Middleweight Intermediate Sportbike Shootout + Video

Troy Siahaan
by Troy Siahaan

Honda CBR650F vs. Kawasaki Ninja 650 ABS vs. Yamaha FZ6R

Recently, we here at Motorcycle.com brought you one of our biggest tests to date, in the form of our 2014 Middleweight Mash-Up Six-Way Shootout. In it, we wrangled six bikes with minimal or non-existant fairings, ranging in displacement from 471cc ( Honda CB500F) to 690cc ( KTM 690 Duke) and put them to the test.

However, there was one bike in the mix that arguably didn’t belong. The Kawasaki Ninja 650, with its fully-faired bodywork was the odd man out – the Versys would’ve been a better fit, but Kawi had an extensively revised Versys – two of them, actually – in its pipeline. Sure, the Ninja’s engine was ripe for the party, but it wore too many clothes. And besides, taking it out would have given poor Burnsie one less motorcycle to write about – a welcome gift in the internet age of get-it-to-me-yesterday deadlines.

This got us thinking: not every rider out there wants a naked bike. Some would prefer the added wind protection offered by more substantial bodywork and a windscreen. So we invited the Ninja 650 back to play, and this time brought along some more appropriately clothed friends, in the form of Yamaha’s FZ6R and Honda’s new CBR650F.

Something To Consider

Whether any of these three motorcycles is for you is obviously a personal decision, and price will likely be a significant factor in your choice. At $7,199, the Ninja 650 is the least expensive bike here. Add ABS, like on our tester, and the price rises to $7,599. Still lower than the rest. Meanwhile, the Yamaha comes in at $7,790, and ABS isn’t even available as an option. Then comes the Honda. At $8,499 ($8,999 with ABS), it’s the most expensive of the bunch.

2014 Middleweight Mash-Up Six-Way Shootout! + Video

Judged on price alone, the Kawasaki makes a strong case for itself. Then again, if wind protection isn’t as big a concern, $6,990 for a Yamaha FZ-07 may be even more attractive than our trio here. But that’s a discussion for another time …

Looking for an intermediate-level bike to commute and play on the weekends, but prefer full fairings and more wind protection? Honda, Kawasaki and Yamaha have something for you.

Long-time readers may remember a similar test we did in 2010, pitting the Kawasaki and Yamaha against the now-discontinued Suzuki GSX650F (if not, you can read about it here). Little has changed with the Yamaha since then, it receiving only Bold New Graphics, while the Kawasaki got a complete facelift, with new frame, bodywork, instruments and suspension changes. The engine is the same, but internal tweaks give it more midrange and better fuel economy than before. In 2010 we called the Suzuki portly and just a tad confusing, as it didn’t appeal to either new or experienced riders. With the Honda, we expect a more clearly defined purpose.

Coming Back Around

It’s been more than four years since that shootout, so if you need a refresher on the Yamaha, check out the link above. You can also click the above links for info on the Kawasaki, but click here to read about the latest version of the Ninja 650. Being a new bike, the Honda CBR650F may be relatively fresh in the minds of our readers. If not, Evans’ story above will get you up to speed.

The dyno chart shows the twin-cylinder Kawasaki and four-cylinder Honda, both with 650cc, are neck and neck down low and in the midrange, with the Kawi even jumping ahead around 7000 rpm. The Honda’s ability to rev higher ultimately gives it the peak-power advantage. The graph doesn’t look favorable for the smaller, 600cc Yamaha, but its well-chosen gearing makes it difficult to perceive any real power deficit in the real world.

To begin this comparison, as usual we start with the engines. Both the Kawasaki and Honda are liquid-cooled, inline 649cc units. The big difference is the Ninja makes due with two cylinders, while the Honda has four. Meanwhile, the Yamaha’s 600cc inline-Four is borrowed from the previous generation R6 sportbike, circa 2003-2005. The engine has been retuned for better midrange and more streetable power.

2014 Honda CBR650F First Ride Review

After running all three bikes on the Dynojet dyno at CM Motorsports, the Honda pumped out 76.6 hp at 10,900 rpm and 41.8 lb-ft. at 8900 rpm. The Kawasaki and Yamaha were close on power but trailed behind the Honda. The Ninja peaked at 64.5 hp at 8900 rpm and 43.0 lb-ft. at 7100, while the Yamaha made 65.4 hp at 9800 rpm and 38.5 lb-ft. at 8400 rpm.

