Kawasaki Z900Rs

‘It seems that plenty of peo­ple at Kawasaki are in touch with their firm’s past glo­ries, be­cause just a year af­ter the Z900’s ar­rival it is now joined in the range by the Z900RS. The RS ini­tials stand for Retro Sport’. We just came back from a first ride


mod­ern four-cylin­der and me­chan­i­cals un­der clas­sic and very de­sir­able old-school skin

Kawasaki seemed to be turn­ing down an ob­vi­ous op­por­tu­nity while launch­ing the new-gen­er­a­tion Z900 a year ago. It was a pow­er­ful 948-cc four with a tubu­lar steel frame and ag­gres­sive, mod­ern styling. It was quick, sweet­handling and a blast to ride. Surely the name Z900, echo­ing that of the mighty DOHC four that was one of the great­est su­per­bikes of the 1970s, pre­sented a per­fect chance to add some Kawasaki her­itage to the mix?

It seems that plenty of peo­ple at Kawasaki agreed and are in touch with their firm’s past glo­ries, af­ter all, be­cause just a year af­ter the Z900’s ar­rival it is now joined in the range by the Z900RS. The ‘RS’ ini­tials stand for ‘Retro Sport’, and the new bike’s round head­light, chrome-rimmed clocks, teardrop tank and duck-tail rear end bring to mind the orig­i­nal Z900 and its all-con­quer­ing Z1 pre­de­ces­sor.

The naked RS is a stylish, dy­namic, en­ter­tain­ing ma­chine that does a fine job of blend­ing the look of Kawasaki’s 1970s su­per­stars with mod­ern per­for­mance

The RS doesn’t out­per­form every other bike on the road, as the Z1 did on its launch in 1973 (Kawasaki might ar­gue they’ve got that base cov­ered with the ZX-10RR), but it’s a wor­thy suc­ces­sor. With 111 PS and a kerb weight of 215 kg, it has a much better power-to-weight ra­tio than the old 903-cc four­cylin­der war­rior, as well as hav­ing a vastly su­pe­rior chas­sis and mod­ern elec­tron­ics.

Kawasaki’s en­gi­neers have put this last year to good use, too, be­cause the RS is far more than sim­ply a Z900 with a few cos­metic mod­i­fi­ca­tions. Hav­ing de­cided that a retro four would ap­peal to a slightly dif­fer­ent type of rider, they re­tuned the en­gine to give more mid-range per­for­mance at the ex­pense of top-end, while also re­design­ing the frame, up­rat­ing the front brake and adding LED light­ing and trac­tion con­trol.

The liq­uid-cooled en­gine re­tains its 948-cc ca­pac­ity and DOHC, 16-valve lay­out but is re­worked with new camshafts, re­duced com­pres­sion ra­tio and a 12 per cent heav­ier crank­shaft. The new, dou­ble-skinned four-into-one ex­haust has nar­rower down­pipes than the Z900’s sys­tem, which also helps boost mid-range out­put. Max­i­mum torque re­mains al­most un­changed but it’s pro­duced 1,200 rpm ear­lier, at 6,500 rpm, while peak power is down by 14 PS.

Most chas­sis changes are also in­tended to make the RS more rider-friendly than the hard­core Z900. New triple clamps give five mm less trail, for lighter steer­ing, which com­pen­sates for the fact that rake is in­creased by half a de­gree, to 25 de­grees, and the wheel­base is 20 mm longer. The top yoke is also raised by 40 mm, which along with the one-piece han­dle­bar puts the rider’s hands higher, wider and fur­ther back for a more re­laxed rid­ing po­si­tion, in con­junc­tion with foot-rests that are 20 mm lower and fur­ther for­ward.

Frame changes in­clude nar­rower top tubes, al­low­ing a slim­mer fuel tank. The lower rear sub-frame leaves room for a thicker, retro-style dual-seat. Other chas­sis changes in­clude new thin-spoke 17-inch wheels, de­signed to re­sem­ble wire­spok­ers (with the ad­van­tage of be­ing lighter) and new fourpis­ton monobloc front brake calipers. Forks are mul­ti­ad­justable 41-mm di­am­e­ter USD units and the rear sus­pen­sion is a near-hor­i­zon­tal, ris­ing-rate shock that is ad­justable for preload and re­bound damp­ing.

Chief Project De­signer Norikazu Mat­sumura made sure there were plenty of styling cues from the Z1. Pe­riod shapes in­clude not only the tank and duck-tail but also the side-panel area. The launch bikes’ paint de­sign and Candy or­ange and brown colours come straight from 1973; al­ter­na­tives are black or matte green.

