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2019 Kawasaki Z400: MD First Ride

When Kawasaki announced it would be introducing a naked version of MD’s most recent Bike of the Year, the Ninja 400, we certainly expected it to be good. The new Z400 is now entering U.S. dealerships, and we just finished riding it for the first time. Here is our report.

The Z400 is basically a Ninja 400 with the following changes, including slightly more upright ergonomics (from a taller handlebar position), slightly reduced weight (a tad more than two pounds lighter than the already svelte Ninja sibling), a tiny modification to the steering geometry (rake is reduced from 24.7 on the Ninja to 24.5 degrees on the Z400) and a softer spring rate in the suspension.

The heart of the Z400 is identical to that of our BOTY, i.e., the compact, light and powerful 399cc parallel twin engine that left the 250cc/300cc competition in the minor leagues. This motor, driving through a six-speed transmission, in our opinion, most closely satisfies the Goldilocks principal … providing enough power and performance, coupled with an incredibly light and nimble chassis, to keep experienced riders from hopping aboard a bigger mount in their garage, while offering an excellent platform for beginner and novice riders.

As we said, the rest of the formula is unchanged from the Ninja 400. A steel trellis frame holds everything together (with the engine as a stressed member) in a compact package that allows for a longer swingarm. Very beefy (for the class) 41 mm fork tubes contribute to the responsive steering, and the relatively huge 310 mm front brake disc offers power and feel beyond anything else in the class.

Faster riders and track-day enthusiasts won’t worry so much about squeezing a larger-than-stock rear tire on the Z400 in search of greater traction and lean angle, as the Z400 comes with a 150 mm rear Dunlop – the largest in the class. Together with the surprising braking performance, and assist/slipper clutch, the Z400 comes equipped for aggressive corner carving – whether on the street or the track.

The already comfortable Ninja 400 ergonomics get relaxed a bit further with a higher handlebar position – also wider and with a different sweep angle. The rest of the rider triangle is essentially unchanged, and still offers a reasonable compromise between commuting comfort and high performance readiness. The low seat height (30.9″) is unchanged from the Ninja.

We rode the new Z400 close to 150 miles with a very experienced (and fast) group of riders on every conceivable roadway environment – from extremely tight, twisty canyon roads to an extended 80 mph highway drone. We even charged up SoCal’s famous, switchback-laden Palomar mountain road at a pace that would leave many superbike-mounted pilots scratching their heads (and hiding their embarrassment).

The new Z400 proved comfortable and capable. Smooth throttle response exhibits excellent fuel injection mapping, and the 400cc twin offers remarkable flexibility (we found ourselves cruising around in 6th gear at just over 2,000 rpm during more leisurely sections of the press ride). On the highway, the Z400 has the power to cruise comfortably at speeds that should satisfy any commuter, and even has very usable passing power available at 70 mph (something you won’t find on a 250/300).

The slightly softer spring rates didn’t seem to get in the way of the Z400’s ability to carve corners. The same, telepathic handling we recall from its Ninja sibling is, if anything, enhanced by the taller, wider handlebar that further reduces effort when changing directions. The budget suspension does an admirable job of soaking up bumps and allows the bike to track predictably through corners. High-speed, straight-line stability is also excellent.

The performance of that assist/slipper clutch is hard to fault. Clutch pull effort is minimal, and aggressive down-shifts entering corners don’t upset the chassis with excessive engine braking or wheel hop.

The single-disc front brake setup still offers more power and feel than it should, and matches the lightweight package well.

The Z400 isn’t perfect – the seat felt harder, and pushed the rider into the tank more than we recall on the Ninja (perhaps related to the steering geometry/spring rate changes) and the simple instrumentation (in an era where bright TFT displays are increasingly common), despite offering plenty of information, including gear position, is starting to look a bit dated. But the overall package, based on our initial press ride, continues with the winning formula first introduced by the Ninja 400.

We expect to get our hands on a Z400 for a longer, more thorough evaluation, so stay tuned for that. Available in the two color schemes pictured, the Z400 comes standard with ABS and LED lights. U.S. MSRP begins at $4,799. For additional details and specifications, take a look at Kawasaki’s web site.


