An attractive price point, torque-rich low- and mid-range with plenty of usable power for the road, eye-catching looks, comfortable ergos and some niceties like adjustable suspension and ABS. Pretty good formula for a middleweight streetfighter, right? It’s been a winning combination overseas for a while, and the American market has finally caught up with nearly every major manufacturer offering its own version. All but Kawasaki that is, until this year. Sure there was the Ninja 650 in the middleweight division, but it couldn’t qualify as a streetfighter in the same way as the Z1000. Something versatile enough to tackle canyon shredding sessions and commutes with aggressive styling, torque-rich power output and its sights set on those wheel-popping, tire-smoking hooligans.
Kawasaki rectified the situation by granting its Z800 ABS entry to the American market, a bike that’s been roaming international streets since 2013. Since its arrival Stateside, the Z800 has garnered a largely positive reception, though its detractors cite the bike’s looks and weight (just over 500 pounds) as sticking points. Beyond those few issues however, there’s a responsive and playful motor, comfortable ergonomics, anti-lock brakes, rebound and preload adjustability front and back, a strong dual disc braking set-up out front and a competitive $8399 MSRP.
As for looks, we’re on board with the styling of the Z800. The angles of the machine are bold, but there’s cohesion to the sweep of the headlight through the tank and back to the tail section which gives this thing an appealingly aggressive stance; Like a mechanical pit bull tensed and ready to strike. The engine and case covers provide a tidied peek at the innards of the bike and those header pipes are gorgeous, contrasting the entire bike with elegant twists and turns en route to the canister out back. That’s not to say there aren’t elements we don’t like, such as the extended rear fender, but overall the Z800 is an attractive motorcycle in person.
But the ride counts most, so when the Z800 ABS arrived at the office we set out to see how it performs in a variety of scenarios. Commuting, canyon carving, track days and even some touring. Things a rider looking for a decent, do-it-all, pavement-bound machine would likely to demand of a bike.
As for myself, I fall somewhere between beginner and intermediate, a mid-level C-group rider on track. I’m in my early thirties with good credit, a steady job and joints that are still in pretty good shape. I’m also a big fan of the streetfighter segment and in the market for a new bike. Basically a poster-child of the motorcycle’s target demographic.
The first box I wanted to check with the Z was a track day, so a few buddies and I got together with Pacific Track Time and booked our spots for a Friday in late June at Thunderhill Raceway.
The Z800 felt good out on the road, so we didn’t mess with set-up much at all and bike prep was minimal, taping the lights and removing the mirrors. We left the stock Dunlop Sportmax D214 tires on there and dropped pressure to 30psi. That’s it.
Even though I spent the first session in the getting-to-know-you-better phase, I was immediately impressed by the Z800’s power delivery. The low- and mid-range pull well enough out of the corners to give you a thrill even if you’re a gear too high. The throttle is buttery smooth too, allowing for precise and predictable adjustments anywhere on track.
It also goes plenty fast for a rider like me, climbing well into the triple digits down the 0.6-mile start/finish straight with little effort. I just had to keep an eye on the revs to make sure I didn’t hit the limiter and lose drive, which happened more than once because there’s consistent torque output up to redline. Power is linear as well, dropping just a slight amount right before you run out of revs.
An unrefined rider is the only hindrance to keeping the Z800 in the sweet spot because the transmission is absolutely dialed. Light clutch pull and solid engagement mean you basically only have to think about the next gear up and you’re there. Downshifts are steady and reliable as well, requiring the slightest blip to ensure the rear remains planted. Another testament to a well-refined transmission considering the bike doesn’t come with a slipper clutch.
As the day progressed and speed increased, I started taxing the front brakes more. The dual Nissin four-piston calipers provided plenty of stopping power, and you can get pretty hard on the lever thanks to the ABS. Engagement and release were both progressive when applied with a steady hand. As a developing track rider, I was really pleased with this setup. I pushed brake markers forward throughout the day with confidence that I’d be slowed to a manageable corner speed in time for tip-in without a problem.
Clearly, I wasn’t pushing the Kawi to its fullest potential, so the stock suspension set-up felt fine for the most part. There were a few times coming down from higher speeds into Turn 1 that the front end became a little unsettled, but that was it for me. Some of my more experienced colleagues came back to report that the Z800 needs some tweaks in the suspension department to really push hard though. It started “buckin’ and fussin’” under seriously heavy braking and acceleration. If you keep everything smooth, the bike provides an enjoyable ride; get up to more competitive speeds and it’s going to need some refinement.
Another tell-tale sign that the suspension needs work is the fact that the stock rear tire was pretty chewed by the end on the left side. We’d run every C-group session and a few B-group sessions and it was nearly flat by day’s end. No one reported any slippage or grip issues however and I felt confident to the final lap at my pace. They were ready to be retired though, so afterward we got a set of Dunlop Sportmax Q3s to replace the shagged stock set. The Q3s are a affordable, sport-inspired tire designed for versatility, perfect for the commuting and touring we had on schedule after the track day.
The Z800’s 509-pound curb weight puts it at a disadvantage against competitors in the class, some which tip the scales nearly 100-pounds less. But on track it carries heft better than expected. Handling is light in most cases, quick transitions being the exception, but even here it only requires a bit more deliberate muscle at the bars. Turn-in is smooth and the bike doesn’t feel top-heavy, it holds the line well through long sweepers and responds quickly to inputs mid-corner. I didn’t feel any adverse effects from the weight on track.
Admittedly, I was having too much fun to nit-pick the bike over its weight. Straight out of the box, the Z800 ABS provides an exciting yet manageable machine for a mid-level C class rider. It pays off for the pilot that keeps inputs smooth and doesn’t look to set a track record, but still provides a respectable amount of pull and top-speed to make the day on track a blast.
I know I could wring a lot more out of this machine with more time on track, a fresh set of tires and some suspension refinement. It’s not going to compete against the likes of an R1 or ZX-10R in terms of speed and prowess, but it’s a surprisingly accommodating stepping stone from lower-displacement machines like the Ninja 300 or CBR500R.
The next step is to put some miles on the Z800. The commute here in southern Oregon doesn’t match the frantic freeway pace of metro areas in the country, but there’s a good mix of interstate and surface streets, so we’re going to use the machine as our daily rider for a while. Then we’re going to add a few aftermarket bits and hit the road, to see what stands out when we pit the Z800 against a few days of open road.