It’s hard to argue with the brute performance of a bike like Kawasaki’s new ZX-14R, which showed the Suzuki Hayabusa who’s boss elsewhere in this issue. But when top speed runs and subsequent speeding tickets lose their cool (and trust us, they will), what big-bore supersport machines leave most riders with is a depleted bank account, higher insurance premiums and an unwanted reputation with the Highway Patrol. Budget bikes like the 2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 offer a much different experience however, and suffice as a practical alternative for new and returning riders looking to hone their skills rather than empty their wallets.
Lower-rung bikes are nothing new to Kawasaki’s lineup; the Japanese manufacturer has long tailored itself to entry-level riders, mostly with bikes like the Ninja 250R and EX500. The new Ninja 650 has been reworked from nose to tail though, and varies heavily from its R-embossed predecessor, with sharper lines and more emphasis on comfort and usable power than ever before. Our first chance to throw a leg over the machine came at the bike’s official press launch in Southern California. But while we enjoyed our time cruising the Mexican border (“Fun: The Next Generation,” April 2012), our ride gave little indication as to how the Ninja would work on anything other than short, scenic jaunts. More time spent commuting with the bike and flogging it in the canyons was a must.
The Ninja 650 looks much more like its supersport kin for 2012, with more aggressive/attractive styling. Larger radiator cutouts make a big difference in terms of getting excess heat away from the rider.
Every last change Kawasaki made to the Ninja 650 feels centered around the novice rider, which is understandable considering the bike’s target market. The 650 is much less cumbersome at the helm for instance, with a reshaped two-piece seat that replaces the 2011 model’s one-piece saddle. Both the rider and passenger portions of the seat utilize a thicker cut of foam for more cushioning, plus offer a wider sitting area for better comfort. The seat/tank junction has been reworked as well, providing shorter riders more confidence when balancing the bike on their feet.
A newly sourced rubber-mounted handlebar is 20mm wider and offers a generous amount of rearward sweep, resulting in what feels like a much more relaxed riding position when you throw a leg over the bike. Comfortable is a relative term, and depends heavily on rider height as we came to find out over our month-long adventure with the 650. The boss man himself found the Ninja ergonomics to be palatable for instance, whereas 6-foot-3-inch Bradley found the distance from the seat to the footrests too cramped for any ride over 30 miles.
Complementing the bike’s revised ergonomics is the Ninja 650’s new steel double-tube perimeter frame that replaces the 2011 model’s single-tube setup. Among the list of benefits are a more rigid construction and slimmer package that sees the bike’s footrests placed 50mm closer together. Straddling the bike around town, the changes are immediately apparent, almost excessive even for a more experienced rider — the bike feels that geared toward entry-level customers.
While not heavily revised, the engine is reworked just enough to benefit real-world riding. Fundamental changes include redesigned pistons that work with revised ignition timing to provide a five-percent boost in midrange torque and better fuel economy. The addition of a connector tube between the two header pipes works with those changes and provides a smother power delivery, plus the 2012 model’s new airbox uses repositioned inlets to grab cooler air from the sides of the bike, thus providing a denser intake charge.
A 20mm-wider handlebar with...
A 20mm-wider handlebar with a generous amount of rearward sweep adds to overall comfort, whereas typical Kawasaki mirrors add to overall visibility of what’s behind you. Also new is the analog tach/LCD panel, which offers a plethora of information regarding fuel economy and mileage, plus is easier to read than last year’s all-digital display.
Two-piston Tokico calipers...
Two-piston Tokico calipers provide a surprising amount of power without the aggressive initial bite that could easily put inexperienced riders in limp-home mode. The Kawi-specific Dunlop Roadsmart II tires allow the rider to make side-to-side transitions with little steering effort and provide great grip.
The thicker foam used for...
The thicker foam used for the new two-piece saddle makes the Ninja much more comfortable on longer rides, plus the .6-inch added seat height isn’t too noticeable thanks to the seat’s new shape. The 2mm longer lay-down shock runs revised damping rates and works well in relatively all conditions.
The De-Facto Commuter
Once added to our lineup of test bikes, the Ninja 650 almost immediately became Bradley’s daily ride. Not because it’s the most sporty bike in the testbed, but simply because it works. Comfortable and fun, this is the type of package that you can easily commute on without getting yourself into too much trouble.
Turn the Ninja’s key and the new analog tachometer/LCD panel comes to life post-haste. A quick thumb to the starter fires the fuel injected bike with similar quickness (one of the big divides between the Ninja 650 and Kawasaki’s other beginner bike, the Ninja 250R, remains the 650’s fuel injection system; the 250 is carbureted). The 650’s reworked muffler emits an admittedly dull exhaust note at idle, one that disappears suddenly in the company of a similar displacement four-cylinder mill. If anything, it denotes the bike’s tamer demeanor.
The reworked parallel twin engine is clearly no powerhouse, but its smooth power delivery and additional midrange make the Ninja 650 much more amiable than a 600cc supersport machine around town. Factor in the bike’s light clutch and relatively faultless transmission and you’ll be more than satisfied with how easy the 650 is to manage in stoplight-to-stoplight traffic.