Have a little mercy on small-displacement, lightweight motorcycles. Although tailored toward newer riders, these 300-ish-cc sportbikes have to also be performance-oriented enough to keep the fun going past year one, sultry enough to not go unnoticed on the showroom floor, and at the same time easy on the wallet. Balancing all these burdens is no easy job, but the 2015 Honda CBR300R, Kawasaki Ninja 300, KTM RC 390, and Yamaha YZF-R3 are all putting their best foot forward, and you’ll be surprised at how well they manage the task at hand.
Naturally, one will have put its best foot just a little farther forward than the rest. And that’s what’s brought us here, to the city streets and canyon roads cutting through Southern California: to find out which manufacturer has done a better job of balancing the admittedly arduous burdens placed on entry-level sportbikes. Without further ado, here’s what we found.
Honda CBR300R: 75 POINTS
Honda’s 2015 CBR300R, with new crankshaft and connecting rod that extend the engine’s stroke from 55mm to 63mm, continues to offer up gobs of user-friendliness at the expense of outright performance when the riding turns more spirited.
It’d be unfair to say the Honda underperforms though, as the single-cylinder engine’s bump in displacement from 250cc to 286cc has resulted in a lightweight motorcycle with noticeably more midrange and low-end torque. Pulling away from a stoplight is easiest on the Honda, its thumper of an engine providing good thrust and the clutch the most feel at the lever. Combine these traits with a transmission that’s better than just about anything in the group, plus an easy-to-read dash and perfectly shaped rider triangle, and you have a bike that’s the easiest to get along with right away.
In the canyons, the Honda doesn’t fall too far behind, its suspension feeling surprisingly well-damped and IRC Road Winner tires (same as on Ninja 300) offering good feel. Push a little harder through a corner and the chassis begins to feel slightly less racy, the RC 390 and Ninja 300 pulling ahead, but it takes spirited riding to get there.
Where the Honda begins to really fall behind is as speeds pick up, which makes it a hard bike for us to recommend to anyone whose commute or average ride includes more than a few miles on the highway. The single-cylinder engine, which is so good around town, feels like it’s about to say its goodbyes in this realm, running at or around 80 percent of its rev potential—at legal speeds, even. Brakes don’t have as much power either, though it’s likely that Honda has done this to not overwhelm newer riders. Thanks, maybe?
In the end, the CBR300R is the bike we’d recommend to the newest of new riders. It’s the perfect bike to hone your skills on and a much stronger-performing (and better-looking) bike than its predecessor thanks to the most recent engine and styling updates. You could potentially (and probably will) outgrow it sooner than anything else here, but in that first year, it’ll be everything you need it to be and not nearly as intimidating as KTM’s RC 390.
Test Notes: Honda CBR300R
+ User-friendly performance
+ Best ergonomics
- Engine runs out of steam up top
- Weakest brakes
KTM RC 390: 75 POINTS
KTM’s 373cc, single-cylinder RC 390 is the most performance-minded bike in the sub-300cc (okay, 400cc) category and probably the bike you’d least expected to be here, toward the back of our score card. In many ways, this is a first-place bike. But unless you plan on going to the track at least a couple of times a year or spending all of your days in the canyons, the RC 390 is not the bike for you.
KTM admits that it built a track bike first and road bike second, and this is apparent the second you throw a leg over the orange machine. The 390’s seat height is 32.7 inches, or almost 1.5 inches taller than any other bike in the category, and the seat is thinner than any of the other saddles (though not exponentially more uncomfortable). The digital display is the most difficult to make sense of, with the bar tach using tiny numerals to represent rpm and all of the other information difficult to find. More than that, the handlebars were designed to offer 14-plus-year-old kids leverage while hustling the bike around the track. Not for newer riders to run comfortably down the freeway. And you can tell, with the KTM putting more pain on your wrists than any other bike in the class.
The single-cylinder engine makes more power than anything in the category (39.6 hp at 8,900 rpm) so you’re never left wanting more on the freeway or running low on fun in the canyons. But the bike runs way too hot and vibrates more than anything in the group. It’s also severely cold blooded, so you’ll have to give it a few minutes to warm up lest it gives you fits for the first 2 miles of your ride. Better keep that ride short too, as the RC 390’s fuel tank is just 2.6 gallons (0.8 gallon smaller than next smallest tank) and has the reserve light coming on with as little as 105 miles on the tripmeter.
Sure, the KTM’s WP-built front end is the best in the bunch, and brakes rank just as high in their respective category (with disengageable ABS to boot), but that will only really pay dividends at the track or on days in the canyons. If you’re not headed there, this otherwise entertaining bike is probably not the bike for you.
