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  • December 21, 2011
  • Dirck Edge
  • Kinney Jones
  • 48 Comments

2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650: MD First Ride

It is interesting to contrast the approaches taken by the various manufacturers during the challenging economy of the last few years.  Some of them seem to have curled into a ball waiting for a nightmare to end, while others boldly invest in new product and technology.  Kawasaki has to fall into the latter category, and the benefit has been a massive increase in Kawasaki’s market share here in the United States (and, we imagine, in many other markets, as well).

The 2012 Ninja 650 has been completely redesigned by Kawasaki six years after its initial introduction and just three years after a significant refresh of the model.  We tested the original bike, as well as the revised model, and frankly liked both of them very much.  For Kawasaki to completely redesign the bike so quickly is a bit surprising.  It is one indication of just how aggressive Kawasaki has been when it comes to introducing entirely new models and redesigning existing models.

Every time I ride a 650 I am reminded that this displacement motorcycle was once considered a high performance machine.  I am old enough that the British 650cc twins once struck me as big, high performance motorcycles, which they were in their day.  Marlon Brando, and others, rode these bikes in movies because they were macho men’s machines.

Today, the irony is that even though a Ninja 650 could blow away an older Triumph or BSA 650, this displacement category is considered “practical” more than high performance.  Another irony is that even though the general public may not always appreciate the performance of a modern 650cc twin, these bikes, including both the Ninja 650 and the Suzuki SV650, are popular with moto-journalists largely because they are great fun to ride, relatively inexpensive and fuel efficient.

So what has Kawasaki done to improve the Ninja 650 for 2012?  Gabe went through the major changes in a preview article he wrote last October. The highlights are many, because this is essentially an all new motorcycle.

The engine is still 649cc and a parallel twin configuration.  Already a modern DOHC  8-valve design, with a 180-degree crank and a balancer shaft, it has numerous changes for 2012.  The exhaust system has been redesigned with a header-section connector pipe and a three-chamber muffler.  The airbox intake duct has been redesigned and the air filter now uses a paper element rather than oiled foam.  The result is more, cool air into the engine and better exhaust flow.

The engine itself receives a new piston design.  Together with the better breathing provided by the airbox and exhaust changes, Kawasaki claims a 5% increase in torque below 7,000 rpm, a 10% increase in fuel economy and the same powerful top end performance of the previous model.

The frame and swingarm are entirely new.  The frame is a double-pipe perimeter design that is slimmer and improves the rigidity balance to deliver claimed lighter/easier handling from the same steering geometry.  The sub-frame that holds the seat has been redesigned to substantially increase its strength and load capacity.

The swingarm is a cool looking double-pipe design that Kawasaki claims is a compliment to the rigidity balance offered by the new frame.  Kawasaki even redesigned the rear axle holder to make both chain adjustment and wheel removal easier.

The chassis is narrower everywhere between the rider’s legs.  The footpeg mounts, frame covers and swingarm pivot are all closer together resulting in foot placement 50mm closer together on the ground.  I can attest that this makes the new bike seem smaller and shorter, despite the same seat height as the prior model.  In fact, it made enough of an impression on me that I was surprised to learn that the seat height was not shorter this year.

Both the fork and the shock receive new spring rates and new damping settings.  The fork and the shock also have slightly longer strokes this year (5mm for the fork and 2mm for the shock) which allowed Kawasaki to slightly soften the spring rates.  The 2012 Ninja 650 comes with really nice tires, i.e. Dunlop’s Road Smart II.  We were impressed with these tires during tricky riding conditions (more below).

Kawasaki has learned that it overdid digital instrumentation a few years ago on more than one model, including the Ninja 650.  The Ninja 650 has all new instrumentation with vastly improved legibility, particularly from the new analog tachometer.  The bike has very thorough instrumentation now.  Without attempting to list every feature, in addition to a fuel gauge, you now get a selectable readout for current fuel consumption, average fuel consumption and remaining range.  All the other usual information is there, including two trip meters and a clock.

The most obvious change is entirely new styling.  All of the body panels are new, and there are two separate seats for rider and passenger this year.  The windshield is adjustable into three different positions (a total of 60mm in height difference) and the handlebars are 20mm wider.

The new rider seat has much thicker foam and a wider, flatter top section.  We noticed the improved seat comfort, as well as the wider bars and narrower mid-section.  The Ninja 650 has always been comfortable with a semi-upright riding position that places little-to-no weight on the wrists.

