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Common Tread

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650 first ride review

Jan 27, 2020

When Kawasaki unveiled the Ninja 400 in 2018, I easily called it my favorite new bike of the year. The little Ninja is versatile, fun, and absolutely affordable. That’s a tough act to follow up.

Kawasaki’s overhauling the rest of the Ninja line, and for 2020 it’s the 650’s turn. Since its introduction in 2006, it’s become a staple of the 650 twins class, along with its Versys, Vulcan, and Z cousins.

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
From the seat forward, the Ninja 650 takes on Kawasaki's current Ninja design language. Kevin Wing photo.

To me, the Ninja 650 always felt like the spiritual successor to the beloved Ninja 500. It’s what you buy when the poster on your wall is a racy Ninja, but your commute to the office takes an hour sometimes.

Like the 500, someone who doesn’t know motorcycles could confuse the Ninja 650 with a full-on sport bike. Riders know the 650 is something else: a solid choice that offers a whole different experience from the screaming inline-four engines of the 600 race replica class. The market for fun, practical, and affordable middleweights is not a small one.

What's new, and what's not

Kawasaki decided to improve the new model as much as they could… without raising the price. We’ve seen this strategy with other Ninjas lately: no price increase from the Ninja 300 to the 400, and a price decrease for the latest ZX-6R. The 2020 Ninja 650 is still $7,299 or $7,899 for the ABS version. The green KRT edition with ABS is $7,999, and it would absolutely be my choice with that paint job

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The frame and engine are unchanged. That low exhaust, also a carryover, means no clearance issues for your right heel, which was a problem for Spurgie on the Ninja 400. Kevin Wing photo.

Before I get into what’s changed, I think it’s important to note what hasn’t. The engine is still the 649 cc, DOHC parallel twin from the last gen, tuned for “strong, responsive power with low-mid range focus.” The chassis is the same, the brakes are the same, the wheels are the same, and the suspension is still right-side-up teles with a basic rear shock. So what’s really new?

Considering the unchanged price, plenty. Updates focus on the styling, the dash, the tires, and the tech. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to consider a new Ninja 650. It takes more than a press release to convince me that a bike is truly improved, though. That’s why Kawasaki flew me out to Santa Barbara for a test ride.

Kawasaki Ninja 650
See how the shield tucks neatly under the green bit? Bravo! Kevin Wing photo.

On a cool California morning, I saddled up on Team Green’s revised twin. Walking up to the bike immediately showed the fruits of Kawi’s labors. It looks faster and more expensive than it is, in a good way. Just look how the windscreen flows down into the nose of the bike without any visible fasteners. Bodywork across the machine is more aggressive, and in this writer’s opinion, it’s one of the best looking 650s on the market.

Kawasaki Ninja 650 TFT dash
The TFT dash is a huge win for the Ninja. I liked the white-on-black setting best. Kevin Wing photo.

Before setting off, I did something that wasn’t possible with any previous generation: connect my phone via Bluetooth. Kawasaki now offers mobile connectivity via an app called Rideology. It can track your ride and basic information like the Ninja’s odometer, fuel level, battery voltage, and service information. Some light tuning can also be done with the app, though I didn’t try it. Most importantly, Rideology augments the ride, it doesn’t control it. You do not need the app to use the motorcycle. I'd have liked to spend more time with the app to give you a more thorough review, but my screentime was starting to outpace my ride time, and that needed to change.

Come on, ride it already!

I hit the starter and the fast-idle system held the tach around two grand until the bike warmed up. First impressions of the new TFT dash were very, very good. A gear counter sits at the top left corner, with a tach bar through the upper third and other information like speed and fuel level below. Idiot lights surround the display. Along with the new bodywork, the TFT dash made the Ninja feel more like a premium motorcycle, especially because it’s the only bike in its class to offer one. 

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Doesn't look like a budget bike, does it? Kevin Wing photo.

