Test Ride: Kawasaki Ninja 650

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Words: Rob Harris, Ed White Photos: Richard Seck, Ed White

Kawasaki Ninja 650R: North Bay and Bust!

The grand tour soon became a drink-to-forget lost weekend (no change there then)

L-R: ‘arris, Bondo, Kevin & Ed White (Larry’s the cripple at the front).

In typical CMG style what started out as a grandiose plan for a tour of northern Ontario, with a stopover in North Bay to watch Larry win the Vintage Road Racing Association’s final round, turned out to be a quick dash to do a quick test ride and help get Larry drunk so that he could quickly forget that he not only crashed in practice, but broke his ankle to boot!

Ah, the world of CMG – never has so much been done by so few with so little to show for it … But lamenting on a life that coulda, shoulda, woulda is lamenting time wasted, so instead let’s lament a little on the only thing that came off at the weekend – Kawasaki’s new 650R Ninja.

THE TECHNICAL BIT

The Ninja 650R is Kawasaki’s answer to Suzuki’s popular SV650. However, just when everybody and their dog are moving to the V-twin layout, Kawasaki has stuck to the parallel twin that has done them so well in the Ninja 500R.

It’s a very compact motor (smaller than the 500’s unit, yet with an additional 150cc and the power that goes with), with the usual DOHC, liquid cooling and fuel injection. The crank is spaced at 180 degrees – one piston up and the other is down– which is pretty good at reducing vibes on its own, but Kawasaki has fitted a balancer shaft for additional smoothness.

To keep it all as small as possible, Kawasaki uses a “semi-dry sump”. What’s that? Good question. Well, it has the two oil pumps of a dry sump (scavenge and delivery) but instead of a separate oil tank, there’s a “transmission cavity” within the motor, away from the crank.

Gearbox is a six-speed setup, with the race-style cassette set up which means that you can take the whole lot out in one go without having to strip the motor … although I’m not sure why you’d really need such quick access to the gears.The muffler is hung underneath the motor à la Buell to keep mass centralized as well as a claimed lower centre of gravity (which seems a tad counter intuitive to me).

Shock is side-mounted and is an integral part to the whole look of the machine.

Chassis-wise the frame bucks the aluminium trend and goes classic steel, thereby keeping costs down; albeit in a tubular trellis-like set up, which fully encompasses the narrow twin motor.

The steel braced swingarm connects to the frame with a side-mounted shock. This is unusual (the usual being a centre mounted shock hidden away at the back of the motor), and makes it an integral part of the overall look of the machine with easier pre-load adjustment as a bonus. Front forks are standard telescopic types.

Braking is by twin discs up front, which get the cool looking ‘petal’ design (the wavy finish) that Kawasaki uses on most of their sportier machines.

Our test bike came in black with anodized red on the frame, swingarm, triple clamps and fork lowers, giving a rather unique look that you wouldn’t expect to see straight from the factory.

If you’re not one for the flashy paint scheme either, then you’ll appreciate the return to a distinctly subtler version for 2007, with options for either a solid deep red or solid metallic blue. The frame and bits will all be in an easier-on-the-eyes gray. With 2007 comes a minor price hike of $100.00, but your retinas will thank you for it.

NORTH BAY BOUND

I met Ed with the 650 Ninja up in North Bay, getting there on the trusty CMG 650 Strom. Although the North Bay expedition proved to be a bit of a bust with CMG’s racing aspirations getting nixed by Larry’s crash, the ride south gave me a quick opportunity to sample the Ninja on some glorious back roads (thanks Max for the suggestions!).

Despite the overall compactness of its dimensions (at 6’4” I’m a little on the large side – although my knees did actually fit within the tank cutaways … just!) it didn’t take long for me to fully blend with Kawasaki’s baby Ninja.

The free-revving nature and good power delivery of the twin meant that within half an hour I was screaming down the long straights of northern Ontario roads and scraping it around the 90 degree bends that break them up.

 

Brake discs get the wavy and drilled treatment.

