Used to be that the middleweight entry-level sport motorcycle category was the exclusive domain of Suzuki’s SV650. The spry little V-twin sold by the shipload, and it became the de facto go-to bike—not only for those looking for a nice-performing midsize motorcycle to start out on but also an experienced rider looking for surprising performance on a budget.
Then Kawasaki’s Ninja 650 appeared on the landscape in 2006, though it wasn’t until Suzuki made an ill-fated decision to restyle the SV650 and rename it the Gladius in 2009 that the parallel-twin Ninja began to gain traction with buyers. An extensive redesign in 2012 (“Fun—The Next Generation,” April 2012) made the Kawasaki even more desirable, forcing Suzuki to splash a different paint job on the Gladius and rename it “SFV650” in 2013.
But now the class is becoming increasingly crowded with the arrival of Yamaha’s superb FZ-07 and Honda’s new CBR650F. El Jefe was very impressed with Yamaha’s new midsize crossplane-crankshaft parallel twin, and our initial exposure to Honda’s all-new 649cc inline-four during a day’s ride in the canyon roads surrounding Los Angeles was very favorable. So with this burgeoning category now becoming one of the hottest-selling markets in motorcycling, it was inevitable that we bring them all together in a Sport Rider comparison test to find out which one really has all the right attributes for those aforementioned buyers. A week of living with them on a day-to-day basis commuting in the urban sprawl of Southern California and then a day in the canyons allowed us to determine which one has all the goods.
This is the likely environment all four of these middleweights will live in for the majority of their lifetimes, so it’s no surprise to see most of the bikes’ designs aimed at excelling in this arena. Comfortable ergos, amiable but responsive engines, reasonably soft suspension, decent fuel economy, and fairly low seat heights are the name of the game here.
In eventually replacing the venerable and huge-selling EX500 in Kawasaki’s lineup, the Ninja 650 had some big shoes to fill. And it’s largely succeeded on all accounts, providing a major upgrade in performance while retaining all of the aforementioned attributes that made the EX500 so popular. The Ninja 650’s engine is very flexible and has decent pep, its suspension is soft enough to keep from pummeling you on the highway, the seat is nice and comfy, and its 4.2-gallon fuel tank provides a 190-plus-mile range. The three-way-adjustable windscreen (requiring tools) is a nice touch and adds some wind protection.
The Ninja’s ergos are a little weird in comparison to the others though, as there’s plenty of room up top with a high-set handlebar, but the seat itself feels so low in relation to the bars and footpegs (that also seem a little too far forward) that you almost feel like you’re riding a chopper. Our test unit was the ABS model, and while the ABS itself worked well, we weren’t that enamored with the high lever effort required for good stopping power.
Honda’s all-new CBR650F (no, it’s not a dumbed-down CBR600RR; see the sidebar below) is the strongest in this group, with its four-cylinder engine’s 77-hp peak towering over the others. But it’s not the mismatch it appears on paper; the CBR’s engine revs slower than most fours, and it’s not until the rpm reaches the upper half of the powerband that it shows any advantage over the twins. Still, there’s a decent amount of midrange power, and yet the engine sips fuel to an average of 45 mpg, meaning you’ll see a good 200 miles out of every tankful. More encouraging is a clutch with light pull and great feel, light steering at low speeds, and butter-smooth transmission that’s confidence inspiring for new or progressing riders.
Interestingly, the Honda is the sportiest ergonomically in this group. Its seat is the firmest (and its height the tallest) and will have your backside crying uncle in about 30 minutes. Likewise, the bars (which are the only non-tubular handlebars in this group) are lower and the pegs set more rearward than the others, which work well for twisty-road sojourns but fold up your legs and put more weight on your forearms/wrists. The suspension is surprisingly on the sportbike-firm side as well, meaning you feel more of the potholes and other pavement imperfections that will eventually wear on you after a day’s ride.
The SFV650 has had a lot of time to refine its overall performance, even if Suzuki’s stylists apparently had a few too many the night before they penned the Gladius (which is identical to the SFV, minus the garish paint). The ergonomics strike a good compromise between sporty aggressive and street comfort (as does the suspension), the chassis and handling are nimble without being too sharp-edged, and the 645cc 90-degree V-twin provides a great combination of torquey midrange and revvy top-end power.
