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2013 Kawasaki Z800 review

Wading into the beefy middleweight sector with an extra 58cc but carrying a few more pounds too. Is the Z800 a knockout?

THE Z750 has been a nice little earner for Kawasaki, with almost 160,000 of them sold since its launch in 2003.

I remember riding the first version back in 2004 and falling for its simple charms. In a sea of naked rev-hungry 600s, the Z750 boasted a refreshing amount of muscle - certainly enough to highlight the limitations of the suspension and brakes - but its limitations were really the key to its charm. You didn’t need to go 100mph to feel like you were up no good. On a Z750 you were almost always up to no good.

At under £5,500 new, the middleweight Zed got modified more than your MP’s expenses.

Kawasaki, keen not to mess with a successful formula, have given the original bike light-touch updates over the years. The less said about the half-faired version in 2005, the better. 2007 saw a larger update with a restyle, slightly larger tank capacity, more power and more weight: 5 extra bhp but 12kg heavier. That doesn’t sound like a fair deal.

Then came the Z750R, featuring a few trick bits to get the party started, including the front-end of the Z1000, a nip here and a tuck there. All in all, a sure sign the Z750’s days were numbered.

The 600s that the original Z750 had trounced spawned new bigger brothers. The rulebook had been lobbed out. Sleeves were rolled up, bloody fists were on show. Yamaha’s FZ8, Suzuki’s GSR750, even Triumph’s Street Triple were all scrapping out this new capacity fight in a territory that was previously no-man’s land.

Kawasaki weren’t about to get beaten at their new game, so the Z800’s capacity hike was predictable if not a little lazy.

Can you call the Z800 an all-new bike? The chassis is based on the Z750R, with extra bracing around the engine, the suspension’s almost identical, the seat height is marginally higher and there are two extra teeth on the rear sprocket. The four-pot brakes are new and the styling, while fresh, is reassuringly familiar. If it weren’t for the capacity hike and therefore new name, I’d call it a model update, not a new model.

Power is up from 106 to 113bhp and torque is up to 60ftlb (a 2011 ZX-10R puts out 80ftlb). Hardly the most groundbreaking figures to flow from 806cc but the figures that stand out are fuel capacity: down from 18.5 litres to 17 litres and weight: up 5kg to 229kg drippin’ wet. Ouch.

Sat on the Z800, the first thing you notice is the expanse infront of you. The new compact clocks and lower headlight are almost invisible. When you’re in the riding position, with your hands on the wider-set bars, there’s nothing infront of you. On the move, the new compact clocks sit somewhere beneath your chin bar. I like that, but if you like to keep tabs on your speed, you probably won’t.

You don’t notice the extra weight nor can you feel the extra power but what you do feel is how smooth the ride is. This is a long way from the original Z750, where the front end felt soft and surface changes in the road felt magnified when the pace picked up.

The ride quality feels better than the suspension on a ‘budget’ bike should be. You don’t get fully adjustable suspension on the Z800 but Kawasaki are confident you won’t need it. After surveying existing customers and riders of competitor’s bikes, they know most don’t go near the suspension and fully adjustable suspension will add to the cost, but nothing more. The front and rear both have adjustable rebound and preload, it felt well setup.

The brakes aren’t radially mounted like on the Z750R but they’re still four-pot, gripping onto 310mm discs, 10mm larger than on the Z750R. And grip they do! The initial bite is strong, at first I thought it was my cumbersome fingers on the lever which had been set to maximum span, but bringing the lever back in didn’t change anything. They have a somewhat harsh initial grab but plenty of stopping power.

The whole front-end works well as a package, the feel and feedback from the front suspension is superb and even though the brakes have real bite, nothing stands out as being a weak link. Let’s not forget that, at 229kg, the Z800 isn’t a racing snake and that weight helps the bike feel stable and planted.

Where you feel the weight is in quick changes of direction, from a fast turn-in to flicking from one edge of the tyre to the other. Leant right over, the feel is good but with the initial input into the bars to pick the bike up, you notice the trade-off to a planted front-end is the mass you’re dealing with.

It’ll cut a dash down fast A-roads with ease, flicking from one side to the other at 50mph, the weight helps keep the bike on a predictable course but you notice things at the extreme ends of the scale; high speed transitions are where subconscious steering turns into conscious effort. The same goes for walking-pace hairpins.

Ground clearance is less than on the Z750R but I didn’t get the pegs down once. Our test bikes came fitted with Dunlop’s Sportmax D214 tyres. They’re good: they warm up fast and provide plenty of confidence. They stay warm too. Too often manufacturers skimp on the tyres supplied with the bike, which is a huge sin, because rubbish tyres make a good bike feel rubbish. No such setback with the Z800.

