2006 Ninja 650R vs Suzuki SV650
Text and photography by Evans Brasfield
A Nice Pair
Life must be tough for middleweight Twins. Despite all they have to offer, they still get tagged with the "beginner bike" label. While many of these bikes may be bought by first-time motorcyclists and buying one of these rather than, say, a GSX-R1000 or ZX-10 as your first ride displays uncommon common sense, the label is still somewhat insulting. Even though it does imply that you're doing something pretty cool - learning to ride a motorcycle - a certain stigma remains. After all, how many people would walk proudly into their local pharmacy and ask the cute cashier where to find the trainer condoms?
You would think that the beginner bike moniker would have been debunked after all the club racers that have filled the grids at their local track with SV650s. Before that it was Honda Hawks and EX500s. The unfortunate truth is that we Americans have this problem with size. We think bigger is always better. In motorcycles, horsepower is king. Never mind that you have to know how to use it.
So, on streets and racetracks around the country, a parade of riders insists on throwing a leg over more bike than they're ready to handle. And you know what the sad part is? They'd probably have more fun riding the smaller bikes that they disdain so. (An aside: When I started racing my EX500, the novice racer pitting next to me was riding a ZX-9. After he'd high-sided himself a couple of times, I suggested that maybe he'd want to try a smaller bike for racing. His expression told me he'd rather eat dog food. Before the end of his first season, he'd launched himself into a low orbit again. I don't know if it was the cost of repairing his bike or the concussion, but he soon stopped coming to the track.)
In recent years, Suzuki's SV650 has been the leader in a class of one (well, two, if you count the two SV models). Kawasaki's EX500 had received the Ninja 500 name and little else. Clearly, time was ripe for some kind of challenge to the SV hegemony. With the introduction of the Ninja 650R, Kawasaki has entered the middleweight Twin arena.
Kawasaki Ninja 650R: A Fresh Face
Although V-Twins get most of the press, you can find a lot to love in parallel-Twins. They still have that deep exhaust note (well, as long as they're not overly muffled) and torque-rich power delivery. From a manufacturer's standpoint, parallel Twins can be built more compactly and with less complexity. You only have one head, one set of cams, and one timing chain. Costs of manufacturing and maintenance go down with just this set of differences alone. (Anyone who has ever performed valve adjustments on both V-Twins and parallel-Twins can vouch for the significance of this difference.) Then there is the long relationship Kawasaki has with the 650's smaller sibling. Beginning with the EX500's release in 1987, Kawasaki's 500cc parallel-Twin has been a consistent seller with only minor updates (like updated bodywork and 17-inch wheels) to entice new customers. What many people may not know is that the Vulcan 500 uses a retuned version of this same engine.
With this family relationship and some similar styling touches to what little of the 650's engine you can see from outside the swoopy bodywork, some have assumed that the engine is merely a larger version of the EX's. Well, that assumption is dead wrong. The 649cc engine is a thoroughly modern unit developed solely for this bike. The 83.0mm x 60.0mm cylinders breathe through four valves each. The timing chain sprockets are located on the side of the engine to reduce the rocking couple inherent in parallel-Twins, and the narrow cylinder pitch contributes to this as well as slimming the width of the engine. The cylinders are linerless, plated aluminum to save weight. Other nice touches to the engine include the cassette-style transmission for ease of maintenance and the routing of cooling lines through the cases for less clutter.
The engine is tuned, not surprisingly, for low- to mid-range power. Fuel metering comes courtesy of fuel injection and a pair of 38mm throttle bodies. The exhaust has a three-way catalyst for air-friendliness. Placing the muffler under the engine assists in mass centralization and lowers the center of gravity-a plus for novice riders.
Despite the larger displacement, the engine is significantly smaller than the EX500's. A triangular layout of the crankshaft and transmission shafts significantly shorten the engine. A semi-dry sump helps to reduce the height of the engine. This compact unit allows for a narrower profile and a simpler frame construction. A long swingarm, thanks to the short engine length, will improve handling while still keeping a relatively short wheelbase of 55.3 inches.
The tubular steel frame is one of the first things you notice when you walk up the Ninja 650. The candy red paint may have something to do with this. The other detail that stands out is the linkage-free shock hanging out on the right side of the frame for all to see. Yes, this will allow for easy preload adjustment, but the real benefit of the location is that the battery can be located beside the shock, allowing for a lower seat height which new riders and those short in the inseam will appreciate. The 41mm telescopic fork connects to a six-spoke wheel sporting dual 300mm petal discs, all of which are designed similarly to those on the ZX-6 and ZX-10. The two-piston single-action calipers are old-school items and obvious cost-saving elements.
