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Real World Superbikes: Honda CB1000R v Kawasaki Z1000

Stick your Alstare Suzuki and your Ten Kate Honda up your jacksy. When the sun’s shining and you’re up for it, there can be few better seats to slide over for a good buzz than Big K’s Z1000 and Honda’s CB1000R

Click to read: Honda CB1000R owners reviews

Click to read: Kawasaki Z1000 owners reviews

I think it’d be wrong to open this test by trying to justify why having either one of these two bikes is a more sensible decision than purchasing their fairing clad forebears. After all, everybody knows the only people that buy new litre sportsbikes nowadays don’t need to bother with magazine road tests. They already know all there is to know about bikes, right?

Every time I try and ride a modern sportsbike fast on the road, apart from being completely humbled and feeling like a social outcast, I’ve never climbed from one thinking, yep, definitely glad I had 180bhp on cam as I was powering off that mini roundabout. Pointless. Don’t get me wrong, I love litre sportsbikes like I love litre bottles of Jack Daniels, never needed a whole one though. The best thing sportsbikes have given us is street bikes like the Honda CB1000R and the Kawasaki Z1000.

You still get the raucous, death-on-a-stick power plant, which even after the grown-ups have retuned them for more midrange and less peak power will leave you with enough shove to share with your friends. Plus you get proper brakes and suspension that can cope with everything you can throw at it, rather than only what you can’t.

They’re also comfortable, insurable and thrashable. The Zed and the CB aren’t the only two available, but they are the pick of the crop. The CB remains unchanged since it arrived on the scene in 2007. With its smooth as silk looks and its fluid riding dynamic you wouldn’t doubt it was sitting pretty until the new Zed thou’ bowled into town asking, “Who was the hardest till I walked in?”

It has a look, but I’m not sure what it’s trying to achieve yet. I’m not even sure the guy that designed it is sure what it’s supposed to look like. At any angle from the rear it looks great. The trapezoidal pipes have retained the original cool of the 2004 model’s four peashooters, yet shrugged off some of the lard the updated 2007 version sprouted. I like them. I think the whole rear end works well, even with the polished rims.

Approaching this bike from the front is best done with your eyes shut, for it is as ugly as sin. I was convinced it had been crashed when I picked it up, closer inspection revealed the twisted hideous mass of cheap plastic hiding the engine was as the factory intended, yikes. The cheap theme continued up the fork legs, just what exactly are they trying to hide with those covers?

The last word in cheap is the clock set, the square neutral light looks like something you’d find in a homemade kit car and the final two bars on the digital tachometer are in fact painted onto the screen. Are the heavy industries getting so light that they couldn’t afford two more blobs of digital? Now, as downmarket as it may look, there is definitely something about the Zed. Something I really like.

Round town the Zed reminded me of a boxer on his way to the ring. When have you ever seen a ring-bound boxer getting any lip from the crowd? Whether he’s on route to victory or A&E, on his way in he looks tough, so you’re best off keeping your mouth shut. That’s the feeling I got on the Kawasaki, it looks tough. Handily, when you crack it open it backs up every street side statement of intent it’s made, easily. The Z1000 is the kind of bike that if you owned one, within six months you’ll have forgotten the third colour on a UK traffic light. All you’ll see is red, then amber and then sky. This is a seriously potent bike in a straight line.

The CB1000R is no slouch, but the Kawasaki swept it aside every time in the race for the horizon (or the next set of lights). Bottom-end, midrange, top-end, take your pick. The Zed wasn’t fussy. After six or seven top gear roll on tests from 70mph, Barry, bored of being whooped by me and the screaming monster, sneakily snuck the Honda into fifth gear for the final go.

The Kawasaki didn’t hang around to see what was going to happen. You really do get the feeling the back wheel is grabbing the road in a headlock and punching it in the face when you wind up the Kawasaki. Not so on the effortlessly fluid Honda.

Bizarrely, on paper, the figures aren’t a million miles apart, Honda’s 125bhp loses by 13 to the green meanie (not available in green, boo) which gives away a kilo on the scales. The torque figures are a little more telling, but not by much, 71ft/lbs losing out to the Kawasaki’s 83. On the Honda you’re not treated to as much of a sense of occasion either. You wind it open, it makes some more noise and the numbers on the peachy looking clocks rapidly climb. There’s no step in power delivery, no fuss, just speed.

The Zed clears its throat, filling the air box with a rorty growl and demanding your attention. You know something very, very good, (or very, very bad depending on how you look at life) is about to happen, and when it does you better make damn sure it’s pointing in the right direction.

Riding in a straight line only tells part of the story with these bikes, as good as they both are at it we also had to ride them round some corners in our bid to find the best of a very good duo. As mentioned earlier, you get adjustable this and that on both bikes. Feel free to tweak away and set them up exactly to your liking, but out of the crate they proved to be ample, especially the Honda. The riding position is more comfortable, only because the Kawasaki has slightly cack-handed bars.  Straight away this sets the scene for some obscenely fast A-road riding. What makes it so easy on the CB is the symmetry you get between the busy bits. It’s so easy to get into a groove, you feed the hungry motor gears and it (politely) belches out power. Once wound up it doesn’t turn in as quickly as the Kawasaki but it definitely feels more relaxed, and able. We spent the day on the open fenlands surrounding Peterborough, flat and with consistent types of corner you could really get into a rhythm through, getting well into the revs in fourth gear before back shifting for second gear screamers.

