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  • August 27, 2018
  • Kent Kunitsugu
  • Dirck Edge
  • 67 Comments

2018 Kawasaki Z900RS Cafe: MD Ride Review


With the “modern retro classic” theme now running full speed through the manufacturer lineups, it was pretty obvious that Kawasaki hit the bullseye with the Z900RS that we tested earlier this year. Channeling the ethos of the company’s original 1973 Z1 right down to the sunburst brown/orange paint job on the tank, the 2018 Z900RS is the perfect throwback to performance motorcycling’s origins, but with a modern touch.

There was a bit more anticipation, though, for another version of the Z900RS that Kawasaki had announced back in May would be coming to the US market: the Z900RS Cafe. Taking a cue from the original (and now much sought-after by collectors) 1982 KZ1000R Eddie Lawson Replica, the Z900RS Cafe is resplendent in its Kawasaki Racing lime green livery that recalls the glory days of Lawson’s two AMA Superbike championships in ‘82 and ‘83. And the changes don’t stop with just a racy paint job.

A nice little bikini fairing enshrouds the same single round headlight found on the Z900RS utilizing a 170mm six-chamber LED unit that uses internal position lamps in the high beam chambers to make the entire round lamp appear lit (LED reflector housings are small, hence the reason why many automotive LED headlamps are usually square and much smaller than other type lights). The Z900RS’s chrome handlebar is replaced by a black-painted unit with a much lower-rise bend to complement the fairing and replicate the racy look of the original KZ1000R ELR. Another nod to the original ELR’s styling is the stepped seat that replaces the long, flat seat of the Z900RS, and the exhaust muffler and cover over the under-engine collector/catalyzer have a nice brushed aluminum finish instead of the Z900RS’s polished chrome look.

The rest of the Z900RS Cafe is mechanically identical to the standard Z900RS, meaning the same DOHC 16-valve 948cc inline four-cylinder engine that was altered from the Z900 via shorter-duration cams, less compression, and heavier flywheel for more low-end and midrange power. The same steel trellis frame of the RS also makes the transition, which was significantly revised from the Z900 to better accommodate the teardrop-style tank and new seat. Suspension is unchanged, with the 41mm inverted fork fully adjustable for spring preload and rebound/compression damping, and the horizontally mounted rear shock adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping. Brakes (300mm dual discs clamped by radial-mount/four-piston calipers up front, 250mm single disc and single-piston caliper out back) and wheels are the same, as is the OEM-spec Dunlop GPR-300 rubber in 120/70-17 front and 180/55-17 out back.

With so little changed mechanically from the Z900RS, is the Cafe really that much different? The answer is yes…and no.

You can definitely feel a change in ergonomics, with the lower and more pulled-back bend of the Cafe’s handlebar feeling a little more sporty than the higher bars of the standard RS. Your torso is canted forward just enough to counteract the wind blast at speed without putting excess weight on your wrists. Hour-plus highway stints are not a problem, with the counterbalanced engine remaining ultra-smooth through the entire rev range, and the nicely padded seat offering excellent support; there’s even a decent amount of room to move fore and aft despite the stepped rear section. Seat height is half an inch shorter than the RS due to the different seat, and since the footpegs are at the exact same position, there’s a very slight cut in legroom, but it wasn’t an issue on longer rides.


Kawasaki says it spent a lot of time tweaking the Z900RS’s exhaust to have a certain tone that was reminiscent of the original Z1 during startup, idle, and low rpm. While not quite like an aftermarket exhaust, the Cafe’s exhaust note has a nice, throaty sound to it when the engine fires up, and its rumbling idle (once the rpm drops after warm-up) continues that aural feel. The power assist/slipper clutch means that clutch pull is nice and light, and there’s minimal driveline lash when you click into first gear.

Here’s where everything we loved about the Z900RS is basically identical in the Cafe. The short first gear eases takeoff from a stop, although it’s not like the Kawasaki’s engine needed any help; there’s an abundance of low-end power literally right off idle, and it doesn’t require much throttle to holeshot traffic from a stoplight. That beefy low-end smoothly transitions into a stout midrange powerband that allows you to forego downshifts for highway passing as well as offer a choice of gears to charge hard off the exits of your favorite corners. Transmission action is nice and crisp, and the slipper clutch eases the task of downshifting.

