Kawasaki builds a Ninja that won't break your back or your budget
by Richard Ried
As I heeled the little 650 over into the next bend, following the twists of Engineers Road through the brown hills just south of Julian, California, Karl Edmondson’s words echoed in my head.
“We built this bike for the sheer enjoyment of riding,” said Edmondson, Kawasaki’s sportbike product manager, at a press conference earlier that morning. “We started with the rider, not the bike. We studied the rider interface and riding positions to determine what postures instill confidence. It’s designed to be fun for people of all ages and all abilities.”
He was right. I was having a blast on Kawasaki’s newest bike, the Ninja 650R, as the nimble 649cc twin happily carved its way through the mountains, responding eagerly to a twist of the throttle or a push on the tubular 'bars. And thanks to the bike’s neutral riding position, my wrists and back weren’t screaming bloody murder like they would after a few hours on a full-bore sportbike.
Kawasaki has created a comfortable Ninja. Or, to look at it another way, an affordable and friendly do-it-all bike with performance that lives up to the Ninja name.
As the Ninja moniker suggests, the 650R can trace its lineage to Team Green’s famed supersport lineup. And with a full fairing, integrated front signals and 300mm fully floating petal-style front brake rotors, the new bike certainly looks the part.
Although fairly basic by modern sportbike standards, the suspension lives up to the Ninja name as well. The non-adjustable conventional 41mm front forks and the preload-adjustable rear shock are set by the factory on the sporting side of the scale, and do a great job of keeping the twin planted in the corners. Front-end dive during braking was also pleasantly absent. The sporting nature of the firm suspension does, however, make uneven pavement jarring at times, but it’s a small price to pay for solid handling.
While Kawasaki’s legal department has put the kibosh on releasing horsepower figures, my seat-of-the-pants dyno registered more than enough grunt for some "your-license-and-registration-please" fun. The motor, tuned for low-end and midrange power, delivers from nearly off-idle all the way up to its 11,000 rpm redline, but I found I spent most of my time with the analog tach dancing halfway up the scale at around 5,500 – which also happens to equal about 70 mph in top gear.
This strong midrange makes the bike both easy and fun to ride. It’s hard to bog the motor, even if you come out of a tight corner a gear too high (OK, I admit it), and the real-world gearing makes it easy to squirt around slow traffic in sixth without dropping down a notch.
The 650R gets this go from an all-new liquid-cooled, fuel-injected, double overhead cam, eight-valve parallel twin that breathes through twin 38mm throttle bodies. Kawasaki used a number of tricks to keep engine size to a minimum, including chrome plating for the cylinder walls to reduce width, a semi-dry sump lubrication system to reduce height, and a triangular layout for the transmission and crank shafts to reduce overall length. The result is a motor that’s actually smaller than the parallel twin used in the Ninja 500.
2006 Kawasaki Ninja 650R
Engine Four-stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC parallel twin
Bore x stroke 83.0mm x 60.0mm
Carburetion Fuel injection
Front brakes Dual 300mm discs,
Rear brake Single 220mm disc
Tires 120/70-17, 160/70-17
The 650R is a considerably greener motorcycle, too, thanks to the use of a three-way catalyzer in the stubby “midship” under-engine exhaust. In fact, the new twin produces half the emissions of the Ninja 500 and meets strict European EU3 regulations.
Other trick touches include a race-bred, cassette-style six-speed tranny that can be removed from the bike as a single unit, “stick” ignition coils mounted directly to the spark plugs that eliminate the need for plug wires, and a pair of ECU-controlled "sub-throttle" or secondary valves behind the main throttle valves, intended to offer more precise response and better mimic the attributes of a well setup carburetor.
The compact mill is tightly cradled in a red ("Flame Persimmon Red," in Team Green lingo) steel trellis frame, which features a trick, braced swingarm coupled to an offset, laydown rear shock. This arrangement permits the battery to be mounted down low in the frame next to the shock, resulting in a narrow tank/seat junction and a claimed seat height of just 30 inches—a boon to riders with shorter inseams.
The silver version of the 650R features a two-tone seat that mimics the look of a rear cowl while accommodating a passenger.
Despite the compact dimensions of the bike, I found my 6-foot, 1-inch frame wasn’t cramped, even after a full day of riding. The seat, which initially felt a little on the firm side, also proved to be comfortable, if a touch narrow at the front. The fairing also worked well for me. I could feel the wind hitting me at shoulder level, providing some welcome torso protection but leaving my helmet in buffet-free clean air.
While the new Ninja is up against some stiff competition from the likes of the Yamaha FZ6, the Honda 599, and the Suzuki SV-650 and SV-650S, the 650R’s combination of sporty looks, streetable power, solid handling and low price make it worth serious consideration, whether you’re new to motorcycling and want a bike you wont outgrow or whether you’ve been riding for decades and just want to have fun.
The Ninja 650R is available at Kawasaki dealers now in Galaxy Silver/Metallic Graystone and Ebony/Galaxy Silver, both with red frames and fork sliders. MSRP is set at $6,299.