Stacking the Deck

Story by Marcus Martellacci// Photos by Glenn Roberts
December 16 2015

Are the odds in favour of an old-school approach to a growing high-tech middleweight class?

To stack the odds against one’s opponent is simply good gamesmanship. To stack the odds against oneself is either foolish or a sign of great confidence. So which is it? Are they playing us for the fool or sitting on a straight flush, hoping to walk away with a big pot?

Let’s examine the odds for a moment. In the proverbial deck that is modern motor-cycling, virtually every bike that has been introduced to our market in the past two years is using some form of electronic rider aid, and in most cases, several.

We’re also seeing a lot of totally new designs, like the Honda CBR650R, Yamaha FZ-09 and FZ-07, and the Scrambler from Ducati – all fresh faces in an emerging middle class.
So, it would seem that Kawasaki’s latest standard offering, the 2016 Z800, might at first glance be facing a stacked deck due to the lack of electronic trickery and the fact it’s not a new model on the assembly lines back at HQ.

In 2013, the Z800 replaced the Z750 that had been in production from 2004 to 2012; Kawasaki released it as a European-exclusive model, which seems odd and a bit unfair, I’d say – now that I’ve had a chance to ride it.

Numbers Games

The answer to our earlier question comes down to numbers, 160,000 or so, in fact, as that’s about how many Z750s Kawasaki sold in Europe. Sounds like good business, but why are we getting its seconds, two years later?

Think of it as R&D work done for our benefit. A seal of approval from a fickle bunch of riders whose passion for the hobby is what drives much of the media, marketing and product that, in this case and many others, trickles down to us North Americans. So you can be sure that if there were annoyances found with the Z800, the European riders would have made it known long ago; and they have, all over the Internet. But who cares about them anyway? This is Canada – we’ll figure it out for ourselves, thank you very much.

Seriously though, there’s really not much to find in terms of concerns, and come to think of it, not often do we get an advanced scouting report, so I suppose it’s a bonus.
The lack of electronics could work for or against the Z800, depending on your point of view. Outside of the ABS, there’s a dearth of rider aids. No traction control, or any of that nanny stuff, is listed in the spec sheets, just a straight-on motorcycle. But it does have one other card up its sleeve. We’ll come back to that.

Personality Plus

This bike is all about connecting with the rider and the four-cylinder engine in the middle. Kawasaki engines have a personality, some even border on disorder. This one has moments where it’s dead calm; 5000 rpm, for example, nets you 100 km/h in top gear and possibly the least vibration from any inline-four. At other points in the rpm range, it growls and screams and vibrates, and pulls from almost any rpm. Its power is broad and comes in much the same way it goes out, gradually and controllably with a super-precise throttle delivery, connecting the rider perfectly with the rear wheel. And here’s where we come back to what’s up their sleeve; part of the secret is a little piece of tech that gets overlooked: Kawasaki’s Dual Throttle Valves. When the throttle gets whacked open, the valves in the throttle bodies (in this case, one throttle body on each cylinder) are open wide and engulf a huge amount of air, which along with all that extra fuel is immediately turned into a massive amount of torque, and that means power arrives abruptly. To smooth out this delivery of power, the Z800 uses two valves in each throttle body; the first opens according to your throttle input while the bike’s computer controls the secondary valve, optimizing the airflow into the engine and allowing precise throttle delivery. With a delivery this linear, traction control is unnecessary 99.9 percent of the time. (If you’re asking yourself right now, “What about the other 0.1 percent?” you should own a bike with traction control.)

The biggest knock on the Z800 is found on the spec sheet, and rarely on the street: the bike weighs 231 kg. That’s almost 9 kg more than the Z1000, which you barely notice on the road. You can probably tell from the pictures that I’m not much more than hobbit-sized, yet I have no problem getting the mass off the side stand, especially with all that leverage from the wide bar and a seat height of 834 mm.

Agility or Stability

Once rolling, there’s little effort needed to chuck it around, and only on extremely tight manoeuvres does it need some coaxing. The trade-off is agility for stability when we’re talking weight and handling, and Kawasaki has found a good balance with the Z800.
Suspension setup is matched well to the bike. The KYB front fork offers a lot of adjustability and dialled into my comfort zone no problem, giving me a plush ride on the highway and in the city, but was still firm enough for hard braking and high-speed corners. I didn’t mess around at all with the KYB rear shock at first, because it felt good when I got the bike, but by the second day, my 190 pounds was benefiting from more preload and some rebound damping. And though it made cornering more accurate and got rid of any sagginess, it was not an ideal setting for the incredible number of railroad crossings and potholes in southern Ontario – that second day was spent riding to Peterborough, and I’m certain the road and railway tracks criss-crossed in a fun little game of Snakes and Ladders all the way there.

