Kawasaki says its Z800 is huge in Europe. The bike is “part sportbike, part commuter,” and is supposed to leave everyone satisfied. Fundamentally it felt solid and well-engineered, but after a couple hours in the saddle I found myself struggling with the concept; is this actually “one bike for multiple jobs,” or is it a compromise between two styles of riding?
(Full Disclosure: Kawasaki wanted me to ride the Z800 so bad they provided a hotel room in Palm Springs and bought me breakfast. Also booze, after the bikes were away.)
Any machine can be perfect, or terrible, or just okay, but reality is all the specs boil down to one thing: is this worth what it costs? Sean was off gallivanting in Spain on a Ducati’s most powerful naked, so the powers that be decided to send Jalopnik’s “everyman” rider to test Kawasaki’s “everyman” sport naked.
A 2015 Kawasaki Z800 with set you back $8,399, which is a considerable amount to spend on a motorcycle. You could get an older hardcore sportbike singin’ sweet for $5,000 and add a plush upright for even less, and feel great riding both for the MSRP of the new Z800.
With that in mind, I look at this vehicle and my gut says “what’s the point?”
I’m glad you asked, because Kawasaki had a whole PowerPoint presentation on what the Z800’s all about. Here’s the best slide:
So it’s either Jack Johnson After He Became Successful or a design executive was late to “bring your inspirational props to work day” and threw down his Rolex on the fly.
I think they’re actually going for “cool-guy freedom, but you know with an itinerary.”
Still still giggling at that lighter (don’t put cigarettes on the slide, we’re not psychopaths!) but don’t worry, the machine’s not as lame as this fifth-grade collage.
The Z800 is classified as a “mid-level streetfighter.” Streetfighters are pretty much sportbikes with the body kit removed and slightly comfier ergonomics (higher bars and lower pegs). So basically, the same way I ride my GSXR around (because it’s easier to spot leaks.)
I think the name actually originated when stunt riders cracked all their plastics and had to make their broken equipment sound cool. Anyway, it’s a bonafide look now, kind of a modern interpretation of the “café racer” streamline style that got popular with craft coffee and beard wax all of a sudden.
You won’t find Kawasaki riders arguing the finer points of “latte versus cappuccino.” This bike appeals to someone who appreciates efficiency. Things that work correctly, smoothly. As the Z800 does.
Its got a steel frame wrapped around an 806cc four-cylinder, 16-valve, water-cooled and fuel-injected engine. That means it’s physically pretty rigid, and that the motor is smooth and reliable in its application of power. Like many Japanese motorcycles, the exact engine output figure is intentionally kept vague, but rumor has it the Z800 makes 112 horsepower.
We do know the bike weighs a little over 509 pounds ready to ride which, as far as I’m concerned, makes it a two-wheeled dump truck. I might be spoiled by my spry 250cc Yamaha, but even the ancient Suzukis I used to cruise around on weren’t that obese.
At least all that momentum is kept in check by dual 277 mm brake rotors up front with a single 216 mm disc behind. Decent sized brakes. And with ABS standard, they bite effectively and easily through the whole pull of the lever and pedal. In a panic, they keep the bike straight, calming steed and rider down from an over-enthusiastic pace no sweat.
Suspension is a 41 mm inverted fork with 29 clicks of adjustability. Rear shocks are adjustable too, to 2.9 turns. Basically what that means is you’ve got a bit of control over the vehicle’s ride height. But more importantly, you can change the bike’s behavior a little bit between aggressive responsiveness and softer-riding comfort.
The gauge cluster is sleek and futuristic... if your point of reference is a GameBoy. Kawasaki insisted on ditching two perfectly good clocks; because dial gauges are old and the Z800 must look new. Having a gas gauge is a nice convenience, but the fucking bar-graph tachometer sucks the fun right out of revving at a stoplight.
What am I supposed to do watching this LCD boner go up and down all day? It’s very sterile, and I can’t wait ’til traditional dials make a comeback. For now, I guess I’ll have to head to the aftermarket.
