Bouncing off its 13K redline, my little green sportbike screams down the road. Bang up and down the gears, toss and turn through the corners, keep it pinned while giving chase to the rider ahead… Fun stuff to be sure, and a familiar experience. Four and a half years ago I tested a then brand spankin’ new and fully redesigned 2008 Ninja 250R, our riding group of jaded motojournalists having an absolute blast on the entry-level mount. This time around I’m flogging the 250’s replacement, the Ninja 300, and the ride is smoother, engine stronger and my stupid grin just as wide.
A lot has happened in those years since the 2008 250R broke cover. For starters (and brace yourself in case you haven’t heard), the economy has, uh, struggled. The motorcycle market has bottomed out too, now a little over a third of its annual sales before the crash. The other big development since 2008, at least as far as the Ninja 250 was concerned, was Honda finally deigned to aim its R&D effort at the entry-level sportbike market here in the US – developing the 2011 CBR250R. No longer the only game in town for the small-displacement sportbike market, Team Green answers the CBR challenge with its Ninja 300.
Kawasaki counters its rival with a simple solution – make the little Ninja a little bigger. A 47cc displacement boost and its corresponding performance gains merit name-changing prominence, but the Ninja 300 features several important updates. Fuel injection, slipper clutch and optional ABS all make their way onto the new bike, and a revised chassis complements the bigger engine. The Ninja also gets a styling makeover, further blurring the line between the underclassman and its bigger siblings. Not all news is good, however, as the 300 sports a much-higher MSRP, but more on that later…
There’s no replacement for displacement, as a gearhead mantra goes, and Kawasaki has never been shy about trumping its rivals with a couple extra cc. The most blatant example was the 636cc ZX-6 supersport (which returns fully redesigned as a 2013 model), but there’s also the 1043cc Z1000/Ninja 1000, as well as the ZX-14, which holds a 101cc advantage over its hypersport rival, the Suzuki Hayabusa. Now Kawasaki takes the extra cc tack in the entry-level market. And as counter-intuitive as an entry-level displacement war sounds, that’s what’s happening.
Kawasaki looks to squash its rivals in the entry-level sportbike segment with the release of its Ninja 300.
Tiered licensing laws, which impose displacement restrictions based off rider age and experience, ensure the 250R remains in the Kawasaki arsenal for key global markets. But unhindered by such restrictions in the US, the Ninja 300 replaces the long-serving 250R. (The Ninja 400 that made a lot of noise after being revealed in EPA documentation, is itself a result of tiered licensing, a smaller version of the Ninja 650 sold in Canada).
Instead of starting from scratch, engineers stroked out the existing 250 engine to create the Ninja 300 Parallel Twin. Stretching the cylinder from 41.2mm to 49mm accounts for the new 296cc displacement, but altering that internal dimension mandated a cascade of changes, and Kawasaki claims about 45% of the new engine’s parts are redesigned. The larger stroke demanded a revised intake, so ports widen by 1mm, with intake valve diameter increased to match (23.5mm from 22.5mm). New connecting rods are shorter, but retain their weight by being thicker. The internal architecture changes impose slight modifications to the crankshaft and engine balancer as well.
New aluminum cylinders shed weight, as do more compact pistons. The latter are 7.5mm shorter, with the piston rings 5mm shorter as well. The lighter piston design reduces mass, allowing the Ninja to keep its high-revving character and 13,000 rpm redline. The lightweight components and increased displacement improve torque production throughout the powerband. Low and mid-range power gets help from a redesigned exhaust too, featuring longer, curved header pipes.
But more power means more heat, spurring yet more alterations in the 300 engine. Cylinders and pistons feature new design elements to dissipate heat. A lower compression ratio (10.6:1 compared to the tightly wound 250R’s 11.6:1) further reduces the operating temperatures. New oil passages in the crank cases improve engine cooling, and the oil pan is redesigned with more efficient cooling fins. It also increased in volume to handle the now 2.4 liter (up from 1.7) oil capacity. Incidentally, the new oil pan offers an extra 0.4 inches of ground clearance. The new 300 also features the convenience of a spin-on oil filter that can be reached without taking off the bodywork. Same goes for the drain plug, making for quicker maintenance jobs.
It’s a laundry list of engine changes that add up to an impressive claim of 39 horsepower – an increase of eight ponies from the 250 predecessor. And, as Kawasaki will remind anyone who’ll listen, the 300 cranks out 13 more horsepower than its Honda rival. That’s a 50% increase in peak power.
Ripping up the curvy pavement near Healdsburg, California, the extra torque is immediately apparent on the Ninja 300. The biggest improvement is the fatter midrange. The 250 didn’t have any real pull under 8K, but the new 300 comes to life around 5 or 6K on the tach. It’s as if the 250 powerband got shifted over two or three grand, with a little extra torque everywhere else. The swath of usable power is much broader than that of its predecessor.
