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  • December 16, 2017
  • Dirck Edge
  • Chris Rubino and Kawasaki
  • 70 Comments

MD Bikes of the Year: Kawasaki Z650 and Ninja 650

 

We rode a number of interesting bikes this year, but we have to give MD’s Bike of the Year award to a couple of twins. Mechanically identical, and even identical from a chassis perspective, the 2017 Kawasaki Z650 and Ninja 650 did more than impress us. In some ways, they shocked us. Kawasaki didn’t quite start from scratch (the engine is developed from the older model), but both bikes are largely all-new.

Using a steel frame to lose 40 pounds from its predecessor might sound counter-intuitive, but the steel trellis frame design from Kawasaki is carefully optimized to combine the correct rigidity with light weight. We also found the frame offered excellent vibration characteristics and feedback when compared to many competing aluminum-framed machines. Together with fuel injection tuning, and throttle response that is just about perfect, that frame, and the new chassis, give the rider great confidence for spirited adventures on twisty roads.


The sound coming from these bikes is also impressive. Not so much the exhaust note, but the howl coming up from the air box and intake as the tach sweeps above 7,000 rpm on its way to the 10,000 rpm redline. It adds an important element to the experience of flogging a well-designed middle-weight.

The lighter weight, narrow rear tire (Kawasaki fitted a 160 section) and optimized geometry have created a motorcycle that handles superbly, and is just plain fun to ride. Some of the best rides we had this year were aboard the Z650 or the Ninja 650. We know of one journalist who bought a 2017 Ninja 650 after testing it! We understand.

Concentrating the power of the 649cc parallel-twin in the low-end and mid-range (still with good over-rev) makes both of these bikes perfect for street riding. Down a few peak horsepower on some of the competition (including the larger displacement, 689cc MT-07), these bikes are nevertheless plenty quick in the real world, and flexible enough to make at least two gears a good choice when exiting corners.

Another place where these 650s hit a sweet spot is fuel economy, and we were able to achieve mpg figures in the high 40s and low 50s during our testing … despite pushing the bikes much harder than owners typically would. With a 4 gallon gas tank, these machines offer more than decent range.

After adding in the comfortable, semi-upright ergonomics, well spaced six-speed gear box, and strong brakes, you have to conclude Kawasaki nailed its redesign of these models. The performance from the two machines may be virtually identical, but there is a choice between the aggressive looks of the naked Z650, or the comfort provided by the wind protection on the Ninja 650.

So there you have it. Kawasaki’s newly-designed 650s, the Ninja and the Z, are MD’s Bikes of the Year. Read our reviews of each model for more details on the Z650 and the Ninja 650.


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70 Comments

  1. Bubba Blue says:

    2017 Motorcycles are last years news. The 2018s have been out for some time. Who cares about 2017s?

  2. ABQ says:

    I like the Vulcan 650 too.
    What I always ask at the dealerships, but nobody knows:
    What is the horsepower and torque?

  3. Sentinel says:

    Hand-numbing (nerve damaging) vibes, make the Ninja 650 and Z650 an absolute no go for me. Same thing when I test rode the Ninja 1000SX. Plenty of other reviewers have mentioned them, and there’s some serious buyers remorse for some that have bought them. What a damn shame. It really is time to retire that engine and make a smoother one. Bumping up the size a bit wouldn’t hurt either.

    • edbob says:

      Which manufacturer are you a sales rep for, again? I mean, can it be any more obvious? For anyone who may have taken the above comment seriously, wrist numbness can happen with any motorcycle and has to do with compression of the ulnar nerve. Engine vibes are ubiquitous to owning a motorcycle. A Kawasaki 4 is the silkiest inline-4 of them all. The twin makes a good thump, nothing more than or less than any other twin out there. Get a life, dude…

      • Bob K says:

        My Z1000SX is pretty darn smooth. So smooth, it’s kind of boring, especially compared to my twins.
        .
        The key to a smooth running engine is to make sure the throttle bodies are synched. Unfortunately most owners are too cheap to take it in or don’t think it’s a big deal. Your engine will last longer too.

      • Sean says:

        “Engine vibes are ubiquitous to owning a motorcycle.”

        Not really. Some bikes vibrate and resonate like crazy at cruising speed, some don’t. Your hyperbolic misuse of the term “ubiquitous” is frightening.

    • Regan says:

      Nerve damaging , you’ve got to be kidding .Your either shilling for another manufacturer or you have girl hands and are limped wristed .

    • NRHretro says:

      Interestingly enough, I was told pretty much the same thing, almost word for word, at a competing dealership.

      Not considering the competitor anymore. Some salespeople haven’t learned that bashing the competition is a sure sign that their own product can not compete.

    • ZX10R_AC says:

      Yeah, no idea what Kawasaki you are talking about. I’ve ridden many bikes and honestly, you have no idea what you are talking about, or, as others have said, you are shilling for some other manufacturer.

