Common Tread

Ninja 400: What Kawasaki could have built instead

Oct 30, 2017

Pizza, sex, and dogs.

Even when they’re bad, they’re still pretty good. For me, motorcycles are very similar. It’s rare I ride a bike that doesn’t have at least a handful of redeeming qualities. I mean, it’s hard to be mad with the breeze on your kisser. Kawasaki’s new Ninja 400 is a rad-looking machine, and I cannot wait to take a spin on one. While there are no guarantees this bike will be released in America, I’m pretty sure we’ll get it here, as the promo video for the bike was shot in Milwaukee. What has me scratching my melon, however, is how Kawasaki thinks a model should be “improved.”

I felt Kawasaki could have traveled one of two paths in the small-bike segment to make their bike a standout: get aggressive with pricing on the 300 platform or create a featherweight twin with mighty power output and a sublime suspension. It may feel like I am picking on Kawasaki, but that's not the goal here. Let’s analyze what we’ve seen so far, eh?

Ninja 400
2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400. Kawasaki photo.

Kawi increased the bore and stroke on the existing Ninja 300, increasing horsepower slightly and torque significantly. The weight of the new 400 drops by three pounds, but so does fuel tank capacity (a la Harley-Davidson), which accounts for a big portion of the savings. Suspension and brakes are likely to be lackluster: the bike only wears two brake discs, and the front end is a conventional right-side-up unit. (In fairness, front disc diameter went up, as did the fork tube diameter.) All of these items taken collectively indicate to me that this Ninja 400 is still geared to the rider who hasn’t owned a motorcycle previously.

Learners probably were not asking for more power

The Ninja 300 was conceived as a learner bike. Yes, it can be run at the track, but it's usually modified quite a bit to do so. Track use, though, is not the 300’s main goal. At its core, the Ninja 300 was a tool to bring riders into Kawi’s fold. The 400, however, is not joining the 300, but replacing it.

First, read my lips: 400 is a middleweight bike. Many people can and will learn on this motorcycle, but 400 cc is in no way necessary to learn on. The 400 is derived from the 300, which itself was a gratuitous displacement increase over the old 250R. Those bikes were super-spunky; I still enjoy getting on one today. The extra power is probably not going to hurt anyone, but it’s also not necessary.

For those riders who say that they want to keep their first bikes a bit longer or that they need to grow into something, I say... no. Riding motorcycles can be inconvenient at times. We don’t generally license new drivers and put them behind the wheel of a dually, sports car, or truck and trailer. Why would a motorcycle be different? A new rider isn’t likely to know what he wants; he’s likely to have ideas that are not borne out from experience.

The price of the Ninja 400 hasn’t yet been announced, but let’s presume it’s in line with the existing 300. The bike is not appreciably lighter and the handling and braking have likely not improved greatly. Even if the new power comes effectively for free, is that really a “feature” a beginning rider needs?

Kawi could have slashed weight, offered different ergonomic options, used higher-spec parts, or even pulled the same move it pulled with the 250R back when it had the class to itself: Let the model run and keep the prices down! In 2006, the last year of the first-gen Ninja, MSRP was $2,999. In 2017 dollars, that figure would be $3,648.15. The actual price of a non-ABS Ninja 300 is $4,999 — 37 percent more. And you know the Ninja 400 ain’t gonna be cheaper.

Couple this with the disappearance of the 125 and 250 cc cruisers Kawi offered in years gone by, and it sure seems like Kawasaki isn’t doing it all it could to attract new riders, young riders, or riders on a budget — exactly the people they need to address to keep motorcycling viable in America.

Green Ninja
2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400. Kawasaki photo.

Vet riders would prefer some other upgrades

This bike doesn’t appear to be appreciably better for experienced folks. Diehard race people will take any bike they choose and modify to taste, but for riders who don’t want to be mechanics,  the 400 looks like it has some shortcomings if the goal is to take it to the track. That single disc and right-side-up suspension don’t bode well for serious screamin’.