At the other end of the motorcycle is a short, angular exhaust that sweeps down through beautiful exposed headers into something that looks like it belongs in a modern art museum.
Underway, the exhaust note is really nice. Present, but not annoying. At idle, it’s sewing-machine soft and spiking the throttle at a standstill is a little flaccid.
Riding a hard acceleration under load is a different story though, and that’s really what matters, isn’t it? The note just feels like a one well-placed karate-chop. Not a primal scream, not a guttural cough, just a kiai that delivers instantly on the promise of acceleration.
Throwing a leg over this machine was easy, and I can flat-foot at a standstill in the factory suspension setting without issue. But the bike’s a lot fatter than it looked in the photos.
The fuel tank is sculpted to suck your knees in a little bit, but I felt like I was perched on the bike, not in it, and giving the gas tank a big hug all the time.
Powering on into town, throttle response and shifting were remarkably smooth at low speed. But the bike’s big weight is always there, like a bully in the shadows waiting for you to make a dumb mistake so it can point and laugh at you in the school hallway.
Posture became a little more comfortable as I grew accustomed to it, right around the same time I started to squirm on the patch of cloth this Kawasaki calls a seat.
The saddle is small and extremely firm. And decorated with cute little “Z” emblems! You’re not going to love sitting in it for more than an hour. I was dying to be released by the end of a full day.
Back to the ride; let’s break out of traffic and open it up.
Acceleration, for my wrist, is abundant and manageable. Right as I cracked through third gear for the second time I started to see the appeal of this motorcycle. The Z800 is dialed in enough to be fun to pounce on but predictable and refined. This, I think, is what you’re really paying for when you plop down eight grand at the Kawasaki dealership.
The flip side of that is you’re made to hit your own limit a lot faster than you would on old iron.
I was taking my run on the Z800 with a squadron of Kawasaki executives and other motorcycle journalists. All of which, I’m man enough to admit, were braver or more talented than I because as soon as we hit the curves they left me in the dust.
Since we didn’t end up scraping anybody off the asphalt with a spatula, we can infer that the Kawasaki Z800 has more performance than I am able to extract. That says a little about me, but it says more about the bike.
Contrary to the “do it all” sales pitch and upright seating position, you’re giving up a lot of comfort for a lot of performance and that’s important to know before you go shopping.
I’d put a way more comfortable seat on there as soon as I got home from the dealer, and I’d likely move the handlebars up and back just a smidge so I could do some haul-ass cruising.
The motor is a tad bland, and I’d love to hear a little more of the exhaust note so, as with most bikes, a new can would likely sit in my shopping cart online for a few weeks while I debated about needs versus wants.
And yes, I’d have that dumb dashboard swapped for a proper speedometer and tachometer that spin in circles as god intended.
Kawasaki is going for a mass-appeal sell with the Z800, and if you’ve really got to be wary of that if you’re not exceptionally savvy on motorcycles. It’s okay, that’s why we’re here!
The Z800 is Kawasaki’s answer to the uber-popular Yamaha FZ-09 and Suzuki GSX-S750. Both of those bikes are known for having fairly poor suspension and, while the Kawi isn’t excellent, it isn’t as confidence zapping as either of those. We prefer it over the Suzuki, but the motor on the Yamaha is definitely worth two grand in suspension upgrades if you want to take your streetfighting seriously.
For the everyman rider, the Z800 is not so much of a balance between “commuter” and “sport” as it is “fast” and “manageable” but don’t mistake “manageable” for “practical.” The bike was smooth and exciting, but this is no acoustic-guitar-surfboard bike. It’s a high-powered drill press.
Sportbike guys who want to grip it and rip it might call the machine subdued, but anyone upgrading from an older upright is going to get off this thing wide-eyed and sore. If you want something on the aggressive side of in between, you might want to take a test ride.
Images by the author, Kevin Wing for Kawasaki
- Helmet: AGV K5
- Jacket: Dainese Racing D1 Pelle
- Gloves: Dainese X-Run
- Shoes/Boots: Dainese Street Lite Sneakers
- Pants: Dainese Prattville Jeans
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