It’s good to be the king. At least, that’s what it feels like to anyone racing a Kawasaki Ninja 400. When it comes to small-bore track or race bikes, what is a field of several – Yamaha R3, Honda CBR500, and KTM RC390 included – has been whittled down to a field of one: the Ninja 400. Virtually anywhere in the world that has a class for little bikes of this size will see a field dominated by the little green machines. Heck, we called it the winner back in 2018 during our Lightweight Sportbike Shootout, too.  

The reasons are obvious: the Ninja 400 punches above its weight while still being approachable to riders of all skill levels. For its class, the 399cc parallel-Twin is punchy and vibrant, with smooth power and great fueling from top to bottom. In stock trim, its supporting cast of brakes, chassis, and suspension are all adequate for the task, too. But as we know, “adequate” isn’t good enough for track riding or racing, and here the aftermarket has come to the rescue with parts to cure basically every one of the Ninja’s shortcomings. 

It might be hard to remember, but there used to be a brief time when the KTM RC390 was the bike to have in the class. With a mantra like “Ready To Race,” anybody who wanted to do exactly that would be justified for grabbing the little Orange bike. Over time, though, it became evident that the Ninja was simply an easier motorcycle to go fast on. Couple that with reliability issues for the KTM (at least early models), and the writing was on the wall for the RC. 

Or Was It?

Not ones to take a challenge lying down, KTM has updated the RC390 for 2022. Ostensibly, the changes come in a bid to comply with Euro5 standards, but it can also be viewed as an attempt to claw back its standing against the Kawasaki. With a new, lighter frame, lighter wheels, new airbox, IMU-enhanced ABS and traction control, an autoblipper, adjustable suspension, and reshaped fuel tank and bodywork, on paper it seems like there’s a lot to like about the updated 390. 

Green bikes have dominated the small-bore category of production-based racing. It’s about time to bring back a little orange.

One thing you won’t see, however, is a new or updated engine. The 390 Single is fed air differently because of the new airbox, but it’s largely the same as before. Still, the combination of these changes got the MO crew wondering if KTM had done enough to dethrone the Kawasaki for track superiority. Clearly, there was only one way to find out. 

Time For A Track Showdown!

Not ones to resist an opportunity to go to the track, we took the RC390 and Ninja 400 to Buttonwillow Raceway with our friends at Trackdaz to settle the score once and for all. Other than replacing the stock tires for the super sticky Bridgestone R11 rubber, we kept both bikes completely stock. For this test we also wanted to get a broader range of opinions other than my own, so we brought in some special guests. Our pal Mark Miller needs no introduction, but I’ll give him one anyway. A former AMA champion with 50-something Isle of Man TT starts under his belt, “Thriller” Miller is currently the fastest American around the Isle. 

More than just black, round, and sticky, Bridgestone developed the Battlax R11 to carry on where the Battlax R10 left off.

Aron Smetana joins us next, and while he may not be a name familiar to some of you, he was the man who played a huge part in helping MO collect data for our 7-bike Heavyweight Naked Shootout and the subsequent Data Mining story, comparing how three riders, on three different motorcycles, lapped within a second of each other. A track-riding regular aboard his Triumph Daytona 765 and Street Triple (and even his BMW GS on occasion!), Smetana also owns a Ninja 400 in race trim and used to race an RC390 before that. 

Last, but certainly not least, we have Kate Afanasyeva. She and her brother Dennis run Beach Moto, a premier motorcycle apparel retailer in Los Angeles. When she’s not at the shop you can usually find her at the track aboard her Yamaha R6, either dicing it up or coaching new track riders at many Let’s Ride trackday events. Having gotten her start with track riding aboard a Kawasaki Ninja 300, the benefits of small displacement motorcycles as you move up the ladder is not lost on her, and Kate brings a refreshing perspective to this test.

Our testers and video crew, putting the bikes through their paces so you don’t have to.

The premise here was simple: all four riders would swap back and forth on the two bikes throughout our trackday to gather their impressions on each in the track environment. At the end of the day a discussion was had and a winner was chosen. Fortunately, we all didn’t see eye to eye.

Track Chops

Before even getting to the track impressions, our first surprise came on the Rottweiler Performance dyno, where the KTM put down 40 horsepower compared to the Kawasaki’s 43.4. Torque was almost identical – 24.6 lb-ft for the Ninja, 24.1 lb-ft for the KTM. The surprise comes with how sloppy the RC’s dyno graph looks. With more zigs and zags than the Alps, the RC is particularly ugly in the upper mid-range, with a huge flat spot that rises sharply at 8,000 rpm before plateauing again for 1,600 rpm en route to redline. It’s really quite shocking how bad the fuel curve is.

Yuck. The KTM’s jagged edges, huge flat spots, and long plateaus prove to be huge handicaps on the track, too. Meanwhile, the Kawasaki’s power and torque graphs look buttery smooth. We wish both bikes could keep climbing in their respective upper rev ranges instead of falling flat.

Conversely, the Ninja’s graph looks buttery smooth in comparison, rising steadily before hitting its peak at 10,300 rpm and carrying the overrev for another 2,000 rpm. It’s clear both bikes are being choked in the upper rev range, but at least the Ninja’s power is delivered smoothly and in linear fashion.

