Test ride: Bigger is better – Kawasaki Z500 SE

I have fond memories of the 500 twin which put me back on two wheels after a break of 13 years and revived my love of motorbiking.

It was powerful enough to be fun, but not frightening, forgiving of any errors as I regained my confidence and sensible and sure-footed.

I kept it three years, did my IAM advanced test on it and regularly loaded it up for long journeys.

When I rode Kawasaki’s new Z500 it brought back happy memories.

I say ‘new’ but the naked Z500, and faired Ninja 500, are actually developed from the Z400 and Ninja 400.

The parallel twin engine has been updated and uprated, growing to 451cc from 399cc. The frame, suspension and brakes are carried over from the 400.

Nothing wrong with that as the 400 was good to ride but you had to work it quite hard to make good progress.

The larger engine has transformed the 500s’ performance.

Peak power is still an A2 licence-friendly 45.4PS at 8,000rpm, slightly up on 400’s 45PS but it arrives 2,000rpm lower down the rev range.

It’s a similar story with torque. The 500 produces 42.6Nm at 6,000rpm, a decent gain on the 400’s 37Nm at 8,000rpm.

The new engine feels stronger at low and mid revs so you don’t need to wind it up so much. And that makes it more responsive and relaxing to ride, ideal for real-world riding.

It also helps fuel consumption and, despite being a new engine, the Z500 returned 74mpg in mixed riding on the test ride.

A single 310mm front disk brake and 220mm rear single are more than up to job of stopping the 500… as I found out when a car pulled out in front of me. A heart-stopping moment but the motorbike stopped safely without drama.

The assist and slipper clutch has a lovely light action and the six-speed transmission snicked up and down the ratios smoothly and positively despite still being run in.

The 500 is clearly built to a budget, to make it attractively affordable, so the suspension is simple.

There is no front fork adjustment and you can only tweak the rear shock absorber preload but the handling and ride are a good compromise.

The 500 feels stable and predictable through slow and fast corners while poor road surfaces don’t overly niggle its composure. I suspect that will suit most owners.

The faired version may get the generic Ninja name but both 500s are more about being practical, daily rides than sporty performance.

But they are smart and stylish and the Zed’s newly-designed triple headlight unit gives it a distinctive face which reminds me of stormtroopers’ helmets in Star Wars.

The riding position took a little getting used to. The footrests feel high and set back and my creaking hips felt the strain of the high knees stance but, after a couple of miles, it was no longer an issue. In fact, even with the small padded seat, in front of the higher pillion perch, it was surprisingly comfortable.

That said, I am only 5ft 8in and tall riders might find it a little cramped so try before you buy.

I also appreciated the 785mm seat height which meant I could get both feet flat on the floor. Combined with a 172kg kerb weight, the Z500 is easy to manoeuvre and weave through traffic and will also suit smaller riders who find bigger bikes bulky.

Controls are well placed and easy to use while instruments clearly display all the information you want.

Standard models get an LCD panel, the SE model a TFT display with smartphone connectivity.

Most owners are expected to go for the SE which also gets an under cowl and a USB-C outlet.

The new 500 range is competitively priced which adds to the attraction.

The Z500 starts at £5,699, £100 less than 2023 Z400, with the SE at £6,049.

The Ninja 500 is £5,999, again £100 less than the Ninja 400, with the SE £6,499.

If you’re looking at monthly finance payments, the difference in price is going to be negligible.

I would have been quite happy with the Z500 when I returned to two wheels, especially the SE. If you want a bit more protection and a sportier look then the Ninja 500 fits the bill.

Both are great first ‘big’ bikes for novice riders and will also appeal to those downsizing or looking for a capable commuter that is entertaining through the twists and turns.

Small is beautiful but the new 500 range, compared to the 400, confirms bigger is better.