Speaking of corners, at this point the Cafe displays a marked difference to the standard Z900RS. The RS we tested unfortunately suffered from an abrupt response off closed throttle that was frustrating when riding through canyons and country backroads. Right as you’d get on the gas to begin your corner exit, the engine comes on with a jolt that upsets your rhythm and concentration. Interestingly, the Cafe doesn’t display any of this fueling issue; throttle response is much smoother, allowing you to get on the throttle early and use the Kawasaki’s strong midrange to leap out of corners with little fuss. There’s still a little hint of abruptness when getting on the throttle, but the response is so much smoother than the RS that it quickly becomes a non-issue. Here’s hoping that Kawasaki applies the same apparent update to the RS’s fueling maps that it did with the Cafe.

The Cafe steers into corners beautifully, with a nice, neutral turn-in response. There’s decent feedback from both ends, largely due to the suspension action being the same as the Z900RS. The spring and damping rates are on the soft side in order to offer a smooth ride over nasty, broken up urban pavement at less aggressive speeds, but competent enough to handle a little bit of aggression in the canyons. Full adjustability in the fork allows you to achieve a decent compromise between urban comfort and backroad firm, and while we love the ease of access provided by the horizontal mounting of the shock, it’s not as easy to strike a balance there. Stiffen up the rebound damping to keep the chassis stable in the canyons, and the Kawasaki tends to kick back over sharp-edged bumps and frost heaves on the highway; loosen it to gain a smoother ride, and it’s easier for midcorner bumps to get the bike wallowing in corners.

The OEM-spec Dunlop GPR-300 tires provide surprisingly good grip as well as nice bump absorption while leaned over, and their wear rates seemed more than sufficient for the Cafe’s intended audience. Likewise, the Cafe’s ground clearance serves as a good reminder of its performance envelope; it’s adequate enough to have some good fun, but once the peg feelers start scraping, you know that’s as far as the bike wants to go. The KTRC traction control is the same type used on most other Kawasakis (offering two levels plus off), and it does an excellent job of keeping the right wrist from asking too much of the rear tire.

On the opposite end of that performance envelope, the Cafe’s brakes work very well, with good power and a nice linear feel. It takes a little lever effort to get some real stopping power, although learning to take advantage of the rear brake helps; and the standard ABS is there to keep everything from coming unwound in panic braking situations.

Kawasaki definitely was a little late coming to the retro classic party, but the wait was worth it. Both the Z900RS and the Z900RS Cafe are a cut above most of the competition in both performance and build quality, and with both coming under $11,500 MSRP—the Cafe lists for $11,499—not overly expensive, either. If it were my pick, I’d go for the Z900RS Cafe; the riding position just feels more natural to me, and judging by the continuous thumbs up and positive comments from the public everywhere we went, the styling has certainly hit the mark. Only problem is that you better head to your local dealer right now if you’re interested, as Kawasaki says the Cafe is a limited production motorcycle. For additional details and specifications, visit Kawasaki’s web site.


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67 Comments

  1. JBoz says:

    I’m still waiting for the ZRX1400. Until then my ’99 ZRX1100 will have to do. It’s turned 61k (miles) in 19 years and is ready for it’s 2nd full overhaul. Over the winter it’ll be stripped, cleaned, new fluids, new bearings, rebuild calipers, brake pads, check and spec everything & back together for summer ’19. It’l be like new and ready for another 10 years of abuse.

    These Z900 bikes are cute but not a ZRX, not an Eddie Lawson replica.

    • Brian Peterson says:

      You’re not tearing down the engine every 30k miles, are you? Seems a bit excessive unless it has problems. Maybe I’m misreading.

      I have a 2001, purchased brand new as a leftover in ’01, that still has just over 13k miles. It’s overdue for a few of the maintenance items you mention, but still looks almost like the day I brought ‘er home. Many others have come and gone from my collection in that time, but it’s always been there.

