Introduced for the 2017 model year, the 2018 Z650 offers thrilling performance, easy handling, and lightweight maneuverability. New riders won’t have to worry about outgrowing the power too soon, but they should be careful: this “small” Z has more than enough power to be daring… and dangerous.
Highly recommended for fans of naked bikes everywhere, and definitely enjoyed by this fan in particular. This might just be my next bike.
A Warm Introduction to the Kawasaki Z650
It’s hotter and more humid in Columbus than this Canadian thinks it ought to be in late September. The second day of AIMExpo 2017 is coming to its conclusion, and as the clock ticks towards early evening, it’s still 29°C (roughly 85° for my American friends).
In other words, it’s the perfect weather to go for a late afternoon ride.
I’m a big fan of sporty – but not necessarily super – bikes, and the Z650 – new for the 2017 model year – is on my short list to take for a rip. I have a lot of love for Kawasaki (my first bike that I spent serious seat-time on was a ‘99 Ninja 500R), and as a former owner of the venerable Suzuki SV650, I’m especially keen to see how Kawasaki’s parallel-twin 649cc engine compares to the V-Twin in the SV.
A Modern Trellis Frame Mated to a Classic Kawasaki Name
If you’ve gotten this far wondering “what the heck is a Z650”, I don’t blame you. It vanished from North American roads in the early 80’s, where it made its mark known as the KZ650 from 1977 to 1983 (it was called the Z650 in Japan). Notably, the Z650 of old packed a four cylinder engine, whereas today’s Z650 sports the same 649cc parallel-twin that many riders have come to know in the Ninja 650.
It’s no use comparing the classic Z to its modern counterpart: the styling, engine, and dynamics are completely different. The new Z is 75lbs lighter (410lbs wet compared to 485lbs), more powerful (68hp vs. 62hp), and undoubtedly more maneuverable. Moreover, they’re very different bikes in every meaningful way.
That’s because the new Z is descended from the ER-6N and shares the “Z” designation alongside its larger sibling (and flagship of the Z lineup): the Z900. So, while it shares the Z650 name, that’s about where the similarities end.
The Trellis frame affords the new Z improved rigidity and strength while dropping weight. Compared to the Ninja 650, the Z is about 12-15lbs lighter. It’s also better looking in the eyes of this rider.
Had Enough History? Me Too. Let’s Ride.
I toss my leg over the side and start the bike. The parallel-twin engine thrumbs warmly, and I get a brief lesson on what’s new on the Z from my Kawasaki escort. Riding a Z650 of his own, he beckons me forward and we depart the Columbus Convention Center’s parking lot and hit the downtown streets.
As I write this I regret not taking a few more minutes to snap some photos of the Z-design taillights or the shorty exhaust. It’s not a total loss: the stock photos are better than what my S8 would provide, anyway.
The exhaust roars in a way that is unique to a parallel-twin. Inline engines don’t quite match it, and it’s something that I think of everytime I ride one. As smooth as an inline can be, it just doesn’t have the sound of the twin- and it’s a sound that’s always lovely to listen to.
The one I’m riding today – a metallic black and matte “covert” green combination – looks far better in person than my photos suggest. The two-tone paint is fitting and anything but ostentatious. My wife thinks its an army green and that suits me just fine: I always wanted to be a green ranger.
Getting to Know the Z’s Styling
Kawasaki’s Z-styling is emphasizedheavily on their website and in corporate branding. Hyperbole aside, the Z is a great looking naked bike and Kawasaki has paid attention to the details.
The tail lights form a Z when lit. It’s cheesy, yes, but I happen to like cheese. Besides, you’ll be on top of it, not behind it.
Styling is subjective and that reason is why I prefer to let photos do the talking. You’ll know better than I will whether or not you’ll like it. I do; I really, really do.
The ‘18 Z650 is a Blast to Ride
I Can’t Think of a Better Way to Tour Columbus
We take a citywide tour, spending just under 40 minutes riding through Columbus. Our route takes us through the interstate, down to suburban roads, and back through the downtown core.
Along the way, Columbus’ natural beauty – something I had been ignorant of until this ride – flies past us. Tall trees line clean streets; well manicured lawns and methodically cared for homes demonstrate the pride of ownership that is evident everywhere we go.
If you’ve never been to Columbus, I recommend you check it out. German Village is quite a treat.
Back to the Bike: Supercar Performance in an Entry-Level Package… and Price
The Z lives in the mid-range, and if you’re familiar with the engine inside the Ninja 650, you’ll already be comfortable with how it operates here. At 410lbs wet, the Z650 is a light bike. Sure, the engine isn’t a “powerhouse”, but it’s got plenty of power to move this bike with vigor. Enough so that, according to Cycle World, 60mph comes in just 3.5 seconds and the quarter mile rips by in a hair under 12.5 seconds.
It certainly feels that way to me.
Those numbers – which trail the FZ-07 and SV650 by a small amount – may be hum-drum to SuperSport riders, but to anyone that considers themselves rational, they are anything but. Corvettes, Porsche’s, Ferrari’s… they’ll be looking at your taillights.
Considering that the top-end Z650 is just $7,399 (with ABS), the price for performance ratio is very much stacked in its favor.
Hands-On Riding Impressions
Compliant at low speeds, and always ready to bring you – rapidly – to highway speeds, the Z and I quickly get to know each other.
The throttle is responsive, turning a slight twist of the wrist into rear-wheel motivation. More than once I snap back on the seat as the Z rockets toward the horizon. The brakes are tight and quite sensitive on the 61-mile example I’m riding. Its weight is completely manageable; easy to handle at a walking pace, even easier to handle flat out.
The six-speed transmission and slipper clutch combo allow for smooth shifts with minimal effort required on the clutch lever. Fourth and fifth gear both have plenty of pull from the low to mid-range, making for easy passing and worry-free cruising. It’s confidence inspiring: you don’t need to worry about the front-end lifting when you pin it in the latter three gears. Again, don’t take that to mean that this middleweight is a slouch. It isn’t- it just isn’t a widowmaker.
Is Kawasaki’s Z650 the Right Fit for You? Well, That Depends…
Clearly I’m a fan of the Z, and that’s because I’m the exact person that should be riding one. At 6’2 and 190lbs, I’m big but not large, and I want a bike that feels the same way.
More importantly, the Z respects the ailments that come with being a 30-something man with more bravado than brains. A herniated L5/S1 lumbar loves to nag, and the riding position of many sportbikes prevents me from truly enjoying them. In that respect, the Z and I are a great fit. The riding position, which is more upright and comfortable than its SuperSport cousins, is great. At no point during my ride am I uncomfortable; the controls are exactly where they should be; the bike feels as if It was made for my frame.
The power is there without being overwhelming. If you’re looking for a rocket, this bike isn’t for you (check out Kawasaki’s Z900 or Yamaha’s FZ-09 if you want a naked bike with a bigger motor).
As a man in my early 30’s, and as someone who values predictably over sheer power, the Z ticks all the right boxes: I can take it confidently through canyons and corners, straightaways and slopes, and always have a pulse on exactly what the engine is going to give me.
Some have commented that the Z can be laborious to ride due to the vibrations that resonate throughout the bike in the mid-upper range, but I do not share that opinion. Compared to an inline there is definitely more vibrations, yes, but I hardly found them uncomfortable. Then again, with just under 40 minutes of seat time, this opinion lacks the weight it needs for me to feel confident in calling it conclusive.
For a rider – new or experienced – wanting to ride a naked middleweight, I can’t think of anything objective that should or would deter you from the Z650. It’s fun, economical, manageable, affordable, and a real treat to ride. Everything a bike in this class should be.