As supersport repli-racers become increasingly narrow in their focus, the customer base has taken on a similar proportion. Obviously, that’s not good for business. Maybe it’s time for the industry to start building more practical street bikes but without sacrificing the fun factor. This is where Kawasaki’s new Z1000 fits in.
The fact is, manufacturers are sometimes full of it. Not that it should be held against them. After all, at least part of their job is to be that. They just wouldn’t be playing their cards right if they told you their new model wasn’t spectacular, revolutionary, far better than the competition, or all of the above.
Having heard my fair share of “corporate speak,” I’ve come to really appreciate good old frank, truthful motorcycle talk. So when Kawasaki USA Product Manager Karl Edmondson took the mike during the third-generation Z1000’s press intro and started explaining how pure sportbikes may actually have become too specialized, he got my attention.
The problem of the ever-narrowing focus o hardcore sportbikes is a well known phenomenon within the industry, but it’s also a topic manufacturers normally avoid addressing, for various obvious reasons. While in some cases, the head-in-the-sand strategy might provide an easy way to weather the storm, what I like to call “The Supersport Enigma” is an extremely complex issue that just isn’t going to magically disappear.
With a “life or death” level of need for ever-higher performance, with ever-increasing costs related to this performance and with an ever shorter time span to refresh models, the challenge of producing a successful supersport is at the very least formidable. Unfortunately for manufacturers, it actually gets way more complicated.
To begin with, the potential clientele base for those particular models narrows every time performance increases. Second, there’s the problem of performance now being so high that buying a new model is often much more a matter of ego than real need. And third, there’s the ongoing financial crisis, making it just as tough for manufacturers to keep producing such machines as it is for consumers to keep buying them at a rate that makes the whole exercise profitable. Whichever way you look at the situation, you realize something in the supersport game could be about to give.
Now what? Well, that’s open for debate, but the truth is nobody really knows. In North America, sportbikes and cruisers are very popular, with not much in between. If cruisers obviously aren’t a possible next step for supersports owners wishing for something that’s as much fun but more practical, then what is?
While Kawasaki isn’t pretending to hold the definitive answer to this riddle, the Akashi brand is most certainly suggesting part of the solution may lie in its all-new 2010 Z1000, a model returning to the line after a one-year break.
Kawasaki presents the new Z1000 as one of the rare motorcycles capable of bridging the gap between still popular but extremely narrow-focused street-legal, full-blown superbikes, and what it calls “plain” standards. The company sees the new Z “fitting in” with the sportbike crowd, yet offering considerably more practicality and enjoyment than a pure sportbike on a daily basis. It says it’s got performance that isn’t just high but also usable, along with a very user-friendly nature.
Could Kawasaki be onto something and could standards, if done right, be where the sportbike crowd goes when it finally gets fed up with race-replicas?
In an effort to emphasize the authenticity of the new Z1000’s “sport” credentials, numerous comparisons were made during the model’s technical presentation to Kawasaki’s own ZX-10R and 6R. And rightfully so as the 2010 Z1000’s frame, suspension, braking and engine technology are indeed comparable to those found on the Ninjas. So why not just produce a retuned, naked version of the ZX-10R? I asked. Isn’t producing a totally new motorcycle with it’s own all-new proprietary engine going through a whole lot of trouble to end up with a very similar result? The question generated a 10-minute answer that explained a lot about the new $13,199-Z1000.
“Yes, we could have decided to produce a naked ZX-10R,” said Edmondson. “Actually, we built that bike and to tell you the truth, in doing so, we ended up with such a lively motorcycle its potential clientele would have been even narrower than a stock 10R’s. The goal of a motorcycle with a fun, rider friendly nature we had for the new Z1000 was the exact opposite of what we found a naked 10R to be.”
THE FIRST FEW ROAD KILOMETRES on the 2010 Z1000 generated some mixed emotions. On one hand, the bike immediately felt great with a compact yet wonderfully balanced riding position. The pegs are about where they’d be on a supersport, but you’re holding a typically wide standard-style handlebar that reaches back just enough that your back remains straight and no weight is placed on your hands. The seat is surprisingly comfortable and its height is not unreasonable.
