For many beginners, learning to ride a street motorcycle can be an intimidating experience. There are a multitude of physical and mental tasks that must be handled simultaneously, and adding the power of even an older model multi-cylinder 600 (nevermind anything larger) will often overload the beginner’s abilities to the point of panic. This is why many countries require beginning riders to start off on nothing larger than a 250cc motorcycle; the 250’s small, easily manageable size and power allow the beginner to actually learn about proper throttle control, weight transfer, steering, gear-shifting, and other critical riding techniques much quicker than the misdirected and intimidated newbie tiptoeing around on a larger motorcycle.
The problem is that—in the States, at least—the 250cc streetbike pickings used to be pretty darn slim. Due to the constant American mentality that bigger is always better, the market for small displacement machines has remained a tiny fraction of the other categories. Thus, other than a few dual-sport bikes, the only choices have been Honda’s Rebel mini-cruiser...and Kawasaki’s long-running Ninja 250. In fact, the smallest Ninja has basically been the only sporting choice for decades—until quite recently.
Three’s a Crowd
Leveraging its long-running Thailand factory (built in 1967 to enable Honda to gain an early foothold in the soon-to-explode Southeast Asian markets) and its relatively new (built in 2001) India plant to manufacture the motorcycle in large numbers at low cost, the new 2011 CBR250R is the result of Honda’s belief that a sporty small-displacement bike could not only exploit the still-mushrooming Asian markets, but the recovering established economies of North (and South) America and Europe as well. We covered much of new CBR’s details in our initial overview found in the March issue’s Late Braking news section, and in associate editor Bradley Adams’ First Ride story in the April issue. Suffice it to say that the 249cc single-cylinder machine represents a major leap forward in the category.
There’s actually been another player in the 250 class since 2005, but due to various issues, the bike has been somewhat off the radar. Korean manufacturer Hyosung has been building small displacement motorcycles since the early 70s (the company was licensed to build Suzuki motorcycles for the South Korean market in 1979, though it has been manufacturing and marketing bikes of its own design since 1987), but it wasn’t until the company established a U.S. base in Georgia six years ago that its presence was significant enough to be noticed.
Kawasaki Ninja 250R
The Hyosung GT250R is the Korean company’s sport-oriented entry-level machine (it also offers a GT250 bare-bones naked version). Featuring an air/oil-cooled, 75-degree 249cc V-twin with electronic fuel injection and six speed gearbox, the GT250R uses the same basic chassis as its bigger GT650 brother. This means it also has big-bike components such as an aluminum twin-spar frame, 41mm inverted fork, dual 300mm front disc brakes, single linkage-equipped rear shock, and 120 front/150 rear tires sizes. Like its Korean automotive brethren, Hyosung has carved a reputation as an inexpensive alternative to the more popular brands, and has been working hard to upgrade its bikes in order to change the common association of cheap along with inexpensive.
And of course, then there’s the Ninja 250R. First introduced way back in 1983, the original EX250 was a Japanese domestic market model that Kawasaki introduced to help feed the burgeoning bike market there. When the little 249cc parallel twin was brought over to the U.S. as a 1986 model, Kawasaki really didn’t have any high expectations for the micro-Ninja. To its surprise, the 250 sold well, enough to keep the bike solidly ensconced in the U.S. lineup since that time with only two real updates in 25 years. And whenever gasoline prices have spiked, so have sales of the micro-Ninja; four years ago when gasoline soared to well over $4.50 per gallon, Kawasaki couldn’t keep up with demand, and the bikes were back-ordered for quite some time. Even more impressive is the rock-solid reliability of an engine design from the early 80s that redlines at 13,000 rpm; the micro-Ninja has been raced literally from its inception, and the bike was chosen as the spec bike for the European Junior Cup racing series that will accompany selected rounds of the 2011 World Superbike Championship.
Mix It Up
We brought these three 250s together to see which one offers what we feel to be the right type of performance for the entry-level market. And speaking of entry-level, we even had three beginners with scant riding experience try out each bike to give us their first-hand opinions.
Firing up the Honda or Hyosung in the morning requires nothing more than turning the key and hitting the starter button. The Kawasaki, on the other hand, is one of the few street motorcycles left that still uses carburetors, and thus requires some fiddling with the choke lever to keep the engine from either stalling or singing at 5000 rpm (interestingly, the Ninja 250 is equipped with fuel injection in all the other markets except the U.S.).