While the SFV’s riding position is good, the seat is not, with thin padding and a narrow profile that begins to dig into your derrière after 30 minutes. It’s not a surprise to see an accessory thicker seat as well as a gel seat available in the Suzuki accessories catalog. And the smaller 3.8-gallon fuel tank (the original SV650 had a 4.2-gallon cell) tends to restrict usable range to around 175 miles unless you’re being very light with the throttle.
It’s easy to tell that the FZ-07 is a much more modern design than the others. The Yamaha just has a sharper and quicker feel, with the crossplane-crank parallel-twin engine providing much stronger and revvier torque than any of the others, and the chassis’ agility has no twitchy or nervous habits yet gives you the impression it could run rings around the other three. Overall ergos are compact but still sensible, allowing shorter riders to feel confident at a stop without making 6-footers feel like they’re pretzeled on top of a minibike. Suspension rates are on the soft side but still firm enough to give plenty of control.
The FZ-07’s one weakness is its fuel tank; at 3.7 gallons, it’s the smallest one here, and although the crossplane-crank engine is fairly efficient, the Yamaha’s range is still restricted to around 175 miles per tank. And along with the Suzuki, the FZ-07 also lacks any wind protection, so longer highway rides will definitely get tiring.
The Kawasaki unfortunately falls behind the others in this arena, as its two other disadvantages become more prominent: At 467 pounds with a full tank, it’s the heaviest of the quartet, and its engine—while certainly not a complete weakling—lags behind in power compared to the others. This double whammy affects the Ninja 650’s acceleration, forcing you to use more throttle to keep pace. While the chassis carries the weight well and offers light and neutral steering, the awkward riding position affects cornering as the pace picks up, with a lack of front-end feel and poor braking power sapping confidence.
Thanks to a 400-pound measured wet weight with a full tank of fuel, sharper steering than the others, and an engine that simply puts the others to shame despite not having the most peak power, the FZ-07 seemingly has everything going for it when the road begins to twist and turn—and it does for the most part. The engine is the real gem, with much better low-end and midrange acceleration than the others and throttle response that’s smooth as silk from any rpm. The fun doesn’t stop there though, with acceleration continuing to stay strong well up the rpm range until the rev-limiter cuts the party at 10,000 rpm. The Yamaha’s parallel-twin powerplant is supremely flexible, often allowing the rider the option rather than the requirement of shifting in many situations. Unfortunately the FZ-07’s suspension settings are on the soft side. This can result in the engine and brakes (which are also the best ones in the group) causing some chassis pitching if you’re not careful as the pace picks up. The Michelin tires on our testbike also made the steering feel heavier the more lean angle you put in.
Our testers had a difficult time choosing between the Suzuki and Honda, as both bikes work well when the road begins curving. The CBR’s aforementioned sporty riding position and firm suspension settings come into their own in the canyons, providing good chassis control under nearly any type of pavement situation you would encounter. And its newer-generation Dunlop OE-spec D222s offer slightly better ride and grip than the older Sportmax Qualifiers on the Suzuki. The SFV’s suspension is only a tad less competent and still keeps the chassis well under control in most circumstances. But most of our testers preferred the Suzuki’s midcorner stability and braking power and progressiveness compared to the Honda’s higher-effort steering and somewhat wooden-feeling binders.
Where the Suzuki ekes out an advantage is in the engine department. While the CBR undoubtedly has more peak power, it’s relatively slow to get there; the SFV has much better midrange acceleration, making it a lot easier on the rider to not get stuck in a powerband dead spot when accelerating off a corner. The Honda has an excellent transmission, so working the gear lever more often isn’t that much of chore, but the Suzuki’s wider powerband significantly eases the task of making time in the canyons, and considering that most riders in these bikes’ intended market will be less experienced, that’s a major plus.
The Real Decider
Realistically, the vast majority of people in the market for these bikes will look at one number as the major deciding factor: price. And that significantly changes the outlook of these bikes when you bring that into the mix.
Based purely on overall performance, the Kawasaki would occupy fourth in the rankings. But its $7,999 price (for our ABS model; the standard Ninja 650 is $300 cheaper) makes it much more appealing to the average buyer, as it’s the second-least-expensive bike in this comparison. The Honda and Suzuki might offer excellent back-road performance, but both are priced considerably higher; the CBR650F retails for a disappointingly high $8,499 ($8,999 if you want ABS), while the SFV650’s price tag has ballooned over the years to $8,149. That’s a pretty big chunk of change to the budget-conscious buyer.
