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Common Tread

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 first ride review

Jan 27, 2017

Kawasaki’s engineers took 42 pounds off the 2017 Ninja 650 twin.

That kind of weight loss required a major redesign, which shows how important the model is to the company. It’s a bike that appeals to a diverse mix of riders, and which must be ready to serve just about any asphalt duty. And, it’s still available from $7,399 ($7,799 with ABS and $7,999 for the black-and-green KRT Edition shown below). Achieving all that required some compromises, but after a first ride I think they’ve made good choices.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 is available in four different color choices, including the black-and-green KRT Edition for an extra $200. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The original 650 Ninja was introduced in 2006, into a conspicuously different sport bike market. The 600 cc Supersport-class bikes were still commercially viable, and although Kawasaki branded the twin a Ninja, it was positioned as a beginner-friendly commuter bike, not a middleweight contender.

Nonetheless, the motor development team was led by an engineer from Kawi’s ill-fated MotoGP project. The first iteration of the 650 attracted the attention of road racers. Remember when MotoST tried to build momentum for a national endurance championship based on twin-cylinder bikes? And the motor has really made an impression in professional flat track. Bryan Smith will carry the American Flat Track #1 plate this year on an Indian, but he won that plate with Kawasaki power.

Ninja family poster
There's apparently more than one Ninja family now. Notice this one doesn't include the ZX-10R or ZX-6R. Kawasaki execs assured me that despite the updated Ninja 650, there's still 636 in the 2017 lineup, though they admitted that the only update is new graphics. KMC-USA is not bringing any of the Supersport-legal 600RR models into the United States. Photo by Mark Gardiner.
The street bike hasn’t seen a significant upgrade since 2012, so it was due for more than Bold New Graphics. It’s in a growing market segment that Kawasaki has to defend — since the 650 twins now outsell the ZX-6R by 10 to one. And while Kawasaki’s product guys told me that their customers don’t cross-shop naked bikes, I have to think that over the last year or two, the return of the SV650 and the arrival of the FZ-07 have caused dealers to clamor for an updated Ninja 650.

I was one of 10 motorcycle journalists that KMC-USA invited to Paso Robles for a first ride on the new twin (although the similar, unfaired Z650 broke cover a few weeks ago.) I’m not gonna lie to you; the test was hampered by the Central Coast’s worse-than-average winter weather. We had to shorten the test route and avoid Highway 1 altogether, due to rock and mud slides. Rain in the days leading up to our arrival left water and silt on area roads, and 28-degree lows the morning of our ride meant that shaded areas were frosty for the first hour.

In spite of weather delays and road closures, Kawasaki’s Jeff Herzog cobbled together a 100-mile loop up through wine country to Fort Hunter Liggett, mostly on flowing, twisting-to-sweeping two-lane roads, with a few stretches that simulated highway commuting and just enough stop-and-go riding, getting into and out of Paso Robles, to confirm the middle Ninja’s around-town manners.

Kawasaki has historically placed more emphasis on the “motor” part of its motorcycles than the “cycle” part, so I’ll tackle the new motor first.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Not much changed in the engine bay. Accessory frame sliders provide additional protection. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The fundamental architecture is unchanged (bore and stroke, valve sizes and included angle, and gear ratios, for example, are all nominally the same as the 2016 model). However, valve timing is significantly more conservative, with less duration and overlap. Kawi staff couldn’t tell me if cam lift was changed, but they thought not.

The exhaust headers are shorter and lack the old cross-pipe. And, the throttle bodies are smaller. Collectively, those changes cost the bike a little peak power, but yield a dramatically improved torque curve, according to both Kawasaki’s chart (which was presented devoid of numbers) and the dyno I had in the hip pocket of those Spidi jeans.

The motor itself is four pounds lighter, thanks to new castings that also enabled Kawasaki engineers to use it as a stressed member in the all-new trellis frame. As such, it’s rigidly mounted. (The old Ninja 650 motor was basically hanging off a beam backbone in rubber mounts.)

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 KRT Edition. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

As with last year’s model — and this is a Kawi tradition that goes way back to the Meguro days — this twin has a 180-degree crank. (Most vertical twins have a 360-degree crank—the pistons move up and down together. In the case of the Ninja, one piston’s going up while the other’s going down.) This design is in some ways easier to balance; it suffers less pumping losses, and allows engineers to build a motor that’s happier at high rpm, although there’s an inevitable “rocking couple” imbalance. That’s not to be confused with a swinging couple, though you can get a buzz out of that, too.