When it comes to ergonomics, both the Honda and Kawasaki have a more hospitable riding position than the Hyosung. The GT250R’s ergos are very sport-oriented, with clip-on bars that lean your torso forward and put more weight on your wrists, along with higher-set pegs and less legroom (to be fair, the Hyosung’s footpeg brackets are adjustable to one of three positions). Although the GT250R’s seat height is half an inch lower than the Honda or Kawasaki (which both are listed 30.5 inches), it doesn’t feel that way, especially since the Hyosung’s midsection is wider. This splays the rider’s legs out farther, and combined with the low bars can make the bike more difficult to balance for shorter riders. The CBR has the narrowest midsection and most upright ergos, with the Kawasaki only slightly wider and more aggressive; both are comfy enough to run through a tank of gas without complaints, while the Hyosung will have your derrière crying uncle well before 100 miles.
The Hyosung’s clutch was stiffer than the others, with more effort needed at the lever. Engagement was also toward the end of the lever travel, requiring a more deft touch compared to the Honda and Kawasaki, which were butter-soft and intuitively smooth by comparison.
Throttle response is where the Honda’s torquey single-cylinder engine and crisp fuel injection show a distinct advantage taking off from a stop. The Kawasaki and Hyosung both rev a little sluggishly off the bottom, forcing you to use more throttle than the Honda. That torquey response also makes itself known in acceleration anywhere from 10-40 mph, where the CBR is quicker and able to get the jump on the other two whenever the throttles are opened up. The Ninja requires a lot of rpm before it displays the same acceleration, while the Hyosung seemingly requires more throttle to match the Honda.
Once above 50 mph, however, both the twin-cylinder engines begin to show a definite advantage in power spread as the Honda starts running out of breath. At 70 mph, the CBR starts to struggle while the Hyosung and especially the Kawasaki are still well within their powerbands. At 80 mph, you can pretty much stick a fork in the Honda, while the Hyosung is wheezing pretty heavily; meanwhile, the little micro-Ninja is still purring (well, okay, more like screaming) along contently at 10,250 rpm, with plenty more in its pocket.
Speaking of purring along, the Kawasaki is noticeably smoother during highway cruising than the other two. The Hyosung’s vibration is the most annoying, with a buzzing in the bars and pegs from 6000-9000 rpm that will surely get tiring on long rides, while the Honda’s is more subdued between 7000-8500 rpm. The CBR’s mirrors are easily the best of the group, with spacing wide enough to easily see behind you; both the Hyosung and Kawasaki allow your elbows to intrude into the view too much. And as far as fuel economy, the Honda’s single-cylinder engine was king with an average of 70 mpg; however, you’ll definitely be stopping more frequently than the Hyosung, whose 67 mpg average and 4.5-gallon fuel tank (compared to the CBR’s 3.4-gallon tank) ensure well over 250 miles between fuel stops. The Kawasaki pays the price for its increased performance with a 46 mpg average, but with the largest tank capacity, more than 200 miles between fill-ups is the norm.
Kawasaki Ninja 250R
Kawasaki Ninja 250R
The Kawasaki’s instrument panel is all analog, including the odometer and tripmeter; fuel gauge is fairly accurate.
Honda CBR250R dash has an...
Honda CBR250R dash has an analog tach atop the digital LCD panel; beginner riders disliked the location of the digital speedometer and felt it needed to be higher and bigger.
Hyosung’s analog tach sits...
Hyosung’s analog tach sits to the left of its digital LCD, with most agreeing its layout was the best of the lot.
When the pavement turns twisty, all three bikes’ acquit themselves well despite their budget suspension pieces. The Honda is the most agile of the group, although the micro-Ninja is a close second in maneuverability, with the Hyosung’s long 56.5-inch wheelbase, and weight disadvantage (31 pounds heavier than the Kawasaki, and a whopping 59 pounds more than the CBR) consign it to following behind the other two in the canyons. The Honda’s suspension is probably the best damped, although it’s softer overall than the Ninja when the pace really picks up; the Kawasaki remains relatively unflustered in the faster corners while the CBR and Hyosung start to wallow and wander about. The Ninja does suffer from an excess of high-speed compression damping though, causing the rear to kick up over sharp-edged bumps at speed.
