Poised to inject serious fun into the bargain-blaster segment of the market, the new Kawasaki Ninja 650R is a street hip, super sharp, smooth operator that flashes the boulevard with a most affordable price tag. Designed with the rider in mind, the bike's comfortable ergonomics, useful wind protection and energetic twin cylinder engine are part and parcel of a compact package bound to please everyone from the most experienced rider to the first-time buyer, without missing anyone in between.
Concept and Transformation
Starting with the rider first was something of a departure from the normal process of designing motorcycles for Kawasaki, and as a result the new Ninja 650 has been built specifically to meet the needs of both novice and experienced customers. A low seat height, relatively low foot pegs, and comfortable upright handlebars are used to ensure a confidence-inspiring riding position - and one that allows the rider to put his feet flat on the floor when it is time to stop. A lightweight chassis houses an all-new parallel twin 650cc power unit that is tuned to be flexible across a broad rev range. Modern fuel injection guarantees perfect throttle response, and also good fuel economy in all riding situations. Adequate wind protection from the integrated full fairing, and a broad, comfortable seat, give the Ninja 650 all-day touring ability if needed, while the light weight and short wheel base make it the perfect around-town companion. Add to the mix a modern triple disc brake setup, a neat mass centralizing exhaust system that houses a three-way catalytic converter, a sport-bike feature similar in design to Kawasaki's flagship ZX-10R, and the new Ninja 650 most certainly has a whole lot to offer.
Engine and Transmission
The 649cc engine powering the new Ninja is somewhat unique in its configuration, using a water-cooled, double-overhead camshaft, parallel-twin cylinder arrangement. Long-term Kawasaki fans will be familiar with the venerable EX500 that has been around since the 1980s, and the Kawasaki engineers were quick to point out this is an all-new engine, not just a simple overbore. Picked for its compact design, 83mm pistons run in 60mm bores and use a fairly modest 11.3:1 compression ratio. This is understandable with the bike being tuned more for its mid-range abilities, which is easily felt on the road as the meat of the power comes before 9000 rpm. Using a semi-dry sump design further aids the compact nature of the engine, as does the cassette-style six-speed transmission. This is Kawasaki slick, with the light cable clutch aiding effortless shifting up or down the gearbox.
Digital fuel injection is responsible for firing fuel through the Ninja's pair of intake valves into each cylinder, and the 38mm throttle bodies feature sub-throttle valves for improved ride-ability. Burned gasses exit through twin pipes meeting in the under-engine muffler, a position that lowers the center of gravity and ostensibly improves mass centralization. How important that is on a bike of this nature I'm not sure, but it makes for a very captivating look. With the pistons riding on a 180-degree crankshaft layout, as well as getting cooling oil sprayed onto their undersides to keep things cool, the Ninja marches to the sound of a distinctive beat on the highway. Sounding very different from say the V-twin Suzuki SV650, this bike's pronounced roar lets you know you are in sporting mode when the engine approaches 8000 rpm. Kawasaki didn't provide us with any horsepower figures, but from seat-of-the-pants reckoning, it feels like it should be right around the 70 horsepower the SV makes.
Chassis and Brakes
When I saw the Ninja for the first time at the dealer meeting in Orlando earlier last year, I first thought that the bike definitely had the word budget written all over it. The brakes and wheels looked sporting enough, but the conventional, non-adjustable forks and preload-only adjustable rear shock didn't exactly light my fire. Now, after spending a full day in the saddle on a variety of challenging roads, I have changed my tune somewhat. The frame and suspension do an admirable job on all but the bumpiest of roads, and for a limited adjustment setup that works just fine. During my pre-ride check, I noticed the rear was a tad bouncy so I added some preload into the shock to compensate for my 180-pound weight and hit the highway running.
Spending an enjoyable portion of the day running hard and fast through some of the beautiful twisting roads around the Palomar Canyon area of California, east of San Diego, I concluded that the brakes proved the most disappointing. They feature 300mm petal rotors, and from the outset this arrangement looks like some high-end sporting tackle. Get the bike up to speed, pull on the lever, and it quickly becomes obvious that the calipers are only two-piston affairs with a large amount of lever effort needed for some fairly modest results. At more sensible speeds they work just fine, and the newer rider is not going to be intimidated; but a more serious sporting rider is going to want to address this issue. Braided steel lines and some softer pads are probably enough to do the trick. In the rear, the single 220mm disc works fine, although the long amount of lever travel is not to my personal taste either.
During this high-speed portion of the test, I was actually most impressed with the bike's easy steering nature. As we tipped into the tightest of bends with the lightest touch on the bars, this steering sensitivity was in no way compromised by any lack of stability from the chassis. Allowing me to flick effortlessly back and forth, the Ninja's narrow trellis frame and braced swingarm certainly deliver on their mission to provide optimum stiffness for better handling. The sport bike profile tires - a 160/60-17 lives out back and a 120/70-17 up front - also aid this handling security and ease.
Accessories and Arrangements
At the time of writing, Kawasaki is not yet offering any accessories for the Ninja 650R, other than a bike cover. Looking at the shape of the tank and seat, I am sure there will soon be a multitude of soft luggage and tankbag options available from the aftermarket for those who want to venture on more than a day trip. And, it won't be long before you can start upgrading brake lines, pads and suspension components if you so desire.
If you are working with a limited budget, but don't want to compromise your motorcycle experience, the new Kawasaki Ninja 650R deserves a long, hard look. Able to perform extremely well in all areas from commuting to touring, with the option of a track day or two thrown in for good measure, the $ 6,299 price tag is bound to look mighty attractive at purchase time. It's a unique, stylish and fun machine, and Kawasaki has most certainly achieved their desired goal of producing one of the most enjoyable and affordable motorcycles on the market today.
Kawasaki Ninja 650R
+ Light weight, excellent handling, lively fun engine
- Low tech brakes
Distributor Kawasaki Motors Corp., USA
Engine four-stroke, liquid cooled, DOHC, four valve parallel twin
Bore x Stroke 83mm x 60mm
Fuel system DFI with Keihin 38mm throttle bodies (2)
Cooling water cooled
Frame high tensile steel
Front Suspension 41mm hydraulic telescopic fork
Rear Suspension offset laydown single shock
Rake/Trail 25°/ 4.2in (105mm)
Brakes front/rear dual 300mm discs with 2-piston caliper / single 220mm disc
Tires front/rear 120/70-17 / 160/60-17
Dry Weight 392lbs (178kg)
Wheelbase 55.3in (1405mm)
Seat height 30.9in (785mm)
Fuel Capacity 4.1gal (15.5l)
Fuel Consumption n/a
Colors Galaxy Silver/Metalic Graystone/Flame Persimmon Red. Ebony/Galaxy Silver/Flame Persimmon Red
MSRP $ 6,299