Comparing all three, the Honda’s fit and finish shines through. Honda raised the bar in this regard with its CBR250R. Consumers should be grateful, as the Ninja 300 has improved instrumentation compared with its predecessor. The CB500 models are manufactured in Thailand, like the CBR250, and the 500R feels like a solid, well-made machine. The Ninja 300 lags somewhat in fit-and-finish by comparison, our biggest gripe being unsightly gaps in bodywork panel seams. The build quality of 500’s controls and levers feel sturdier as well. The one big demerit for the Honda, however, is the awkward placement of the horn button on the left switchgear where rider’s expect the turn signal toggle.
The Ninja 300 dash (top) improves on the 250 predecessor, but our test riders found the CBR display (bottom) easier to read with its large, centrally-located digital speedo.
The instrument console on the Ninja 300 is much improved, as mentioned before, but is not as easy to read as the clear LCD dash on the CBR. While the Honda lacks the analog tachs which dominate both the Ninja information clusters, its digital tach displays right above the large digital speedo – and the powerband is so broad rider’s won’t be keeping much of an eye on it anyway.
In the styling department the Ninja appears sportier, perhaps. But Honda, with its larger tires, conveys a bigger-bike attitude. Bryan sums up the styling difference well, noting: “Styling is subjective, but I prefer the more aggressive looks of the Ninjas to the softer, rounder lines of the CBR500. It’s like a sportbike-light, it gives you the taste, but not the full flavor of the real thing."
Some riders will prefer the more aggressive lines of the 300, which effectively mimic the angles of its larger Ninja kin. But the Honda sports a nice everyman racer vibe, and does a decent job passing as the CBR600’s sibling too. The Ninja 650’s styling, which still includes the striking offset, horizontal shock and low-slung exhaust, is both familiar and fun. We’ll let the readers decide which bike looks best, as our testing crew was decidedly split on the issue.
More significant is pricing. Natural rivals on the sales floor, the 2013 Ninja 300 rings in at $4799 for the base model and $5499 as tested in ABS trim. The base model CBR500 is $1200 more at $5999, with the ABS version $6499 – though the Honda’s also include a $310 destination charge. The Ninja 650 is $7499 for the base model and $7799 as tested in ABS. Again, the CBR500 once again splits the difference. (UPDATE: Kawasaki’s MSRP for the 2014 model year have jumped $200 for all the models save the as-tested Special Edition 300 with ABS, which remains $5499. Kawasaki also offers a non-SE ABS-equipped 300 for $5299.)
Value is critical aspect of a successful entry-level mount. The options for new riders have increased in recent years, but so has MSRP. The Ninja 300 is a significant boost in MSRP from the old Ninja 250, and it’s worth noting that this base model CBR500R is literally double the price of a 2007 model Ninja 250. Raising costs are a barrier to motorcycle ridership, but Honda has done a good job keeping the MSRP tantalizing enough to tempt new owners – though we’d say the $5499 CB500F naked is more alluring.
At the end of our testing, all three riders appreciated the niche of each bike in this test. The Ninja 300 is the most uncompromising, an unapologetic sportbike with a gutsy engine that can punch above its weight and deliver a grin-plastering riding experience. Its big brother, the Ninja 650, may be a bit over the head of the true newbies, but the 650 Twin is a terrific mid-displacement mount. It’s a fun ride for intermediate riders, or those intrepid beginners that wish to jump into the deeper end of the pool.
As for the new Honda CBR500R, it picks up where the CBR250R left off, as a major threat to Kawasaki’s once unchallenged entry-level sportbike dominance. The 500’s engine performance is both practical and unintimidating. It’s easy to ride, and a bike that beginners will be able to learn and progress upon for multiple riding seasons. Splitting the difference isn’t the sexiest tagline in bike branding, but it does make for an ideal beginner bike.
FOR MY MONEY
Bart Madson - Managing Editor - 6'1" / 205 pounds:
First off, the Ninja 300 is an absolute hoot to ride. I found myself constantly chuckling as I leaned over further, and further… My only issue with the little Ninja is that its, well, little. Comfort is perfectly fine for occasional long days, and it a blast to ride – but if I’m dropping my own money on a bike I want to feel comfortable on it all the time, and the 300 just doesn’t fit my dimensions.
Instead I find myself drawn to the CBR500R. I think it looks good and feels high quality. The riding position is sporty but offers plenty of leg room. I liked the handling well enough, but I can see where improvements could be made. It’s a reasonable price and as far as engine performance goes, I think Honda’s 500 Twin is better than the low-revving mill powering the NC700X. It’s a pity there’s not a little more snap in the 500, to give it a little more playful personality, but it’s so smooth on the throttle and easy to ride it’s hard to find serious fault.
Bryan Harley - Cruiser Editor - 6' / 220 pounds:
Out of the three bikes, I liked the versatile Honda CBR500 best. The Ninja 300 handles amazingly well and the extra cc is a marked improvement, but I’m just too big for it. The Ninja 650 rocks, I love when the engine hits its sweet spot, but the CBR500 has it covered on the low end and is an amazingly easy bike to ride. It literally is the happy median between the two, capable of doing everything it’s tasked with efficiency and precision.
Byron Wilson - Associate Editor - 6' / 185 pounds:
Overall, the CBR was my favorite bike as a new rider. The riding position felt slightly more upright than on the 300 or 650 and was nice and relaxed. You could still tuck your head down and get added relief from buffeting, but it was largely unnecessary because wind was hardly a problem even at highway speeds. Power delivery was always smooth. I thought the transmission was the best of the bunch; there was hardly a discernible moment of power transfer when releasing the clutch, it just flowed. It was nice to have more engine power on tap (compared to the 300) because you didn’t have to move so quickly through the gears during those stop-and-go moments.