Ironically, the GT250R’s dual 300mm front discs don’t provide the stopping power and feel of either the Honda’s single 296mm disc or the Kawasaki’s single 290mm disc. In fact, despite the smallest front brake of the group, the Ninja was the unanimous favorite of all our testers (beginners included), with a crisp response that wasn’t too grabby for novices while still providing excellent power, feedback, and modulation. While the Honda’s brake was just responsive and strong enough, most of our testers felt it was a little too soft overall.
With all three bikes coming in at $3999, this comparison test was bereft of any price considerations, which helps narrow down the ratings significantly. The Hyosung has a lot going for it, including a solid build, long range from its gas-sipping engine and decent size fuel tank, and performance that’s more than adequate to keep newbies satisfied. In this company though, the GT250R is simply too rough around the edges to warrant placing above the rest.
And that leaves the CBR250R and Ninja 250R. The Honda has obviously been designed with the new rider in mind, from its torquey yet benevolent engine to its agile yet neutral handling; the CBR is meant to be as unintimidating as possible in order to give the newbie a comfortable platform to learn on. And in typical Honda fashion, the bike has innovative design and superb quality in its build.
What puts the Ninja 250R slightly above the Honda is the fact that while it has the ease and user-friendly operation a beginner needs for an easy learning environment, the Kawasaki also has enough performance to keep that rider busy learning for much longer. Most riders that continue on the motorcycling path move on to larger bikes as they progress; the Ninja 250R’s advantage is that it can fill that role—as well as many others—for more people longer. An amazing achievement for a bike that has changed little from its inception 25 years ago. SR
|Test Notes Kawasaki Ninja 250R |
|+||Faster than the others |
|+ ||Stable chassis, crisp brakes |
| ||Needs a lot of rpm |
| ||Least fuel economy of the lot |
|x ||There’s a reason it has survived for 25 years |
|Test Notes Honda CBR250R |
|+ ||Lightest, most agile of the group |
|+ ||Good midrange, best fuel economy |
| ||Starts to struggle past 60 mph |
| ||LCD panel a little too small |
|x ||A great kickstart to the class |
|Test Notes Hyosung GT250R |
|+ ||Big bike components |
|+ ||Longest range of the group |
| ||Heaviest of the group |
| ||Engine vibrates, revs sluggishly |
|x ||A little rough around the edges |
The Honda's single-cylinder engine shows its definite advantage in midrange power, with the Kawasaki obviously taking the high ground, and the Hyosung straddling the middle. In town, The CBR gets going quicker, but the Ninja handles highway speeds much better.
| ||Honda CBR250R ||Hyosung GT250R ||Kawasaki Ninja 250R |
|MSRP ||$3999 ($4499 ABS model) ||$3999 ||$3999 ($4249 w/SE graphics) |
|Engine Type ||Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke single ||Air/oil-cooled, 4-stroke 75-degree V-twin ||Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke parallel twin |
|Displacement ||249cc ||249cc ||249cc |
|Bore x stroke ||76.0 x 55.0mm ||57.0 x 48.8mm ||62.0 x 41.2mm |
|Induction ||PGM-FI, 38mm throttle body ||S&T fuel injection, 28mm throttle bodies ||Keihin K30 CV carburetors |
|Front suspension ||37mm fork, 4.7 in. travel ||41mm fork, 4.7 in. travel ||37mm fork, 4.7 in. travel |
|Rear suspension ||Single shock absorber, 4.1 in. travel ||Single shock absorber, 4.3 in. travel ||Single shock absorber, 5.1 in. travel |
|Front tire ||110/70-17 IRC Road Winner RX01F ||110/70-17 Shinko SR740 ||110/70-17 IRC Road Winner RX01F |
|Rear tire ||140/70-17 IRC Road Winner RX01R ||150/70-17 Shinko SR741 ||130/70-17 IRC Road Winner RX01R |
|Rake/trail ||25.0 deg./3.7 in. (94mm) ||25.0 deg./3.7 in. (94mm) ||26.0 deg./3.2 in. (81mm) |
|Wheelbase ||53.9 in. (1370mm) ||56.5 in. (1435mm) ||55.1 in. (1400mm) |
|Weight ||355 lb. (161kg) wet; 335 lb. (152kg) dry ||414 lb. (188kg) wet; 387 lb. (176kg) dry ||383 lb. (174kg) wet; 355 lb. (161kg) dry |
|Fuel consumption ||6375 mpg, 70 mpg avg. ||5370 mpg, 67 mpg avg. ||4556 mpg, 46 mpg avg. |Newbie Impressions
Having experienced riders like the SR staff test the three 250s is great for obtaining detailed information on the bikes. But we also wanted to see how the main market for these motorcycles—beginner riders—would feel after riding them. We took the three bikes to a very large, empty parking lot, and let three beginner riders loose on each one to get their impressions. All three have minimal riding experience; two of them (Steve Kovacic and Jake W. Smith) don’t even own a motorcycle, and their riding experience consisted of riding some friends’ dirt bikes once or twice—thus putting them squarely in the beginner stage, and perfect for our newbie test.