  2. Artem says:

    Very cool

  3. Ducatisssp says:

    Just swung by the local Kawi shop and lo and behold. Three Z900RS’s and one cafe. Must say the brown & orange base model made me drool more than the cafe. Absolutely stunning in person!! Actually prefered the seat on the cafe, though. Have been thinking about getting back to basics w/ a standard and a more upright seating position.

  4. Lewis says:

    I am really enjoying my 900RS. I did see the cafe version before I signed the papers and although a beautiful bike, I prefer my brown and orange zed. I am not sure if my particular bike may have had the fueling changed pre-delivery or perhaps I am not a ham fist, but the fueling has been excellent.

  5. Frank says:

    Great looking bike. Hope Kawi brings it back for 2019, and at a slightly lower price point. Also hope they keep that same color for 2019, at least as one of the options.

  6. Trpldog says:

    I had a 2002 Eddie Lawson edition ZRX – one of my favorite bikes of all those I’ve owned. I threw it into the scenery after hitting a trail of anti-freeze above Wrightwood, CA years ago. Great bike with tons of low end grunt for a 4 cylinder. I surprised many a sportbike in the twisties on that thing.

  7. Anonymous says:

    A few thoughts upon reading this review:
    1: I’ve got to move to Southern California. Nothing on the East Coast can replicate these breathtaking pictures, unless you like clouds, rain, humidity, and snow.
    2: The Z900RS Café looks stunning in person. I was drooling at the dealership.
    3: As the original owner of a 2001 Kawasaki ZRX1200R (Lime green, blue and white stripes of course), I’ll pass on all three versions of the 900, and continue waiting for Kawasaki to unleash an updated 1200, 1300, or dare I say 1400CC version (with angular styling this time) and lime green paint to match the beloved ELRs and ZREXs of our youth and dreams. The Japan market-only 1200 DAEG (an updated ZREX 1200) is beautiful, but never made it to these shores. Come on Kawasaki, make our dreams come true. Life is short!

    • Dave says:

      You think these pictures are breathtaking? You should see all the parts of it that are on fire! The mountains are nice, but it’s mostly a desert. Get into the mountainous regions in the east and it’s lush and green. Try NC, TN and West Va.

    • Mick says:

      Wow. I’ve only lived in the east for about a year and a half and I have found some truly epic scenery around here. You don’t need to look that hard. There is a place on my nearest mountain bike loop that is National Geographic quality. It is literally a stones throw from a highway.

      Unless you don’t like forests and boulders and stuff. Maine is THE most forested state. NH is second. VT is forth. If you can’t find any decent scenery. Maybe you should get off Long Island and have look around.

      I’ve been to southern California a number of times. It has its moments. But the brown to green ratio is not that much to my liking.

  8. Gpokluda says:

    I have always been a Kawi guy but the Z900RS and Cafe just didn’t do it for me. For less than $2K more I got a Bonneville T120 with traction control, heated grips, center stand, ABS, and endless possibilities for customization all with 0% financing.

  9. WSHart says:

    A nice enough bike that looks a bit too much likes a Seca 550 with an extra disc brake up front.

    I hope it sells well but agree with others that a ZRX/ELR style bike would’ve done much better. Suzuki could learn from this as well and release a Wes Cooley GS1000 tribute. I had a CB900F and it was nowhere as cool as either one of those so Honda can skip a Freddie Spencer tribute based on that one.

    But yes, it is a good looking scoot and any that buy one should enjoy it immensely.

    • Anonymous says:

      Great call on the Seca 550 resemblance, I knew something looked familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it.

  10. Jim W says:

    I recently came very close to buying the rs after a test ride but wasn’t crazy about the color options. The dealer had a cafe as well- don’t like the stripes or the shape of the fairing. I miss my 05 ZRX!!!!!

  11. Mark says:

    I have a 2017 z900. It is a fine machine and equally beautiful to the Cafe or the RS. It only has ABS, no rider modes … and doesn’t need them. It’s build quality is very good but could use a suspension upgrade, for most riding however it’s sufficient. Best bang for the buck out there. $8000.

