Kawasaki Z1000

A naked celebration of the Z-1's

Has it really been 30 years since Kawasaki levered the motorcycling world off its axis with the Z-1? Indeed. Those old enough to have some early 1970s motoawareness know that Team Green's 903cc open-classer not only proved to be the fastest, quickest and just-plain-nastiest production two-wheeler ever built, it became the bike to have immediately after its launch in '73. Honda blew enthusiasts' minds in '69 with the CB750. The Z-1 simply freaked everyone out.

If there's a thread connecting today's YZF-R1, GSX-R1000, ZX-9R and CBR954RR to the past, it's the Z-1. Now there's a new open-class Kawasaki wearing the legendary Z--as in the all-new Z1000. While the new Z isn't a direct descendent of the Z-1, its open-class positioning, sporty bent, orange hue and in-your-face chutzpah prove that the original thread has a stray winding or two.

As big-bore naked bikes go, the Z1000 slots in at the top of the pile, at least based on its parts manifest. Sportier than Yamaha's excellent FZ1 by virtue of its inverted fork and rakish bodywork, yet not quite a stripped-bare, street-going superbike like Aprilia's Tuono, the Z is a thoroughly sporty and thoroughly serious piece. It's physically smaller than most of its naked brethren, more on the scale of the Tuono or Buell Lightning--a ZX-9R-powered, 125 rear-wheel horsepower Buell Lightning, that is.

Before we wade into the new Z experience, acquaint yourself with the hard parts. Built with a raft of ZX-9R components, including the engine, suspension, swingarm (from previous-generation ZX-9Rs), and wheels and brakes, the Z1000 uses a newly crafted Diamond-type frame to hold everything together. Fashioned from large-diameter, thin-wall steel tubing that uses the burly inline-four as a stressed member, said frame puts the Z's contact patches 55.9 inches apart; that's nearly 600-class sportbike territory, and more than an inch shorter than the FZ1's wheelbase. The Z's overall length is nearly two inches less than the FZ1's, and it's also more than 20 pounds lighter--part of why it feels so small at rest and while moving.

Comprised of ZX-9R parts, the Z's suspension package--a 41mm inverted fork and piggyback-reservoir single shock--is definitely top shelf, though compression-damping adjustability is lacking on both ends, an obvious effect of cost-cutting. The shock is mounted to an aluminum swingarm plucked from the previous-generation ZX-9's parts bin. Brakes--dual, four-pot calipers grabbing big discs--come more or less straight off Team Green's open-class sportbike. Silver-colored plastic panels mounted to the swingarm pivot pretend to be aluminum frame spars, and there's a detachable front engine mount to ease engine maintenance.

And what an engine it is. Bored 2.2mm for a displacement of 953cc (bore and stroke are 77.2mm x 50.9mm), the Z's 9R-based, six-speed motor features some aesthetic touches (cylinder finning) for proper naked-bike looks along with a host of internal tweaks including one less point of compression, a new cylinder head that's home to reshaped combustion chambers and reground cams, a beefier crankshaft, and more. The 9R's Keihin downdraft carburetors have given way to 38mm throttle bodies controlled by digital fuel injection.

Aesthetically, the Z is a stunner, and it's more than simply the bike's "Army of Citrus" Pearl Blazing Orange paint scheme. The body parts--curvy tank, rakish bikini fairing with dual-projector headlights and ZX-6R-sourced tailsection--are chiseled, aggressively sporty and way pleasing to the eye. Details such as the artfully tiered swingarm-mounted rear hugger fender, orange-painted and edge-polished 17-inch ZX-9R wheels (with color-matched spokes), and trick LED taillight go a long way in tying together the Z's ultra-aggressive look. The only visual inconsistency on our test bike was the red-painted engine covers, which stand out grossly on the orange machine. Aftermarket clean-up, aisle five. Still, the Z1000's unique look--penned by Mazda Miata designer Shunji Tanaka--boldly supports Kawasaki's claim that style, not performance, was the top priority when planning and designing the Z1000.

