As a Japanese OEM, Kawasaki has never been one to be shy. The company has a long history of groundbreaking motorcycles that not only set new standards for performance, but are also remembered for their audacity. Many of these bikes basically threw convention out the window, and made their own rules when it came to class warfare. The H1 500 and H2 750 three-cylinder two-strokes, the original 1972 Z1, the turbocharged Z1R TC of 1978 and 1983 GPz750 Turbo, the 1984 Ninja 900 and 600R of 1985…the list goes on.
Kawasaki has been continuing that maverick streak lately, with the ZX-14R laying waste to the competition last year by dint of an 89cc increase in displacement. And that philosophy continues for 2013, with both the Ninja 250R and ZX-6R receiving boosts in engine size. While the ZX-6R makes a return to the 636cc displacement (ridden elsewhere in this issue by associate editor Bradley Adams) popularized by the 2003-2006 models, we also got the opportunity to sample the all-new Ninja 300 — Kawasaki’s answer to the incursion of its 250cc territory by Honda’s CBR250R.
Kawasaki chose the mountains bordering the famous northern California wine region of Sonoma County to demonstrate the new Ninja 300’s performance to the American press. The numerous twisty roads in the area provided a superb proving ground to see if Kawasaki’s upgraded lightweight class machine indeed had the goods to go with its new moniker.
Bigger, Stronger, Faster
We brushed over the basics of the new Ninja 300’s technical details in the last issue, but Kawasaki revealed a lot more during the tech briefings at the press intro. As we noted before, the Ninja 300 engine gets its 47cc displacement increase via a whopping 7.8mm stroke increase, with the two 62mm pistons now traveling a distance of 49.0mm inside the new aluminum open-deck cylinder bores that not only weigh 800 grams less, but also dissipate heat better than the old steel liners. Those pistons are 7.5mm shorter with revised hard-anodized crowns that lower the compression ratio from 11.6:1 to 10.6:1 (allowing the use of regular grade 87-octane fuel) while also weighing 3.4 grams less than the 250’s 121.6-gram slugs, reducing reciprocating loads enough to permit the retention of the 250’s 13,000 rpm rev limit. Also contributing here are 5mm-shorter piston pins that cut another 4 grams from the reciprocating weight.
The connecting rods are shorter by 2.8mm to maintain a mechanical advantage with the crankshaft’s longer stroke, with thicker ends for greater strength while still weighing the same as the previous rods. The crankcases have new oil passages, with a larger-volume oil pan (2.4L capacity instead of the 250R’s 1.7L) utilizing internal cooling fins to help dissipate heat; the pan not only has nearly half-inch better ground clearance than the previous unit, both the oil drain plug and new spin-on oil filter are accessible without removing any bodywork.
Up top, the U.S. version 250R’s antiquated 30mm carburetors have been finally replaced by a Keihin EFI setup using twin 32mm throttle bodies (which actually taper down from the 40mm secondary throttle plates for smooth throttle response). New injectors spraying a finer 60-micron droplet size feed into a cylinder head sporting reshaped intake ports that are 1mm wider at the port entrance and 0.5mm wider at the valve seat, which incidentally houses 1mm-larger 23.5mm intake valves.
The half-inch-wider rear rim...
The half-inch-wider rear rim allows the fitment of a 140-size rear tire, and the new IRC RX-01R tires provide surprisingly good grip and handling.
Spent gases are handled by a new single-muffler exhaust (versus the 250R’s dual muffler system) that utilizes tapered header pipes — expanding from 25.4mm at the exhaust port to 28mm just before the cross-over pipe — to improve midrange torque. The headers curve outward from each other to enable a longer center section (containing the single catalyzer versus the previous dual catalyzers, made possible by the EFI) for proper exhaust tuning. Toning the noise down is a trapezoidal cross-section muffler that offers adequate silencer volume without compromising ground clearance.
The transmission features an F.C.C. clutch (an OEM Japanese supplier that has been involved in Grand Prix racing) that has both slipper and power assist functions via different engagement cams. While the slipper clutch function helps with avoiding wheel lockup while downshifting, the unique power assist setup offers multiple benefits. Clutch pull effort is lighter due to the reduction in spring pressure needed (including using fewer springs), since the power assist cam actually forces the plates together under power; this also enables the clutch to handle more torque. The transmission gearsets have been beefed up, with the primary reduction gear widened from 10mm to 12mm thick, and the 6th gear gearwheels made from a stronger alloy.