We got the good times rolling and headed out of town to find some squiggly-road signs. The Ninja has plenty of torque down low — ”tractable” or “usable” power, as the moto-journos like to say. That grunt comes straight up from the basement into the midrange before trailing off to the 10,000 rpm redline. Peak torque hits at six and a half thou. The engine’s best character was down at the bottom, as the dual throttle plates swing open and the bike squirts forward. If you like to wring your engines out to the limiter, this is probably not the bike for you. My only complaint with the fueling was the sensitivity of the throttle just off idle, where the bike can lurch unless you keep a smooth and steady hand. A throttle tamer might ameliorate that.

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Ninja 650 in its happy place. Same for the rider. Kevin Wing photo.

The Ninja immediately impressed with its weight and ergos. At 419 pounds (ABS is 423 pounds curb), it’s nimble and narrow with a low center of gravity. Even the shortest riders in our group could flat-foot with the friendly 31-inch seat height. The seating position is on the sporting side of upright, thanks to two-piece handlebars on risers.

Kawasaki Ninja 650 seat
Luxurious compared to a supersport! Kevin Wing photo.

The comfy seat picked up some additional urethane for 2020. You won’t be able to outrun your pals on their supersports, but you can outlast them! It wasn’t until the end of the ride that I needed a stretch. The passenger also received more padding and I’m told it’s a lot more comfortable. You’ll have to take Kawasaki’s word for that one. For around $200, lone wolves can pop a cowl on that pillion seat. I wish the tail was a little more substantial with some additional storage. There's room for your insurance card and a sandwich in there.

Kawasaki Ninja 650
I don't usually talk to myself in my helmet. I said a few words when this view opened up. Kevin Wing photo.

Over the next 175 miles, I pushed the Ninja 650 through the backroads, highways, and mountain curves outside Santa Barbara. If your boss is about to catch you reading Common Tread at work again and you don't have time for the rest of my review, read this: The 2020 Ninja 650 is Greaser-approved. It’s like a very pissed-off Ninja 400 with a little steroid abuse problem.

Taking the high road

We burned some highway on our route to the mountains, where I enjoyed one of the 650’s big advantages over the 400. It’ll happily hold highway speed at four to five thousand revs. I’d definitely suggest this bike over the smaller Ninja for riders who frequently ride the freeway. Even better, it returned 45 miles to the gallon with a throttle-happy reviewer at the controls. Let's just say I never got the "eco" light to illuminate. The short screen does a decent job of keeping wind off the rider’s torso, and a little off the helmet. I’d take a look at Kawi’s optional tall screen if I owned this bike, along with a throttle lock.

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The rider triangle is well balanced. If you're tall, Kawi has a raised seat that can buy you some legroom. I'm six feet tall and didn't need it. Kevin Wing photo.

For all its virtues on the surface streets and highways, the Ninja felt happiest through the mountain two-laners Kawi mapped out for us. The p-twin has gobs of dig for its size, which is really the selling point of this platform. An appropriately wide 160-section rear helps the Ninja tip easily into corners. Find your exit, apply some bwaaahhp to whatever gear you’re in, and you’re on to the next one. Careful, an afternoon disappears on this bike!

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Gone corner-hunting. Kevin Wing photo.

The suspension, while the opposite of fancy, should be totally fine for most riders. It shrugs off city bumps and dips (try that on your race rep!) while holding steady under loading in fast turns. For reference, I’m about 170 pounds plus gear. I’d expect the usual aftermarket support from RaceTech and other suspension companies if you feel the need to tweak things. Owners of the last-gen 650s have published plenty of advice on fork swaps if you just can’t sleep at night knowing your fork doesn’t have the big tubes on top.

Ninja 650 Dunlop tires
The Sportmax Roadsport 2 isn't cutting-edge tire tech. It's still a nice upgrade over the old Sportmax D214s. Kevin Wing photo.

I’d spend my money on tires first, not that there was anything wrong with the stock Sportmax Roadsport 2s. I think any stock tire that I don’t have to immediately change is a win, so unless you’re pushing the Ninja hard or doing a track day, get your money’s worth out of the Roadsports, then swap for your tire of choice. Although our ride took us through some damp sections of road in cool temperatures, the tires didn’t do anything concerning and I never felt the ABS kick on. That’s one feature I’m not keen to test on a press launch!

