Kawasaki answered Honda's CBR250R volley with a full-salvo of its engineering might. Team Green’s littlest Ninja hasn’t exactly been a fresh face over the years, going virtually unchanged for two decades until a redesign for the 2008 model year. Even then the 250R retained its old carbs to keep costs down, befitting of a bike designed during the Reagan administration. This new Ninja 300, however, is a complete overhaul – and a far superior design than its predecessor.
The Ninja’s 296cc Parallel Twin outperforms the CBR Single to a shocking degree. Those 47 extra cubes reflect a 19% increase in displacement, but deliver 49% more peak horsepower. Sure, the Kawasaki is an unrepentant displacement cheater (just like the 636cc ZX-6R), but it does a fine job of it!
“It’s really no contest; from the bottom all the way until redline the Kawi spanks it’s competition. With the 300, highway work is no longer a scary proposition,” states Justin.
There’s no measure of engine performance where the Ninja doesn’t earn an easy win. Acceleration and roll-on power, it’s no contest – not even close. Low end torque, it has the CBR covered, easily. And that’s its weakest area. Once the familiar top-end biased power curve of the old 250 asserts itself, the new 300 takes off. It’s like the old Ninja, plus seven to eight horsepower – everywhere. It still prefers to have its neck wrung up at the top end, near the pleasingly high 13,000 rpm redline, but unlike the previous 250 it doesn’t demand that it be flogged. Riders can now putter along lower in the rev range without trouble, if they so choose.
The Kawasaki bested the Honda in 250 trim, but the 300's extra 47cc bolsters the once-anemic bottom end, while the top end completely blows the CBR away.
On the street the Ninja outpaces the CBR at will. Uphill sections saw the Ninja rider easily check out, while the CBR pilot struggles to keep pace. Same goes with corner exit and passes on the freeway/highway. Any twist of the right wrist sees the Kawasaki rider enjoy an advantage.
In virtually every aspect, the Ninja has improved. Engine power, yes, that’s far superior – to belabor the point... But the power delivery itself is more refined. The new electronic fuel injection is smooth, and the throttle is lively without being herky jerky. 21st century riders will appreciate the ditched choke and carbs that adorned the previous 250, as this 300 fires up immediately sans any fueling hiccups.
The 300 also features a notable reduction of engine vibration. The previous Ninja was a buzzy ride, with vibes rattling up into the tank and bars. The revised 300 quells that buzz, with the few escaping vibes nominal – less noticeable than the CBR at any rate.
A six-speed gearbox is on par with that found on the Honda, but the Ninja goes one better with its F.C.C. clutch featuring assist and slipper functionality. Justin notes, “the clutch feel from the Kawasaki was slightly better from a standstill than the CBR, and it shifted smooth and without issue during our time on it.”
The slipper clutch is a boon for the Ninja’s user-friendliness. Where aggressive downshifts on the CBR are met with unsettling tire chirps or worse, the Ninja’s drivetrain exhibits no hint of stress or traction loss.
Turn-in on the Ninja is slower than the eager CBR, but not by much. And saying the CBR is more flickable does not imply the Ninja is a slug! Nor do those extra 20 pounds added to the 386-pound Ninja make it feel portly. The Kawasaki is eager to attack ribbons of asphalt, and its tauter chassis better handles high-speed sweepers.
“Kawasaki would be my choice thanks to the more settled suspension,” says Justin. “It soaked up the road’s imperfections better. However, the steering was a tick slower than the Honda and it took slightly more effort to change direction.”
A slightly longer wheelbase and compliant suspension make for a composed ride – as the Kawasaki better absorbs potholes and road imperfections. If the Ninja had a forgiving seat, it would easily be the more comfortable mount, particularly since its ergonomics better suited our test rider’s larger dimensions. As it stands – or sits – the Ninja’s seat felt awful compared to the softer CBR perch – though the extra legroom and relaxed riding position are appreciated.
“The larger chassis of the Ninja 300 will fit a larger variety of riders,” explains Justin. “There is more legroom and the rider’s triangle seems more relaxed. While the seat was much harder than the CBR, the increased legroom made long days in the saddle more bearable.”
