Photos: Didier Constant (unless otherwise specified)
I just discovered my next favourite thing: Racing small-displacement motorcycles.
Small displacement spec racing series are nothing new, as most riders of a certain age will remember the RZ Cup of a few decades ago, which featured Yamaha’s now very collectible RZ350.
Probably the most fun I’ve had while racing was taking part in the CBR250R Challenge Media Cup a few years ago. That spec series was meant to introduce young racers to road racing by keeping costs down and rules strict. It’s gone now, at least on a national level, but Kawasaki is stepping up to the plate, and working to introduce a Ninja 300 spec series.
Single-make spec series are fine, but there are now enough sporty sub-400 cc bikes on the market to merit a bona fide entry-level race class, à la 400 Production class, also from a few decades ago. It is this which motivated us to hold a track test of the latest small-displacement sport bikes at Quebec’s Autodrome St-Eustache.
The “us” included my former CBR250R Challenge sparring partner David Booth, moto journo Didier Constant, and myself. We also enlisted the input of pro racer and CBR125R Challenge, CBR250R Challenge, RACE AM Superbike and AM 600 champion, Stacey Nesbitt.
Our racetrack comparison consisted of the four major players in the expanding sub-400 cc class, namely the Honda CBR300R, the Kawasaki Ninja 300, the KTM RC390 and the Yamaha R3. The day was not only a lot of fun, it was also very revealing – I came away surprised by the results.
The bikes were all in stock form, except for the Yamaha, which came with an accessory slip-on muffler. The muffler did have a quiet insert, so it was no louder than any of the other machines, and in fact it was the KTM that had the throatiest exhaust note. We were told (and I would tend to agree) that the Yamaha had no power advantage due to the added slip-on.
All bikes save for the Yamaha were equipped with ABS; the R3 is the only bike in this comparison that currently does not have an ABS option.
Pro 6 Cycle, the Canadian Superbike Championship supplier of Dunlop tires, had agreed to provide tires for all the bikes so each manufacturer would have equal footing, at least in terms of traction. However a miscommunication meant the tires would not get to the track on time, so we had no choice but to test the bikes on their OEM rubber.
The CBR300R and Ninja 300 roll on IRC Road Winner tires, which despite the cheesy name surprisingly had the best grip, probably about 80 per cent of what a race tire has to offer. The RC390 uses Metzeler Sportec MS tires, which weren’t as sticky as the IRCs, though they had good feedback and were forgiving when they did start to lose grip at maximum lean angles. The disappointment of the bunch was the R3, which comes with Michelin Sport Street tires. These were slippery enough that I advised riders to take care as they lost grip early and rather abruptly.
Because of the different tires, we scrapped our plan to record lap times because it just wouldn’t be fair. Aside from that, though, each bike was assessed on suspension, handling and power, and each one had merits and drawbacks within each category.
All of the bikes feature the same suspension adjustability, which is limited to rear preload. Because two of us were on the heavier side and to maintain cornering clearance, we cranked up the rear preload on all of the machines. Although this wasn’t in Nesbitt’s favour, we decided that dropping a bike because of grounding out in corners wasn’t an option either.
So, to the test …
1) Honda CBR300R
The Honda CBR300R ($4,699; $5,199 for the ABS model) is basically the same bike as the CBR250R was, but with a longer-stroke engine (63 mm vs. 55 mm) that bumps displacement to 288 cc. The bike, which is one of two singles in this match, now claims 30 hp, placing the CBR at the bottom end of this group in both displacement and output. Despite being a single, it was among the smoothest bikes in this test.
On the back straight I saw 148 km/h on the speedo, the lowest in the group and 10 km/h off the KTM’s 158 km/h, which was the highest. Its reduced power isn’t as big a deficit as it would appear, though, because the Honda has more bottom end torque than the Kawasaki and Yamaha.
More importantly, it is the easiest, most stable, and most confidence-inspiring of all the bikes to ride to the limit. There was no wallowing or pogoing on underdamped suspension, and it responded well to rider input regardless of the rider’s weight.
The Honda offered the most communicative front-end feedback, and maintained its composed handling regardless of who was at the controls and how heavy they were. It’s also the bike that had the least amount of brake fade, with barely any discernible change in lever travel after 15 minutes of fast lapping. At 162 kg wet it is the second-lightest bike in this test, behind the KTM.
2) Kawasaki Ninja 300
The Kawasaki Ninja 300 ($5,399; $5,799 for the ABS model) is the oldest bike in this comparison, having grown to 296 cc just two years ago. It’s the second smallest in displacement, and at 38 hp is third in terms of claimed output. At 174 kg wet, it is also the heaviest bike in this group, though it managed its weight well.
Its powerband is flat, but this little Ninja likes to spin, therefore it had to be kept above 9,000 rpm to generate some proper speed, making it the bike that required the busiest left foot.
Its suspension wasn’t as composed as the Honda’s, though it wasn’t far off. It had a softer fork which caused it to dive more under braking, and it had slightly softer shock damping, though it didn’t bounce back and wallow after hitting bumps at high speed like a couple of the other bikes in this test.
And finally, the Kawasaki exhibited the least amount of brake fade, though it needed a slightly firmer squeeze at the lever.
3) KTM RC390
I came into this comparison with high expectations for the KTM RC390 ($6,599) and left disappointed. It’s the most aggressively styled machine here, and its spec sheet promises great performance.
