The “Z” designation has always been important for Kawasaki, marking the first of its street-going sportsbikes, going all the way back to 1973. Kawasaki motorcycles have always been known for performance, and Z-series machines remain popular with local riders, for its cost-to-performance ratio.

For close to four years, the Z800 did sterling service for Kawasaki, with its 111 hp, four-pot power plant, satisfying riders of all stripes. But, Kawasaki set out on a quest to make the Z800 better for everyone, and with the 2017 Kawasaki Z900, it appears as if it might have succeeded.

Now, the author is not going to deny he has a penchant for naked sportsbikes, having cut his teeth on a Suzuki GS550E over three decades ago, and counted both a Kawasaki GPz and KZ in the stable at one point or another. But how do you make what was a fairly competent sportsbike better?

To show us that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, Kawasaki Motors Malaysia invited us to the fourth, and largest, of its new model launches for 2017, the Kawasaki Z900. Carrying the ‘Z’ moniker means the Z900 has some pretty big shoes to fill, considering the illustrious history of some of its predecessors.

After its launch in earlier this year, Kawasaki Malaysia touted the Z900 was in every way much improved over the Z800. So, with a mix of highway and B-road riding, we set off to see what is new and different about the big new Z.

On any given weekend going up the mountain, or generally cruising around the countryside, it is almost impossible to not encounter a Kawasaki Z800 – that is how popular the bike is in Malaysia. With a price-to-performance ratio few of its competitors could match, the Z800 was the first real four-cylinder sportbike for many local riders.

Thus, when the Kawasaki Z900 was announced last year, and officially launched in Malaysia in 2017, this replacement for the Z800 was much awaited by Z800 fans. Kawasaki promised many changes for the Z900 over the Z800, and changes there were.

Starting with the engine, the Z900’s 948 cc inline four-cylinder, liquid-cooled power plant, fed by a quartet of 36 mm diameter dual-valve throttle bodies, is claimed to put out 123.3 hp at 9,500 rpm and 98.6 Nm of torque at 7,700 rpm. This is a 10 percent jump up in power from the previous-generation Kawasaki Z800’s 111 hp at 8,000 rpm and 83 Nm of torque – an 18 percent increase.

Kawasaki also said the Z900 had gone on a diet, and they were not kidding. The Z900 clocks in with a wet weight of 210 kg, compared to the 231 kg of the Z800. As we were to find out, this reduction in weight was of great benefit on the road and during some insane corner transitions.

Gone for 2017 is the Z800’s tubular steel frame, which contributed a fair amount to the weight, and replaced in the Z900 with a 13 kg trellis frame that mimics the one found on the Kawasaki H2 hyperbike. Replacing the frame cut a total of 11 kg off the weight of the Z900.

A welcome inclusion for the Kawasaki Z900 is ABS front and rear, which brings the Z900 under Euro 4 compliance. Braking for the Z900 uses 300 mm discs in front clamped by four-piston calipers, while the rear uses a 250 mm disc.

Approaching the Kawasaki Z900, the rider will find the seat height is now at a very friendly 795 mm, allowing most riders to get both feet on the ground comfortably. Considering that the Z800 was a best seller for Kawasaki in Malaysia, it makes sense that the Z900 is biased towards the Asian physique.

As we settled into the saddle of the Z900, we noticed it was wide in the rear, and cut narrow in front. Again, this will aid in riders flat-footing the Z900 with confidence.

Thumbing the starter button brings the Z900 to life, with the engine settling into a smooth idle, courtesy of the four pistons. Revving up the mill showed a smooth progression through the rev-counter, with engine speed building very rapidly.

Pulling in the clutch lever was a surprise. Lever effort was light, light enough to bring comparison with the Kawasaki Z650 and 250 SL. Whatever the Kawasaki engineers did to the clutch lever ratio, they got it right, and this makes the bike very user-friendly indeed.

Setting off, we found the power of the Z900’s engine to be – to use that word again – smooth, and controllable. Whacking the throttle open would hoist the front wheel up in the air, if you were so inclined, but taking things easy showed the Z900 just building up the speed in a linear fashion.

It was at this point, as we rowed through the six-speed gearbox, that an intermittent vibration was felt in both the handlebars and the seat. The vibration came and went at various points through the rev range, and alternated between the bars and butt.

We didn’t find it extremely intrusive though, and at nominal highway cruising speeds, we got used to it. Readers should not take this as a deal breaker – the vibration is there, it is obvious, but you can live with it – or wear proper riding gear, as the case may be.

The version of the Kawasaki Z900 that was given to us on review is the SE version, SE standing for Special Edition. What this means is that the Z900 gets decked out with some accessories that serve to improve form and function over the base machine.

For the Z900 SE, first of these is the rear seat cowl, which replaces the pillion pad. Easily removable by using the seat lock, the rider can easily swap between solo and pillion formats.

Next up are the axle and frame sliders, which are proper Kawasaki-branded items, coupled with a meter cover, radiator screen, flyscreen, tank pad and special graphics. If you feel the need to deck out your base-model Z900, these items are, of course, available via the Kawasaki catalogue.

In the cockpit for the SE version is a power socket, useful for keeping your electronics charged up, something you never realise how useful it can be until you actually need it. Which sort of explains why the author had one retro-fitted to his personal motorcycle, and makes this the most useful thing you can fit to your bike, next to a properly loud performance exhaust.

Let us examine the handling of the Z900 first. With a retail price set below the RM50,000, you would expect some cost-cutting measures, and these have been done in the suspension. The front forks are 41 mm diameter upside down units, with rebound and preload adjustment in separate fork legs, with no compression adjustment available.

