Test: Ninja 650R

Handling on the new 2012 Ninja 650 is great, thanks to its wide handlebars and light weight.
Words: Steve Bond. Pictures: Steve Bond, unless otherwise specified.

Ninja – for decades the name has been synonymous with sportbikes, speed and cornering prowess. In legislative discussions and insurance industry boardrooms, the Ninja name is about as welcome as liver disease.


So, it’s curious that Kawasaki hung the “Ninja” monicker on their all-round 650R. You’d think they would’ve preferred to keep their 650 twin carving corners under the radar, rather than have it highlighted with marching bands, flashing lights and huge neon arrows proclaiming, “sportbike, sportbike.”

The original 650R was a really good, mid displacement sporty-ish motorcycle, suitable for both entry-level riders, shorter riders or those who wanted to be a bit rakish without having to endure the committed riding position and peaky motor of a true 600cc supersport. It was updated once in 2009 but now again fr 2012 only this time, more fairly significant changes took place.


The engine is the same workhorse, liquid-cooled, 649cc, DOHC, 8-valve parallel twin with EFI and a 180 degree crank. It’s a great motor, pumping out 72 horsepower and 47 ft-lbs of torque, giving it a nice, strong pull off the bottom and through the mid-range, but still having a fairly impressive top end rush. Although the redline is 11,000 rpm, there’s no point in revving it past nine grand or so as it runs out of breath and just sounds thrashy.

You don’t get 600cc supersport performance from the Ninja 650, but it still has plenty of power through the bottom end and mid-range, and still has some top-end rush.

The original 650R had an amusing little Thermos-shaped muffler hung directly under the engine but for 2012, a new exhaust is fitted. It’s still low-slung but there’s a new connector pipe and the muffler itself is a three chamber unit that processes a higher volume of expunged hydrocarbons.

The muffler has changed on the 2012 Ninja 650. It’s supposed to flow better than the previous version.

A new steel, twin pipe perimeter frame now tapers a bit under the seat, which will help shorter riders get both tiny feet flat on the ground at a stop. The new frame is slightly taller and the seat height has increased by 15mm to a still manageable 805 mm (31.7 inches). The swingarm likewise now has two tubes and looks significantly different from the old single tube model.

The single laydown shock is still offset to the right and adjustable for preload only. The 41 mm non-adjustable forks seem to have an excess of compression damping and, although they work fine on smooth pavement, on broken surfaces, both ends of the bike seem choppy and harsh.

The previous 650R checked in with a curb weight of  200 kg after the 2009 revamp. Kawasaki’s specs show the 2012 Ninja 650 tilts the scales at 209kg (460 lbs) wet, 9 kgs heavier than the original one – not a lightweight, but somewhat on the slippery slope towards porkiness. Despite this, it’s well-balanced and there’s no feeling of top-heaviness when at a stop, which will be welcomed by the intended market, the much-aforementioned new riders and those short of stature.

The Ninja 650 still features a laydown shock, but now the swingarm is a two-sided affair that looks a lot different from the older model.

Braking is handled by twin 300 mm, semi floating discs in Kawasaki’s now familiar “petal” profile, with two piston calipers doing the squeezing. The rear is a single 220 mm disc with a single piston caliper. Initially, the lever felt a bit soft, but as the pads bedded in, it got better. Overall stopping power was good with average feel and feedback. Both the clutch and the brake lever are five-position adjustable, which is a nice touch on a motorcycle in this bracket.

The new bike’s gauges are an improvement, except for a light that lets you know when you’re saving fuel – a gear indicator would be better.

The new instrument panel includes a large, digital speedo with a larger, analog tach on top. Thankfully, Kawasaki has grown up and gotten away from those awful LCD sweeping bar graph tachometers that are totally useless. Under the speedo, you’ll find twin LCD tripmeters, an odometer, fuel gauge, average and instant fuel consumption and a clock. Nice.

But the video game enthusiast in Kawasaki’s engineering department is not going quietly. They’ve taken away his tachometer but he managed to insert an LCD “eco” emblem that shows when you’re saving fuel. Every time the symbol pops up, congratulate yourself that you’re saving a polar bear. It’s actually fairly useless and for this bike’s intended market, Kawasaki would’ve been better off placing a gear position indicator in that spot instead.

The windscreen worked fine for Bondo on the highest setting.

The styling was freshened a bit, giving the 650R a sharper, more modern look that’s in line with Kawasaki’s other supersport offerings without going over the edge. This will likely appeal to younger buyers, while not putting off too many of the older types.

Kawasaki claims the seat has more padding than before, which is good. But the seat slopes forward so the rider slides towards the fuel tank, which compromises his gentleman’s parts. Which is generally bad.

Dual 300mm discs with twin-piston calipers slow the bike down in front, with a single 220mm disc paired with a single-piston caliper in back.

The six speed box was a little stiff and notchy at first but my press unit had barely 400 km total when I picked it up. As I racked up the klicks, I could feel the shift action getting lighter and smoother. By 1,000 km, it should  be like a hot knife through butter.

The overall gearing seemed low as first is a real stump-puller, second not much higher and on the highway, I kept reaching for a seventh gear that wasn’t there as 100 km/h comes up at 4,500 rpm.