Height: 5’7, Weight: 130 lb.
Really easy to ride. It’s a light bike, easy to turn. For me, being a bit of a new rider, leaning on my bike is something I always kind of hesitate about, but it felt really easy to lean on this bike, I felt like I could control it more. I did notice I couldn’t see the speedometer at first; I kinda had to look a little bit more, which when you’re riding, you don’t want to have to take that extra second. Brakes are really good; I did a quick stop, and it was really easy. The bike’s really light and easy on you and pretty comfortable. Seating position was good, the handlebars are in a good position. Easy to get up to speed quickly, got up to 50 mph easily.
Hyosung GT250R: The Hyosung felt more substantial, you had to push a little more to get it to turn. It got up to speed faster than the Honda. The pegs weren’t really in the right spot for me, my legs felt a little cramped up; if you were smaller than 5’7, the Honda or Kawasaki might be the better bike because they’re smaller and easier to handle. The engine was definitely quicker than the Honda. The digital speedometer was really easy to see, much better positioned than the Honda. Brakes were good, the suspension felt a little more solid than the Honda, it didn’t seem as bouncy. The Hyosung just felt more stable, and I liked its power the best.
Kawasaki Ninja 250R: The Kawasaki was really easy to maneuver, really easy to steer through the S-turns at 50 mph, it didn’t feel like you were going to topple over or anything like that. The body positioning is nice, it’s almost between the Honda and the Hyosung, it’s a good comfortable position. The Kawasaki definitely felt faster than the Honda, and it seemed a little smoother than the others. With the analog speedometer, it seemed a little harder to see your speed compared to the digital one. Brakes were strong but smooth, not jerky at all. The suspension was firm but not harsh, not as soft as the Honda.
Which bike would you buy: I think it would be a toss-up between the Hyosung and the Kawasaki. They’re both a little bit faster than the Honda. The engines sound better too, not like the tin-can sound of the Honda.
Height: 5’11, Weight: 165 lb.
I liked the Honda CBR a lot. I like all the bikes, but on the CBR, I like the upright seating a little more, it felt a little more comfortable, being someone who doesn’t ride a lot. I felt like I could sit on there for a while and ride it. It felt a lot lighter to me, which I like, because I felt like I could move it around. The Honda felt more like a bicycle, I felt like I could really throw it around a little more. The power was good, but the Ninja felt a little more peppy. Stopping was good, shifting was fine, although a couple of times it felt like it missed a shift when I was gassing it.
Hyosung GT250R: Once again, a lot of fun. A little different feel, more like I was kind of on a racing bike, little more crouched over the tank. The turning felt nice, I was able to get into the turns a little bit, felt very stable. Power felt quite similar to the Kawasaki, all under control. Braking was good, not too grabby. The weight isn’t too big for someone like me. The speedometer was good; when I looked down, the Hyosung’s digital display was big, right there, easy to see.
Kawasaki Ninja 250R: I thought it was a lot of fun. The Kawasaki felt fast, but it didn’t feel like the power was going to get away from you or anything like that, which was good. Handling felt great, not too heavy; I’m not a large guy, so I felt comfortable and definitely safe on the bike. Brakes felt really nice, it all stopped very quickly and easily and never felt out of control. Absolutely not intimidating. The seat felt comfortable, no negatives whatsoever. Enjoyed it.
Which bike would you buy: I would probably buy the Honda because of the more comfortable ride, and the feeling that it was a little bit lighter.
Jake W. Smith
Height: 5’10.5, Weight: 172 lb.
