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Common Tread

What is going on in the 300 class?

Jan 30, 2019

Uh, hello? Is this thing on? Can all the people interested in 300-class sports motorcycles hear me OK?

Today, I'd like to look at the 300 sport class, formerly known as the 250 sport class, also called the beginner or entry sport class. Riding the new Yamaha YZF-R3 last week got me thinking: This whole category is a bit of a mess, and I’d like to piece it back together somewhat, if that’s any help.

At this point, what we have is a loose collection of displacements, specializations, and manufacturers. Everybody’s doing their own thing these days. That’s fine. It just happens to confuse riders trying to figure out what’s right for them, and which other motorcycles they should consider. I’m going to focus mostly on small sport machines, but other types of motorcycles will make an appearance as well. I'm also keeping the focus on new bikes with a few readily available used models thrown in, so sorry to those of you already typing something about the RGV250/CBR400/RD400/etc. That's another article I'd love to write sometime.

I don’t know each and every one of you, but I’ll do my best to point you in a general direction. Let’s jump in.

Kawasaki Ninja 400
Our very own Spurgeon is a big fan of the 400. Kevin Wing photo.

Kawasaki

For years, Kawasaki was the entry-level sport world with their Ninja 250R, a.k.a. the EX250, the Ninjette, or simply the Ninja 250. It’s the ubiquitous starter bike, and someone is always selling one. In recent years, manufacturers have drifted towards 300s instead of 250s. An extra 50 cc doesn’t seem like a big difference, but when the bikes aren’t making all that much power to begin with, it’s a noticeable bump. So in 2012, Kawasaki moved first and rolled out the Ninja 300. Suddenly, the 250s were in trouble. The 300 offered more power and modern features like a slipper clutch and optional ABS. It wasn't long before the Honda CBR300R showed up, along with the Yamaha YZF-R3 and KTM RC390.

Then in 2018, Kawi dropped the Ninja 400 ($4,999) and blew the whole class up again. Bigger, faster, and even more modern, the 399 cc Ninja hangs out at the top of the 300 class as a bang-for-buck benchmark. Maybe 300 class isn't the best term anymore. Sub-400 class is more like it. 

Get the Ninja 250 if: You’re beginning your motorcycling journey, you're riding on a tight budget, and you don’t mind looking after a motorcycle that's probably a decade old or older. Don’t let that intimidate you, though. The Ninja 250 has some of the best forum support out there.

Get the Ninja 300 if: You want a newer machine without spending five grand, and/or you want ABS. Look around. There are still unsold Ninja 300s out there, and dealers want to unload them to make room for the 400s. They’re also easy to find used.

Get the Ninja 400 if: You want to own the bike to beat. The Ninja 400 is a ton of bike for the money, and one of the best all-rounders here. It's also physically larger than some of the other options, which will be a better fit for tall riders.

Wait for the upcoming Z400 if: A Ninja 400 with upright ergos, a standard handlebar, and no plastics to break sounds like your dream bike.

Get an old Ninja 500 if: You need a little more than the Ninja 250 has to offer, but you’re not looking to spend Ninja 400 money. Kawasaki made the Ninja 500 for ages and they're sometimes even cheaper than the 250s.

KTM RC390
KTM's RC390 is no poky commuter. KTM photo.

KTM

On to the KTM RC390 ($5,499). Based on the naked Duke’s 373.2 cc single-cylinder engine, the RC390 is the most race-oriented of the 300 class at this point. And at about 40 horsepower, it’s one of the fastest, as well. It’s light, stiff, and “Ready to Race” like you’d expect from a KTM. The RC's styling is easily the most extreme of the bikes covered here. So is its riding position. A KTM RC390 will be closest you can get to experiencing a full-size supersport without leaving the entry level.

Get the RC390 if: You want the most aggressively sporty bike in its class. The RC390 is just itching to do some track days and technical riding. It’s probably not the best choice for commuters. If you just have to have a KTM, but you’re realizing the RC390 might be too specialized for your average ride, consider the Duke 390

2019 Yamaha YZF-R3
Yamaha's YZF-R3 just got a refresh, and it's worth a look. Brian J. Nelson photo.

Yamaha

When Yamaha dropped the 2015 YZF-R3 into the arena, it was a direct competitor to the Ninja 300. It also made about as much power as the RC390, thanks to its 321 cc parallel twin. Yamaha’s just released an update to the R3 ($4,999), and it’s a highly refined machine. Refined enough to take on the Ninja 400? Sure. There's more to motorcycling than beating every bike on the road. And if that's your goal, what are you doing looking at 300s?

