If we got a dime every time we were asked what to buy as a first bike, we could easily buy a Kawasaki Ninja 300, Honda CBR500R or Kawasaki Ninja 650, three bikes we feel are best suited to answer the query. The truth is, there isn’t a simple answer anymore. Height, weight, natural ability, and of course wallet size all play important roles in determining which motorcycle you should start on.
Not surprisingly, the beginner bike landscape looks a bit different, too. The Ninja 300 is more your traditional newbie bike, if there exists such a thing. While no longer the 250cc displacement it has long been (and the Honda continues to be), the winner of our 2013 Beginner Bike shootout is entirely unassuming.
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Honda’s CBR500R, meanwhile, is marketed as an intermediate step after the CBR250R. While true, we also think capable beginners are perfectly fine hopping aboard the slightly larger, slightly more powerful 500. So we brought it along to test our theory.
Finally, we have the Ninja 300’s big brother, the Ninja 650. Not intended as a beginner bike, but instead an intermediate, it’s one we often see suggested to new or returning riders when perusing message boards. With more power and more mass, is it really suitable for new riders? That’s what we’re here to find out.
So then, we have three sets of parallel-Twins equaling 1450cc and almost 140 hp combined. Unlike other shootouts, where we look to determine a winner from the crowd, this one is a little different. Instead, this test will point out the pros and cons of each motorcycle, making our suggestions as to which type of rider each is best suited for.
However, we know there are those of you who like seeing winners and losers. For that crowd we’ve also enlisted the help of the MO Scorecard to help decide the winner among your three testers: Content Editor and jack-of-all-trades Tom Roderick, Cruiser Guy Jonny Langston and myself, your sportbike guy/Asian Wolverine.
Without further ado, let’s begin.
Kawasaki Ninja 300
It’s easy to simply suggest the Ninja 300 as a great first motorcycle, and its winning our beginner bike shootout attests to its capabilities against others in its class. With 34 horses to the wheel, a curb weight of 379 pounds and a price tag starting at $4999, there’s absolutely nothing a new rider should worry about when piloting the 300.
Compared to its Ninja 250 predecessor and CBR250R rival from Honda, the 300’s extra capacity makes itself evident whenever the need for power arises, but doesn’t intimidate newer riders like the torque punch from the 650 might. However, once we move the 300 up a weight class or two the little Ninja pilot will be wringing the throttle to stay afloat.
“It will keep up at freeway speed – but that’s all it will do,” says Jonny. “Above about 70 mph, the Ninja is wound out, buzzed out and maxed out.” All that high revving means the bars are bound to get a bit buzzy, which Jonny noted to be especially annoying in the 7000-9000 rev range. And with the engine being taxed at highway speeds, that leaves little left in reserve when trying to scoot out of precarious situations.
Of course, to keep the junior Kawi on the boil means frequent shifts. Thankfully, the 300 is the only bike in this trio equipped with a slipper clutch. “Which is good because it helps both experienced and new riders achieve better, more controllable shifting results,” says Roderick. The 300’s six-speed gearbox also delivers crisp shifts in either direction. The slick trans and slipper clutch were enough to award the Ninja 300 top honors in our transmission category on the MO scorecard.
The little Ninja also earned high scores amongst our three testers in the handling department, where its low weight (384 pounds., as tested) and relatively high ground clearance made it “the most fun to toss from side to side,” Tom says. What the Kawasaki lacks in power it makes up for in corner speed and lean angle, as it seemingly falls into bends at the mere thought of turn-in. It’s an addicting rush as we played through the twisties, but the reality of commuting back on the super slab coming home soured the experience slightly.
Ground clearance is achieved through footpegs stationed comparatively higher than the rest, creating the sportiest position of the three – a position our cruiser guy Langston wasn’t particularly fond of. “All my weight was on my wrists and my knees were buckled back under me.” However, if sport riding is for you, this isn’t a bother.
We were also pleasantly impressed with the strong braking power from the single front disc. Lever feel was linear and positive, too. Our particular test bike was the special edition model equipped with ABS, a $500 option we find very beneficial, especially for new riders.
All told, the Kawasaki Ninja 300 is a superb handler, helped by its light weight, capable suspension and supreme flickability. It also has the smallest price tag of the bunch. However, power is understandably weaker than the rest, and some larger riders might find trouble feeling comfortable on it.
Kawasaki has long had a reputation for being a standard choice for beginner bikes, which means even if you find yourself outgrowing it quicker than expected, “When your ownership is over, there’s always a new rider looking to purchase a first-time bike, making the Ninja 300 an easy bike to sell when it comes time to upgrade,” says Tom.
Here’s Jonny to describe the 300’s perfect rider. “It’s the ideal beginner bike for a younger or petite female rider who’s into sportbikes but has never ridden before. But if you’re average-to-large stature and plan to do more with your bike than just blast around canyons on the weekends, or even if you’re just not into sportbike style, there are better options.”
One of those options Jonny mentions is this, the $5999 Honda CBR500R. Striking a balance between the lower-powered and overworked Ninja 300, and the bigger, more muscular Ninja 650, Honda actually intends the CBR500R, along with its naked (CB500) and adventure (CB500X) siblings, as intermediate motorcycles after the CBR250R. But we think Big Red is being a bit conservative.
Hopping aboard the 500R, its 30.9-inch seat height is identical to the Ninja 300’s and almost an inch less than the 650’s. Despite the bigger engine, its slim proportions make it feel only marginally wider than the baby Kawasaki, a trait we only noticed when sitting on each back-to-back.
