Cornering aboard the featherweight Ninja 300 requires the barest of effort. It’s obviously the lightest ride in this test, and our little green test bike proved so light and nimble that was toy-like in its playfulness. Simply look through the turn and it’s already leaned over. The most amazing handling characteristic is how easy it is for riders to correct mid-corner, immediately responsive to inputs, with a seemingly endless amount of lean on tap. Transitions are also a highlight for the super-agile 300, flick-flicking its way along ribbons of asphalt.
“The Ninja 300 is so light and nimble, it handles like a dart,” exclaims Bryan, whose usual cruiser test mounts tip the scales upwards of 800 pounds and have minimal ground clearance. “It’s amazing how composed it is bombing into turns. Riders can charge into turns aggressively and the little Ninja sticks like glue. Light, flickable, and fun.”
Shedding pounds definitely contributes to the 300’s nimble nature, but so do its skinny tires. The 110 front and 140 rear (IRC RX-01R tires) make for sharper turn-in. Surprisingly, the little Ninja’s 27-degree rake is laziest of the bunch (CBR500R 25.5 degrees, Ninja 650 25 degrees), though it does sport the least amount of trail at 3.7 inches (CBR500R 4.05 inches, Ninja 650 4.3 inches). Its 55.3-inch wheelbase, while the shortest, is only so by a scant 0.2 inch – the CBR and 650 both at 55.5 inches.
On the road the CBR feels heavier than the 300, but is still easy to toss around and lighter on its toes than the 650. Contrasting the Ninja, Honda’s CBR rolls on distinctively larger tires. In fact, the 120/70 and 160/60 treads are the same size as the Ninja 650 (our Honda test unit had Bridgestone BT-023 spooned on, though OEM tires are Metzeler Roadtec Z8 Interacts or Dunlop Roadsmarts D222 – the latter being the rubber sourced during our first ride introduction and the same tires sourced by the green 650). The CBR’s fatter hoops equate to slower turn-in than the scalpel-like 300, yet it feels more stable.
All three bikes sport non-adjustable forks, with preload adjustable rear shocks. The CBR’s softer suspension gets overwhelmed before either of the Ninjas, but it also proves more comfortable for commuting and backroad jaunts at a less aggressive pace. The Ninja 300’s suspension, including a smaller 37mm fork (41mm fork adorns both the 500 and 650) and almost a half-inch more travel, does a terrific job keeping the plucky Kawasaki from tapping out at a frantic pace. However, it doesn’t feel as plush as the softer CBR setup which better soaks up road imperfections. Similar to the engine performance, the 300’s chassis feels more high-strung and sporty. Meanwhile the CBR is less dashing, but easier to control – transmitting a big bike feel closer to the 650 than its smaller-displacement rival.
“The CBR was extremely stable on the highway and in turns,” says Byron. “I quickly felt confident that I was on a machine that I could grow as a rider on without having to worry about a prolonged ‘getting to know you phase’ like I did on the 650.”
Like engine performance, the Ninja 650 handling is a step up from the smaller mounts. It isn’t as quick to turn-in as its little sibling either, but then not many bikes are… Saying a bike doesn’t turn as quick as the little Ninja is akin to calling Usain Bolt’s 100 meter dash competitors slow. The 650’s versatile suspension can handle a more spirited pace if so inclined, but is comfortably sprung for blasé duties like commuting, though not as supple as the red bike.
The 650’s dual-disc front brakes deliver improved stopping power, with both the 300 and 500 sourcing single-disc two-piston caliper fronts, but not the overwhelming advantage we’d have expected from the extra rotor. The larger Ninja’s ABS is commendable, calibrated to not engage to early and a great safety enhancement.
Of the smaller rides, the Kawasaki’s front doesn’t bite as strong and feels mushier at the lever. We did, however, much appreciate the ABS on our Ninja test unit as well. Braking from the Honda’s set-up outperforms the little Ninja’s similar arrangement. Its back brake, however, felt relatively grabby and was quick to lock up. Unfortunately, we did not test the ABS version of the CBR.
Ergonomics on the Ninja 300 are much sportier than the other two. Riders crouch and pitch forward compared to the more neutral stance on the CBR, which is closer to the Ninja 650 with its more upright riding position. The 300 pilot presses their weight more on the handlebars, but it’s the high footpeg placement that cramps things up for taller riders. The 300’s ergos are better suited for smaller riders.
The Honda 500 looks physically larger than the 300, in no small part from those aforementioned broader tires. The CBR actually shares the same 30.9-inch seat height as the 300, and its correspondingly easy reach to the ground, but from there the similarities end. The Honda bars feel taller, with the pegs much lower – equating to a more relaxed riding position.
At 31.7 inches the Ninja 650 seat height is the tallest. It feels even higher than the spec sheet indicates; the sensation probably exaggerated considering the company it’s keeping in this comparison (compared to the dainty Ninja 300 the 650 feels like a brute!). The rubber mounted handlebar raises to a comfy reach, and also does an admirable job quelling engine vibes, as do the rubber mounted pegs – only the frame and tank transmit buzz, which is more than tolerable.
In the saddle the other two bikes do a fair job of damping the inherent vibes from their rattling Twins as well. Engine buzz was one of our biggest gripes from the old Ninja 250, and Kawasaki did a laudable job fixing that issue with its replacement. That said, the 300 emits more vibes than the Honda, which also transmits some rattle up through the frame and seat at its higher revs.
The big bike in this comparison, Kawasaki’s Ninja 650 delivers sporty intermediate level performance and a comfortable riding position.
Test riders found protection on the Ninja the least affective. Part of this has to do with the smaller ergos, with Bryan noting: “The 300 is very narrow. Because of this, it was almost impossible for me to tuck into the bike. My elbows were always out and the windscreen is small.”
If anything, the Honda’s fairing and windscreen appear smaller than the little Ninja’s, but are more effective at reducing wind buffeting. Maybe it’s a trickle down effect from Big Red’s GP racing prowess, but the bodywork on the CBR sportbikes, including the CBR250, seems more aerodynamic and delivers less turbulence to the pilot – a trait which the 500 continues.
The 650 offers the most comfortable coverage of all. Its windscreen is also adjustable, offering lower and taller settings, which require removing four screws and shifting up and down on a bracket. Bryan’s 60-mile freeway commute offered ample time to evaluate in this regard, and Mr. Harley notes: “If I was going to be doing a bunch of highway miles, the Ninja 650 is the bike I’d want to be on. More useable power, aggressive but comfortable riding position, and I can tuck in behind its screen better. It provides the best buffer from wind.”