      Every bike vibrates, and I can tell you that it isn’t restricted to one manufacturer or the other.

  4. John Bryan says:

    Time for a Z650RS maybe? The original KZ650 was a clean iteration of the Kawasaki “Z” look and made a great companion to the mighty Z-1. A sub 450 lb “heritage” Z650 would be a great choice to have.

    • Hornet says:

      I second the motion. Now that the Z650 has a nice steel tube chassis make a motion for a Street Tracker.

    • Don says:

      I third. Motion will go to a vote. Can we hear the “ayes” (in a hearty pirate voice if you please.)

  5. Neal says:

    Kudos to Kawasaki for applying their engineering efforts effectively. 40 lbs loss and reduced vibes through clever geometry and design is a huge accomplishment. I do think the Z900 has gone further in the same aspects that the 650’s impresses with though, particularly considering the prices. I suspect there is a editorial bias towards beginner friendly machines, to nudge newer bikers into buying new bikes in light of all the “the motorcycle industry is dying” worries. I’ll admit I’m part of that problem though, I just bought a used Z800.

  6. Kagato says:

    Just notice that the funky “side shock” is gone. Always bothered me having that thing over there. Visual distraction, especially when it is painted Chaos Red.

  7. PatrickD says:

    Each to their own, but this choice certainly resonates with me.
    I’m a generation of bikes behind, with a low mileage 2003 SV650S and I just enjoy riding it alot more than bigger, faster bikes that I’ve had. I’m 42 and thankfully fit and well, so it’s not a managability issue exactly. But using more of a bikes capabilities is so much more satisfying than short shifting and rolling off.
    A lighter and quicker bike like the 2017 z650 options will be appealling, but I’m holding off on a test ride as I just can’t afford to change!
    It’s certainly an interesting choice of bike to win and for solid reasons.

    • Dave says:

      This should not be much lighter than your SV650. It will also give up nearly 10hp to your SV.

      This seems like a great bike, but if you’re looking to go faster, this probably isn’t what you’re after.

      • PatrickD says:

        A few percentage points makes alot of perceived difference. Especially when it’s weight, and benefits all aspects of a machine’s performance. Pretty sure my bike would be made to feel old in comparison to this.

  8. bmbktmracer says:

    I didn’t see this coming… A motorcycle that typically places third in every comparison test between the SV650 and MT-07, a motorcycle that brings nothing new or innovative to the class, is your bike of the year? I can’t argue, really, since I haven’t ridden the bike, but I’m surprised.

    • Dirck Edge says:

      Can’t argue that the competitors from Suzuki and Yamaha aren’t excellent bikes. They are. The Yamaha FZ-07 received honorable mention from MD in the 2015 Boty announcement, and the SV650 has always been one of our favorites. I don’t concern myself with the opinions of other journalists when I have thoroughly tested the bike myself, but I did note that Mark Miller, who has raced professionally and goes pretty well on the street, actually bought 2 2017 Ninja 650s (one for himself and one for his wife) after testing the bike for cyclenews.com. I felt something special that Mark apparently also felt.

      • bmbktmracer says:

        I’m proud of you for recognizing a bike of good quality. I’ve had a couple of motorcycles that I felt were really special, that didn’t get the best reviews because of some minor performance deficit. If I ever get a chance to ride the Z650 I’ll jump at it. I’d be curious as to what other bikes rang a bell with you this year.

    • Dave says:

      ” a motorcycle that brings nothing new or innovative to the class ”

      There’s an analogy, something about more than the sum of its parts…

      • bmbktmracer says:

        It must be true. I have a Triumph Sprint RS with Ohlins shock, GSXR forks, Staintune exhaust… That bike never got much love from the press, but it’s power is perfect for the street, it handles, great, it’s comfortable for long distances, and my sweetheart is happy on the back. So, I definitely get the whole “synergy” thing. I’m not knocking the choice, just expressing a bit of surprise and actually find myself having a lot of respect for Dirck as I think it’s a courageous choice.

        • Cowboy says:

          I also have a Triumph Sprint RS, and of the 43 motorcycles I have owned, it is my absolute favorite. 👍🏼🇬🇧🏍

  9. WSHart says:

    An excellent choice, one powered by common sense firmly rooted in reality instead of being based upon the racetrack that is a juvenile’s Walter Mitty of a mind. In fact, common sense is so rare in the Matrix of moto-journalism that it’s probably safe to call it a freakin’ superpower.

    Good choice, Dirk.

  10. Larry Kahn says:

    400-ish pound 650cc vertical twin. Great all around bike, fast enough to get you dead or arrested. Simple design. 1960’s Triumph Bonnevilles anyone? What works, works.

    • Jason says:

      A 1960’s Bonneville could carry a passenger in reasonable comfort.