Kawasaki held the press introduction for the 2012 Ninja 650 just inland of San Diego, California.  Unusually for this part of the country, even in winter, we encountered very low temperatures, light rain (even very brief snowfall) and high winds.

These were not the best conditions for testing.  I felt like the tires never warmed up all day.  Traction conditions were frequently dicey, as well, with moisture and gravel often encountered.  These conditions did drive home that the Ninja 650 is very easy to ride and confidence inspiring.  I can think of plenty of motorcycles I would have felt far more vulnerable on in these conditions.

It did feel like the motor has more mid-range power, and the fuel injection down low appears to be dialed in a bit better. I didn’t feel like I had to rev out the motor to keep pace with a swift group of journalists during the ride.  Kawasaki says that top end power is the same despite the increased mid-range, but frankly this was difficult to tell during the first ride.

The new chassis feels more robust.  The bike handles very well, although it was hard to tell if it has really been improved in this regard (the old bike also handled very well).  The weather and road conditions prevented our group from really pushing the pace the way we normally might during a press intro.  We still have the bike, however, and will do a longer term evaluation and report back.

Seat comfort is definitely improved (as I stated earlier), and the added width of the bars felt more natural (the older bars always felt a bit narrow to me).  The old bike offered good wind protection, but the new bike seems to have even better protection for the rider.  Kawasaki claims the new side panels do a much better job of directing heat away from the rider’s legs, but the cold temperatures prevented me from evaluating this.

To me, the new bike is extremely good looking.  Striking, really.  The fairing, and even the front fender, have several creases that give the bike a more high-end, refined look.  The frame also looks better, as does the swingarm.  Even the separate seats for rider and passenger lend a more upscale feel.

The suspension is still largely non-adjustable (only preload in the rear), but the changes in spring rates and damping do seem to have improved the ride.  The bike seems to absorb small, chatter bumps much better, while still remaining stiff enough to feel sporting.

Kawasaki didn’t mention any changes to the brakes (such as pad material), but they felt much stronger than the original Ninja 650, and even stronger than the more recently revised edition.

The bike has gained a few pounds, and the increased fork travel has resulted in increased trail, even though the frame geometry is unchanged.  This could slow handling a fraction, but that could also be off-set slightly by the wider bars.

Our first ride certainly left a positive impression, but the weather conditions did not allow us to push the bike as hard as we would have liked.  We are looking forward to further testing, and will report back with our findings.  The 2012 Ninja 650R has an MSRP of $7,499, and is available in three colors, including Metallic Spark Black, Candy Lime Green and Passion Red.  Take a look at Kawasaki’s web site for additional details and specifications.

48 Comments

  1. Reinhart says:

    The trend in motorcycling seems to be add a little weight, take away a little horsepower. It won’t be long before powered skateboards will be passing us up!

  2. Hawkeye says:

    I own a 2006 Ninja 650R with Micron header pipes, and exhaust, and Power COmmander and custom fuel mapping for more horsepower and torque in the 4500 to 6000 rpm range. I rode the 2012 model, and its tuned very much like my bike, so it’s more enjoyable for everyday street use, and it has so many other features that make it better. THe new seat is excellent, the bars and pegs are rubber mounted, the instruments are better, the adjustable shield, and the frame does feel stiffer. THe 2012 is significantly different and better than earlier models, and the bike will exceed the riding capabilities of 85% of all the motorcycle riders on the planet, regardless of what they think about their skills.

  3. ziggy says:

    Try as I might, I cannot see any real substantive changes in this bike from previous model years, or for that matter, any iterative refinements that would significantly improve the riding experience. Fortunately for MD staff it WAS raining so as to cut short Kawasaki’s colossal waste of MD eds and staff man hours.

  4. Ed says:

    Just got to see a red one at my local dealer……very nice, waiting to see the black.

  5. AFW says:

    It looks striking in one of the photos mid page, too bad about the el cheapo suspension.

