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2004 Kawasaki Z1000 - Project Bike
By Kevin Duke

Project Green Meanie

After living with the character-rich yet somewhat flawed Kawasaki Z1000 for several months, it's become to be regarded around here as an old friend. During its time with us, the Z1000 has been tested, shootout-ed, cold-started, wheelied, and commuted upon. It's even seen a few laps on a racetrack.

Though it still vibrates more than we like and uneven pavement continues to baffle its not-quite-sorted suspension, we're actually appreciating the Green Meanie more than we anticipated.

"It looks like a robotic wasp with its gnarly tail and nasty little nose," says our sci-fi-addled editorial director Ken Hutchison. "And with the new exhaust, it now sounds all nasty and cool like a superbike instead of just a quiet little turd. I love this motor!"

Despite its considerably sized powerplant, the maneuverable Z feels very lively underneath its rider, chomping at the bit to giddy up and ride. The 953cc four-cylinder loves to be wound up, and the relatively high and wide handlebar makes it feel more nimble than a bike of this size ought to. Whether running errands in the city or unwinding a set of tricky backroad curves, the Z1000 proves to be a capable mount that performs its prescribed duties with a willingness that is quite endearing.

With just the slightest of windscreens, high-speed running was never one of the Z's strong points, so that was one of the first things to be addressed. The addition of a Laminar Lip Speed Shield greatly expanded the Z's speed envelope. Although it may not exhibit the highest of style, has been worth every penny of the $75 we didn't spend. It provides just the right amount of wind deflection to make freeway-speed cruising tolerable and extends the neutral riding balance it enjoys at lower speeds, all the while remaining unobtrusive. It's a no-brainer to install and we can't imagine going without it and the more relaxed freeway comfort it affords.

A streetfighter design like the Z usually incorporates a tubular handlebar that can be rotated or swapped out for a nicer aftermarket item. But the bar bend of the Z's attractive golden tube places its rider in a nicely neutral riding position that seems difficult to improve upon, so we left it alone for now. The big leverage provided by the bars that make it a dream in the cut and thrust of street riding actually make it a bit nervous on the racetrack, in case that's one of your play venues. A rider's movement simply transmits too much input to the high and wide bars. A steering damper would improve its manners on the track and, with the Z's explosive wheelie-inducing power, it wouldn't hurt on the street, either.

One item we replaced is the Z's controversial quad-pipe exhaust system. With a catalytic converter in each of the small-diameter mufflers, the stock stainless steel exhaust is quite a boat anchor. Conversely, the Leo Vince SBK 4-into-2-into-1 exhaust system we installed in its place is almost half the weight. It scaled in at just 18 lbs. including brackets and the box it was shipped in. The stock pieces in the same box weighed at 40 pounds.

We can't say the 22-lb. weight loss was noticeable in terms of vehicle dynamics, but the lithe new exhaust better matches the stripped-down character of the Z, giving it a less weighty appearance. Also matching the Z's nasty personality is the new symphony from the less-restrictive plumbing. The inline-Four's rumpity-rump at idle is accentuated with a more baritone burble, one that transforms into a hair-raising wail as it zings up to its rev limiter. To our ears, the titanium race can is on the verge of being too loud, but Leo Vince also has road-legal equipment if you're more of a stealthy rider. We saw 128 peak horsepower and a 5-hp advantage nearly all across the rev range. A full evaluation of the SBK system will be up and linked in the coming weeks.

Like a big-nosed dude who shaved off his long beard, the ugly mess of a rear fender is made even more prominent once the bulky stock pipes are removed. A call to Targa Accessories got us simple kit that included an aluminum license plate mount and short-stalk turnsignals that replaces the black plastic monstrosity the factory made to satisfy DOT requirements.

