Because they are such different machines, it was difficult to rank the four newbie bikes, with one notable exception. The Ninja 250 rose above its competitors due to its more refined overall package, in spite of owning the thriftiest pricetag.
When it came time to choose a winner for the shootout, Kawasaki’s Ninja 250 almost got a clean sweep straight across the board, with only two of our six testers picking another bike above it. The Ninja 250 claims the newbie crown by presenting the most refined package of the four and is aided by the fact that, at $2999, it is also the least expensive. Of all the beginner bikes we tested, the little Kawi is the one with the greatest potential to keep its rider happy for the most amount of time.
The secret to the Kawasaki’s success is its dependable liquid-cooled parallel-Twin powerplant, which the little Ninja has sported since its 1986 inception. An oversquare 62mm bore and 41.2mm stroke equate to a 248cc displacement and produces a high-revving engine. Feeling at home around the 6000-7000 rpm mark, the revvy Ninja displays a tach which terminates at the 15K mark. Like all of the small-displacement budget machines in our shootout. the Ninja 250 is carbureted, with a pair of Keihin units divvying up the air/fuel mixture. The Kawasaki is fuel-efficient machine (but not superior to its competitors), with our fuel efficiency registering around 55 mpg and above, depending on the kind of riding we were doing. With a 4.8-gallon tank, the largest of our group, the 250-mile range makes the Ninja a formidable fill-it-up-and-forget-it commuter.
A six-speed gearbox gives the Ninja one more gear than its newbie competitors (the obvious exception being the Piaggio scooter). Depending on which of our test riders you asked, the extra gear was either not an issue or a slight annoyance because of the extra shifting involved. Clutch lever pull and feel is easy, with a few of our testers rating it the best of the lot. Shifting is smooth with the only hiccup being the occasional bumpy downshift due to the Ninja’s high-revving engine. Since dumping the clutch at 7,000 rpm on a literbike could spit off an unwary newbie faster than a drunk sorority girl riding a mechanical bull, the Ninja 250 offers a kinder, gentler intro to a beginner with its pliant and forgiving gearbox.
The Ninja’s 29.3-inch seat and comfortable riding ergonomics won over all of our female test riders, including Rachel Wallace, wife of MCUSA Technical Wizard Joe Wallace, (above) who said, “The Ninja was the most compatible with my riding style and the ergonomics were more comfortable than the Virago.”
Out on the road, the Ninja’s engine is responsive and a lot of fun for the beginner, although getting accustomed to the high-rpm nature of the Twin takes some adjustment. The Kawasaki accelerates at a respectable clip, smoking its comparo competitors, even if the throttle response is a bit abrupt. Getting up to freeway speeds is easy as pie, and there is still plenty enough juice on tap at 70 mph to make judicious passes. Any dealer who goads the newbie purchaser into buying a larger machine because the 250cc motor isn’t big enough for the freeway use is most likely being motivated by the extra couple thousand dollars on the sticker price than the machine’s realistic abilities. The 250 is an able performer for short freeway commutes.
The Kawasaki’s 29.3-inch seat height was manageable for our riders. When ranking the ergonomics, our three female testers, along with yours truly, rated the Ninja first. It presents a more neutral riding position, which is much closer to the traditional “standard” position than the feet-back/shoulders-forward aggressive sportbike stance. The Ninja positions the rider upright, with a slight pitch forward to the bars and the legs hugging the tank for stability. Hand controls are within easy reach and the foot controls are placed in just the right spots, giving the Ninja a natural feel.
The control panel on the Ninja was the most attractive and informative of our four test bikes, and was the only one to sport a tach and engine temperature gauge.
Looking down from a comfortable, responsive riding posture, a rider is greeted with the best instrument cluster of the four. The Ninja is the only bike in our comparo to sport a tachometer, and the housed-in panel presents a much more finished final product, again belying its smaller pricetag. Helpful idiot lights, including the important neutral indicator, reside in top right corner, while the analog speedo and tach are complimented by a temperature gauge on the bottom right. The temperature gauge on the only liquid-cooled bike of the group is a nice addition, although the absence of a fuel gauge can lead to common newbie troubles like running out of gas at inopportune moments, followed by the scramble to locate the under-tank fuel petcock and turn it to its reserve setting.
