In complete contrast to the totally new CBR, with the exception of a major styling change and some internal engine tweaks for 2008, the Kawasaki Ninja 250R has featured the same basic architecture since its inception in 1983. That’s well over two decades in production with only a host of minor changes throughout the years. And while one would think this would put the little Kawasaki at an advantage, much like we thought coming into the shootout, they would be wrong.
At the heart of the little Ninja 250R is a DOHC, liquid-cooled 248cc Parallel Twin 4-stroke that comes by virtue of a 62 x 41.2mm bore and stroke. This engine has more or less been the basis of the bike since Day 1. However, the tried and true engine received reshaped intake and exhaust ports, as well as a more compact combustion chamber and thinner valve stems in the ’08 revision. New camshafts, cam chain tensioner and more efficient cooling system were also a result of the update a few years back.
Dual Keihin CVK30 carbs deliver fuel to the engine, while the power is put to the rear wheels by a revised-in-’08 six-speed transmission. Also updated three years ago was the Ninja’s suspension, a new 37mm Showa fork up front and KYB shock gracing the rear. The front is non-adjustable, while the rear features pre-load adjustability, something the previous model lacked. Steering angle was changed from 27 to 26 degrees, while the outdated 16-inch wheels were replaced with more modern 17-inch units.
Seat height was also raised in 2008, going up 1.2 inches to sit 30.5 inches off the ground. While a bit up compared to the previous model, it’s exactly the same as the new Honda and still quite easily accessible for riders of just about any stature. Rounding out the updates three years back was all-new styling and pedal-style brakes; a single 290mm unit up front and 220mm disc out back.
This entry-level Ninja, which has been a top seller for Kawasaki for decades, remains almost totally unchanged for 2011, the exception being the customary BNG (Bold New Graphics) treatment. Retail price is $3999 and 2011 models are available now in dealers – if you can find one that is – in Black, Green/Black and Pearl White/Black color combinations.
Gear up, get on the Kawasaki and hit the right-hand starter button; the green machine fires to life in a fairly lackadaisical manner, sometimes requiring the use of the handlebar-mounted choke to get running in cooler temperatures. This is one area where the Honda has the Kawasaki pegged, as the CBR is off and away nearly instantaneously no matter the temp, while the carbureted Ninja requires a couple minutes warm-up time.
Once up to temp and underway the little Ninja sparks to life with an EPA-muted whine, running well from 2000 rpm all the way to the 13,000 rpm redline. Throttle response, while not as good as the fuel injected CBR, comes to life and becomes far more precise as speeds increase. For a carbureted engine the Kawi does well to not hiccup or bog down too badly at lower revs, and when into the upper rpms it outpaces the Honda quite easily.
“There’s no question the Honda runs better off the bottom, especially when cold,” says Waheed, “but once you get the Kawasaki going and under power it quickly pulls ahead. There’s no question it’s quicker everywhere throughout the rev range with the exception of the first eighth turn of throttle. Besides that there’s no doubt the Kawasaki has the Honda’s number when it comes to the engine department.”
A glance at the dyno shows exactly that, the Ninja 250R putting down 3.68 more ponies. As for torque, the Kawasaki lags slightly behind with a 1.81 lb-ft disadvantage. This added torque gets the Honda off the line quicker initially, but these bikes are quickly into the horsepower range, which helps propel the Kawasaki to a much quicker 7.7-second 0-60 mph time compared to the Honda’s best of 8.5 seconds.
The Ninja’s only noted downfall on the freeway was a high-frequency buzz. Though the Honda Single vibrates more throughout the range.
One pays a bit for this added performance – in terms of gas mileage that is. The Kawasaki averaged 49.1 mpg over our term of usage while the Honda is some 15 mpg superior, averaging an impressive 64.7 mpg. When it comes to stopping distances things get much closer – exactly the same actually – with both bikes getting hauled down from 60 mph in 143 feet.
Another benefit of this added performance is freeway composure, as the Kawasaki runs almost 2000 rpm lower at 70 mph and will keep going to well over 90 mph whereas the Honda runs out of steam. This gives the rider an easier and safer time passing other traffic, as the Ninja isn’t nearly as strained at left lane cruising speeds.
“The Ninja is more suited to riders who will need to log miles on the freeway or go on longer riders,” Hutchison comments. “Same goes for longer commutes – this is an area the Kawasaki has an advantage over the Honda because the engine just feels like it isn’t working so hard over extended periods at 70 mph.”
The Ninja’s only noted downfall on the freeway was a high-frequency buzz. Though the Honda Single vibrates more throughout the range, the Kawasaki is very smooth down low but as revs build a light hand-tingling sensation comes to the forefront, something some riders minded more than others.
Adds Hutchison: “This motorcycle feels more buzzy to me than the Honda. Both have vibration but the Kawasaki makes my hands tingle and the Honda did not. I feel the difference is similar to the way a Ducati Twin vibrates compared to the way an Inline-Four engine buzzes.”
But not everyone agreed with Hutch, Dawes commenting he felt less overall vibration from the Kawasaki compared to the Honda, something Waheed and I also agreed with.
The Ninja 250R doesn’t quite as high-tech looking dash as the CBR but it does work. We do wish there was a coolant gauge however.
Once off the freeways and onto the back roads the Kawasaki continues to shine. Handling from the quarter-liter Ninja is very planted and stable, the bike changing direction with minimal effort and holding a line extremely well. Stability is also quite confidence inspiring, as while it may not be as sharp-edged as the Honda, the Kawasaki feels quite a bit more solid. Both come equipped with IRC Road Winner tires, which aren’t horrible, but if you plan to take one to a trackday we highly recommend changing out the rubber for something a bit stickier.
“It feels a little bigger, more like a motorcycle; where the Honda feels kind of small like a scooter,” says our largest test rider at 5’11” at 200 pounds. “It just seems to handle a little better and doesn’t flex as much on bumps in the corners.”
Overall ergonomics are somewhat similar to the Honda, both seats sitting 30.5 inches off the ground with an easy reach to the raised up clip-ons and pegs not overly cramped. As for overall comfort, the Honda’s cozier seat gave it the nod over the Kawasaki, if ever so slightly.
“I like the way the Honda looks and it is a lot more comfortable than the Kawasaki,” says Hutchison. “The bike is smaller overall but more roomy and doesn’t cramp up the rider as much. Also, the seat is great, definitely way more comfortable than the Ninja seat. It seems to be a perfect bike for in-town commuters or weekend jaunts in the hills.”
The Kawasaki also falls behind slightly when it comes to the transmission, as the seamless six-speed on the Honda is smoother and more positive, where the Kawasaki is slightly dead feeling and can be sloppy engaging, especially from first to second. That’s not saying it’s bad in any way, it’s just not on the same level as the Honda.
And while the Honda has the Kawasaki’s number in terms of transmission and slow-speed running, as well as gas mileage, the speed and handling abilities of the Kawasaki are impossible to overlook. By virtue of a 3-1 decision among testers, we have to give the Kawasaki the nod as shootout winner; surprising considering how much older the basic technology is. But Kawasaki has had over two decades to get it dialed in, and when it comes to the lightweight sportbike market, it’s done its homework. The real winner in this are beginner sportbike riders all over the world, as now there are more than one high-performance quarter-liter options, which will hopefully encourage more people to share in the sport we all love so dearly.