That strengthening has been applied to the Ninja steel semi-backbone frame as well. High-tensile steel tubing said to be 150 percent stronger is used in its construction, with the layout of the main tubes wider with additional gusseting added in critical areas for increased rigidity. Because the frame is more rigid, it allowed Kawasaki engineers to isolate the engine in rubber mounts, significantly reducing the amount of vibration fed back into the chassis (and eventually back to the rider).
The boost in displacement...
The boost in displacement via a longer stroke is accompanied by a host of other revisions to help increase power across the rev range, resulting in performance that stomps the competition.
The Ninja 300’s frame has...
The Ninja 300’s frame has been beefed up significantly with tubing claimed to be 150 percent stronger and added gusseting in critical areas. The changes coupled with suspension alterations have resulted in a major upgrade in the Kawasaki’s handling.
The Ninja 300’s single two-piston...
The Ninja 300’s single two-piston caliper and 290mm disc (in both standard and ABS versions) provide excellent power and feel without being too aggressive for novice riders.
Suspension rates have been altered to work with the stiffer chassis. Interestingly, the non-adjustable fork’s compression and rebound damping have been softened, although the internal oil levels have been raised to provide progressive anti-bottoming resistance. Out back, the shock has had both compression and rebound damping stiffened up, along with a new longer (but same rate) spring that allows the preload to be both increased or reduced.
The rear wheel width has increased by 0.5 inches to accommodate a wider 140-size rear tire — bringing it on par with its Honda CBR250R competition — and in a continuing trend within the industry, an ABS version of the Ninja 300 will be available (in fact, all Kawasaki’s sportbikes will have an ABS version available in 2013). The ABS control unit is the latest generation Nissin system that is 60 percent smaller than current Nissin components, and is even smaller than the Bosch unit on the ZX-10R ABS; it weighs a paltry 631 grams (1.4 pounds).
Huge Fun in A Small Package
It’s interesting how the Ninja 300’s bodywork gives the visual impression of a larger motorcycle than the previous 250R. More aggressive styling cues from its larger ZX-6R and ZX-10R brethren add up to a bike that has “serious sportbike” written all over it. Even the footpegs are straight off one of the larger Ninjas, replacing the previous generic rubber-topped items on the 250R. There’s even a storage compartment in the tail section, something nearly all full-size sportbikes used to have in the past.
The Ninja 300 has a two-stage...
The Ninja 300 has a two-stage compartment in the tail section, with the upper section for a small U-lock, and the lower section for the toolkit and some small items.
The reshaped saddle on the...
The reshaped saddle on the Ninja 300 is narrower in front to allow easier foot-planting at a stoplight while remaining comfortable enough for extended rides.
The new instrument panel finally...
The new instrument panel finally replaces the antiquated dual analog speedometer/tachometer setup with a much nicer analog tach/LCD panel info display dashboard that includes a fuel gauge.
This shot looking at the underside...
This shot looking at the underside of the radiator shows how Kawasaki engineers designed the radiator fan ducting to direct the hot air blast downward out the bottom of the fairing instead of out the side vents at the rider’s legs.
That impression of size disappears once you swing a leg over the Ninja 300, however. Although the listed seat height is 30.9 inches (almost half an inch more than the 250R), it actually feels lower. This is attributable to the new reshaped seat that is substantially narrower in the front, making it easier for shorter riders to get both feet on the ground. Spec-chart mavens may point at the Kawasaki’s 379-pound listed curb weight (some 24 pounds heavier than the Honda), but you don’t notice that extra heft; the Ninja 300 feels small, light, and easy to handle. Another nod to smaller riders is a doglegged clutch lever to make it easier to actuate for those with smaller hands. Overall ergos are basically the same as the 250R, which is to say a nice compromise between all-day standard and sporty tuck.
No more fiddling with a choke lever to get the Kawasaki warmed up, as the Keihin EFI allows you to simply hit the starter button and ride off. An added bonus is much better fuel efficiency; despite the larger engine and superior performance, fuel usage never dropped below 50 mpg, even when riding very aggressively with a lot of wide-open throttle and five-digit engine speeds. Ridden in a more everyday manner, we could easily see the average owner getting more than 250 miles on a 4.5-gallon tankful.