Braking was yet another aspect where the cheaper Ninja bettered its rivals in both price and performance. The Kawasaki sports disc brakes in both the front and rear, the only one of the four to do so. The Ninja’s 260mm disc with two-piston caliper up front felt the most powerful and reliable among of our group and is complimented by the hydraulic disc out back. If I had to pick one bike out of the four testers to be on when a panic/emergency stop was required, I would choose the Ninja.
The Kawi’s suspension was adequate for most testers. The 36mm telescopic front fork and aluminum linkage rear shock provide a respective 5.5 and 5.1 inches of wheel travel. The Ninja provided the second-best ground clearance of the four and is a nimble handling machine. The at-the-ready riding position aids in its responsive handling, as does its 55.1-inch wheelbase. A nod to the Ninja’s confidence-inspiring abilities, one of our testers, who was concerned with a bike’s weight, picked the Ninja in part because she found it to be not too heavy, despite being the heaviest of the group with its tank-empty weight of 332 lbs. Blame the engine’s heavier liquid-cooled architecture for its weight penalty. Even if the number says otherwise, the Ninja carries its pounds well and does not suffer by feeling bulky.
Don gives some instruction to Laurel Miller, wife of MCUSA VP of Technology Jason Miller, as they head out onto the kart track. “The Ninja looked scary,” said Laurel. “Out of all the bikes it looked the fastest, so it was more intimidating. But when I took it out on the track my opinions changed, it was so easy.”
When riding the Ninja 250 out on the street, I felt like I was being given just enough rope to not hang myself. The Ninja benefits from being the most challenging machine of the group, but challenging in a positive, engaging way. The other three bikes felt like they would have a shorter shelf-life in the newbie garage than the Ninja. For short commutes and medium-distance stints in the saddle, the seat was comfortable. On more ambitious rides of over an hour or nearing the triple-digit marker on my tripmeter, my back did start to get a little sore and my hands were buzzing. Also the wind buffeting from long stretches of 55-mph-plus speeds can leave the head buzzing as well. The mini windscreen doesn’t provide any significant protection to speak of but offers better protection than the Virago and DR200. The small-displacement Kwakker is not a long-distance tourer by any means, but a competent newbie should be able to tag along with his or her more experienced friends for a weekend ride, as long as they kept at their own reasonable pace.
The Ninja faired well during our time on the kart track and obstacle course. It wasn’t the sharpest turner in the group, with the Suzuki DR200 and Piaggio Fly 150 a bit more nimble through the cones, but the Kawasaki shined with its comfortable riding position and easy controls. The short turns on the kart track felt a bit confining for the peaky Ninja, which is more suited to the sweepy backroads a newb will encounter in real-world situations. Plenty of our testers still found it to be a blast on the track and fairly confidence inspiring. Not that the Ninja got a total free pass from our testers, as there were two riders for whom the Ninja just didn’t click at all. Plus there were some who believed the 250 could use a cosmetic upgrade to the circa the late-80s bodywork. Yes, the Kawasaki could benefit from a styling facelift, but in its own way the lack of change to the Ninja is another testament to the enduring excellence of the design.
Although it is the heaviest bike in our group, the Kawasaki didn’t feel unwieldy with its 55.1-inch wheelbase and ample ground clearance. The little Ninja is a nimble machine, as Rachel here demonstrates on the obstacle course.
As mentioned before, the Ninja 250’s MSRP of $2,999 makes it a thrifty option. A statement not confined to our four test bikes either, as the Ninja 250 is one of the most affordable production streetbikes available in the States. As one of the few small-displacement sportbikes in the U.S. newbie market, the low-budget sticker price is a serious economic incentive to potential buyers, no doubt one of the reasons why the Ninja 250 remains among the top-10 bestselling sportbikes in America.
Summing up the appeal of the Ninja, our test rider and MCUSA Graphic Designer Shona Haldane said, “It’s better looking than the others. I feel like it gives me enough room for improvement, while still being beginner oriented. It’s nice that it is under $3K too.” As for how long she felt the Ninja would stay in her garage, “A long time, till I got comfortable enough for something bigger, or a better looking 250 sportbike came out.”
Because it is a popular beginner ride, there are plenty of used Ninja 250s to be had, as many newbies graduate to larger-displacement machines. A used model can fetch close to the MSRP asking price, however. Overall the Ninja 250 deserves its best-selling label, and when our six testers were asked which of the four bikes they would purchase, the Ninja got the nod four times, making it our $4000 Newbie Shootout winner.