Recapping some of the technical specifications, although Kawasaki has produced a 649cc parallel twin powered bike in various guises for several years, the new Z650 is almost a ground-up redesign weighing approximately 40 pounds less than the previous, similar model. With a claimed curb weight (4 gallon gas tank topped off) of 406 pounds for the non-ABS version and 410 pounds for the ABS model, Kawasaki has essentially brought the weight of the Z650 equal to that of Yamaha’s excellent FZ-07.
The suspension has been re-tuned, but remains largely non-adjustable (only spring preload on the shock), and the brake calipers are new. The rear shock now benefits from a linkage system for more progressive action, and the front two-piston calipers are a new design from Nissin utilizing a modern ABS system (Bosch 9.1M) that keeps weight down and remains largely invisible to the rider (on the ABS model, of course). Front brake discs are 300 mm in diameter. The new front calipers have larger 27 mm pistons claimed to improve brake feel.
Kawasaki thankfully resisted the temptation to fit an oversize rear wheel and tire in favor of a smaller/lighter cast wheel holding a 160/60 x 17 Dunlop Sportmax D214. A similar five-spoke aluminum front wheel holds the same tire model in a standard 120/70 x 17 size.
A big part of the weight loss this year, and important to the Z650’s excellent handling (more about that below), is an entirely new high-tensile steel trellis frame with “optimized dimensions and wall thicknesses” – according to Kawasaki. The engine, and even the foot peg stays, serve as stressed members of the chassis further reducing weight. A “Gull-wing” swingarm is also new this year and, again according to Kawasaki, contributes to improved handling and allows clearance for the tightly tucked muffler.
The engine in the new Z650 is a refined version of the parallel-twin first introduced by Kawasaki back in 2005 in the Ninja 650R. I still recall being told at that press launch that the 650 engine was smaller and lighter than the parallel-twin found in the Ninja 500. It remains a modern design with fuel injection and DOHC four-valve heads, together with a relatively large bore and short stroke. The engine itself is narrow, allowing Kawasaki to build a chassis around it that keeps the rider’s feet and legs tucked in nicely.
For the new Z650, Kawasaki has made several changes to the engine, primarily designed to improve low-to-mid-range power. These include new cams, intake port shape, airbox design and exhaust system. Together with a 180° crank, Kawasaki includes a balancer shaft to smooth things out.
Also new on the Z650 is an “Assist and Slipper” clutch which increases compression of the clutch plates during acceleration without requiring the use of stiffer springs. This results in a very light clutch pull. A slip function is also included to prevent wheel lock-up when aggressively down-shifting.
The ergonomics of the Z650 are similar to many modern naked bikes. The seating position is upright with a slight lean forward to the bars. Legroom is reasonable, and the pegs are perhaps a bit rearward compared to some of the other bikes in the category. Not as upright and roomy as most adventure touring machines, but still comfortable for a long day in the saddle (which we found offered good support and shape).
The seat height is relatively low, offering shorter riders an easy reach to the ground. Average-sized riders can flat-foot at stops. The bike is relatively narrow between your legs.
As you pull away from a stop for the first time, you realize clutch pull is light and its engagement is precise. You can feather the clutch and make it do what you want it to do without any drama. Good low-end power also aides leaving a stop.
We suspect that peak horsepower is down slightly from the prior model, and the new Z650 does not seem to have quite the rip at higher rpms. At the same time, power lower on the tach seems to be clearly stronger, and this is where you need it most when riding on the street.
The Z650 doesn’t fall flat on top … it still revs strong to redline. The power bias just seems to have been shifted a bit to the middle of the tachometer. Together with the significant weight reduction, the Z650 feels very responsive at street rpm levels.
Fuel injection tuning is excellent, and transitions from a fully closed throttle are quite smooth and predictable. This is a particular advantage when exiting a corner from a big lean angle and rolling on the throttle as you stand up the bike. This aids grip and confidence.
We were somewhat surprised by the stock Dunlop Sportmax D214 tires. They may not feel as soft and sticky as pure sport rubber, but they provided good feedback and consistency. Grip levels were also excellent in the dry weather experienced while testing. Feedback from the contact patches, in our opinion, is also greatly enhanced by the new frame.
With so many modern bikes featuring extruded aluminum beam frames, we were very curious to see what it was like to ride the new Z650 with its steel trellis design. Handling and feedback come from the whole package, i.e., frame, suspension, tires, etc., but we are confident that Kawasaki’s new frame design contributed greatly to the impressive handling and feedback of the new Kawasaki Z650.
One ride in particular sticks in our mind. We took the Z650 to Mt. Palomar nearby to ride up and down the twisty switchbacks so popular with weekend sportbike riders. As I developed a rhythm on the Z650, it offered great confidence, and outstanding performance, on this very tight, somewhat technical mountain road.
I don’t normally do this, but here is a direct quote from notes I made immediately following this day on the Z650:
“Just got back from Palomar on the Z650. Fantastic ride and a fantastic bike. The engine is really strong in the mid-range, and even down low. It runs well into the upper mid-range and then hits the rev limiter. The engine also makes great sounds. The chassis really provides a lot of feedback, presumably because it is a steel frame, not aluminum. The suspension surprised me, as well. At first, I thought that the fork was a little bit too soft when riding aggressively and dove on the brakes. But I didn’t feel this after a while. The front brake is really strong and it never faded. The front brake is very surprising for this category of bike. The suspension is not the greatest, but it actually absorbed bumps pretty well. On the very rough Rice Canyon, I was able to carry a lot of speed without getting bounced around.”
No, I don’t normally feel quite so enthusiastic about a test bike after a ride like this. These are roads (Mt. Palomar and Rice Canyon) that I know pretty well, so I know what to expect. The Z650 surprised me. The front brake is really quite strong for this category of motorcycle. Feedback from the front brake is not the greatest, but it is far from “wooden”. Stopping power is excellent, however, and despite riding the bike where front brake fade could easily be noticeable, I never experienced any.
Basically, at my skill level (yours might be higher or lower), 650s in general, and the Z650 in particular, can provide a street riding experience where you feel you are getting the most from the machine, but that the machine’s limits are not holding you back. The Z650 changes directions almost effortlessly (aided in part by the narrower rear tire), but never felt unstable.
The six-speed transmission, given the torquey power delivery, offers at least one gear for every occasion and sixth gear leaves revs at a comfortable level without feeling like a true overdrive. The clutch slips just enough when aggressively downshifting to keep the rear tire planted on the tarmac.
The new instrument panel is very legible and provides as much information as you need, including a gear position indicator. The analog-style tachometer is much easier to read than many digital tachs. Fuel consumption information (not just fuel level) is another useful feature found on the Z650.
The Z650 is an excellent motorcycle. No qualifications are necessary when stating this (such as “budget bike”). It illustrates how far manufacturers have come with regard to the design of reasonably priced middleweight twins. This remains an engine size that can appeal to riders of all skill levels, and Kawasaki has wrapped it in a chassis that will satisfy both commuters and canyon carvers.
The 2017 Z650 ABS is priced at $7,399 ($6,999 without ABS). There are two color choices, including Pearl Flat Stardust White/Metallic Spark Black (our pictured test unit) and Metallic Flat Spark Black/Metallic Spark Black. Take a look at Kawasaki’s website for additional details and specifications, as well as a description of accessories available for this model.
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