But seriously… the motor does buzz a little right in the meat of the powerband. I did not feel it in the bars or pegs, but was aware of it through the seat. It was not a problem, but it was there.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 footpegs
Kawasaki engineers fought to take every possible ounce off the new Ninja 650, so you know they were loathe to add these small weights to the footpegs. They're there to quell harmonic vibration. The handlebar also looked to be carrying some bar-end weights. Those measures worked. I felt vibration in the seat only. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Whereas the motor’s an evolution of a well-proven design, the chassis is dramatically different. The frame’s now a very elegant steel trellis. Both the frame and swingarm (which is also a steel component) are much lighter, and the shock absorber now features a linkage for a progressive action. It’s positioned almost out of sight, unlike the stylish old side mount. The steering geometry is also a little more aggressive. Rake is now 24 degrees and trail’s reduced to 3.9 inches.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 swingarm
Kawasaki achieved a massive weight loss for the Ninja 650 largely by making the frame and swingarm lighter. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The 41 mm fork is not adjustable. The rear shock is adjustable for preload only. The work the suspension has to do is made easier, thanks to new and much lighter five-spoke wheels.

The bike’s ergonomics are, if it’s possible, simultaneously a little sportier and a little comfier. The seat and footpegs are lower; the footpegs are a little further forward, for a reasonable leg bend. (Taller riders can opt for a seat that’s one inch higher, too.) Meanwhile the handlebar is almost two inches lower and further forward. The seat’s not only lower, it’s also narrower. I can easily flat-foot this bike, and I have only a 30-inch inseam.

Both clutch and brake levers are adjustable for reach, which is something I appreciate since I have small (dare I say, presidential?) hands.

The groovy, organic shape of the fuel tank is also driven by ergos. The sides are sculpted to allow for good knee pressure, and that concave area at the back of the tank makes it easy to tuck right down on it.

Oprah magazine cover
What do the 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 and Oprah have in common? Photo by Barber Q in Portland, Oregon.
As a small, light bike (Kawasaki says 426 pounds with ABS and 419 without), the Ninja 650 is approachable and unintimidating. That first impression proved accurate as I got the bike underway, too. The dash includes a user-friendly gear indicator in addition to the mandatory neutral light. The cable-actuated assist and slipper clutch is remarkably light, as is the action of the short-throw throttle.

Fueling at low rpm is conspicuously good. So are the Ninja’s slow-speed manners. These tests always involve dozens of U-turns for photo passes, and those can sometimes be a real pain on hardcore sport bikes, but that mundane handling is important for real-world usability. Another little thing that stood out was that the rear brake pedal was easy to find and modulate.

Notwithstanding the nominally sportier bar placement, I found myself in an upright position that allowed for good traffic awareness and head mobility when shoulder-checking. Even the mirrors worked better than the usual “How do my elbows look?” ones found on sharper sport bikes.

Once clear of Paso Robles, we were able to begin exploring the new bike’s handling at somewhat higher speed, although cold tires, water, mud and even frost on the roads dictated more than the usual amount of caution. I was glad to be riding an ABS-equipped bike and did determine that it worked at least once. (I suppose in a way, the road conditions encouraged a group of seasoned moto-journalists to ride the bike a little more like the average buyer will ride it!)

riding the 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Riding the 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

After the pavement had warmed a bit, I was able to determine that the new two-piston Nissin front brake calipers work well on the dual 300 mm discs. Initial bite, feel, and brake effort were all completely acceptable. Still, I’d say that the seven pounds and $400 that the Bosch ABS system adds are worth it.

The revised steering geometry and lighter wheels make for a pretty lively handling package. Although I never felt the need for a steering damper during my ride, I think that riders who plan to push the little bike’s handling envelope might want to add one, especially if they opt for stickier tires than the Dunlop Sportmax D214s that come on the bike.

Our test route included a variety of pavement types, including some worn chip-seal that showed the reasonable limitations of the tires and some cracked, rutted, and bumpy corner apexes that challenged the fork and shock.

