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First ride: The new Kawasaki Z900RS 'oozes 70s charm'

Published: 01 December 2017

The new Kawasaki Z900RS (Retro Sport) is an unashamed nod to the bike that started the whole Zed story for Kawasaki: the 1972, 83bhp, 903cc, inline four-cylinder ‘900 Super 4’ Z1.

Having ridden the new Zed on the streets of Barcelona, it’s a feisty, feel-good bike. But with the 2017 Z900 base machine proving itself to be such a perfect, if unexpected, performer this year, we kind of knew it would be.

With Z1-inspired styling cues abound, from the ducktail back end and oval rear light, to the machined engine fins, textured metal tank and side panel badges, replica cam covers and clocks, which use the same typeface and needle shape (resting at the same angle at zero) as the originals.

Step back, and you’ll see how the new upper frame shape allows the seat and slim, pear drop-shaped fuel tank (which extends down, behind the side panels) to be placed horizontally, like the ’72 machine and from above the Z900RS has the same slinky ‘hour-glass’ shape. The metallic brown and orange livery isn’t just a faithful replica of the original’s carcinogenic paint, it has one of those flawless, glistening finishes that looks like it’s still wet with lacquer.

Kawasaki have cleverly made crisp rear LED lights glow like a 70s light bulb, the orange tank stripe wraps around the front of the tank and meets around the front in a Z-shaped bow and Euro-spec speedos go up to 240km/h, just like the original. 

Everything from the Z900RS’s chest puffing riding position, to the view down to the wide chrome bars and the unholy growl it makes with a fist full of throttle, can’t help but make you feel good.

There’s no lack of speed in the Zed’s armoury and with the traction control turned off it will do the kind of wheelies the Z1 could only dream of back in the 70s. The slip and assist clutch, gearbox and twistgrip are all beautifully light and easy to operate, but the power delivery is aggressive from a closed throttle, which makes tackling tight corners and slow riding tiresome.

A smooth inline four motor like the Zed’s will never have the same kind of earthy character as the Z900RS’s twin and three-cylinder rivals, but it makes up for it with apocalyptic exhaust raw on the throttle and a blood-spitting gurgle on the overrun.

Light, accurate town handling, continues when you hit the mountains and open the taps. Suspension springs are stiff, so the Z900RS is more composed the harder you ram in into corners. Fully-adjustable forks and ZX-10R-style horizontal rear shock and linkage are lightly damped, so the big Zed feels get floaty when you up the ante, but they’re set to give a smooth ride and easy, accessible low-speed handling.

Tyres lack grip and confidence when you push on, but are fine for normal riding and there’s no problem with ground clearance, braking feel and power. But we’d love to spend day twiddling the suspension settings and fitting stickier tyres to see if it could match the composure of track-ready retros like Triumph’s Thruxton R and BMW R nineT.  

Retro on the outside and modern on the inside

This is more than just a Z900 with flares, because there’s even more going on under the skin. Kawasaki have bolstered low to midrange power for everyday riding, which is at the expense of the standard bike’s top end clout, but the reality is you never miss it in the real world. First gear is shortened and the exhaust is tuned for bass-laden ear destruction, as well as grunt.

As well as its modified chassis, higher spec monoblocs trump the Z900’s brakes, not to mention Z1’s single disc and twin pot caliper set-up. A three-way switchable traction system and retro-styled Dunlop GPR-300 tyres are other new editions.

But what about the original Z1’s twin stacked pipes and spoked wheels? Well, Kawasaki says the Z900RS’s 4-1 exhaust and cast ali hoops were chosen for lightness and to mirror the kind of modifications Z1 owners would’ve made back in the day. 

All day riding is easy thanks to its back-friendly, upright bar position is natural, there’s plenty of seat-to-peg room for the tall and it’s low enough for the short (a 35mm lower accessory seat available to drop you down even further).

Modern day niceties like the multifunction display between the analogue dials, the easy to use switchgear and skin-saving ABS all give the Z900RS a safe, practical edge and as you’d expect there’s a raft of Kawasaki goodies available, too, from crash protection, to a bikini fairing, grab rails and heated grips.

So is the Z900RS the ultimate retro?

Starting with the brilliant Z900 as its base, we always knew the new RS would match performance with looks. It oozes 70s Z1 charm, detailing and mixes it with modern technology, easy speed, light controls, superb build quality and fastidious attention to detail. There’s enough performance for experienced riders to enjoy and for new riders it’s a piece of cake to jump on and live, or relive your 70s dreams.

Kawasaki say they’re gunning for the similarly priced R nineT Pure, but the Z900RS has to face are a raft of retro rivals. With its impressive blend of performance and Z1 style, it could easily beat the lot of them.

