Today’s neo-retro category stretches in two distinct directions. At one end, you have oil cooler-concealing, carburetor-imitating, faithful recreations like Triumph’s Bonneville line. Then there are the tech-savvy, modern naked bikes dressed up in vintage clothing. Various unique blends of form and function define these throwbacks, but some lean further to one side of the modern-classic dichotomy.
The 2022 Kawasaki Z650RS isn’t one of those examples, however, preferring to meet riders at the middle of the neo-retro crossroads. The liquid-cooled, DOHC, 649cc parallel-twin is the product of modernity, but the lack of electronic rider aids calls back to the good old days. Similarly, the gold-painted, spoke-style cast wheelset, analog/LCD instrument cluster, and round LED headlight merge contemporary convenience with period-correct cosmetics.
When it comes to styling, though, Kawasaki goes heavy on the nostalgia. Thanks to a classically-shaped fuel tank, upswept tail section, and Candy Emerald Green livery, the RS is the spitting image of its 1976 KZ650 forefather. The 2022 Kawasaki Z650RS may share a deep reverence for motorcycling’s Golden Era, but it still needs to exist in the modern world, and there’s no better place for a stress test than the asphalt jungle of Los Angeles, California.
Team Green’s lean but not-so-mean eight-valve, 649cc parallel twin has powered everything from the Ninja 650 sportbike to the Versys 650 adventure-tourer to the Vulcan S cruiser. Across that range, Kawasaki preserves the platform’s 83mm bore, 60mm stroke, and 10.8:1 compression rate, and there's no need to change the family recipe with the Z650RS. That’s, by no means, a bad decision, however.
Despite its run-of-the-mill billing, the trusty twin remains the crown jewel of the RS. Kawasaki has incrementally improved the peppy powerplant since its 2006 debut and the latest Z is the direct beneficiary of that maturation process. Torque peaks at 48.5 lb-ft (at 6,500 rpm), but a strong low-to-mid-range and direct throttle response keep the ‘70s-styled standard in lively spirits.
The parallel twin is just as happy to bop around town too. With a tractable powerband and user-friendly engine character, the Z650RS effortlessly picks through congested city conditions. That doesn’t mean the 650 twin isn’t ready and raring to pick up the pace, though. All it takes is a committed crack of the throttle to get the RS into attack mode. The retro roadster’s audible intake honk and the rear-wheel squat only make those spontaneous pulls that much more thrilling.
The practical yet pokey engine maintains that same playful nature whether you lug it down low or rev it to the heavens, and only relents as the tach needle zeroes in on the 10,000-rpm redline. The well-sorted six-speed transmission and positive gear engagement make those ascents even more effortless. While climbing through the gears, only a slight buzz courses through the bars and pegs. Engine vibration primarily transfers through the gas tank to the rider’s knees, but it never builds enough magnitude to detract from the ride.
The close confines of the Southland's canyons did pose several challenges to the wundermill’s supremacy, however. Kawasaki equips the Z650RS with an assist and slipper clutch, but abrupt downshifts still caused the rear wheel to step out of line on occasion. Each instance resulted in a rear-tire chirp that compromised the chassis’ composure just before tip-in, rendering aggressive corner entries, especially following long straights, less than ideal.
For that reason, I frequently kept the Z650RS one gear too high heading into low-speed bends and chugged my way out of the exit with the twin’s low-down torque. From the urban sprawl to the twisties to the highway, the 649cc powerplant exceeded my expectations. On the other hand, the package surrounding Kawasaki’s flexible platform proves that the RS prizes power over precision.
The Weakest Link
As soon as a rider nestles into the Z650RS’s 31.5-inch-high saddle, the first thing they’ll notice is the bike’s ample sag. That suspension action doesn’t stiffen throughout the stroke, unfortunately. Measuring five feet, 10 inches and pushing 160 pounds, I assumed the Kawi’s middleweight frame would suit my long and lean dimensions. Instead, I frequently blew through the undersprung 41mm fork and rear monoshock’s 4.9-inch and 5.1-inch suspension travel (respectively).
In the city, that buoyant behavior certainly smoothed mild tarmac inconsistencies, but sharp-edged potholes frequently pushed the horizontal back link-equipped shock to its limits. The responsive twin two-piston Nissin calipers squeezing dual 300mm petal discs didn’t make matters much better up front. Due to an aggressive initial bite, the fork often dove under normal braking pressure. Even when brushing the binders during low-speed maneuvers, the non-adjustable fork plunged through a significant percentage of the available stroke.
Gallery: 2022 Kawasaki Z650RS
In the esses, that softly-sprung suspension presents different challenges. The vague feedback doesn’t just hinder the rider's ability to gauge road inconsistencies. At lean, that feel (or lack thereof) also makes judging available grip a guessing game. Encountering a bump frequently sends the bike pogoing as well, which can be especially burdensome on California’s seismically-altered canyon roads. Kawasaki’s high-tensile trellis frame and gull-wing swingarm still deliver a supple yet stable ride, but with undersprung suspension at both ends, the Z650RS is all agility without accuracy.
Keep It Simple
Bikes of yesteryear didn’t need the electronic gizmos muddling up today’s motorcycle market, and apparently, neither does the Z650RS. Aside from the available Bosch 9.1M ABS system, Team Green’s latest throwback doesn’t call on electronic nannies to regulate the fun. All forms of control—traction, wheelie, slide, etc.—the RS doesn’t want ‘em. Honestly, at the end of the day, the vintage-styled naked wouldn’t truly benefit from them.
Unless you’re pinning the throttle at full lean or attempting dank nooners, the only control the rider needs is over their right wrist. That simplicity is actually one of the Z650RS’s most liberating attributes. No traction settings to dial. No multi-level engine braking systems to ponder. Just swing a leg over and away we go.
The ride experience is just as easy-going too. The analog speedometer and tachometer provide the comfort of familiarity while the multi-function LCD display reports helpful info such as gear position range, current consumption, and coolant temperature. A neutral, nearly upright riding position captures the RS’s congenial spirit and the low foot pegs offer more than enough leg room for riders under six feet. The cockpit may be compact, but I’d never characterize it as cramped. The Z650RS doesn't lavish the rider with modern amenities but it certainly packs enough vintage charm to compensate.
Based on the Z650 model Kawasaki introduced in 2017, the 2022 Z650RS remixes a winning formula for nostalgic newcomers and vintage-skewing veterans. The resulting transformation includes more than a few reshaped body panels, though. The trim-specific, era-inspired wheelset, bullet-shaped dial cases, and the LED round headlight/oval taillight complete the ensemble, but also push the price up to $8,999.
The Z650RS doesn’t just find a Goldilocks zone of modern-classic cosmetics, it also achieves a balance point between present-day performance and yesteryear purity. Its stone-simple electronics clear the runway for the punchy 649cc parallel-twin to steal the show, all while dazzling passersby in a Candy Emerald Green colorway. Other competitors may rush to the edges of the neo-retro spectrum, but the 2022 Kawasaki Z650RS happily claims the middle ground between the Golden Era and the modern era.