by Bart Madson

Kawasaki's Big Zed with Streetfighter Cred

Railing around a tight corner on a winding road through California’s dairy country, it was time to open up the throttle on a rare section of straight asphalt. Rolling through the gears and twisting the throttle, the speedo flashed into triple digits with exhilarating quickness as milk cows chewed their cud, indifferent to the howling beast blurring down the road. The speed had to drop in a hurry with a turn up ahead, pulling on the brake lever and banging down a couple gears the bike cut into one of the innumerable twisties we would encounter on the day. This is street-fighter territory and we were lucky enough to be armed with the latest version of a motorcycle which helped define the category – the Kawasaki Z1000.

Americans have yet to embrace the streetfighter craze the same way our European friends have. The poster children for this disparity are Kawasaki’s Z1000 and Z750. Best sellers in the Old World, the Z’s haven’t met with the same success here in the States. In fact, the Z750, which we tested last year, was dropped off the 2007 American roster altogether, with Kawasaki representatives saying there’s no foreseeable plan for its return. Lucky for us the Z1000, which we grew fond of as a long-term project bike known as Project Z, did make the 2007 cut as Kawasaki brings a new and improved version to the American streetfighter stable in hopes of kindling a stateside flame for the Big Zed.

The 2007 Z1000 created a stir when it was unveiled last fall with its aggressive styling, which Kawaskai labels as “dynamic.” There is no denying the Z sports aggressive lines, but they seem to polarize riders into I-like-it or I-hate-it camps. Overall, the Z is a sharp looking package, although the out-of-place seat confused this tester’s styling sensibilities.

Enough with the looks, though, it’s what’s on the inside of this wicked Z that counts and after our ride through Northern California backroads we can attest that the new Z1000 has a terrific motor. The 2007 powerplant is still based off the ZX-9 mill, but Kawasaki has made some modifications to give the new Inline-Four improved performance on the lower half of the powerband, which the manufacturer describes as real-world performance.

To achieving this performance boost, engineers had to contend with the technical hampers of new emissions requirements. During the pre-ride technical presentation, Kawasaki outlined the dilemma it faces: It’s easy to make a clean-burning motor and it’s also easy to make an engine with a broad, generous powerband – the hard part is making a powerplant which does both. The solution for Kawasaki was to change the cam profiles and shrink intake and exhaust valves by 0.5mm. Other internal engine adjustments include a new crankshaft and a 7% increase in flywheel mass.

The major exterior mod to the Z’s engine performance is the all-new 4-2-1-2 exhaust, with the right side muffler housing an exhaust valve for improved low- to mid-range response. The new exhaust system is also lighter than its replacement. But wait a minute, 4-2-1-2? There must be some mistake, the Z1000 has those four exhaust silencers. Everybody knows that, it’s what makes the Big Zed the Big Zed! Hey, everyone, be cool! Yes, it does look like the new Z still has four pipes coming out the back, but it’s actually a twin exhaust with each silencer sporting a faux two-pipe cap to mimic the four-pipe look. The retention of the four-can appearance was meant to please the European crowd, which the Z1000 is marketed toward. Remember, the Zs are best-sellers across the pond and Kawasaki reps told us the Euro crowd loved the four-pipe configuration.

The end result of all these changes is a motor tuned not to be a road race platform or drag racer but a practical mount for play rides on the street, and our 150-mile trek from Petaluma to the California coast and back on the country roads of Sonoma County fit the play-ride bill to perfection. Tight twisty asphalt allowed the Z’s new low- to mid-range power to shine, as pulling out of slower turns was easy as pie in almost any gear. The engine is the sweet spot on the new Zed and its spunky character is primo. The type of primo that makes you do that gesture where you kiss the tips of your fingers and throw them out away from you.

The motor’s power delivery is impressive, pulling steady all the way across the powerband. It’s the kind of power that makes triple-digit mph dreams come true with the flick of the wrist. The new ECU-managed fuel injection system, which features smaller throttle bodies (reduced from 38-36mm), does an admirable job, although there was a slight jerkiness at lower speeds.

A revised transmission, with a new primary gear ratio, is super smooth. The gearbox features a reshaped ball-bearing gearshift lever and there weren’t any missed shifts on our test ride. Our only quibble with the gearbox was its slight stickiness in the bottom gears, with Neutral sometimes hard to find or difficult to get out of at stoplights.

