The first ride I ever took on a sport' bike was aboard an EX500 about a decade or so ago. That was back when I was grappling between choosing a Harley or a sport bike to replace my well-worn CM450 Honda. After riding the EX500, I was sold.
Since then, my taste for sportbikes has tended to lean towards the extreme, so when the good Editor presented me with the opportunity to sample a 2001 EX500R Ninja, I was torn between wondering if it would feel as great as that first ride, or whether it would pale in comparison to today's modern, hard-edged sport bikes.
The EX500 that appeared at my house was a Metallic Blue model (Metallic Violet Royal being the other option for 2001). Although the colour was nice, highlighted with silver pinstriping on the bodywork, and accented with the "Ninja 500R" moniker, it reminded me of Yamaha colours, and I found it a bit tame looking.
Kawasaki has kept the stylish half fairing for 2001 (a good choice), leaving most of the engine exposed, and accented the rest of the bike with dual chrome covered pipes and a simple, easy-to-read 3 instrument cluster (dial type) with 2 resettable trip meters.
Other good styling ideas can be found in the coolant sight being cut into the bodywork, the oil sight glass, (which is easy to check by yourself after mounting the EX500R on the stock centre stand), the passenger grab rail, and the not one, but two, helmet hooks found under the comfortable seat. Honourable mention also goes to the positioning of the stiff but easily accessible fuel valve.
Okay so it's not a bad looking bike (quite a bit more "tarted" up than its nearest rival the Suzuki GS500), but how does it feel? How does it move? Well, to be perfectly honest, quite darned well.
The feel of the bike is very comfortable with a fairly upright seating position, thanks to handlebars that are mounted above the triple clamp, and not on the front axle, as more radical sport bikes seem to be leaning toward, and a contoured gas tank with cut outs for your knees.
Once I pushed the electric start button, manipulated the firm but not stiff clutch and got myself going using the smooth gear shifter lever, I found that the compact parallel twin 4-stroke liquid cooled engine produced a very respectable amount of power. So much so, that during one of my test rides I found the speedo reading 170km/h and had no trouble chasing my fellow Kawi rider on her ZX12.
The power comes on gradually and is noticeable above 7000 rpm, but I never feared for my neck to suddenly snap back with too much throttle. The Bridgestone tires (110/70-17 front and 130/70-17 rear) stuck well, with no noticeable squirelliness, and seemed to be a good match for the EX500R.
Slow speed manoeuvres were relatively easy, given both the upright seating position and 176 Kg dry weight of the bike. The friendly 775 mm seat height also makes it easy for most riders to get a good amount of boot sole on the ground during stops (or failed attempts at slow gas station U-turns).
Cornering at a more spirited clip proved to be no problem either with good ground clearance, an easy feel to the steering (not super light or heavy, but a predictable drop-into-the-corner feel with slight handlebar pressure) and competent brakes. The single discs, front with dual piston calipers, and rear with single piston caliper, were not impressive, but they were both solid and predictable, and held up well throughout my test rides, (and were a good match for the 37mm telescope front forks).
Although I found many things about the EX500R to my liking, there were a few features that I found myself disliking. Firstly the sound. What is that sound? The exhaust note sounded "burbly" for lack of a better term (thanks for the word, Richard), like hundreds of tiny pops going off. (If Harley Davidson made sewing machines, they would sound like this EX500R). The sound matched the shakiness that was noticed in the mirror images (which, by the way, give you a good shot of your elbows).
Another irritation came in the form of a windscreen that not only blew air directly at my neck on the highway (rest your elbows on your knees while you ride to take advantage of its protectiveness), but that also came equipped with cut-outs for the handlebars that pinched your fingers on the handgrips during tight slow speed turns. After all of these years in EX500R production, you'd think Kawi would try harder.
A final negative point was the placement of the kickstand in front of the gear shift lever. Not only is it quite forward and awkward during parking, but as a ball-of-the-foot-on-the-pegs rider who likes to using engine braking upon coming up to red traffic lights, I found that I was trying to change gears with the kickstand on more than one occasion, due to its proximity to the shift lever.
That said, all in all, I give the EX500R a healthy passing grade with the title of being a very unpretentious motorcycle. It's not too flashy, not too radical, not too powerful, not too uncomfortable and not too unpractical for any street riding that you can think of. I didn't feel at all pressured to don $2000 in the hottest racing leathers every time I swung a leg over, and I didn't feel at all pressured to show off either. That I tend to do anyway.
Second View - Rob Harris
I remember when the EX500 first came out. The press were excited about this 500cc twin that was "half a Ninja" - the motor being based on just two of the cylinders of the then current four cylinder 1000cc. I guess this was performance and a half for a twin back then and surprisingly, it's still pretty good by today's standards (how many bikes can you think of that have remained pretty well unchanged for the last ten years and still sell respectively well?)
Oddly, over those ten years I never did get the opportunity to swing a leg over one, until now.
I was quite happy to find that, although I was probably at it's outer capabilities, the EX could accommodate my 6' 4" chiselled and buffed amazing body (c'mon, go with it). The riding position was just about right (quite upright for a sportbike) and the seat was comfortable, albeit a bit squishy.
As part of the R1100S series we're running, we took it down to the Cayuga race track with the Beemer to do the RACE school (tune in next Wednesday for a full report). Of course, stepping off the Beemer and onto the EX only goes to accentuate what you'd expect from a bike like this - it's light and compact. It also likes, nah, demands to be revved. Below 7000 rpm it feels like someone's pulled off one of the plug caps. Hit the magic 7 and it winds up like a cartoon Road Runner chasing a line of coke.
In fact, the EX does just about everything as you'd expect without being amazing, but then without being disappointing either. It stops, handles and accelerates (with some revs) with ease - I guess that's what makes it so appealing to the novice rider market.
Stylewise I think they've got quite an attractive shape. I even like the colour, but I'm not sure why Kawasaki gave the graphics job to the guy in the flares and unfeasibly large collar. It's straight out of the seventies and that multi coloured reflective Ninja logo would only look cool to the stoned and insane.
Also, one thing that Barb touched on, are the design oddities that you would expect to be sorted on a bike with such a long production run. The sidestand getting in the way of the left foot, pinched fingers when turning the bars to the lock and a clutch cable that comes right across the speedo? Hmmhh.
Overall, the EX feels firmly in the older sportbike philosophy, which is one of general performance tamed by the need for practicality. We've currently got a CBR600F4i for testing - it used to be in this school. Unfortunately, with the addition of the "i" to it's name it's now gone balls-out sport with low bars, hard seat and no compromise to rider comfort. Call me an old fart (go on, do it) but I'm going to miss that practicality that bikes like the EX still offer.
Long may it remain so.