Handling is actually very good for a machine designed to be a budget flyer. The light weight, relatively high and wide tubular handlebars and narrow chassis make commuting and riding around town a breeze. The steering is light at slow and medium speeds without getting twitchy once you start to push it.

The Ninja is only $8,299, but it’s good value for your money. Fit and finish is excellent.

The steering is delightfully light, quick and neutral, although when you start pushing it, front end feel and feedback is compromised slightly by the bars being rubber-mounted.

Here’s the logo that causes insurance boards and legislative committees to shudder.

Fuel economy is stellar. At a steady cruise, the onboard computer shows anywhere from 3.2 – 4.5L/100km. The first tank I put through the 650R worked out to 4.14L/100km or a sparkling 68.16 miles per Imperial gallon. With two bars remaining on the fuel gauge, I could only squeeze 9 liters into the 16 liter tank. After a little experimenting, owners should get 350 km per tank, more if they stay in “eco-mode.” Which I wasn’t.

Another nice touch is a windscreen that’s manually adjustable over a 60mm range. It does require tools, which likely isn’t that big a deal as how often will an owner adjust the screen? On the tallest setting, it fit my 6’3” chassis nicely, with little buffeting, turbulence or wind noise at freeway speeds.

The mirrors look nice but aren’t up to the standards set by the rest of the motorcycle. They’re too far forward, too narrow and to add insult to injury, even the view it gives of your elbows is blurry.

The 41mm non-adjustable forks seem to have too much compression damping.

The $8,299 Ninja 650R may be entry-level but that doesn’t mean cheap. The welds on the frame and swingarm are nicely done and spatter-free, while the inside of the fairing is nicely finished with no unsightly wiring or cheesy plastic edges visible.

The Ninja 650R definitely brings something to the middleweight party. It’s great looking, economical to operate, reasonably lightweight and narrow with a low seat height that will be user-friendly for new riders, while possessing enough performance to provide the all important “fun factor” for more experienced ones.

Kawasaki Ninja 400 – sidebar

The Ninja 400 retains the old 650 styling and although it looks identical, there are some significant motor tweaks.

The  Ninja 400 and the Ninja 650. On paper, pretty close. Physically, pretty close. When riding them, well… you get the idea.

Just the facts ma’am.

Although the Ninja 400 weighs 6 kg less (gassed up and ready to go) then the new 650, it has more than a passing likeness to the previous generation 650 Ninja. The chassis is virtually the same, the brakes are virtually identical —as is the suspension – and the wheels and tire sizes are the same and they even have the same fuel capacity.

The real difference comes in the 400’s engine, which isn’t just a sleeved-down 650 (the bore and stroke are different) and it has a unique crankshaft and head – the 400’s cams provide a gentler power delivery and nothing from the 650’s six-speed box will interchange with the 400’s transmission. The 650 has 38mm throttle bodies, while the 400 gets 34s. And so on, and so on…

So, when deciding between the Ninja 400 and the Ninja 650, how can a prospective owner decide between the two, and what should he or she be looking at?

Right off the bat, the 400’s retail price is $6,999 – 1300 Beaver Bucks less than its bigger brother and two grand more than the littlest Ninja, the 250 twin.  The 400 also has a 15 mm lower seat height, checking in at 790 mm and thus making it a little less intimidating.

Newbies looking at the 400 will save money on the sticker price and insurance.

The 400 isn’t quite as relaxed at cruising speeds either, as 100 km/h comes up at 5,800 rpm, rather than 4,500 rpm on the 650. Both motorcycles are easy to ride, have light neutral steering and more than acceptable handling. The most surprising thing to me was that fuel consumption was virtually identical for both, averaging 4.5L/100km or 68 miles per Imperial gallon.

Boiling it all down, the Ninja 400 is a 650-sized motorcycle with 30 less horsepower, a lower retail price and probably lower insurance premiums, especially for new riders. And that’s some useful differences, especially to the new rider.


Bike  2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 (Ninja 400)
MSRP  $8,299 ($6,999)
Displacement  649 cc (399 cc)
Engine type  4-stroke, Parallel Twin
Power*  53 kW {72.1 PS} / 8,500 rpm (32 kW {44 PS} @ 9,500 rpm)
Torque*  64 N.m {6.5 kgf.m} / 7,000 rpm (37 N·m {3.8 kgf·m} @ 7,500 rpm)
Tank Capacity  16 litres (15.5 litres)
Carburetion  Digital fuel injection with two 38 mm Keihin throttle bodies
Final drive  Sealed Chain
Tires, front  120/70ZR17M/C
Tires, rear  160/60ZR17M/C
Brakes, front  Dual semi-floating 300 mm petal discs
Brakes, rear  Single 220 mm petal disc
Seat height  805 mm (790 mm)
Wheelbase  1,410 mm
Wet weight*  209 kg (203 kg)
Colours  Candy Lime Green, Metallic Spark Black (as 650 but with a Passion red options too)
Warranty  12 months warranty
* claimed


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.


  1. Kawasaki’s are great bikes, but for $2,000 less, if I was a first time rider, I’d consider buying the Korean-built Hyosung GT650R.

  2. I’d love to see how this stacks up against the 2012 Yamaha FZ6R. My first thought is that I prefer the purr of the inline-4 over the blat of the parallel twin. The question is: Does the handling of the 650R go beyond what the Yamaha delivers?

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