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.
Although freeways may not be every novice riders comfort zone, the middleweight Ninja feels more than stable on the interstate, with plenty of power beyond 6000 rpm to accelerate past traffic when need be. Also adding to the Ninja’s superb feel on the freeway is its thicker seat cushion and plush suspension, and the redesigned body panels are not only more stylish but loads more functional. Playing a key role in comfort is the larger radiator side openings that direct hot engine heat away from the rider. The cutouts work so well in fact, we never once had a problem with our legs getting toasty during our multiple commutes home in 80-degree weather.
One piece that didn’t work as well as we’d hoped is the 650’s new three-way adjustable windscreen. Because while the Ninja 1000 featured a press button for adjustment, the 650 requires you keep a 4mm Allen wrench handy. Adjusting the unit is best done by removing the screen from the mount too, meaning no less than eight bolts need be removed before you can raise the screen to its tallest positions. Once there, the windscreen directs a noticeable amount of windblast away from the rider’s chest. Similar to the problem we had with the 1000’s unit however, the tallest setting increases wind noise and buffeting around the helmet. In the end, we reverted back to the lowest position, opting for windblasts to the chest over helmet buffeting.
Simple But Stable
Complementing the chassis changes is a new fork that’s 5mm longer in overall length (125mm vs. 120mm) and softer in terms of spring rates. Internally, the updated fork also features revised damping rates that better stabilize the Ninja during spirited passes through the canyons. The lay-down shock has undergone like changes, including a 2mm increase in overall length (127mm vs. 125mm), a softer spring rate and revised damping.
As Kent confirmed in his first ride report, the Ninja is much more agile than its predecessor despite weighing roughly 11 pounds more and featuring nearly identical geometry (the only change is an incremental 4mm of trail). Biggest difference is the wider handlebar that provides increased leverage, plus the new OE-spec Dunlop Roadsmart II tires that make side-to-side transitions almost effortless. That lighter handling isn’t just beneficial when pushing the bike hard, either; it also gives novice riders a better feeling of control when experimenting with tighter sections of road. The bike’s agile steering may be its strong point in the canyons, but the updated suspension is no slouch. The 650 doesn’t wallow about mid-corner like you’d expect a budget bike to behave, a sure result of its firmer damping rates front and rear. And our only concern is the bike’s tendency to bottom out over larger potholes. But again, this is no Öhlins-equipped supersport bike.
Entry-level riders and experts alike will enjoy the Ninja 650’s smooth power delivery in the canyons. There’s enough oomph between 7000 rpm and 10,000 rpm to keep things interesting, but not enough to put the inexperienced rider on his or her head. The howl from the reconfigured airbox gives the bike some character when blazing through canyons as well. The bike’s brakes are as user friendly, but when accustomed to typical four-piston calipers on a supersport bike, the Ninja 650’s brakes take some time to get used to. The primary differenece is that the two-piston calipers biting on dual 300mm rotors don’t offer an overly aggressive initial bite. There’s plenty of power through the pull and braking performance is very linear, which eventually made us big fans of this budget bike’s binders.
Kawasaki claims fuel mileage has been bumped by 10 percent for 2012, a point our test unit confirmed week after week. With an average of 51 mpg and a high of 54, the Ninja is more than capable of 200-plus-mile stints between gas stops. Various modes on the new LCD dash reveal how you’re doing on this front, and quickly gained our attention, displaying fuel range and economy information. Albeit a bit cheesy, we’re also fond of the economical riding (ECO) indicator, which takes throttle position and rpm into account to let you know how far you’re stretching your dollar. Noticeably absent from the display is a gear indicator, although we never found it a problem during our time with the bike.
Our one concern with the 650...
Our one concern with the 650 is the amount of vibrations through the flimsy footrests. They may be rubber mounted, but a closer look at the bracket leads you to believe there’s a better way to mount the pegs.
It’s not all smooth sailing for Kawasaki’s new Ninja, literally. Around 4500 rpm there’s a rush of vibrations through the bike’s saddle, footrests and handlebar — despite each of the aforementioned pieces being rubber mounted. Past 5500 rpm those bothersome vibes die back down, but be warned: most freeway stints in high gear are spent between said rpm range. The similarly mounted passenger footrests are equally as prone to vibrations, only they seem to be more prevalent throughout the entire rev range. Looking at the rider/passenger footrest mounts, it seems as though Kawasaki could easily improve on the Ninja to make it more suitable for a passenger.