The motor really takes off at 7,000 rpm, though not wildly, just as if it tapped into another seam of power – something it holds all the way to the 11,000 rpm redline. Despite the 180 degree crank layout and added balancer shaft, there are some vibes (mainly in the pegs) at that 7,000 rpm point and up, but this is when you’re moving and so isn’t a focal point of the experience.

The bike feels light and flickable, and oozes confidence in the rider – holding its line at all times. With the wide tubular bars and short wheelbase it’s also easy to manoeuvre at lower speeds … not that I spent much time there.

The brakes suited the bike perfectly – lots of feedback without either being too fierce or too soft. Likewise the suspension, although simple, gives a firm, almost sportbike feel to the ride. Great for going nuts in northern Ontario – but I can see how Ed (next) might have found it a tad harsh over the bumpier bits.

Although a lot of wind does get to the rider at higher speeds, it’s all linear with the small screen taking most of its punch out beforehand, allowing speeds of up to 130 km/h before feeling any strain in the neck. If you want to see just how fast you can go, then tuck in and watch the needle tickle the 220 digits.

Tubular bars take away from the sportiness factor but allow for easy adaptability to the rider.

By the end of my session I had fallen for the 650 Ninja. It’s a charmer of a bike and comes together as a complete package. Within no time I was pulling lurid stoppies and sliding sideways to a stop. Although this may seem somewhat irrelevant for the intended rider it’s quite rare that I would feel this comfortable on a bike in such a short a time, which says a lot about how comfortable a package Kawasaki have made here.

Although the bars aren’t at an ideal angle, I didn’t find them as intrusive as our Ed. However, being a tubular design, it’s easy to fit any number of aftermarket designs to get the position that is just right for you.

Kawi’s Ninja 650R is light, compliant and very friendly, without any nasty surprises, just a simple “whatever you want to do sir” attitude. Inevitably that was answered with a simple “fast, please”.


SECOND VIEW

(by Ed White)

Slimmer than a flattened stick insect (and twice as sexy).

As I mentioned in the intro, the original plan had been to include a tour around the North Bay weekend. With that we’d invited our touring guru Ed White along to help guide us through some stellar roads in the area. The tour may not have happened but Ed still came along and kindly brought the Ninja 650R along with him. So what did Ed think of it then?

Kawasaki’s design criteria for the 650R is stated as “…a genre of motorcycle which is at home with both novice and experienced riders – and one that will be seen equally in daily midtown commuting situations as well as backroad-blasting on the weekends.”

The riding position and narrow width of the 650R when coupled with a low slung seat has led many to wonder whether Kawasaki has expressly set out to design this bike to be more accommodating to the body proportions of the increasing number of women riders entering the marketplace. If so, kudos to them – if not, then they have coincidentally produced a bike that has many attributes that cater to smaller riders who are new to the sport whether they be men or women.

This compact machine looks and feels like a sporty package, all except the position of the handlebars, as the upper torso is forced almost straight up in order to grab the ends of the swept back bars.

This riding position doesn’t necessarily ruin the bike, but it does change its personality to a rather tamer machine, from what should feel like a natural sportier competitor to Suzuki’s SV650S.

Kevin White thoughtfully bought along his SV650 for comparison purposes.

Photo: Ed White

All the other bits and pieces are in the right spots – hand control positions feel natural, mirrors provide excellent visibility and foot controls are well positioned. Instrumentation is properly focused on a very visible large tach and speedo with most other info transmitted by LEDs – very clean and to the point.

The clean back end (passenger handles are optional) initially provided a challenge in securing five days worth of travel stuff, but those very ornate peg brackets were also functional and with the use of a net and a couple of straps the bag was very securely attached.

The total package does allow for a very relaxed and enjoyable ride, and the ability to spend long hours in the saddle uninterrupted; even if the riding position detracts somewhat from full body input.

GETTING OUT OF THE COTU

The Seck shot.

