A Worthy Retro

Story by David Booth// Photos by David Booth & Canadian Kawasaki
April 25 2023

A thoroughly modern naked bike disguised as a throwback to the ’70s.

I am not, with rare exceptions, a fan of retro-styled bikes. Too many — I’m thinking of Honda’s CB1100 here — tend to remind me just how bad the “good old times” really were. Others are simply poor stylistic impressions of beautiful motorcycles past (and, again, I’m looking at you Honda and that same CB1100). And still others fail to capture the fact that the oldies they seek to emulate were popular because they were the superbikes of the day, not some middle-of-the-road nostalgia-cycles aimed at the elderly and infirm. Some things are better left forgotten and first amongst them are fat, lazy motorcycles with crap suspension and seriously hum-drum engines.

That’s why I was expecting so little when I picked up Kawasaki’s latest Z900, the RS SE. A quick toot around the block, thought I, get some photos of the tank since that best captures the ’70s motif everyone seems to long for and then maybe I can get back to testing some modern adventure touring bikes. You know, real motorcycles, not just some poorly performing ode to times that were not nearly as good as we like to remember them.

Notable First Impression

That ennui lasted to, oh, about the end of Kawasaki Canada’s driveway. By then my ears had perked up (is that pretty cool-looking four-into-one even legal?), my right hand had become eager in anticipation (is the 948 cc inline-four a little perkier than I remember?) and damned if the front brakes don’t have some bite to them even just poodling around.

So, even though the RS SE looks the part of desultory pretender-to-the-past, it’s really a completely different animal. At its heart, it is, in fact, a sporty naked bike. All the period piece bits — the “Yellow Ball” paint job, requisite duck tail rear seat unit and a four-into-one exhaust system that does a pretty good Kerker imitation save for its chrome covering — are just garnishes. You know, the catsup and/or relish you normally add to disguise the fact that the hot-dog really doesn’t taste that good.

In this case, although said garnishes are appreciated, the meat is really good. In SE trim, for instance, the RS gains a seriously sophisticated S46 Öhlins rear shock with the requisite remote preload adjuster so you can adjust the rear ride height. There’s a totally re-valved front fork that’s more generously damped for serious riding. And, as the coupe de grace, Brembo threw in some M4.32 front calipers — mated to a 17.5 mm Nissan radial master cylinder with stainless-steel braided lines — that are instantly recognizable as a cut above. The bodywork may be screaming mid-‘70s classic, but the running gear is thoroughly modern naked bike.

Comfortable Seating Position

Sitting on the classic pleated saddle and reaching out to the high-rise handlebar, the same dichotomy persists. The aforementioned saddle is a traditionally (almost) completely flat affair, simpler and, it must be said, far more comfortable than the sculpted…


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