Honda’s all-new CBR650F also comes with an all-new engine. The “CB400F-inspired header design looks sexy, what little of it is seen,” says Duke. It put out the most power in this test but emits an annoying buzz through the bars. Still, it returned 42.5 mpg average during our testing, better than the 41.8 mpg of the Kawasaki and 38.4 mpg of the Yamaha.

On the road, differences between the three are negligible, at least in terms of power. However, what surprised us was the amount of vibration coming from the 650F. “The Honda’s inline-Four is ridiculously buzzy,” says Mismatched Glove Editor, Tom Roderick. “If it’s not numbing my hands, it’s numbing my testicles.” Tom can sometimes get carried away when talking about his nether regions, but we all agreed the Honda’s engine produces the most vibes through the bars. This is especially felt at 80 mph in sixth gear. Back it down a touch and the buzz becomes bearable. The Honda also suffers from slightly abrupt off/on throttle fueling, which we found annoying.

In stark contrast, the Ninja, and especially the Yamaha, engines are silky smooth. With the most torque available, and offered at lower engine speeds than the Fours, the Kawasaki’s 650 Twin had pleasurable grunt at the bottom end and midrange, something we appreciated on corner exits. And although “the Ninja’s parallel-Twin engine sounds painfully pedestrian at idle,” says E-i-C Duke, “it blats a nice baritone honk when wound out.”

The Kawasaki’s 649cc Twin more than holds its own against the four-cylinder competition. Its torque figure is tops of the bunch, and when the Twin starts singing, she lets out a pleasing exhaust note. The steel-tube swingarm design is a nice touch.

The FZ6R’s distinctive four-cylinder wail is muffled by the large underslung exhaust, which Duke labeled the ugliest of the test. None of that matters though, because the 600cc mill reminds everyone of its supersport roots every chance it gets. Tom noted that the “FZ’s engine definitely punches above its weight … in fact, it hung with the torquier Ninja during a top gear roll-on contest.” In addition, it’s incredibly smooth as well. No matter the road or engine speed, hardly a buzz is felt through the bars or rubber-cushioned pegs.

Kawasaki Ninja 650 vs. Suzuki GSX650F vs. Yamaha FZ6R

With its unexpectedly strong performance and negligible vibes, the FZ6R, the oldest bike in this test, easily won the Engine category of the MO ScoreCard, besting the second place Ninja by almost four percentage points. The Honda, docked points for its vibration, brings up the rear, more than 10 percentage points adrift, which was a big surprise to us. The low-key FZ6R kinda got lost on our radar screens over the years, but it’s a seriously impressive engine for its intended purpose.

More Surprises

The Yamaha isn’t done impressing us in this test. In the handling department, we were pleasantly surprised at how well it navigated the twisty stuff. It flicks from side to side fluidly and quickly, a trait Duke credits to the 160-series rear Dunlop Roadsmart, 20mm narrower than the CBR’s Dunlop D222s. The FZ’s upright bars are placed nicely to provide good leverage, too.

Nicely positioned bars and a 160-series rear tire help earn the FZ6R our praise for its agility in this trio. However, from this angle, that bulbous underslung exhaust is a real eyesore.

The suspension is damped on the soft side, and other than rear preload, there’s not much you can do about it. It dives on the brakes and, if it had more grunt, would squat on acceleration. However, both front and rear are balanced in their damping, so at least both ends travel through their stroke in harmony, making it easier to predict what they will do next.

An identical 160mm Roadsmart graces the Kawasaki’s rear, too, but we weren’t quite as enthusiastic about the Ninja’s handling. The upright handlebars place the rider’s upper body nice and tall, and its rearset pegs are the last to drag of the trio. However, the “Ninja 650 suffers an identity crisis,” says Tom.

The Kawasaki is fitted with a 160/60-17 Dunlop Roadsmart rear like the Yamaha, and while its high pegs make it more difficult to drag, the awkward bar placement contributes to its deficiency of front-end feel.

