The Quarter-Liter Class Is An important learning tool for bigger and better motorcycles. Most of today's big names have graduated through the class to reach the top. It's only natural that the skills learned on the smaller, slower bike transition to the next level. The same holds true for street riding, which is why the Kawasaki Ninja 250R is such an important motorcycle.
You're probably thinking, "Wait a second, what does the Ninja 250 have to do with racing?" More than you might think, actually. Since 1986 the little Ninja has been a part of the Team Green stable, and in recent years, believe it or not, it has been Kawasaki's best-selling motorcycle, period. It's staggering that a bike that basically has not changed since 1988 is the company's best-seller despite the antiquated styling, which has led many to wonder: "Is Kawasaki ever going to update that bike?" Though it took 20 years, Kawasaki finally delivered with the all-new '08 Ninja 250R. Better late than never, I guess.
According to Kawasaki, 62 percent of Ninja 250 owners are first-time buyers. Furthermore, the primary factor in their purchasing decision is the deal they can get for the bike. after that come styling, cost of insurance, size, seat height and gas mileage. It is only after all those are met that handling and performance come into play.
With this information Kawasaki engineers went to work. The new bike had to look modern, be user friendly to the beginning rider and most of all be cheap. There's no question the updated styling brings the new bike into the modern age. a quick walk-around reveals some key changes as well. Gone are the 16-inch loops of old, replaced with 17-inchers for a better selection of rubber. Petaltype brake rotors sit front and rear with the former growing to 290mm from 260 (both are still clamped by dual-piston calipers). The 2-into-1 exhaust replaces the dual pipes on the old bike, and rear shock preload is now five-way adjustable, whereas the old had no adjustment whatsoever. The instrument cluster now features a fuel gauge-something many owners wished for in surveys.
The other changes aren't so noticeable to the naked eye. The little engine got a makeover with emphasis on low- and midrange power. Intake and exhaust ports are reshaped, the combustion chamber is more compact, valves are now lighter and the camshafts feature increased lift and duration. Interestingly, the new bike still uses carburetors, while its European counterpart is fuel-injected. The reason? Cost. With final retail pricing such an important influence in potential buyers' minds, the decision to use carbs saves thousands of dollars compared with an EFI system-which is required in Europe to meet emissions standards. On the chassis side, extra ribbing is added to the frame for increased stiffness, while the rake angle drops one degree to 26. Front suspension is now a 37mm Showa fork with revised spring rates.
On the road all the changes are clear-this is the beginner bike we've been waiting for. The slightly forward bar does put the rider in a more sporty position, but overall the rider is sitting largely upright, and the 30.5-inch seat height is sure to inspire flatfooted confidence in all but the shortest of riders.
By no means is it a groundpounder, but leaving from a dead stop doesn't require clutch-slipping at 8500 rpm anymore. Our 80-mile test loop consisted of city commuting, back roads and freeway jaunts, and the Ninja handled them well. Bumps in the road were hardly noticeable thanks to the revised suspension bits, and the small dimensions allow it to slice through city traffic. Backroad riding was largely a "throttle-pinned" affair (which isn't very fast on a small bike like this, mind you), though I noticed that the stock Bridgestone Battlax BT-45 tires took some coaxing before they would fall over. And despite what your friends on bigger bikes might tell you the little 250 can maintain freeway speeds with plenty of revs to spare.
With a bike so budget-oriented, the petal rotor and twin-piston caliper are very impressive. True, we weren't setting any land-speed records, but the brakes have great initial bite and a progressive feel the harder you squeeze the lever.
It's hard to fault the Ninja 250R, though if I were to nitpick I did notice the seat was a little firm and at more than 9000 revolutions the footpegs would really start to buzz. But for someone just getting into the sport there really is no better option. and for just $3499 you can't go wrong. Oh, and if you're still wondering what this has to do with racing-there's been a revival of the Ninja 250 class here in Southern California that used to be popular years ago, and yup-we're going to do it. Stay tuned: This should be interesting! -T.S.