Lifestyle

Entry Level Ninja


No one will be surprised to hear that there's a lot of overkill in the motorcycle business. Like motorcycles with 150-horsepower at the rear wheel that will run to a governed top speed of 187 mph. Or, how about a cruiser with a 2.4-liter engine, or a 600cc sportbike with a tachometer redlined at 17,500 rpm?

Yeah, we really need all that. Particularly with 65-mph speed limits, massive traffic congestion in most metropolitan centers, and a car-driving population with a cup of coffee in one hand and a cellphone in the other. So how about this? An entry level Kawasaki Ninja 650R at a price of just $6299. Yeah, I know. The words entry-level and Ninja hardly belong in the same sentence, particularly since many of the country's car-bound citizenry use the word Ninja to describe any fast, loud and flashy sportbike. But the crafty plan behind this budget projectile is an ambitious one. Combine light weight, a low price, and an economical powertrain in a package that will be easy to use by neophytes while incorporating enough performance, handling and panache to keep experienced bikers entertained. It sounds like a bold strategy, but Kawasaki's little 650 twin turns out to be a thoroughly charming bike, with an exciting turn of speed and nimble road manners.

While the 650R's smaller sibling-the Ninja EX500-uses an engine that was derived from half of an older ZX-10 powerplant, the latest Ninja gets an all-new dedicated engine that is smaller in every dimension, despite housing an effective counter-balance shaft to quell the vertical twin's inherent second-order vibes. Tuned for a broad spread of power and fed by a pretty seamless fuel-injection system, the 649 cc twin pumps out about 71 horsepower and scoots the bike and rider around with pleasing vigor.

It's redlined at 11,000 rpm, but since maximum power and torque are produced in the 7000 to 9000 rpm range, there's little need to wind it up that tight. And the twin will plod along happily at engine speeds around two grand, even though three grand is needed for meaningful throttle response.

Audible evidence of the twin's exertions is subdued by a large underbelly muffler, which incorporates a three-way catalytic converter that complies with Europe's tough Euro III emissions standard. Gases are finally vented through an aperture in the bullet-shaped exhaust tip. You can see little puffs of dust dance around and behind the bike when it's idling on a sandy surface.

This altogether modern engine is mostly hidden behind a full fairing, chosen as exclusive equipment for this market. The same bike is sold in Europe as either a naked model (ER-6n) or a faired model (ER-6f), but the U.S. market is biased towards bodywork, even if the insurance industry is not.

The fairing affords a good bit of wind protection to the rider, even though the standard-equipment tubular handlebars force a fairly upright riding position, especially among tall riders. But those same bars provide good leverage for tight corner work, and the 650R can be hustled through convoluted canyons like a dualsport mount. In the interests of meeting its tight budget targets, Kawasaki opted for a steel trellis frame, a single lay-down shock, and conventional forks. But the utilization has been extremely artful, with frame, forks and shock-spring painted an arresting shade of flame persimmon red. (Europe gets a gold treatment as an optional alternative on these components.)

Over here, the persimmon is standard, as are the gray six-spoke wheels, but the choice of bodywork and tank colors is either a two-tone treatment with black on the rear-seat section, tank, front-wheel fender and fairing upper, with silver on the lower fairing panel, or the other way around. The fairing and headlight design was borrowed from Kawasaki's ZX-10 rocketsport model, and lends a handsome flourish to the little Ninja's front end.

In an effort to associate the 650R's appearance with Kawasaki's more-steroidal sportbike line-up, the U.S.-bound 650R wears no rear passenger grab rails as it does in Europe. They are, however, available as an option. That sounds reasonable, the Europeans commute and ferry passengers more than we do. Over here we tend to ride solo as a recreational pastime.

The 650R will do well at that. It's light and compact and very wieldy in the hills. Pitched against Suzuki's successful range of SV650 V-twins, the Kawasaki scores with its full fairing, Ninja styling, and communicative handling. Compared with an older SV650S I rode to the 650R introduction, the Kawasaki felt as if it had a more stable mid-corner stance, and perhaps more crisp turn in. But that may be a factor of age.

The two formats are very similar, indeed, and produce comparable performance. So the primary differences are that the V-twin probably has better mid-range torque, and an exhaust note beloved by fans of the design. But the parallel twin with its 180-degree crankshaft (pistons rise and fall alternately) has its own signature sound, and there isn't much wrong with it.

For buyers, it may come down to the price. Suzuki's SV650 has crept up a little over the years, and the sportier, half-faired S-model now lists for $6,449. The Kawasaki Ninja 650R undercuts that by just $150, but its full fairing, imaginative styling, and gutsy sound may be the decisive factors in a purchase choice. There is no wrong answer here, thanks to a motorcycle industry that is allowing technology to trickle down into the hands of budget bikers. Overkill in the high end of the business clearly has its rewards.


Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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