A dubious design doesn't ruin the more worthy elements of the 2016 Kawasaki Z800.
Naked bikes/streetfighters are svelte, sexy, aggressive, fast, and oh so much fun in the city and back roads. Primed for wheelies when hopping on any freeway or jumping off the line at a stop light (not recommended, but easy to engage), nimble and perfect for splitting lanes during times of congestion, and delightful in the canyons or on the track for those days you want to get a knee down.
The crème de la crème naked sport bike on many aficionados' list would be the Triumph Street Triple R, a motorcycle that solidified itself in the genre and still holds a place as top dog according to many in the industry. Others opt for the wildly popular Yamaha FZ-09, beastly fun KTM 690 Duke, or the Suzuki GSX-S750. If you have the money or want to buy used, Ducati has a Monster for you. There are no shortages of great naked bikes to choose from...but where does the Kawasaki Z800 come in?
For the last month I’ve rather enjoyed the Z800 in most facets. I have ridden it throughout the greater Los Angeles area for daily errands and meetings, did a couple long commutes from my home in Santa Monica to Irvine and Carpinteria, and rode it on a number of fun, aggressive canyon days through Mulholland, Topanga Canyon, Latigo Canyon and Angeles Crest Highway. On the top line, I like this bike, but let’s dive in a little deeper to see why it’s good and where it falls short.
Engine and Performance
At the heart of Kawasaki’s Z800 beats an 806cc in-line four, liquid cooled engine, which produces a nice and buttery smooth amount of power that is enough to get you going at a decent quip. The top speed I achieved was 137mph before backing off.
I would say that the Z800 has a bit more character than some of the other in-line fours I have been on in the past, but not by a huge margin. For those wanting the exact power figures, Cycle World reported that the Z800 puts out 98.4 hp at 10,160 RPM, and 56.3 ft. lbs. of torque at 7,810 RPM. From a full stop to acceleration, the Z800 has a satisfying amount of pull, which is evenly deliverable throughout the rev range. It feels very linear and, honestly, expected for a bike with this kind of engine and displacement. Some buzzing comes above 6000 RPM, but I didn’t mind it at all when riding. Gear shifts are fluid and never missed a beat.
Everything about the Z800 is smooth, friendly, and satisfying. Never once did I feel like this bike would get away from me. There are no ride modes, no traction control, no added technology. It’s all on you to manage the power and delivery. But don’t let that scare you, it’s a fantastically engineered analogue-esque motorcycle that delivers.
If you are feeling so inclined, a bit of a heavy throttle hand will induce a smooth and manageable power wheelie in first gear, and with a little clutch play in second, the front wheel comes up with confidence. I'm not an advocate of performing wheelies on city streets, nor am I as badass as my contemporaries at holding a wheelie, but the Z800 is certainly capable. I've actually found myself practicing a wheelie or two in a closed safe space.
Backroad canyon carving with the Z800 is a pleasure, but due to some colder-than-usual temps here in Los Angeles, paired with viciously windy days, I had to alter how hard I was going to push myself and the motorcycle in the twisties. Even after a good amount of riding, the roads and tires were not at their optimal temps and I was simply unable to ride as fast as I have been accustomed to.
However, the Z800’s back-to-basics, no frills, and no added rider aids/technology enables you to understand its dynamics at all times. This Z800 inspires a good amount of confidence, due in part to everything working so incredibly well together. The Z800 feels planted on the straights, especially when diving into corners based on its excellent frame construction and a solid stock suspension. When pushing it, I found myself getting on the brakes later and later when entering corners more aggressively, and this comes from someone that is still on the cusp of being a beginner and intermediate rider.
The Nissin four piston brake calipers operating on a pair of 277mm wave rotors in the front provide great feel and ample feedback when slowing the weight of this bike. And that’s needed because the bike is heavy. The single piston single 216mm wave style rotor in the back enabled adequate back braking, but felt secondary. That being said, it functioned fantastically in the canyon and especially when dragging the brake when performing slow speed maneuvers and splitting lanes in and around town.
