When Kawasaki first introduced the Ninja 650R back in 2006, our first reaction was “Why?” Why would the company seemingly step on its own toes by introducing competition for the long-running (and often best-selling) EX500? But after riding the then-all-new 649cc vertical twin, we quickly discovered that Kawasaki indeed had a winner on its hands. The Ninja 650R was superior in nearly every way to the 500, without cutting into any of the aspects that made the EX such a sales success. Although it was easy to surmise that the EX’s days were numbered...
With all the hype surrounding the new ZX-14R, it was easy to assume that all of Kawasaki’s development budget for 2012 was spent on the big flagship we also rode for this issue. It was a bit of a surprise, then, to see the debut of a significantly revamped 650 as well, with the midsize Ninja dropping the “R” designation from its moniker for the new year. Kawasaki obviously is treating the Ninja 650 as a very important model — much more than you’d expect for a motorcycle without the high-profile intentions of its supersport brethren.
Not Just a Facelift
The 649cc vertical twin underwent...
The 649cc vertical twin underwent some subtle upgrades (including airbox and exhaust changes) aimed at boosting low-end and midrange power.
The Ninja 650’s engine underwent a surprising amount of improvements aimed at boosting its low-end and midrange performance. Chief among those changes are new pistons that actually lower compression ratio a half-point (from 11.3:1 to 10.8:1), along with a completely revised airbox up top and a new higher-flowing exhaust down below.
The airbox intake is now positioned up between the double-steel-tube spars of the new chassis (more on that later) instead of the previous snorkel that simply took in air from down behind the radiator, making for a cooler and denser intake charge. The airbox internals were redesigned while keeping the same volume, with a paper air filter with more surface area (and better flow and filtration properties) replacing the previous foam type, and the layout optimized to take advantage of the new intake and filter setup.
A connector tube joins the header pipes of the exhaust to smooth out exhaust pulses and significantly reduce peaks and valleys in the torque curve. And the under-engine muffler features a much larger volume and new internal construction, with a new design using three chambers instead of four to improve the catalyzer layout for better flow.
A new steel dual-tube swingarm...
A new steel dual-tube swingarm replicates the dual-tube construction of the new frame. The banana-style right side makes room for the larger-volume muffler underneath the engine.
The chassis is all new, with a steel double-tube perimeter design replacing the single-tube setup from the previous generation to provide more rigidity, a slimmer package, and lighter, easier handling than before. A single backbone type rear swingarm pivot section (replacing the previous dual tube setup) not only allows a narrower midsection to allow shorter riders to reach the ground easier — the footpeg mounts are 50mm closer together, a considerable amount — but also permits a stouter rear subframe to be mounted for increased payload capacity and passenger comfort. The swingarm also follows the double-tube design, with the banana-style right side section making room for the larger muffler, and the rear design allowing for forged billet sliding-block rear axle holders for fewer parts and easier rim removal/replacement.
The front and rear suspension weren’t left out of the upgrade department either, with the 41mm conventional fork and side-mount rear shock sporting increased length and stroke. The fork’s overall length increases from 120mm to 125mm, with the longer stroke enabling a lower spring rate for more comfort while damping settings were firmed up a tad to keep the travel under control (the increase in ride height also results in an incremental 4mm more trail). Ditto for the spring rate and damping changes for the rear shock, which sees an increase in overall length and stroke by 2mm. The front wheel has been slightly redesigned for more strength, and Dunlop’s new Roadsmart II (albeit an OEM-spec version, which has slight construction differences to the off-the-shelf Dunlop) will be fitted to all U.S.-bound Ninja 650s.
The new windscreen is manually...
The new windscreen is manually adjustable (using a wrench) to one of three positions within a 60mm range. Adjustable levers are a nice touch.
The previous LCD all-digital...
The previous LCD all-digital instrument panel has been thankfully replaced by an analog tach and new LCD panel that is much easier to read at a glance.
The new two-piece seat provides...
The new two-piece seat provides thicker foam for both the rider and passenger sections. The shape and support is a marked improvement from the previous one-piece saddle.
The instrument panel design has been revamped, with the previous poorly lit all-digital LCD with bar-graph tachometer thankfully replaced with an analog tach and LCD info setup. Included in the information display are new features such as current and average fuel consumption, remaining fuel range, economical riding indicator, low/high battery charge warning, and low fuel warning on the bar-graph fuel gauge. The fuel tank gains 0.1 gallons for a new capacity of 4.2 gallons.
Every single piece of the bodywork is new, with the more aggressive wind-tunnel-developed fairing sporting larger radiator side openings that offer better cooling and direct engine heat away from the rider. The windscreen is adjustable (manually with tools) to three positions within a 60mm range, and the tubular handlebar is 20mm wider. A new two-piece seat replaces the previous single-piece seat, with thicker foam in both the rider and passenger sections combining with a wider rear portion for the rider to provide better overall comfort.