Photos by Brian J. Nelson
PASO ROBLES, CA.—Kawasaki introduced the Ninja 650R in 2006, bridging the gap nicely between the aging Ninja 500R, and the more performance-focused ZX-6R supersport. It offered riders an accessible, affordable sport bike option that was much more modern, more powerful, and better handling than the 500R (which was dropped from the line-up just a couple of years after the 650R’s introduction), but with more manageable power and a more comfortable riding position than the 6R.
The 650R featured distinctive styling among other Ninja models, utilizing a unique steel frame with large-diameter tubing up front, a single square-section backbone in the rear, and a single shock absorber offset to the right side of the bike, which kind of became the bike’s hallmark. The bike received a major overhaul halfway through its lifecycle, but it retained these characteristic styling traits.
So, what’s new?
In short, everything. The Ninja 650 (the “R” was dropped from the name in 2012) has been completely redesigned for 2017, and the change is radical. About the only thing similar to the outgoing model aside from the name is the engine, though even it has seen a major revision. The bike’s lines are now much sharper and more angular, putting the 650 more in line with the company’s supersport Ninjas, and the exposed shock absorber is gone, having moved to the centre of the frame and connected to the swingarm by linkage.
The frame is an all-new steel trellis design that weighs an astounding 8.6 kg less than before. And that’s not the only component that’s seen a reduction in weight: the wheels, swingarm, engine and various other components are lighter than before, bringing the total weight savings to 19 kg (42 lb.), which is unheard of in a single model upgrade. Hardcore racers would be hard pressed to remove half that amount for the racetrack.
Steering geometry is more aggressive and much more sport-bike like, with less trail (99 vs 110mm) and a steeper rake angle (24 vs. 25 degrees), while wheelbase remains at 1,410 mm. Just how sporty is the new geometry? Those numbers now almost match the geometry of the ZX-6R (within half a degree and a couple of millimetres). And the wet weight, at 192 kg (426 lb), is identical to the 6R’s wet weight. The 41 mm conventional fork is retained, but it has been retuned primarily to compensate for the weight reduction. The rear suspension is more progressive in compliance, mostly due to the newly added linkage.
The 646 cc parallel twin’s basic specs, like bore, stroke and compression ratio are the same as before, but cylinders no longer have steel liners, which reduces weight and brings the cylinders closer together for a narrower engine. Within a redesigned cylinder head are new cams with slightly milder timing, while the throttle bodies are 2 mm smaller in diameter, at 36 mm. These changes combine with revised engine mapping to increase peak torque by 1.5 lb.-ft. to 48.5, while increasing available torque in the lower rev range. Gearbox ratios are unchanged, but the clutch is now mechanically assisted to reduce lever effort, and incorporates a slipper function.
What’s it like to ride?
The riding position has been reshuffled for a slightly more sporting stance. The handgrips are 25 mm farther forward and 42 mm lower, the footpegs have been moved forward by 60 mm and are 15 mm lower, while seat height has dropped 15 mm to 790 mm, which is relatively low for a sport bike. Without a previous model on hand it’s hard to tell what the changes actually feel like, but the riding position is nonetheless much more accommodating than any supersport machine, placing you into a modest forward lean with a very easy reach to the handlebar. At six feet tall, I find the legroom a bit cramped, but Kawasaki does offer a 25 mm taller accessory gel seat ($300 US), and I’d take it.
When seated, the view forward reveals a neat new instrument cluster that features a prominent analogue tachometer with a digital readout to the right, and an array of warning lights to the left. The digital display is negative-lit, with a black background and grey digits, for an attractive, high-end appearance. Displayed info includes a gear indicator, time, coolant temperature, twin trip meters, a fuel economy readout, and a fuel gauge. There’s also a programmable shift light, which works in conjunction with backlighting that changes hues as shift time approaches, from white, to pink (at 500 rpm before the selected shift RPM) to red. Unfortunately, this light show isn’t visible in daylight, though the yellow shift light is. You can also shut the system off.
Looking down, you’ll also see an unusual three-piece cast handlebar bolted onto the top tripleclamp. This was designed to give the Ninja 650 a slightly more upscale look than the tubular handlebar used on the Z650 naked bike, which shares platforms with the 650.
Unfortunately the temperature here in Paso Robles, California, where Kawasaki held the Ninja 650’s North American launch, was just below freezing when we took off in the morning, with forecast highs barely touching the double digits. Also, recent rainstorms caused several road closures in the area; this forced our hosts to remap our route, while some of the roads we did travel on were strewn with debris, gravel, sometimes mud, and often running water. This, of course, also prompted our lead rider to set a modest pace.
Although there were no previous-generation Ninja 650s on hand, I did spend some time on one last summer and remember there was really nothing unpleasant about it. I do remember it felt lazier and more top-heavy than the new bike. The new 650 is narrower between the knees and it indeed feels much lighter, whether at a standstill or at speed — a 19-kg reduction in weight will do that.
Clutch effort is light, the bike launches with very little throttle, and it accelerates smoothly, but with a light throbbing vibration that gives it an almost big-twin feel. Although the engine isn’t electric smooth, it is mostly vibration free until about 110 km/h, where some buzzing is felt in the fuel tank and seat; the handlebar and footpegs remain buzz-free, as do the mirrors, which offer a clear, almost unobstructed rear view.
Steering is light and neutral, and the feedback from the contact-patch inspires confidence — an especially welcome handling trait considering the sketchy pavement we rode. The seat is short from front to rear so you can’t really move around much, and it’s firm, causing me to squirm around near the end of the 200-km day. It’s another reason I’d opt for the accessory seat.
Although the poor conditions kept the pace from being anywhere near that on the track, I did perform a few full-throttle roll-ons, and the engine does feel more powerful than before. It pulls in a linear fashion, with just a little drop in the powerband as the tach swings toward its 10,000 rpm redline. The engine feels best when gassing it from about 5,000 rpm, and it emits a very satisfying intake howl when you do so.
Suspension is sprung on the soft-ish side, which is understandable considering the 650 is designed to put more miles on the road than on the track. At the speeds we rode, it worked just fine, providing good compliance over the majority of bumps, though I suspect it might be too soft for an aggressive sporting pace. It also proved a bit harsh over larger, sharp-edged bumps.
Despite these minor kinks, the Ninja 650 is improved in all respects compared to its predecessor. And for all the new bits and weight loss, you only have to dish out $200 more than before, as it now retails for $8,099. Add $300 for the green and black KRT (Kawasaki Racing Team) model like my tester. It’s lighter and produces more midrange torque than either of its four-cylinder competitors, the Honda CBR650F and Yamaha FZ6R, while undercutting the former by $1,600, and costing just $100 more than the latter, and it comes with standard ABS.
The new Kawasaki Ninja 650 is certainly sportier than the model it replaces, and is now among the sportiest bikes in its category, not in appearance alone. It’s a great step up from a smaller bike, with enough power to satisfy even veteran riders, and it’s a great value. If you want a better idea of how good a value it is, note that when it was introduced more than a decade ago, it retailed for $8,599.