Especially when you compare it to the unbelievably low $6,990 MSRP of the Yamaha. The FZ-07 already possesses performance that puts its fun quotient on another level compared to the others, but factor in that it retails more than $1,000 less (much of which could be used to shore up the suspension for those intent on back-road scampering), and it’s clear Yamaha has another winner on its hands. We’ve been told the company has had a difficult time keeping up with demand for the FZ-09; let’s hope Big Blue has production for its little brother ramped up to maximum because its dealers are going to need it. The FZ-07 is that good.
Honda CBR650F Tech
Despite what it might seem at first glance, the new Honda CBR650F is not a dumbed-down old-generation CBR engine with parts-bin chassis build and higher bars. The powerplant might use the same 67mm bore diameter as the 600RR, but that’s about it; everything else—including the crankshaft, rods, pistons, cylinder head, cases, etc.—is different and aimed specifically at producing all-around usable power, not peak hair-on-fire speed. Stroke was lengthened to 46mm (600RR is 42.5mm) for better breathing at lower rpm, and the cylinder head ports are narrower for improved flow at non-five-digit engine speeds, with milder camshaft timing to further enhance lower-rpm flow. Transmission shafts are stacked like the 600RR, and even the airbox, intake funnels, and fuel-injection setup are optimized for the 650F’s intended scope.
The chassis is an oval-steel-tube diamond-shape frame that hangs the engine as a stressed member, with forged-molding swingarm pivot plates welded in that keep the midsection narrow. A 41mm conventional fork holds a unique wheel design that eliminates the need for a strengthened hub and disc carriers. Full-size 320mm petal-style discs and two-piston sliding calipers provide ample stopping power. Out back, a cast-aluminum swingarm is handled directly (no linkage) by a preload-adjustable single shock setup. Interestingly, the CBR650F is manufactured in Honda’s Thailand facility in order to keep costs down.
Test Notes: HONDA CBR650F
+ Sporty suspension
+ Solid handling
+ Most top-end power
- Sticker price
- Slow-revving engine
- Did we mention the MSRP?
x A good bike that might be torpedoed by its high sticker price
Test Notes: Kawasaki Ninja 650 ABS
+ Peppy engine
+ Low seat height
+ Adjustable windscreen
- Down on power in this group
- Funky ergonomics
- High-effort brakes
x Some minor upgrades and the Ninja could be a contender
Test Notes: Suzuki SFV650
+ Flexible, strong engine
+ Good handling
+ No more garish colors
- Price has ballooned upward
- Gained some weight
- Still has Gladius styling
x Bring back the original SV650 and this might’ve been different
Test Notes: Yamaha FZ-07
+ Superb engine
+ Agile handling
+ Awesome sticker price
- Suspension rates too soft
- Fuel tank a little small
- Could use a fly screen
x Looks like another winner from Yamaha…
Sport Rider Opinions
The Honda’s smooth power delivery was a dream on the mountain roads, which made catching up—trying to catch up—to Bradley quite enjoyable. I found the riding position and ergonomics on the Kawasaki (once I got used to them!) comfortable for all-day riding. The Suzuki was plain fun; no frills, easy-to-ride fun. However, all that being said, the Yamaha was able to take all of these attributes, bundle them up in a sleek, nimble package, and give you the best of all worlds. The bike has great power delivery, both on the freeway as well as in the tight twisties. And the beautiful finish kept me hoping that at each stop I would get my hands on those keys again! After an epic day of riding, my pick is definitely the FZ-07.
With the not-so-subtle entry of Yamaha’s new FZ-07 into this class, it seems like the rest of its competitors are now left fighting for second place. While they are all exceptional machines in one area or another, the CBR650F, Ninja 650, and SFV650 are simply unable to match the price, performance, and overall refinement of the FZ-07. So, while it might not have the silky transmission of the CBR650F or the easygoing freeway manners of the SFV650, the FZ-07 more than makes up for its minor faults by setting a new standard of budget mid-weight styling and performance. You’ll be hard-pressed to find more bang for your buck anywhere else on two wheels.
I’m one of those guys who goes to a restaurant and looks at the price of a plate before the plate itself. Some call it being frugal; I call it living on a budget. All the same, I picture consumers shopping for a step-up bike to do the same: Look at the price of the bike before looking at what they actually get for that price.
Regardless of how consumers broach the category, my guess is they’ll end up with eyes on the FZ-07. The bike is fun, looks good, and has the lowest MSRP to boot.