Honda CBR250R: The CBR seemed to have more power, like in the second-to-third and third-to-fourth gear area, it seemed to have more get-up-and-go, and I could go to a higher speed without it winding out as much as the Ninja. It’s definitely not as hyper as the Ninja. The instrument panel wasn’t laid out very well, you had to know where the speedometer was. I liked the seating position, you’re a little more upright, and it was a comfortable setup, you were in a better position to view traffic. Brakes were maybe not as tight feeling as the Ninja, the Kawasaki smoked the Honda on the brakes.
Hyosung GT250R: Definitely bulky compared to the Honda and Kawasaki. But it’s very comfortable, it’s not like you’re cramped, you’ve got space to move around. The power wasn’t quite as responsive as the CBR. But I loved it, I enjoyed it, it was smooth. Turning felt good, it’s weighted pretty evenly so I didn’t have any problem doing S-turns and swerving. The front brake was good but not as tight as the others, the rear brake required some effort to work as good as the others. I wouldn’t buy the Hyosung right off the bat, it doesn’t seem as beginner-friendly as the other two bikes.
Kawasaki Ninja 250R: I enjoyed the bike immensely. The speedometer and tach are really easy to read. The Kawasaki is very light, it’s easy to maneuver, the weight feels ideal. The braking is excellent, it makes you feel confident. I like the engine power, I opened it up a little bit, I had a lot of fun. I like it a lot just because the bike was easy to feel and make the adjustments I needed to make. Ergonomically, I like the riding position a lot, it’s not too high, not too low, it’s very comfortable. It’s not a riding position where your knees are up high, I’m 5’10.5 and it was a perfect fit. For user comfort and ride, I love the Ninja.
Which bike would you buy: If I had to pick, it would be tough between the Ninja and the CBR, but I’d go with the CBR.
In the sportbike world I have limited bike choices due to my size, I’m fairly short with a super short inseam. So in this trio of 250s, which do I choose?
Realistically, the choice is a dead heat between the Kawasaki and the Honda. The Hyosung just didn’t work for me; too tall, too heavy, and the clip-ons were too low for me to deal with in everyday life. That’s too bad because I actually like V-twins and probably would have liked it better than everyone else.
So which of the remaining 250s do I pick? Tough question, both bikes were great and my favorite was the one I was riding at the time. But while the Honda CBR was fun to ride and looks amazinglike a baby VFRI have to pick the Kawasaki (no slouch in the looks department either). The Ninja’s stronger engine and slightly lower seat height just make it a better all-around pick for me. Not to mention it’s been around longer and has more aftermarket support. I would happily take either if one were to magically show up in my garage.
After hundreds of miles on each of these bikes, I discovered one important thing: what these 250 lightweight machines don’t offer in the power department, they make up for in the fun department. But as fun as they are, one of them just doesn’t fit in.
The Hyosung, which I would call the red-headed stepchild of the group, is noticeably less refined than the other two and features a more aggressive riding position, heavy steering and a stiff clutch that makes just leaving from a stop a challenge. But then there’s the Honda and Kawasaki, two bikes that are drastically different in design, but so similar in overall performance.
At the end of the day, my money would most likely be spent on the Kawasaki. This isn’t to say that the Honda is a bad bike; in fact, the opposite is true. The Honda is lightweight, nimble and offers plenty of torque for around-town commutes, making it almost definitely the better choice for new riders. But the Kawasaki just feels more performance oriented in terms of the engine and suspension characteristics.
I owned a 50cc Honda MB5 two-stroke as my daily transportation (and actually, canyon carver as well) back in 1982, so I know how much little bikes like these can teach someone about riding skill and getting the most out of your machine. Had these 250s been available back then, my friends and I most assuredly would have been scything through the local canyons with them.
Hyosung has come a quite a long way since we last rode its GT650R back in 2006 (Fun Factor, July ’06). The level of fit and finish are much better, and the company’s complete lineup received fuel injection last year. But it’s still unrefined when compared with the Japanese bikes, and when you consider that all three here are the same price, it’s a little too much to ask.
The new CBR250R has all the right attributes for a beginner bike, and it’s packed with surprisingly good performance and trick technology. The problem in my mind is that it only has just enough performance that can quickly and easily be outgrown. The Kawasaki Ninja 250R, on the other hand, has enough performance to keep its owner occupied for much longer.