by ZA Bikers.
Back in the glorious ‘90s most of the manufacturers produced thrilling 250cc two-stroke twins and feisty but more expensive 400cc four-stroke four-cylinder race-replicas that were exciting to ride quickly, particularly on winding roads. While they were quick enough for fun, reaching speeds of typically 200 km/h they weren’t stupid fast and were nowhere near as prone to biting you in the arse as their 1000cc and 600cc sports bike brethren were. Most South African official importers sadly eschewed these little gems as being too expensive for our market, while grey-importers made a killing bringing them in second-hand from Japan. New environmental legislation all but killed off the affordable two-stroke engine worldwide, spares availability became a problem and most of the existing little race replicas have all but vanished from our roads.
But things change. After the financial crunch hit in 2007 and the value of the rand dwindled motorcycle prices rose steeply and most of the mainstream importers now bring in splendid little four-stroke sports bikes of between 300 and 400cc capacity. Honda’s CBR300R and KTM’s RC 390 use single cylinder engines, while Yamaha’s new YZF-R3 and Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 are both blessed with fast-spinning parallel twins. None of the new generation bikes have the pizzazz of, for instance the very expensive 220 km/h Honda VFR 400 or Aprilia RS250 twin, but most of them can get up to 100 km/h in around 5,5 seconds – quicker than most cars – and easily reach true top speeds of marginally over 160 km/h.
Kawasaki pulled an unexpected rabbit from their hat in 2014 when they suddenly popped up with a street-fighter version of their Ninja 300. The Z300 shares the Ninja 300’s 39 hp 296cc twin-overhead-cam engine and is unmistakably a sibling of Kawasaki’s mean-looking Z1000, Z800 and ER6-n naked bikes. I picked up the test bike from East Coast Motorcycles when I dropped off the Triumph Thunderbird Commander I had on test last month and the contrast between the two brought home to me just how much variety adds charm in the motorcycle world. Where the Triumph is long, low, and lazy the Kawasaki is short, quick steering and willing to rev its brains out in pursuit of horizon-blurring happiness. At first it felt impossibly twitchy, but once my mind shifted from heavyweight cruising to lightweight fun mode I started enjoying it. Immensely! The side fairings make the 17 litre fuel tank feel wide and there’s not much of a windscreen to tuck in behind, but the riding position is comfortable and easy to live with for a long day in the saddle. I only rode the bike solo, but as the passenger seat and footpegs are both considerably higher than those of the rider the person on the back is likely to feel a little like a pimple on the rear hump of a Bactrian camel – exposed and a trifle undignified.
The Z300’s engine is remarkably flexible. At low revs it sulks a little but doesn’t bog down in misery, and as the needle sweeps towards the 13,000 rpm red line it pricks up its ears, kicks up its heels and dashes off to look for some bends to play on. It’s brisk rather than frighteningly quick, but it’s fun all the way, and if this knowledge makes you feel any better about riding such a small motorcycle, its 0-100 km/h time of 5,6 seconds and standing start quarter- mile in 14,6 seconds are both within spitting distance of the figures for a 1982 Lamborghini Countach LP500S – just saying! At an indicated 140 km/h the crank is spinning cheerfully at 9,800 rpm in top gear and the littlest Z-bike will cruise comfortably at that speed with a further 3,200 rpm in hand should you want to drop a cog to get past traffic or climb a long, steep hill. The bike’s theoretical top speed at red line in top gear is about 190 km/h but the gearing’s too tall for that unless there’s either a gale-force wind behind you or a steep downhill in front. Owners will no doubt report such stratospheric speeds putting in an appearance on the speedometer under favourable conditions, but genuine top speed on a level road is a shade over 160 km/h. That’s enough to get you thrown into jail in a 120 km/h zone.
The Z300’s suspension is low-tech and built to a budget but works well. The only adjustment available is to rear spring preload, but I didn’t bother with that and the Kawasaki handled well despite my 100+ kg weight. The bike turns quickly and it’s a – relative – joy to use in heavy city traffic because of its nimbleness and 168 kg weight.
The transmission is well worth a mention because it’s so crisp, clicking between cogs with aplomb. I only discovered by reading about it after I’d returned the bike that it comes standard with a slipper-clutch to prevent rear-wheel patter or locking when changing down aggressively during hard braking. By all accounts it’s useful on the little Z300 when it’s ridden hard, but I didn’t try induce wheel patter to see for myself.
One of the Kawasaki’s best features is that it really looks, feels and goes like a proper motorcycle rather than a budget-priced toy. It’s beautifully styled, very well finished, and you don’t have to wring its nuts off when commuting, but when you’re in the mood for playing it’s a very willing accomplice. It’ll probably sell mainly to newbies and women who are nervous around big motorcycles, but I reckon even the most hard-core bikers would enjoy the Kawasaki Z300 as a city runabout and fun bike to park alongside whatever else they have in their stables.