Say Hello To The New You
It’d be easy to think that all these changes to the Ninja 650 wouldn’t add up to much more than window dressing on an already capable package, but a day spent with the new Ninja 650 showed us otherwise. Those who tend to equate these types of bikes with the words “dull” or “weak” are in for a surprise with the Kawasaki.
Immediately noticeable on the new Ninja is the redesigned seat. While the previous perch was by no means a torture rack, the thicker foam and wider rear portion of the new saddle provide much better support for longer rides. The handlebar is not only wider, but seems to have a straighter bend than the previous setup, making the bike feel roomier overall. The new 650’s narrower midsection surely plays a role here as well.
Lever effort and feel from the cable-operated clutch work with the powerplant’s amiable response off the bottom to still make for novice-friendly take-offs from a stop. Swing the tach needle past the 5000 rpm mark though, and the new 650 quickly displays a marked increase in steam all the way up to about 1000 rpm short of its 11K redline. Not an excess that could swiftly put novice riders in over their heads, mind you, but enough to boost the fun factor considerably — for riders of all skill sets. Throttle response is silky-smooth, as is the linear character of the powerband. And although the stock exhaust note is still a bit nasal, the relocation of the airbox intake adds a nice howl when you get on the throttle.
We didn’t really like the previous model’s brakes, which felt rather wooden and required a lot of lever effort to get decent stopping power, even taking the Ninja 650’s novice rider intentions into consideration. That issue has thankfully been remedied on the new 650, with a new pad compound offering much better feel and progressiveness to bleed off speed with more authority, yet not be so responsive as to possibly bite an inexperienced hand.
The new dual-tube perimeter...
The new dual-tube perimeter frame is mostly hidden underneath plastic covers. The swingarm pivot section has been redesigned to allow the midsection to be significantly narrower.
Even though the double-tube frame’s steering geometry is nearly identical (save for a smidgen more trail) to the old model, the new Ninja’s steering habits are definitely more agile, while still remaining impressively neutral. Most of the credit here surely goes to the new Dunlop Roadsmart II rubber, which not only offers fairly precise steering but surprisingly good grip as well. Bump absorption while leaned over was also exemplary, especially with the front tire.
Granted, we never really pushed the bike hard enough during our street ride to see if the new chassis was any real improvement over the previous edition, but what we did find was that the new suspension rates are a step up. While the budget origins of the components can’t be ignored — the 41mm conventional fork is non-adjustable, and the non-linkage-equipped rear shock is adjustable only for spring preload — the overall action has been improved on both ends of the scale. The ride at cruising speeds is plusher than before, while still offering more control when the speeds and aggression pick up to provide a much broader performance envelope. Only when the pavement is really broken up or the pace reaches near expert levels does the suspension start to come unwound, although heavier riders may approach that limit sooner.
We never got the chance to adjust the windscreen to its highest setting to see if it would help keep the windblast off our chest during the rather chilly temps we saw during our ride, but we heard from a couple of other motojournalists on the ride that all it did was create more turbulence around the helmet area; we’ll reserve judgment until we get one for a full test. The new instrument panel is a definite plus, with the analog tach far easier to read at a glance, and the LCD panel offering up more and better information, including the remaining mileage counter (estimating how many miles left before you run out of fuel) which we found rather useful. The same style mirrors that are found on all the Kawasaki Ninja models provide a decent rear view on the 650, while the engine counterbalancer keeps vibes from excessively fuzzing out the images as well as bothering the rider.
The Preliminary Verdict?
With the Suzuki SV650 (and its ill-fated Gladius successor) dropping off the 2012 landscape, the Kawasaki Ninja 650 now remains as the sole choice of over-250cc motorcycles suitable for novice riders from the Japanese manufacturers. We find this current situation somewhat misguided, especially considering the numerous letters we get every month from new riders looking for a sporty motorcycle that are over six feet tall and 190 pounds (making them a bit big for a 250). Kudos to Kawasaki for continuing to make this option available and providing a stepping stone that helps build the next generation of sportbike enthusiasts.
Kawasaki has succeeded in making a definite improvement to the Ninja 650’s performance in numerous areas — and in doing so, the company has once again shown that the motorcycles in its lineup that are often labeled as “beginner bikes” are actually far from the usual dismissive assumptions in performance and ride that accompany that genre. And to get all this for just a $300 bump in price? We can’t see any reason why Kawasaki won’t be selling a boatload of these when they arrive. SR
2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC, parallel twin
Displacement: 649cc Bore x stroke: 83.0 x 60.0mm
Compression ratio: 10.8:1
Induction: Keihin digital fuel injection, 38mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Roadsmart II J
Rear tire: 160/60ZR-17 Dunlop Roadsmart II J
Rake/trail: 25 deg./4.3 in. (109mm)
Wheelbase: 55.5 in. (1410mm)
Seat height: 31.7 in. (805mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gal. (16L)
Claimed wet weight: 460.8 lb. (209kg)