The inverted 41mm KYB fork, which is adjustable for rebound dampening and preload, felt solid and not too spongy or stiff under my heavy braking. The rear KYB mono shock with a piggyback reservoir capable of adjustment for preload and rebound too, handled the twisties just as much as the bumps along Wilshire Blvd. Unless you are a very experienced rider who beats the hell out of your brakes and suspension, I think you are going to find the Z800 stock setup more than adequate for most daily applications.
Being someone that rides in the urban jungle of Los Angeles on a daily basis, there is no shortage of hazards ready to take you off your bike. One fantastic instance and testament to the Z800’s braking ability came during slow speed lane splitting on Santa Monica Blvd. I believe I was moving at around 15 to 17mph, but it's certainly possible I was moving a tad faster.
Out of nowhere, with a dollar in hand, a panhandling homeless guy who received some money from a driver was making his way back to the median when he stepped into my lane. Before becoming one of those fail videos so commonly seen on YouTube, I was able to initiate a panic brake. The ABS kicked in and I came to a complete stop, leaving only a few inches between my front tire and the clearly terrified homeless dude. I can attest that the ABS and brakes on the Z800 work quite well.
Where the Z800 Falls Short
The Z800’s major failing is its weight. Coming in at 509.4 lbs with a full tank of fuel, this bike is a fatty for something claiming to be a “naked bike." After 30 minutes of aggressive riding and transitioning through corners, I was like, “Damn, I’m in good shape, but I’m exerting a lot more effort than I want slinging this bike around.” I came to this conclusion after I had just got done abusing my buddy’s Triumph Street Triple R. I can only imagine the horror on the face of those who own the Yamaha FZ-09 or KTM 690 Duke.
To gripe about ergonomics and body position is sometimes not too fair as I'm such a tall guy (my feet are always flat on the ground.) The overall seat height of the Z800 comes in at 32.8 inches and maintains a moderate aggressive stance, I found it less aggressive than a Triumph Street Triple, but more comfortable. It's not as upright as Yamaha’s FZ-09 or KTM 690 Duke and, of course, nowhere near as light. The stock seat could use some plushness as it is a bit flat, but I haven't found it as annoying as many of my contemporaries. It’s more tolerable than the two bikes above and only became an annoyance after about an hour and a half in the saddle.
For the fuel conscious, Kawasaki includes an Eco mode notification on the dash that comes on when you maintain an engine speed under 6,000 RPM.
With a 4.5 gallon tank, I would have easily been able to make it from Santa Monica to Ventura and back on one full tank, but I wanted to find out exactly how far this bike would go on a single tank, so I extended my trip up through Ojai and over to Carpinteria. I have to say that the fuel gauge read out and the range estimator didn't inspire confidence or curb anxiety. Range to empty and no bars appeared around the 90 mile mark—the range estimator displayed dashes afterward.
Sadly, the fuel range estimator on my bike was completely useless. It jumped around more than a six-year-old on a sugar bender. When I filled the tank it read 120 miles, five minutes later it read 180 miles, ten minutes after that 100 miles ,and then six minutes later it read 160 then back to 140 then back to 190. Only towards the end of my loan did the fuel estimator start functioning correctly, but it's still not consistent.
I brought along spare fuel can just so I could get an accurate reading as to what a full tank would provide. Based on a majority of highway riding and an 80 percent focus on keeping the bike in "Eco Mode," I was able to squeeze 146.6 miles out of that 4.5 gallon tank for an average 32.5 mpg. Even though this is in the "Where the Z800 Falls Short" section, I would most definitely say that this is not bad at all for a naked sport bike.
Highway cruising in sixth gear was a delight on the Z800. There's little to no vibration on the controls and smooth power delivery when dipping in and out of lanes. You have to be cognizant because the Z800 will zip along easily around 90 mph at 7000 rpm in sixth gear. Bring that to a even 75-80mph, and you'll stay right under the aforementioned 6000 rpm range and activate "Eco Mode."
Design, Style, and Gripes
For everything I like about the Z800 (performance, handling, suspension, ergonomics) the way it’s designed is not anywhere near the top of my list and that saddens me to say. The Z800 borders on “meh” and “kinda ugly.”
