First Ride! 2010 Kawasaki Z1000

. By Gabe Ets-Hokin
The New Standard?
By Gabe Ets-Hokin

Cruisers and sportbikes. Cruisers and sportbikes. Cruisers and sportbikes. Those three words must drive product planners like Kawasaki's Karl Edmundson crazy, as they represent at least 90 percent of all street bikes sold here in the USA, despite a profusion of naked or standard-styled models that come and go. Karl wants the same kind of street bike that we do - powerful, good-handling, stylish, loaded with high-spec components but still fun to ride all day without compromising much on performance. Not a standard—which tends to be heavier and slower than their sportbike cousins—or a racetrack-oriented hardcore naked sportbike, but a whole new category, as yet unnamed. Supersportstreetbike? Streetysportybike? Mondobike-o-rama?

Whatever you call it, it won't be much like the 2007-2008 Z1000. That bike was based on the old (2003-2006) Z1000, which in turn was based on the even older ZX-9R's motor mounted into the hallmark of a standard, the tube-steel chassis. It was not a bad bike: plenty fast and fun to ride on the street, but it had its limitations. It was porky, buzzy and lacked the sharp handling you'd find in Kawasaki's Ninja sportbikes. Even Edmundson admits it wasn't his favorite bike in the world.

Traditionally, standards have been developed two ways. One is to do it Euro-style: take a sportbike, remove the fairing, add an upright bar and think of a new name. That's fun, but the resulting products have a narrow appeal, and according to Edmundson, cost just as much as the sportbikes from whence they come (I tactfully refrained from asking Karl why, if that was the case, replacement bodywork costs so much). The other approach is more Japanese: build an obsolete superbike down to a price point, resulting in a wiggly frame, low-spec brakes and suspension and a motor that while possessing street-friendly down-low grunt, shows its lack of testes when you wind it out, making it easy for your friends to beat you to breakfast unless you scare yourself.

So Kawi's plan was to introduce a whole new category, one that provided the experience of riding a sportbike but with the comfort and versatility of a standard. To do that required an all-new design. First, the engine: it's unique to the new bike, displacing 1043cc, 90cc bigger than the 2009, thanks to a longer stroke (the engineers dropped the crankshaft to keep from making the engine taller). That plus more compression (.6 of a point) and other changes give the rider an extra 13 hp (for a total of 138 at the countershaft sprocket), and that peak happens 400 rpm lower in the rev range. The bike is now counterbalanced with a secondary balancer to eliminate those pesky vibes.

The smoother motor allows rigid mounting, which means a stiffer and lighter chassis. The number of engine mounts was increased to four, one of which is rubberized. The Z's frame is a five-piece cast-aluminum unit that's 8.8 pounds lighter than the old bike's steel item. The swingarm (with a big eccentric adjuster ZRX fans may find familiar-looking) and removable subframe - are also aluminum. Front suspension is also supersport-inspired, an inverted 41mm fork that's adjustable for preload, rebound and compression damping. In back, the UNI-TRAK linkage is mounted above the swinger, placing the preload-and-rebound adjustable rear shock nearly horizontal, easily accessible for adjustment. Brakes are radial-mount four-piston Tokico calipers and 300mm petal-style discs in front, with a single-piston caliper, mounted below the swingarm, in back. Tires are new Dunlop Sportmax D210s, a fat 190-section sitting in back. The bike weighs in at 481 pounds full of fluids, according to Kawasaki; that's 22 pounds less than the old Z1000.

The stylists weren't allowed to sit around for this project. The bike is carefully designed to deliver “visual impact,” and not look like a boring old standard. From the viewing-angle-adjustable instrument panel to the machined wheels to the new quad-style mufflers—which look about as good as Z1000 mufflers ever did, to damn them with faint praise—the new Z manages to look distinctive yet tasteful.

Kawasaki schlepped its PR staff, mechanics, eight journalists and eight new Z1000s up to Cambria, on the California coast so we could see what a great bike it was (and truthfully, a clapped-out CB650 Custom with a faulty coil would feel great on the incredible roads down there). Of course, God rewarded the effort by pissing down rain for three days, but we still managed to get in a couple of hundred soggy miles in.

