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2008 Kawasaki Ninja 250R: MD First Ride

I’ll bet you can’t guess which Kawasaki is the best selling model. Is it the popular middle weight supersport ZX-6R? How about the recently redesigned dual purpose KLR650? If you guessed either of these bikes, you are wrong.

The top seller for Kawasaki has been the Ninja 250R . . . a bike that has been largely unchanged since 1988. That is, until the introduction of the all new 2008 250R.

The key to the Ninja 250R’s sales success has been price. This machine has carried a U.S. MSRP of $2,999 for quite a long time. In return, buyers have received a reliable piece of transportation, with sporting style (although dated), in a light, nimble, user-friendly package. Indeed, first time buyers have constituted 62% of the market for Ninja 250Rs traditionally, and the bike has therefore been important to the entire motorcycle industry. It is a significant draw for new riders.

Before we get into the changes found in the 2008 250R, what has Kawasaki done with the price? The bike is now $500 more expensive (U.S. MSRP of $3,499). Even this small bump could have a significant impact on future Ninja 250R sales. Nevertheless, Kawasaki thinks the substantial upgrades and improvements to the new model will offset this price increase.

Indeed, the changes for 2008 are substantial. Although the bike is still fed by carburetors (Europe will get a fuel injected model that would have raised the price even further here in the U.S.), the new machine is dramatically changed in terms of chassis, engine and bodywork.

The new bodywork is very modern, with a clear kinship to Kawasaki’s other current sportbikes. Compared to the earlier bike (designed in the 1980s), the new Ninja 250R is dramatically better looking. Indeed, it can easily be mistaken for a larger displacement sportbike (there is no reference to “250” anywhere on the bodywork). This was certainly not the case with the older model.

The changes are much more than skin deep, however. Kawasaki claims that engine performance and handling are just as improved in the 2008 model. Let’s start by talking about engine changes.

Seventy percent of the engine has been updated, with Kawasaki claiming a 30% increase in mid-range power along with significantly increased low-end response. To achieve this, Kawasaki reshaped the intake and exhaust ports, and made the combustion chamber more compact. Lighter valves, with thinner valve heads, increased flow and reduced reciprocating weight.

New camshafts have increased lift and duration, and they are controlled by a new camchain tensioner. Those carburetors I mentioned have revised jetting, and are matched to the intake port diameters.

The old dual exhaust system is replaced by a new two-into-one exhaust that purportedly increases low and mid-range torque, while keeping noise levels down and providing a modern, attractive look.

The Ninja 250R features a six-speed transmission that has been revised for smoother shifting, and is mated to a more durable clutch. An entirely new radiator provides better cooling while being lighter in weight. A new radiator fan is quieter. On the chassis front, a new diamond-type frame constructed of high tensile steel provides a steeper steering head rake angle, which results in an unchanged wheelbase when mated with a longer swingarm. The fork is larger and stiffer (37mm versus 36mm), with revised settings. The rear suspension utilizes a new Kayaba shock that is 5-way adjustable for preload. The damping is also revised outback.

The brakes for 2008 are big news. The single disc up front increases in size from 260mm to 290mm, and is now clamped by a dual-piston caliper. The rear disc is also squeezed by a dual-piston caliper, and both discs are petal shaped for improved styling and heat dissipation.

If you own the prior Ninja 250R, the 16 inch wheels could be a source of frustration. Tire selection was virtually non-existent. It was OEM or nothing. For 2008, Kawasaki provides the 250R with 17 inch wheels that should provide better handling and stability with tire options.

New instrumentation includes analog speedometer and tachometer with odometer, trip meter, and a large, very legible fuel gauge.

We had the chance to put 100 miles or so on the 2008 Ninja 250R here in Southern California recently. We did not have the chance to check mileage (something we will do when we get a test unit at our offices).

Let me give you some perspective on what I expected. I have been riding some very fast motorcycles lately, including Kawasaki’s new ZX-10R, and Ducati’s 848. Climbing onto a bike with a 249cc parallel-twin four-stroke engine was a big change. Frankly, I wondered if the 250 had enough power to “get out of its own way”. I was pleasantly surprised.

The new 250R has a smooth, broad powerband that provides adequate acceleration in town, and the ability to hold elevated speeds on the freeway (we cruised easily at 75 to 80 mph). Although I didn’t test it, I would expect top speed is in the neighborhood of 100-110 mph.

Moreover, the switch to larger wheels and tires, and the new chassis with a more stout fork, provided a very stable platform at all speeds sampled. The bike tracks straight, but changes direction easily, and can even handle some heavy steering inputs when a more experienced rider tries to toss it around.

There can be little doubt that the new 250R is dramatically better looking than the old bike. The new bodywork is very slick, with a balanced and integrated look. Wind protection is pretty decent, and the ergonomics are very comfortable.

This bike sits very much like a dual purpose machine with high and wide handlebars providing for an upright seating position. You get the style of a sportbike with the upright, comfortable perch of a dual sport. Not something I was complaining about at all. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, I had plenty of room, although the ergos could be a bit cramped for a rider much taller than 6 feet.

Perhaps, the most impressive thing about the new 250R is its brakes. It has been a while since I rode a machine with a single front disc. The new, larger and more powerful brakes really haul the 250R to a stop with authority and feel. Very impressive for a bike in this price range.

The revised instrumentation is very legible and straight forward. The new fuel gauge is as large as any I have seen on other machines. Overall, the cockpit is very well finished.

I don’t have a whole lot of complaints about the 250R. The stock tires are not radials, as I understand it, and are not ready to be pushed as hard as higher grade rubber. Although tire sizes are small (110/70-17 front and 130/70-17 rear), at least riders now have a chance to obtain more modern rubber. This bike deserves it.

The 2008 Ninja 250R represents a significant investment in an entry-level machine by a major manufacturer. At $3,499 U.S. MSRP, the Ninja 250R offers a lot of practical fun, and the ideal entry point for beginner street riders. The bike is available now in four color schemes, including Lime Green, Candy Plasma Blue, Passion Red and Ebony. For additional details and specifications, take a look at Kawasaki’s web site here.