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Let’s Tell Kawasaki What to Do

Company may have gotten its groove back with the Z900RS

This article would have been different a year ago; as far as I’m concerned, the Z900RS has changed everything. Just in that sentence then, you can probably guess how this particular installment of the “Let’s Tell (blank) What to Do” series is going to go.

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I have not yet had the opportunity to personally throw a leg over the Z900RS (working on fixing that), so I reserve the right to change my opinion at a later date, but just about every review I’ve seen has spoken of the bike positively.

This is not just a Z900 with a bit of retro-styled decoration, as Yamaha’s XSR900 is to the MT-09. Kawasaki gave the bike an all-new chassis and made substantial changes to engine internals (crank, flywheel, revised cam profiles and gear ratios, etc) to deliver a notably different riding experience. And having seen the bike parked at local seaside hangouts I know that it is both popular and gorgeous.

Team Green put a lot of time, thought, and effort into the Z900RS and it shows in even the tiniest of ways. I am a sucker for that sort of thing.

Moto Guzzi

Kawasaki Heavy Industries, Ltd., is one of those classic multifaceted Japanese companies with its hand in just about everything – from missiles to trains to water treatment machines to motorcycles. The company traces its roots back to 1896 but has only been cranking out motos since 1953. And it’s only been producing bikes under the Kawasaki name since the ’60s (before then, bikes wore the Meguro badge – ie, the company that Kawasaki bought up in order to make motorcycles).

1967 Kawasaki Samurai 250

I find that interesting, because in my personal history Kawasaki is the Japanese brand to which I feel the greatest emotional connection. Growing up in the US Central Time Zone (first in Texas, then Minnesota), there was, of course, only one brand of bike you were supposed to buy – Harley-Davidson – but a Kawasaki felt legitimate. It was an acceptable and respected exception.

Maybe that connection comes as a result of branding – Kawasaki’s “Let/s the good times roll” slogan has been around pretty much from the start and has managed to work its way into the head of motorcyclists better than any other. You may meet the nicest people on a Honda, but Honda hasn’t actually used that slogan for decades; off the top of my head I can’t even think of a slogan that Suzuki or Yamaha have used.

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It may also be because of the ubiquitous Ninja. The Ninja was a part of my early riding experiences in the 90s – borrowing a buddy’s bike on runs to Lake Calhoun to try to look impressive for girls – and most American riders I know have also spent some time astride a Ninja of some displacement. Here in the UK, the bikes were more commonly known as GPZs (aka “GP-Zed”) in the 80s and 90s, and I know a lot of riders with fond memories. In more recent times, any number of riders counted the ER-6f as their first “big” bike.

1988 Kawasaki Ninja 600R

In the wake of the Great Recession, however, Kawasaki went into a kind of holding pattern. It didn’t fully grind to a halt like Suzuki, but it just sort of lost some its spark. Bikes like the Versys series and Vulcan S are good, but not as good as they could be. Really good bikes like the GTR1400 were allowed to age past their freshness date, and the awesomely retro W800 was unceremoniously dropped from the line-up.

So, as I say, a year ago – before we had seen the Kawasaki Z900RS or heard any talk of it (and even then I’ll admit I wasn’t optimistic when the initial Z900RS ad campaign rolled out, showing a bunch of Gen-Xers seemingly making a desperate attempt to hold on to their cool) – I would have said that Kawasaki needed to rediscover its soul.

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The thing about Kawasaki bikes – whether offroad, touring, sport, or cruiser – is they have traditionally captured an intangible, a certain something that makes owners eager to tell you how much they love their bikes. I feel Kawasaki has managed to remember what that something is with the Z900RS.

The 2018 Z900RS is styled on the Z1 of the 1970s.

So, my primary piece of advice to Kawasaki is to continue down that road. It’s a long road, though, and takes more than engineering talent. Many of the company’s models feel outdated or incomplete.

The aforementioned GTR1400, for example, needs to be overhauled or scrapped. A styling update wouldn’t hurt – perhaps draw cues from the H2 – but improvements also need to be made in the areas of rider aids, comfort, and attention to detail. For that last one I’m thinking specifically of the bike’s toothpick kickstand that flexes when you put weight on the bike.

Indeed, the attention to tiny details shown to the Z900RS is an attitude that should be extended across the company’s line-up. Spend more time really thinking about who will be using the bikes and how – the day-to-day challenges those riders will face when using Kawasaki products, and how well said products will withstand imperfect conditions.

This could be better

I’d like to see the Versys line reworked – the Versys 1000 in particular. It could stand to be a little less budget. I mean, well, it is a budget bike (and a hell of a good deal, admittedly – a luggage-laden Versys 1000 Tourer SE costs less than a stock Ducati Multistrada 950 and delivers more horsepower), but surely some effort could be put into making it feel less budget.

Meanwhile, I may be in the minority here but I’d like to see Kawasaki overhaul its heavy cruisers. I mean, I actually like the Vaquero. Like the looks of it, at least – the bike hasn’t been sold in Europe for a number of years because Kawasaki didn’t bother to update it to meet Euro IV admission standards.

Speaking of bikes that no longer exist in Europe, I think there’s value in reimagining the KLR650. With Yamaha and KTM set to bring out mid-capacity true adventure machines in the not too distant future and BMW already in the game with its F 850 GS, I think there’s scope for Kawasaki to stick to the KLR650’s strength of being a nigh-indestructible world-crosser while updating the machine to meet modern tastes and emissions rules.

I accept that I may be the only person who wants a dramatically overhauled Vaquero. I’m a nerd for baggers; I can’t help myself.

Overhauling every facet of Kawasaki’s line-up certainly wouldn’t come cheap, though, so it may be in the company’s interest to think seriously about trimming the fat – dropping models to ensure the overall feel isn’t stale, as is the case with Suzuki’s line-up. Do we really need the GTR1400, ZZR1400, Ninja H2 SX and the Z1000SX – all delivering very similar experiences? Do we need so many Z and Ninja variants?

It might make sense to just rein things in and focus on making good bikes that people love. Kawasaki had that ability in the past; the Z900RS makes me think it can do it again.