I will start with the abundance of plastic on the tank. I'm a tall guy (6’5'') and these plastic bits don’t allow for me to hug the tank and streamline my body as much as I have come to expect on a “naked bike." In fact, now that I’ve spent a little time on the Z800, I'm taken back to the days when I played catcher in Little League. My legs mimicked the same type of splaying when crouching. The Z800 is already a portly bike and these plastic bits don’t help it look or feel anymore svelte.
You can tell this bike had some success in Europe because the headlight assembly looks like it was ripped off or inspired by a scooter that zips happily around the streets of Paris or Florence. Kawasaki says that it’s maintaining a “menacing face,” but if anything I think it looks more like this angry puppy:
The massive and boxy muffler is atrocious—I just can’t. I don’t know what to say other than we might have discovered where all the extra weight on this motorcycle is hiding.
While it's easy to read, the instrument display looks like it was stolen from my grey scale digital alarm clock from 1995. The one that would blare at me to wake up and cycle through the numbers when setting my alarm. The Z800 display has everything you need though: fuel gauge with estimated range left in the tank, dual tripmeter, odometer, engine temp gauge, clock, digital speedometer and tachometer. I would have loved it if Kawasaki included a gear readout and shift indicator. Both the Street Triple and FZ-09 have a gear readout and only the Street Triple has a shift indicator.
Let’s talk about the vertical, Donkey Kong-ladder style tachometer for a moment without talking about it too much. I already have a thing against digital tachometers—I simply do not like them. I never hide that feeling, but what the hell is this? Every time I glance down to check engine speed I'm momentarily confused. This is the first bike I've ever been on with this kind of tachometer design and it’s just strange. No, no, and no.
I very much like being able to walk away from a bike and leer at it, but I don’t ever feel that way about the Z800. The bigger, badder Z1000 embraces its funkiness and oddity, but the Z800 just misses the mark. However, Kawasaki definitely went the extra mile to make sure you remember the letter “Z” in Z800. It’s integrated into the back taillight assembly and plastered all over the seat. You know, in case you forget.
Regardless of however ugly I deem the Z800 to be, I cannot say that its design is without merit. All those bits and pieces on the tank, and even the headlight contribute to some pretty fantastic aerodynamics, which I noticed on longer rides. Wind that hits the front of the bike is scooped up by the headlight and directed over my head and around my body. I felt very little head buffeting or body fatigue after an hour in the saddle. Although my legs were splayed, those plastic tank bits catch the wind and redirect them out and down. I suspect this adds to better stability at higher speeds.
For anyone looking to get into a naked middleweight, the Z800 is certainly priced well at $8,399. It’s cheaper than the Triumph Street Triple R ($10,399) and KTM 690 Duke ($8,999), but a tad more than the $7,990 Yamaha FZ-09. I'm not even going to include the Ducati or BMW in here because if you want those bikes you're going to buy those regardless of whatever I say.
My Final Verdict
As you can already tell, my only knock on the Z800 falls on its design and its heft, but after a month I've grown to really appreciate the Z800 and have slowly begun to forget about these pain points. It's a very capable machine, and it handles the day-to-day grind like a boss all while remaining fun when you want to get aggressive.
The Z800 does what I would expect from a Japanese engineered motorcycle, it starts every single time I hit the ignition, it performs flawlessly out on the road, clutch feel and brake inputs are all direct and simple, and the ergonomics are surprisingly manageable for someone of my size, so I’ll assume for smaller riders it would pose less of an issue.
Serious motorcyclists looking for strict performance are going to hate the weight, but that could possibly be amended in future iterations. So could a revised design. I think Kawasaki should go balls out and commit to the "weird alien-esque spaceship that had a baby with a fighter jet” design. I see both of those design elements in the Z1000 and the insane H2. While those two bikes look a bit strange, they own their weirdness. The Z800, however, doesn’t quite pull it off.
I would recommend the Z800 to someone who is perhaps in the market for a naked bike after coming off something a bit smaller and wants a well-rounded bike to cut their chops on, and maybe even do some longer weekend rides.