Has the new Ninja 400 become too big to be called a beginner’s motorcycle?
Lemmy insists this bike should now be considered a middleweight while the Internet is chock full of yahoos maintaining their position that anything shy of a 600 cc sport bike will too soon be outgrown. In fairness, I had some questions of my own. Knowing that Kawasaki planned to give us some track time with this bike, I wanted to know how good it really is for advanced riders. I also wanted to see how it measures up to its predecessor, the Ninja 300, after all of the other changes that Kawasaki made.
In search of answers I boarded a plane, headed out to Sonoma, California, and spent the better part of a week with my ass in the saddle of the new Ninja 400. The following is what I learned.
The new Ninja 400
The small, parallel-twin-powered Ninja has been viewed as an entry-level machine since the days of the Ninja 250R. With this new iteration growing to a 400, there has been a lively debate over whether the new engine has become too big to correctly serve the entry-level crowd.
The new Ninja 400 gets a nearly 35 percent increase in engine displacement to 399 cc when compared to the outgoing Ninja 300’s 296 cc engine. Kawasaki says the main factor in this decision was feedback from new riders who were concerned with outgrowing their first bike too soon. Kawasaki made sure to point out that the Ninja 400 is also eligible for over $530,000 in racing contingency, as well as the new MotoAmerica Junior Cup class for 2018, so it’s clear that racing has at least played some role in this decision, as well.
In spite of the bump in displacement, the physical size of the engine has remained relatively unchanged. Normally, when we see a bump in power, an increase in weight is usually the unfortunate byproduct, but not in this case. The overall weight of the bike has decreased by about 17 pounds over the Ninja 300 for a wet weight of about 366 pounds for the ABS version.
Engineers at Kawasaki insist that a lot of the bike's power gains are achieved by utilizing a new downdraft intake with a larger airbox. What impressed me almost as much as the bike's newfound power was the deeper intake note, which gives the bike a bit of a snarl usually lacking from these smaller machines.
Kawasaki USA is usually tight-lipped regarding horsepower gains, but their European counterparts are not. Riders can expect to see roughly 44 horsepower at 10,000 rpm and 28 foot-pounds of torque at 8,000 rpm. While the numbers might not look insanely impressive to spec-sheet-jockeys, you can’t ride a spec sheet. So I’d recommend forgetting those figures, as they really don’t tell the story of the Ninja 400.
That’s because the cast of characters involved in the story of this new bike goes far beyond its engine. The Ninja 400 receives new brakes, suspension, chassis, rider geometry, wheels and bodywork, making this a ground-up new model for 2018.
At first glance, the suspension looks to be the same basic setup found on most bikes of this class. The non-adjustable, traditional front fork and a five-position adjustable preload ring on the rear shock is par for the course on a budget-friendly machine. However, both the rear KYB bottom-link Uni-Trak shock and the front Showa fork are new for 2018, the latter having grown in size to a 41 mm diameter. At 220 pounds, I am rarely happy with a stock suspension setup, let alone one on a entry-level bike, but I think most folks looking at this bike for street riding will be well served by its performance, especially if they're just starting out.
The brakes are bigger as well, with the front rotor up 20 mm to a full-sized 310 mm design. The new Ninja now utilizes dual-piston Nissin calipers at the front and the rear with Nissin’s newest ABS control unit available as an option.
The new five-spoke mag wheels wear Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300 radial tires in a 110/70R17 at the front and a 150/60R17 at the rear. I almost never comment on stock tires as they are often times forgettable, at best, but these were quite the opposite. Kawasaki had us running the same rubber on the street as well as the track and didn’t even bother changing the tire pressure (28 psi front, 32 psi rear). That speaks volumes to the confidence they have in these particular skins.
For all the changes to the chassis of this bike (changes that include a new trellis frame, shorter wheelbase, and steeper rake angle), the rider’s geometry in the saddle is relatively unchanged. The clip-on hand grips still feature the same amount of rise but are pulled 15 mm closer to the rider while the footpegs are moved 9 mm backwards. The seat height remains at the same at 30.9 inches and provides an easy reach to the ground, even for our camerawoman Aly, who is five feet, four inches tall.
