Riding the 2019 Kawasaki Z400 over Palomar Mountain in Southern California, effortlessly slinging it through blind hairpins, and dodging gravel strewn in apexes from the recent rains, I couldn’t help but think I’d be a better rider today if this had been my first motorcycle.
If you’re considering buying your first bike, you’ll want something that’s basic, unintimidating, reliable, and affordable. But also exciting and inspiring. The ideal first motorcycle will set you on a path toward a lifetime of riding. It will sharpen your skills but also shape your riding habits and preferences, both good and bad. There’s a right way to begin. The new Kawasaki Z400 is the kind of bike that will bring out the best rider in you—now and down the road.
When Kawasaki unveiled the Ninja 400 last year, we declared that it blew the lid off the entry-level class. The Ninja 400’s clean-sheet design gave prospective buyers a spec sheet full of reasons to visit their dealership rather than scouring Craigslist ads for a used Ninja 300. The compact 399cc twin-cylinder engine broadened the range of power and torque, and a new tubular frame shortened the wheelbase and accommodated a longer swingarm for improved rear grip. In spite of its larger capacity, the Ninja 400 came in 17 pounds lighter than the 300. Kawasaki gave the Ninja new suspension, tires; the list goes on.
The Z400 has the same engine, frame, brakes, and full-on attitude as the Ninja 400. If it all sounds attractive to you, and you’re less into the racerboy look and intend to spend all your time on the road, the Z400’s more upright ergonomics and slightly softer suspension should be very appealing. And with a $4,700 MSRP and cheaper insurance rates than its sportbike sibling, the Z400 does more than just sound attractive.
When we had a Ninja 400 on our dyno last year; it produced 43.35 hp and 24.63 pound-feet of torque. The thing is, the 400 doesn’t feel anemic. It rips through the rev range like any large-displacement bike and rasps with mean green fervent. Forty-three hp has never seemed so raucous.
What’s great about the Z400’s engine is that you can hammer through the gears and get an undiluted sensory experience without putting your license at risk or thoroughly scaring yourself. Throttle response is abrupt for a beginner bike, but, honestly, it gives it a raw edginess that reminds you you’re not just riding a beginner bike; you’re riding a Kawasaki—makers of gonzo performance machines like the Ninja H2R and ZX-10R.
Unlike beginner bikes from 20 years ago (with their spindly forks and chintzy brakes), the Z400 doesn’t feel dweeby or lamely submissive. It’s entirely friendly to learn on, but unapologetically holds its own. It’s more of a hard-hitting, duck-walking Angus Young than a turtleneck-sweater-wearing Paul Simon.
Keeping up with freeway traffic is no trouble, though it starts to get buzzy above 6,000 rpm, or about 65 mph with my 150-pound frame on board.
The Z400 is a small, compact motorcycle (which is why the Young/Simon reference is apposite). With a claimed 364-pound curb weight—that’s with all fluids and about a 90-percent-full fuel tank—you can slosh the gas around and actually feel the wee Z respond beneath you. When a motorcycle is this light and has such low reciprocating mass—from the wheels and all the spinny stuff in the engine—it makes everything easier if you’re a beginner. Or an expert, for that matter. It’s a breeze to maneuver in parking lots; it corners with minimal input; and if you come to a stop on an off-camber hill in the middle of nowhere, you don’t have to possess the Olympian balance and strength of Simone Biles.
In the long run, the Z will teach riders how to corner with finesse and be sensitive to what the bike is doing—skills that are more difficult to learn on larger machines.
Every component of the Z400 conveys lightness. Shifting gears requires the gentlest kick of the foot. The clutch pull feels so dainty I inadvertently engaged it just by adjusting my grip on the bars. Clutch engagement is linear and progressive—ideal for novices unused to a motorcycle’s manual gearbox.
These days, modern production techniques have enabled manufacturers to be really judicious about how they keep costs down. While the Z400’s suspension is nonadjustable in the front and adjustable for only preload in the rear, it doesn’t seem cut-rate. The suspension is 10 percent softer than the Ninja 400’s thanks to a revised spring rate, but will feel plenty sporty and taut for most riders on the street. Brakes are strong and predictable without having too intense of an initial bite. Non-switchable ABS is standard.
When I started riding on the street close to 20 years ago, I got a new 600cc supersport machine and within weeks was regularly borrowing my big brother’s Yamaha YZF-R1. Good times for sure, but the truth is, I’ve probably compensated for deficiencies in my riding style with horsepower and speed. When I was 17, I thought I was fast, but I was just riding fast motorcycles.
You can have a ton of fun with 44 hp. And there’s no place to hide. Proper body position, countersteering technique, and choosing the right line and braking point are the fundamentals of riding. On the Z400, without the ego-flattering nature of abundant power, there’s much less of a barrier between you and learning to ride well. The motorcycle you choose as your first bike can determine the rider you’ll ultimately become.
Beginner bikes have a stigma the Z400 effectively sheds. Kawasaki succeeds by making motorcycling accessible for beginners without watering down what we love about the experience of riding. The Z400 is more than a beginner bike. It’s a bike for the right beginning.
|ENGINE||399cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC parallel-twin|
|CLAIMED TORQUE||28 lb.-ft. @ 8,000 rpm|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||41mm Showa nonadjustable conventional fork; 4.7-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||KYB shock adjustable for preload; 5.1-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Nissin 2-piston calipers, 310mm disc w/ ABS|
|REAR BRAKE||Nissin 2-piston caliper, 220mm disc w/ ABS|
|SEAT HEIGHT||30.9 in.|
|FUEL CAPACITY||3.7 gal.|
|CURB WEIGHT||363.8 lb.|