    • Selecter says:

      And even in our usually-price-inflated region, you can get a new ’17 for about $7500 OTD (including your tax, title, and license fees), and a new ’18 for precious little more than that. The RS model is still selling for MSRP. The out-the-door price gulf comes to over $4000. You could buy a lot of round headlights and suspension parts for that much money, and the engine is in a better state of tune to begin with!

      My V7 Special sold last weekend, good riddance. There are myriad naked sportbikes and standards for me to shop now. I like the base Z, the RS, and the RS Cafe all about equally, but I do like the more modern styling of the base model just a tiny bit more, and the buy-in is crazy low. Gonna be a tough one to beat. The GSX-S is right there, too, in both flavors, with a different set of tradeoffs. And of course, fire-sale SVs for almost no money at all…

  12. Tim says:

    I was not a fan of the sunburst version. I was especially disappointed with the tank and how it appeared to sit on the top of the frame rather than wrap around it. It just looked different proportionately than the original. On this version, it doesn’t look as awkward. I like this one a lot more.

  13. jojn says:

    Team green Kawasaki were using green and white livery when Eddie Lawson was still in diapers. This colour scheme has nothing to do with him. You may not know, but he jumped ship to Yamaha very shortly after winning with the S1 1000.The café looks way nicer in person. Took me less than 30 seconds to make my mind up in the dealership, and I had my money on the root beer colour from day one !

    • Anonymous says:

      Kawasaki Motorcycles didn’t even exist when Eddie Lawson was in diapers.

      • paul says:

        Actually, Kawasaki motorcycles did exist when Eddie was born. He would have been about 11 years old when Kawasaki introduced their “racing green” colour in 1969.

        • Larry Kahn says:

          See “Paint by Molly”. Google 1969 F21M Green Streak Scrambler. Also did the Yamaha yellow/black block paint scheme.

          • takehikes says:

            Paint by Molly, the greatest. I knew him and he painted choppers for us, great guy and hell of a legacy most people don’t know about…Kawi green, Yamaha blue, Yamaha laser stripe, lexus logo and on and on….

      • joe b says:

        Eddie is 60 years old… holding my fingers up, 2018-60= 1958. so lets see, was Kawasaki motorcycles around in 1958? it seems Kawasaki motorcycles made the B8 in 1961, so you could say Eddie was still in diapers. just sayin…

    • dt-175 says:

      I was gonna say, don’t you mean yvon du hamel or gary nixon?

  14. PD says:

    Nice, but it doesn’t quite get me going. I like the new Honda CB1000 except for the exhaust canister. Myself, I got a Triumph Street Triple R. Thrilling and exciting.

    • Tim says:

      I agree, the Honda CB1000 was a home run. If I only had room in the garage for another bike, it likely would have found its way in there. I think my all time favorite retro styled bike was the Kawasaki W650 (and later W800).

  15. Bud says:

    I’d have liked to see the higher performance version of the 900 motor in this bike.

  16. Anonymous says:

    Author forgot to mention the Cafe is limited production.

  17. Bubba says:

    ” … 948cc inline four-cylinder engine that was altered from the Z900 via shorter-duration cams, less compression, and heavier flywheel for more low-end and midrange power.” ??? Less compression and short duration cams? WHy is that good?

    • JBoz says:

      That’s what lowers the power range and increases low end torque. I’ve got a ’99 ZRX with ZX11 cams in it that increase horse power up high at the loss of torque down low. As I’m finally realizing that I’m rarely above 5k (getting old sucks) I’m going to swap the stock cams back in this winter to get that missing torque back.

      • Dave says:

        A grownup who has honestly answered the question for himself, “How many minutes a year do I *really* spend riding my open-class motorcycle at full throttle?”

  18. dave novick says:

    My only hesitation is the bikini / cafe fairing. The fairing is a bit too swoopie for my taste, but it is growing on me.

