First Ride Review: 2017 Kawasaki Z650

Team Green unleashes yet another Z-bike.

The new-for-2017 Z650
The new-for-2017 Z650 is Kawasaki’s first naked 650 since the ill-fated ER-6n, last seen in the US in 2010. With the Z125 Pro, Z650, Z800, and Z1000, the Z family is likely as full as it could get.Photo: Kevin Wing

Kawasaki says: “Redefined raw.” Motorcyclist says: “Raw in appearance, fun and approachable in function.”

Streetfighters, nakeds, standards, or whatever you call them—they are a popular segment, and their numbers are on the rise. The category has many bikes with modest engines and low seat heights and price tags that make them approachable for almost all size riders, especially new and younger motorcyclists. The last naked midsized Kawasaki brought to the US was the ER-6n, last seen in 2010, and it was basically a stripped-down Ninja 650. For 2017 Kawasaki is bringing in an all-new naked 650 based on the revamped Ninja 650. It's badged as the Z650, and we got a chance to ride it.

The first changes you notice on the Z650 are more angular designs in the face and headlight, sharper angles near the tail, and a more muscular-looking tank. The shape of the tank was specifically redesigned to be more comfortable for the rider to lay his or her torso on while tucking in out of the wind. New angles in the tank look much like a muscular back with shoulder blades protruding.

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First Ride Review: 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Z650 stripped
While the previous (2016) Ninja 650 weighed a whopping 465 lb., the new Z650 comes in at just 410 lb. with ABS. A huge part of that weight savings comes from the new tubular-steel trellis frame, which takes many design elements from the supercharged H2.Photo: Kevin Wing

Throwing a leg over the Z650 reveals the new lower seat height (30.9 inches compared to 31.1 for the Ninja) and narrower seat, making the saddle more accommodating to riders with shorter legs. With a 30-in. inseam, I was just about flat foot on either side. Reaching to the handlebar doesn’t require much stretch as the ergos were designed to give a nearly upright riding stance for shorter riders, making this naked a comfortable around-town perch. And while the seat accommodates short-inseam riders, the footpegs still provide plenty of legroom for long legs too.

Z650 dash
A new symmetric dash with oversize indicator lights sits atop the familiar fork from the Ninja 650.Photo: Kevin Wing

Firing up the Z650 sets loose a modest growl from the underbody exhaust. Kawasaki designed this under-muffler to sit along the midline of the bike, keeping weight low and centered. The Green Team gave this Z a redesigned frame, with fewer bends to increase structural integrity and smaller diameter tubing to keep the frame light. These fat-trimming measures shaved a claimed 11 lb. off the old ER-6n’s frame, and it feels like it. Lifting the bike off the kickstand revealed just how light this 410-lb. bike feels (the non-ABS bike weighs 406 lb.) Lighter weight wheels, swingarm, and reshaped fuel tank (down to 4 gallons from 4.2 gallons) all help make the new Z650 about 45 pounds lighter than its predecessor.

2017 Z650 action
Looking for a light, nimble, all-around ride with edgy style? The Z650 delivers. At just $6,999 (without ABS) the Z offers a lot of bike for the money.Photo: Kevin Wing

As we take off from our hotel in downtown Santa Monica, twisting the throttle gives a smooth linear response. With the same 649cc engine as its ER-6n predecessor and the Ninja 650, the Z650’s powerplant felt torquey enough in the low to mid-range rpms. Acceleration is nice and even, without any surprises, giving the Z easy accessible power in town. When we got out on the Pacific Coast Highway and had more room to rev it up, the naked Kawi still felt plenty powerful to get up to speed and keep up with traffic. Above 4,000 rpms, vibrations become apparent, transferring more through the seat and footpegs. With a rubber-mounted handlebar, the vibes were dulled enough to keep the grips from causing numbness in my hands.

Z650 brakes
As with many of the other parts on the Z650, the brakes are straight from the Ninja 650. That means pretty petal rotors and so-so performance. ABS is an option.Photo: Kevin Wing

Navigating our way along Santa Monica’s congested roads, dodging morning traffic, and enduring the tedium of inner-city stop-and-go riding, the Z650’s suspension felt a bit soft and bouncy going over abrupt bumps. While a more refined suspension setup would do a better job absorbing urban micro-topography, the Z650’s suspenders do just fine considering the price of the bike.

Z650 taillights
Across all the Z models, the LED taillight is a key feature of the bikes’ edgy, streetfighter styling.Photo: Kevin Wing

An all-new LCD instrument panel features a customizable digital tachometer, with three different pattern settings for shift indication. Riders can also adjust the shift indicator in increments of 500 rpm. Regardless of which shift indicator display you choose, if the system was telling me to shift, I wasn’t noticing it. The screen’s contrast is a bit low for daylight, plus the position of the display was out of my peripheral vision, requiring a head tilt down to read the display. This layout helps with the suspension of disbelief that allows the rider to feel like he or she is flying (the view is just the road ahead), but it does not help convey bike information at a quick glance.

Once out of the urban jungle, we had the chance to let loose on the canyons above Malibu to see what this Z could really do. Leaning into the first corner of Latigo Canyon, the Z650’s turn in was quick, and felt fairly planted in the corners, as long as the pavement was smooth. This midsize Kawi is just the right size and weight to be flickable through tight twisties, handling technical roads like Latigo well. Again, the suspension could use some improvement to keep the bike more committed to lean, but it never felt unnerving or unsafe.

Z650 swingarm
The swingarm and exhaust look the same as last year’s Ninja 650, but look closely and there are subtle differences. The shock has moved inboard, and the muffler tip is shorter and points straight back instead of down.Photo: Kevin Wing

Grabbing a handful of brakes proved the Z650's Nissin calipers work well. ABS was offered on the previous Ninja 650, but this is the first naked middleweight from Kawasaki to offer that option. The Z650 can be equipped with ABS for an additional $400, and the system came in handy during an abrupt stop for a u-turning vehicle during our test ride. Initial bite is moderate— not too abrupt, but strong enough to inspire confidence in stopping distance.

2017 Z650 in black
The 2017 Z650 will also be offered in black.Photo: Kevin Wing

Kawasaki clearly has a strong contender in the naked-middleweight class, and priced appropriately. The non-ABS model is available for $6,999, while adding ABS brings it to $7,399. At either price point this bike is appealing for beginning riders. The Z650 comes in two color combos: Pearl Flat Stardust White (with a green frame), or Metallic Flat Spark Black (with a dark gray frame.) Kawasaki tells us the bike will be available in December 2016, and we can’t wait to get more time with this naked and ride it back to back with its competitors.

TECH SPEC

EVOLUTION
Kawasaki mounts its tried-and-true Ninja 650 engine into an all-new trellis frame and clothes it in Z-bike styling.
TECH
PRICE $6,999 ($7,399 with ABS)
ENGINE 649cc, liquid-cooled parallel-twin
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER NA
CLAIMED TORQUE 48.5 lb.-ft. @ 6,500 rpm
FRAME Tubular-steel trellis
FRONT SUSPENSION KYB 41mm; 4.9 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION KYB shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.1in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Tokico two-piston calipers, 300mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Tokico one-piston caliper, 220mm disc with ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 24.0°/3.9 in.
WHEELBASE 55.5 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 30.9 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.0 gal.
CLAIMED WEIGHT 406 lb. wet (410 lb. with ABS)
AVAILABLE December 2016
CONTACT Kawasaki.com
VERDICT
An excellent contender in the middleweight naked segment, worthy of consideration alongside the FZ-07 and SV650.
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