Kudos also to Suzuki for building the best-handling bike in this category and Honda for designing a sporty-looking bike that’s actually, well, sporty. If I wasn’t “living on a budget,” that’s what I’d buy.
Yamaha is definitely setting the standard for others to follow as far as designing and building bikes that will help pull the sport motorcycle category out of the malaise it’s been mired in since the recession. These are bikes that grab attention with their low sticker price, exude nothing but fun, and are inexpensive to own (i.e., insure) and maintain. Max respect to Yamaha and Miwa-san for what they’ve done.
I’ve been seeing a lot of FZ-09s around my neighborhood during the past year. Something tells me there’s going to be a lot more FZ-07s soon.
Sport Rider Ratings
|Bike||Honda CBR650F||Kawasaki Ninja 650||Suzuki SFV650||Yamaha FZ-07|
|Fun to Ride||9||8||9||10|
|Instruments & Controls||9||9||9||9|
|Chassis & Handling||9||8||9||9|
|Engine Power Delivery||8||8||8||10|
|Bike||Honda CBR650F||Kawasaki Ninja 650||Suzuki SFV650||Yamaha FZ-07|
|MSRP||$8499||$7999 (ABS as tested), $7699 standard||$8149||$6990|
|Type||Liquid-cooled, DOHC transverse inline-4, 4 valves/cyl.||Liquid-cooled, DOHC transverse parallel twin, 4 valves/cyl.||Liquid-cooled, DOHC 90° V-twin, 4 valves/cyl.||Liquid-cooled, DOHC transverse parallel twin, 4 valves/cyl.|
|Bore x stroke||67.0 x 46.0mm||83.0 x 60.0mm||81.0 x 62.5mm||80.0 x 68.6mm|
|Induction||PGM-FI, 32mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.||Keihin digital EFI, 38mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.||Mikuni SDTV digital EFI, 39mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.||Nippon EFI, 38mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.|
|Front suspension||41mm Showa conventional cartridge fork; 4.3 in. travel||41mm KYB conventional cartridge fork; 4.9 in. travel||41mm Showa conventional cartridge fork, adjustable for spring preload; 4.9 in. travel||41mm KYB conventional cartridge fork; 5.1 in. travel|
|Rear suspension||Single Showa shock, adjustable for spring preload; 5.0 in. travel||Single KYB shock, adjustable for spring preload; 5.1 in. travel||Single Showa shock, adjustable for spring preload; 5.1 in. travel||| Single KYB shock, adjustable for spring preload; 5.1 in. travel|
|Front tire||120/70ZR-17 Dunlop D222F M||120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart II||120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Qualifier||120/70ZR-17 Michelin Pilot Road 3|
|Rear tire||180/55ZR-17 Dunlop D222 M||160/60ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart II||160/60ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax Qualifier||180/60ZR-17 Michelin Pilot Road 3|
|Rake/trail||25.5°/4.0 in. (101mm)||25.0°/4.3 in. (109mm)||24.0°/4.1 in. (104mm)||24.5°/3.5 in. (90mm)|
|Wheelbase||57.0 in. (1450mm)||55.5 in. (1410mm)||56.9 in. (1445mm)||55.1 in. (1400mm)|
|Seat height||31.9 in. (810mm)||31.7 in. (805mm)||30.9 in. (785mm)||31.7 in. (805mm)|
|Fuel capacity||4.5 gal. (17L)||4.2 gal. (16L)||3.8 gal. (14.5L)||3.7 gal. (14L)|
|Weight||465 lb. wet (211kg); 438 lb. dry (199kg)||467 lb. wet (212kg); 442 lb. dry (200kg)||449 lb. wet (204kg); 426 lb. dry (193kg)||400 lb. wet (181kg); 378 lb. dry (171kg)|
|Fuel consumption||44–49 mpg, 45 mpg avg.||42–48 mpg, 43 mpg avg.||43–49 mpg, 45 mpg avg.||45—53 mpg, 51 mpg avg.|
|Roll-ons||60–80 mph/4.90 sec.; 80–100 mph/NA sec.||60–80 mph/5.20 sec.; 80–100 mph/NA sec.||60–80 mph/5.10 sec.; 80–100 mph/NA sec.||60–80 mph/4.70 sec.; 80–100 mph/NA sec.|
|Quarter mile||12.37 sec. @ 110.8 mph||12.69 sec. @ 106.5 mph||12.57 sec. @ 105.7 mph||12.38 sec. @ 107.9 mph|