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.