While the gear ratios remains the same as on the Z750R, the Z800’s final drive is different, Kawasaki have gone two teeth up on the rear sprocket. That’s some change! The Z800 doesn’t need any help getting off the line, the motor feels as grunty as a Z1000 from low revs but the extra two teeth on the rear sprocket definitely help pick up the pace. Quite frankly, the healthy bottom-end doesn’t need much help and I wonder if Z800 owners will drop the rear sprocket size by a tooth or two.

On twisty coastal roads, I never went above third gear, I just used second and third. I could have probably used first and second, but my tiny mechanical sympathy gland was working. A rare occurrence, indeed. Power feels strong all the way from 2,000rpm to 10,000rpm. It redlines at 10,500, which is a giveaway to the fact that this is a torque-driven motor and not one you need to rev to infinity.

If the Z800 has one weak point, it’s motorway miles. Sure, you don’t buy a bike like a Z800 to chew through endless motorways, but the newly-designed front fairing cowl offers next to no wind protection. 75mph is comfortable, but you know you’re doing it. Ease it up to 85mph and you really feel the wind blast. Take it up to 100mph and it feels like you’ve poked your head out of the window of a 747 on take-off. If there’s one good thing to come out of it, it’s that you’re unlikely to lose your licence doing triple-figure speeds on the Z800. Not unless you’ve got a neck like an England prop.

So it’s not a motorway cruiser, but then no-one expected it to be. It would have just been a decent bonus if it pulled it off. Kawasaki have concentrated their efforts on making the Z800 look squat and stocky and that never translates into protection from the wind.

Around town the Z800 is in its element: with good shove off the line but a first gear that’ll do over 70mph, the Z800 is well setup to squeeze through gaps and point and squirt out of them. While some found the brakes a bit too sharp in town, I spent my time trying to make the best use of the precise throttle and generous 62-degree steering lock, barely touching the front brakes and keeping things smooth so you’re not on the brakes, then on the power, then on the brakes again – that’s when you feel the bike’s weight the most. The fuelling is immaculate, you could be forgiven for thinking the Z800 had been setup on a dyno.

We covered a couple of hundred miles on the Z800 and not once did I feel uncomfortable. While you’re definitely sat over the front, rather than away from it, you’re not riding on your wrists. The seat is soft and after 100-miles doesn’t feel like it’s turned into a breeze-block.

Your mileage won’t be limited by the comfort but may be limited by the tank, which has reduced in size from 18.5-litres on the Z750R to 17-litres on the Z800. Could the covers mounted on the sides of the fuel tank not have been fuel tank itself? Own goal Kawasaki.

On a 60mile ride of the Z800, through town, on fast A-roads or on the motorway, the fuel consumption remained the same: 43mpg (6.6L/100km), with a constant best of 51mpg. At 43mpg, with a 17-litre tank, I make that 150miles before you’re out. For a Sunday-blast bike, 100-130 miles before reserve? That’ll do. For an everyday bike that would get on my nerves.

(On initial calculation I wrongly worked out you'd be on reserve on 110 miles but I've double checked my sums and it's actually 130 miles. Apologies.)

I’ve got mixed feelings about the Z800. There’s no doubt it’s a good bike, it goes really well, there's no doubt about that. The best Zed middleweight? Yes but some of its specifications leave me feeling slightly puzzled. It’s heavier than the old Z750R, ok, only by 5kg, but it’s also heavier than a Z1000 by 11kg (thanks to a steel frame versus the 1000's aluminium). It's 40kg heaver than a Street Triple R. That's not a typo: forty kay-gees. That is hard to ignore.

The reduced tank size seems like a very Italian decision and that’s not something a Japanese company tends to do. The cynic in me says that Kawasaki are saving the radially-mounted brakes for the R version, too, not that it really needs them but it does leave me thinking they're not throwing everything they have at it. The extra two teeth on the rear sprocket seems like a slightly lazy way of improving performance, sure it helps the Z800 shift but I’m betting most owners swap back to a 43 in a bid to improve the Z800’s tank range. There's an ABS version but it won't be coming to the UK. Obviously Kawasaki know their market better than I do but as a commuter, I'd want ABS.

That said, the Z800 feels polished, to the point where it’s in a different league to the original Z750. It’s no longer a slightly rough around the edges budget bike, with big bike aspirations; it’s a big bike that’s good to go. At £7,499 it’s £2000 more than the original 750 that came out almost 10 years ago. That’s a bargain because there is nothing you need to do to a Z800. The suspension is plush, the brakes are sharp and Kawasaki have introduced nice details like the LED rear lights, new clocks and belly pan that add-up to make the bike look like a premium product.

At £1,500 cheaper than a Z1000, the arrival of the Z800 means you’ll have to really want a Z1000 to justify the extra spend. It’s certainly back to the drawing board for Suzuki’s GSR750. However, it’s only £200 less than a Street Triple R.

The sleeves are still rolled up, bloody fists are still on show, but with the Z800, Kawasaki clearly want to defend their territory from Triumph's Street Triple R and they've reached for the knuckleduster.