Long derided by many in the general sportbike crowd as "newbie" bikes, the lightweight 250 sportbike class has exploded in popularity in recent years — and that's a good thing. This is because it signals that a new generation of riders is finally beginning to take hold in the motorcycle market. For the past two decades, the average age of the American motorcycle rider was steadily climbing, from the mid-20s back in 1981 to a peak of 43 years old in 2008; this showed that the same aging baby-boomers were the ones fueling the market, without any younger generation to replace them. Luckily, the mean age dropped to 40 years old in 2009, and anecdotal evidence of the latest data shows that the average is continuing to fall as newer, younger riders continue to join the ranks.
The sales numbers of the lightweight class back up that evidence. In 2011, the lightweight 250 class outsold the 600 and literbike categories combined by more than a 2:1 ratio. This is why Kawasaki is no longer the lone wolf in the class, with Hyosung moving in with its GT250R in 2005, and Honda finally making a sporting entry into the category with its CBR250R in 2011.
Kawasaki saw the writing on the wall, and surprised everyone in 2013 with its new Ninja 300 ("Gone To The Gym," January 2013). Even Hyosung made some minor upgrades to its GT250R (Delphi fuel injection, new KYB suspension) for the new year. So we decided to not only bring the three together for a head-to-head comparison, but also get some impressions from women riders, throw on some aftermarket exhausts, and even get some racetrack impressions because of the increasing capability of these machines that has resulted in burgeoning lightweight racing classes at numerous club racing organizations across the country.
With electronic fuel injection handling fueling needs for all three of these bikes, there's no more choke fiddling necessary to ride away…well, for two of them, at least. The Hyosung's new Delphi EFI apparently needs to be dialed in a bit better, as the GT250R requires a good amount of warm-up time before it will even run properly. Attempting to ride off before that point only results in an engine that stalls or just refuses to accelerate at anything over eighth-throttle.
The Honda has the roomiest ergonomics, with plenty of legroom and the most upright torso positioning of the trio. Interestingly, the Hyosung has three-position adjustable footpegs, and even in the lowest setting that provided the most legroom, there was never any danger of scraping the pegs; the reach to the clip-on bars, however, is long, splaying out your torso in a very racey position that puts some strain on your wrists. The Ninja 300's layout is very similar to the previous 250, with a slightly more aggressive posture than the CBR, but still plenty comfy for all-day rides.
While the Honda and Kawasaki feel narrow and small from the saddle, the Hyosung feels like a full-size bike, with its 32.5-inch seat height towering over the CBR and Ninja 300 by two inches. Wind protection from the GT250R's fairing is better than the Honda and Kawasaki's comparative tiny windscreens, but the mirrors on the CBR and Ninja provide a much better rear view.
The Honda CBR250R’s dash utilizes...
The Honda CBR250R’s dash utilizes an analog tachometer with an LCD panel below; some felt the digital speedometer needed to be higher and larger to be seen easier.
Hyosung GT250R’s analog tachometer...
Hyosung GT250R’s analog tachometer sits to the left of the large LCD panel, with well-organized info and a large digital speedometer.
The Ninja 300 finally does...
The Ninja 300 finally does away with the 250’s antiquated all-analog setup for a half-sweep analog tachometer and small but visible LCD info panel.
Clutch actuation from the Honda is the best of the three, with a smooth, progressive feel; the GT250R's unit is much rougher, with more effort at the lever, while the Kawasaki's slipper clutch has a very narrow engagement area that sits at the very end of the lever travel. Luckily, the Ninja's short first gear and twin-cylinder torque make it hard to stall. The Hyosung's throttle is an old-school half-turn unit that requires a lot of rotation before you get some real response from the engine room. Complicating matters is an engine with a lot of flywheel that doesn't rev very quickly, a somewhat clunky five-speed transmission (the Honda and Kawasaki are six-speeds) and you end up with a bike that feels sluggish compared to the others despite a decent horsepower and torque curve from its 75-degree 249cc V-twin engine. The GT250R comes off the line well, but even though it's faster on top than the CBR, it doesn't feel like it; the Honda's crisp throttle response, perky midrange, and most of all its lack of heft (the Hyosung scales a whopping 54 pounds more) help it accelerate from a stop and through the middle part of its powerband quicker than the Hyosung.
