This review was first published at autoTRADER.ca
SONOMA, CA.—These days, lightweight sport bikes are serious business.
There was a time when entry-level bikes were slow and dorky looking, and inherently less fun than their big-bike counterparts. But soaring insurance rates and high costs have driven more and more riders toward smaller motorcycles, and it’s triggered both a feeding frenzy and an arms race.
Kawasaki’s Ninja 250, then its 300, snapped up the early market, before being joined by Honda’s CBR300 and Yamaha’s R3. Even BMW is in on the baby sport-bike act with its 310R. With superior horsepower and less weight, the KTM 390 is the current bench-racing champion – or was.
At a base cost of $5,799 (or $6,199 with ABS), Kawasaki’s 2018 Ninja 400 is the latest entrant in this dogfight, and it’s a heavy hitter. The shot that is, not the bike. At 166 kg wet – a full 8 kg lighter than the 300 – the bike is now the second-lightest in the class by about 3 kg. And with 399 cc of displacement, a claimed 45 hp and around 25 lb-ft of torque, it’s the most powerful too by about 2.5 hp.
Stats don’t tell enough of this story. There’s much more.
First Impressions from the Street
Riding the Ninja 400 over two days, the first through California’s famous canyon twisties and packed highways, the second on track, I can tell you that this bike is compliant, agile, and feels more solid than any of its competitors. More important, it feels like a better balance of a small and big bike than its predecessor, the Ninja 300. I know this because I own and race a Ninja 300.
Build quality is up, too. The new dash is very similar to that of the Ninja 650 and comes with a welcome gear-position indicator, trip meter, fuel economy meter and more. The large analogue tach is set off well by the surrounding digital gauges, with speed clearly visible off to the side. The all-LED lighting is a nice touch that adds some aesthetic class and provides increased illumination. The plastics and materials all feel and look solid, not cheap, and the multi-piece fairing fits together well. The sculpted rear fairing looks like it’s straight from one of Kawasaki’s line of supersport bikes. In fact, the entire bike could easily be mistaken for one of its bigger brothers.
Despite the compact dimensions, the 400 also feels like a big bike. On normal roads, it does a good job of absorbing imperfections and the screen provides good wind protection. After six hours of riding on the first day, I felt as fresh as when I’d started. The Ninja 400 takes less effort to ride than my 300.
Its higher peak horsepower is good for bench racing, but the overall torque and power curves are both better in this new engine. It pulls harder from the midrange than the 300 and that makes highway cruising and overtaking much easier.
First Impressions from the Track
Which brings me to the track. Some people will tell you that riding anything less than a 600 on track is pointless and boring, but if you can’t have stupid amounts of fun on a track on one of these things, you’re not trying hard enough.
I spent a day throwing this little bike around Sonoma Raceway in California, where the 400’s shorter wheelbase, higher ground clearance and oodles more grunt have created a personal dilemma. Should I stay with the Ninja 300 I’ve been racing in the Canadian Superbike Championship Lightweight Production Class? Until now, all my competition has been fellow Ninja 300s, but in 2018 the series is open to the Yamaha R3, Honda CBR500 and KTM 390. The Ninja 400 is provisionally approved, and I want to be on a bike capable of running up the front.
The lower weight, higher power and better chassis stiffness of the 400 will cause me problems if I stick with the 300. The swing-arm has a new mounting plate that extends it slightly while still allowing that short wheelbase, and the 400 changes direction with glee. Up front, upgraded 41 mm forks are set 35 mm farther apart, generating a more stable, communicative front end. Regular readers will know I’ve thrown my 300 down the road more than once courtesy of front-end losses, and in each instance I was caught largely by surprise. On track at Sonoma, though, I had plenty of high-quality feedback from the front, even on stock tires, which allowed me to push harder and with more confidence on corner entry.
Even releasing the brake seemed a more casual affair than on my race bike, with the 400 maintaining more composure underneath my clumsy, ham-fisted body. If you happen to muff your entry and carry too high a gear out of the corner the penalty is lessened too, courtesy of the 400’s better torque profile.
It’s not only that the 400 is faster – it’s far better to ride. To say this bike is an evolution of the previous model is totally inadequate. This is a generational shift forward.
The gain in displacement is one way the Ninja 400 puts out more power, but there are other small tweaks, too. The airbox is reconfigured to allow downdraught intakes, and Kawasaki says the straighter path of the airflow makes for more consistent power. The clutch is a lighter action too, though I found it too light and had to dial a significant amount of slack into the cable. That’s partly user error: my habit of resting my finger on the lever when on track meant I was actually engaging the clutch at high revs on the circuit, causing it to slip. The clutch is so light, I just wasn’t conscious of my own part in the slippage, until I wound in some slack to the cable.
The airbox reconfiguration includes more ribbing to reinforce the top of the airbox, which makes it quieter and less prone to vibration. I was vaguely aware of the increased smoothness out on the highways and back roads and that point was hammered home on track, when my chin rested smoothly on the airbox cover in a full tuck. Incidentally, you’ll hit well over 180 km/h in that position on a decent straight.
A single disc remains at the front of the Ninja 400, but it’s been beefed up to 310 mm and is supported by an all-new balanced-actuation master cylinder. Out back, a 220-mm twin-piston brake helps keep things tidy under heavy braking.
The brakes are strong enough to lighten the rear tire, and the ABS is reasonably unobtrusive, but I would have liked to see the Ninja step up to a twin-disc setup. Such a setup gives better braking stability and control.
The riding triangle is a little more compact than the Ninja 300 but it’s also more comfortable. Kawasaki has lifted the handlebars up and back toward the rider by about 15 mm, and the 785-mm seat height is unchanged. The seat is narrower at the front, though, which makes it easier for those of us of shorter stature to reach the ground comfortably. The seat is also more plush, because its lower base height, courtesy of the new trellis frame, allows for a thicker cushion.
I prefer a lower, more forward handlebar, for the aesthetics as much as for the benefits in handling, and also a higher, back-set foot peg. Rearsets are likely to be available soon.
Colours, Accessories, Etc
U.S. markets get a stunning grey with orange graphics livery, but much to my disappointment, that colour will not be available in Canada. The base colour is either black, solid blue, or solid red, and $200 extra gets you the KRT green/black colour scheme seen in most of these photos.
Options include a pillion-seat cowl, race-stand bobbins, and frame sliders, as well as a taller windscreen and a DC power outlet. The porthole for that is stamped into the fairing cover on the left of the instrument cluster.
How Quickly Will I Get Bored of My Ninja 400?
Every single motorcycle forum or website in the world has some variation of this question somewhere in its pages. In the case of the 400, I predict the most common answer to be: “Not very”.
At once both engaging and forgiving, the 400 is a bike that beginners will want to hold on to for a long time before they feel they’ve outgrown it – if that even happens. Its styling is good enough to hold back the haters, and the engine is now strong enough to handle highway cruising, commuting, and even spirited country runs with bigger-bore bikes. There’s nothing about the 400 that makes me think, “Well, it’s only a starter bike.”
And as older, more experienced riders grow irritated by rising insurance rates, diminishing garage space, or even just tire of commuting on a bike that is too much of a caged animal for the regular grind, they might look to a smaller bike that can still fulfill their more spirited desires.
When that day comes, the 2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 should be on their list.
Pricing: 2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400: $5,799
2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 KRT: $5,999
2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 ABS: $6,199
2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 KRT ABS: $6,399