2018 Kawasaki Z900RS | First Ride Review

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS action
Inspired by the legendary Z1 superbike from the early ’70s, Kawasaki’s new-for-2018 Z900RS is a perfect blend of retro styling and modern performance. (Photos by Drew Ruiz)

These days retro bikes are everywhere you look. Instagram is full of millennials with tattoos and trucker hats showing off their old Honda CB-turned-café racers (there are more than 2.5 million posts tagged with #caferacer). Triumph has been making its “modern classic” Bonnevilles since 2001, but in recent years other manufacturers have jumped on the new-bike-that-looks-old bandwagon. There are BMW R nineTs, Ducati Scramblers, Honda’s CB1100, Moto Guzzi V7s and V9s, Royal Enfield’s Continental GT and Interceptor, Suzuki’s VanVan 200 and Yamaha’s XSR models. (Of course, as far as American-made V-twins are concerned, classic styling has always been the name of the game.)

Read our 2018 Triumph Bonneville Bobber Black first ride review

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS gas tank
Like the original Z1, the 2018 Kawasaki Z900RS has a teardrop tank, a round headlight, bullet shaped analog gauges and a bench seat. The optional Candytone Brown/Candytone Orange paint is a must-have $200 upgrade.

Arriving fashionably late to the retro party is the Kawasaki Z900RS, a new-for-2018 model based on the Z900 sport standard that pays homage to the company’s legendary 1973 Z1, a 903cc superbike designed to beat Honda’s groundbreaking CB750. To prove its mettle, the Z1—codenamed “New York Steak” during development because it was full of flavor and packed with protein—was put to the test, setting 46 speed records, including the 24-hour endurance world record, averaging 109.64 mph for 2,631 miles at Daytona International Speedway and beating the old record by nearly 20 mph. Yvon Duhamel rode a Yoshimura-tuned Z1 to a Daytona lap record of 160.288 mph, and, a few years later, Reg Pridmore piloted a Z1 to win the 1977 AMA Superbike Championship. That sort of performance got everyone’s attention, and during the motorcycle-mania of the mid 1970s, the Z1 sold so well that, according to Kawasaki’s American R&D and public relations manager at the time, Bryon Farnsworth, “the Z1 accounted for 80 percent of Kawasaki’s profits on motorcycle sales.”

Read our 2017 Kawasaki Z900 ABS vs Yamaha FZ-09 comparison review

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS action
Compared to the Z900 sport standard it’s based on, the Z900RS has a more relaxed riding position and a smoother engine.

Although the Z1 was considered a superbike in its UJM heyday, by contemporary standards of styling and ergonomics it slots into the sport standard segment. For liter-class track dominance, Kawasaki has its Ninja ZX-10R, the bike on which Jonathan Rea won his third consecutive World Superbike Championship in 2017. But for street-ready performance and a sensible riding position, Kawasaki’s Z family is the way to go, and the Z900, which debuted for 2017, was the perfect platform for creating a modern-day Z1.

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS engine
The Kawasaki Z900RS has a liquid-cooled, fuel-injected 948cc in-line four. For a retro look, machined fins and covers resemble those on the Z1’s air-cooled engine. Full stainless steel 4-into-1 exhaust system is buffed to a shiny finish.

Creating the template for decades of performance to come, the original Z1 was the first production superbike powered by a DOHC in-line four-cylinder engine (the CB750 was SOHC until 1979). That’s been the engine configuration of choice for Japanese sportbikes ever since, and the Z900 is no different. What was record-breaking performance in the ’70s, however, is quaint by today’s standards. The air-cooled, carbureted Z1 made 82 horsepower at the crank and weighed 542 pounds, but the liquid-cooled, fuel injected Z900 makes 113 horsepower at the rear wheel and weighs 462 pounds.

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
Kawasaki nailed the Z900RS’s retro styling, but it went beyond mere looks and revised the engine, exhaust, chassis and ergonomics as well.

Building a proper retro bike starts with the styling, and Kawasaki did a bang-up job. Like the Z1, the Z900RS has a round headlight, bullet-shaped gauges with analog faces, a teardrop tank and a small kick-up on the rear fender. It even has real bungee hooks and is available with the iconic root beer-and-orange metallic paint job (Kawasaki calls it Candytone Brown/Candytone Orange, and it costs $200 more than the standard Metallic Flat Spark Black). Sadly, the Z1’s quad chrome exhaust pipes didn’t make the cut. Instead, the RS has a 4-into-1 with the muffler on the right side, a full stainless steel system that’s buffed to a mirrored finish. And instead of wire-spoke wheels and tube-type tires, the RS rolls on cast wheels with flat spokes designed to resemble wire spokes and Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300 tubeless radials.

