Want to get attention with an open-class sportbike? Just give it the most power. Crave some “Bike of the Year” trophies for your factory’s middleweight sportbike? No prob: just win some AMA races (okay, maybe that’s kind of hard to do, but at least it’s a clear formula). But what makes the best lightweight sportbike? That’s a harder problem to solve, which might explain why there have been so few lightweight sportbike models available in the USA. In fact, aside from the Honda CBR250R, there has been just one model of note since Reagan was president: Kawasaki’s Ninja 250.
The Ninjette hit the sweet spot: affordable, easy to ride and entertaining for everybody from rank beginners to experienced roadracers. In fact, the design was so good it didn’t just dominate its market niche—it was its market niche, and hence didn’t even get a serious makeover for 20 years (the Model T was only built for 18). In 2008, it went under the knife, getting huge revisions that added styling, handling, braking, suspension and user-friendliness—while adding weight and sapping a few valuable top-end horsepower. Still, the big update was enough, keeping the 250R as one of the best-selling motorcycles in the USA.
Yep, best selling. In the first two quarters of 2012, the entire U.S. motorcycle industry sold 2100 middleweight, 4300 heavyweight (yes, the big bikes outsell the 600s—blame tight credit for that one) and 5800 lightweight sportbikes, according to MIC data. OEMs seldom release model-by-model sales data, but we’re guessing Big Green is moving the most 250s.
But that apparently wasn’t enough for Kawasaki Heavy Industries, which, in 2009 (just a year after the 2008 250R was launched) decided to once again heavily revamp the littlest Ninja to create the “ultimate lightweight sportbike.” The old Ninja was good, but nowhere near “ultimate”—it’s pretty wheezy at freeway speeds and though it edges out the 23-ish horsepower Hondas, the 26-ish hp it puts to the rear tire isn’t enough to keep many new buyers interested or satisfied for more than a short while before they move “up” to a bigger-displacement machine. Of course, that’s not a bad thing, as they usually move up to a bigger Ninja, but Kawasaki is known for making powerful motorcycles that dominate their classes.
Job one was to add power, so the design team, led by Product Developer Kunihiro Tanaka, upped capacity to 296cc by adding 7.8mm of stroke. And why not? There is no World Superbike class for 250cc sportbikes, after all. So why not a 350 or 400? Size: a bigger bore would mean wider cases, Tanaka told me at his first-ever Mexican dinner, which would mean a wider, heavier frame…and Kawi’s already done a 500cc sportbike, if you recall. For markets that need a 250 for insurance or licensing reasons, a 250cc model—that still receives the 300′s styling and technical changes—will be available.
Tanaka’s crew didn’t stop with a stroker block. Forty-five percent of the engine’s parts are new—new cylinder head, new cases that flow more oil, bigger valves, trimmed-down hard-anodized pistons, shorter con-rods and even a revised engine balancer. Compression drops a point, to 10.6:1, allowing cooler operating temperatures and regular-unleaded gas. There’s more oil capacity (up to 2.4 liters from 1.7) and joy of joys for home mechanics—a spin-on oil filter, which enables an oil change without removing any bodywork. Oh, and did we mention the fuel injection? Dual 32mm throttle bods with dual throttle valves.
But wait, there’s more: the FCC clutch. FCC is a Japanese clutch manufacturer, and the unit in the Ninja is prized not just for the slipper function—which will help minimize wheel-locking and high-siding from sloppy downshifts—but also the lighter, noob-friendly clutch feel. That clutch is paired with a revised tranny that’s both smoother-acting and more durable. The rear sprocket is three teeth smaller to allow higher top speeds, thanks to that big ol’ 296.
And you have to match that new-found power with a revised chassis, no? Though the old bike was a good handler, that was more due to its light weight than the aging tube-steel frame design. The 2013 uses high-tensile tubing that’s 150 percent stronger, and there’s new gusseting and other changes to make the frame more rigid, rigid enough to rubber-mount the front of the engine. Wheels are also new, with an eye-catching 10-spoke design and a 1/2-inch wider rear—tires are specially developed IRC Road Winners, a 110/70-17 front and 140/70-17 rear, but still radial. Other numbers of interest: the wheelbase stretches .2 inches to 55.3, and the seat is a half-inch higher at 30.9 but is narrower at the front to keep it manageable for the short-of-inseam.
Braking comes from a single disc front and rear, still a 290mm petal-style disc with a two-piston caliper in front and a one-pot in back. But this year there’s optional ABS, a compact Nissan system that adds just four pounds to the weight of the bike. Like the brakes, the suspension is the same basic equipment—a 37mm non-adjustable fork and a preload-adjustable bottom-link Uni-Trak monoshock—with revised settings to better cope with both bumpy urban pavement and swoopy mountain roads. “New riders won’t get bored with it in six months,” development rider Derek Keyes—who has ridden the new bike all over the world—told us.