    • Ryan H Craig says:

      I don’t think Kawasaki ever sold a production model Kz with a fairing like this. By the time they started putting bikini fairings on bikes at the factory, they had gone to a more angular style, as seen on the ELR, various KZs of the era, and the ZRX1100/1200, which in lime green certainly looked the part of an ELR replica. Mine was red with black and silver stripes, which made it look more like an early-80s GPz, which was just a continuation of the KZ models, anyway.

      This looks more like an aftermarket cafe fairing from the same period as the original KZs that this bike was (sort of) styled after.

      I’m just not a big fan of the graphic treatment they went with, with the stripe that curves up over the headlight.

      • Wes says:

        Looks like a Seca 550. Not a bad look….

      • JVB says:

        I too thought seca. My first streetbike was a GPz550 because I could not afford the KZ1000R or GPz1100 with my Army pay. Fairing should be squared off if they want to cite KZ1000R references. Would like to hear the tuned exhaust. God did those 2V kawis would howl once you hit 7Krpm!! Kerker K2 exhaust was the ticket. Only the Ducati F1s sounded better.

  19. SharkGuitar says:

    Take my money!

  20. Roadkill says:

    Great Job its a winner! Awesome pictures well done!

  21. Anonymous says:

    Great looking bike, as everyone said, I only wonder what the dealers will mark up these limited production bikes.

    • Dave says:

      I’d be surprised if demand was enough to do that. I think they’d be happy to sell them all for full retail.

    • Tom R says:

      They will mark them up (or down) to what a buyer is willing to pay. That is how economics works.

  22. DorsoDoug says:

    The best looking factory motorcycle exhaust in a very long time.

  23. JC says:

    “With the “modern retro classic” theme now running full speed through the manufacturer lineups…” Sorry, but I have to ask: why you guys haven’t cover the 2018 Triumph Boneville Speedmaster??? It’s gonna be almost a year since the first photos came out, and I’ve been wating for my favorite motorcycle news website to say something about it, but nothing! Just wondering…
    Thank you.

  24. Provologna says:

    Great article, and the photos do the bike justice. This bike’s a looker, plus it goes.

    Suzuki needs their corporate heads examined if no GS1000S is on the horizon.

  25. My2Cents says:

    2018 motorcycle of the year, not for what it has but for what it does not have. No excess plastic, endless electronic witchcraft, dual clutch semi automatic transmission, infotainment, gps, acres of digital display, 200 horsepower, origami riding position. Straight forward motorcycle with 111 ponies and a realistic riders triangle. Let the good times roll.

    • joe b says:

      … hey now, my bike has the dual clutch semi auto trans, and I like it. Don’t knock it till you have at least tried it.

    • Reginald Van Blunt says:

      Yes, to the admirable design to keep it simple, as a motorcycle should be. I would appreciate the modern tires most, as the original 73 Z1 was rather squirley over 100 mph on the freeway. Very pretty pipes too.

    • JPJ says:

      Very well stated.

  26. GT08 says:

    Exatly great great photos.
    If i had the money for a third bike or something like that, il will be this one.
    But for now, 4000$ too costly. Drop the price Kawa this is not a ZRX1200 (i’m still waiting for)
    But it look really nice
    Kawasaki, why you dont take the ugly Z1000R and tweak it to look like this but keep the aluminium frame and put a decent seat.
    Two retro Z bike in youre line, one for the hipster and one for real motorcyclist.
    You would sale ton of these two together i,m sure. Give us choice.
    What about ZRX1400

    • Josh B. says:

      I’d say maybe more like $1,504 too expensive. Seems to me that the perfect retail price would be $9,995. Blows my mind that my Triumph Daytona 675 was $8,999 retail back in 2006, and would absolutely destroy this bike in every single way but comfort. Though I still used to do 500 mile days on that 675… The dollar just doesn’t go as far nowadays. *sigh*

      • Dave says:

        That was 10 years ago. The 2016 Daytona 675 retailed for $11,999, the street triple retails for over $11k, too.

        • Josh B. says:

          And for virtually the same price, a ’16 675 is even MORE of a butt-whooping. I really see no need for the Z900RS twins to be so expensive, is what it comes down to.