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73 Comments

  1. George Krpan says:

    I just bought a Honda CB300R. It has a lot less power than the Z400 but I liked it more anyway.
    I don’t like the styling of the Z400, it weighs 50 lbs more than the CB, and the CB has a better cockpit.

  2. RyYYZ says:

    I think the styling is fine for what it is, I just wished Kawi offered some more colour choices – like a solid colour on all the bodywork. Everything is majority black with highlights of colour.

  3. Mike Jesse says:

    The Z 400 is a good start. I looked it over at my local dealer last Saturday.
    At this price point it’s the one I would most likely buy.
    Now if I could just talk Yamaha into bringing an updated RD 350/400 to the table!

  4. Mr.Mike says:

    Nice counterpoint to the trend of bigger, heavier bikes.

  5. Kevin says:

    I like this bike, and could see myself owning one. But thy not just make it a 500? KTM is about to drop its 500cc twin with a rumored 70hp. Kawasaki could make an electronically restricted version to meet A2 requirements and give other markets (read: USA) the full power version. 70hp + 365lbs wet sounds like fun to me!

  6. John Bryan says:

    If the new Honda CB300R Neo Spirts Cafe sells well I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Z400RS – though I’d probably just call it a KZ400. The Z400 isn’t too bad looking for an angry insect transformer style bike but it still isn’t all that attractive. Nice, round organic styling, with the requisite flat seat, would definitely be more appealing to me. Keep it under $5500 and Honda might have a hard sell with the CB300R.

  7. RCV says:

    Nice bike but dealers are selling Benelli 600s for $5499.00 Myself ill take 4cyls Benelli is in China and Kaw in India Both good bikes.

    • Dave says:

      Good bikes, but do you believe that Benelli will offer the same parts and service availability that Kawasaki can, and does, regardless of the product’s original origin?

      The dealer locator on their site brings back “Mike’s Engine Works”, Randy’s Cycle, and Jay’s Power Center within 100 miles of me. While they sound like fine family businesses, neither appear to be primarily motorcycle focused businesses.

  8. Kevin P says:

    Nice article about a well priced bike. More people should ride motorcycles and these simple machine make it affordable. A lot of riders of heavy bikes would be surprised by a light little bike whether they are getting passed or if they bothered to try a test ride and ran up to redline.

    The KTM Duke 390 is really the closest competition on the sportier side. The little Duke has USD forks, a nice TFT screen and apparently a better seat though it’s also “about“ a grand more. I can’t wait to read a well done comparison.

    Kawasaki, please put this engine in the Versys and make it a 400 too.

    • Moat says:

      “Kawasaki, please put this engine in the Versys and make it a 400 too.”

      Bingo. This ^^ gets mentioned time and time again (ah, *ahem*… Kawasaki…), and makes a lot of sense; a Versys 400 would be an ideal, do-it-all, lightweight all-rounder – for newbs and experienced older farts (like myself), alike. Small, light, comfy, competent in many roles, economical to buy and own… commuting/scratchin’/touring/camping/*carrying stuff*/etc…

      The current Versys 300X is, itself, indeed a real gem… but right on the edge of “not quite enough” for a single-bike garage. This 399cc mill would address that concern perfectly, IMHO. Not to mention – a completely new & different “style”/category for this 400 platform.

      Win-win. Kawasaki – go for it… please!

      • SeTh says:

        It’s not feasible to put the 400 motor in the current X300 frame.

        • Dave says:

          If they want to keep selling a small Versys, they’ll need to redo the frame. Part of the reason for 400 engine was the reality that the existing 300 would not achieve Euro4 compliance.

          • Moat says:

            There ya’ go, Dave – another perfect reason; to bring the (European) little Versys into Euro4 compliance. Win-win & win. I’d have to guess (and hope) they’re already working on it.

            And for those that express “why not just a full 500cc?”… NO!! The current 650 is already *that* bike. Leave it small, light and “just enough”. 400cc is the perfect “sweet spot” for such a bike!

            And, of course – the existing frame would have to be modified to fit the 400’s engine (or just base a Versys around the new Z400’s frame, which already appears to be very light and excellent handling – likely a good foundation to build upon). Although – the 400 engine is very close in size and weight to the outgoing 300’s lump, so probably not a huge undertaking to fit into the existing 300X’s frame.

