Kawasaki Z400

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Kawasaki’s sub-$5k Z400 offers lots of big-time performance, with enough versatility to be a zippy commuter bike and a decent canyon runner.

With its Z900 and Z650 models already thrashing in the street-fighter fray, Kawasaki recently unleashed its Z400 naked. Designed for all-around use, both urban and canyon, the entry-level price of $4,799 buys some big performance. Visuals were not stunning, or even remarkable, offering only a nice burgundy red and black option to the usual black metallic and Kawasaki green.

The tail section bears a resemblance to the aggressive ZX-10R, giving the bike an aggressive stance. We were pleasantly surprised at the 399cc power plant’s capacity to crank out gobs of pep, providing lots of fun for a full spectrum of riders. We expected the sluggish feel found widely at the 300cc level, which becomes boring after about 15 minutes. However, during a day railing twisting mountain roads through Southern California wine country, throttle snap was crisp, the motor popped and the bike felt more like a detuned 600—linear, high-revving and balanced, without the buzz. The exhaust note was so-so; the intake growl was nice.

Kawasaki folks love to tout their assist and slipper clutch, and once again, the technology lived up to the narrative in handling the Z400’s transmission. The lighter clutch throw was noticeable and appreciated, and somewhat of a surprise on such a small-displacement entry bike. Shifting was smooth and flawless all day, which allows us skeptics to focus on the power, the handling and the brakes. Overall handling was good, certainly acceptable for those not ready to push the bike to its limits. Upgraded Dunlop Sportmax tires, 150 width out back, were nice and sticky. Suspension was a pleasant surprise, in general, though we felt it was a bit undersprung. We also did not agree with the updated camber, which decreased trail, resulting in a bit of an oversteer condition (plowing) in more aggressive lean angles. This may well have come from too much front sag, combined with the steeper rake. Better ride could be had with more trail, for more front grip. Still, the bike is relatively light and crazy-nimble. Steeper rake is unnecessary when the steering input is already sensitive. Toss in wide handlebar sweep, offering even lighter steering inputs, and at full lean, it’s easy to upset the front end through hanging on the bars or crossing up flawed inputs.

At the heart of the Z400’s braking setup are non-radial Nissin calipers, which have their detractors. Then again, the engineering is for moderate street riding, and those who subject the little Kawi to track abuse do so at considerable risk of ending up in the gravel. The tuning on the nonswitchable ABS was spot-on and among the least intrusive we’ve come across in recent testing. Again, a good 150 rear tire helped, big time.

Like its larger siblings, the Z400 was crazy comfortable during a full day of canyon running, urban navigation and highway cruising, plus multiple photo op passes. We tired a bit from a full day in the saddle, but never felt uncomfortable, stiff or chapped. Seat firmness was just right. Mirrors are a bit tall and hokey, so the naked upright looks even taller and more upright. They proved to be sturdy, without vibration, and functioned well enough, they simply didn’t match the aggressive, sporty look.

The dash and gauges offer little more than basics and look clean. Cables and wires are tucked nicely, and carbon fiber accents and plastic shrouds frame up readout nicely. Another thing the Z400 accomplished with its moderate intensity, was to whet the appetite for riding Kawasaki’s Ninja 400, biased slightly more toward racetrack use.