The overall look of the Ninja 650R is sporty. From the swoopy fairing to the trellis frame to the race-inspired rolling gear, Kawasaki clearly wants to link this bike to the company's Ninja heritage. The only glaring style miscue is the enormous, funky footpeg mounts. While they are of questionable beauty, the large size of the heel guards do a good job of keeping your boots from rubbing against the swingarm (if your riding style tends to do this, as mine does). Another criticism of the 650R's design lies in the mirrors which do such a good job of showing the rider's elbows that they must be moved aside if a direct rear view is desired. After looking at the bike and its specs, Kawasaki appears to have done a good job of producing a relatively stylish, versatile bike for $6,299.
Suzuki SV650: The Standard Bearer
The SV650 has been around long enough that many people are quite familiar with its two models. We chose the unfaired standard SV because we felt that the riding position handlebar layout lent themselves to a better direct comparison to the new member of the class. The quarter-faired SV650S has a much lower handlebar and higher pegs.
The Suzuki is powered by a 645cc 90-degree V-Twin. The 81.0mm x 62.6mm cylinders are fed through four valves operated by dual overhead cams. The EFI delivers the goods via 39mm throttle bodies. To improve throttle response, Suzuki's Dual Throttle Valve System incorporates a second set of butterflies to keep the intake velocity in an optimum range, particularly in the low- and mid-range. Exhaust gasses exit via a traditional, hang it off the right side, two-into-one system with no catalysts. Thanks to the 90-degree cylinder layout, no horsepower sapping counterbalancer is required to keep the vibes of the solid-mounted engine from bothering the rider. The stacked transmission allows for a more compact engine layout.
Although the SV650 was redone in 2003 with a beefy-looking truss-style aluminum frame and new bodywork, the SV has been around long enough to look a little dated. Still, it's got the goods to do whatever job you throw at it. The 41mm telescopic fork features preload adjustment, as does the shock. Twin front 290mm discs are gripped by dual-piston, single-action calipers. The 240mm rear rotor gets squeezed by a single-piston caliper mounted to an aluminum box-section swingarm.
The rider accommodations are Spartan but exceedingly functional. The tubular bar gives the rider plenty of leverage. Handlebar-mounted mirrors give a fabulous rear view, though they do require a wrench for any adjustment more than a slight tweak. The narrow rider perch will give shorter riders more confidence at a stop. The single headlight and mini-fairing round out (pun intended) the front end.
A Working Relationship
The first thing you notice when throwing a leg over the SV and the Ninja is that the Kawi has a slightly lower seat height. Both have narrow saddles to give riders a better shot at flat-footing at a stop. Next comes the riding position. With the SV, your body is canted slightly more forward than with the Ninja. Also, an SV rider feels more perched on top of the bike. The Kawasaki's combination of a higher, more rearward handlebar, the lower seat height and the fairing gives the impression of sitting more inside the cockpit. Still, both offer a relaxed riding position to perform just about any street riding task you want to toss at them.
The SV scales in with 9 fewer pounds than the Ninja's 410-lb tank-empty weight, but you could never tell from the saddle. Pulling either of these motorcycles out into traffic reveals an easy to modulate clutch and decent acceleration off the line. (Smaller riders will want to note that the Ninja has an adjustable clutch lever.)
"The Kawi is very beginner-friendly," said MCUSA's Editor Kevin Duke. "It has a lighter clutch pull than the SV and is very easy to modulate. It's also gruntier than I expected, probably due to its shorter gearing - you're in third gear on this thing before you know it."
Both riding positions are perfect for urban maneuvering and reward rider inputs with agility. Although the SV's grips are slightly more forward, the rider's weight is not pushed onto the handlebar, which can be disconcerting for newer riders. Both bikes offer snappy throttle response in the low- and mid-range. The Kawasaki, however, delivers smoother response to throttle inputs. When things get ugly requiring a quick stop, the SV gave the most positive braking response. The Ninja had the stopping power but lacked feel.
As we shifted from city streets to the superslab, we realized that the areas of the initial differences of these two Twins were more than likely going to play throughout our travels. In the race up to freeway speed, the SV noses ahead, as its 72.6 peak horsepower would lead you to believe. Still, the Kawi didn't feel underpowered, despite its 6.8-hp deficit.