“Even though its seat height is the same as the Ninja 300’s,” Jonny says, “unlike that bike the CBR looks, feels and rides like a full size – dare I say, adult – motorcycle.”
The Honda only puts out 42 horses and 28.6 ft.-lbs. of torque, but this is enough to provide the rider confidence that the bike can get out of its own way. We were thoroughly shocked, however, when top gear roll-ons between the three bikes resulted in the Honda only narrowly inching away from the little Kawi. We expected Big Red to chase after the 650 instead of run from the 300.
“It’s impressively slow in top-gear roll-ons against the smaller Ninja,” Roderick says. “But still, you don’t need to constantly spin the Honda near redline to make decent power when accelerating out of a corner.” An important distinction when comparing the two motorcycles.
This is why all of us were impressed with the 471cc parallel-Twin’s usability. Tom commented how smooth its engine is, while Jonny noted the power was just enough to keep things interesting and fun without going overboard for a new rider.
More important, however, when it comes to the purposes of this test, is how much leg room the Honda offers. It’s inviting for riders of all sizes while providing a comfortable ride that won’t leave your knees aching after a long commute to work or school. All three testers were unanimous in giving the CBR500R top scores in the ergonomics category of our scorecards, and by a big margin.
There’s a penalty for leg room, however, as Tom found. “The Honda has the most leg room of the three, but it gives up a lot of cornering clearance, touching its footpegs to pavement long before the two Ninjas.” However, if becoming the next Marc Marquez means nothing to you, this is a non-issue.
Like the Ninja 300, the CBR500R is equipped with a single disc brake, though this one measures 320mm compared to the Kawi’s 290mm. Both are mated to twin-piston calipers delivering strong braking power. ABS is available for the Honda for an extra $500, though our particular tester wasn’t so equipped.
Overall, our favorite aspect of the Honda CBR500R is its supremely user-friendly engine coupled with its comfortable ergonomics, tied together with elegant instrumentation and typical Honda fit and finish. “It’s the perfect blend of entry-level accessibility and streetwise performance,” says Langston. “A great bike for the beginner who plans to spend more than just a few hours per week at the controls.”
Kawasaki Ninja 650
That leaves us with the Kawasaki Ninja 650. A bigger bike in every sense of the word, the 650 feels substantially larger than the other two bikes here, earning it true “big bike” status among the group. Weighing in at 465 pounds with ABS (a five-pound weight penalty over the standard model), it’s 40 pounds heavier than the Honda, and 81 pounds heavier than the 300. With the largest engine of the group it should come as no surprise it outmuscles the other two bikes here, with 62 horses and nearly 42 ft.-lbs. of torque.
Looking at the dyno chart again we see the 650’s fueling is less refined than either the 300 or 500, but Tom is quick to point out “the effect is negligible and with the most power of the three the 650 Ninja clearly rockets away from the two smaller bikes.”
With tall, upright bars the 650 would appear to be the comfort winner among the three, but its high, rearset pegs make for a “knee-cramping” experience,” says Tom. The high bars and the 650’s 31.7-inch seat height, the tallest here, would appear to benefit tall riders most, but again the cramped leg room “totally screws up the rider triangle,” says Jonny. Conversely, the seat height could pose challenges for those struggling for inseam.
Of course, the benefit of the rearset pegs is the ability to lean the bike over rather far before touching hard parts, making canyon runs a fun proposition. Its suspension, though basic like the others, with rear preload the only adjustability, performed well enough to win our suspension category on the scorecard.
Where it failed miserably was in the braking department. Despite its dual front disc setup with 300mm wave rotors and twin-piston calipers, it had the least amount of stopping power, leaving Tom to simply write, “WTF?” in his notes when referencing the brakes. Not only is the power lacking, but the lever feels wooden and difficult to manage. All of these issues are easily remedied in the aftermarket, but they shouldn’t be concerns new riders have to face on today’s motorcycles. Our bike was equipped with ABS, but we imagine a rider would truly have to be ham-fisted to trigger its activation.
At $7999 as tested with ABS, the Kawasaki Ninja 650 is “the ideal bike for the beginning rider who’s larger in stature. Or it would be, if not for the foot controls,” says Jonny. “With lower, more forward-placed foot controls and some sling-over saddlebags this bike could easily fill in as a light touring bike. As is, it’s a good – but not great – commuter.
Tom echoes those sentiments, calling the bike “confused” because of its inability to choose whether it wants to be a standard or a sportbike.
Which should you choose?
As mentioned in the beginning, the purpose of this test wasn’t to decide a winner or loser. Armed with the information we’ve provided, our hope is that, should you be in the market for a first motorcycle and are deciding between these classes, you have a better idea what to expect.
That being said, your trio of testers, all experienced and nowhere near beginner status, are split. If it were our money, Jonny and I would bring the Honda CBR500R home. We were both enamored by its everyday practicality and usability. Surprisingly, Roderick, the tallest one in our staff, picked the Kawasaki Ninja 300 as his winner on the Scorecard, wooed by its handling prowess. So as you can see, the answers aren’t simple. But with a two-to-one majority, we name the Honda CBR500R the winner of our 300/500/650 shootout.
2013 Beginner Sportbike Shootout Part 2 Scorecard
|Kawasaki Ninja 300 SE ABS||75.4%||85.4%||77.7%||80.5%|
|Kawasaki Ninja 650 ABS||80.0%||82.3%||76.5%||76.7%|
|Total includes objective score categories of price and weight|
MORE PICTURES: 2013 Beginner Sportbike Shootout Part 2 gallery