  9. Ben says:

    Did the naked really need to be softer and more upright than the Ninja 400? The Ninja was/is already very relaxed and soft. If anything, we need more aggressive bikes in this category. I dream of the day that we get proper 300-400cc bikes that mimic the stance of the supersports of the world. It’s ridiculous that you have to immediately drop $1000 minimum on a entry-level bike to be able to get the pegs high enough and bars low enough to rail some corners at a proper pace. Not to mention the trash tires manufactures spec on these things. I can do without the horsepower and top end suspension, but damn, if it scrapes when I try to take a corner at lean angle.

    • Dave says:

      To capture the broadest audience, it/they probably did.

      If the KTM RC390 sells really well then other competitors will want to meet it. As you point out, it takes $1k+ to update a bike like this to a sport rider’s standards but if they get too expensive in the showroom, they’ll sell far fewer on the basis that it only costs $X,XXX more to get a 600SS that’s faster, better equipped, etc. At least, that’s how I’m told it goes in dealerships.

      It’s really encouraging to see all of these smaller bikes coming to market and that they’re being raced at club tracks. Maybe it’ll eventually shift the “bigger is better” paradigm we’re stuck with in the US.

    • Max says:

      Per the article, sounds like it does just fine as is. The vast majority of peeps looking at this, probably aren’t going to take it racing. If they are and have the extra dosh for track fees and leather suits, they can probably swing a set of clip ons and rearsets too.

  10. Tom says:

    Sounds like Kevin Nealon “Mr. Subliminal”

  11. SeTh says:

    The Versys X300 is a lot roomier, compared the Ninja 650 (per cycle-ergo).

  12. ” We even charged up SoCal’s famous, switchback-laden Palomar mountain road at a pace that would leave many superbike-mounted pilots scratching their heads (and hiding their embarrassment).” Wankers, everyone knows journos can’t ride!

    • Grover says:

      I used to ride SoCal’s Ortega Highway once a week for decades. I was many times passed up by riders on slower bikes riding over their head and probably thinking to themselves, “I Just passed up a guy on his Ninja 1000, whooo-boy!” Actually, you passed up a 60 year old guy who saves his knee-scratching antics for the track. Many of these fools riding too fast on Ortega or Palomar end up in a ditch or in head-on collisions…DOA. The twisties is not the place to prove your manhood.

      • SeTh says:

        Another aspect is these street racers do the same roads over and over, developing subconscious memory maps of them. Pointless mastery.

        • Max says:

          And that’s different that riding a track over and over?

          • Dave says:

            Public roads aren’t maintained to anywhere near the standard of a race track surface. One pass of a trailer into the shoulder can spread gravel all over a sweeper turn. Potholes that weren’t there the week before, spills, etc.

            Traffic also only travels in one direction on a track.

          • Dave says:

            Tracks maintain their surface to a much higher standard than public roads and traffic only flows one direction. Many more variables on public roads that a rider cannot account for.

          • Dave says:

            Dirk, delete one of those?
            The 1st one disappeared & now it’s back?

  13. bmbktmracer says:

    What’s up with all the parentheses? Makes reading the article tedious (and tiring). Well-written (and easy to read) articles use a minimum (not very many) parenthesis to make their point (for ease of reading). I’m not sure (positive) if this is a good motorcycle (one I’d consider buying) or a so-so (nothing special) bike to avoid.

  14. downgoesfraser says:

    The Z900 outsells the Z900RS 4-1 at the shop I work at, the price difference seems to overcome the perceived beauty.

    • Dave says:

      That ^ is good information.

    • Jeremy says:

      Could also be that many of the buyers like the look of the Z900?

      I personally like the looks of the Z900 and the Z400. Classic motorcycle lines and accents sported by the RS are very pleasing to my eyes too, but I would likely buy the Z900 over the RS for the greater performance envelope and value.

    • fred says:

      Does it really cost KHI that much more to produce the Z900RS? A different frame and a detuned engine for $2400 seems a bit out of line.

