The Kawasaki ER-6n is a motorcycle I never took a shine to. It felt like too much work at the racetrack. It felt too bulky and unwieldy out in the wild. And it had that headlight. First an ooze paused in mid-ooze and then a marginal, very marginal improvement. But its price, especially in EMIs was stunning. On the face of it, I believe Kawasaki has fixed every one of the issues while replacing the ER with the Z650.
The 2017 Z650 is, of course, brand new from the ground up and as you can tell already, I'm pretty kicked with it. In sum, then, the Kawasaki Z650 priced at Rs 6.2 lakh on-road Mumbai, is about 20kg lighter, a bit smoother, gets ABS and promises to be one of the easiest to ride 650s in the business right now. The bikes it competes with, the Harley-Davidson Street 750 and Street Rod, Triumph Street Twin, Ducati Scrambler, Ducati 797 Monster et al better watch out. The good times are about to get rolling with the Kawasaki Z650.
But let's not hit the verdict right away, right? Let's start at the very beginning, which we are reliably told, is a very good place to start.
The ER-6n rates as among the ugliest motorcycles in the world in my book. The Kawasaki Z650 is no design classic but it's pretty in an inoffensive, I-like-everyone sort of way. The headlight looks good but isn't as aggressive as the Z900, for instance, and the other body panels are simply executed. I really do like the fact that Kawasaki has redesigned the tank for a flatter top which should make adding a tank bag for a tour much easier. Above the headlight, hidden by the number plate, is a small screen that does keep the windblast off your chest too. The body panels are smaller and sharper than before and the effect is of a modern Kawasaki without the undiluted aggression of their flagship motorcycles - the new H2, the Z1000 and the ZX-10R come to mind.
In some ways, the pared back design is a good thing because the 650 class of motorcycles needs to attract new riders and appearing friendly is one of the crucial aspects of that. Build quality feels good and nothing feels like it will dissolve into rattles and the finish levels are good but not the best in class. All in all, Kawasaki has rolled out a good design update that looks fresh and maintained their quality levels, and the new Z650 positively gleams with friendliness thanks to it. In a shop full of edgy, slash-cut, Transformers-refugee motorcycles, the Kawasaki Z650 should easily be spotted as the friendly one.
The 649cc parallel twin is a simple engine and it isn't all-new for 2017. It has been updated to meet the Euro-IV norms though, gaining ride-by-wire for example. The engine retains the 8-valve, DOHC configuration, liquid-cooling and the under-engine exhaust that puts the can neatly just ahead of the rear wheel. It also gains a slip-assist clutch in the update.
But it's changed quite a bit in feel. The twin feels smoother to ride and its fuelling is better by a notable margin. The old ER-6n/Ninja 650 weren't unsmooth, but the Z650 is definitely better in this regard. It makes the combination of low revs and high gears possible at street speeds and it allows you to access higher speeds with nary a hiccup. Peak torque is 65.7Nm and it arrives by 6,500rpm which means from anything over 3,500rpm, the Z is happy to play hard. 68PS isn't slow - top speed should be near the 200kmph mark - but the Z650 isn't likely to scare anyone. Its performance is delivered with a calm temperament that might feel boring to advanced riders but it's a great thing for new riders getting used to their first big bike with serious power. 100kmph comes up in under 5 seconds, so by no standards is this a slow motorcycle.
It's a peaceful puppy. It sounds quiet at idle and there's a sweet intake roar when you accelerate hard which is muted enough for you to think that it's well-behaved. 100kmph cruise is just 4,500rpm in top gear and 120kmph is just under 6,000rpm. So you can ride it hard if you want to, or absolutely chill out. The Z650 has your back. The slip-assist clutch makes the clutch effort light for in-traffic crawling, and I couldn't feel any engine heat when stopped, another tick for many Indian customers. It's not a guzzler either, returning 23.1kmpl overall. So while the tank is 1l smaller, range is still a substantial 350km or more.
On the whole, the Kawasaki Z650 could have been more exciting to ride, as it were. But it's a fine line and I think Kawasaki has struck a good balance - the Z650 feels good to ride. There is always the danger that if the bike becomes too aggressive or reactive, it'll scare new riders.
The frame is the newest part of the Kawasaki Z650. It gets on a nearly 20kg weight loss that comes from a brand-new trellis frame, new swingarm as well as new suspension front and rear. Steering geometry is a bit sharper and the wheelbase stays the same as before. What that does, combined with the smaller physical size of the motorcycle, is make this an easy-peasy bike to ride. I loved that. So in traffic, the Z650 is no harder to ride than, say a KTM Duke and the smoothness at low revs means you can trundle confidently along in higher gears.
Out on the highway, the bike gets no harder to ride at speeds and the brakes have a friendly but strong bite that gives you good, hard stops without drama. Even in the sopping wet conditions that lasted right through the test, the Z650 didn't ever activate the ABS to save me from hard braking. At highway speeds, windblast isn't a huge problem but if you intend to go even faster, you might consider adding a small screen. The handlebar is placed well enough for you to adopt a sporty or an upright position depending on your preference. It's all well thought out. Ride quality is similar. The suspension is basic and unadjustable except for rear preload but it knows its job. So bumps are absorbed without drama for the most part and the Z650 feels pliant and comfortable. Only over really large bumps does the Z650 protest.
What I liked about it, even more, is that it handles so much better than the old ER-6n. The Z650 feels crisp without feeling hyper-reactive. Turn in is considered but not slow and I found no lack of grip at the moderate lean angles that the wet conditions allowed. Over 4,500rpm, the twin also manages to kick you out of the corners hard. Very likeable manners there. Only in the transitions from side to side, if at all, do you feel that you're riding a relatively small bike - the precision and lightness of a full-house sportsbike, for example, isn't there.
All told, the Z650 promises to be one of the most adept India-friendly mid-displacement bikes, I reckon.
As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed riding the Kawasaki Z650. I liked its mild-mannered but well thought-out capabilities and I really do think that it is the sort of the bike the segment needs. It'll draw you in with its friendly manner and clean, good looks and it'll make you into a serious rider who upgrades to something else in time. At Rs 6.2 lakh on-road Mumbai, the Kawasaki Z650 also happens to be one of the most affordable mid-displacement motorcycles which is just a cherry on this rather nice cake. Entry-level big bikes are going to be big business in India and they already dominate the big bike numbers. The Kawasaki Z650, I believe, is going to be one of the leaders in that class.
Images by Anis Shaikh