Bad Santa, Mike Emery ~ Naughty Photo Elf, Kinney Jones
So we have a newbie to the welterweight division, a new model that’s to go head to head with the current champ, Suzuki’s super-V, the SV650. The bike is the Ninja 650R, we (I have a mouse in my pocket) got to spend a day on Kawasaki’s new parallel twin to see if it’s up to the task. The venue being some of the nicest, cleanest twisties in and around the Palomar canyons, east of San Diego.
The tech briefing from the sportbike product manager, Karl Edmonson, gave us a run down on the design parameters for the latest Ninja, a design protocol that deviated from the norm for the green company. The 650R development started not with the bike, it started with the rider with exhaustive studies on the interface of the human (that’s you bud’) and the machine. The bike’s intended task was to truly be everything to everyone. Beginners bike? Step right up - Sport tour? Climb on board (bring your own luggage) Fancy a canyon quickie? Just thumb that starter, skippy... Various riding positions were studied in an attempt to instill minimum effort for maximum fun. This is an effort by Kawasaki to find a bike that appealed to all, the evolution and final build of this bike is the sum of that study, a weekday commuter and a weekend warrior.
Starting with the motor, the choice seemed logical - a four cylinder was too wide, a V-twin too long. Drawing inspiration from the two minis’ already on the Kwacker fleet, the 250 and 500R, a parallel twin was deemed the perfect motor. This is no drilled out 500R engine though, the design is all new, inside and out. In a search for compactness they ended up with a motor that is a slimmer silhouette than the 500, yet is nearly 30% bigger in cubic capacity. That slim profile is a result of some up-to-the-minute technology, the crank and transmission shafts are triangulated (just like its supersport siblings) and the gearbox is a 6-speed cassette-style to match that compact set-up and for ease of maintenance. The height is reduced with the use of a semi-dry sump design, and in width, with linerless aloomini-em cylinders.
Peripherals to that low to midrange tuned 8-valve DOHC motor, include digital fuel injection up top, which features a fully automatic idle and a fashionable midship, undership, exhaust come rear tire warmer down below. That exhaust, by the way, contains a three-way catalyzer for California and in itself improves mass centralization by lowering the center of gravity... it’s very tidy under there, for sure. Actually the bike is so clean, emission-wise, that it exceeds the tougher than EPA standard set by the Euro tree huggers.
So, we have the little motor that could, or looks like it might, so to compliment it, Kawasaki came up with a great looking slimbo trellis frame to coddle it. It’s high-tensile steel rather than aluminum but 3-D analysis ensures that it’s only as thick as it really needs to be to get the job done. Due to the above-mentioned compact motor the bike enjoys a longer swingarm to offer optimum stability, with a rear offset shock running alongside your right footpeg area. The rear shock location helps redistribute a couple of key parts, like the battery, and contributes to the low 30" seat height. The whole thing feels nice and slim, a key factor in helping a new rider feel confident.
Who’s not going to feel confident on 17" wheels, fore and aft, carrying decent width rubber? The wheels are groovy looking 6-spoke affairs wrapped in generous 160/60 and 120/70 rubber. Brakes, on paper, are up to the task at hand with Kawasaki’s own petal style rotors all round, with two 300mm’s up front, grabbed by twin piston calipers, and a single 220mm out back. The brakes were a little iffy though, with a limited feel, I expected them to be grabby but I think they may have cheaped out on caliper quality - stick a set of braided lines on next years Christmas list..
From the tank back, it looks the biz, the rear seat looks very sharp in design and I especially like the two-tone seat. It does however, lose the plot a little, moving forward - that fairing, it just makes the bike look heavy. As a well-documented hater of unnecessary plastic, I wish I could be telling you about the naked version, unfortunately it’s not available (yet) in the US so keep your tool kit handy. It’s not that bad, I suppose, the front headlamp is sourced from the Z1000 naked and I think that, combined with the Z’s mini cockpit fairing, might have resulted in a better-looking bike. Attention was paid to the supplied fairing though, it’s got great looking clear lense integrated turn signals up front (and rear too) and it’s aerodynamic in looks and function.
Our chance to ride the bike saw me grab 160 miles (on one tank) on some twisty switches and a little freeway time as well. The seat was plenty comfortable, with rounded edges at the tank area to help with you shorties. The passengers’ accommodations look to be pretty good too, especially for a smaller machine. Kawi’ have an optional rear grab rail available, should you want to include your better half in the weekend frivolities. Instrumentation is first class visually, and everything is where it should be with a large analog tach and speedometer. The lever’s are both adjustable which is a simple aid to long and short term comfort and I love that attention to detail.
A potential design poop was the linkless offset rear suspension, which was a little choppy on anything but smooth roads. There’s no real adjustability front or rear, outside of rear preload. When pushing the suspension through corners it didn’t do anything goofy and felt almost like a big old dirt bike (sans the long legs), especially the way the engine signed off at higher RPM. The bike felt happiest lugging around 5000 to 8000 rpm using its nice midrange hit. The bike does rev out all the way to 11000 rpm but power flattened off between 9 and 10 so there’s was nothing gained in thrashing the tits off of it. This bike will be a huge hit with beginners but I’m not sure I fancy its chances going against the SV.
Another potential design boo-boo? How about those footrest hangers? The beauty of the simplistic SV650 was the fact that it could be a weekday workhorse and a weekend proddy racer. This Kawi’s going to need a potentially expensive replacement with an aftermarket rearset set-up. The exhaust, whilst I’m on the performance topic, is going to be a tough one to get around - I imagine the exhaust manufacturers won’t all be immediately hopping on board this performance bus to provide go fast bits for the WERA/CCS gang, like they did with the SV. The Ninja 650R does have every ounce of potential in performance as the SV, so it’ll be interesting to see if it’s adopted by the racing fraternity like the SV was - I hope so.
The 2006 Ninja 650R is available in two colors, silver and black, and will be arriving at your local dealer about now. At an MSRP of $6,299 it’s $350 more than the SV. However, you can’t really measure fun in dollars, I enjoyed my ride immensely and it took all the pratting about that I could throw at it. Ultimately I like the style points, but not at the expense of function, especially with reference to suspension compliance. The motor’s good though and I’d hate to label the thing a UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) but it’s what Kawasaki wanted it to be and ultimately it’s a very modern version of what they got. For a new rider, this bike will ace the taste test. It’ll do all you’ll need and more but for the seasoned biker, it might come up a little short.
It’s a little vanilla for my taste - but then that doesn’t seem to be hurting the ice cream industry.
Source: Two Wheeled Freeks