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS action
One of the many modern but subtle touches on the Kawasaki Z900RS is the classic round headlight that’s illuminated by bright LEDs.

But the RS is not just a styling exercise. To give the RS the right feel and sound, Kawasaki also revised the Z900’s engine, exhaust, chassis and ergonomics. For more low-to-midrange power and smoother running, the 948cc in-line four has revised cam profiles, lower compression, a heavier flywheel, a second gear-driven balancer and narrower exhaust headers. A first on a Kawasaki, acoustic research was used to develop the RS’s exhaust note. Purring at idle, it emits a sharp, metallic howl when the throttle is twisted and jams like a classic rock anthem when rowing through the gears.

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS Candytone Brown
In direct sunlight, especially in the late afternoon, the classic “root beer and orange” (Candytone Brown/Candytone Orange) paint job really shines.

Mated to an assist-and-slipper clutch, the easy-shifting 6-speed transmission has a shorter first gear, taller sixth gear and increased final gear ratio to help the RS get off the line quicker, accelerate smoothly and cruise comfortably. There’s no throttle-by-wire or riding modes, but since the bike is targeted at a sensible demographic (35-55 year-olds), ABS and traction control are standard equipment. Triple disc brakes, with a pair of 300mm front rotors squeezed by 4-piston radial-mount monoblock calipers, slow things down, and a fully adjustable upside-down KYB fork and a rebound- and preload-adjustable KYB Horizontal Back-Link shock keep the chassis under control.

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS cockpit
Classic meets modern in the Kawasaki Z900RS cockpit, with round mirrors, analog gauges and a multifunction LCD.

Throwing a leg over the Z900RS for the first time at the press launch in Los Angeles, it took me right back to the carefree days of my youth, when Dad took me on leisurely motorcycle rides in the country and I’d have a front-row seat, wedged between him and the gas tank. Settling into the RS’s wide bench seat, I was greeted by a pair of chrome-bezeled gauges and, between them, a big, red oil pressure light and a tasteful white-on-black digital display (functions include gear position, fuel level, clock, engine temperature, TC level, odometer, dual tripmeters, fuel consumption and an economical riding indicator). Round mirrors on long stalks provide a commanding rearward view. Compared to the Z900, the RS has a slightly taller seat height (31.5 inches), a wider, higher handlebar that’s closer to the rider and footpegs that are lower and farther forward.

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS action
With more than 100 horsepower at the rear wheel and less than 500 pounds of curb weight, the Kawasaki Z900RS is a blast on back roads.

My initial test ride was less than 100 miles, and it involved dozens of stops and U-turns for photo passes, but every bit of it was on city streets and canyon roads that I know intimately. Having put test miles on the Z900, the RS felt like an entirely different motorcycle, with a less sporty riding position, a more refined engine feel and a casual, laidback attitude. But, quite unexpectedly, throttle response was overly sensitive, making it difficult to maintain smooth throttle over bumpy pavement and in tight, technical corners. The standard suspension settings felt too soft for fast-paced riding, but dialing things in for my weight and riding style could very well solve that problem.

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS seat
The wide, flat bench seat on the Kawasaki Z900RS is comfortable and looks old-school cool. Check out the bungee hooks and helmet lock!

The Z900RS possesses two key ingredients—more than 100 rear-wheel horsepower and less than 500 pounds of curb weight—for having a good time on back roads. And with its engine solidly mounted in a trellis frame, there’s none of that “hinge in the middle” quality of true vintage bikes. With a more neutral stance, a longer wheelbase and a tad more rake (but less trail) than the standard Z900, the RS strikes a nice balance between straight-line stability and curvy-road nimbleness. There’s plenty of cornering clearance and tire grip to lean the RS way over on your way to the apex, plenty of power to blast out of the corner and plenty of brakes to scrub off speed and do it all over again. Or, if you’re in a mellow, sightseeing mood, the RS makes for an ideal easy-like-Sunday-morning cruiser.

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS action
Today’s functional, classic-looking attire—as well as Shoei’s RF-SR helmet in Tangerine Orange—allow riders of neo-retro bikes to travel back in time with the benefit of modern protection.

