It was the summer of 2017. Rumours swirled around a new naked Kawasaki motorcycle — the Z900RS, a Z900 with “Retro Styling” — at a time when manufacturers scrambled to jump on the neo-classic bandwagon. As a bona-fide aficionado of vintage Kawasakis, I booked a ticket to Japan upon hearing the Z900RS would be revealed at the Tokyo Motor Show that year. And as the cover came off, I caught my first glimpse of the legendary root-beer-brown-on-fireball-orange paintwork, the iconic colours of the Z1 from 50 years ago, glistening under the show lights. It was truly a feast for the eyes.
A few months after that, Kawasaki upped the ante and unveiled a Cafe version, sporting a front bubble fairing, low-slung handlebars, and a brushed-finish exhaust, sending vintage Kawasaki fans into another frenzy. Needless to say, five years later, I jumped at the opportunity to put a leg over the 2023 Kawasaki Z900RS Cafe to see what it’s like to live with.
Since its release, Kawasaki introduced different colourways, pulling from their rich history of Z bikes. Aside from my personal favourite — the blue from 2019 — this latest might be the best one yet. It features beautiful Metallic Diablo Black paintowrk with gold flake, accented by gold stripes and accents strewn from the cafe racer-style front cowl, all the way back to the signature duckbill tail. It’s a homage to the 1980 Z1000H, the world’s first mass-produced, fuel-injected motorcycle.
The commitment to staying true to Kawasaki’s classic design language is noteworthy. There’s the intricate badging in retro fonts, modern LED lighting styled to match the classic design, and even flourishes on the engine with a nod to the past. The DOHC logo on the crankshaft cover and faux air-cooling fins on the cylinder heads mimic the original air cooled Z1 power plant brilliantly.
Classic bullet-shaped analog dials call back to the originals, rather than a full-colour TFT screen that has become the norm, and are accented beautifully by the chrome gauge bezels. When the sun catches them just right at a stop light, it creates a bedazzling effect and reminds you that you’re riding something special.
The Z900RS Cafe invited stares and conversations everywhere we went, making it not just a mode of transportation, but a piece of art. Though if there is one thing to be critical of, it’s the placement of the radiator. It sits in the same spot as it does on the Z900, but on the RS, it’s a bit of an eyesore.
The riding position on the Cafe version is more aggressive than the standard Z900RS due to the lower handlebars crouching you forward, but the bulbous fuel tank is comfortable to squeeze. Foot controls aren’t too high up and provide plenty of room to get comfortable. The Cafe has a stepped seat may hinder taller riders from scooting back during more aggressive riding, but it wasn’t a problem for my five-foot-six frame, and I even had plenty of space for a pillion rider.
Don’t let the classic looks fool you; the Z900RS is as modern as it gets. A trellis high-tensile steel frame provides the backbone for the 948-cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke DOHC 16-valve inline-four engine and six-speed transmission. Compared to its Z900 sibling, the RS has been tuned for less peak horsepower — 110 hp at 8,500 rpm, versus 125 in the Z900 — in exchange for a broader, more street-friendly torque curve. Both put out 72 pound-feet, but the RS’ peak torque arrives at 6,500 rpm, some 1,200 rpm lower than the Z900. It’s properly quick, revving all the way out to a 10,000 rpm redline and with gobs of torque along the way.
You’re also treated to a lovely exhaust note. Kawasaki’s engineers got it just right and it sounds great across the rev range, but we only wish it was a few decibels louder for when wind noise picks up at speed. Drop it into first and you hear and feel a satisfying clunk of gear engagement, and instantly know this bike means business.
Throttle mapping is smooth for a drive-by-wire system, with dual throttle valves helping to control the airflow at lower revs to keep initial throttle inputs from feeling overly abrupt. Clutch action is light and though downshifts are very crisp, upshifts can feel a bit vague — with an assist and slipper clutch already equipped, I sorely miss the quick-shifter.
The suspension offers plenty of adjustability, but the Z900RS is set up well from factory, providing a comfortable ride with nimble handling. Brakes bring it to a stop with predictable feel, with ABS on tap if necessary. I averaged 5.21 L/100 km with an even mix of highway and city riding; with its 17-litre fuel tank capacity it can easily cover at least 300 km between fill-ups. Overall, the riding experience is quite refined, a stark contrast to the classic bikes to which the RS pays tribute.
The Z900RS Cafe is a resounding success fulfilling the promise of providing a thoroughly modern motorcycling experience with genuine retro classic styling. Everything from the design, materials, and execution have a bespoke quality that is impressive especially at this price point. The base Z900 starts at $14,199, while the Z900RS Cafe as tested rings in at $14,599. If you prefer to ride a little more upright, go with the standard Z900. Otherwise, the Cafe is definitely the way to go.
It’s not enough for a bike to simply ride well. It needs to stir up some emotion, too. Motorcycles are all about drama and provoking the senses, and the 2023 Kawasaki Z900RS Cafe does so in spades. After successfully launching a smaller 650-cc version this year (Z650RS) and a 50th Anniversary edition Z900, the only thing left is the exhilarating prospect of a supercharged iteration. Let the good times roll, indeed.