First Ride: Go Naked, Go Fast Kawasaki Z1000

Riding nekkid, Kawasaki-style.

Editor's Note: We took delivery of a Z1000 testbike just the other day, and have already begun the thrashing. But in the space between delivery and our road test or comparo, please enjoy Roland Brown's latest report from the bike's world launch in Sorrento, in the south of Italy. Enjoy...

There's nothing like a blast of fresh air for clearing a sore head. And having made the most of Kawasaki's launch hospitality last night, I'm grateful for this as I hold on tightly to the raised handlebar of a Z1000 that feels as though it's charging along at a formidable speed. Cold wind hits my chest, swirls around my neck and stretches my arms as the big four-cylinder motor yanks me along in its wake.

A glance down at the speedo shows that I'm only traveling at just over 100mph, but the Kawasaki's naked layout and upright riding position make it feel faster. That's perhaps how it should be for a motorcycle called the Z1000. Kawasaki's mighty four of the mid-Seventies was big, bold and unbeatable for straight-line speed. Three decades later its namesake might not be the King of the road, but it's quick, feels even quicker and has an image to match.

Few bikes of recent years have had the traffic-stopping potential of the Z1000. With its lean and aggressive bodywork in orange, lime green or black, its big four-cylinder engine and unique four-pipe exhaust, this bike - more even than the hot new ZX-6R - is proof of Kawasaki's newfound determination to reestablish itself as the brand for two-wheeled aggression.

Kawasaki admits that when plans for a new large-capacity naked bike were drawn up, the most important factor wasn't performance - but style. That exhaust system was specified following extensive market research, where the feedback from customer clinics was that the four pipes were essential even if power was compromised. Handling was rated the second most important factor, hence a fairly upmarket chassis whose inverted fork and monoshock rear suspension are adjustable for rebound damping as well as preload.

A bike named Z1000 required a dohc four-cylinder powerplant, and Kawasaki had a very suitable basis in the liquid-cooled, 16-valve unit from the ZX-9R. Bore was increased to raise capacity to 953cc from the 9R's 899cc. The other main changes were to replace the ZX's carbs with fuel-injection, plus the adoption of that exhaust system, which incorporates catalyzers in each of its four stainless steel silencers.

Kawasaki made other changes, notably reworking the cylinder head to give a larger combustion chamber that's better suited to the bore size. The head gained fins, more for visual effect than for cooling, plus more horizontal intake tracts for better breathing. The cams gained lighter valve springs, while the cams themselves were modified to give better low- and midrange power at the expense of top-end. Peak power is a claimed 125bhp at 10,000rpm, midway between the 143bhp of Yamaha's FZ1 and the 108bhp of Honda's 919.

The frame is a so-called diamond type unit of large-diameter steel tubing, with a detachable engine mount at the top right to ease maintenance. Thin, silver colored panels bolt to the swingarm pivot to give the look of a big aluminium spar, which seems a little unnecessary. The swinger itself is a genuine alloy structure almost identical to that of the ZX-9R, though confusingly it is black, like the frame.

Those suspension parts suggest that Kawasaki is taking this bike's handling seriously, as does its racy 24-degree steering angle, relatively short 1420mm wheelbase and the dry weight figure, a respectable 198kg. Some cost-related compromises have been made, though. There's no compression damping adjustment at front or rear, and only the right fork leg is adjustable for rebound. The assumption is that the legs are so rigidly held together that tweaking one will have the same effect on the other.

The Z1000's sharp shape is the work of Shunji Tanaka, a former car stylist whose CV includes Mazda's Miata. The beady-eyed fairing with its twin-headlamps below a tiny dark screen gives a racy look, if not much wind protection. The slinky, ZX-6R-style seat unit has an LED taillight, plus a color-matched pillion seat cover included in the price. Colored round engine covers are a neat touch, too - though slightly less so on the orange bike, which curiously (or cost-savingly, presumably) gets the same red covers as the black model.

The instrument console is neat, comprising a single dial with an electronic bar tacho around its edge and a digital speedo in the middle, plus warning lights to each side. There's a digital clock and fuel gauge in there, too, though no lap-timer like the similar ZX-6R unit. From the fairly low rider's seat the effect is dramatic because there's hardly anything ahead of you: just that dial below the tiny screen, plus the stubby tank and a pair of raised handlebars. The view is simple and immediate - which is pretty much how the Z1000 feels on the road.

Kawasaki based the launch at Sorrento in southern Italy, a beautiful if crowded town set on a twisty coast road with some spectacular views. Filtering through traffic at least gave a chance to check out performance in the real world, and the bike did not disappoint. It immediately felt comfortable, light and flickable at slow speed. This is a very compact machine that didn't feel cramped (I'm tall) but which was easy to maneuver through the snarled-up streets.

The engine's response was very good, too. First gear went in with a traditional clonk, and I was occasionally aware of a very slight hesitation just off idle. But the fuel-injection was generally very precise and responsive. From anything above about 3000rpm the engine's broad spread of power sent the bike punching forward when the throttle was wound open, with no embarrassing holes in its delivery no matter what the red-faced tacho was reading.