          • Dave says:

            Why? Because a purpose specific sport bike has a couple of numbers on a spec sheet that are smaller or larger? If those things were what determined a bike’s value, sport bikes would be a lot more popular than they are.

          • Josh B. says:

            Because the quality of the components are miles ahead, or other bikes around the same price point have more to offer. It just seems like an under-$10k bike, so people are paying for the look. It’s pretty much what the majority on this site rip on Harley for doing, so why is Kawasaki immune?

          • jon says:

            Quality of components? My street triple from new had a gearbox that would intermittently refuse to downshift, and the most irritating gearbox whine. Only bike out of 20 or so that i’ve sold because of mechanical issues (and replaced with a kawasaki coincidentally enough).

            Nothing wrong with the quality of any of the big 4 japanese manufacturers, and certainly not a reason not to buy from them if you like what they sell.

            -From a Brit who is unlikely to be buying a triumph again.

          • Josh B. says:

            “Quality” as in higher-end components and fit-and-finish, not necessarily reliability.

            That said, I had my 2006 Daytona 675 for 7 years, and the only issue I had was the stator/rectifier-regulator that was fixed on the ’08 and up bikes. It was otherwise 100% reliable and felt as solid as an anvil. Most modern Triumphs are put together nicely and are as reliable as any, you just got unlucky. That happens with ALL brands.

          • Dave says:

            I think you’ll find that Triumph gets most of their components from the same vendors that the Japanese makes do (Showa, Nissin, KYB, etc.). This is the first time I’ve ever heard of anyone looking down on the fit & finish of a Japanese bike. This was the very thing that let down Triumph when they were trying to regain a foothold in the market back in the 90’s.

          • Josh B. says:

            That’s definitely changed in the past 12 years. The Daytona 675 ushered in a new era for Triumph, and they got MUCH better at things like fit-and-finish and tuning. When reading pretty much any review or comparison test/shootout, there is generally a comment or two about how well all the parts mesh together, and how much more refined, smooth, and “premium-feeling” the Triumphs are than the competition.

            For such a relatively small company who manufactures relatively small numbers of bikes, Triumph really does an excellent job — even managing to inject heart, soul and character into everything they do. They also don’t seem to cut as many corners to save a few bucks here and there as the Japanese manufactures do (why are rubber brake lines still a thing???). It’s always something with Japanese bikes — if it’s not subpar suspension, it’s subpar brakes, or annoying fueling, or cheap plastics, or plastic where metal would be better, or a chintzy windscreen, etc… Probably why they usually cost a little more than the direct competition from Japan (though usually less than the other European makers).

            Can you tell I loved my Triumph? LOL! I wish they made a new lighter Sprint with a tuned 765 engine… I’ve owned twins, fours and triples — I definitely enjoy triples the most!

      • matt says:

        Agreed the MSRP is reaching. I bought my RS july for $9600 + sales tax + title. Freight (mid-atlantic) was 380 I believe (included in above 9600) and there is/was a 300 manufacturer/distributor discount. I expect the Cafe will go for a $200 premium at most.

        The suspension (and build quality) is clearly better than the Z900 sibling though the owner’s manual settings are retarded. The spring at both ends is actually livable even for my 250lb butt but the damping need a different piston and shim stack.

        • Josh B. says:

          Wow, not bad! Dealers around here in Chicagoland won’t seem to budge from MSRP. Oh well, guess I’m stuck waiting another year.

    • matt says:

      I bought mine in July for $9600+tax+title which included freight (380) and 300 in manufacturer/distributor rebates. The Cafe might command a $200 premium (same as brown over black) if that.

      Suspension and fit+finish is much better than the Z900 sibling. The suspension settings in the manual are so wrong it’s not funny but the spring rates at least in the fork deal adequately with my 250lbs. The shock could stand to have a 105 or 110N/mm vs the OE’s 9x. The damping needs help at both ends but especially the forks in compression.

  27. xLaYN says:

    Those 2 last photos!!!! WOW