The search for that first motorcycle can indeed be a challenge. Riders may not want something too big, heavy or powerful while still learning to ride, but also don’t want to be bored within a week or feel like a Shriner riding a minibike either. I’ve often suggested the Kawasaki Ninja 400 and 650 as ideal starter bikes over the years since they offer sporty looks and comfortable ergonomics without overwhelming power. Now offering no less than nine models, the Ninja lineup ranges in price and potency from the $6,299 400 up to the supercharged H2R that commands a sticker price of $61,200. The stature and displacement of the 400 being what it is, the 650 is the next logical step up.
The Ninja 650 got an overhaul in 2017, dropping 43 pounds thanks to an updated engine, new frame, aluminum swingarm, wheels and bodywork. The first thing I noticed upon approaching this Ninja 650 ABS tester was the Pearl Flat Stardust White and Metallic Flat Spark Black Special Edition paint. It costs $200 above the base $8,699 MSRP but is well worth the money. As those who read my last Opinion piece may recall, the Ninja received some positive attention during my time with it – even from a Harley rider no less!
Tipping the 192 kg (423 lb) Ninja off its side stand is easily managed without drama. The motorcycle is slim, (relatively) lightweight and well balanced while the kick stand is easily accessible. Brake and clutch levers are adjustable, while the mirrors are stable and well situated, offering decent visibility up to and including highway speeds. The new-for-2020 4.3-inch TFT screen is well laid out and easy to read in daylight or night mode – which changes thanks to an ambient light sensor. The display features fuel level and gear selection indicators, odometer, tachometer, speedometer, clock, distance to empty and a temperature gauge.
Also new for 2020 on the Ninja 650 is the availability of Rideology The App. Pairing your smartphone via Bluetooth allows for gauge customization and remote monitoring of fuel level and odometer readings, as well as access to a riding log. It is somewhat limited in its capability since the 650 doesn’t feature some of the more sophisticated suspension and engine management systems as other models in the Kawi lineup. 2020 also sees new handlebars, twin LED headlights, windshield, passenger seat and 17-inch Dunlop Sportmax Roadsport 2 tires. The revised package makes the Ninja look more grown up and feel more substantial.
The handlebars feature the usual turn signal indicator, horn, hazard light and high beam switches, but are otherwise free from distractions. No variable riding modes, cruise control, infotainment or GPS. Everything you need to operate a motorcycle, but nothing beyond that. If you’re new to riding a motorcycle and aren’t all that familiar with the controls, I’d say that’s a positive thing. If you plan on track riding or taking longer trips beyond daily commuting or weekend rides, then it may be somewhat lacking in these departments.
Firing up the 649cc parallel twin brings little fanfare. The engine is smooth but somewhat lacking in character. This became even more apparent when I pulled up to a stoplight beside a Honda CB650 that overshadowed the Ninja’s soft idle with its subtle but evident burble. If this matters to you, there are many options for aftermarket slip-on exhaust pipes to add some much-needed character. The second thing most owners will do is remove the massive, ungainly license plate holder and rear lighting assembly in favour of something more streamlines and subtle.
Clutch release is light and predictable. The throttle requires a bit of coaxing to bring on a healthy dose of power, which happens somewhat leisurely until the digital tach approaches the 10,000 rpm redline unless you really crack back your right hand. The Ninja’s 67 horsepower peak arrives at a lofty 8,000 rpm while its 49 lb-ft of torque resides at 6,500 rpm.
The riding position is neutral and easily accommodated my six-foot frame without my legs feeling too bunched up under me. The two-tiered seating is comfortable enough for a healthy day of riding with meal and stops to fill up the 15 L (3.5 gallon) fuel tank, but additional padding would be helpful and appreciated for longer trips.
Seating and controls offer the ability to change positions and easily maneuver yourself and the bike into turns. It’s easy to ride slowly and it is fun to ride fast. The gear lever is deliberate, allowing the left foot to seamlessly find all six gears, or neutral when coming to a stop. The 650’s suspension, like it’s throttle response and braking, is softer and more forgiving than the faster, fancier and more expensive Ninja ZX-6R. Bumps and potholes are tolerated and absorbed with relative proficiency in a straight line, but feel a bit less stable when experiencing rough pavement while leaned over at a more aggressive pace. Suspension is rather basic. The 41 mm telescopic front forks have 125 mm of travel while the rear gets a horizontal backlink with adjustable manual preload good for 130 mm. Braking duty is handled by the Nissin dual semi-floating 300 mm petal discs with dual piston calipers up front with a single 220 mm petal disc in the rear which are ample for the kind of riding most owners will be doing. Namely commuting or afternoon rides on weekends.
The 2020 Ninja 650 makes enough forward momentum to set itself apart from the 2019 and 2018 models which are being offered at $8,199 and $7,599 respectfully, if you can find them. The previous generation Ninja 650 felt rather uninspiring, but after losing weight for 2017 and gaining some incremental upgrades this year it makes for an even more compelling value proposition. The formula of approachability and ease of use in a sporty, affordable package is still intact, but the improved aesthetics and added technology make it feel like less of a compromise than ever before.