It’s the only bike in this group that has a tubular steel trellis frame, not one made with steel stampings, along with a rigid cast aluminum swingarm. Its 373 cc single boasts the highest output at 43 hp, and it’s the lightest machine too, claiming 147 kg wet, without gas, so you’d need to add about 4 kilos to that, which still makes it the lightest by at least 11 kg. Oh, and it has the smallest tank capacity at a tiny 10 litres of gas.
The good news is that the KTM pulls noticeably harder right off the start than any of the other machines, and it flexes its extra displacement by continuing to pull hard until redline.
Alas, that’s the only good news. Let the clutch out and you instantly feel its shuddering power pulses. I like the roughish feel of the bike on the track, but I’m not so sure it’s something I’d like to live with on a daily basis. It feels as if the shock-absorbing dampers in the rear wheel aren’t there. The other single in this match, the CBR300R, is electric-smooth in comparison.
Although it pulls well, the RC slams into its hard rev limiter at 9,000 rpm – requiring the rider to short-shift the bike. It feels like it could easily spin at least another 1,000 rpm. Its LCD tachometer reads to 13,000 and the spec sheet claims the bike makes its peak horsepower at 9,500 rpm, leading me to believe that this was a break-in setup. The factory rep present at our comparison couldn’t confirm if this was the case.
However, my biggest gripe is with its suspension, which looks high spec and is provided by the reputable WP. Leaving the pits it felt somewhat softish in the rear, but just three laps in and the rear would begin to wallow and swing, almost like someone had let the oil out of the rear damper. Add to that a fork that has an unusual amount of stiction and the overall setup is less than ideal.
The KTM had fairly good grip from the tires, but on several occasions, when pushing the bike to the limit, the front tire would lose grip and the bike would push rather uncomfortably towards the outside. This wasn’t a grip issue however, but rather the front suspension’s inability to follow the uneven track surface.
It also exhibited a fair amount of brake fade, with the lever coming halfway to the handlebar after several laps, and this despite being the only radial setup.
Though these issues may not be something that you’d notice on the street, for a company whose slogan is “Ready to Race”, the RC390 is far from it.
4) Yamaha R3
The Yamaha R3 joined the 300 wars with a Kawasaki-like move, by adding extra ccs to its 321 cc parallel twin to give a claimed 41 hp, beating out Honda and Kawasaki but not KTM who added even more ccs.
Its power characteristics are very similar to the Ninja’s except that it feels torquier and pulls a bit harder throughout the rev range. At 166 kg wet, it’s just 4 kilos heavier than the lightweight Honda.
Its suspension setup is too soft for track riding, almost sloppy, in fact. It wallows and weaves about through corners to the point of sapping rider confidence. This is something I had noticed when I attended its press launch in the U.S., but it was emphasized in the company of the other bikes. The fact we did not get stickier tires was good for the R3 because increasing the grip level would have further upset the soft suspension.
Its brakes required the firmest squeeze for hard stops, and they too exhibited some fade after a few laps.
My assessment of these four bikes depends entirely on if they will be used in stock form on the road, or in lightly modified form for the track.
In completely stock form, the two best performers are the CBR300R and the Ninja 300. These two machines have the best suspension, with the Honda edging the Kawasaki with more stability and a firmer setup, and the Kawasaki edging the Honda in power. The Kawasaki therefore gets my vote for best street bike in the class, with the Honda taking second place.
The R3 has a great engine, feeling very similar to the Ninja 300 in delivery, but with more power at lower revs. Unfortunately, its suspension is too soft, especially in the rear, which wallowed when pushed hard through turns. It would probably be the comfiest setup for the street though, so I’d rank the R3 in third.
The bike that I was hoping would do much better than it did is the RC390. It has the most powerful engine with a surprising amount of low-end torque, as well as a strong top end. It also has a race-ready chassis, if not a race-ready suspension setup. As a result, it’s my last choice for the street, especially since it’s the priciest bike in the bunch by a wide margin.
Now, if these bikes were to be prepared for, say, a lightweight supersport racing series, they would all need the same amount of work, similar to what the Honda CBR250R received when it had a racing series; namely fork work, a different rear shock, a slip-on muffler, race tires, and racing bodywork.
In that case, the KTM would be my first choice. It has the stiffest chassis, the highest power, and the most potential to run up front in a race, though its brakes would probably need some work too.
The R3 and the Ninja 300 would probably be neck and neck, with maybe the R3 edging the Kawasaki with a bit more power (it does have a slight displacement advantage, after all).
However, I would not count out the CBR300R, despite its lower power output. It is the easiest bike to ride fast, and from my experience in the CBR250R Challenge series, it remains easy to ride even after the racing mods. However, its lower output would put it at a disadvantage on longer tracks, so if it’s a championship I’m looking for, it would be my last choice.
I’m crossing my fingers that a race series will be introduced for these bikes in the near future so that they can scrap it out on a racetrack to determine which one would be the real winner, though to be fair, the range in capacities would require some handicap mechanism to keep the field a little more level.
The following is taken from the CMG Buyer’s Guide, and compares all the specs from the four bikes tested. We’ve added the Honda and Kawasaki ABS versions, though they do also have non-ABS versions, meaning that all the bikes are shown with ABS, save for the R3 which does not offer it as an option.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.