The detailing gets better the closer you look, and the more fa­mil­iar you are with old Zeds. It takes in the camshaft end caps, side-panel badges’ let­ter­ing and fin­ish, round mir­rors, seat stitch­ing, and the way the oval rear light’s LEDs glow like the orig­i­nal bulb. Even the in­stru­ments’ type­face matches that of the old di­als. How­ever, between the chrome rims is a mod­ern dig­i­tal dis­play in­cor­po­rat­ing fuel-gauge, con­sump­tion read­ing, gear in­di­ca­tor, and clock.

Ap­par­ently, this is the first Kawasaki whose ex­haust note has been de­lib­er­ately tuned for sound. The ef­fort was worth­while be­cause the RS fired up with a throaty rasp that can’t quite match the orig­i­nal four-pipe rum­ble but is tune­ful by Euro 4 stan­dards. When I let out the lever of the light slip­per clutch, the bike pulled for­ward eas­ily, its lower first gear com­pen­sat­ing for the fact that over­all gear­ing has been raised, as has sixth to give a more laid-back cruis­ing feel.

Max­i­mum power might be slightly down on the Z900, but the RS still has plenty up top for a naked bike, and its flex­i­bil­ity was very welcome. The graphs show there’s more torque ev­ery­where be­low about 7,000 rpm, giv­ing the new bike a pleas­antly old-school ur­gency from 3,000 rpm or be­low — and a se­ri­ously arm-yank­ing burst of ac­cel­er­a­tion from about five grand on­wards, as it headed for a top speed that would ap­proach 225 km/h if given enough room.

I didn’t get near that on a cold day in north­ern Spain, but the Z900RS felt smooth and fairly ef­fort­less on a brief mo­tor­way blast de­spite the in­evitable wind-blast. And it was more at home when we turned off on to twisty roads in the hills north of Sit­ges, though there was no miss­ing the throt­tle’s slightly abrupt re­sponse from closed. The jerky de­liv­ery is not as no­tice­able as with bikes in­clud­ing Suzuki’s GSX-S1000 or Yamaha’s orig­i­nal MT-09, but de­tracted slightly from the bike’s poise and pace, es­pe­cially when ex­it­ing slow turns.

Chas­sis per­for­mance was very good, es­pe­cially for a bike that has been de­signed for gen­tle use as well as back-road scratch­ing. The Kawasaki steered with a neu­tral and en­joy­ably light feel, helped by the con­sid­er­able lever­age avail­able via those wide bars. Sus­pen­sion is re­spectably firm yet com­pli­ant, its travel un­changed from the Z900’s (at 120 mm front and 140 mm rear). Both ends were suf­fi­ciently well con­trolled to make the bike quick and fun with­out the need to fid­dle with the ad­justers.

Those new monobloc front calipers meant there was plenty of stop­ping power, too, in com­bi­na­tion with a ra­dial master cylin­der and discs that are round and drilled, rather than hav­ing the Z900’s petal shape. Ground clear­ance was very ad­e­quate, though the side-stand bracket even­tu­ally scrapes when you’re push­ing to­wards the grip lim­its of the Dun­lop D300 tyres. There’s an ad­justable trac­tion con­trol sys­tem which al­lows wheel­ies in the sportier of its two set­tings — a fea­ture the orig­i­nal Z900 def­i­nitely didn’t have or need.

The Kawasaki showed plenty of promise as an all-rounder, too, when we headed into cen­tral Barcelona the next day. De­spite hard use it av­er­aged about 6.0 litres/100 km, giv­ing a range of roughly 250 km from the 17-litre tank. Its wide bars, gen­er­ous steer­ing lock and re­spectably light weight com­bined to make it ma­noeu­vrable in traf­fic. And al­though the seat is not es­pe­cially low, at 835 mm, it’s slim enough that most rid­ers will be able to get both feet down.

For those with short legs there’s a 35-mm lower ac­ces­sory seat to help. Other ex­tras in­clude an au­then­tic look­ing chromed pil­lion grab-rail, a tinted fly-screen and al­ter­na­tive tank badges, as well as more prac­ti­cal bits such as heated grips and cen­tre­stand. Al­ter­na­tively, if you fancy a racier ride, there’s the Z900RS Café that fea­tures a bikini fair­ing, lower bars, cut­down dual-seat, brushed steel si­lencer, and paint­work in Kawasaki lime green and white.

That looks good and the naked RS is a stylish, dy­namic, en­ter­tain­ing ma­chine that does a fine job of blend­ing the look of Kawasaki’s 1970s su­per­stars with mod­ern per­for­mance and an ap­peal­ing char­ac­ter. It’s a far better bike than the for­get­table Ze­phyrs of the early ‘90s and is a wor­thy ri­val for retro-mod­els, in­clud­ing BMW’s R nineT and Yamaha’s XSR900.

Per­haps, the only real draw­back is that the RS is con­sid­er­ably more ex­pen­sive than the Z900, but even so it might well prove more pop­u­lar. Kawasaki waited for four decades to re­vive the Z900 name. The ex­tra year that they took to cre­ate the Z900RS looks like time well spent.

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