“Its tall, pull-back handlebars put a rider’s torso in a very comfortable, upright riding position,” says Roderick, “but the high-placed footpegs force a severe leg bend with a short seat-to-footpeg distance. The higher footpegs provide plenty of ground clearance, but the front end is vague because there’s no weight over the wheel due to the handlebars. So, the Ninja is neither sporty like the Honda nor comfy like the Yamaha.” Duke also noted the Ninja’s bar bend “felt funky” in his hands, but he noted that switching to a different bar is an easy fix.

The Honda, meanwhile, feels the most sporty of the group, its bars the lowest here and suspension the firmest. Sit on it, and the rider feels like they’re sitting atop the motorcycle rather than in it. The feeling mimics that of the CBR600RR. Unlike the 600RR, though, the 650F’s clip-ons are placed above the triple clamp, giving the rider a more upright position in relation. The tradeoff for having the lowest bar placement is having excellent communication with the front tire.

The most sporty riding position of the three, the CBR650F offers great front end feel. Its agility is hampered slightly by its 180/55-17 Dunlop (all three wear 120/70-17 fronts).

Unlike the other two, the 650F wears a rear 180-series Dunlop D222. We had no complaints about grip levels from all three bikes, nor any major handling complaints, but Duke did have a quibble with the Honda’s flickability. “It feels the least agile in this group,” he says. “I’d put part or most of the blame on its 180mm rear tire, which dulls responses at the bars compared to the skinnier 160s on the Ninja and 6R.”

2009 Yamaha FZ6R Review

Ultimately, the extra effort to flick the Honda around, and its least amount of cornering clearance, hurt its Handling score on the ScoreCard, with its 83.3% exactly five percentage points behind the Yamaha. The FZ’s margin of victory in this category was definitely unexpected. Meanwhile, the Kawasaki loses out, scoring 77.5% due to the negligible front-end feedback we felt.

Details like the stylized steel frame and aluminum swingarm (the only one of the group) are nice touches on the Honda, as is the clever exhaust cover hiding what would otherwise be an exposed (and ugly) exhaust canister.

It’s not all doom and gloom for the Honda. In fact, we praised it for having the best brakes of the bunch, with Kevin saying, “the brake package is of humble specifications, but it’s my favorite set of binders in this group. They’re not as powerful as high-end sets, but they offer a firm lever and highly predictable responses.” The Yamaha’s binders are a close second in terms of stopping power amongst all three testers, and the trio also agreed the brakes on the Ninja 650 were the least impressive here. It “takes a bunch more squeeze [on the Kawasaki] to get the same stopping results from the front brake,” says Tom.

We also admired the attention to detail Honda put in to the 650F. “The CBR looks decidedly upscale in this comparo, with a higher level of finish quality,” Duke says. “Like the others, the Honda uses cost-effective steel for its frame material, but its casting is contoured like a pricier aluminum frame that looks better than the steel tubes of the others. And its aluminum swingarm is much prettier than the steel swingers in this group, especially the FZ6R’s dated box-section design.”

The Daily Grind

While fun, exploring the performance potential of each bike in the canyons is but one part of the job. As all three bikes are meant to do a little bit of everything, how they perform during everyday tasks is equally important. Around town and on the highway, the upright riding position of the Kawasaki is enjoyable. Its windscreen, too, does the best job of deflecting wind up, over and around a rider’s chest.

The Ninja is a very favorable motorcycle from the waist up. The bars place you virtually upright, and decent wind deflection is given from the screen. However, the high pegs present a tight squeeze for those with long legs.

However, the Ninja’s relatively rear-set pegs “compromise the amount of legroom for a rider,” says Kevin. It’s a complaint we’ve had about the Ninja 650 for some time, and if the shorties of the MO staff with 30-inch inseams are saying as much, those with longer legs will certainly be feeling the crunch after a short amount of time.

The Honda offers a much more relaxed knee bend, despite its sporty intentions, with Tom mentioning, “It may have the lowest bars, but it also has the most legroom.” Kevin and Tom also praised the Honda’s flat seat as being their most comfortable. However, the forward-most seating position of the Honda puts a mild strain on the wrists after a while. Combined with the buzzy engine that put some testers hands to sleep after an hour of freeway riding, and the CBR650F is not our choice of the trio to burn a lot of miles. YMMV, depending on your sensitivity to vibration.

