I pull up in front of Scott's house on a 2013 Kawasaki Ninja 650 packed to the gills with camping gear as he emerges from his pickup, tool roll in hand.
“Oh man, I’ve always wanted to ride a sport bike, but isn’t that going to kill your back?” he asks as I hop off the bike.
I’ve gotten the same response for weeks now from friends and fellow riders alike. Guys on Honda CBR600RRs and BMW S1000RRs have even pulled beside me and tried to challenge me to race. What none of them realize is what I’ve spent a decent amount of seat time learning: the Ninja 650 may be the best standard motorcycle on the market.
The Ninja 650 is not what it seems
Powered by the same liquid-cooled 649cc parallel twin as the ever-popular Kawasaki Versys, the Ninja makes a meager 67 bhp at 8,700 rpm and 45 lbs.-ft. of torque at 7,000 rpm and achieves 45 to 50 mpg. Still think it’s a sport bike? What about when I tell you it’s fitted with 41mm right side up forks, which have been tuned to offer optimal comfort? In fact, while its sportiest feature may be its styling, the riding position is even fairly upright. So much so that our photographer mentioned that it put him in a riding position to take a fair bit of wind to the chest while at freeway speeds (the windscreen can be adjusted to three different positions to help with this, by the way).
Comfort was a major focus in the Ninja’s redesign a few years ago. The handlebars and seat are now rubber-mounted, as are the footpegs, to provide a vibration-free ride. The rear suspension allows for easy preload adjustment to further tailor your ride. The Ninja 650 also feels a great deal slimmer than its predecessors, which makes getting one or both feet flat on the ground a cinch even for shorter riders. This also helps to mask the bike’s 460-pound curb weight.
What all of this adds up to is a really nice looking motorcycle that offers excellent gas mileage, decent power, and exceptional handling for its class and price point. To me, it’s the perfect blend of sport and everyday usability.
That sporty looking gas tank feels natural to hang off when you want to enjoy yourself in the canyons, while the relatively high bars and low pegs mean you’ll stay comfy riding all day. The engine has none of the fueling glitches that afflict too many other motorcycles and there’s enough power to get you out of a jam when you grab a handful of throttle. The engine is smooth for a twin, and the changes to the rider interfaces finish the job of keeping bothersome vibration away from the rider. The Dunlop Roadsmart II tires it’s equipped with stock actually provide terrific grip, both wet and dry.
Aesthetically, the bike is absolutely beautiful and looks like it costs more than its $7,500 price tag. I was happy to see they were going to put me on the white one with the red rear suspension coil, a personal favorite of mine. Little things like that suspension, the low-slung exhaust, or the front turn signals, which are integrated into the front fairings, make you stop and think that this isn’t a budget bike. The LCD instrument screen is one of my favorites thus far and easily beats anything on a comparable bike. Multiple trip counters, speedometer, clock, average fuel consumption and miles left until empty are all welcome pieces of information on a bike you could easily use for everyday commuting or long trips. You can even see things other than your elbows in the mirrors.
The Kawasaki Ninja 650’s main competitors are the Honda CBR500R on the lower side (MSRP: starting at $6,299) and the Yamaha FZ6R just above (MSRP: starting at $7,799). I’m a huge fan of the Honda 500 line but, to me, there really is no competition here. The Hondas are fantastic little bikes but they feel like just that – little bikes. The CBR500R, especially, feels like an entry-level or beginner bike while the Ninja feels like a real motorcycle. With the 500s, you grab a handful of throttle and watch as the mph number ticks upward, but on the Ninja you feel the bike accelerate. That, on top of the similar fuel mileage and far nicer aesthetics, makes the Ninja 650 tough to beat in a comparison with the little Hondas.
I haven’t ridden the FZ6R, but like the Ninja 650 it offers full-fairing sport bike looks in a more ergonomically friendly package. It also has a four-cylinder engine, compared to the Ninja’s twin.
For those not hung up on having a full fairing, the other difficult decision is whether to consider the Yamaha FZ-09 (MSRP: $7,990). They’re very different bikes, with very different looks and engine profiles, but when the money is that close it’s hard not to consider it.
The Kawasaki Ninja 650 is a fantastic motorcycle. It gets great gas mileage, has a very enjoyable engine, and looks far nicer than it should for its price tag. We found it easy to ride, both around town and in the canyons. I even spent about eight hours on it one day, which is usually enough to make me hate any motorcycle, and I remained relatively comfortable the entire day.
I’d probably upgrade the brake lines and brake pads if this were my personal bike, as they felt a little soft and required a little more force than I’d like. The footpegs could also be a touch lower, given the Ninja’s general nature.
The Kawasaki Ninja 650 is my favorite Kawasaki to date. Every new thing I discovered about it came as a pleasant surprise. From its engine’s characteristics to its handling to its fuel economy to its styling to its levels of comfort, the Ninja won me over every time I sat on it.
It performed fantastically with every scenario I could throw at it, which only made me wonder what it would be like on the track. Those of you who are fans of turning SV650s into track bikes should start looking at used Ninjas in a few years.
2013 Kawasaki Ninja 650
|Engine type||Liquid-cooled parallel twin, four valves per cylinder|
|Bore x stroke||83.0mm x 60.0mm|
|Transmission||Six-speed, chain final drive|
|Rake/trail||25 degrees/4.3 inches|
|Front suspension||41mm telescopic fork, 4.9 inches of travel|
|Rear suspension||Single laydown shock, 5.1 inches of travel|
|Front brakes||Two 300mm petal discs with two-piston calipers|
|Rear brake||Single 220mm petal disc with single-piston caliper|
|Fuel capacity||4.2 gallons|
|Seat height||31.7 inches|