The Kawasaki’s brakes left us flummoxed. In past comparisons the 250 Kawasaki rated highly, but the 300’s front stopper left much to be desired. Both the Honda and Kawasaki source a single-disc front, but the Ninja’s offered notably less bite and feel than the stout Honda.
“The front brake on the Kawasaki felt mushy on the street. Perhaps it was in need of a bleed, but as it was the braking was less than stellar,” agrees Justin.
Honda still gets a leg up on fit and finish, particularly the controls and levers. But the instrument console is an easy win for the Kawasaki. The CBR display looks clean enough, but certainly is cast appropriately aboard a budget sportbike. The Ninja, meanwhile, sports a clean, easy-to-read display with large analog tach and right-side LCD display featuring digital speedo with tripmeters, clock and fuel gauge. It’s everything a rider needs.
“The instrumentation on the Kawasaki looks like it came off a Ninja ZX-6R or ZX-10R,” reckons Justin. “The rev counter is slightly easier to read than the Honda.”
The CBR indeed nets an extra 5 mpg in fuel efficiency. However, the Ninja offsets this with its 1.1-gallon larger fuel load. At the 53.2 mpg we observed its 4.5-gallon tank should stretch out a 239.4-mile range – almost 40 more miles than the Honda.
Styling for the 300 does a laudable job mimicking its larger Ninja siblings. The green/black special edition livery didn’t really click with our testing crew, which preferred the red/white/blue lines of the CBR – but we’ll defer the styling debate as a matter of personal taste. The 300 does look more like a big-boy/girl bike than previous entry-level Ninjas, and the displacement moniker is notably absent from the bodywork.
The 300’s premium look and performance comes with a corresponding price tag - $4799 for the base model, with the as-tested ABS version $5499. In ABS trim the Ninja 300 is $800 more than the CBR250R, and $600 more in non-ABS standard mode. The pricing disparity is almost as much as the forthcoming Honda CBR500R, which retails for $1000 more than Ninja 300 ABS and $1200 standard. As silly as a displacement war sounds for the entry-level class, Kawasaki may get a dose of its own medicine if consumers deem the CBR500 a better value. But that assumption depends on the performance of the 500, as it may just prove the new little Ninja’s true potency – and we’d reckon the Ninja 300’s performance on par, at least, with the old Ninja 500.
- Extra 47 cubes more than deliver, with the 300 Twin stomping its Single rival
- Slipper clutch on an entry-level bike? It's a perfect addition and well calibrated
- New engine more refined, with less buzz and smooth fueling
- Higher MSRP pushes entry-level costs past $5K
- Front brake lack much bite compared to Honda
- Seat gets old during longer stints, far less comfy than the cush CBR perch
But that 300 vs. 500 challenge will have to wait for a future comparison… In this review, there’s no match for the Ninja 300.
FOR MY MONEY PICKS:
Justin Dawes – Kawasaki Ninja 300
“It’s really a no brainer for me which bike I would go for here. The Kawasaki smashes the CBR in terms of performance. It’s not even a contest at anytime. While the CBR can get into corners better, it makes no difference when the Ninja just blasts past it with ease on the exit. On the highway and commuting, the littlest Ninja feels like a large bike with enough oomph to move through traffic. Now the real question is - how will it compare to the CBR500R?”
Bart Madson – Kawasaki Ninja 300
“The Ninja 300 bests the CBR with its impressive engine performance. I expected as much after I first rode it last year, but the side-by-side comparison surprised me by how just much it covers the Honda. The Ninja 250 was already a favorite, and the 300 pretty much fixes all my complaints on the previous model. Fuel injected and no more buzz at the tank and pegs, and a slipper clutch… the poor CBR really had the cards stacked against it.
"Aside from the Ninja's uncomfortable seat and weak, by comparison, brakes – there’s not a whole lot to gripe about! Except price, yeah, I’ll gripe about that. It’s a better bike for sure, but I remember that 2007 Ninja 250 was just $2999. Our 2013 Ninja test bike featured ABS and slipper clutch, but the cost of entry for Kawasaki sportbikes has nearly doubled within a six-year span. Improved performance is great, but manufacturers need to ensure prices remain affordable.”