      • Brian says:

        Do people seriously carry passengers on bikes like these? Maybe where you live, but here the only pax I see are on big-twin Harleys and ‘Wings. I don’t know why they even bother to put rear pegs on anything else.

        • Jared says:

          I actually only purchase my bikes if my wife feels confident on the back that she ride for a few hours comfortably. I turned down an R6 for an FZ6, then a VFR800. I need a new bike but no one seems to realize rear pegs do not make a bike passenger accommodating. In this regard the old 650 was better, but the new one is so much better.

        • SausageCreature says:

          I would…if they made a middle weight sport(y) bike with decent passenger accommodations.

          They don’t. So I can’t.

  11. austin zzr 1200 says:

    One of the nice things about this award is that these bikes are available very inexpensively from your local dealer. I am seeing great prices on all variants and if I were in the market for a commuter, I wouldn’t hesitate. Steel feels real and I love the renaissance of steel frames.

    Well done, Kawi!

  12. Grover says:

    Great choice on the 650’s. Losing weight on a bike of this class is always a good thing. If I was in the market for a 650 class bike, Ninja 650 would be my top pick.

  13. 5229 says:

    Excellent choice Mr. Edge. Having ridden the Z650 myself for a short ride I was very impressed with it. And really all the bike one would ever need for the tight curvy roads. Too many riders out there purchase bikes that are bit too much making them hard to ride. Bikes like this are an absolute blast to ride.

  14. Norm G. says:

    +1 on the N650. i was going to mention back during one of the kawi new model threads that i saw one recently in person at the dealership and the subsequently at one of the bike shows and hadn’t realized it had been redesigned, it looks MEGA. the tank sculpting alone does not translate to pictures.

    re: “the howl coming up from the air box and intake as the tach sweeps above 7,000 rpm on its way to the 10,000 rpm redline. It adds an important element to the experience”

    IN YOUR FACE BATTERY ELECTRIC VEHICLE…!!!

    • Dave says:

      Re: “IN YOUR FACE BATTERY ELECTRIC VEHICLE…!!!”

      Can’t you imagine an electronic future where the engine note of your choice (Apriia RSV4, for me, thanks..) is transmitted to speakers in your helmet? Lol

      They could probably subtly interrupt the power to simulate “shifts” to go along with the engine noises.

      • Norm G. says:

        Q: Can’t you imagine an electronic future where the engine note of your choice (Apriia RSV4, for me, thanks..) is transmitted to speakers in your helmet?

        A: God willing i’ll be cold in my grave when that’s the standard everyone looks at and thinks is “normal”. lol

  15. Frank West says:

    Could not quite bring myself to buy the older model(s) new and did not come across a decent used example but like the fully faired new model, much more sensible than my Street Triple but fear I might miss its power though I am a fan of vertical twins so who knows…

  16. skybullet says:

    Sometimes less really is more. When the goal is to optimise performance and forego gimmicks the marketing dept. wants, you end up with a better tool for the job. More functional bikes may have less sizzle to punch up most journalists but hats off the Dirck for his pick.

  17. xLaYN says:

    Sure… but nothing explains the mystery of the plain white helmet and white boots…. is that Dirk? or a photo from another dimension??

    On a more serious side a runner up section would have been nice… 2nd and 3rd places and why not one or the other…

    • Norm G. says:

      Q: Sure… but nothing explains the mystery of the plain white helmet and white boots…. is that Dirk? or a photo from another dimension??

      A: the STIG.

  18. Tank says:

    “Just plain fun to ride”- that’s pretty much what I said when I rode one in 07. Why the hell haven’t I bought one? I wasted too many years on Harleys.

    • stevein sandiego says:

      i rode cruisers for 11 years before trying out a new 09 650. now, lookit, i loved my cruisers, but the ninja was, well, i can’t explain except that it was different and gobs of fun.
      after the ninja i rode a 2015 v-strom for a couple of years. it’s gone now because i need a slightly smaller and lighter-weight scoot. i’ve been eyeing the ninja 400, but, due to the 650’s pared down heft for 2017 and the 2018 improvements, the 650 might have another chance with me.

  19. Jeremy in TX says:

    Great choice. My brother had an er6n for a time, and I really liked that bike (save for the torturous seat.) The Z650 seems like a tremendous update to that very fun bike and is the best looking of the modern machines in my opinion. It is the bike I would put my money on.

  20. Randy says:

    I have liked Kawasaki’s bikes (and Kawasaki’s “attitude” for 40 years). So as I am a fan and multiple owner, I feel qualified to nit-pick. I like the naked bikes better. So, my question is, if it is too expensive to manufacture double-walled chrome headers, why do all brands use the ugly brown bare metal pipes when there has to be better looking alternatives? It just detracts from so many beautiful bikes. Not to mention the color doesn’t fit the overall paint scheme. Wouldn’t black pipes look better in most cases?

