Bike manufacturers are building more and more modern retro motorcycles striving to capture a bygone era—one in which Kawasaki figured prominently. Now, that Japanese company has crafted an exemplary return to the stylings that attracted an entire generation to two wheels.
The 2023 Z650RS possesses the design cues and overall aura of the machines many of us lusted after in our youth. Right down to the teardrop tank, rounded instruments, and the small spoiler of the rear fender, this middleweight offering oozes that ‘70s feel.
While reviewing the Z650RS, I was reminded of the evolution motorcycles have undergone over the past 50 years. After all, in 1970—barring exceptions—650cc was a fairly common displacement associated with high performance.
Just think of the likes of Triumph, BSA, Norton, and the then-emerging Hondas such as the 450 and 750. Out of those two, the bigger CB felt like a monster.
Today, 1000-1300cc machines have become the norm, with much larger capacities seen in heavy cruisers. As a result, a 650 qualifies as a modern middleweight. How things have changed.
One aspect that is prominent in the retro movement is simplicity. The genre’s appeal is rooted in offering a return to not only certain stylings, but basic riding enjoyment sans all the high-tech gadgetry so prevalent in today’s motorcycles.
The Z650RS is a basic, all-around naked upright, consisting of an uncomplicated engine, solid brakes, and decent handling, with a focus on accessibility and rideability.
The Z650RS is powered by a liquid-cooled 649cc DOHC parallel-twin engine. With 67 hp on tap and a torque rating of 48.5 lb-ft at 6,500 rpm, the Kawasaki has adequate power to push its 412-pound heft along.
A six-speed gearbox is aided by a factory assist-and-slipper clutch that helps match the engine speed to rear wheel rotation during downshifts. This helps prevent wheel hop—actually making it a safety aid.
The clutch is a simple, retro throwback—a straight pull cable with an effortless touch.
Interesting zigzag header pipes add some muscled character to the bike. However, unlike the flashy chrome pipes sweeping back on ‘70s bikes, the muffler and catalytic converter on the Z650RS are tucked under the engine, with a short snout of an exhaust.
Like Sitting in a Time Machine
Small, thin, and short, with a 31.5-inch seat height, the Z650RS is unintimidating and easily manageable, even for a new rider. The comfortable seating position, with bars, levers, and pedals all conforming organically to the anatomy, help accommodate a range of rider heights and sizes.
Dual dial instrumentation harkens to the past, again with simplicity being key, carrying all necessary vitals in an easy-to-read layout. The conical styling of the instrument cluster reflects ‘70s’ thinking.
The retro-styled headlight holds an LED unit to give a great deal more illumination than your dad’s (or maybe even your grandad’s) Kawasaki.
Back to Riding Basics
When starting the motorcycle, there’s no waiting for complex computerized gauges and screens to cycle through their boot sequences. Just turn the key and crank it over.
Despite the 650cc displacement, the Kawasaki is quite docile. It thumps pleasantly and without malice.
Once underway, all the mechanical aspects work in smooth syncopation—the clutch, the succinct and tight transmission, and the decent enough throttle response (for the bike’ size) keep things moving along.
For getting around town, the motorcycle easily keeps pace with traffic. If you want to get it up into the revs, it has some pep, but the Kawasaki performs best as a simple commuter—point A to point B and back again.
The Z650’s low weight, coupled with a wheelbase of 55.3 inches, results in tight, responsive handling. The dimensions make maneuvering at low speeds somewhat intuitive, adding to the bike’s ease of riding.
You can easily attain and maintain freeway speeds, although the engine vibration coming up through the handlebar and seat will become noticeable over distance. After all, this is a small bike in stature, so it will not settle like some heavier machines.
The sixth gear arrives early with only a small budget of power in reserve, so plan ahead if you need to overtake and manage revs and gear choices wisely.
Next to local commutes for job or school and getting around town, finding simple backroads that sweep through townships at modest speeds is where the Z650RS is going to be the happiest. A throwback to simple riding, the Z650RS is well-suited for new and returning riders, serving as a good first or second bike, with enough performance to grow into.
Experienced riders may be less enthused, though. For them, it’s better to look at the Z650RS’s older brother.
Steady and Well-behaved
The high-tensile steel trellis-style frame provides rigidity and minimal flex, rendering polite, predictable manners on turn-in and stability under braking. Once settled in a corner, the Z650 confidently holds its line. Roll on the throttle and the bike exits cleanly.
The only chassis/suspension issue I encountered was with the bike getting a bit skittish at lean angle on a freeway interchange when passing over a serious divot. However, the speed being carried was over the posted, so perhaps the rider is to blame here.
The modern gull wing-shaped swingarm blends rather seamlessly with the bike’s retro design. The single shock (with adjustable pre-load) is mounted at a steep angle using a horizontal link system.
This system provides 5.1 inches of rear wheel travel. In the front, a traditional telescopic fork plays into the retro look and feel, delivering 4.9 inches of travel.
The suspension components deliver compliant performance, rendering a relatively smooth ride. Even the factory settings work well over a wide range of possible road types and riding styles.
The spoke-style cast 17-inch wheels have an attractive pattern and are accented with tasteful perimeter pin-striping that matches the tank, tying the whole look of the machine together nicely.
Thankfully, despite the Z650RS being on the small side, it sports two 300mm discs in the front, mated to two-piston calipers, with a single 220mm disc in the rear. This configuration gives the machine plenty of stopping power, especially given its relatively light weight.
ABS comes standard and works well, a mix of some rear brake working in concert with the front to bring the bike down from speed in relatively short order and with respectable stability. The ABS is a priceless tool for beginning and new riders, which could easily save them a great deal of grief, ensuring their riding experiences are as safe as can be.
The Bottom Line
A perfect mount for the new, beginning, or returning riders, the Z650RS serves well as an everyday steed. The middleweight parallel-twin and the bike’s narrow profile makes slipping through traffic and finding a parking spot a cinch.
There’s some oomph there for the adventurous ones who might want to venture out on a weekend ride into the mountains, although the rider will receive a battering on lengthy freeway jaunts due to the lack of wind protection.
The Z650RS’ aesthetics strikes an interesting balance between retro and modern. It looks good, it goes, it stops—what more do you need?
Add to the equation Kawasaki’s solid track record of dependability, combined with a relatively low cost of operation (tire usage, minimal maintenance) and you’ve got an excellent machine for a newer rider. The Z650RS package is wrapped up in an appropriately dubbed ‘70s paint scheme of Metallic Moondust Gray/Ebony—how’s that for getting retro?
+simplicity reigns from smart, reliable mechanics to ease of riding
–slightly sluggish acceleration even for a 650cc
Distributor: Kawasaki Motors Corp.
Engine: parallel-twin, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 4-stroke, 2-cylinder
Power: 67hp @8,000rpm; 48.5lb-ft @6,500rpm
Transmission: 6-speed, return shit, assist/slipper clutch, sealed chain final drive
Weight (Wet): 412.3lbs
Seat Height: 31.5in
Fuel Capacity: 3.2gal
Color: Metallic Moondust Gray/Ebony