn to “back in the day” stories of how the old Kawis were brutally fast, tales of twisted frames resulting from big (for the time) power, and fond memories of wheelie-inducing torque.

These conversations usually ended with my assertion that this bike manages similar levels of fun with substantially less terror.

I rode the RS right after Kawasaki’s other Z900, the one with ABS in the model name (not just the feature set) and as a result had some preconceived notions about it, contrasted against my own early-twenties memories of KZ1000s. My thoughts on the bike were all over the map, but my hopes were that the Z-RS would at least continue the ZRX1200’s lineage of attitude and feel.

The riding experience of the Z900RS was truly above and beyond my expectations. The second I threw a leg over the bike I was comfortable. I’m not talking “I probably won’t drop this in a parking lot” comfortable, but rather “I’ve owned this bike for 10 years” comfortable.

With just one glance, the two chrome bezel gauges felt instantly familiar, and the innocuous digital display between them looks completely natural. With the key off, it could just as easily hide old-fashioned warning lights instead of the fuel and temp gauges, gear indicator, traction control status, and odometer / trip meter / range indicator / fuel economy display. That’s a whole lot of info in a small area, but it’s organized and presented well, without being overwhelming or distracting.

Beyond my first impression of the gauges, the Z-RS defines neutral ergonomics and the seat / pegs / bars relationship is a seriously spot-on example of the oft-discussed but rarely just-right “natural riding position.”

The seat is roomier than it appears, and that spaciousness translates to versatility when pushing the bike in the curves. Should you choose to take in the scenery, there’s no comfort penalty for doing so, unlike more sport-focused bikes. The only discomfort I found was at speeds above 85 MPH and I can’t honestly say it was a bad thing. At ticket-free freeway speeds I experienced only clean air around my helmet, and a quieter ride than many windshield-equipped bikes.

So, it looks cool, feels good… what about going fast? Funny you should ask. The Z-RS comes with fully adjustable inverted forks, progressive rate rear suspension, and dual four-piston radial mount caliper disc brakes up front, with a single disc in the rear. The brake rotors are the same size as on the Z900 ABS, but lack the petal design, presumably to maintain the vintage appearance of the bike. The lack of petals doesn’t hurt the brakes’ performance—the Z-RS stops very well, and similar to its modern sibling, encouraged me to brake later and harder, inspiring confidence at every corner.

ABS is carried over from the no-RS-just-ABS model, but the slightly longer wheelbase (58.1” versus 57.1”) means more rear wheel traction is available—I experienced no intervention despite covering the same roads in similar conditions at similar speeds as I did while testing the standard Z.

While some of us initially suspected Kawasaki had simply slapped Seventies bodywork on a standard Z, the differences between the RS bike and Z-ABS are more substantial. Most notable for me is the revised transmission with a lower first and taller sixth.

This bike’s trans would benefit almost any factory streetfighter / hypernaked. The wider overall spread puts the bike squarely in the powerband at street speeds, and the tall sixth puts the bike at ease at (legal) freeway speeds. It’s just a bonus that it’s equipped with a slipper / assist clutch. This means lighter springs for an easy pull, but high loads force the internal cam to compress the plates tighter, eliminating slip. The slipper function is handy if you get ambitious on the downshifts, utilizing the same cam but in the opposite direction.

Despite the taller sixth, the Z-RS returned 35 MPG for me, meaning I consistently needed to refill the 4.5” gallon teardrop tank at around 130 miles to avoid too much time spent wondering how many miles were in the tank, post-fuel light. Not quite touring range, but certainly good enough for the bike’s intended purpose—although this didn’t stop Editor Surj from grousing about the “limited range” (and lack of topcase).

Kawasaki says the revised ratios are intended to take advantage of the re-tuned engine, basically the Z-ABS engine with external styling differences; lower compression and shorter duration camshafts; and a revised and tuned downdraft intake system that really emphasize the versatility of the tune.

This is Kawasaki’s first model developed “using conducted sound research for an ideal exhaust note.” With substantial attention given to both performance and sound, the exhaust is a work of art, visually and functionally. It’s never too loud, but the active system broadens the power delivery of the Z-RS to the point that I don’t mind it being an inline-four, an especially impressive feat from the perspective of a V-Twin enthusiast such as myself.

Every bike we test makes some sort of noise. But the Z is the first bike I’ve ridden where the factory equipment is nearly perfect. Sound levels are not earsplitting, and the tone is genuinely engaging.

The recent trend seems to be emphasis on intake noise, which sort of skirts the exhaust standards as that sound doesn’t project the same way as exhaust noise. This creates something of a rider-only sound experience. The downside is that not all engines make pleasant intake noises, and you can’t easily change the airbox like you can the muffler if the sound is bad.

Fortunately, Kawasaki got the Z-RS right, delivering a pleasant growl with a hint of “honk” at high RPMs.

Kawasaki also altered the chassis for the Z-RS. Though the frame is similar to that of the Z-ABS, it’s narrower in the front, specifically to accommodate the proper-looking fuel tank, and uses a twin-tube subframe in the rear to keep the banana seat’s height relatively low, at 31.5”. The front is higher and the rear lower, for a more neutral stance, with offset triples, to keep the steering sharp.

