What have we learned after 6000 miles on the café-style Kawasaki Z900RS? After trackdays, commutes and even a trip to the TT, MCN Senior Road Tester Adam Child reveals all.
Even before throwing a leg over Kawasaki’s new Zed I’m smiling. It’s a stunner. So many times manufacturers try to copy historic designs and fall short. However, Kawasaki have hit the retro nail squarely on the head. It’s a beautiful blend of nostalgia and modernity. The classic Kawasaki green really gives the bike punch, combined with that single headlight and 1970s throwback nose cowl.
Settle into the retro seat and the journey back in time continues. The seat is wide, and surprisingly high. I’m only 5ft 6in and it’s a stretch around the large fuel tank to the dropped bars. The chrome analogue clocks are a lovely touch, with only the modern switchgear detracting from the authenticity.
Even on tickover it sounds period, giving the impression it’s running on carbs, not slick modern fuel injection. The standard four-into-one chrome exhaust sounds throaty, the power delivery is instant, and you only need to tickle the throttle to get its cold Dunlop searching for grip.
600 miles (the first service)
Now run-in we can start to make more use of the available 109bhp. There’s certainly some bark to the Café RS, and a tangible bite at 7000rpm. The lack of fairings gives a greater sensation of speed, and it’s hard work holding on above 100mph (not that most will ever try).
The small nose cone is all about design rather than function. The wide bars exaggerate the feeling further, with the wind tugging at your jacket’s seams every time you let the speed build.
I’m probably riding the Café a little harder than it was designed for, but that engine and the bike's composure up to a decent lick of pace egg you on to ride it hard.
When you’re really pushing on, the suspension starts to fall short, so a visit to K-Tech is planned to improve the forks. Increased speed also puts too much pressure on the brakes, which feel a little lacking.
They lack bite, and struggle to haul the Zed down from high speeds. The standard Dunlops aren’t really up for a spirited ride either, and are on the list for a change to something sportier.
1000 miles and beyond
After 1000 miles I’m pleased to report that Kawasaki’s new Zed is living up to the promises they made for it. So often a new bike looks the part, but doesn’t deliver either the styling authenticity, or riding engagement promised.
They tend to look stunning but handle like a wheel barrow with a flat tyre, or have ‘Monet’ aesthetics (look great at a distance, and like a kid's art project up close) but go like stink. The Zed is the best of both worlds; looking and riding significantly better than I expected it might.
There really isn’t a huge amount wrong with the standard Kawasaki suspension. Up front the 41mm units are fully adjustable and the rear horizontal shock has preload and rebound adjustment.
For 80% of riders and for 80% of the time, it will be faultless. However, I fall outside that window. I’m one of the 20% who’ll ride harder on the road and venture out on occasional trackday – which is why I turned to K-Tech for some improved control. They completely transformed the bike, with a new Razor R rear shock and fork internals.
My wife and I tag onto the back of a 200-mile charity ride around North Yorkshire, it’s the first time I’ve ridden the Zed two up. The new remote preload on the rear makes adjustment a million times easier and it now only takes a few seconds to change the preload to accommodate a pillion or luggage.
During TT race week, the Isle of Man can be a congested nightmare, but the Z900 cuts up the slow traffic with ease. My race schedule was manic, but I did manage to get an enjoyable, steady jacket-n-jeans ride to Peel. Despite all the superbikes zooming around, the retro Zed never failed to gain admiring glances.
Once back from the TT, it was down to the workshop to fit the plethora of parts I’d ordered, including a full Akrapovic exhaust, Evotech Performance tail-tidy, bobbins and a genuine chrome Kawasaki grab rail. The new Akrapovic exhaust saves 4kg of weight and sounds fantastic.
Cadwell Park proved to be the ultimate test for the aftermarket K-Tech suspension. I can now easily switch between a road or track setting and increase the ride height to increase ground clearance, which only becomes an issue on track.
The fork kit gives more support and feel and I can brake later and deeper up to the apex. The bike remains composed and stays online, rather than wanting to sit upright. Obviously, this isn’t a race bike, but the suspension has transformed it on track.
A blast down to Kent to race in the inaugural Café Racer Cup proves to be one of the highlights of the year so far. We had to fit Pirelli SC2 track day rubber as the competition was pretty impressive. Ground clearance became an issue; the pegs are more than a few millimetres shorter now.
From race bike to commuter, the Zed is happy on my long 90 mile (each way) commute to work. It’s averaging over 50mpg, even when ridden hard, with the fuel light illuminating at around 130-140 miles from full. The seat isn’t perfect, but bearable for nearly two hours in the saddle.
A magnetic tank bag safely secured to the large metal fuel tank, additional luggage bungeed to the rear via the standard hook mounts and grab rail and it turns out to be a surprising tourer as we pile on the miles and surge through 5000. Far from just being a faux retro with a pretty face and no personality, it’s proving to be a remarkably complete package.
I’ve been testing Kawasaki’s Z900RS Café for over six months now, and I honestly thought the love affair may have started to dwindle by now, but it hasn’t. I’ve been using the bike as a long-distance commuter, fun weekend toy, unusual trackday bike – and I’ve even raced the retro Zed at the inaugural Café Racer Cup at Lydden Hill. There have been times when I’ve been tired, cold and wet, yet the Zed has never failed to make me smile.
And, after more than six months on the big green retro, I still love the styling, its appeal and character haven’t diminished with familiarity. Each morning I still smile when I open the garage door and see the Zed staring back at me like the bastard child of Kermit and Cyclops. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that it’s so good, the Z900RS won this year’s MCN Award for our Best Retro of 2018.
I’ve added a few trinkets, like the cut down tail tidy which highlights the Zed’s authentic ducktail tail unit. The full Akrapovic exhaust has not only added to the retro styling, but sounds awesome. It’s not annoyingly loud, but certainly has a rasp to it, not too dissimilar to an original Zed with an aftermarket Harris exhausts or something similar. The fuel-injected Euro 4 engine sounds authentic, almost like its running carburettors rather than fuel injection.
The nights are now drawing in, my early morning commutes now starts in the dark, and the temperatures are starting to drop. I’ve ridden through every winter for the last 25 years, and I’ve no intension of stopping now. However, the Zed isn’t going to be ideal. The retro nose cowl is more for show than practicality, but I think that modifying the screen would spoil the styling. I’ve fitted some genuine Kawasaki heated grips – but otherwise I’m limited for further choices to make it a better winter ride. Fingers crossed the coming months won’t be as harsh as last year.
What the Z900RS Cafe Racer costs?
- On the road: £10,349
- PCP per month x 36: £98.21 (£2200 deposit)
- Finance: £251.31
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