The advantage of my day’s ride was an opportunity to explore the Z800’s highway cruising ability, and thankfully, it’s not bad. For me, the slight lean forward of the seating position is perfectly countered by the wind at about 90 km/h, so by the time I hit 110-ish km/h, there’s not much force from the wind pushing me back, and the airflow is very smooth over the non-existent bodywork, which means clean air on the chest and no buffeting of the helmet.
Sixth gear felt a little short on the highway, but the lack of vibrations made it a trade-off worth having. The other five gears are stacked in a sweet-shifting, close-ratio transmission that could probably make do with only three speeds thanks to the engine’s ability to chug along in too high a gear or explore the upper stratosphere of its rev range.

A cable clutch gives accurate feedback at the friction point, allowing for fast launches and quick downshifts. I spent several hours in heavy downtown traffic during my time with the Z800 and would have liked a lighter pull at the lever from a bike that’s meant for urban assault.

Slow Your Roll

Of particular note on the Z800 is the ability of the front brakes to deliver strong stopping power with really good feel. Even trail braking into corners is matter-of-fact, and I think some of it has to do with that extra weight the bike carries – all that inertia smooths any abruptness without stressing the components out. In fact, I had to try hard to lock up the wheels and get the ABS to kick in; thankfully, the winding roads along the river north of Peterborough are lined with sandy shoulders, and as I made numerous turnarounds to appease the photographer/boss, there were plenty of opportunities to test the ABS, which works very well and without much concern at all.

Where I have found some fuss is over the aggressive Sugomi styling of the current Z bikes. Though the aggressive look of the Z800 is slightly less pronounced than that of the Z1000, its angular design is still not for everyone. Both these bikes should be viewed in person to fully appreciate their intimidating design philosophy. Face to face, it looks like a proper streetfighter, ready to go all the time.

As always, it can’t just be roses and rainbows, so let’s talk about a few more cons for a moment: The mirrors are acceptable for viewing the chip on my shoulder; the brake pedal has to travel much too far before it actuates; and a gear indicator would be nice on that fancy new LCD dash with the centrally mounted digital tachometer that can be switched to read from bottom to top or top to bottom (it does have the standard stuff like a speedometer, odometer, trip meters, fuel gauge, fuel range, engine temp and that silly Economy Riding Indicator that reminds me the throttle needs to be opened further because I could be having more fun). Besides, fuel economy is not this bike’s strong suit; I was lucky to get 6 L/100 km, but to be fair, I wasn’t driving Miss Daisy around. Oh, and forget whatever the range tells you on the dash – it’s as optimistic as Miss Cleo’s Psychic Friends Network on New Year’s Eve.

One of These Thing Is . . .

Also on the list of unfavourables is the box-section aluminum rear swingarm – aside from the front fork, those have to be the only parallel lines on the entire bike and just look out of place on an otherwise thoroughly modern-looking motorcycle.

Lastly, I should address the weight thing one last time. With such a bare-bones bike, you would be justified to wonder where all that weight is carried – I know I did. Well, a good portion of it comes down to the high-tensile steel backbone frame that’s been reinforced to cope with extra stress from the bike’s increase in power over the Z750. More of it comes from the engine, which is no lightweight and is a fairly old design, but again this mass is in all the right places and translates into a stable corner carver with great manners and an engine that’s addictive to wind up. If it’s anything like its predecessor, an aftermarket pipe is a must and will bring out the true hooligan in this streetfighter, but even without one, it’s more than capable of stretching your arms, hoisting up the front wheel just about any time you like and generally misbehaving.

All in all, I’d say Kawasaki should feel confident the 2016 Z800 will be a success on this side of the pond, especially when the ante to get into this game is a reasonable $9,299. And with the naked category getting some real traction these days, the odds look to be improving all the time. Buyers of the Z800 can expect good performance, reliability and value. I wouldn’t call this a straight flush; it’s more of a full house, kings over queens, but you’ll probably ride home with cash left in your wallet after a hand like that.

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