Ninja 650 clutch lever adjustable
Take notes, manufacturers. Adjustable levers are an easy way to make a bike feel more upscale. Kevin Wing photo.

My notes for the brakes just say: “Nice!” Seriously, nobody will be looking twice at your Nissins, but they perform well for street riding. I’m always happy to see an adjustable lever from the factory. Same on the clutch side. Clutch pull, by the way, is super light. At the other end of the cable is an assist/slipper combo for buttery shifting and reduced wheelhop.

Ninja 650 brakes
These brakes prove that you don't need expensive parts for good performance on the street. Kevin Wing photo.

The whole package just feels refined. Kawasaki invested a lot of time and money into this motorcycle over the years, and the payoff is a sweet handler and a serious bargain at under $8,000. “Better than the sum of its parts” comes to mind. I liked the Ninja best as I worked my way up and down the tight mountainsides, letting that riot of an engine do its thing. And boy, is that tank nice to lock onto.

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The most rewarding part of riding the Ninja was sending it out of the corners. Kevin Wing photo.

Could Kawasaki have totally overhauled the Ninja 650 with top-shelf suspension and monster brakes and a new engine and all the rest? That just doesn’t make sense to me. Anybody can throw expensive parts at a bike and charge a few thousand more for it. No, I’d much rather see exactly what they delivered, especially after the big refresh in 2017. A better bike for the same money is how you bring the fight to this class.

A competitive offering in a competitive class

Besides the other Kawi 650s, the Ninja’s main competitors will be Yamaha’s MT-07, Suzuki’s SV650 variants, and Honda’s CB650R/CBR650R. The parallel Yamaha has been a home run, and yet no faired variant has been released. The SV is a 90-degree V-twin, which provides a different riding characteristic and is no longer available with a full fairing. The Hondas are outliers with their four cylinders, extra power, upspec components, and corresponding price tags. So if you want sport bike looks with huge bang-for-buck factor and highway capability, the Ninja 650 demands a test ride. From Kawasaki’s perspective, owners of the Ninja 650 will typically have a few years of riding under their belts. They’re looking for an engaging all-rounder ride. For those riders, I think this bike fits the bill perfectly.

That’s not to say that beginners should stay away. In addition to the mature core customer, Kawasaki also sees this bike in the garages of riders with less than a year of experience, calling it “beginner approved” on their website. I completely agree, which might be a shock for those who thought the Ninja 400 was too much bike for a beginner. Responsible riders with a training course or two behind them will be just fine.

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Verdict: the most compelling Ninja 650 yet. Kevin Wing photo.

If I had to summarize the Ninja 650, which I do because this is the end of the article, I’d put it this way. Your heart wants something that looks good, and your head wants something that makes sense. That’s not a compromise, that’s a 650, and you should try one. Put the Ninja 650 on your short list.

2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Price (MSRP)
$7,399 (Non-ABS) $7,799 (ABS) $7,999 (KRT)
Engine type
Liquid-cooled, DOHC, parallel twin
Displacement
649 cc
Bore x stroke
83 mm x 60 mm
Compression ratio
10.8:1
Torque/horsepower
47 foot/pounds @ 6,700 rpm; 67 horsepower @ 8,000 rpm
Transmission
Six gears, chain final drive
Front suspension
41 mm telescopic fork, 4.9 inches of travel
Rear suspension
Horizontal back-link with adjustable preload, 5.1 inches of travel
Front brake
Dual semi-floating 300 mm petal discs, dual-piston calipers
Rear brake
Single 220 mm petal disc, single-piston caliper
Tires front/rear
120/70ZR17; 160/60ZR17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsport 2
Steering head angle/trail
24.0 degrees/3.9 inches
Wheelbase
55.5 inches
Seat height
31 inches
Tank capacity
4.0 gallons
Curb weight
419 pounds, 423 pounds ABS