Even though the Kawasaki Z1 came out around the time I was born and was long gone by the time I got interested in motorcycles, it still appeals to me. There’s something timeless about bikes from the golden era of the ’70s. But as cool as the Z1 looks, I know that it had way more engine than its chassis, suspension, brakes and tires could really handle. And I have zero interest in keeping 44-year-old carburetors clean and synchronized. That’s what makes the Z900RS—a new bike with old-school styling—such an attractive proposition. You get the best of both worlds: a bike that scratches the nostalgic itch as well as the benefits of modern engineering. Throw on a few accessories like the chrome passenger grab rail, throwback tank logos and a centerstand, and I’m in.

Check out more new bikes in Rider’s guide to new/updated 2018 motorcycles

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS
The Kawasaki Z900RS is the best of both worlds: a cool-looking retro-styled bike with modern performance, safety and reliability.

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS Specs
Base Price:
$10,999
Price as Tested: $11,199 (paint)
Website: kawasaki.com
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC inline-four, 4 valves per cyl.
Displacement: 948cc
Bore x Stroke: 73.4 x 56.0mm
Transmission: 6-speed, wet assist-and-slipper clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Wheelbase: 58.1 in.
Rake/Trail: 25.4 degrees/3.5 in.
Seat Height: 31.5 in.
Claimed Wet Weight: 472 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 4.5 gals.
MPG: NA

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS action
Whether you’re tearing up the twisties or getting groceries, the Kawasaki Z900RS is a fun way to get there.

Greg’s Gear
Helmet: Shoei RF-SR
Jacket: Scorpion Birmingham
Pants: Scorpion Covert Pro
Boots: Rev’It Mohawk 2

22 COMMENTS

  1. This article seems to indicate a seat height of 31.5 inches, so the earlier comments rightly raising questions about a 33 inch seat height may have been made moot. One of the pictures above of the seat appears to show a perch contoured to enable feat on the ground at stops rather than tip-toes. Concerning now is the observation of an overly sensitive throttle linkage. One of the better features of my Concours 14 is an easily manipulated throttle. And does the new model use a proximity key? I still have mixed feelings about those. Lastly, are heated grips an option? No mention…..

    • There are two seats. A “low” (31.5) and a “high” (33.0).
      The bike in these pictures clearly has the “low” seat (cupped).
      Greg would fit better on the “high” seat.

    • A trucker hat is like a trucker wallet. It has a chain attached to keep it from being lost (or stolen?). Just kidding — it is similar to a military cap with an area above the brim big enough for a corporate logo. It often features ventilated panels. But back to the Kawasaki: In looking at the pictures, I’d replace or augment that one single, off-center horn which is likely “period correct” in being feeble. A couple of nice Fiamms from back in the day would be a plus.

  2. I like the bike but would prefer the Cafe version with a longer tail section. But they are only available overseas. It would make a great stablemate for my ZRX1200. Then again, how about bringing the ZRX back???? I’d buy one instantly.

    • Yes, I have a 2000 ZRX1100 with ZX11 cams. Bringing the ZRX back would be nice. In Japan, it’s the ZRX1400 I believe at this point. I’ll sign for 1

      • The ZRX 1100 and 1200 are some of the most beautiful motorcycle designs of all time. I used to own the Z RX 1100 in black and it sure was pretty, especially with the Yoshimura titanium pipe. The 1200 ZRX brought the horsepower total up to 120 from 100, and it was a very stout and reliable engine. If that bike had ABS I’d still be riding it today.

  3. Looks awesome, I want one! I’m a dyed in the wool Kawi fan and owner, and my first bike was an ’81 KZ1000J (I wish I still had it). My only complaints about this new one are largely cosmetic; the front turn signals are all wrong for the retro look; I’d rather see the same ones that were on my J. The gap between fender and rear wheel looks all wrong, but is necessary for the suspension travel, I know. As with Kawboy, I’d change the horns.

    • 4 to4 exhaust may look good to SOME, BUT they are a real PAIN for chain, other rear end maintenence, & cleaning. I think KAWASAKI HAS HIT THIS NAIL DEAD ON THE HEAD. CONGRATS KAWI!

  4. Good news/So-So news: Kawasaki’s own video, rec. today, lists frame sliders, heated grips, “classic emblem” or badge of some sort (not shown) as accessories. The so-so? A center stand is, apparently, an OPTION. And none of this is cheap. I’d be willing to bet (at least a dollar) the aftermarket is already at work on a 4-into-4 exhaust — but at a four figure price, probably.