Test Notes: KTM RC 390
+ Great power up top
+ Best OE tires
- Runs hot and vibrates
- Useless dash
Yamaha YZF-R3: 77 POINTS
Yamaha knew what the benchmark was when it entered the small-bike category with its YZF-R3, and in almost every way the company has met or exceeded expectations, ultimately developing a stylish small-displacement bike that is new-rider friendly but with just enough power to keep experienced riders entertained as the odometer climbs.
Not only does the R3 look the part, but it also offers up good braking power, super-relaxed ergonomics, and an engine with a little more power than the Ninja 300 at almost all parts of the rev range (though not as much as the KTM). Brakes have good power with just a small amount of feel missing in the beginning of the pull, likely a result of Yamaha also using pads that don’t over stimulate newer riders—a benefit considering the R3 does not come with ABS. Aerodynamics are better than the Ninja, which, along with the engine, help during freeway stints, plus the dash is slightly better, offering up a gear position indicator in place of the Ninja’s useless “Eco” indicator.
Unfortunately, the Yamaha’s bump in power comes at the expense of additional vibrations through the bars and footpegs, plus some heat on the right side of the bike, near the leg area. Bigger concerns are with the nonadjustable (except for rear spring preload) suspension and Michelin Pilot Street tires, which combine to zap most of your confidence in the bike the second you try to get aggressive in the canyons. We’d say you could overlook this, but if Yamaha’s own FZ-09 taught us anything, it’s that poor suspension is not something to pardon.
For newer riders especially, it’s important for a bike to instill confidence from the word “go,” and Yamaha’s YZF-R3 is a few updates away from providing that sensation. If you’d like to throw suspension and tires its way, the R3 could be the bike for you, as othewise its everything we want from a little bike.
Test Notes: Yamaha YZF-R3
+ More power than Kawasaki
- Undersprung suspension
- No ABS option
Kawasaki Ninja 300: 79 POINTS
Of all the expectations people had going into 2015, not one was to see Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 remain at the front of the entry-bike category. With the introduction of KTM and Yamaha to the class, that was probably the last thing anyone expected, in fact.
But Kawasaki has drawn on its decades of experience in the category to continue to provide the most well-rounded sportbike for newer riders, its Ninja 300 combining a smooth-revving engine with rock-solid chassis that helps the bike appeal to riders with a wide range of experience levels.
Key to the Ninja’s performance is the recently updated 296cc parallel-twin engine, which builds power in a smoother and more linear fashion than any other engine in the category and without the heat or vibration that comes from the KTM or Yamaha powerplants. The chassis is the second key point, as it offers the most composed feel and immediately allows new riders to explore higher lean angles almost right out of the gate. Likewise, the suspension feels well damped and balanced, whereas the KTM’s shock is softer than its fork and the Yamaha’s suspension is just all over the place.
The Ninja’s footrests are a little high and rearward, and its clip-ons set farther forward than the R3’s, but the overall riding position is not dramatically less comfortable. Likewise, a larger tank makes the tank/seat junction feel a little more cumbersome, but being 0.8 gallon bigger than the next biggest tank (R3), it allows the Ninja 300 to cover upward of 200 miles on a single tank and without making the reach to the ground feel unreasonable.
It really doesn’t matter where those miles take you either, because the Ninja 300 works well in any situation, without making big compromises around town (like the KTM), in the canyons (like the Yamaha), or on the freeway (like the Honda). And that’s what makes it such good, well-rounded option.
Test Notes: Kawasaki Ninja 300
+ Smooth power delivery
+ Composed, balanced chassis
- Slightly more aggressive ergonomics
Take a look at the ratings chart for this entry-bike comparison test and you’ll notice that all of the bikes scored within a few points of each other, the first- and last-place bikes separated by just four points, with the third- and fourth-place bikes actually tying with 75 points total. The reason for this is that each bike excels in entirely different areas, areas that the respective manufacturer has clearly placed more emphasis on.
While this makes choosing a winner more challenging, it’s nothing but good news for you, as it allows you to pick the bike that will best suit your needs. If you’re heading to the track, the KTM is the obvious choice. Looking to just dip your feet in the sportbike waters and hone your skills while learning your way around town? Then the Honda is the hands-down best option.
Then there’s the Kawasaki Ninja 300 and Yamaha YZF-R3 for the rest of you. Had Yamaha chose a better spec for the R3’s fork and shock, plus put some better tires on the bike, then the R3 would have easily come out on top of this comparo. But it didn’t, and in the meantime Kawasaki has continued to strike a near-perfect balance between handling, engine performance, styling, and cost.
Have mercy on its competitors.
I get it; all four of these motorcycles are built for people who are just getting started in motorcycling. And yeah, the Kawasaki Ninja 300, Yamaha YZF-R3, and Honda CBR300R are all great entry points to the world of two-wheels. But if I were spending my own cash (and somehow talked my wife into letting me get a new bike), my choice would be the KTM RC 390 simply because it’s the perfect trackday tool. It’s a bike I feel like I could use to learn precise lines, perfect shift points, and big-time corner speed. Plus I can take my son to school with it on weekdays with the super-comfy passenger seat/tailsection.