For those of you out there that are taller like myself, at six feet, three inches, the cockpit can feel a bit cramped. However my biggest complaint was that Kawasaki can’t seem to build an exhaust that doesn’t smash into my right heel when I'm riding on the balls of my feet. Kawi does have an accessory tall seat in the works but it wasn’t available for us to try. All things considered, I did about 200 miles in one day with this bike and felt a hell of a lot more comfortable than I would have on a full-on sport bike.
That is because despite the fact that this new Ninja 400 looks more like a thoroughbred sport bike than ever before, its seating position is relatively upright. For all you new motorcyclists in the audience, please keep this in mind, as the Ninja 400 is going to give you the look of a sport bike while being much more approachable and friendly from an ergonomic standpoint. It features a more natural upright seating position that is easier to ride regularly on the street, making it ideal for riders who are just getting started.
Riding the Ninja 400 on the street
Because of our filming schedule, I was able to secure two full days of street riding with the Ninja 400. Heading south from our hotel in Petaluma, we followed Highway 101 for 15 miles before exiting in San Rafael to pick up Lucas Valley Road. The first thing I noticed about the bike was its newfound mid-range power. Unlike the old engine, which always felt like it was screaming to keep pace on the highway, this new motor chugs along smoothly at 70 mph while turning a mere 6,500 rpm.
Following back roads through the forest, we emerged on Highway 1 just north of Samuel P. Taylor State Park. The road opened with long sweeping curves that had me shifting primarily between second and third gear with the occasional uptick into fourth. Lever pull is extremely light from the new slipper-assist clutch, but the fact that there is no adjustment available for lever throw on either lever, brake or clutch, is an oversight, from where I am sitting. How much could it possibly cost to use the base adjustable levers from something like the Z900?
The Ninja 400’s handling is extremely light and nimble. You simply look where you want to go and that’s where you’re headed. Flipping the bike from side to side through a long series of back and forth curves required very little effort. With the minimal weight of the bike combined with the shorter 53.9-inch wheelbase and steeper 24.7-degree steering rake, it felt like we were simply dancing through the corners. With bigger, heavier, faster bikes, there are times when it feels like the bike is riding you. The Ninja 400, however, had no problem letting me lead as we waltzed through the sweeping corners of the Shoreline Highway.
The initial route for testing was so good we decided to utilize most of it again when we set out to film the on-bike riding section of the review. My second day on the street saw me almost double my mileage over the previous trip. Even though I was spending most of the day with the tach needle in the top third of the rpm range, I was still averaging 48 miles per gallon. With the Ninja’s 3.7-gallon fuel capacity, and a more conservative approach to throttle input, the possibility of hitting 200 miles on one tank of gas isn't out of the question.
For those of you who have more devilish desires for this new 400 than just toting laptops and spreadsheets to and fro, we got to spend some time with the new Ninja at Sonoma Speedway.
Riding the Ninja 400 on the track
To say that this portion of the review was a highlight for me is a bit of an understatement. Unlike a few of the other writers who were present, I had never ridden Sonoma Raceway before and getting to turn a few laps there was a real treat for me.
Formerly known as Sear’s Point, and then Infineon Raceway, Sonoma Raceway is nestled at the bottom of steep rolling hills and features over 150 feet of elevation change. We rode the IndyCar course, which is roughly 2.38 miles in length and has the rider constantly flicking the bike from one corner into the next.
Whereas the street ride allowed us to get a feel for the engine’s mid-range power, Sonoma let us have fun with the Ninja’s top-end thrust. Power feels even throughout the rev range without any real noticeable spike. This allows the rider to confidently roll the throttle on more aggressively than would be possible on larger displacement bikes.