This was also what our riders felt on track, as the Kawasaki was easy to ride and power was easy to extract. Our riders agreed that turning the throttle was met with a commensurate amount of power, and the Kawi’s wide overrev instilled a sense of comfort allowing them to wring the Ninja’s neck. 

Mark’s trying everything he can on the KTM to keep up with the Kawasaki. He’s so obsessed with lightness that he shucked his knee puck mid-turn! (See the black object beside his head)

You’re forced to squeeze every last ounce you can out of the KTM and stretch its digital throttle cable, because the RC’s big problem is simply how slow it is. You don’t feel the midrange fueling jumps because you’re spending most of your time getting to WFO as fast as you can. A difference of three horsepower isn’t much, but the RC has basically plateaued at 8,600 rpm and you’re left riding a flat spot until the engine signs off at 10,000 rpm. Meanwhile, the Kawasaki is just getting into its stride and pulling away easily. In this case, we didn’t need the dyno chart to tell us the RC390 was glaringly slower than the Kawasaki. We quickly learned the KTM didn’t have the power to overcome the resistance from sticking a knee out during long sweepers. As in, we could feel ourselves slowing down when the knees came out, so the trick became keeping body parts tucked in for as long as possible during a lap. Combine this lack of power with the ultra-sticky R11 rubber and the IMU-assisted traction control took the day off. 

Both Aron and Kate were gracious and diplomatic in describing the KTM’s power shortcomings, though Kate made an excellent point about the RC’s anemic nature being a good thing for the completely green track rider, as they’ll be able to benefit from learning the finer points of track riding before worrying about power management. 

Meanwhile, Thriller Miller didn’t even need to touch his knee down on the Kawasaki to stay in front of the KTM.

With Mark and I riding, whoever was on the Ninja was constantly throttling off to let the KTM rider catch up. Its power advantage was that apparent. However, Thriller discovered short shifting the 390 just as it hit its peak (instead of letting it inch towards redline) gave it the best shot of keeping the Ninja in its sights. Of course, once sixth gear is reached it’s bye bye Kawi. 

Transmission

KTM gets credit for incorporating an autoblipper to the RC, but its operation still needs fine-tuning.

But this highlighted the other glaring downfall for the Orange bike. Despite being equipped with an autoblipper for clutchless shifts both up and down – an item I’m normally a huge advocate for – the system KTM employs feels entirely half-baked. Upshifts require a firm lift from your toe and are clunky with each selected gear. Agricultural was the best way I could describe it. To its credit, clutchless downshifts were acceptable, but many of our testers ultimately decided to pretend the autoblipper didn’t exist and shifted the old-fashioned way. The only sensor the Kawasaki has is the one telling you which gear you’re in, and in typical Kawasaki style its analog gearbox rowed through the gears just fine. Considering the KTM’s autoblipper is largely software-based, with no visible sensors shown near the shifter, there’s hope that the aftermarket (or even KTM itself) can come up with new code to make shifts smoother. Doing so would be a big improvement. 

Handling

Now that we’ve established the KTM is weak in the area it didn’t change, the engine, and should have spent more time developing its autoblipper, let’s give the RC credit where it’s due. All of our testers agreed the KTM’s chassis was much better than the Ninja’s. Where the Kawasaki would feel like a “wet noodle” (Mark’s words), the RC chassis felt stable and composed. Kate said it inspired confidence in her because she knew what the bike was doing when she leaned over, whereas the Ninja was “squirming” underneath her, zapping a little bit of confidence. Miller liked how the 390 gave him better feel and control from the front end – something he thought was vague on the Kawasaki. It’s amazing KTM went through the effort to have removable braces in the frame to dial in the amount of flex based on rider preference. Not that any of us had any complaints with the standard setup. 

The KTM chassis is stellar, with none of the flex we associate with small-displacement, inexpensive sportbikes. Kate was especially a fan.

Speaking of adjustability, Smetana really appreciated having adjustable suspension both front and rear on the KTM. The Ninja only offers rear preload adjustment. Granted, how effective the WP adjustability actually is is still up for debate as we hardly made any adjustments to them all day – we really had no reason to. Coincidentally, Smetana’s personal Ninja 400 still uses the stock suspension. “I want to explore the limits of the stock stuff before I go upgrading,” he says. 

Which raises a good point: if you’re looking at either of these machines as entryways into track riding, they both have a lot to teach you when it comes to chassis setup – but those lessons reach the same point from vastly different angles. The Kawasaki’s lack of adjustments (assuming you don’t immediately upgrade from the aftermarket) forces you to learn and understand what a budget suspension and flexible frame feel like – a lesson that will serve you well no matter what you ride going forward. You can still go quickly, and once you’re ready to graduate, you’ll quickly be able to understand what aftermarket suspension, or even a proper supersport, offers with its superior componentry. 

In comparison, the Kawasaki chassis and suspension leave some to be desired. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Aron is keeping the stock suspension on his personal Ninja 400. If you can feel comfortable on a pogo stick, then you’ll feel comfortable on anything.