I was all set to crown the R3 as the best “300” after the press intro, but riding it alongside the competition exposed some definite flaws. I love the KTM’s outright performance, but it’s simply too harsh if you’re not riding it at 100 percent. And while the CBR is surprisingly competent in the canyons, its engine simply doesn’t have enough steam in my opinion.
Likewise, I was all set to dismiss the Ninja 300 because it’s the oldest model in this bunch. No, it isn’t the absolute best handling, or the most powerful, or the most economical; it just covers all the bases much better than the others, making it an easy winner in my book.
I really thought KTM’s RC 390 and Yamaha’s YZF-R3 were going to upset the apple cart this time around, but it didn’t take much time on the Ninja 300 to realize that wasn’t going to be the case. And fair enough. Kawasaki has had decades to develop and fine-tune its mini Ninja. Maybe Yamaha will have learned something during its first year in the category and come back with better suspension and tires. That alone would make things more interesting. As for KTM, my guess is the company will stick with its racing roots and continue to offer up a no-compromise “street” bike. Which is fine, if that’s the kind of apples you prefer.
Sean “The Dirt Dude” Klinger
As a sportbike beginner, the two bikes that stood out the most to me are the CBR300R and Ninja 300. The Honda is, in my opinion, the best bike for first-time riders, and I think you get a lot for your money with this bike. Still, if I were to buy one bike, I would buy the Kawasaki because it is, for me, the most fun to ride. And with these types of bikes that’s what it comes down to. This is a bike I could easily commute on during the week and ride some curvy roads on the weekends.
|Honda CBR300R||Kawasaki Ninja 300||KTM RC 390||Yamaha YZF-R3|
|MSRP||$4399 ($4899 w/ ABS)||$4999 ($5299 w/ ABS)||$5499||$4990|
|Type||Liquid-cooled, DOHC single, 4 valves/cyl.||Liquid-cooled, DOHC parallel twin, 4 valves/cyl.||Liquid-cooled, DOHC single, 4 valves/cyl.||Liquid-cooled, DOHC parallel twin, 4 valves/cyl.|
|Bore x stroke||76.0 x 63.0mm||62.0 x 49.0mm||89.0 x 60.0mm||68.0 x 44.1mm|
|Induction||PGM-FI; 38mm throttle body, single injector/cyl.||Keihin DFI; 32mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.||Bosch EFI, 46mm throttle body, single injector/cyl.||Mikuni EFI, 32mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.|
|Front suspension||Showa 37mm fork; 4.7-in. travel||KYB 37mm fork; 4.7-in. travel||WP 43mm fork; 4.9-in. travel||KYB 41mm fork; 5.1-in. travel|
|Rear suspension||Showa shock adjustable for spring preload; 4.1-in. travel||KYB shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.2-in. travel||WP shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.9-in. travel||KYB shock adjustable for spring preload; 4.9-in. travel|
|Front tire||110/70-17 IRC Road Winner||110/70-17 IRC Road Winner||110/70-R17 Pirelli Diablo Rosso II||110/70-17 Michelin Pilot Street|
|Rear tire||140/70-17 IRC Road Winner||140/70-17 IRC Road Winner||150/60-R17 Pirelli Diablo Rosso II||140/70-17 Michelin Pilot Street|
|Rake/trail||25.3°/3.9 in. (99mm)||27.0°/3.7 in. (94mm)||23.5°/3.5 in. (89mm)||25.0°/3.7 in. (94mm)|
|Wheelbase||54.3 in. (1379mm)||55.3 in. (1405mm)||52.8 in. (1341mm)||54.3 in. (1379mm)|
|Seat height||30.7 in. (780mm)||30.9 in. (785mm)||32.3 in. (820mm)||30.7 in. (780mm)|
|Fuel capacity||3.4 gal. (12.9L)||4.5 gal. (17.0L)||2.6 gal. (9.8L)||3.7 gal. (14.0L)|
|Weight||359 lb. (163kg) wet; 339 lb. (154kg) dry||381 lb. (172kg) wet; 354 lb. (161) dry||365 lb. (166kg) wet; 349 lb. (158kg) dry||370 lb. (168kg) wet; 348 lb. (158kg) dry|
|Fuel consumption||52-60 mpg, 55 mpg avg||54-67 mpg, 58 mpg avg||51-63 mpg, 57 mpg avg||50-58 mpg, 55 mpg avg|
|Roll-ons||60–80 mph/7.55 sec.||60–80 mph/7.89 sec.||60–80 mph/5.90 sec.||60–80 mph/7.46 sec.|
|Quarter-mile||15.79 sec. @ 82.93 mph||14.91 sec. @ 89.77 mph||13.95 sec. @ 94.86 mph||14.49 sec. @ 91.07 mph|