There’s so much retro choice, it’s hard to pinpoint the Z900RS’s exact rival, but compare them by power and price and things become clearer. The closest rivals are:

- Ducati Scrambler Cafe Racer (£9,650)

- Triumph Thruxton (£10,800)

- BMW R nineT (£12,300)

- Yamaha XSR900 (£8,699)

- Honda CB1100EX (£10,800)

- BMW R nineT Pure (£10,100)

Z900RS facts

Price £9899

Engine 948cc 16v inline four

Frame Steel trellis

Seat height 835mm

Suspension Fully adjustable 41mm USD forks and rear shocks, adjustable for preload and rebound damping.

Front brake 2 x 300mm front discs with four-piston radial monobloc calipers. 250mm rear disc with single-piston caliper

Colours Black, green/black (£10,099), brown/orange (£10,199)

Available Now 

Power 109bhp@8500rpm

Torque 73ftlb@6500rpm

Kerb weight 215kg

Tank capacity 17-litres

Here's what we learnt when the Z900RS was first unveiled at the Tokyo show in October

Last month, Kawasaki unveiled their new Z900RS retro naked roadster, ending two years of rumour and speculation that a Z1 homage was waiting in the wings.

Not only does it invoke the spirit of the legendary Z1, it’s currently Kawasaki’s only retro offering (after the demise of the W800 last year) and looks set to have a serious impact on the market with superbly authentic looks, the engine from the Z900 – and an even higher level of spec than its more modern-styled donor.

At the heart of the new Zed is the liquid-cooled 948cc Z900 engine, re-tuned to give a slightly lower peak power, but a swell in the midrange that means the RS actually pulls harder than the Zed below 7000rpm. The new RS has a few additional strings to its bow, too – boasting traction control and higher spec cycle parts like radial-mount brake calipers, and LED lighting all round – none of which feature on the Z900.

The centrepiece of the new Z900RS is the 17-litre teardrop fuel tank that’s so reminiscent of the Z1. Kawasaki say the frame was completely redesigned to accommodate the tank’s ideal position and slim shape. Only after the fuel tank position was fixed were the seat length and Z1-aping tail cowl length all decided. The flat waistline is particularly appealing for retro purists.

The exhaust system – which is a slightly disappointing departure from the iconic Z1’s four-pipe layout – is a simplistic 4-into-1 arrangement. The header pipes and collector are one piece, with no connector pipes or exhaust valve, allowing authentically uncluttered retro styling. All are formed from high-quality stainless steel, and treated to a buff finish.

The wide, flat handlebar contributes to the retro sport styling while offering a wide grip to facilitate decent leverage. Relative to the Z900, the bars are 30mm wider, 65mm higher, and 35mm closer to the rider, also giving a more upright riding position. While the seat height is reasonably accommodating at 835mm, there’s also an ERGO-FIT low seat available that reduces the seat height by 35 mm. Compared to the Z900, the footpegs are 20mm lower and 20mm farther forward, meaning an even more relaxed riding position.

The dual clocks boast analogue-style speedometer and tachometer dials, with a multi-functional LCD screen tucked between the two – which can be blanked off with an accessory panel for a more 70s aesthetic. The LCD screen features a gear indicator, odometer, dual trip meters, fuel gauge, remaining range, current and average fuel consumption, coolant temperature, external temperature, clock and the Economical Riding Indicator.

Unlike it’s modern stablemate, the Z900RS is equipped with traction control featuring two modes, and an ‘off’ setting. Mode 1 prioritises maximum acceleration, while Mode 2 provides a bigger safety net on slippery surfaces. The system is also able to distinguish between smooth torque wheelies and ham-fisted clutch-ups. In Mode 1, torque wheelies are allowed, but deliberate hooliganism will cause intervention. Mode 2 allows neither, while you can always turn it off.

Pleasingly modern rim sizes mean that owners will be able to spec a wild array of tyre options, from the standard-equipment retro styled Dunlop GPR-300s, to all-weather touring rubber, or track-day-friendly sports tyres.

Cafe Racer version unveiled in Milan

During the annual Milan motorcycle show (Eicma) earlier this month, the one surprise we'd been waiting for, Kawasaki unveiled. The new Z900RS Cafe Racer.

Tracing its roots back to the Super Four model Z1 of 1972, it also gets a KR250/500 evocative bold and lairy green and white paintjob to ensure that you really stand out from the crowd. And no - there aren’t other colour options on offer. 

The big changes, beyond the obvious small headlamp cowl, are a more scalloped lower seat, and drop-bars to create a more canted-forward riding position to help encourage sportier progress.


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