Cruising along at 80-plus-mph revealed that both bikes were comfortably smooth with the Kawi getting the nod. Obviously, the Ninja's fairing offered better weather protection (for those who live in places where it is cold and/or rainy) with the windshield directing the turbulent air right at the shoulders of my 5' 11" frame. The Suzuki's tiny fairing on the headlight surprisingly directs enough wind off of the rider's chest to make long highway rides less tiring. The Ninja's plusher ride does a better job of eating up pavement ripples and freeway expansion joints. In just about every situation, the SV's suspension felt tauter.
Long straight roads gave us time to think about the relative comfort of these bikes. Overall, the riding position and the weather protection bode well for their touring capability. The level of vibration at elevated speeds in top gear (six gears for both) mean you won't get the tingles in either your hands or your feet. The narrowness of the two tanks allow for enough movement to stretch out stiff joints on the go. Unfortunately, neither of these saddles is particularly comfortable for a long day. The narrowness that helps so much around town, when you have to put your feet down, leads to annoying hot spots as your glutes flex over the edges of the seat. (Note: Neither Duke nor I have exceptionally large butts, so that isn't the culprit.)
In the final stretch of a lengthy ride to the twisties, we began to encounter some serious winds flowing out of the mountain passes. Predictably, the SV rider gets buffeted around a bit more. However, we discovered that the Ninja 650R is slightly susceptible to cross-winds. This isn't a serious problem, but it could surprise a novice the first time it's encountered.
Gettin' to the Nitty Gritty
With motojournalists, no matter what kind of bike we're testing, all roads lead to the mountains. We could tell you that remote highways allow us to better test the bikes by giving us a variety of conditions to sample. In fact, most of us have a favorite loop that we ride almost every bike we test to get an accurate feeling for how bikes stack up to each other. While this would all be true, it would also be omitting the real reason we always take test bikes to the mountains. It's a whole bunch of fun. So, as we rolled through the city of Azusa, we were both salivating. Ahead of us were some of the romping-est roads we knew, surging through the canyons with the unpredictability of a wild animal on the run.
The winding roads highlighted the difference in character of the Twins. With a more gentlemanly character, the Kawasaki was the easiest to ride. From the more upright riding position to the smoother power delivery to the more forgiving suspension, the Ninja gives the rider immediate confidence. The handling is "super-nimble," as Duke put it. On roads that occasionally had gravelly surprises around bends, the 650R changed lines mid-corner without question. The engine had surprising grunt when exiting corners.
The Kawi wasn't all sweetness and light, though. The brakes became more of an issue in an environment where being able to feel the front end while trail braking into a corner was a fairly regular occurrence. Since the SV also has dual-piston, single action calipers, I'm pretty sure the Ninja is suffering from a pad compound issue. When a bike has a more compliant and forgiving suspension, you'll usually find that it also gets overwhelmed easier when pushed hard.
The SV650 has an almost schizophrenic attitude. Lacking the smoothness and subtlety of the Ninja, the SV required a little longer to get reacquainted to each time I returned to it. Riding the Suzuki has the effect of heightening your awareness of the bike - which can be both good and bad. The stiff suspension that pays dividends when you ramp up the speed, feels harsh at lower velocities. Although the occasional mid-corner bump did upset the chassis a little, the SV's suspension felt the most comfortable once the pace got to 80% or higher.
"The suspension action of both bikes is a bit crude," according to Duke Danger, "but the non-linkage rear of the Ninja is slightly worse."
Despite the SV's fancy dual butterflies, both off and on throttle are abrupt in the transitions, making it difficult to modulate the throttle in corners-or even achieve neutral throttle. Ironically, this is most annoying at lower speeds. At higher speeds, with the revs in the top end of the tach, the abruptness is less dramatic, as the bike's momentum helps to mask the effect. Given its aggressive character, the SV feels like it's constantly prodding you to go faster. Fortunately, it doesn't suffer from the same brake maladies as the Ninja, so hauling the bike down from speed requires less effort.
Now for some head-to-head comparisons: The Kawasaki's tranny feels snickity-smooth with a slightly long shifter throw. The SV, on the other hand, has a shorter throw but doesn't feel as precise in the shifts: Call it a tie. While both bikes turn in quickly, the SV feels a bit twitchy at times. Perhaps this lies in the fact that the Kawasaki has a tad more trail at 4.2 inches (versus 4.0 in.) and a higher percentage of its weight on the front wheel (49.4% versus 47.4%). Both bikes have 25-degree rakes: Advantage Ninja.
When pushed hard, the softly suspended Ninja gets jittery while the SV finally feels at home: Advantage Suzuki. The SV has that lovely V-Twin thrum while the Kawasaki's exhaust note is so muffled that it's painful. Too bad a little intake honk wasn't tuned in to give the rider a little more music: Advantage SV. The Suzuki had a cheap-looking tach. The Kawasaki has cheap-looking plastic on the inside of the fairing: Tie.