When it comes to power though, the Kawasaki has the other two covered by a long shot. While it might not quite have the low-end of the Honda's single, the Ninja 300's extra displacement (in addition to other internal modifications) basically allows it to leave the others for dead once past the 30 mph mark. Zipping through traffic is done with ease on the Kawasaki, and you can holeshot most automobiles from a stoplight — and do it without exceeding the speed limit.
On the highway, the difference is even more drastic. While the Honda and Hyosung don't have much left in their throttles at 70 mph, the Ninja 300 has plenty in reserve, and passing situations that would bring hesitation on the other two are handled with ease on the Kawasaki. Adding icing to the cake is that the Ninja's vertical twin engine is easily the smoothest of the bunch, and despite its added displacement over the previous Ninja 250, the Ninja 300 offers vastly improved fuel mileage, with our daily averages hovering around the 60 mpg mark (up from 47 mpg with the 250). Even with its downsized 4.4-gallon fuel tank (from the 250's 4.8-gallon unit), the Kawasaki will go more than 240 miles before you need to start looking for a gas station; that puts it well ahead of the Honda, whose 3.4-gallon tank somewhat hobbles its 70-mpg average, and well on par with the Hyosung's 65 mpg average and 4.5-gallon tank.
The Ninja 300's advantage over the two stretches even further when the road turns twisty. Although the Honda's engine has a very hospitable character that comes off slower corners well, it flattens out fairly quickly at 8400 rpm, forcing the rider to shift more often than the twin-cylinder bikes if the road is any faster than a goat trail. The Hyosung's V-twin engine actually works quite well in curvy sections, with better low-end power than the Honda while carrying farther and higher up top; stifling that potential, however, is the aforementioned long-turn throttle that takes some effort to work, poor front brakes (more on that in a minute), and the OEM-spec Shinko SR740/741 tires (we're pretty sure they're OEM-specific because they have "GT250R" stamped on the sidewalls).
While the IRC RX01 rubber on the Honda and Kawasaki is more than adequate for twisty road riding, the Shinkos steer slower, have less grip (especially when leaned over) and poor bump absorption qualities. We were especially wary of the front tire, as it seemed to take forever to warm up, and with the extra lean angle enforced by the GT250R's longer 56.5-inch wheelbase — the Honda and Kawasaki are much shorter, at 53.9 inches and 55.3 inches, respectively — confidence in the canyons was sapped on the Hyosung.
The CBR steers quicker than the other two, with agility in the tighter stuff that can give the Hyosung fits. But as the pace ramps up, the Honda quickly starts to come unwound, pitching and weaving as its soft suspension and chassis let you know they've reached their limits. The Hyosung's new KYB suspension is a definite upgrade from the previous units, with much better compliance and overall control; still, it doesn't take much speed for the GT250R's weight to overpower the damping, resulting in a bike that soon becomes a handful to deal with.
Meanwhile, the Ninja 300 remains unflustered, its steering only a smidge behind the CBR in quickness, but with a stability and controlled feel that the other two can only dream of. Despite its non-adjustability (other than five-position spring preload), the Kawasaki's spring and damping rates are well sorted, with enough compliance for slow-speed stuff while maintaining good control of the chassis as the pace heats up.
Add to that an engine that towers over the other two in this comparison, and it's literally like cheating when riding the Ninja 300 in the company of the other two. While the Hyosung and Honda rider are huffing and puffing to maintain their pace, the person aboard the Kawasaki is usually looking back wondering what all the fuss is about.