The Targa kit is a fairly easy install, even for an average wrench turner, taking less than two hours to fit and consisting of nothing more complicated than drilling a single hole and following the well detailed instructions. The $46.95 kit drastically cleans up the look of the Z's rear end and it accentuates the lines of its angular tailsection. Combined with the smaller size of Leo Vince exhaust system, the Z's ass now looks much lighter and is far more attractive than the stock pieces. The whole idea of a "naked" bike like the Z1000 is to have less crap stuck to it, and these two changes have resulted in a much more visually appealing package that has a more balanced appearance.

With the Z's rear end all neat and tidy, the large stock front signals appear even more obtrusive and heinous; they'll be next on our list of modifications.

We enjoy how the Z's motor comes animated beneath us—when we're in the mood. Sometimes, though, like on longer jaunts, the vibes can annoy. The engine's ever-present vibration is noticeable mostly through the handlebar. Cycle World reported that filling the Z's handlebar with No.8 lead buckshot damped much of the vibes. We may resort to that trick, but not before trying another angle.

The Z's inherent vibration makes loose-fitting metal parts come alive in high buzz zones, and one of the most vociferous is the Z's clutch lever. There is enough freeplay in the lever cable to allow the inner end of the lever to vibrate against its perch. All sorts of fixes have been bandied about, but the majority fall into either shimming the gap with a metal or plastic washer. More creative fixes involve installing an auxiliary spring on the clutch end of the cable so the lever stays tight against the perch or, what we did, spreading a thin layer of silicone over the lever's inner surfaces and lubing it with grease once it had cured. We'll keep an ear out to see how long it lasts.

In a related note, the Z's clutch is feeling a bit grabbier than when new, with a narrower engagement point—not surprising after more than 9000 miles of MCUSA abuse. It might be time for an upgrade.

One way of reducing vibration is by reducing revs, and the Z's engine feels as if it's spinning too fast on the 80-mph SoCal freeways. But we're hesitant to go to taller gearing as it would take away some of the Z's deficient low-speed snap. Some further engine tuning to work with the Leo Vince exhaust will hopefully clean up its low-end response, allowing higher final-drive gearing.

After burning up the original Bridgestone tires, we swapped to a pair of Metzeler Sportecs, going to a narrower 180-section rear tire instead of the fatter 190 that is fitted as stock, mostly for cosmetic reasons. The slimmer tire made the Z's steering characteristics much more neutral, giving a rider more confidence when banking into a corner. After the Metzelers went up in a cloud of tire smoke—purely for photographic display purposes—they were replaced by a pair of Dunlop's newish D218s. While the 218s work great on many pure sportbikes, the front tire's steeper roll angle didn't suit the upright Z1000, resulting in a variable turn-in resistance as the bike is set into its lean. We're looking forward to seeing how the bike reacts with a different set of rubber.

One aspect to this project that is most anticipated is to make the Z's unbalanced suspension a bit more sorted. With just rebound and preload adjustments, we still haven't been able to find a setting that is balanced between road comfort and backroad-blasting control, so we knew we soon would have to go internal. We had Race Tech's Paul Thede look at our bike, and he deemed the Z's Kayaba components to be of decent quality and worthy of tweaking instead of replacing. His expert hands will be massaging our bike's suspenders in the coming weeks.

Also due for upgrades are the strong but mushy front brakes and a stock seat that limits long-range comfort.

For those who care about such things, we can report that we're getting about 35 miles to each gallon of dinosaur goo at the rear tire. Front tire mileage varies.

So, we've made a few changes, and many more are in store. But don't think that desire to modify detracts from the incredible package that is the Z1000. It's a rare ride aboard the Z that doesn't elicit several mischievous grins. Perhaps the best praise we can heap upon our Green Meanie is that it never sits for long, even in a garage full of much pricier or prestigious machines.

Kawi's Z1000 is not an innocuous, bland two-wheeled tool, but rather an inanimate machine that somehow exudes a distinct personality, distilled into a potent if faintly bitter essence. It's nasty but playful; it's elemental yet futuristic; it's bad and it's good. And there's nothing else quite like it.
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