The technical changes are for the “researchers,” according to Product Manager Croft Long. These are new buyers who want a “real” sportbike and will pay extra for the privilege. They pore over the technical data and are looking for the most technology for the buck, something the 300 has in quantity.
There are also “uneducated” buyers, who may walk into a dealership and fall in love with a glittering new sportbike, regardless of what’s underneath that sleek plastic. For the second group, the styling has been seriously re-worked, from the dual headlamps to the “floating” windscreen design and minimalist tail section to the knurled aluminum footpegs (no stodgy-looking rubber pads here). The changes are intended to make the 300 more closely resemble its bigger brothers—mission accomplished. But the styling is practical, too—the fuel tank still holds 4.5 gallons (down from 4.8, to make room for the ABS unit), the digital instrument panel is easy to read and has more information, there’s a flip-up tool tray under the seat and a clever ducting system to keep heat away from the rider at low speeds.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ve sat through many a tech briefing where the product managers and development people told me how shaving 12 grams here and 1.3mm there would change the sportbike world As We Know It. I’ve ridden every Ninja 250 iteration, raced several of them, and attended the 250R press launch for a lesser publication. My main concern was how to spin this into a decent story. At the end of the day, it’s a 296cc parallel Twin, a few pounds heavier than last year, with a claimed 7 hp difference—would I even notice any improvement?
Oh my Lord yes. The bike fired up easily with no discernible warm-up and we headed out Skaggs Springs Road (a bit of delicious twistiness that combines a Nurburgring-esque 10-mile stretch of pavement lovingly constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers with bumpy, twisty goat-trail county-maintained roads out to the Sonoma coast), where I discovered the joys of the smallest Ninja, one of the most entertaining sportbikes you’ll ride.
That’s because this motor may represent the most improvement in a consumer product since the horse and carriage lost the horse. The new motor not only makes a lot more power (about a 20 percent bump), it’s also way smoother (thanks to the rubber mounting and improved counterbalancer, I assume) and much more flexible and easy to use. Gone is the revving to 7000 rpm to get rolling or the endless shifting to keep the little zinger on the boil. Gone is the wheezing at high speeds when you try to make a pass in sixth gear. Say “so long” to lugging the motor or bouncing around on the suspension as you downshift mid-corner so you don’t fall too far behind your buddies.
The motor is good enough that the 300 can be ridden like a regular motorcycle. Riding with fast traffic on divided freeways is no longer a frantic, nerve-wracking affair. With a GPS-verified speed of at least 103 mph (stupid headwind!) and enough grunt to pass cars at 80-plus mph in top gear, you’re king of the road, if you’re an aggressive sort. If you’re not, you can cruise along in sixth gear at the speed limit and see a mere 7000 rpm on the tach. It’s almost relaxing if you’re accustomed to the omnipresent weedwhacker exhaust note of the 250R.
At about 380 pounds gassed up, it’s not exactly light (although still more than 40 lbs. lighter than most 600s), which means you need not fear side winds, and the little windscreen and fairing provide good protection—it’s a comfy mount for at least an hour or two. Could you commute or get away for a couple of days on this bike? I sure would, and I’d enjoy the good fuel economy—after 70 miles of riding as fast as I comfortably could on Skaggs and Highway One (including a bit of knee dragging, which I have almost never done on the street)—the 300 returned almost 50 mpg, about the same I saw riding conservatively at steady (and legal) freeway speeds on the prior model. Economy exceeding 70 mpg wouldn’t surprise me with this bike.
But sportbikes aren’t really about frugality—they’re about twisty-road fun. The Ninja will give you that, like it always has. It steers quickly, the suspension handles bumps and high-speed stuff decently, and given the right rider and bump-placement, will even deliver a little front-end-lofting hooliganism. Cornering clearance is adequate for the street, and the tires delivered good enough grip and feedback that the racers and other top-shelf magazine guys I rode with remarked how good they were. A good slogan would be, “IRC: who knew?” Send royalty checks c/o Motorcycle Daily.
Here are some nits, lest you think I’m a paid green-blooded shill. The suspension still feels budget, build quality looks like what you’d expect in this price range, and the brakes need a lot of squeezing from high speeds—the upgraded motor needs upgraded brakes to match it. At least the ABS works as it should, with minimal pulsing or intrusion. It’s also a lot more money.
But only a lot if you didn’t get the huge list of real improvements. Slipper clutch (which works just as promised), ABS, fuel-injection and classy new styling? All that stuff alone is worth at least the $600 price bump over the 2012 250R—but then you add in the new frame and motor and it’s a bargain. Ninjette lovers are already lining up to plunk their $4799 down so they can ride home on a new 300 in Ebony, White Pearl or the Lime Green SE ($4999, $5499 with ABS) with limited-edition graphics.
Kawasaki has another hit here, one that could once again shame Honda into abandoning the 250 sportbike class, although there are now rumors of a sporting Honda 500 Twin. The Great Recession may have shrunk our budgets, but I don’t think it’ll reduce our fun.