First ride: Kawasaki Z300 review

Power is not proportionate to fun


DO motorcycles need to be as fast as the fastest ones have become?


Probably not, is the conclusion I reach whenever I ride a well set-up smaller machine like Kawasaki's new Z300. It takes me back to when I began motorcycling, on two-stroke 125s, and I remember that I had at least as much fun riding then as I do now. There is no direct relationship between speed and enjoyment. It's not power that makes an engine but character.


The Z300's has character. It's the same 296cc parallel-twin as used by the Ninja 300 – the Z300 is a naked version of the Ninja given straight bars and new styling.


At a claimed 39hp, it makes a good bit more power than the two-stroke 125s I just compared it to but still a modest amount by most standards, including those of its competitors. KTM's single-cylinder Duke 390 and RC390 make 44hp and Yamaha's forthcoming parallel-twin YZF-R3 is 42hp.


But ride the Z300 and numbers are forgotten.


The engine's specifications are identical to the Ninja 300's. It's got the personality of a litre sports bike perfectly scaled down, with everything exactly where it should be, including the red line, up at 13,000rpm.


It's lively from the off. At 4,000rpm it gets livelier. It really perks up at 5,000 and then zings in a quick burst to that high-altitude red line.


By the time the needle touches 13,000rpm on the rev counter dial, the digital display to the right of it shows about 36mph in first gear and 52mph in second. Remember, numbers are not proportionate to fun.


Most of the action is at the top end. Peak power is at 11,000rpm and peak torque, of 19.9lbft, at 10,000rpm.


But everywhere in the range there is something. At 4,000rpm in sixth, which is about 37mph, opening the throttle produces accelerate. Not so much that your licence is in jeopardy but enough to keep you awake.


It's a good engine that probably doesn't get talked about enough because it's only little.


It sounds good, like it's working hard and enjoying it. Just don't expect a rumble.


The throttle response is smooth. It doesn't feel stressed as revs climb. It likes it.


An indicated 70mph comes at just under 8,000rpm in top, and an indicated 80mph at just under 9,000. Here again the engine shows its flexibility. It's unflustered. There's a slight tingle through the bars and pegs (probably more so the latter) but it's not a big deal. Accelerating from 70 to 80mph in sixth takes about four seconds.


Flat-out top speed is going to be a bit over a genuine 100mph. Cruising at an indicated 90 is feasible if you can tolerate the wind blast. I suppose it goes without saying that any naked bike will get tiresome held at speeds like that for long. It wasn't too annoying at 70 or 80.


Keep it at around 5,000rpm and you'll have enough acceleration for town use. Revving it higher has a tendency to worry pedestrians and cyclists, who hear the engine noise and probably over-estimate your speed. You need a sign saying, 'It's okay. Look: only 25mph.'

The Z300 likes the city. With its small dimensions and wide steering lock, it will cut sharp turns through tiny gaps before irritated drivers can close them. The mirrors are at a level and distance apart to clash with those of some cars, so you sometimes have to stop and wiggle the bars to get through. Otherwise the Z300 is a traffic scalpel. It might be a little too good - I found myself taking risks I might not dare to on my Suzuki SV650, cutting through gaps that were closing too quickly for comfort, then questioning the risk versus the gain. Filtering is not a competitive sport, even if some bikes can make it feel like it should be.


Maybe it's because it's so manoeuvrable, dissecting lanes of stationary traffic to find a way to the front.


I'm bad at U-turns - I have to re-learn every time I get on a new bike. But on the Z300 even I could do full-lock turns almost off the bat. With its wide bars and small dimensions, it's a good machine to practice on.


The riding position is upright but sporty, with pegs directly below your body. The brakes are good, with more than sufficient bite from the single front 290mm petal disc and twin-pot caliper.


Last year I rode KTM's RC390, the fully-faired version of the Duke 390, at the launch in Spain. The front brake had power, if I moved my two fingers a little further out along the bar for extra leverage. The Z300's requires a lighter touch.


It's let down slightly by the IRC Road Winner tyres. The front sometimes feels vague under braking, eroding the confidence needed to pull the lever hard, even with the assurance of ABS.


The Z300 has better suspension than the KTM too. Where the RC was a bit soft at the rear, rebounding too much in rough bends, the Z300 isn't and doesn't. Out of London, on winding roads, it skips over dips and bumps as lightly as a well-damped 170kg motorcycle should.


The Z300 could be lighter still. It's as though Kawasaki has taken away the fairing, realised the bike looks weedy, with the small engine hanging from its tubular steel frame, and so put the bottom half of the fairing back on. Personally I'd rather it didn't try to look any beefier than it is.


Fuel receipts show I got 58.4mpg, suggesting a range of over 200 miles from the 17-litre tank. The fuel gauge was still showing half full after about 100 miles.


I did about 150 miles in total including 70 in one go, on a seat that's firm and flat. I wasn't uncomfortable but the Z300 wouldn't be my first choice for a ride to Dundee.


This is no tourer though. It's just a really good-fun, small motorcycle.


It costs £4,359 plus on-the-road charges. That's £550 less than the Ninja 300.


KTM's RC390 is £4,998 plus on-the-road charges while the Duke 390 is £4,499.


I think I'd choose the Z300 over the KTMs. It may be less powerful, at 39hp compared to 44hp, but it's just as much fun and probably a more complete motorcycle, with its excellent brakes and suspension.


The real test, for both the Z300 and the Ninja 300, could be Yamaha's new 42hp YZF-R3. I still say more power doesn't necessarily mean more fun. But if the R3 turns out to be just as much fun and more powerful, then the Kawasakis may have a problem.


Watch our video review of the Z300




Model tested: Kawasaki Z300


Engine: 296cc parallel-twin


Price: from £4,359 plus on-the-road charges


Power: 39hp @ 11,000rpm


Torque: 19.9lbft @ 10,000rpm


Kerb weight: 170kg


Tank capacity: 17 litres


Fuel economy (calculated from receipts): 58.4mpg


Seat height: 785mm


Colours: green, black


Available: now


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