  6. Pat says:

    My first street bike was a 1979 KZ650, and I loved it (I think everyone loves their first bike). Kawasaki made a bike that I could turn into almost anything I wanted. I added soft bags and took it on tour. Took those off and added cafe bars and a small windscreen, and had a cafe racer. Put on a larger windshield and had a bike I could use through winter. The point is, having a good basic bike, with ergos that work for most applications is a great type of bike for so many purposes. Shocks can be changed, forks reworked, soft luggage added, etc. And the starting price is so very friendly…

  7. Teflon Tufty says:

    Kawa’s ZX6 motor goes back a long way in origin – This one looks sweet :)

    Out of the 4-from-abroad they always seem to get it spot on…

  8. tim colley says:

    In 1958 Triumph produced a gorgeous gold and black Thunderbird with 650cc producing less than half this horsepressure. It was a delight to ride for three years and 25,000 miles: but where are the real advances over that last half century? You see the same naked chain thrashing around in rain and road grit, similar front forks, no inbuilt luggage space, even shorter terms for servicing and tyre life … and what exactly have you gained?

    More expense, greater insurance costs and you still have the same 19th century bike engineering applied to a rude two-wheeler where you still use your feet to change gears! Just like your 1920′s Ford.

    And one respondent said “we like it.”

    Evolution must really come hard to some riders.

    • Jeremy in TX says:

      Having ridden many old British bikes, I must say that if you have to asked what we have gained with modern technology on motorcycles then you are certainly delusional. :-)

      • mickey says:

        I was going to say “what have we gained?” geez how about, oil that stays in the motor instead of dripping on the ground or blowing back on your jeans, electrics that actually work every time, ignitions that don’t go out of adjustment, headlights that are better than candles, smooth acutation on the clutches, chains that last 30,000 miles, motors so smooth parts don’t crack and fall off, carbs that stay in adjustment, wheel that don’t get loose spokes and go out of round, motors that will last 100,000 miles or more. brakes that will actually stop you very quickly.

        I have fond memories of my 69 BSA 750 triple, but in reality todays bikes are light years ahead of those old British bikes.We have gained a lot!

    • zuki says:

      The only thing I want to comment on in your comment is what century do you think you are living in? The 21st or the 20th? I certainly don’t agree that your ’58 Triumph is 19th century engineering, unless maybe you converted it to run on steam.

  9. Rocky V says:

    Why can’t one company –say BMW cut a 1000 RR in half –with that one motor they could have a 500 twin with 90hp a 750 triple with 135hp–and no real retooling other than cases cranks and cams — the parts would all be the same ( pistons -rings-valves-con rods-trany gears -ect)

    • Michael H says:

      BMW does make the F800R, a 798cc parallel twin that produces a factory-claimed 87 horsepower, and the F800ST version as well. Both are light-weight, chain drive bikes. Both are priced (in typical BMW fashion) above the competition.

  10. Brian says:

    I’m curious if Kawasaki has fixed the buzzing issue where the plastics would emit a high frequency buzzing sound also noted by versys owners….Did you happen to notice this sound during the test ?

  11. Roadrash1 says:

    Ed, I hear that! I don’t know what Suzuki is thinking. I really liked the SV650S & used to see tons of them around, but you can’t buy a new one. I don’t get it….

  12. Ed says:

    If Suzuki doesn’t get back in the game by making the Gladius available in the states and soon, this will probably be my next bike. I would also consider the ER6N if it too was available here. How long can this drought last?

  13. Marty says:

    I had the first generation 650 and it was wonderful. The engine matches the chassis perfectly on this motorcycle. With a real seat this will be an all around great bike. 12 second quarter miles are fast enough for me these days. Can’t wait for some full road tests. Now if I can just sell my FZ6 for some decent money :)Could use some passenger grab bars though Kawasaki!!!

  14. Putz says:

    Will you do a comparasion between the Ninja 650 and a Versys, please!

  15. Greg says:

    Great, they have finally (almost) crated a bike as good as my Hawk GT. Where is Honda in this party?

    • Norm G. says:

      re: “Where is Honda in this party?”

      making a mint selling hybrids to greenies and mini-vans to soccer moms and often getting more than msrp.

  16. JPJ says:

    Nice job Kawasaki !! Over the last 32 yrs. of riding I’ve owned several bikes. One of the most fun was a 2000 SV. Some Race Tech valves and springs in the front with the addition of some Vesrah RJL pads combined with light weight and usuable power made this an excellent choice for anybody. I believe Kawasaki has produced an excellent bike here along with it’s cousin.

  17. 80-watthamster says:

    Re: compression, it’s down a half point, rather than up as stated. (10.8 for ’12 vs. 11.3 in ’11)

  18. Steve says:

    650′s are today’s sweet spot with more power than older liter bikes. Today’s larger bikes mainly satisfy some badly starved egos and burn more gas than many of today’s cars.