The bike's stainless steel, 4-into-2-into-4 exhaust system--which includes four individual catalyzers--stands as further proof that the Z1000's bring it visage is no afterthought from a team focused on extracting every last drop of performance; other exhaust designs made more power, but this one looked better. It's even heat-treated to achieve just the right amount of gold coloration. Credit extensive market research for the aesthetic emphasis.

Throw a leg over, grab the rubber-mounted gold-anodized handlebar and place your bum in the saddle. The first thing you notice is the Z's compact layout; you're seated close to the sculpted tank (plenty of knee room there) and behind-the-screen-mounted instrument pod; and there's not much bike beyond them. Ergonomically, this one's nearly ideal; everything feels right where it belongs. The wide handlebar enforces a semi-canted riding position, and pegs aren't so high that they cramp knees (unless you're way over six feet, that is). For us, it may be the ideal ergonomic layout; sportier than, say, the FZ1 (with stock bars and risers), but not as far forward as a typical sportbike.

Push the button on the right bar and the Z lights immediately and idles calmly, with or without the "choke" lever. Blip the throttle and there's no doubt this is a Big Kawasaki; exhaust tones are quiet but snarly. Click into low gear ("clunk" might be a better term, as the Z gearbox is seriously balky) and away you go, the bike's superlight steering and crisp brakes simplifying slower-speed maneuvers. The compact proportions and small size help, too, allowing you to shuck and jive through holes in traffic that might otherwise be problematic. Here, in particular, the Z feels far more svelte than its 493-pound wet weight might suggest. The bar is just right--wide enough for excellent leverage, but not too wide to encroach upon wayward car mirrors--for threading around the masses. Speaking of mirrors, the Z's are mounted a touch too closely together for larger riders. But they don't buzz much.

Put the spurs to the Z up your favorite on-ramp and you'll definitely notice the bike's power potential. There's enough grunt below 6000 rpm to keep you ahead of even the most determined four-wheelers. But the Z--like the ZX-9R--lives to rev, even though Kawasaki retuned the motor (and added displacement) for more midrange poke. The dyno doesn't lie, though; 125 horses is about what a healthy 9R makes, and for us it's a Very Good Number. Wheelies are Tuono-like simple, which makes sense because the Z makes over seven horsepower more.

At speed on the superslab, the Z runs into some problems. Wind and weather protection are limited by the minifairing, and while the bike's suspension is reasonably plush, the vibration that creeps into the bar and pegs at the 5500-rpm point--which translates to about 75-80 mph, a prime cruising velocity--is both bothersome and tiring. Good ergos and a decent seat help keep things palatable during longer hauls, but dealing with the windblast and the vibes gets old fast.

Once into the twisties, though, a glossy orange shine returns to the Z1000. Suspension action is controlled during aggressive cornering or braking maneuvers, steering is light, immediate and feedback-intensive, and the bike's 9R-sourced brakes are crisp, powerful and easy to use--though the rear could be a touch less grabby. You never get the feeling you're aboard a large, heavy, cumbersome or softly suspended machine; the feeling of riding a small, taut, powerful, well-mannered, highly confidence-inspiring and tossable sportbike never goes away. The superb riding position only heightens the experience. A few testers felt the bike's fat, 190-spec rear tire--which looks so good when the bike is sitting still--negatively affected steering manners when leaned way over, though this was the extent of any backroad bitching.

In fact, the bike is such a grin-producing hoot that its few warts seem to stand out in even sharper relief. We've already mentioned the recalcitrant gearbox (a trait shared, incidentally, with the new ZX-6R) and overt buzziness, which comes into play especially at freeway speeds. Around town you can short-shift to get around the vibes, but then you run smack into another problem: "soft" off-the-stop throttle response, which creates a dead spot between 2000 and 4000 rpm. It's not a big deal once you're moving and up into the rev range, but it makes leaving stoplights a headache. Blame the EPA.

Still, these gripes only remove about 5 percent of the Z's powerful and capable persona, and are no reason to stay away. In fact, we heartily endorse Kawasaki's new Z1000.

Here's an open-classer with big power, a fully competent chassis, a reasonable riding position and a price ($8499) a lot of enthusiasts are gonna dig. If that sounds a little like a description of the original Z-1, it's probably not by accident.

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