At the back, the same setup is used for the monoshock, with seven-step preload and step-less rebound adjustment. In real terms, this means you can stiffen the suspension, and control how fast it bounces back, but you cannot change how fast the forks and rear shock compress.

Riding the Z900 on the highway though, revealed that it is a capable highway cruiser, especially at something above the posted speed limit. On the smooth tarmac of the three-lane highway, it was composed, save for the occasional stutter over a small bump or rut.

Taking the fast sweepers on Karak and just outside of Tanjung Malim, the Z900 performed well, with the right balance between weight and power. With the addition of the small fly-screen and some bags, there is no reason why the Z900 cannot be pressed into touring duties over any distance.

Overtaking was a no-nonsense affair with the Z900. Drop a gear, put your head down a little, and go for it. There was ample power and torque to spare at any engine speed or gear.

Seat comfort at highway speeds was good, although there was some pressure on the nether regions after slightly more than an hour in the saddle. At which point you will be wanting to get off the bike for fuel and a cigarette or pee break anyway, and thus didn’t count in our books as a negative.

So, the Kawasaki Z900 ticks off the box for touring fairly well. Some selective accessorising, and the Z900 will fulfill the need of any rider wanting a commuter/touring rig. Add some auxiliary driving lights and the bike is ready to handle any road condition.

It should be noted that all the riding we did with the Z900 was solo, due to the review unit being an SE model. Despite the protestations of our 12-year old pillion rider, we could not put the Z900 to the loading test and thus the kind reader will have to find out how the bike behaves under load for his- or herself.

Speaking of the distaff side of things, the Kawasaki Z900 is a very physically small machine, close enough in physical size to the Kawasaki Z650 and Z250. Lady riders will like the easy and light handling of the Z900, as will male riders cut on the smaller side of things.

We did try fitting a six-footer into the saddle, and there was a distinct lack of fore-and-aft space for the rider to get comfortable. Suffice it to say, if you’re below the 1.8-metre mark, the Z900 will fit you nicely. Above that, try the Versys 1000, which will be the subject of a long-term test soon.

Coming back to the riding behaviour of the Z900, we found that while it would handle long highway sweepers well, it was equally at home doing the Ulu Yam route. Going into corner transitions, the steering was light without being over-controlled.

There was just enough feedback from the front forks to know what was going on at the front wheel, and steering direction was a matter of pointing and shooting. Obviously better quality suspension would make the Z900 handle much better, but for a general purpose machine, it was adequate.

The back end was a little bouncy in some corners, but we put that down to the author’s plus-size weight, more than anything. In most cases, the Z900 tracked true around the curve, and the tyres, despite using commuter grade rubber, were well up to the task of some, shall we say, spirited riding.

At other times, the Z900 had enough power and handling capability to start chasing litre-class sportsbikes up the mountain. While clearly not being able to over take top-flight machinery when the road straightened out, the Z900 was good enough to keep snipping at the heels of sportsbikes with higher specifications in the corners, with the caveat that the rider knows what he or she is doing.

Braking for the Kawasaki Z900 is handled by Nissin, with four-piston calipers in front grabbing 300 mm diameter twin petal discs and a single two-piston unit at the back. The brakes did well, despite some hard use and last-minute braking into some corners.

There was no hint of fade or chatter, and after we dialed the adjustable brake lever for our hand span, we forgot about the brakes. In case the reader might be wondering, if we say we forgot about something on the bike, it simply means the system works as advertised, and we didn’t have to worry about it at all.

In the cockpit, the Kawasaki Z900 comes with a single pod with LCD display, showing all the necessary information a rider needs. No sophisticated ride modes or traction control here, although there is a gear shift light which is user programmable.

What we did miss on the Z900 is a quickshifter, something we deem necessary for an engine that revs this quickly. We did ask Kawasaki Malaysia if such a performance item would be offered in the official catalogue, and were told it would be taken into consideration.

For a multi-focus machine like the Kawasaki Z900, we feel that the target was met, and then some. In terms of the new Z900 being an improvement over the Z800, there is no argument. If there are any negatives we could mention about the Z900, it would be the engine vibration, and to a much lesser extent, engine heat.

More power, better handling, less weight; goals that were set by Kawasaki and achieved. That the bike is physically smaller – even with the humped 17-litre fuel tank – than the Z800 might count against it in some riders’ books, but we feel that a machine should never intimidate the rider. After all, if the bike isn’t showing the rider a good time, why bother riding?

The 2017 Kawasaki Z900 ABS retails for RM49,158, while the Z900 ABS SE version we reviewed will set the rider back RM50,959, with prices including GST, but excluding registration, insurance and road tax. Colours for the Kawasaki Z900 are Grey for the base model, while the SE version comes in a shade of blue that we felt set off the “Sugomi” design lines of the bike nicely.

So, who needs a Kawasaki Z900? Most obvious choice would be the rider wanting one bike to do everything, but is also not wanting to spend money unnecessarily for the glamour of a European brand name, nor needing the latest and greatest in high-tech bike technology. Nearest competition to the Z900 would be the Yamaha MT-09 at RM44,563, but that comes without ABS and is less one cylinder.

For RM50,000, a rider would have to search long and hard to find a bike to match the Z900, especially amongst the level of the Japanese Big Four. As a general purpose motorcycle, designed to suit the rider who needs a capable steed for both daily duties, touring and sports riding, we feel that Kawasaki has hit the mark with the Z900.