Kawasaki’s built itself a thoroughly nostalgic retro bike that thinks it’s a super naked
I don’t normally like retro bikes. Too many — I’m looking at you, Honda CB1100 — tend to remind me just how bad the “good old times” really were. Some things are better left un-revisited, and amongst them are fat, heavy motorcycles with crap suspension.
Kawasaki’s latest Z900, the RS SE, however, is a completely different animal. Oh, sure, it’s got the “Yellow Ball” paint job (complete with a stylized “Z” carved into the stripe), duck-tail rear seat unit, and a four-into-one exhaust system that does a pretty good Kerker imitation (save for its chrome covering).
But, at its heart, it’s really more of sporty naked bike. In SE trim, you see, the RS gains a seriously sophisticated S46 Öhlins rear shock (with the requisite remote pre-load adjuster so you can adjust the rear ride height), totally recalibrated front fork, and some Brembo M4.32 front calipers mated to a 17.5-mm Nissan radial master cylinder with stainless-steel braided lines. The bodywork may be saying mid-‘70s classic, but the running gear is thoroughly modern speedster.
Sitting on the classic pleated saddle and reaching out to the high-rise handlebar, the same dichotomy persists. The aforementioned saddle is a traditional (almost) completely flat affair, simpler and, it must be said, far more comfortable than the sculpted seats adorning more ‘modern’ motorcycles. Ditto for the handlebar, which is 65 millimetres higher and 35 mm closer to the rider than the basic Z900s, and the 20-mm lower footpegs. Sitting on the RS SE, you’re immediately reminded of what a UJM — that’s “Universal Japanese Motorcycle” — used to feel like.
Grab the binders or heel the incredibly quick-steering chassis into a sharp bend and, all of a sudden, you’re on a super naked, the M4.32s all bite and stoppiness, with the sportbike-sized 180/55ZR18 (rear) and 120/70ZR17 (front) Bridgestone Battlax Hypersports offering track-worthy grip, the suspension keeping the whole party on an even keel. No doubt I’ll feel the ire of Triumph fans, but I’d prefer riding the SE through some California twisties than a Speed Triple. Hell, the Öhlins’ed and Brembo’ed Z900 might make a pretty good track bike, too.
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As long as the straights weren’t too long. Oh, the 948-cc inline four isn’t exactly slow. Cycle World magazine says it dynos out at 95.24 horsepower. But, in today’s motorcycling world of supercharged sport-tourers and 240-hp superbikes — Ducati’s latest Panigale V4 R, for example — that might seem pretty pedestrian.
On the other hand, the four has plenty of punch down low and, more importantly, thanks to that four-into-one exhaust system — complete with a period-correct collector — it sounds the business. Considering the riding position — much more classic sit-up-and-beg than au courant boy racer — that may not be a bad thing.
The engine is the source of my one complaint, however. In the constant search for ever-reduced emissions, the Kawasaki’s fuel injection is pretty cold-blooded. It took more than a few minutes to warm up and until all 948-cc were up to full operating temperature, the throttle would hang up a bit, reluctant to fall to its proscribed 1,200-rpm idle. And the throttle response, even with the radiator on full boil, tended to the snatchy at low speeds.
Were I the owner of a new Z900RS SE, the first thing I’d do is install a throttle tamer — a revised right-hand throttle grip with a more gradual throttle ramp — or get the ECU reflashed with a slightly richer air-fuel mixture.
But, other than that, I’d change nothing. The Z900RS SE is the motorcycling surprise of 2022. It’s as comfy and familiar — at least to us “olds” — as a rocking chair, offers pinpoint-sharp steering we could have only dreamed about “back in the day,” and doesn’t it bark out a classic (exhaust) tune when you get the revs up. Marry all that with a classic look well-finished and a price tag of just $15,599, and you have my best bike of 2022, and the first new bike in quite some time I’ve thought would look good in the Booth garage.