That flexibility was useful on the coast road, where the endless sequence of tight first- and second-gear bends, most of them blind and some still damp from overnight rain, meant that it was rarely possible to know how fast you could enter a turn. Inevitably, this often meant I reached the apex going too slowly. The big 16-valve motor always had the grunt to send the bike rocketing towards the next bend with no need for a downchange through a six-speed gearbox that needed slightly more lever effort than some, but didn't miss a shift all day.

The Kawasaki's chassis coped superbly well with those twisty and potentially nasty hairpins, too. This bike is sporty by the standards of big naked fours; tauter than the FZ1 and in a different league to the heavier, twin-shock retro-monsters. When a bend tightened unexpectedly, the Z1000 required only a nudge on the bars to tighten my line and avoid the Armco and the often sheer drop on the other side. Yet despite being so agile, the bike impressed with its stability and never threatened to tank-slap.

I had been slightly dubious about the single fork adjuster, but the front end seemed rigid enough to resist flexing even under hard braking, of which the swooping coast road ensured there was plenty. The front brake combines four-pot calipers, borrowed directly from the ZX-9R, with slightly smaller 300mm discs. Some riders felt the stopper was a bit lacking in bite, but as someone who uses four fingers on the lever I never needed more power. The 220mm rear disc gave useful back-up, too.

Grip and cornering clearance were also very much up to par. The Kawasaki's 17-inch wheels looked good, blanding colour-matched spokes with polished rims, and were shod with fat Bridgestone BT019 and 012 radials. These gave no nasty moments on the greasy-looking damp patches in the morning. And when the roads dried, the Z1000 could be cranked to entertaining angles with only a very occasional audible reminder from a footrest of why this used to be called "scratching". (There's no centerstand, just a sidestand that was slightly awkward to use.)

That first day was spent mainly on the coast road, with little chance to flex the big motor's muscles. That was put right the next morning when I headed north towards Pompei and the huge volcanic Mount Vesuvius looming menacingly over it, then cut eastwards on the autostrada. The two-lane road was dotted with traffic, so I frequently found myself sitting behind a car at 70 or 80mph (this was Italy, after all), then accelerating when a chance came to overtake.

On the slower sections I was aware of some vibration despite the rubber-mounted handlebars. The engine has no balancer shaft, and is solidly mounted to the frame to form a stressed member of the chassis. The four-pot tingle might have become more of an issue over long distances at a steady cruising speed, but it didn't worry me and helped give some character to what might otherwise have seemed a slightly bland powerplant.

Not that there was any lack of excitement once the road opened up and I let the big orange bike off its leash. That less-than-efficient exhaust system has cost a few horses, and the Z1000 didn't accelerate with the high-rev urgency of the ZX-9R (and maybe not the FZ1 either, though it would surely outrun the 919). It still ripped forward mighty hard from 5000rpm and about 70mph in top gear, and harder still if the tacho bar was between 7000rpm and the redline at 11,000rpm. (Although the dial is almost identical to the ZX-6R's, I found it easier to read in bright sunlight.)

That exposed riding position meant I noticed every click on the digital speedo, too. Although the screen took some wind off my chest up to about 80mph, it was not big enough to hide behind at serious speeds - especially on a cold and blustery day. Top whack is probably about 150mph, and the Z1000 hit an indicated 120mph mighty quickly, staying stable despite the forces being fed into its handlebars. But by then the wind was hurting both acceleration and my neck muscles, and there was too much traffic around to go much faster anyway.

That was fine because by this time the Kawasaki had done all its designers had intended and more. The fuzzy early-morning feeling was gone from my head, replaced by the clarity that only adrenaline can supply. And the new Z1000 had proved that, besides being a stylish and distinctive machine, it's also a quick and fine-handling superbike that more than lives up to its famous name.

Specifications - Kawasaki Z1000
Engine type: Liquid-cooled transverse four
Valve arrangement: DOHC, 16 valves
Displacement, Bore x Sroke: 953cc, 77.2 x 50.9mm
Compression ratio: 11.2:1
Carburation: Digital fuel-injection, 38mm throttle bodies
Maximum claimed hp, torque: 125bhp @ 10,000rpm, @ 8000rpm
Clutch: Wet multiplate
Transmission: 6-speed
Front suspension: 41mm telescopic, 120mm wheel travel, adjustment for preload and rebound damping
Rear suspension: One damper, 138mm wheel travel, adjustment for preload and rebound damping
Front brake: 2, four-piston calipers, 300mm discs
Rear brake: Double-action caliper, 220mm disc
Wheels: Cast aluminum; 3.50 x 17-in. front, 5.50 x 17-in. rear
Tires: Bridgestone Battlax radials; 120/70 x 17 front, 190/50 x 17 rear
Rake/trail: 24 degrees/101mm
Wheelbase: 55.9 in.
Seat height: 32.3
Fuel capacity: 4.75 gal
Dry weight: 436 lb