The forward tilt of the Honda’s rider is plain to see, though the increased legroom might be less noticeable.

In case you haven’t noticed the trend by now, the Yamaha FZ6R is the Goldilocks of this test, with its features rated as just right by our testers. The Yamaha hits the mark in the ergo department, striking a perfect balance between the cramped legroom of the Kawi and the sportbike tilt of the Honda. It also features my favorite saddle of the three, its thick cushioning best supporting my tush for long freeway drones. It also has the only adjustable seat; a reversible platform underneath allows it to raise 20mm from its standard 30.9-inch perch.

Meanwhile, the FZ6R strikes a nice balance between the Kawasaki and the Honda, its rider only leaning slightly forward, knees not quite as bent as on the Ninja.

Age And Experience …

All three gauge clusters are relatively sparse, with trip computers, fuel gauges and clocks as their only highlights – no gear-position indicators seems like an oversight. Both the Yamaha (top) and Kawasaki (middle) employ analog tachs, while the Honda (bottom) uses a digital unit. All three use digital speedos.

When it comes down to it, the Yamaha FZ6R is the winner of this test, but by the narrowest of margins over the Honda – by 0.23%, to be exact. Despite being the oldest bike here, the FZ6R won six categories of the ScoreCard: Engine, Transmission, Handling, Suspension, Ergos/Comfort and Grin Factor. The Honda won three categories by significant margin over the others – Cool Factor, Quality/Fit/Finish and Brakes – clawing back major ground in the overall rankings.

The perfect bike for you is ultimately your choice, and, of this trio, pricing might be a deciding factor. At $7,599, even with ABS, the Kawasaki Ninja 650 is still the least expensive motorcycle here. The 649cc Twin is a strong choice with lots of aftermarket support, and the chassis is a willing dance partner. All the issues we mentioned can be remedied via the aftermarket, too. “When it comes to best bang for your buck,” Tom notes, “the Ninja holds a clear advantage.”

Though it’s the most expensive bike here by a large margin, the Honda CBR650F exudes the typical Honda quality we’ve come to expect. Not to mention it looks the best of the bunch when viewed up close. Without having the Kawi and Yamaha to ride side-by-side, the handling differences likely wouldn’t register and if you’re worried about the forward lean, aftermarket solutions should be available in no time. “The CBR650F looks the most expensive because it is,” Kevin says. “If it was priced in line with its rivals, I’d give it the class win. If dollars are critical to your buying equation, the 650F’s vibration levels loom larger.”

While the Kawasaki received a significant update a few years ago, and the all-new Honda entered the scene, the aging Yamaha FZ6R is still our choice as the bike to have in the intermediate fully-faired sporty bike category.

That leaves the Yamaha FZ6R. Winner of this test in 2010, and the champ of this comparison, you could say the FZ6R has aged gracefully. Its perfect combination of power, handling, practicality and user-friendliness made it a hard combo to beat four years ago, and it’s still hard to beat today. Granted, its styling could use a little help, but if you’re a believer in function before form, then give the Yamaha serious consideration.

Honda CBR650F

+ Highs

  • Superb fit and finish
  • Great stopping power
  • Best seating position for sporty riding

– Sighs

  • Expensive
  • Engine is buzzy at highway speeds
  • Sporty position isn’t great for commuters

Kawasaki Ninja 650 ABS

+ Highs

  • Cheapest bike here, even with ABS
  • A close second in the aesthetics department
  • Strong aftermarket support

– Sighs

  • Cramped legroom
  • Weak brakes
  • Handling manners could be better

Yamaha FZ6R

+ Highs

  • Best compromise between commuter and canyon carver
  • Smoooooooth engine
  • Most agile bike here

– Sighs

  • ABS isn’t even an option
  • Looks a bit dated
  • Would an FZ-07 be a better buy?

