Triumph has cranked up sales with the introduction of its old-looking new Bonnevilles. Ducati is selling its retro-styled Scramblers as fast as it can make them.
Kawasaki, eager for some of that moto nostalgia, has brought back a venerable nameplate with the introduction of the Z900RS — a two-wheeled throwback that marries classic styling with modern motorcycle technology.
The old-new bike is driven by a 948cc in-line four-cylinder engine, watercooled and smoothed out by a heavier flywheel than what was used in earlier Z900 engines.
The engine features decorative cooling fins that harken back to 1960s and ’70s styling, and a classically inspired 4-into-1 exhaust system, but it is mated to its six-speed transmission through a thoroughly modern slipper-assist clutch.
On a full-day ride from West Los Angeles into the Malibu mountains, I found the new machine remarkably easy to ride.
The power (estimated in some publications at 110 horsepower but unconfirmed by Kawasaki) rolls on smoothly. Traction settings add extra control. Engine tuning has given the RS version of the Z900 more low-end torque than its non-RS brother. Sound tuning has given the 4-into-1 exhaust a strong sonic signature. A Z900RS club coming down the road is going to sound magnificent.
The KYB suspension, easily adjustable fore and aft, takes the rough stuff out of the road. The braking system — with Nissin ABS managing dual discs in front and a single disc in the rear — feels calm and confident.
Kawasaki has worked to bring the ergonomics in line with what it perceives as the current appetite for more upright riding. The handlebars are higher, wider and closer to the rider than on previous iterations. The foot pegs are lower and a little farther forward.
The 31.5-inch seat height (a 30.5-inch seat is an available option) allows for a casual mount. The 5.3-inch ground clearance meant I only scraped the pegs on extra-tight turns. The 471-pound fueled weight of the bike comes off the kickstand easily, and the bike maneuvers well at slow speeds.
The classic styling elements are most visible in the teardrop-shaped tank, oval headlight bezel and spoke-like cast wheels, all of which strongly suggest the British bike look the Japanese were so keen to capture when they first took on the American street bike market.
In this case, the tank is a generous 4.5-gallon fuel reservoir — giving the bike an approximate range of 180 to 200 miles between refills — and the bezel houses a very bright LED beam.
Over many years of riding in the Malibu hills, I know I’ve gone much faster on curvy roads like Stunt, Schueren and Piuma. But I’m not sure I ever looked better. This is a really handsome bike.
But the third and fourth hour on the bike revealed some of its shortcomings. That good-looking flat, wide seat started to feel very uncomfortable, much sooner than it should have. The sweet dial-on of the throttle was not matched by a similarly smooth dial-off. Deceleration felt choppy, despite the slipper clutch.
Certain small points presented pluses and minuses. I always appreciate the inclusion of a well-placed helmet lock, and the Z900RS has one. But I am always disappointed when a bike does not include self-canceling turn signals, and this one doesn’t.
On the styling front, too, I couldn’t stop looking at the radiator and attached hoses, which seemed like a design afterthought on this machine. And, of course, I always wonder why the motorcycle industry hasn’t figured out a better way to house front brake fluid than with the urine-sample-on-the-handlebars system used here and almost everywhere else these days.
Kawasaki representatives hosting the introduction said the target customer for the Z900RS is a 35- to 55-year-old rider who craves a “unique” and “authentic” riding experience, prefers “mid-paced riding” and is interested in “show” as much as in “go.”
They may not remember the original 1973 Z900 that Kawasaki is leaning on with its marketing campaign of “The Legend Returns.”
But the Z900RS will offer prospective Kawasaki customers another option between the current Z900 (lower price, more power, more aggressive naked-bike styling) and the Ninja ZX10R (higher price, much more power, much more aggressive performance).
It also gives them a modern way to appreciate old-fashioned styling without having to struggle with old-fashioned technology, like a manual kick-start and that ever-present puddle of oil on the garage floor.
Kawasaki seems to be counting on those buyers to treat the bike as a friendly city scooter. Though the company offers aftermarket parts like a center stand, grip heaters and fly screen, it has no plans to offer luggage or storage options for touring.
What are its chances in a currently static bike market? Hard to say. With the exception of publicly traded Harley-Davidson, motorcycle companies rarely reveal sales figures and almost never share numbers on specific models.
So one can only guess from the visible evidence that Triumph and Ducati have done well with their retro-style bikes, while other attempts to recapture past glories have been less successful.
It might just be where I live and where I ride, but while I see a lot of Bonnies and a lot of Scramblers, I see fewer Yamaha SR400s and SCR950s, Honda Rebels and CB1100s, and Suzuki TU250s.