  5. Roger that good buddy, another Kawacker guy here. Four K-bikes in the garage, 1981 GPz550 ground up restore, 1981 GPz1100 ELR replo-bike being built, 2000 ZRX1100, and a tried and true 1998 KDX200. This is the first modern bike in a long time that I would seriously consider. However, it needs MORE power, upgraded suspension to handle that power, and decent wind deflector, rider modes, and MORE power. Did I mention MORE power?

  6. Intuition or divine guidance — not — led me to my Kawasaki dealer today, here in the state of Washington, and the 900RS was there on the floor (and already pre-sold). Looks great, of course, but when I asked the price of a centerstand and heated grips — both are options, as I noted above — I was told that would add $400! Stunned, I’m not sure if that’s just the centerstand or both. O.K., I’d figured maybe $150 more for the stand. The bike was not started so I remain unseduced (for now).

  7. I’ve only seen one of these. It is black….and I bought it right away. I also ordered the heated grips and center stand. I was ready for a new bike and this certainly feels like the right one. I felt that the price was appropriate and I’m looking forward to getting some good rides in soon. I’ve owned a lot of motorcycles over the years. (thirty or so) and my experience with Kawasaki has been very positive.

  8. This RS look more like a resto mod with a wrong looking chassis ,wrong looking inverted fork and wrong looking thiny wall liquid cool engine block . If it’s simply for showing & cruising purpose I will find an ”old” Zephyr1100 for less , paint it root beer and orange . All that with a far more period correct double cradle frame without the noodle feeling of the first Z1.

  9. Would love to have this baby in the garage next to my ’85 Eliminator 900 & ’07 FZ-1, but a 3rd bike sure seems like overkill and no way I’d sell either of the two I have.

  10. I really like this bike, will be on my list of must buy, in about 2 or 3 years I will get a used one , price is too high for a retro. There are some areas of concern. No standard centerstand, Really, My 05 bandit and my St 1300 both have center stands and so should this bike. $400.00 centerstand from Kawasaki? Aftermarket is probably already engineering a centerstand for $130.00. Did anyone answer the question about the key, Hopefully it has a traditional style regular mechanical key switch and not the retarded telemetry fob. I looked at the new BMW and Goldwing but I won’t own a bike with the telemetry fob ignition system on a bike, sometimes more is not better! Now I am not against technology but they are now solving non existent problems, A regular key just works, all the time.

  11. Having owned a beautiful 74 Z1,seems Kawasaki has done a pretty good job doing a retro. with compromises. Spoke wheels would look better but usually eliminate tubeless tires. Original 4 pipes would look great but adds allot of weight/cost with being harder to maintain. In the day they were often replaced by a 4 into 1 after market pipe. Suspension seems slack bottom feeders. Chrome fenders would have added a nice original look and perhaps shaped to take up some of the high space in the rear. Can’t understand after all these years of F.I.,manufacturers still have trouble making the throttle smooth? That’s important. Often still making uncomfortable slabs as seats as well. Agree with Wally,as better to wait a couple years and buy low mileage used. When tacking on the paint/options that should be/were standard & dealer add ons costs,it’s priced too high. The first 550 lb. Honda CB1100 retros. with their $11 grand prices sat on the floor for a couple years before heavily discounted. The 475 lb wet weight with over 100 h.p. is certainly inviting though. Will be interesting to see a comparison of all retros./scramblers, including the new Ducati 1100 with about the same weight.

  12. I tried to get a demo ride on this beauty down at Daytona bike week, but the spots were all taken as soon as possible venue opened at 8 AM. I had to settle for the Z 900 and found the engine to be extremely smooth and powerful. The things I’d add to this retro 900 would be a wind screen and maybe a top box. So, so cool. Kaw will sell a ton of these at $11k.

  13. Like the Z900RS alot, but I LOVE the Cafe version, reminds me of my beloved ZRX1200 that I unfortunately sold many yrs ago to buy a truck. Why bring back the ZRX1200 instead of the 900 (or even bump it up to a 1400) I would buy that one in a Ne w York minutes. 900 is too small for me, but the ZRX1200 was perfect. Regret selling it to this very day. I guess your corporate lawyers are too afraid of lawsuits from the bigger engine.

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