    • Jeff says:

      While I agree that sporty bikes of this nature (like the SV650 before it) make an excellent street platform, A 1986 Kawasaki Ninja 1000R put down over 100 Rear Wheel Horse Power, and even a 1978 GS1000 put out over 80 RWHP. I’m not sure what liter bikes you think were comparable to the 60+ RWHP of the Ninja 650R…

      But back to this little Ninja, I would never consider owning it as it has relatively crude suspension and brakes. To get something respectable, you have to step up to one of the supersport models, which today seem to have become so track-focused, that I don’t think they really make very good street bikes anymore. You could go with something like an FZ or GSR, but again, the brakes and suspension get dumbed down.

      Make a 650 twin with high-spec running gear, or make a supersport bike that won’t kill your back/neck/wrists/knees, and I’ll consider it. Until then, I’ll keep my trusty CBR600F4.

      • Ken says:

        “Make a 650 twin with high-spec running gear” — but don’t charge me for it.

      • Steve says:

        “Make a 650 twin with high-spec running gear, or make a supersport bike that won’t kill your back/neck/wrists/knees, and I’ll consider it. Until then, I’ll keep my trusty CBR600F4″

        How about the Triumph Street Triple R?

  19. DannyG says:

    Very nice job, Kawasaki. After 38 years of riding, I have found 650cc is the sweet spot – plenty of power for a sane rider, excellent fuel economy, and a balanced, light feel that the liter bikes just don’t have.

  20. bahwolf says:

    Looks nice. It appears they’ve used the bodywork from the Ninja 1000.

  21. Kagato says:

    Hey Dirck, I’m wondering how the engine temps were during your cold weather riding. I have an issue with my Ninja 500 that prevents me from riding when the temps drop into the 40′s and 30′s—specifically the engine never heats up enough to burn moisture out of the crankcase. It does get warm enough for condensation, which makes things worse. I end up with oil that looks like chocolate milk due to the water in it. Only vehicle I have ever had that cools TOO well. My old VStar 1100 of course, loved the cold and I never had issues, even riding in the low teens.

  22. Joey Wilson says:

    I’ve long admired Kawi, for while they’ve built their share of Personal Cruise Missiles and Harley-esque cruisers, they alone championed some K-bike only creations that have made them a fortune: They stuck with the Ninja 250 for all these years, debuted the new + improved version a few years back (prompting an acknowledgement from the Red Rider boys with the CB250R), and the GS for everyone else, the KLR650. Now they’ve revisited the Ninja 650, which like the 250 was selling just fine already. Thank You, Kawasaki. I really like this, especially in red with the matching red spring for the rear shock !

    Now, Big K, since it’s Christmas, wouldja think about filling in the one blank you could do very easily (as they’re already on sale in the Great White North):

    http://www.kawasaki.ca/model/STREET-TOURING/1443/Ninja-400R

    • Gary says:

      Personally, I would love to see the return of a real Voyager… i.e. 4 or 6 cylinder, and let the v-twins to the cruiser guys. While the v-twin Voyagers are Ok, they just can’t match the smoothness and power of a multi (more than 2 as far as I’m concerned). Food for thought Kawasaki.

    • 80-watthamster says:

      Doubt it’ll happen. Same weight,negligible insurance advantage (in this country), less profitable. Other than perhaps a modest fuel economy gain (or a more noob-friendly power output), there’s really nothing to recommend the 400 over the 650 in the States.

      • 80-watthamster says:

        Should read, “Same weight, less power, …”

        • mxs says:

          Yep, the 400 the way Kawasaki did it is a bad attempt to revive 400cc class in countries where insurance is badly expensive. I personally rather ride 250 and switch to bigger bike (if you have a need for it).

    • Stinky says:

      I’m with you on that. Kaw has really made some everyman bikes and I hope to pick up at least one to show my appreciation. Everyones ego says they need better brakes, suspension, more power, less weight. These Ninjas are as much bike as 99% of the riders can use with steps from beginner to advanced. KLR is good from beginner to world adventurer. Versys is coming at the same markets. People seeking my advice will be getting a Kawasaki advertisement. Suzuki has tried at points but not to the Kawasaki extent. Hope to get a ride on more of these.
      You’ll be glad to know this’ll be the last post. This recaptch stuff is ridiculous. Must’ve been designed by Honda.