2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 First Ride

JC Hilderbrand | December 22, 2011

Sportbikes as a genre are very specific machines. Their purpose is detailed and they follow proven formulas that dictate aspects of the bike’s stance, aerodynamics and general feel. What often comes to mind are high-performance machines like the race-winning Kawasaki ZX-10R and Kawasaki ZX-6R. As far as Kawasaki sportbikes go, the 2012 Ninja 650 isn’t the track scalpel of its sibling. With a full makeover this year it’s a well-rounded machine and in some ways can offer even more than a track-tuned motorcycle.

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Ride along on the updated sportbike in our 2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 First Ride Video.

Kawasaki revamped the Ninja 650 in order to make it a better sportbike for the street with increased looks and comfort. In order to do this, engineers made wide-sweeping changes all the way down to its name, which is no longer the 650R. However, while there’s a lot that’s new, there’s also a lot that’s still the same. The biggest change is an all-new double-pipe perimeter frame instead of the single-pipe. Engineers didn’t want to change the geometry of the frame, which is identical, but this allows the chassis to have more rigidity balance. It also creates a slimmer profile through the midsection where the rider’s legs drop down from the seat. The footpeg mounts, frame covers and swingarm pivot are all narrower, resulting in the rider’s feet being 50mm closer together when resting on the ground. Seat height is 31.7 inches, but it’s easier to touch the ground with less girth between the legs. Standing at 5’11” our rider had no problems getting both feet down flat. The swingarm also gets the double-pipe treatment with the side benefit of allowing for an exhaust muffler redesign. 

Kawasaki also adopted a single-backbone rear frame which allows for deeper seat foam. This was one of the keys to keeping the low seat height. Instead of building up, the foam was added underneath as the new frame allowed components like a smaller battery to be shifted around below. Kawasaki swapped the single-piece seat for a two-piece which is wider as well as thicker. It provides a very comfortable platform and modernizes the look considerably. The bike also has nearly 50 pounds additional payload for a maximum of 440 pounds.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The thinner chassis, wider handlebars and new seat are immediately noticeable as an improvement.

Sitting on the 2011 and 2012 models back to back reveals a very big difference. The two-piece seat is much more comfortable, and despite a flatter and wider profile, the bike is noticeably thinner. Aside from the skinnier chassis, Kawasaki also bolted on 20mm-wider handlebars which provide more leverage over the 55.5-inch wheelbase. On the road this equates to a light-feeling machine that transitions easily with minimal rider input.

The 41mm conventional front fork gets an extra 5mm of stroke, revised damping settings and a softer spring rate. It is not adjustable. Longer travel increases trail to 4.33 inches but the rake angle is unchanged at 25 degrees. The single lay-down rear shock is also a bit longer (2mm) with lower spring rate and updated settings. It can be adjusted for preload and the red model gets a color-matched rear shock spring. Bump absorption was comfortable, even a tad stiff on some chunky sections of road. Our tester is nearly 200 pounds with gear (see sidebar), and never noticed either end bottom. Stability is a high point for the Ninja with the 650 holding its mid-corner line on uneven pavement. We found a few sweepers at near triple digits and the Ninja was comfortably ready for more without any hint of wallowing. It also resists pitching under hard braking. The new Dunlop Roadsmart II sport touring front and rear tires are a great match for the Ninja and we felt instantly comfortable on them. Both ends provide a nice level of feedback and solid grip.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
At 5’11” and 200 pounds, our rider considers the Ninja’s revised engine more than capable of providing a sporty ride.

The Ninja uses a fuel-injected, 649cc Parallel Twin engine. Kawasaki likes to stress that it isn’t just a beginner engine, though it’s certainly friendly enough with its power delivery to welcome new riders. However, the liquid-cooled DOHC mill does have enough steam to keep even seasoned riders entertained. The 83 x 60mm bore/stroke engine has a reshaped piston to boost the compression ratio to 10.8:1. This helps generate more torque below 7000 rpm by a claimed five percent. Additional grunt also comes from a larger-volume muffler which now uses three sound chambers instead of four. Revised engine timing helps smooth out the power and Kawasaki also installed a new paper element air filter and joined the exhaust headers with a connector tube. In addition to smoothing out the power, Kawi estimates a 10% increase in fuel efficiency, though we were unable to collect mileage data. We found the Ninja to have plenty of usable muscle with easy take-offs, a solid midrange and slight surge on the top end. At around 7500 rpm, the Parallel Twin spools up and runs hard until the redline which was indicated at around 11,000 on the new instrumentation.