The CB absolutely lapped it up. Any straightline advantage the Zed gained was eaten up on the brakes and on the way out of the corners. I didn’t find I could ride the Honda any quicker mid-corner, for two reasons. First the Zed, like the ZX-10R, holds a line really well once you’ve got it where you want it. Second, the speed at which I was comfortable cornering was pretty much the same on both bikes, telling me I’d reached my limit rather than either of the bikes’ limits. Not in a laughable way like when I ride sportsbikes though.

Such a different, yet still rewarding, sensation on the Kawasaki. That feeling of massive speed doesn’t inspire the same levels of confidence when on the brakes. Sure you arrive quicker, but you have to do more slowing down and when the brakes don’t have the same all-conquering might as the throttle, you end up getting the feeling that the brakes aren’t good enough. A radial master cylinder and radial mount callipers on signature wavy discs means they are. You just end up needing to use more of them because you’ll have been belting along.

The Zed turns in quicker than the CB, almost too quick until you get used to going with the flow. The OE Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmarts don’t have an overly aggressive profile. And the rake and trail are hardly MotoGP spec, so I’ve put it down to having stacks of leverage available through the chunky bars. You get used to it. It’s also a little bit easier to move around on the Honda as the tank has a better shape for you to cling an outside leg to when it’s cranked over.

Both bikes have nigh-on perfect fuelling, the Honda only feeling better because you don’t get as much bang when you twist the throttle. After a winter lay-off from riding like a pillock, I was looking forward to pulling some wheelies in the sunshine. Neither the CB, nor the old Z1000, were ever hard to wheelie (yes, even for me). I found this Kawasaki harder to keep up as it reacted so much more to tiny inputs (read massive and ham-fisted). More than a couple of times I found myself chasing the front wheel with the throttle and see sawing along on the back wheel, not big, clever, safe or very pretty.

On the Honda things felt much less strained and more familiar. One thing I liked more on the Kawasaki was the amount of engine braking. When you wound it off there was a comforting feeling that the crankshaft was just as happy to take back some of the stomp it had just been dishing out. Not so on the Honda which had a lightweight feel, not two-stroke light, just lighter and a little more dependent on the brakes. I like the feeling of an engine pulling speed down rather than having to totally rely on the brakes and it definitely helped on the way into the faster, flowing roundabouts where I was looking to drop some pace rather than bring a complete halt to proceedings.

This sector of the bike market is probably where we’re all most comfortable, the bikes deliver everything we look for, though if I was being picky I wouldn’t mind if either of these could deliver it for a few more miles between the pumps. We managed to get both bikes from brimmed to reserve in less than 110 miles. Granted they were being ‘enjoyed’, but even so, with 15- and 17-litre tanks I expected a few more miles of fun before having to give up and go looking for fuel.

To thrash a CB1000R is a harmonious experience. The stop and go, side to side motion, regardless of how extreme you want to make it, is so in tune with itself that confidence and overall speed climb hand in hand.

The Zed isn’t quite such a stable platform. It’s definitely as quick overall, probably quicker if you’re braver than I am, but you come away from a hard ride feeling the brakes and suspension are playing second fiddle to the motor’s Devil went down to Georgia intent. I love that and with only £250 difference between the two I could see myself going for the Zed if I was buying. And I really do wish I was buying. That says a great deal about these bikes.

You can keep the optional snakeskin seat though. What are we going to get next? Leopardskin? Tartan? If the snake thing takes off there’s surely no limit to what a bunch of eager manufacturers might bring us as they fight tooth and claw for sales in these penny-pinching times.

Professionally (jury still out on exactly what I’m professional at) I know the Honda is a better bike and common sense says you should go for the CB. But since when have common sense and motorbikes ever walked hand in hand?

Specifications

Kawasaki Z1000

Price £8,499
Top speed 153mph
Engine 1043cc liquid cooled inline four
Bore & stroke 77 x 56.0mm Compression ratio 11.8:1
Power 138bhp @9,600rpm Torque 83ft/lbs@7,800 
Front suspension 41mm usd forks Adjustment Preload and rebound damping
Rear suspension Gas-charged horizontal link Adjustment Preload and rebound damping 
Front brakes 4-piston radial calipers, 300mm petal discs Rear brake Twin-piston 250mm disc 
Wet weight 218kg (480lbs) Seat height 815mm Fuel capacity 15-litres 
Colour options Metallic Chestnut Brown, Pearl Stardust White and Candy Burnt Orange, Metallic Spark Black with Stardust Silver

Honda CB1000R

Price £8,525 (ABS - £9,075)
Top speed 149mph
Engine 998cc liquid cooled inline four
Bore & stroke 75 x 56.5mm Compression ratio 11.2:1
Power 125bhp @10,000rpm Torque 71ft/lbs@8,000
Front suspension 43mm usd forks Adjustment Compression, preload and rebound damping
Rear suspension Gas-charged monoshock Adjustment Preload and rebound damping 
Front brakes Four-piston calipers, 310mm discs Rear brake Twin-piston 256mm disc 
Wet weight 217kg 478lbs) Seat height 825mm Fuel capacity 17-litres 
Colour options Pearl Nightstar Black Metallic, Pearl Sienna Red with Nightstar Black Metallic, Pearl Cool White, Matt Vanguard Beige Metallic