I think a more sophisticated, refined bantam brawler would be a standout product in this country and in others. I can’t really think of a single affordable bike that attempts to deliver competition-level suspension and braking without the too-much-for-the-street power.

For people who envision the 400 for street use and budget blasting at the track, this isn’t the upmarket version that would be instantly without peer in the category. Instead, it’s just a slightly more powerful Ninjette. That doesn’t sound bad, per se, but for the more experienced rider who wanted a budget twin with more pop and sizzle than a 300 Ninja, Kawi has the Ninja 650. (Or, for the rider who doesn’t have the extra cheddar, toss a few aftermarket parts on a 300 and retune it.)

My hopes for a jewel-like, hi-po race-spec machine with manageable power that could be used somewhat rationally on the street are still no more than a pipe dream. Lance tells me this category has no demand, but I can’t see how we would know that; I can’t even think of a bike like that for sale.

Why this suggestion is not terrible

Those of you who remember the 1990s will recall the spectacular failure of the 400 class. The Gixxer 400, VFR400, CBR400 and a slew of other bikes simply died here in America. The 400 class exists almost exclusively due to Japan’s licensing system. Those bikes failed to sell in this country because an inline-four 400 was effectively a crippled 600. They had the cost and weight of a 600 cc machine without all the power. The bike I am pitching must focus on keeping the weight and size down, because low power with the middleweight pounds didn't (and won't) work.

A 400 to 500 cc twin or triple, however, with suspension, brakes, and tires that didn’t come from Budgetland, might be a viable category. I can’t really think of many (any?) sub-600 cc bikes that have great components right out of the box. I imagine that being a good step-up bike: not more power, but more feel and handling/stopping capability. I also imagine it being a good step-down bike. Imagine the rider with 10-plus years of experience who has come to realize that railing a bike on the street is fun when the cops aren’t involved.

For Kawasaki, the cost to build such a bike would be minimal — many bikes share neck stem lengths and even diameters. Why not offer a 300 or 400 cc twin with a ZX-6R front end and good rubber, right from the factory? If it failed, it would sure be a cheap failure from Team Green’s standpoint. Heck, hedge the bet and offer an "R" model or something. Instead of increasing sales of the bike mostly with beginners (presumably what the displacement bump is designed to do), why not forgo one or two sales in that category and grab some from riders who may not have been shopping your brand at all?

I've been told rookies may opt for the bike with a bigger number emblazoned on the side, but really, seat height and price are likely to be the numbers that should get more attention. I doubt many experienced riders dump their budget track bike and zippy commuter to “upgrade” to a 400. I suppose one could look at this like a lighter, less-powerful, modern-day Ninja 500. But wasn’t the Ninja 650 supposed to be a more powerful Ninja 500? Consumers are savvy; I think this is a case of the marketing or advertising tail wagging the production dog.

Ninja action
I want to do this on the street, but I want to do it with better stoppers and suspenders. Kawasaki photo.

America’s becoming less and less important as a player in the world motorcycle market, and yet Kawi just applied the same plan Harley-Davidson, Frigidaire, and Coca-Cola have all come up with when they had no idea what to do: just make it bigger. I don't think that's the right way to upgrade the Ninjette.

I personally feel the sting a bit more when the only “improvement” is more power. Hell, nowadays, it’s pretty rare I say, “I could have gone faster if I had more power.” The reality is that the slowest part of nearly any bike I ride is me. I’m betting other American riders will step up and admit the same thing. The rest of the world, for the most part, has been doing that for a long time.

I’ve told many people to ride a motorcycle, not a spec sheet, and I’ll take a spoonful of my own medicine. I am keeping an open mind on the Ninja 400, but unless the price on this motorcycle is dirt cheap, I cannot see how it is a meaningful improvement for its intended audience. I still might love it; and maybe if I ever have one I'll have to just apply standard Lem-lem chop-chop techniques to get what I want, but I fear I'm just gonna be underwhelmed.

Even if I’m completely correct, though, motorcycles are still like pizza, sex, and dogs.