The Z’s engine is not the only thing that was revised for ’07 with the chassis receiving an overhaul as well, although accommodating the engine is at the heart of the chassis modification. A new aluminum sub-frame now incorporates the 953cc powerplant as a stressed member and the engine mounts have been relocated from in front to behind the cylinders. Along with an all-new aluminum swingarm, Kawasaki claims to have reduced rigidity by 15% for better feedback. Other chassis mods include moving the steering head forward 10mm and increasing the wheelbase from 55.9 to 56.9 inches.

Overall the new Z1000 handled well, but the front end felt a bit suspicious on our ride out to the coast. The bike turned quick enough, but on bumpy roads there was a shake in the handlebars and a wallowing front end left lingering doubts about steadiness. We were promised before our ride that the new Z’s feedback was superb, but it was almost too much. You don’t want to feel every flaw in the road mid-turn at speed. Fiddling with the preload and rebound settings on the all-new 41mm Showa fork during a lunch break improved front-end feel on the return portion of our street ride. Of course, owners will want to dial in the suspension settings anyway for aggressive street riding, so there’s a good chance our complaints would evaporate with some fine tuning.

Sitting in the saddle at speed the wind smashes into you pretty good, with the front cowling not offering up much wind protection. But that’s not exactly a newsflash is it? Hello, McFly, it’s a naked streetfighter!

An attractive instrument cluster is dominated by a large tachometer, which is easy to read at a glance while riding. On the right side is an LCD display featuring a digital speedo, also easy to read. An electronic fuel gauge is a useful addition. Our only request would be a gear shift indicator, which would be helpful when shuffling up and down the gears on a canyon-carving jaunt.

The Z’s upright riding position is fantastic. Handlebars have been moved closer to the rider and the reach for us during our ride was natural and effortless. The 32.3-inch seat height may give shorter riders fits, but at 6’1″ this tester’s stalks touched down no problem. In fact, straddling the Zed it doesn’t feel as big and mean as you discover it to be once you get rolling. The ergos on the new Z are almost flawless, but then you get to the problematic seat, which deserves its own paragraphs of ridicule because it spoils what would have been an ideal riding position.

The seat, oh, the seat. Test riding new bikes, it’s often difficult to find things to complain about but not when your testes are being squeezed with every unexpected jolt on the road. Sorry to be crude, but the problem with the copper-colored seat is it slopes forward, so the tank is a real crotch-nuzzler – ergo the smashing of the unmentionables. The new Z’s perch is 40mm narrower to improve the riders ability to hug the tank, which it does and which we also agree is a positive trait – just eliminate the crisis below our solarplexus region and we’d be peachy keen.

The seat delivers another surprise once the vibrations start on strong, which occurs at about 6-7,000 rpm. The high-rpm vibes wouldn’t be bad on quick weekend rides through the country, but during long-range touring or commutes it would get annoying. The vibration issue is odd, as much of the aforementioned chassis mods were meant to correct the vibey nature of the old Z1000. Not having ridden the Big Z’s predecessor, it must have been a shaky ride indeed.

Okay, we’ll lay off the seat and go back to showering the Big Z with more praise by gushing over its magnificent brakes: a pair of 300mm rotors with four-piston radial-mount calipers and radial-pump master cylinder up front, and a single-piston unit grabbing a 250mm disc out back – the rear rotor growing 30mm from it’s previous incarnation. The Nissin stoppers scrubbed off massive amounts of speed in short order and were fantastic, with superb feel at the lever. You won’t find any complaints here. Like the motor, we give the brakes another one of those hand kissy things.

Overall the 2007 Z1000 is a fine high-performance street package, which in the right hands is more than capable of waxing the race-replica squids on a Saturday morning canyon adventure. At $8,649 it sits right in the middle of its two competitors: the $9,199 Yamaha FZ1 and the $8,299 Suzuki Bandit 1250. One drawback to the ’07 Z is that the black paint with copper highlights is the only color scheme available, so those wanting a new green meanie will have to wait at least one more year.

So the question remains, will the new Z1000 spark a streetfighter surge here in the States? Well, given that most Americans either want a V-Twin Barcalounger cruiser or a balls-to-the-wall just-street-legal racebike, it may be a tough sell. The new Z is a solid bike but European and American tastes aren’t always simpatico. Like tasseled loafers with no socks, what flies in Europe doesn’t always jive in our amber waves of tube-socks and sneakers. Still, Kawasaki did their part by producing a quality product and the Z1000 is a fine entry in the North American marketplace. No doubt the Big Zed will find a home in many a satisfied rider’s garage.