Get the R3 if: You’ll take a more polished package over outright power.

Get an older R3 if: The suspension and bodywork upgrades for 2019 don’t really matter to you, and you’d like to save a few bucks. Gear costs money, too!

Honda CBR300R
Honda's CBR300R keeps it simple. Honda photo.

Honda

Honda's CBR300R ($4,699) has all the essentials a small sport bike needs. I’ll come right out and say I’m a fan of the “Little Engine That Could” feeling all Honda’s singles seem to carry. With a low-for-the-class displacement of 286 cc, the little CBR is not going to pull away from the faster bikes, but it also won't get away from its rider. The CBR300R is an approachable, predictable ride with sport styling and no excess.

Get the CBR300R if: You like simple, capable thumpers. The CBR300R is practicality wrapped in the plastics of a sporting machine.

Try the CBR500R ($6,699) if: You wish the CBR300R had more power. Maybe you’re a larger rider, or your commute involves a substantial amount of highway riding.

Try the CB300R ($4,649) if: You like the little thumper, but a) plastics make you nervous, or b) you'd like a more unique, premium look.

Look at the old CBR250R if: A 37 cc difference between the 250 model and the 300 isn't a big deal to you... especially when you might be saving a couple grand!

Suzuki GSX250R
Suzuki's GSX250R is outgunned by larger, more powerful options, but there's still room for a sturdy 250. Suzuki photo.

Suzuki

The final entry from the Japanese Big Four is the GSX250R ($4,599). There’s only so much I can say about this motorcycle, as I’ve never even seen one. It’s one of the heaviest bikes in the class (about 392 pounds wet, 50 more than the KTM). On top of that, it's roughly half as powerful as the Ninja 400 or RC390. But compared the the Ninja 250s that everyone rode for decades before Kawasaki started an arms race, the GSX250R is a gem. And you can honestly say you ride a Gixxer.

Get the Suzuki if: You’re looking to get a small, sensible machine for the street without overspending. Suzuki is well known for their cheap financing and the GSX250R is already pretty inexpensive. 

BMW G 310 R
BMW's G 310 R doesn't look like a sportbike, but it'll fit right in with the others. BMW photo.

BMW

A BMW for under $5,000? You might miss it behind a giant boxer in the dealership, but yeah, BMW has the G 310 R ($4,750) for similar money to its Japanese and Austrian counterparts. While the G 310 R lacks the wind protection of the fully faired 300s, it does have nice components for its class, like that upside-down front fork and ABS as standard. On top of that, the G 310 R looks more expensive than it is. (Probably has something to do with that BMW badge.) Until they give us an S 310 RR, the G is as sporty as Beemers get at this level.

Get the BMW if: Your idea of sporty riding doesn’t necessitate fairings. Consider this: When Lance reviewed the bike in the mountains of Santa Monica, a writer from his test group passed a local on a Ducati 1098. That's the power of those M stripes!

Other bikes

Question from the back? Hyosung GT250? SYM Wolf CR300i? Benelli TnT300? Sure, I’ve heard of them. There are enough other small motorcycles in this class to merit another website. Investigate any motorcycle that interests you, but keep in mind that even KTM and BMW dealerships are uncommon in some areas. 

Man, these bikes really are different from each other

Maybe the best way to summarize all this is to look at the world of racing for a second. In World Supersport 300, the R3, the RC390, and the Ninja 400 compete for the 300 class. The event’s officials have to put all kinds of different stipulations in place for these motorcycles to compete against each other, because they’re all so different. Honda doesn’t even campaign the 300, opting instead for a limited version of their CBR500R. It’s not a fair fight on the track, and it isn’t in the dealership, or the spec sheet, or the street.

Each of these motorcycles brings its own advantages, and this weird 300 +/- 99 cc class we have going on is actually pretty nice. By now, you’ve probably already identified with one of these motorcycles over the others. My recommendation? Test ride that one first and go from there!