The KTM, meanwhile, will bring you to the same point, but the base chassis won’t communicate the kind of obvious flex as the Kawi, meaning the bike won’t “talk” to you as much. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the adjustable suspension from the factory gives you an opportunity to try the whole range of adjustments to see what they feel like and bring you to the same conclusion. This solid feeling from the chassis, the one that more closely resembles what bigger, faster sportbikes feel like, is a big draw for Kate. Confidence is everything, especially for newer riders, and Kate got it from the RC.

When it comes to track riding, it’s no surprise KTM also nailed the riding position. The bars are low and wide, beneath the triple clamp, and the seat is relatively high, putting the rider in the attack position. On the other side, Kawasaki’s aim was to find a balance with the Ninja 400. Its bars are high in comparison, a tad on the narrow side, above the triple, and the pegs are relatively low. We removed the peg feelers on the Ninja prior to our track outing and occasionally touched the pegs down anyway. We didn’t have any ground clearance issues on the KTM. Since the aftermarket has solved this “problem” for the Kawasaki we didn’t put too much weight on it, but it’s worth noting as a stock vs. stock comparison. 

Brakes

A big rotor, radial caliper, and steel-braided line all give the KTM an edge in braking.

When you’re already going slow, brakes aren’t something you use much of with little bikes like these. Nonetheless, these two contenders go about slowing down in different ways. Both have single discs, but the KTM’s 320mm rotor is 10mm larger than the Kawi’s, is paired with a radial ByBre caliper, and has a steel-braided line. The Ninja gets a conventional, axial-mounted two-piston caliper and makes do with a rubber line. 

Both bring their respective machines to a halt just fine, but it’s not surprising that the KTM gives better stopping power and better feel at the lever. All the testers were in agreement about this, though Mark commented about the 390’s master cylinder feeling a bit inconsistent at times. Despite its inferior components, the Kawasaki handled the track environment well and never left its rider feeling like they were really missing out by not being on the KTM. 

Despite being inferior on paper, the Kawasaki’s smaller rotor, axial caliper, and rubber lines are decent – though a tight track with lots of heavy braking would be a distinct disadvantage for the Ninja.

Being a Ninja 400 owner himself, Smetana noted how several track riders and racers have noticed the stock rotor’s tendency to overheat and fade after only a day’s worth of hard riding. While I personally didn’t notice much drop off in the rotor’s performance from the beginning of the day to the end (maybe because I was using it less and relying more on engine braking?), the visual discoloration from the rotor by day’s end was noticeable compared to the RC. Smetana said he could feel the performance drop off. Meanwhile, Kate remarked that a master cylinder upgrade would be high on the list of changes she’d make to the Ninja if it were hers, the sponginess from the lever not to her liking. 

Looks

In certain categories, a motorcycle’s appearance isn’t something we spend too much time worrying about, but when it comes to entry-level sporting motorcycles, aesthetics mean something. While I don’t have much of an issue with the Kawasaki’s styling – it’s a huge step up from the Ninja 250s and EX250/500 from 20 years ago – all of the other testers made a point about how common the Kawi’s styling is today. Miller wasn’t a fan of the “Darth Vader looks,” while Kate gave it the biggest dig: if you were to open a book on motorcycle design, it’s like sportbike styling 101. 

For what it’s worth, the KTM looks fresh, edgy, and different. Our testers liked that. Aron was particularly a fan of the RC’s matte blue and orange livery.

Close, But No Cigar

Here’s what it boils down to. On paper, there’s a lot to like about the KTM, but in the real world, the Kawasaki’s overall package wins the day. It’s true the KTM has the superior chassis for track use, and it really is the bike’s shining star, but its engine and transmission let it down in a huge way. Even though the Kawasaki is meant to be a street bike first, it’s far from unrideable at the track. Like we said before; if you can master it, you’ll be prepared for any bike you ride next.

In this case of stock vs. stock, the better chassis is ultimately what led Kate to pick the RC390 as her choice for a track bike. “As long as we’re talking only track riding, not racing, I think the KTM is the one I’d pick, especially for newer riders,” she said. It’s hard to argue with the confidence the KTM has leaned over. If you’re just starting out, that’s big. 

However, what the Ninja 400 lacks in the handling department (which really isn’t that much), it more than makes up for in the engine bay. The parallel-Twin is so flexible, both experienced veterans and newer riders alike can get along with it right away and have a good time. Then, as Smetana points out, “the aftermarket for the Ninja is so huge, anything it lacks can be fixed.” 

At $5,799, the KTM comes in at the exact same price as the most-expensive Ninja 400 trim package, with the KRT livery and ABS, which is what we have here. The Kawasaki’s pricing can go as low as $5,199 if you choose to go without ABS. 

The Kawasaki Ninja 400 is still top dog on track in the small-bore category.

Considering the level playing field as far as price goes, Aron, Mark, and I all picked the Kawasaki because it’s just so easy to go quickly on it. In a perfect world, there would be a bike with the KTM’s chassis and the Kawasaki’s engine. Now that would be a gem.


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