    • nickst4 says:

      Re the brown pipes: they aren’t brown in the showroom! Most all header pipes are ‘stainless’ steel these days. They don’t rust through but do oxidise to a nasty colour pretty quickly because manufacturers leave them in shot-blasted or satin finish that gives corrosion a head start. Not good, as you say.

  21. Provologna says:

    Nice choice!

    One of my all time favorite middleweight street bikes is Honda’s magnificent VF500F Interceptor. I’ve not ridden one, but presume the engine is glassy smooth at all RPM, with a good torque curve and obviously good peak power.

    A quick online glance reveals:
    2017 Ninja 650 12.35 @ 104mph, 410# wet
    1985 VF500F 12.6 @ 102mph, 454# wet

    I realize a VF fails, likely by huge margin, all or most emissions regulations. Still, I was surprised that 32 years, 23% larger engine, and 44# lighter wet weight net only .25S advantage.

    Then my calculator revealed:
    104mhp trap speed = 153fps x .25S = 38 foot advantage, or 2.5 mid size car lengths, which is a blow out. One lap around your favorite track would look like the VF dropped an anchor.

    That’s pretty good after all. Especially considering (I presume) the Ninja is better throughout, especially roll on power wise, and meets all emissions regs. I would bet, in inflation adjusted dollars, value is much higher too.

    • Dave says:

      Also two fewer cylinders and only one head, valve train and no carbs. Gotta like simple, right?

      Glad to see a practical bike like this get the recognition.

    • John A. Kuzmenko says:

      I rode my sister’s boyfriend’s (he later became my ex-brother-in-law) 1984 VF500F Interceptor back in the summer of 1984 (before he totaled it).
      Torque wasn’t the word crossing my mind after riding it for a few miles, surely not low-end torque.
      It felt gutless below 10,000 RPM, and my 1982 Yamaha XT200J dual-purpose bike had more oomph down low.
      The bike was all about revving it up and keeping it there to get your money’s worth.

      These Kawasakis would murder that Interceptor in a roll-on from legal speeds.

      • Provologna says:

        Thanks for that report, especially Re. torque curve. I’m sure I read a road test on the VF500F, but can’t remember much except that it was well received.

        I was a yuge fan of Yamaha’s XZ550 Vision, having owned an 83 and an 82. The 83 was a hoot both with and without the full fairing (w/leg vents adjustable for outside or radiator air).

        Roll on power wise, the Vision smoked every other mid size of that era.

        • Kagato says:

          Yup, the Vision was unappreciated despite the modern v twin mill. Sad that Yamaha didn’t keep it on. Did they develop it in other markets beside the US?

      • EZ Mark says:

        I owned a 500 Interceptor years ago. My friend owned an ER6N. Rest assured, the 650 Kawasaki would murder the Interceptor in any measure of performance.

    • Tom R says:

      “Then my calculator revealed:
      104mhp trap speed = 153fps x .25S = 38 foot advantage, or 2.5 mid size car lengths, which is a blow out.”

      I’ve heard of Bench Racing, but now Calculator Racing? (;

  22. DP says:

    Gorgeous bikes and good pick. The only deficiency with them is that I need to be 30 years younger.

    • Chris says:

      I just turned 69 and love riding my Ninja ZX-14. You’re only old when you decide to be.

      • mickey says:

        wish it were that easy. Medical issues may decide to make you older than you want to be. As long as you are in good health, go for it. I have a friend that’s 80, still in good health, no medical issues to speak of and still rides. Family history tells me it would take a miracle for me to still be riding at that age.

        • Chris says:

          I hear ya, Mickey, and I hope you are lucky enough to dodge the bullet on your ‘family history’. I guess I do tend to take my good health for granted more than I should. My hope is to still be able to throw a leg over the saddle (perhaps on a milder bike than the Ninja, LOL) and ride until I die. Oh, and I hope not to die BECAUSE I’m riding. Only time will tell.

  23. ApriliaRST says:

    I like the weight of about 410 pounds the bikes spec out at. The frame is a work of art. Nicely done Kawasaki and a good choice of the award winner.

  24. endoman38 says:

    Or, get the Versys and get much better suspension.

  25. DeltaZulu says:

    Well, be prepared for the “experts” to come on here and tell you why you are wrong with this decision. Even though they rode exactly one or two bikes the entire year. And, probably none of the new ones.
    Anyways, I always respect your opinions and appreciate your honest feedback on the bikes you test. Now, about those Ducatis you left out….. LOL!

  26. sliphorn says:

    Good choice! Plenty of bike for most people most of the time. It looks like they’ve addressed the too common slope to the tank seat issue found on similar bikes. It looks like it actually curves up a bit which will be a relief for most guys, methinks.