      It’s only a guess, but if the prices were flipped, I’d guess that the RS would outsell the standard by 4-1.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Looks like a bug, kinda like a praying mantis. Better looking than the dung beetles from KTM.
    I wonder if we’ll hear what kind of mpg it delivers when ridden at the various speed limits and for those that go, the track. I doubt it. Nice bike, Kawasaki. Good luck with it!

  16. Mikey says:

    Same fugly cluster what’s on my z900.

  17. Michael says:

    I love small bikes and as an owner of a 2017 KTM Duke 390, this bike interests me, I am happy with the little Duke so far but I’d be lying if I said that I had the upmost confidence in it’s reliability, so far it’s been solid but it’s still a low mileage bike. I’ve thought about doing a trackday on the KTM but I just think the Kawi could take demands of hard track use better, might be wrong. I do think the Duke looks way better. I’m tempted (for the red version), just need to figure out what to do with the little KTM.

  18. stveinsandiego says:

    love it. i knew dirck’d give it a wide edge…. ;). i was impressed with the 400’s review, and so expected nothing less for the z. i just hate clip-ons, fer shur. i scooted around the block, years ago, on a suzuki sv650 with clip-ons…oh, my achin’ back. never again. i loved my 09 ninja 650 fwiw.
    hey, kawi, how ’bout an electric version? 🙂 🙂

  19. Anonymous says:

    180, 270 or 360 degree crank throw phasing?

  20. PD says:

    I had a 300 Ninja I rode for 33,000 miles and loved it.

  21. Anonymous says:

    I’ll always have an excuse not to buy a new motorcycle, but if that engine was in the Versys 300 I might have less of an argument against it.

  22. gpokluda says:

    I don’t think they have to fire the entire design crew, just the ones who designed the muffler.

  23. G. Hill says:

    Nice price, nice weight. If Kawasaki would fire their design crew and make it look normal I would get one.

  24. Tank says:

    I really like the bike as far as size and handling, I just don’t like the looks. I want a round headlight and a flat seat, like the TU250. A center stand would be nice. Can’t please everybody.

    • G. Hill says:

      What he said.

    • Dave says:

      Here’s hoping that Z900RS is selling past forecast. If it does really well, it stands to reason that a Z400RS is a possibility.

      • Jim H. says:

        What Dave said. I have owned Seca 400, Bandit 400, CB1, and currently ride ZRX1200. Ready to get something smaller, and like the Kawi’s. Just not gonna do transformer style. Ever.

        • Mikey says:

          That’s exactly what I said when I first saw the new z900. After all the teaser artist conceptions drawings, they come out with a transformer looking thing. I HATED it. Couldn’t stand to even look at the pictures.

          Then I started looking at reviews including a highly influential one by Dirk Edge. Everybody raved about it. Then I started to think, well, maybe it ain’t so bad.

          Long story short, it’s been two years since I bought the z900 and I love it, the performance AND looks. I’m glad I stepped out of my box. It gets many compliments from kids (of which I ain’t) to cruiser riders.

          I just upgraded the budget suspension on the z900 which is akin to me slipping a ring on her finger. I’m keeping her.

          • Anonymous says:

            I also read all the rave reviews of the Z900 and purchased one also. It’s in my top 3 worst bikes I’ve ever owned. Crap suspension, crap tires, crap gearing, uncomfortable as all hell. It had 2 good points, the engine and the clutch. That clutch should be on every motorcycle made. Oh, almost forgot about the bandaid fix for the crap shock mount.

      • fred says:

        I really like the Z400. Even with the transformer styling, it is quite appealing. Dirck may not like the instruments, but I do. All the info you need is just fine, IMHO.

        A Z400RS would be fantastic, if the price was kept within reason.

        • Stinky says:

          I’m with you, the style isn’t quite my taste. The instruments could stand to be more dated IMHO, they’re fine as they are though.
          If they don’t skimp too far on the gas tank, I think I’ll have to bite. I’ll kick my own a– if they come out with a retro later. I’ll have to see if the shorter half can touch the ground. It’d be great to have her on a bike I like to ride.

  25. austin zzr 1200 says:

    Wonder if the wife would notice an extra bike in the garage…

  26. Dave says:

    A real, capable, new, and desireable motorcycle for well under $5k. That’s progress.

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