The revamped Ninja 650R remains a sure-footed mid-sized sportbike for the beginner/intermediate market
The Kawasaki Ninja 650R has been a popular mid-sized mount ever since its 2006 inception - so popular that Team Green has since added two 650cc siblings to its lineup, the Versys and ER-6N. Even with the new rides, Kawi hasn’t forgotten about the base Ninja, giving it a host of upgrades for the 2009 model year.
Previous test rides of the Ninja, including a comparison review against the Suzuki SV650 (2006 Ninja 650R vs Suzuki SV650
), made us fans of the mid-displacement Twin. The model proved a worthy addition to the Ninja lineup thanks to user-friendly characteristics and versatility. On top of comfortable street rides, track sessions at Infineon aboard the 650R confirmed its confidence-building prowess for beginners and intermediates. And after getting unceremoniously lapped by Kawasaki
road-racing phenom Elena Myers during the same outing, the true potential of the 650R’s sporting capabilities humbled us as well. The adaptable 650R has even served successful duty as flat track racer.
So while the original was great, Kawasaki refined the Ninja with a claimed 40 alterations, including tweaks to the motor, chassis and style.
Revisions to the bodywork didn’t jump out to us at first, as the most visually striking features on the model, its low-slung stubby exhaust and offset rear shock, appear identical. Viewed closer, however, the external changes manifest in more angular bodywork, less bulbous and curvy than its predecessor. New headlight, turn signals and mirrors, along with a wider windscreen freshen up the front. Out back the new swingarm’s tubular structure melds better with the trellis frame than the square-shaped fabrication on the original Ninja. The subframe bodywork and taillights also sport subtle changes.
The visual styling cues are easy to overlook, as the 650R's stubby low-slung exhaust and off-set rear return.
Under the hood, so to speak, engineers didn't change any parts in the 8-valve 649cc Parallel Twin. However, new EFI settings claim to enhance bottom-end torque and allow the engine to rev quicker with better response low to mid range. The updated mill also sports a smaller, lighter exhaust catalyzer. Our test unit topped out on the dyno at 61.7 horsepower and 41.4 lb-ft torque. (Those numbers fall from the dyno stats taken during our 2006 comparison, explained in part by the use of a different dyno, but eyeballing the torque curves seem to back modest low to mid-range performance claims
On the road the Twin produces pleasing power, exhilarating for beginners but playful enough to keep a grin on the face of more experienced riders. Brisk acceleration accompanies a respectable exhaust note as the Twin revs up to its 11,000 rpm redline. The bottom end does feel robust for its street application, with the real meat of the powerband kicking in between 6-8K on the digital tach.
Kawi claims an increase in bottom-end torque, our test unit topping out at 61.7 hp and 41.4 lb-ft on the MCUSA dyno.
More than capable for spirited, yet sensible, street riding, the Ninja 650R delivers power in a user-friendly manner - no herky-jerky throttle to contend with or irritating fueling blips. The right wrist’s commands are abided with a response that is smooth without being sedate – the forgiving throttle a keen feature for a bike marketed to the beginner/intermediate crowd.
Another positive update is a new rubber engine mount. Located in the rear, the rubber mount subdues the vibes rattling up through the bars (also rubber mounted now), seat and fairing, a noticeable complaint on the predecessor. Yet the vibration from the Parallel Twin isn’t eliminated altogether, as it still shakes enough to blur the mirrors at idle.
The 650R's frame and swingarm, while visually similar, have had rigidity retuned, along with suspension settings, for lighter handling in the corners.
Lashing out power to the rear wheel, via chain drive, the six-speed transmission delivers trouble-free shifts. A repositioned shift lever shuffles up and down a well-sorted gearbox, with light clutch pull from the cable actuated lever. Our only note on the transmission came from innocent, but sloppy, downshifts at high rpm that generated rear-end squiggles.
Kawi revised the steel trellis frame’s flex for reduced rigidity, the swingarm tuned for more rigidity to complement. Suspension settings for the non-adjustable 41mm fork and pre-load adjustable offset rear shock promise lighter handling, with the 55.5-inch wheelbase, 25-degree rake and 4.2-inch trail identical steering geometry from the previous model.
We’d have to sample the old and new Ninjas back to back to notice any appreciable difference from the frame and suspension. The fork felt squishy at times porting around our 205 lbs, but overall the latest version continues our impression of the Ninja’s easy handling traits. The 447-lb Ninja (curb weight) tosses around bends and transitions side-to-side without trouble, with quick steering. The stock Bridgestone Battlax BT-021 tires
hold up well enough on the street.
The 650R’s two-piston caliper dual 300mm disc brakes up front don’t deliver the great bite or stopping power found on its Inline-Four Ninja kin – though the wave rotors look good. The lack of grabby feel at the lever may be a positive trait for a beginner mount, and the front units are still effective enough for its street application, but not a highlight of the Ninja’s performance. The single-piston 220mm rotor out back does its job too, though the rear tire broke loose quicker than expected.
The Ninja's instrument panel is easier to read in the dark (left). The unique exhaust returns on the revamped 650R, with an smaller, more efficient catalyzer.
The Ninja’s controls and overall fit and finish met with our expectations for a $7100 bike. Adjustable levers, sensible switchgear and functional mirrors combined with the improved looks of the frame and swingarm complete the package. On the other hand, the LCD display provides plenty of info but isn’t the most intuitive or easy to read. All the information is digitized – no analog displays at all – with the stacked tach and fuel gauge a particular gripe.
Sitting behind the controls at 6’1”, the Ninja feels on the small side, but not tiny. Some test riders complained of cramped placement of the footpegs (now rubber coated to further reduce vibration), but we found them tolerable. More neutral than aggressive, the riding position allows for long stints without great fatigue, a rider’s knees tugging in snug under the taller 4.1-gallon fuel tank.
The new, slimmer frame allows for a slimmer seat, which makes for an easier reach to the ground from its 31.1-inch height (unchanged from the old model). From a comfort perspective we rate the new seat as average, feeling thin with the foam giving way a bit too much. The highlight of the rider comfort package comes from the new fairing and wider windscreen, which exceeded our expectations as we had no complaints of excessive buffeting.
Compared to its predecessor, the Ninja 650R continues all the positive traits we recall, with some extra refinements.
Observed fuel mileage for out test rides fluctuated. Relaxed commuting runs yielded near 50 mpg, while more spirited play-ride jaunts netted less than 40 mpg. Even running full steam should get near 120-mile range, with more judicious throttle hands rewarded with close to 200 miles per tank.
By our recollection, the new Ninja doesn’t feel a whole lot different than its predecessor – a good thing. What we do recall are changes for the better – less vibration and better wind protection. As far as the styling changes, we could take it or leave it. While partial to the older curvy bodywork, the new swingarm does look much better matched. One thing we don’t like is the $400 price increase, pushing it now above the 7K threshold for 2010 ($6799 for 2009, $6499 for 2008), but we can’t begrudge Kawasaki for trying to make a dime after the bottom fell out of the market last year.
All told, the Kawasaki Ninja 650R remains an approachable motorcycle, easy to ride and, most important, fun. It holds its status as one of the more attractive options in the mid-size market.