Middleweight Intermediate Sportbike Shootout Scorecard

CategoryHonda CBR650FKawasaki Ninja 650Yamaha FZ6R
Quality, Fit & Finish90.0%81.7%81.7%
Cool Factor82.5%74.2%70.0%
Grin Factor76.7%71.7%82.5%
Overall Score81.3%79.4%81.5%

Middleweight Intermediate Sportbike Shootout Specs

Honda CBR650FKawasaki Ninja 650Yamaha FZ6R
MSRP$8499 (ABS: $8999)$7199 (ABS: $7599)$7,790.00
Type649cc liquid-cooled inline-Four649cc liquid-cooled parallel Twin600cc liquid-cooled inline-Four
Bore and Stroke67.0 x 46. mm83.0 x 60.0mm65.5 x 44.5mm
Fuel SystemPGM-FI Programmed Automatic Enrichment Circuit, with 42mm Throttle BodiesEFI, two 38mm throttle bodiesFuel injection
Compression Ratio11.4:110.8:112.2:1
Valve TrainDOHC; 4 valves per cylinderDOHC; 4 valves per cylinderDOHC; 4 valves per cylinder
EmissionsEPA, CARB compliantEPA, CARB-compliantEPA, CARB-compliant
Horsepower76.63 hp @ 10,900 rpm64.69 @ 8900 rpm65.35 @ 9800 rpm
Torque41.81 @ 8900 rpm43.04 @ 7100 rpm38.50 @ 8400 rpm
Drive Train
Transmission6-speed; multi-plate wet clutch6-speed, multi-plate wet clutch, positive neutral finder6-speed, multiplate wet clutch
Final DriveChainChainChain
Front Suspension41mm fork; 4.3 in. travel41mm fork; 4.9 inches travel41mm Telescopic fork; 5.1-in travel
Rear SuspensionPro-Link single shock, adjustable for spring preload; 5.0 inches travelSingle cantilevered shock; preload adjustable, 5.1 in. travelSingle, preload-adjustable shock; 5.1-in travel
Front BrakeDual 320mm wave discs; 2-piston calipersDual 300mm petal discs, 2-piston calipersDual 298mm discs, 2-piston calipers
Rear Brake240mm wave disc; single-piston caliper220mm petal disc, single-piston caliper245mm disc, 1-piston caliper
Front Tire120/70-17120/70-17120/70 ZR-17
Rear Tire180/55-17160/60-17160/60 ZR-17
Rake/Trail25.3° / 3.98 in. (101.3mm)25° / 4.3 in. (110mm)26° / 4.1 in. (104mm)
Wheelbase57.0 in.55.5 in.56.7 in.
Seat Height31.9 in.31.7 in.30.9 in.
Curb Weight461 lb.465 lb470 lb.
Fuel Capacity4.5 gal.4.2 gal.4.6 gal.
Tested Fuel Economy42.5 mpg41.8 mpg38.4 mpg
Available ColorsRed, Candy Blue, Matte Black MetallicCandy Lime Green / Metallic Flat Spark Black, Metallic Spark Black / Metallic Flat Spark Black, Pearl Flat Stardust White / Metallic Flat Spark BlackRapid Red/Raven
WarrantyOne year, Transferable, unlimited-mileage limited warranty; extended coverage available with a Honda Protection Plan.One yearOne year
Troy Siahaan
Troy Siahaan

Troy's been riding motorcycles and writing about them since 2006, getting his start at Rider Magazine. From there, he moved to Sport Rider Magazine before finally landing at Motorcycle.com in 2011. A lifelong gearhead who didn't fully immerse himself in motorcycles until his teenage years, Troy's interests have always been in technology, performance, and going fast. Naturally, racing was the perfect avenue to combine all three. Troy has been racing nearly as long as he's been riding and has competed at the AMA national level. He's also won multiple club races throughout the country, culminating in a Utah Sport Bike Association championship in 2011. He has been invited as a guest instructor for the Yamaha Champions Riding School, and when he's not out riding, he's either wrenching on bikes or watching MotoGP.

More by Troy Siahaan

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2 of 32 comments
  • Steve Schamp Steve Schamp on Mar 12, 2015

    Great review as always, now a difficult question to be answered. My local Yamaha shop has the FZ07 at 6990, and a 2013 leftover FZ6R for 6000. Which to pick I ask? What a choice, for me at least, highway riding to work for 20 minutes ultimately makes my decision I guess. Or maybe a fly screen? Too bad screens never get reviewed.

  • Paul Wolf Paul Wolf on Aug 06, 2017

    Do a new one with the 2017 models of cbr and ninja.