The additional power pulses of the twin-cylinder engine make it difficult to stall the Kawasaki, and the new clutch is so effortless that you could do it with one finger. Our only complaint is that the engagement point is out toward the end of the lever travel, and the engagement area through that travel is very narrow. Although the Ninja is easy to get rolling from a dead stop, any maneuvers that require some clutch jockeying (such as parking lot U-turns) demand a deft clutch hand.
So does the extra 47cc make that much of a difference? Yes it does, and in a big way. No, the displacement boost certainly hasn’t turned the little Ninja into a 600-eater, but it has definitely resulted in a bike that will eat any of its class competitors for breakfast, and ask for seconds.
One of the 250R’s drawbacks was that you had to spool the engine up before you got any decent steam. This is where the Honda CBR had a clear advantage, as its single-cylinder emphasis on low-end and midrange allowed it to get the jump off the line and in low-rpm situations. The 300’s powerband fills in a good deal of the 250R’s low-end void, giving it enough oomph to likely keep pace with the Honda until about 6000 rpm, where the new Kawasaki will start rapidly disappearing into the distance. The Ninja 300 simply has power everywhere over the 250R, but it’s especially noticeable in the midrange and top end.
The bump in power was readily evident in the canyons, where you no longer have to ride like you’re mad at the shift lever. The Ninja 300 pulls off the slower corners from as low as 5000 rpm, a point that would have you wondering if perhaps one of the spark plugs came off on the 250R if you tried to accelerate from that rpm. Power builds steadily with the new Ninja, but best results if you’re in a hurry still reside at 9000 rpm, with the party tailing off about 1000 rpm short of the 13,000-rpm redline. That power surplus also translates to a top-end speed advantage, meaning that highway traffic passes are no longer filled with hesitation; the Kawasaki easily propelled itself to 100 mph, and seemingly had plenty in reserve (while also remaining impressively vibration-free for a vertical twin), something that certainly can’t be said of the CBR.
But perhaps even more important than the newfound power is the Ninja 300’s upgraded handling. The new Kawasaki is just as lithe and agile as the 250R, only at a pace where the older bike quickly becomes sloppy and nervous, the Ninja 300 is as calm and composed as a monk in meditation. Credit here goes to both the stronger frame and the well-sorted suspension spring and damping rates, as well as the new IRC RX-01R tires. Despite being non-adjustable except for spring preload in the rear, the Kawasaki’s suspension is compliant enough for long-haul touring duty, yet can handle the big hits well and keep the chassis under control during aggressive riding. And just as impressive was the new IRC rubber, which offers agile and precise steering with very good grip and midcorner bump absorption — light years away from the IRC “rim protectors” of old.
Braking from both the standard and ABS versions was excellent, with the non-ABS version exhibiting a nice compromise between novice-friendly response and aggressively sporty power and feel. The standard model’s brake pads are made from organic compounds, while the ABS model uses more responsive sintered metal pads up front, as Kawasaki feels that it can make better use of that response without getting a novice rider into trouble. The ABS is very transparent, with barely any cycling felt while offering strong yet stable braking in all types of stops. And the F.C.C. slipper clutch handled nearly all of our intentional ham-fisted downshifts without problems, with only poor downshifts into first gear causing just a hint of wheel lockup.
Rules? What Rules?
The 250cc sportbike class has been taking off the past few years, outselling the middleweight and literbikes by more than 2:1 in 2011. This makes the category increasingly important to the manufacturers, which is why Kawasaki is no longer alone. Although some may fault Kawasaki for not abiding “by the rules” with the Ninja 300, the company has never been one to follow convention. And that non-conformist policy has certainly resulted in a superb addition to the class.
Is the Ninja 300 the new king of the lightweights? We’ll soon find out.
2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300
MSRP: $4799 (standard model); $4999 (Limited Edition); $5499 (LE ABS model)
Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC parallel twin
Bore x stroke: 62.0 x 49.0mm
Compression ratio: 10.6:1
Induction: Keihin DFI, 32mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl
Front tire: 120/70-17 IRC RX-01R
Rear tire: 140/70-17 IRC RX-01R
Rake/trail: 27 deg./3.7 in. (94mm)
Wheelbase: 55.3 in. (1405mm)
Seat height: 30.9 in. (785mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal. (17L)
Claimed wet weight: 379 pounds (standard); 384 pounds (ABS)