We were happy to find that the Ninja has very little vibration. After spending considerable hours on the buzzy Versys, this is one of our favorite traits on the new 650. The engine uses a 180-degree crankshaft-drive counter balancer, but Kawasaki also rubber-mounted the seat and handlebars, and double-rubber-mounted the footpegs, which takes out the sting. The pegs are loose enough to wiggle by hand, but they feel great when the boots are resting on them.

Shifting is one area that we were especially pleased. The Ninja uses a six-speed gearbox with a chain-driven rear wheel. Moving through the transmission is simple and clean. We missed a few upshifts until getting the adjustable clutch lever set up for our hand size, and after that it was flawless. It’s not as snickety-snick as a race bike, but the gear changes are much better than we anticipated for a bike at this price point. For comparison, the Kawasaki Versys is another entry-level machine and uses essentially the same powerplant, but poor shifting is one of our biggest gripes about that bike (read about it in our Versys Project Part 1 and Versys Project Part 2). Also, gear spacing is appropriate for the street. First gear is tall enough that it doesn’t run out too quickly and we never felt the desire to use second gear for take-offs.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The pegs are placed high enough for ground
clearance and are still comfortable. The new
Dunlop Roadsmart II tires are a good fit.

With the Ninja improved in the handling and engine department, Kawasaki addressed the exterior details of the bike. The instrument panel and bodywork are redesigned to make it look more like the rest of the Ninja family. Previously the display unit was fully digital. This year it gets an analog tachometer which we prefer. It’s easy to read at a glance, as are the digital displays which include speedometer, clock, odometer, dual trip meters, current and average fuel consumption, range and a fuel gauge. Kawasaki also included an economical riding indicator (ECO) which flashes when the Ninja is running at peak fuel efficiency. It also includes a series of warning lights and two easy-to-use buttons (Mode, Reset) for manipulating the info. The Ninja has excellent mirrors which resist vibrating and offer a relatively unobstructed view of the road.

Every piece of the bodywork is new along with the headlights and taillight. The fresh design with integrated front turn signals is supposed to improve aerodynamics and direct heat away from the rider via larger openings on the side cowlings. The Ninja also has 60mm of adjustability from the three-position windscreen. We tested it in the lowest and highest settings and found the lowest to work best. Raising it up puts more pressure on our head and shoulder. Even with it down low, the unobtrusive 4.2-gallon fuel tank (previously 4.1 gallons) allows plenty of room to tuck completely underneath the wind. The seat is long enough that we are able to scoot backward comfortably to accommodate the tucked position. The Ninja 650 is available in Candy Lime Green, Passion Red or Metallic Spark Black.

There wasn’t anything we plain didn’t like about the ’12 Ninja 650 on our initial ride. The brakes could be improved with more initial bite at the front. There’s plenty of power available from the dual 300mm front discs and twin-piston calipers, but it takes a heavy squeeze at the lever to find it. Out back is a 220mm rear disc with single-piston caliper and it’s just fine. Kawasaki installed different brake pads this year which are supposed to be grippier. Another item we’d address is the ECO indicator. Basically it just flashes when the throttle is less than 1/8th open, which is no surprise. That space on the dash would be perfect for a gear indicator or engine temperature gauge.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The 2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 is a comfortable, fun sportbike for the street and is available in three different colors.

Our initial ride was almost 130 miles of amazing roads southeast of San Diego, CA. With frequent stops for photos and video, we logged roughly four hours in the redesigned seat and got an effective introduction to the middleweight. The biggest surprise is how well rounded it is. We were expecting this to be a beginner bike and that’s not the case at all. This motorcycle will reach a wide range of riders. We fit comfortably enough within the ergonomics and followed a smaller, lighter female journalist during the ride that looked naturally suited to the Ninja. Greater comfort, agile handling and a sporty engine make the 2012 Ninja 650 an improved machine. This motorcycle provides an unintimidating but fun sportbike platform for only $7499.


JC Hilderbrand

Off-Road Editor| Articles | Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA’s Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn’t matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

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