If I had had more time with it, I’d have asked Joey Lombardo to take a little preload out of the rear shock, which was probably a little too stiff for a 140-pound rider; I occasionally got some harsh feedback on bumps. (But honestly, asking a winning Superbike tuner to make that kind of adjustment’s a little embarrassing. I always imagine guys like Joey thinking, “Why doesn’t Gardiner just ride it harder?”)

I understand the reality of producing a bike you want to sell by the tens of thousands. Could Öhlins improve this bike? Sure. But adding $1,000 to the price tag would defeat the purpose.

Kawasaki’s guys talked up a nifty new tach, with a needle that changes from white to pink(!) to red as you approach the shift point. I found that the riding position put the instrument cluster well below my normal field of view.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 instrument cluster
The instruments include a gear indicator. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

I like to ride the front wheel, and I am happy to trade a little comfort for a riding position that puts some weight on my wrists. That’s a personal choice influenced by the fact that a lot of my formative experience was track-based; short, intense bouts that placed a premium on feedback from the front contact patch.

I found that the Ninja’s riding position put almost no weight on my wrists. That may be why I actually liked the handling best in downhill turns.

Of course, that no-rider-weight-on-the-bars geometry is desirable in more practical contexts. After the lunch break, I had Kawi’s techs raise the windscreen (which only took about two minutes.) It was easy to imagine using the new 650 for lightweight sport touring. At the very least, if you optioned it up with the even-taller windscreen, power outlet, and 30-liter top box you’d have a terrific long-range commuter.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
It took a while for the day to warm up in "sunny" California. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

The highlight of the day came right at the end. Our route back to Paso Robles took us through several miles of continuous mixed bends on smooth asphalt that had been warmed a little in the afternoon sun. There were a few slow corners with yellow 15 mph warning signs, but most of it was 60-80 mph stuff. In fourth gear on the Ninja, that put the motor right in its 6,000-8,000 rpm sweet spot. For several minutes, I floated from corner to corner thinking, “I could upshift or downshift, but why bother?”

For a small(ish) motor it has a great powerband; it pulls hard, from low down, over a nice range. While it’s obviously running out of breath over 9,000 rpm, you can over-rev it — and if the experience of those flat-track racers is any indication, you can over-rev with no risk of wearing it out.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 in "pearl blizzard white." Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 rear seat cowl
A racy seat cowl is one of the accessories. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.
Kawasaki’s stylists took pains to make the Ninja 650 look like a “real sportbike.” The product guys at the launch pointed out that small lip below the headlight, for example, which is a styling cue inspired by the World Superbike-winning ZX-10R. I don’t doubt that the new 650 will turn up at lots of track days, too; most riders would find it a lot more fun than a ZX-10R!

This is a great track-day truth: It’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than it is to ride a fast bike slow. Not that I’m saying the Ninja 650 is actually slow, but you know what I mean. Sporting riders who choose to go this route — saving money on the base bike, that they can then spend on tires, training, and track time—will end up faster than most squids on hard-core sport bikes.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 will be available in four colors. Photo by Brian J. Nelson.

When Kawasaki’s guys introduced the bike to us, they described it as a step up for riders who began on a Ninja 300. I’m sure some baby Ninja riders will move up to the 650, but it’s a perfectly good beginner bike in its own right.

The reality is, it’s a platform bike — the motor (and frame, as far as I can see) is shared by the Z650; slight variants of the motor also power the Versys, and even the Vulcan S cruiser. It’s built in Thailand, to hit a price, so that Kawasaki can sell it by the boatload. If they continue their winning ways in the World Superbike Championship, the ZX-10R will get the glory, but all those 650 twins will pay the bills.

Did Kawasaki make compromises to ensure that it could price those 650s sharply and still make a profit? Of course they did. But they didn’t compromise on the really important stuff; the new frame makes the old one look like a stone tool. The motor wasn’t broke, so they didn’t fix it; they tweaked it, in ways I approve.

Anyone who’s ever built a serious race bike knows how much you have to spend to lighten it by a few pounds. Kawasaki made a bike that’s 42 pounds lighter (Is it just a coincidence that that was Bryan Smith’s racing number?) and kept the price increase to $200 over last year’s model.

I call that a bargain. Who should pay attention? Beginning riders who are willing (and financially able) to consider a bike that will cost about eight grand out the door; experienced riders who want a tractable, durable powerplant in a comfortable, versatile commuter bike; even sport bike riders who want to approach the limits of their bike without testing the limits of their health insurance.