What riding these Twins side-by-side reveals is less of a commonality under the label "beginner bike" than a tale of two different characters. Both bikes would be quite suitable for both novice riders and more experienced ones.
While the Kawasaki is easier to ride, it has lower limits. A person who wants an easy-going mount that can perform a variety of duties couldn't go wrong here.
The SV650 may be a little more difficult to ride, at first, but it rewards those who want to push it a little. A novice rider who knows their personality type to be a little more on the aggressive side or an expert looking for an inexpensive fun bike would both find a lot to love with the Suzuki.
I'll belabor the beginner bike point once more by pointing out that many a seasoned rider has tried this class of motorcycle and had a gas doing it. Rather than thinking of these bikes as novice mounts or budget bikes, I prefer to consider the Ninja 650R and the SV650 to be bikes that deliver a tremendous bang for the buck.
As Duke said, with a devilish grin, at the bottom of a particularly circuitous section of road, "Who needs 150 horsepower?"
For My Money
Evans Brasfield, freelance photojournalist, author
Age 44, 5'11", 185 lbs, 17 years riding streetbikes
Since my first bike was an EX500 that I rode for 70,000 miles before a stoplight-running SUV separated me from it, since I raced a variety of EX500s for five years and since I still own four (or is it five?) EX500 engines, three frames, and too many other parts to list, I was stoked to have an opportunity to ride the Ninja 650R. I have to admit that tooling around town and down the highway was a sentimental journey. The engine character stirred memories of my 11,000 mile cross-country journey on my old EX. I wanted to throw on some soft luggage and travel for a few weeks. So, if I had to plunk down my own money on one of these bikes, I'd probably choose the Ninja, right? Uh, no. I've changed since 1989, and what I want from a motorcycle has changed, too. If I were the same person I was back then, I'd probably choose the Kawasaki, but the SV650 suits my needs more now. I would choose the Suzuki because it has the higher performance envelope and would be more at home on the occasional track day. Still, I'd like to thank my old EX500 for being the perfect bike to introduce me to the joys of motorcycling.
Kevin Duke, MotorcycleUSA Editor
Age 40, 5'7", 145 lbs, 23 years riding streetbikes
I'd take the frisky and quick SV650 because it offers more performance out of the box. Its 90-degree V-Twin emits music not too dissimilar from a Ducati's mellifluous exhaust note, plus it makes more power so that it can keep even a vet hooligan like me entertained. And if I owned an SV, I'd be grateful for the large amount of aftermarket support for this class standard-bearer. A visit to Race Tech would sort its suspension, and a freer-flowing exhaust system with a healthier bark would better stimulate my senses and uncork a few extra horsies. I also dig the stripped-down nature of the SV, looking especially hot this year with its black-anodized aluminum frame and mini-cowl fairing.
That said, I've been riding on the street for more than 20 years, so I fall outside the intended demographic for this market segment. The Ninja 650R is actually newbie-friendlier and proved to be more entertaining than I expected, so I'd heartily recommend this baby Ninja to those who don't intend on shredding canyon roads and who live in a climate in which having a full fairing is a definite bonus. Welcome to the class, Kawi, you've scored another hit.
Specifications: Kawasaki Ninja 650R
Retail price: $6,299
Wheelbase: 55.3 in.
Seat height: 30.9 in.
Engine type: 4-Stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC, parallel-Twin
Displacement: 649 cc
Bore x stroke: 83.0 x 60.0 mm
Fuel capacity: 4.1 gal.
Rake: 25 degrees
Trail: 4.2 in.
Front: 300 mm petal discs with single action, two-piston calipers
Rear: 220 mm disc with single-piston caliper Suspension:
Front: 41mm telescopic fork
Rear: Single shock; adjustable for preload
Weight (tank empty): 410; 49.4% on front
Colors: Galaxy silver/metallic graystone/flame persimmon red, ebony/galaxy silver/flame persimmon red
Specifications: Suzuki SV650
Retail price: $5,949
Wheelbase: 56.7 in.
Seat height: 31.5 in.
Engine type: 4-Stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 90-degree V-Twin
Displacement: 645 cc
Bore x stroke: 81.0 x 62.6 mm
Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal.
Rake: 25 degrees
Trail: 4.0 in.
Front: 290 mm discs with single action, two-piston calipers
Rear: 240 mm disc with single-piston caliper
Front: 41mm telescopic fork; adjustable for preload
Rear: Link-type single shock; adjustable for preload
Weight (tank empty): 401; 47.4% on front
Colors: Blue, red