I’m not the biggest guy around, but as I traversed my way through Toronto traffic I couldn’t help but feel big on the small Ninja. It certainly doesn’t feel any bigger than Kawasaki’s other twin – the Ninja 500, but with that comes a nimbleness that helped me pick my way through the Toronto mayhem.

The 72 hp engine is spirited, very smooth and pulls through a long range of rpms right up to its 11,000 rpm redline. The characteristic low and mid-range torque of a twin makes it ideal in city traffic as the roll-on is smooth and easily controllable, whereas the ability to maintain power up high gives the rider a great deal of engine braking in setting up the corners.

Heading out to the country on the multi-lane slabs, the bike settles well and handles the wide open spaces and cross winds effortlessly – the full fairing provides ample rider protection. The riding position actually proved well suited for this kind of mind numbing haul, but how would it handle once we turned our attention to the twisties of the Canadian Shield?

Actually, commendably well! Max Burns had kindly provided the route, and once free of the superslab out of Toronto, proved to be an eclectic mix of twisty secondary roads and gnarly backroads – a worthy test circuit for a machine that purports to reside in the “standard” category.

The frame nicely maintains its stiffness as the bike is bucked around. The suspension handles mid-corner roughness admirably making it easy to retain the proper line. In fact the suspension was a very pleasant surprise for a bike in this price range, only transmitting minor jolts to the rider on the real rough stuff.

While the riding position detracted from the overall entertainment, the initial “small” feel of the bike was replaced by a sense that the 650R was a very solid and stable platform – and was definitely capable and ready for the challenge of the roads.

CONCLUSIONS

Photo: Ed White

From my perspective, Kawasaki attained what they set out to accomplish – design a very nimble and responsive machine, easily controllable during the commute as in the twisties.

The bike will specifically appeal to the newbie, shorter riders, and women, thanks to the compact size and neutral position. But this Ninja still has enough power and handling in reserve to match and reward these owners as their individual experience and skills grow over the years.

However, don’t be fooled into think that this is all the 650 Ninja is good for! It’s showing up in ever increasing numbers on many racetracks around the continent proving that it can also satiate riders’ need for speed and compete favourably with the venerable SV650S – albeit with considerable modifications (including some sportier clip-ons!).

Happy Trails,

Ed White

ADDENDUM

Ed’s original write-up included a paragraph of an incident that occurred at the end of the test ride. Since we did not believe that this added to the testing of the bike, it was omitted during the editing process. Ed feels strongly that it should have been left in. For the record, here it is in Ed’s words:

As I slide on my back down a rain soaked road north of Barrie, Ontario I have plenty of time to ponder the previous days’ glorious autumn ride astride Kawasaki’s Ninja 650R …

… Ok, so if the Kawasaki Ninja 650R is such a wiz-bang at control, balance and braking then what in the hell am I doing on my back sliding down the road while the Ninja is on its left side, slightly ahead of me, screeching towards the gravel shoulder? I suppose it has something to do with that white Crown Victoria looking car poking its nose out of the bushes in combo with what proved to be too much brake. I’m sure I’ll figure it all out once I stop sliding. Until then, let’s just chalk it up to another one of those CMG moments.


SPECIFICATIONS

Bike

Kawasaki Ninja 650R

MSL

$8,699 (2007)

Displacement

649cc

Engine type

Liquid-cooled, DOHC. parallel-twin

Carburetion

Electronic fuel-injection

Avg. Fuel Cons

6-speed, return with positive neutral finder, chain

Tires, front

120/70ZR17

Tires, rear

160/60ZR17

Brakes, front

Dual semi-floating 300 mm drilled, petal style discs. Dual 2-piston, pin-slide mount calipers

Brakes, rear

Single 220 mm drilled, petal style disc. Single-piston, pin-slide mount caliper

Seat height

790 mm (30.9”)

Wheelbase

1410 mm (55.5”)

Dry weight

178 kg (392 lbs) (claimed)

Colours

Passion Red or Candy Plasma Blue (2007)

Warranty

12 months

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