Straddling the bike, I noticed the low seat (32.1 inches) and narrow midsection, which enabled five-foot-six me to get my feet flat on the ground. At low speeds, the bike is very easy to handle, thanks to that low crankshaft, ample steering lock and the designers' emphasis on mass centralization: too bad the off-idle throttle response is abrupt, requiring a smooth, expert hand. The gearbox is typically Kawi-smooth and neutral is very easy to find. The seating position is good: the bars have a perfect bend to them and fall easily to hand, placing the rider in a slight forward lean. The pegs are sportbike high, cramping the knees after a while, but preserving cornering clearance and putting the rider in a nice position for some twisty roads.

On those twisty roads, the Z1000 is in its element, so long as they're fast and smooth. The big bars make steering a snap, not that a bike with a 56.7-inch wheelbase would be unwieldy. The rigid frame keeps it stable in fast sweepers, and the suspension seems to soak up midcorner bumps and keep the wheels on the ground well enough. But on really rough, twisty roads — and we were on some serious goat trails: to quote one of Kawasaki's guys, if a road in California has good pavement, it's heavily patrolled—the bike reminds you it's not a dual-sport. That much weight and power demands respect, and I had more than a couple of heart-in-throat moments where the back tire stepped out on mud, gravel or possibly black ice, but the bike's relaxed nature meant a quick and seamless recovery. The brakes weren't as powerful initially as the gold-anodized Brembo bling you'll find on the Euro-bikes, but once applied, they were easily up to task and provided good feel.

It goes into turns and stops well enough, but corner exits are where the Z1000 show really begins. After all, this is the grandson of the original Z1, reaper of 10,000 pink slips. From idle to about 3500 rpm, acceleration is fine, there's then a slight dip in the midrange that most Fours have, and then the bike pulls harder and harder. The front wheel gets light around 8000 rpm, your head snaps back at 9000, and then everything's just a blur until the soft rev limiter kicks in around 11,000 rpm. Oh, you jaded superbike owners may scoff at a mere 138 hp, but the meat of the powerband comes on a full 1000 rpm higher, and shifting gears is pretty much optional. The more idiotic among us decided to see how fast we could go on cold, slippery backroads, and saw very illegal three-digit numbers spin up quickly on the digital dash. But it didn't feel that fast: the little cowling and windscreen actually does a fine job of providing wind protection at speed, and vibration is almost absent. What you do notice is a spine-tingling induction howl: those crafty engineers actually designed and placed the airbox to produce more of that trademark Kawi shriek, which doesn't do anything aside from make the ride more aurally stimulating. But your aurals will be stimulated, trust me.

So has Kawasaki begun a new craze that will result in a burgeoning third category of streetbikes? I hope so, but I wouldn't bet the tattered remnants of my retirement account on it, either. The Z1000—and bikes like it, such as Yamaha's FZ-1, Ducati's Streetfighter or BMW's K1300R—is great to ride, but like good scotch or Chinese opera, requires a cultured palette to truly appreciate. Judging by the paucity of annual mileage most American riders put on their bikes annually (something like 2000, according to DOT statistics), motorcycles are more fashion accessories than serious transportation tools, and the fashion these days is either Ricky Racer or Billy Badass Biker. “So how do we sell these things?” asked Edmundson. I, along with the other journalists at the table with him sat quietly until we realized he wasn't asking rhetorically. Seriously, how do you sell a subtly powerful, great-handling fun machine to people who don't seem to really understand that motorcycling is really about the ride, not the image? How do you sell rollerskates to hamsters?

I would use viral and guerrilla marketing to prove that bikes like the Z are both exciting and fun to ride while at the same time make them look cool. Give them to celebrities. Get them into music videos and TeeVee shows. And also get them on the track: sponsor a racetrack school, a stunting class (this thing will wheelie easier than your average literbike thanks to the high, wide bars and lower gearing) and a single-make race series. But most importantly, the influencers—seasoned motorcyclists whose opinions matter, like you—need to preach the gospel of riding a motorcycle because it's fun to ride a motorcycle. Not because they look cool.

Okay, enough preaching from me. At $10,499, the Z1000 represents a solid value in a liter-sized streetbike, even if it's appreciably more money than the $8899 2008 Z. But that bike is dead and gone, replaced by something much better: “our objective was to scrap the old bike,” said Edmundson. If Kawasaki didn't create a new class of motorcycle, it definitely created an all-new and much-improved Z1000, and that's good enough for me.

Click here to check out the New 2010 Z1000 Up Close in HD

Photos: Adam Campbell

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