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Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
We’ve been salivating over the new Kawasaki Z900RS since it said konnichiwa at the Tokyo Motor Show. The new Zed has a clear lineage back to the iconic Z1, and marks the rebirth of the Universal Japanese Motorcycle.

It’s also a damned attractive bike that promises strong on-road performance. So I’ve just spent a day ripping through the sun-baked canyons of Malibu on a Z900RS, 30 miles west of downtown LA, to see if Kawasaki have delivered the goods. And I’m happy to confirm there are reasons to keep drooling.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
First off, this bike is gorgeous, especially in the metal. The depth of color in the Candytone Brown lacquer is lost in pixels alone. Get up close and personal and it’s exquisite.

The tones change from near black to a warm Sarsaparilla, depending on how the light hits. And the orange accents score top marks, too. Even if you have never seen a Z1 before (cough, millennials, cough), the new Z900RS makes a compelling argument for brown.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
That beauty runs deeper than the paint. Touches like the machined fins on the inline-four engine, the low teardrop style tank and that ducktail rear-end are clear retro hallmarks; Kawasaki has paid attention to the miscues of some other OEMs.

It’s a bike that is voluptuous and curvy from above, while maintaining a clean and flat stance.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
Of course, the RS isn’t immune to aesthetic criticisms. Purists have been quick to comment that spoked wheels, twin outboard shocks and a Z1-style 4-2-4 exhaust would pay better homage.

And I tend to agree, at least with the last bit. The thrice-buffed headers look the business, but the Euro-4 compliant pre-chamber hiding below is an eyesore. And that silencer, although slim and shiny, does nothing to add visual personality.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
Presumably, the aftermarket will provide solutions in due time, but you probably won’t want to change the noise it makes. Full credit goes to Kawi’s engineers for tuning the RS’s exhaust note: At idle she’s a throaty beast, without being loud. But at full boil, the 948cc mill screams with an appreciable wail. And the overrun is even better. She burbles with just the right amount of anger and ferocity, making lips curl and hair stand up in salute.

Combine that with intake noise from the shortened downdraft throttle bodies, and the Z900RS eggs you on with its huffing and puffing.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
Acceleration is quick and linear. The re-tuned mill, pulled from the Z900, delivers its oomph lower in the rev range and climbs quickly to its peak. But I warn you, fuelling is abrupt.

Modulating the throttle through tight, twisty and especially bumpy bits of canyon country was a touch frustrating. The Z900 is praised for a silky smooth digital throttle, but the RS’s behaves more like a light switch. A few of us journos surmised that this could be fixed with a Power Commander—but a reflash from the factory would do worlds for the confidence of buyers who prefer not to tinker.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
That’s a shame, because the handling deserves to be exploited. Underpinning the Z900RS is a modified version of the Z900’s street fighting trellis frame. In RS guise the upper rails sit narrower, to hide beneath the tank. And the stance has been flattened, thanks to a lower rear subframe.

There’s also a revised triple clamp to reduce trail. Riding on those cast, 17-inch hoops the RS is a nimble and predictable machine.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
Before heading into the canyons, we battled the congested postcard that is the Pacific Coast Highway. But the upright, neutral riding position made it easy to see where and when to split traffic. The reach to the wide bars is relaxed, and with a wink and a nudge, the new Zed will wiggle its way towards open road.

Once there, brace yourself for the surge. Grab a mitt-full of throttle and the front wheel will lift, sniff the air briefly before touching down, and then you’re gone. The needle on the analog tach sweeps quickly to double digits; the equally attractive clock on its left does the same.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
A small digital readout between the two delivers info on gearing, fuel, traction control and trip related metrics. Kawi worked hard on crafting gauges that mix the schools of old and new, and they’ve nailed it. I’ll take these over iPad-sized TFTs any day.

With only a quick glance, your brain understands the message your retinas deliver: You’re speeding.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
Have no fear, though. The twin radial mount, 4-pot binders up front will reign you in with just a finger on the lever. An upgrade over the Z900, they are communicative and easy to modulate.

The rear brake is smooth too: When the twists started to tighten in the upper reaches of Mulholland, I had no fear of letting my right foot work as the only anchor. And when I got a little more aggressive than my abilities should permit, the ABS never kicked in and the rear never kicked out.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
And then my left peg carved out a chunk of California asphalt. Under normal riding conditions, when you’re not trying to chase down ex-racers turned journalists, the suspension set-up would be near ideal.

Maybe I should have taken the time to dial in a bit more preload. I’m guessing that (and some post-lunch lethargy) was the culprit for firing debris at the dudes behind me. Sorry, lads.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
For aggressive riding, the ergos on the Zed may be a bit too relaxed. I actually prefer the triangle offered by the XSR900, which is a touch more ‘forward’ than the Z900RS. But Kawi’s Retro-Sport is the more versatile and comfortable bike by far.

If I lived in California and had this playground at my disposal, I’d consider a move to lower bars—which the Cafe Racer variant will wear. And swap to the lower, ‘Ergo-Fit’ seat that Kawasaki already has in its catalog. It has a deeper groove with more of a butt-stop, to help get the weight up front.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
While perusing the factory bolt-ons, I’d also add the passenger grab bar and a set of the proper Z1-style tank emblems to my cart, too. I get why Kawasaki chose to use their modern script on the stock Z900RS—it is a modern bike after all—but applaud them for offering up the classic badging option.

While we’re on the topic of changes, there there’s one more that caught my eye. The mounts for the front mudguard are a sci-fi looking, intertwined set of aluminum lumps. They’d look as cool as chips on the futuristic Z900, but on the RS they’re just wrong. A chrome mudguard mounted with hidden hardware, please.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
But apart from those cosmetic changes, and sorting out the fuelling and fitting a proper looking exhaust, there’s little to complain about.

The Z900RS is a lively, capable machine that can be ridden comfortably, with a style that has raised the bar for modern retros: It’s a true UJM, through and through. And priced as it is, even after the $200 premium for the Candytone paint, it makes a compelling case to skip past the Triumph and Yamaha showrooms and into a Kawasaki one.

Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
The Z900RS is available at dealers now. Two colors are available, including Metallic Flat Spark Black and Candytone Brown/Candytone Orange. ABS and KTC (Kawasaki Traction Control) are standard. Prices in the US will range from $10,999 to $11,299.

Kawasaki Z900RS | Kawasaki Facebook | Instagram | Images by Drew Ruiz

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Review: The 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS