Unless your name is Rip Van Winkle, you've probably noticed their proliferation over the past six years.
With a long heritage of building light and middleweight twins, Kawasaki would answer the above question with a resounding "Yes."
Drawing on nearly twenty years of EX/Ninja 250 and 500 domination of the "cheap, light and fast" philosophy, Team Green has added yet another member to the ever-growing family of motorcycle assassins known as the Ninja. For 2006 they've unveiled what they hope will be a motorcycle for "all ages, riders and abilities", whether man or woman. That's a big spread in any endeavor but can the new Ninja 650R cover it?
When was the last time someone thought of you first when designing a product? According to Carl Edmondson, Sportbike Products Manager, Kawasaki did just that: "One thing that's unique about the Ninja 650R is the fact that the engineers took a completely different approach in the development of this model. Normally we're trying to figure out ways to make the motorcycle bigger, lighter, faster, etc. It's always about the motorcycle. But when the engineers set out to develop this bike they didn't start with the motorcycle in mind.
They actually started with the rider in mind." Calling the 650R "the perfect entry-level bike", Kawasaki most definitely has thought of the rider. Striving for ease of use, the Ninja applies some basics: a low 30" seat height, light weight, a narrow sensation thanks to a slim fuel tank and shorter distance between foot pegs, handlebars that keep the rider upright and an engine tuned for low to mid-range power.
"Two things capture the eye on this new twin: the smooth, sweeping bodywork with its subtle two-tone paint and the color matched forks, frame-with integrated "lay-down shock"--and the swingarm."
With the new or entry-level rider as their primary target, Kawasaki knows that "fun" is a key factor for people looking to make their first new bike purchase. Citing their own research on new riders, Kawasaki observed that buyers don't want their bikes to look entry-level; "They want their bikes to look like a premium sportbike." Applying styling cues from the "premium" Ninjas; designers did all they could to make it look as aggressive as possible.
Two things capture the eye on this new twin: the smooth, sweeping bodywork with its subtle two-tone paint and the color matched forks, frame-with integrated "lay-down shock"--and the swingarm. Adding to that aggressive look, the new Ninja sports six-spoke wheels and "petal" brake rotors directly from the ZX6 and ZX10 series. Front turn signals are integrated into the body panels and the headlight is sourced straight from the Z1000. A color-matched seat awaits the rider and once they're aboard they'll find the usual analog gauges and standard idiot lights. Nothing special here, just function.
What isn't so obvious to the onlooker is the muffler, but that's a good thing. Relocated from more traditional attachment points, the exhaust can is clandestinely located under the engine and blends seamlessly with the lower bodywork.
Not only does the "mid-ship" exhaust design add to the bike's "mass centralization and lower the COG", according to Kawasaki, it's also EPA friendly with its three-way catalytic converter. Kawi claims it exceeds strict Euro III emissions standards. Whatever it does, it looks great and even if the components were nothing more than a "parts bin" assemblage, Kawi would probably still sell thousands and thousands on looks alone.
The heart of this little beast is an all-new liquid cooled, 649cc, eight-valve, DOHC, parallel twin with liner-less-but plated-cylinders which have a narrow pitch and are bored out to an over square 83.0mm x 60.0mm. A cassette-style, six-speed transmission is made compact by way of a triangulated arrangement, just like on the ZX10 and includes a counter balancer. As part of this new engine design a semi-dry oil sump is used to allow for a shallower oil pan.
Fuel induction takes place thru twin 38mm Keihin throttle bodies that include sub-throttles designed to smooth out fuel injection and make riding easier for the new biker. Additionally an "Auto Fast Idle System" is designed for "quick firing and smooth idling, even when cold." What this all adds up to is an engine that is shorter, narrower and lighter and yet has 150cc more than the EX/Ninja 500. Kawasaki claims the bike to be the "most compact engine in the category." A clean slate was used in the chassis design. A high-tensile steel trellis frame with the engine as a stressed member and an integrated, offset, lay-down rear shock was utilized to keep the bike narrow between the knees and feet. With all this compactness going on in the engine and frame, the braced swingarm was made long-thanks again to tech borrowed from the other performance Ninjas, to help improve handling according to Kawasaki. The "petal" brake rotors are snatched right out from under the ZX6 and ZX10 models, while the calipers are of the two-piston, sliding pin type. Finally, the tires are Bridgestone 020s. In keeping with their "re-thinking" of this bike's design, Kawasaki engineers did a lot of analysis to determine how the rider interfaces with the motorcycle, "They studied different riding positions and tried to determine the best posture to instill the most confidence.", says Edmondson.
"I had plenty of opportunity to utilize the low to mid-range power."
One thing is for sure: the bike has as neutral a riding position as can be found. When you first sit on the new Ninja you immediately notice the low saddle height and relaxed seat to bar relation. Standing 5'8" I was comfortable but if I were taller I might have found the ergos to be a bit tight. Although it offers a huge amount of ground clearance, foot peg height may slightly cramp the style of riders over six feet tall.
Although no real wind buffeting occurred I would have preferred the windscreen be angled up to take some of the windblast of my upper body. With the steep, tight, twisting terrain of Palomar Mountain Road and the surrounding countryside I had plenty of opportunity to utilize the low to mid-range power. Torque becomes apparent as low as 2,500rpm but is most effective starting around 3,000rpm. Thanks to the excellent fuel injection and accessible mid-range power, modulating the throttle while in the middle gears is the best way to tackle tighter sections of the roadway. When sweeping turns start to appear so does the engine's fun zone, with the most entertaining place to have the engine spinning around the 6,500rpm. With the powerband coming on right around 7,000 rpm and fading seriously by approximately 9,500 to 10,000rpm, this new twin never feels peaky or "camy" like the EX500. Don't expect a rush of acceleration at any point in the rev range, just a very linear and tractable powerband with a little hot spot as mentioned above.
The 650R is by no means boring at the throttle but we have to consider that the primary target for this bike is either beginners or those with limited riding experience. Where the engine reveals its strength is at freeway speeds. Droning down the interstate between 70-80mph, the little Ninja that could spins at a leisurely 5,000rpm. Need to pass Mr. I'll-Drive-As-Slow-As-I-Want, in the fast lane?
The 650R obliges as it accelerates effortlessly in top gear roll-ons, with no flat spots or bogging before it decides to get out of its own way. That is an excellent trait to have for any bike looking to be a commuter champion. The clutch and transmission were flawless, so much so that I never thought about them.
Page2Being a former owner of at least two EX500s, I was preconditioned to expect the ubiquitous vibration inherent in "sewing machine" twins. I was pleasantly surprised, to observe that almost no vibration found its way to me while cruising the freeway or darting around canyon roads. I say almost no vibration because a barely perceptible amount of buzz comes thru the all-metal foot pegs around 4,000prm. Kawasaki has done a wonderful job with the counter-balanced crank.
"The star of the show as far as I'm concerned is the ultra stable chassis."
With 25 degrees of rake and 4.2 inches of trail combined with the long swingarm and good leverage offered by the wide, standard-type handlebars this Ninja initiates turns easily and stays absolutely planted once it is set for the corner.
No amount of mid-corner line changing or braking could seem to get the chassis to flex or complain with threats of a high side; exactly what the beginning rider needs. It's like a Ronco rotisserie oven: Just set it and forget it.
The beauty of this Ninja is that it can adapt to different riding styles. Do you like to stay more upright and muscle the bike around dirt-tracker style, like most new riders will be apt to do? That's not a problem for the 650R. Fancy yourself a more aggressive, hang-off type? The Ninja will gladly let you stuff it into every corner if that's how you like to ride. And with ground clearance for days and days, you'll be taking full advantage of the Bridgestone 020s.
With a retail price of $6,299.00 and all the technology invested in the frame and engine this new Ninja had to suffer somewhere. Unfortunately that somewhere is in the poor suspension and brakes. With lack of adjustability of any kind up front and pre-load only via an easily accessible ramp-style collar in the rear, this 650 offers one harsh ride over high speed bumps. Too much compression damping also causes the front end to offer little in the way of feedback.
At one point, while pushing through a series of sweeping rights and lefts, the front tire lost traction while going over a section of rough pavement. The result was a moderate little slide. It wasn't anything that caused me to ride in fear for the remainder of the day but it did show me one of two weak points on this motorcycle.
If Kawasaki sourced the brake rotors from the ZX6 and/or ZX10, they must have sourced the calipers from the Ninjas 250 and 500. Twin-piston, sliding pin calipers are simply a poor choice. They don't provide much sensitivity and often had me thinking of the word "wooden." The only way for me to rectify their poor performance was to set the adjustable brake lever to position "1" to get the most leverage and control. What I would have preferred is a single rotor with a four-piston opposed caliper of higher quality in order to keep the price down but brake performance up.
Team Green has put together an absolutely great package for the intended audience. If you're a beginning rider, have a short inseam or just want a great commuter/all day rider that doesn't mind a spirited ride in the twisties, the Ninja 650R may be the bike for you. And with roughly $1,300.00 separating all the advanced design in this new bike from the Ninja 500R, the prospective buyer would be unwise to not consider the new over the old.
Anyone with advanced riding skills will almost immediately notice the less than perfect suspension and brakes. But if you're not looking for perfection and want the same things that a beginner wants, like a lightweight, quick handling bike with an engine to match, then this new Ninja may be right for you too. I'll step out on a limb (confidently) and predict that we are going to start seeing a lot of this bike once word gets out.
|** Specifications Provided by Kawasaki **|