The race for horsepower supremacy has shown no signs of dying down; a point Kawasaki’s ZX-14R confirmed earlier in this issue. But 180-horsepower, tire-burning motorcycles aren’t for everyone, which is why we’re happy to see Kawasaki continue the development of less intimidating bikes like the Ninja 650. This 2012 model feels more geared toward the entry-level rider than ever before too, with manageable power, a solid chassis and stylish design that will actually appeal to the average customer. After numerous weeks on the bike, we’ll be sad to see it go as our daily commuter. You can’t argue with an MSRP of just $7499 either. Besides, speeding tickets cost too much. sr
2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
+ Stable chassis with light handling
+ Improved fuel mileage
+ Easy-to-manage power and brakes
+ Stylish new design
– Adjustable windscreen requires tool
– Gets buzzy between 4500 and 5500 rpm
x Clearly designed with new riders in mind
Suggested Suspension Settings
Rear: Spring preload — position 4 of 7
Specifications2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Type: Liquid-cooled, parallel twin
Valve arrangement: DOHC, four valves/cyl. Shim-under-bucket adjustment
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 suspension: 41mm hydraulic telescopic fork, non-adjustable, 4.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: Single horizontally mounted shock with adjustable spring preload, 5.1 in. travel
Front brake: Dual 300mm rotors with two-piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 220mm rotor with single-piston caliper
Front wheel: 3.50 x 17 in.
Rear wheel: 4.50 x 17 in.
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)
Weight: 452 lb. (205kg) wet 427 lb. (194kg)
Instruments: Analog tachometer, multi-function LCD screen with digital speedometer, fuel consumption, remaining fuel range, odometer, dual tripmeter, clock, economical riding (ECO) indicator; warning lights for coolant temperature/oil pressure indicator, neutral, high beam, low/high battery, turn signals.
Quarter mile: 12.26 sec. @ 108 mph
Top speed: NA mph
Roll-ons: 60-80 mph/4.11 sec., 80-100 mph/4.54 sec.
Fuel consumption: 47 to 54 mpg, 51 mpg average
Having gotten my two-wheeled start on a Ninja 500 I admittedly had a soft sport for Team Green’s latest middleweight. As with all Kawi parallel twins, power is tractable and unintimidating but for 2012 there’s noticeably more shove from 7500 rpm onward. The slick-shifting transmission is also a gem and drivetrain slop is virtually nonexistent.
Life in the captain’s chair is also improved, as the Ninja is much thinner in the middle — it no longer feels like straddling a chopper. Did I mention it finally has an analog tach? Rest easy, the quirky digital unit has given way to a functional and legible standard needle.
Handling characteristics are Golden Retriever friendly and invite newbies to explore the art of cornering while also offering enough in reserve for experienced riders. As an economical all-arounder, the new Ninja is hard to beat.
Prior to my two months spent commuting on the Ninja 650, my go-to bike was a Yamaha R1. It was a culture shock to jump on the wee Ninja to say the least, although that’s not to say I came away bored; what the Kawasaki lacks in terms of power, it more than makes up for in comfy ergos and stellar fuel economy.
The 650 proved equally as strong a performer on the weekends as it did during the week. I was taken back even by the bike’s capabilities when speeds picked up in the canyons; the redesigned chassis and reworked suspension provide a ton of confidence and stability, plus the bike feels extremely manageable for an inexperienced rider. All these positives had me overlooking the buzz-happy footrests, and even had me missing the little Kawi when I jumped back onto the R1. Perhaps there is a replacement for displacement?
It’s too bad that great bikes like the Ninja 650 get written off by many riders — newbie and experienced alike — just because their ego can’t handle being seen on an admittedly novice-oriented bike. The Kawasaki is one of those bikes that is increasingly making more sense for many riders out there, especially with gasoline prices going through the roof. 50-plus miles per gallon even when you’re beating on the engine, comfy ergos for anyone under six feet, performance that you can have fun with without always putting you in danger of finding yourself in jail…the list goes on.
The only gripes I have with the Kawasaki are the windshield (requires tools to adjust, and it needs to be taller) and the exhaust note. I’m afraid that parallel twins — even with a slightly different firing order such as the Ninja 650 — just don’t do it for me, even with an accessory exhaust system. Instead of a motorcycle engine, they sound more like an angry trombone to my ears.