The new bike retains the 250’s high-revving character, however, and still prefers to be revved up to 10K and above. But where the 250 demanded a screaming top-end riding style, the 300 only encourages it with surprising performance for such a small engine. This new 300 flat out zips when revved out, climbing up to an indicated 90 mph without any effort at all – and well beyond that (some riders claimed over 100 mph top speeds on GPS). No more hesitant freeway passes from this Ninja, as there’s plenty of oomph at 75 mph and above. In fact, the cheeky little Ninja now features a passing button on the left switchgear! That says it all right there.
The Ninja 300’s Twin proves more robust by any performance measure. Even the bottom end is less anemic, though not a highlight by any means. The Ninja’s top-end bias remains, and the bike still struggles if the rider runs a gear too high out of the corners. There’s no dramatic bogging though, and fueling is smooth, with a direct throttle feel.
Credit the new electronic fuel injection. That’s right, the carburetor is now an artifact of the Ninja line. Those carbs on the 250R were a relic anyway – retained as a cost-saving function to keep pricing down, while the global market got EFI. Now the Ninja fires to life without any need to fiddle with the choke. No more stinky warmups, or irritating fueling hiccups on cold mornings. The new EFI makes use of dual throttle valves and delivers a definite improvement in throttle response, as well as better fuel efficiency.
The six-speed transmission features a slipper clutch, one of the headlining components of the new bike. The existing 250R clutch couldn’t handle the extra power from the new engine, so Kawasaki added an F.C.C. brand clutch. The new design promises a lighter clutch pull and enhanced feel, with the slipper function cleaning up sloppy downshifts – a definite perk for its beginner demographic. We found the F.C.C. unit lives up to its billing. We did our best to overwhelm it, with seriously ill-advised high-speed downshifts, which resulted in a couple chirps from the rear and a few slides on egregious efforts. For the most part it is well calibrated, smoothing out all but the most aggressive shifts.
Kawasaki claims an extra eight horsepower from the larger 296cc Parallel Twin, and the performance gains are immediately apparent – broadening the usable powerband and featuring a more potent top-end.
While we praise the Ninja 300’s new found power, EFI and slipper clutch, one our favorite characteristics of the bike is its reduction of vibration. New rubber front engine mounts result in a dramatic improvement of the 250’s buzzy nature. It may be unheralded compared to the other changes, but eliminates our biggest complaint in the previous bike. It also gives the 300 a solid, more stable feel.
New engine mounts are just one change in the revised chassis. Engineers increased frame rigidity, with stronger steel main frame tubes and new gusseting, to handle the increase in engine power. The subframe angle flattens to keep seat height low and account for the wider 140mm rear tire – stepping up from the previous 130 rear. The Ninja 300 sports new 10-spoke wheels as well, the design mimicking the ZX-14 hoops.
Changes to the frame necessitate alterations to the suspension. Fork damping softens up, though oil level was raised to deliver more progressive feel and prevent bottoming. Conversely, the rear shock firms up damping, and a shorter spring allows for an extra step of preload adjustment (now set on second step from factory).
The Ninja 300 carries on its predecessor’s agile demeanor. Small and easy to manhandle, it remains a quick turning mount. We briefly sampled the 250R for comparison during our test ride, and the new 300 does feels a little more taut and communicative. While the effect of the broader 140 rear tire isn’t dramatic, the tires – a joint development with Kawasaki and IRC – feel planted and encourage a sportier ride. Another sporty update is the aluminum footpegs, with ambitious peg feelers, which look like they got ripped right off the ZX-10R. Overall the new mount delivers a more solid, stable feel – aided in part by the smoother engine.
Suspension can get soft on hard-charging moments for a rider of our stature (200 pounds), but it holds up quite well on a variety of conditions. To Kawasaki’s credit, our near 180 miles of test riding went over a wide array of road surfaces, from pristine to nasty, giving us a fair assessment. Only on extended bumpy runs did the suspension get out of sorts, and we never bottomed out – even on a couple pucker-worthy potholes.
Braking on the previous Ninja was surprisingly potent for a single-disc front. The 300 delivers similar strength from the front stopper, but there’s more feel at the lever. Only when riders need to chop a lot of speed fast, like say charging a corner way too hot, does the front make us want for more. Ham-fisted newbies will also benefit from yet another cush upgrade on the little Ninja, optional ABS.
Available as a $500 upgrade on the SE version (green and black livery), the ABS showcased on the Ninja 300 is an all-new design from Nissin. Weighing in at a scant 1.4 pounds Kawasaki claims the new ABS is 60% smaller than previous Nissin units, and even more compact than the BOSCH ABS units sourced on other Ninja mounts. We never engaged the front ABS on the unlinked system, though it does keep the rear end from breaking loose.