In keeping with the bike’s modern running gear, the traction control is more than just a selling feature. The chassis is a bit prone to front wheel lift, and while it’s not specifically marketed as the wheelie control found on higher-end motorcycles with more advanced electronics, level one of the KTRC system (Kawasaki TRaction Control, in case you’re WTF-ing…) gently brings the front wheel down when the rider forgets to roll off the throttle after catching a bump at speed. The chassis is solid enough that wheel lift isn’t immediately perceptible until touchdown, which does produce a not-quite unsettling bit of headshake.

I experimented quite a bit with KTRC level two in the driving rain on my way to and from Sears Point. Covering Hwy 680, 780, 80, and 37, I hit enough wet tar snakes and slick spots to really appreciate the very limited wheelspin allowed by the system.

Gone are the days of sudden, near-violent throttle-cut marketed as “traction control.” Had I not been specifically looking for it, I would not have even noticed the intervention. I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but my new friend KTRC actually saved me from spinning up the rear while accelerating too aggressively up a wet hill on the roads around Sears Point.

As I mentioned before, the KYB inverted forks are fully adjustable, and stock spring rates are well-suited to get the most out of the limited (for our “roads”) travel. The similarly adjustable (preload and rebound) shock also performs well. It’s sprung in that sweet spot that’s not jarring over rough freeway, but keeps the bike planted when you decide to take advantage of the spacious rear seat and pack a passenger, a hypothetical compromise in the context of pure sports riding, but the practicality makes for a near-perfect street bike, retro or not.

With all of these on-paper chassis compromises, I expected more sacrifices when it came to going fast, but I can’t even say I’d ask for much more were I to take the Z-RS for a spin around the track.

As a package, the Z-RS manages to check all the boxes as a seriously fun recreational street bike. If it lived in my garage, I might add an aesthetically suitable chrome luggage rack, but I wouldn’t mind wearing a backpack for utilitarian duty on the Z—and I hate riding with a backpack. The bike’s overall, compelling goodness means that while style isn’t something I’ve ever prioritized, I was forced to reconsider that dismissiveness—after all, many things I enjoy about the Z-RS are actually byproducts of decisions made to achieve this look.

This may be a first in CityBike history, but I’m genuinely full of praise for a modern, fuel-injected inline-four-powered motorcycle.

Max: Authentically Awesome

My exact words when I first saw photos of the Z900RS were “I hope it doesn’t suck.” I had no reason to think it would be a bad motorcycle, and after very much enjoying myself aboard the other Z900 when it wasn’t getting frisky with my Beyoncé thighs, I knew that its retuned-for-torque (as-always) motor had started life as a very well-done bit of engineering. I knew that it had the same modern suspension and brakes, and—hopefully—the same modern handling, but I couldn’t shake my concerns that in an effort to make the bike properly retro, Kawi might have sacrificed performance for the sake of “authenticity.”

Authenticity for the sake of “being authentic” makes about as much sense as man-buns and artisanal toast posing as a full breakfast. Pointless.

So I would have been quite bummed if this machine went full hipster. Fortunately, the Z900RS had a proper haircut and had just finished its two over-easy eggs with a side of bacon when I picked it up from Kawasaki. Sure, the root beer barrel candy paint, banana seat, twin gauges, and hell, even the wheels, have a seriously-Seventies vibe.

Kawi introduced the similarly styled, original Z1 back in ‘73, after all—the OG Z, if you will.

But that’s where the retro stopped and the righteous began.

Let’s start with the motor. I loved the mid- to high-rpm terror the other Z brought the world, but there were times I wished for a bit more low end grunt, like say… out of every low-speed corner. Lucky for me and the rest of the free world Kawasaki agreed.

With a bit of tuning and a gearing change, the Hipster Z is a demon in the under-7k range. Sure, it’s at the cost of a few ponies, but totally worth it. Instead of a strung-out supersport feel, the Z900RS behaves more like a best-of-both-worlds Triple. (Don’t tell Fish I said that.) The torque kicks in early and pulls strongly up through about 8k, where I started to notice the power tapering off.

Don’t get me wrong, this Seventies acid flashback still ripped all the way up to redline. I caught myself getting mad at a slowpoke blocker on my maiden ride before realizing it was perfectly ok for that Corvette to be doing just 105.

“But officer, I was just keeping up with the flow of traffic.”

Zed's Dead

Then there are the ergos. The regular Z was hard to get comfy on, but the retro Z fits me like an old concert t-shirt. The bars are 30mm wider, 65mm taller and 35mm closer than the regular Z, creating a back-friendly, almost-bolt-upright initial riding position. The “normal” gas tank allowed me to tuck lower when I was experiencing fits of speed, and the seat did not try to goose me when I came to a stop. My legs felt a little more relaxed thanks to slightly lower pegs and that translated to comfort as well as mobility. Without the limiting factors of the sit-in seat / tank combo I felt much less cramped and free to move about the cabin.

All this means I felt a bit more engaged with the machine. Around town I was in an almost all day comfortable position—almost, because the seat, while better than the regular Z, was still not perfect. It’s much flatter and more spacious, but lacks support.

Once I broke free from the confines of stoplights and right angle corners to head into the hills, things got really fun. I got on the brakes later and on the gas sooner, and did both with more confidence than I had on the regular Z. Part of that confidence might have been thanks to the inch-longer wheelbase, but even with the extra length the RS’s front wheel spent a little more time in the air.

Kawasaki most definitely did not make the Z900RS an “authentic for authenticity’s sake” motorcycle, but instead embraced what I remember bikes being when I was a tot. It’s not retro so much as a throwback to the simpler times of the early 70s, when hippies, not hipsters, roamed the earth.

This story originally appeared in our May 2018 issue.

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