I found myself regularly using the rev limiter as an indication to upshift. In spite of the 12,000 rpm redline on the tach, you can over-rev the little 400 to just shy of the 13,000 mark on the new dash. So even though the indicated redline has fallen 1,000 rpm over the Ninja 300, you can still make this little guy scream.
Those stock Dunlop tires handled admirably well. We weren’t using tire warmers in between sessions but rather just warming them up with a sighting lap at the start of each new session. Other than one little slip when I pushed them too hard too soon, they offered consistent feedback and solid grip. That’s a pretty big deal for stock rubber.
The same can be said for the suspension. I was surprised with how well this suspension handled my weight, even as the pace increased. While stiffer springs would certainly be top on my list for modifications should I start doing regular track work with a Ninja 400 (I am a bit heavier than the average rider), the stock setup is plenty adequate for riders who are looking to try their hand at a track day for the first time.
Some of the guys were complaining of brake fade after a few hard laps, but considering these bikes are running one disc up front I think the brakes slowed the bike down better than we had the right to expect. I was glad Kawasaki had us on the ABS models, as I felt it kicking in a few times under heavy braking coming off the back straight over a rough patch on the left side of the course going into turn seven. Unlike some bikes I’ve ridden, where ABS kicks in hard, engagement wasn’t intrusive at all. For the marginal bump in price, I would imagine most folks will opt for this safety feature.
The stock slipper clutch also worked well and I was glad to have it. I was able to execute aggressive downshifts with no complaint from the rear wheel. In everyday circumstances away from the track, I see this providing a benefit for folks riding in the rain, as it'll help to maintain stability in wet conditions, especially for riders just starting out.
The beauty of riding this little guy on the track is that it teaches you to use all of the bike. Bigger, more powerful bikes, with fancy electronics, mask mistakes in gear selection, throttle input, and braking. The Ninja 400 doesn’t. This was the first time I ever felt like a motorcycle's limits were within my reach. That being said, if I never rode a bigger motorcycle than this on the track again, I would still have a world of fun every time.
Price and competition
For 2018, the Ninja 400’s base MSRP of $4,999.00 remains unchanged over that of the Ninja 300. ABS is still a $300 premium over the base MSRP and the special Kawasaki Racing Team green color that we rode will run you $5,499 and includes ABS. Compare that to Suzuki’s GSX250R for $4,499, Honda’s CBR300R for $4,699, or Yamaha’s R3 at $4,999 and I think people are going to have a really hard time arguing against Kawasaki.
The only real competition I see for the Ninja at this point would be from KTM with the RC390 at $5,499. If I was gearing up to tackle a shootout with any other bike that would be the one.
Budget-conscious riders who aren’t concerned with the added bump in performance that the Ninja 400 offers should be able to find a smoking deal on a leftover Ninja 300.
The answer to our original question is "No," this bike has not grown too large for beginners.
The power has increased in a manner that actually makes the bike feel more competent and stable at speed. It gives new riders plenty to grow into without overwhelming them right out of the gate. It also allows for more usability for folks outside of the beginner class. Looking past the engine, Kawasaki gives riders better brakes, suspension, and handling and that is an advantage for new riders and veterans alike.
That being said, I think that this new Ninja dances as close to the line of “beginner bike” as possible without crossing it. They've managed to build a bike that is suitable for a beginner yet exhilarating for pretty much anyone. I rode this thing on the track alongside Ari Henning who holds the track record at Sonoma on a RC390, Rennie Scaysbrook who placed at Pike's Peak, Chris Ulrich who's a former professional AMA Superbike racer, and of course wild man Adam Waheed, whose first bike was a Ninja 250R. If these guys can have fun with this thing, I'm positive you can too.
What surprised me the most while executing this review wasn't how good this bike was for a beginner, but rather how good this bike was for a motorcycle. Whether you're a new rider who wants something that exudes big-bike style, or you're an established rider looking for a lightweight backroad burner or track bike that will cost very little to maintain, the Ninja 400 is going to have a lot of people talking. The Ninja 400 isn't a story of "bigger is better." Rather, this is a "better is better" kinda tale.