The Ninja 300 retains the quick-handling chops of its predecessor, but feels less buzzy and more stable.
Perhaps ultra-sensitive savants could discern the extra weight of the ABS… mortals like us could not. Nor could we feel the nominal weight increase of the new 300, which hikes curb weight up to 379.3 pounds (claimed non-ABS model) from 374.9 of the 250R. Keen observers will note the 300’s weight gain is hidden, slightly, by a 0.3 gallon reduction of fuel load (4.5 gallons). More critical is the 22-pound weight discrepancy to the CBR250R, though Kawasaki makes pains to note the 300’s fuel load remains higher by 1.1 gallons to its rival. As for that fuel, the lower compression ratio allows for the use of regular gas. And the slight reduction of fuel capacity is easily offset by the efficiency perks of EFI (see MPG challenge sidebar), with range well in excess of 200 miles – probably far closer to 250-plus.
Kawasaki claims the 300’s rider triangle is more or less the same as the previous model. The little Ninja remains a bike for smaller riders, and we were a skosh cramped at 6’1” though far from uncomfortable. However, I felt a little more pressure on the wrists than I recall from the 250 (and the MPG challenge riding position? Tortuous!). On the plus side, our legs tucked in better under the tank. Seat height is 0.4 inches taller at 30.9, but it proves an easy reach to the ground thanks to a slimmer profile and should not cause concern for shorter riders.
Again we’ll praise the reduction of engine vibration (can you tell we liked it…) aided the comfort factor, and there’s not much engine heat either. Kawasaki debuts a simple but effective radiator fan duct, which channels hot air down toward the ground instead of out the sides of the fairing. Kawasaki Air Management System (KAMS) is the fancy acronym, but it’s a discreet upgrade that deserves mention. We could hear the faint engagement of the radiator fan while riding, and felt zero heat – much to our chilly chagrin as we dropped down to the Pacific Coast during our test ride.
The Ninja 300’s modern instrument console
is a definite improvement (top). ABS is
offered as a $500 option on the SE version
of the Kawasaki Ninja 300 (bottom).
Kawasaki has done an admirable job updating the Ninja with a modern look. Where the previous 250 did a decent job mimicking its bigger kin, notably eschewing 250 monikers, the 300 goes one better in its styling. The bodywork and windscreen do their part, to be sure, but it’s behind the controls where the little Ninja grows up.
Instrumentation is a massive improvement from the old-school gauges of the 250, which have more in common with our KLR650 Project Bike than a proper sportbike cockpit (we rode the KLR to and from the event by the way, so stay tuned for an update). Front and center is the analog tach, the most useful indicator on the panel as riders will often want peek down make sure the needle pointing at high noon (7500 rpm) or above for the fat of the powerband. The digital speedo is also easy to read at a glance. Other displays are the useful electronic fuel gauge, clock and tripmeter. The Ninja 300 also makes use of the now ubiquitous ECO display, an MPG aid that lights up when running at optimal efficiency.
Fit and finish has improved, but is not bulletproof. For example the body work panels on our test mount and a few others showed some gaps. This is a contrast to the solid CBR – where fit and finish is impeccable. Despite our nitpicking, the Ninja 300 exudes a higher quality than its predecessor. And it certainly doesn’t feel like a cheap bike, because it isn’t!
Aye, there’s the rub. There’s no sugarcoating this latest Ninja’s MSRP. The 300 retails for $4799 in stock trim, $4999 for the SE version and $5499 for the ABS SE. Affordability has been a key hallmark of the Ninja 250. The 2007 version sported a miserly $2999 MSRP, which jumped to $3499 with the complete redesign in 2008 – and steadily grew with the 2012 model ringing in at $4199. This latest iteration boosts the cost of entry to the Ninja family by more than 60% in the past six years.
Reasons for the pricing increase include the obvious redesign and component upgrades, but valuation of the yen has driven up prices across the board for the Japanese OEMs, including Honda. The CBR250’s asking price grew to $4099 in 2012 (up $100 from its 2011 debut) and the 2013 CBR250R continues to sport a TBD MSRP on the Big Red website.
Concerns over MSRP will ultimately be settled on the sales floor. Where Kawasaki reckons consumers will value of the premium components not found on the Honda, foremost being the slipper clutch. Mainly they’re banking on the performance boost of that new engine. And 50% more horsepower is hard to argue against.
What’s not in question is that the smallest Ninja remains a fundamentally fun bike to ride. The latest updates only improve its performance on the street. The little Ninja got bigger and better. It represents an impressive response from Kawasaki to its Japanese rival.