On the other hand, the steering, which initially felt light but not nervous on ordinary pavement, seemed kind of awkward in the extremely tight, twisty, slippery and bumpy back roads of our testing route.
If there was a positive side to this section—which would have been a much better fit for long-legged bikes such as the KLR or a GS—it’s that it demonstrated the Z1000’s ability to soak up rough pavement.
The true nature of the new Z1000’s handling was really only revealed once back on real roads. Fabulous California Highway One, luckily almost deserted on that particular day, essentially became the perfect playground for the bike. Of course, it could be argued such a scenic and twisty stretch of coastal tarmac would be the perfect playground for just about any bike, but the Z1000 seemed to exist for that stuff.
There’s something different about the Z1000. Something not many, and maybe no other, motorcycle possesses. There’s a unique balance about it. It’s agile without being nervous, stable without being slow steering, substantial without feeling heavy, fast without feeling crazy.
In a way, especially as the pace picks up, it somehow makes you feel like you’re taking a step backwards in terms of handling compared to current supersport machinery.
The intriguing part is this step backwards actually makes things more fun, not less. However counter-intuitive this may sound, there is a logic behind the apparent contradiction: because race-replicas are now capable of very comfortably going around a racetrack at extremely high speeds, even spirited street rides on them feel like not much is happening.The Z1000’s fun factor at similar speeds on the street is much higher because it makes you work a little instead of making you feel like everything is happening too easily. While it definitely feels more street bike than race bike, something about it prevents this street oriented nature from robbing it of its fun factor. The truth is the Z1000 is sort of a mix of genres. Again, very few motorcycles exhibit this kind of behaviour. Triumph’s Speed Triple might be the closest, which is a huge compliment to the Kawasaki.
Speaking of Triumph, Kawasaki did to its new Z1000 what the Hinckley brand did very effectively to its triples a few years ago: boost engine character with intake noise. The trick worked fabulously for the British engines, earning them the reputation of being equipped with some of the most charismatic engines on Earth.
On the new Z-bike, Kawasaki engineers played with the airbox shape until it generated what the Japanese manufacturer calls a “howl” every time the throttle is opened and air rushes toward the cylinders. It works beautifully, making the Z1000’s motor one of the very rare stock inline-fours with an actual character. The sound accompanying every twist of the grip is a deep and mellow grunt very similar to the sound a fairly quiet slip-on exhaust would produce. It’s not a gimmick at all and could very well be just enough music to the ears of owners that they don’t feel the need for a noisier exhaust.
Which brings us to the little marvel of an engine powering the new Z1000. It is everything it needs to be and nothing it doesn’t. It puts out tons of usable torque from the lowest revs, becomes really entertaining in the middle and then pulls very strongly until redline. Gears are close together and gearing itself is a little short, making for a somewhat high-revving motor, but also for one that’s always ready to accelerate hard without the need for a downshift.
The sound is so nice I actually found myself using one or two gears too low, fourth instead of sixth on the highway for example, just to hear the thing sing. Or to benefit from the addictive oomph the second half of the rev range offers, a particularly attractive proposition on the open and flowing corners of Highway One. It may not be the smoothest inline-four ever, but whatever vibrations filter through the bars isn’t enough to affect riding pleasure. The six-speed transmission isn’t perfect either, being just below what you’d call smooth-shifting. Other than that, it draws no complaints whatsoever.
As far as qualifying performance, how about just saying there’s plenty enough horsepower to keep just about anyone happy. You simply won’t be able to keep the front down at full throttle in first. The new Z1000 will happily wheelie in second gear anytime you ask it. Heck, popping the clutch right at the top of crests at highway speeds, I even made the thing stand straight up in third and even in fourth! Now seriously, how much more do you really need?
The magic of the Z1000 is everything it does—from that silly stuff to slicing twisty pieces of road to simply chasing the horizon—is accomplished in an amazingly accessible and satisfying manner. At just under 140 horsepower and just over 80 ft/lbs. torque, it will not beat any record. But who cares?
Only time will tell if Kawasaki eventually succeeds in selling the standard lifestyle to the supersport crowd. But whatever the consumer decides will not change the fact that Kawasaki just built one of the best street bikes ever.
– Bertrand Gahel