The versatile and moderately priced Ninja 650R has impressed us since it joined Kawasaki’s sport line-up in 2006. It proved to be a worthy competitor to Suzuki’s venerable SV650, being both newbie-friendly and capably sporty.
The original 650R’s soft lines got an edgier restyling for 2009, plus notable upgrades to increase rider comfort, but we haven’t had a chance to sample it until now.
Except for color options, this year’s 650R is the same stable-mate it was in 2009 to the ER-6n and Versys, which share Kawasaki’s 649cc parallel-Twin DOHC engine, and it remains essentially true to the well-executed design it's had since its introduction.
Kawasaki lists at least 17 areas in which the Ninja 650 was re-tooled or re-designed. Included were revised fuel injection settings that Kawasaki says improve both low-end torque and quick-revving capability. A 40mm wider radiator was selected to improve engine life, while preventing power from fading during hard use.
The Ninja 650R is as good at a relaxed pace or commuting as it is for more aggressive riding.
New rubber handlebar and rear engine mounts were added, as were tweaks to the fuel tank shape, steel semi-double cradle trellis frame, and suspension settings. A D-shaped swingarm was also part of the engineered changes, as were larger 27mm piston front brakes, redesigned fairing, cowl and fender, and an all-digital instrument cluster.
The fairly extensive facelift and tummy tuck helps the middleweight feel even lower and narrower, augments its functionality, and attempts to make it more stylistically svelte and pretty too.
Kawasaki says its new front cowl and dual headlight design, for example, are reminiscent of its sportier brothers (or sisters, you decide), the Ninja ZX-6R and ZX-10R. And the digital instruments, complete with bar-graph tach, are modeled on none other than the baddest Ninja of them all, the ZX-RR MotoGP racer.
The digital instrument cluster is inspired by the ZX-RR MotoGP bike but provides data for street riding.
Unlike the steroidally-enhanced four-cylinder Ninjas, the Ninja 650 gets its motivation from a twin-cylinder engine that, while potent, offers 30 fewer ponies than the ZX-6R while offering a powerband more suited for daily riding.
Its over-square 83mm bore x 60mm stroke engine employs an 11.3:1 compression ratio, and “chrome composite” plated aluminum cylinders. Oiling is handled by a semi-dry sump to reduce engine height, and jets on the connecting rod big ends aim cooling oil to the undersides of the pistons.
The liquid-cooled, fuel-injected mill also routes coolant through the engine cases, thus minimizing external hoses and further enabling it to be narrow and short. Kawasaki says this engine is “the most compact in its category,” and its dimensions are smaller than the older EX500 engine, and as MO’s writer observed in 2006, this is not a mere over-bore.
Its 180-degree crankshaft utilizes a counter-balancer to allow for “extremely smooth operation,” but 2008’s rigid rear engine mounts were replaced with rubber mounts, so apparently Team Green’s engineers figured it needed even more smoothness.
Power is channeled through a six-speed transmission, which in addition to being compact, its cassette-type design could make maintenance or repairs less involved too, if needed.
Keihin 38mm throttle bodies with sub-throttle valves feed the air-fuel mix. Kawasaki says it tweaked throttle response to emulate good old constant-velocity carburetors, while the digitally-controlled system improves starting, warm-up, drivability, and fuel consumption.
The 300-cell three-way catalytic converter meets demanding Euro-III emissions regs and is neatly hidden inline with a stylized muffler that is placed under the engine for optimum mass centralization.
We measured the output of our 2010 Ninja 650 on Hypercycle’s Dynojet Research dynamometer at 61.8 hp and 41.1 ft-lbs of torque. Power was down from our 2006 bike’s numbers – also read on a Dynojet Research dyno – which then told a tale of 65.7 hp and 45.5 ft-lbs of torque. It should be noted that the Hypercycle dyno has a reputation of being a bit stingy.
Even experienced riders won’t typically scrape down the footpegs with the stock rubber.
Our testing returned fuel economy in line with the EPA average rating of 48 mpg, and the 650R’s 4.1-gallon fuel tank is large enough so gas stops don’t have to be too often.
The bike rides on a pretty vanilla but functional 41mm non-adjustable telescopic fork offering 4.7 inches of travel and an offset laydown preload-adjustable rear shock with 4.9 inches of travel.
The non-linkage-connected rear shock is easy to adjust with an included spanner tool, and more importantly, its offset position helps narrow the bike.
Braking duties are handled by dual front 300mm petal-shaped rotors of the same design as those on the Ninja ZX-6R. They are pinched by twin-piston calipers. Rear stopping is handled by a 220mm petal rotor that’s grabbed by a single-piston caliper.
Our bike came shod with 120/70ZR17 front and 160/60ZR17 rear Bridgestone Battlax BT021 sport-touring tires.
How it all works
At a couple ounces shy of 450 pounds full of fluids, the Ninja 650R feels light, narrow and nimble.
Its handlebar is pretty high and swept back so you feel like maybe you are on your grandad’s old Standard Motorcycle. It helps to get off every now and again for another look at the swoopy fairing and menacing twin headlights to remind yourself this is a contemporary bike that’s actually designed for sex appeal and built for speed. The redesigned fairing gives the 650R a sharper and sportier appearance that we all appreciated.
An upright riding position is part of the Ninja 650R’s broad-based appeal.
The seat height, at 31.1 inches is comparatively low. It and the upright riding position are part of the conspiracy to make the bike as universally appealing as possible. Personally, I’d swap the bar for one with less rise.
Even with a two-inch lower handlebar, taller riders would find the riding position to be only mildly forward leaning. At 6’ tall with a 34” inseam, I find this bike a bit small, but it is not so bad, and I could contemplate trips of a few hundred miles. The step to the passenger section does stop me from sliding back as far as I’d sometimes like, however, and a higher, flatter saddle could make another worthwhile modification. The Ninja is a better fit for shorter riders.
As for power delivery, its healthy low-end torque was welcome everywhere we went. On the highway, this bike will do 75-plus-mph all day long, and roll-on power is good between legal and well-over-legal speeds (tested under special laboratory conditions, of course!).
Published tests show this bike will sprint to a mid-to-low 12 second quarter mile, which means beginners will want to give a healthy degree of respect, if they feel confident enough to start on a bike this fast at all.
In the canyons, the grunty powerband was felt when sloppy upshifts at mid to higher rpm would deliver a swift kick in the pants. This served as etiquette lessons on the topic of good shifting manners, with extra credit given for a smoother hand when disengaging the clutch.
Romping around curves, the sport-touring tires did not encourage scraping down of the Ninja’s somewhat high footpegs. Experienced sport riders might want to opt for premium sticky rubber. The bike does like to be whipped into any lean angle, however, and holds a line with minimal effort in part because the wide, tall handlebars give great leverage.
This Ninja steers with low effort and holds a line fairly well.
The 650R is set up for smaller, less aggressive riders, so the suspension can get overwhelmed by a large, fast pilot. Bumping up the rear spring preload from mid-way to full stiffness enhanced the bike’s composure under my 185 pounds. Riders weighing significantly more, or those who regularly ride two-up or want to add luggage, may want to source stiffer springs.
After dark, illuminated instruments glow dark red.
Bridgestone Battlax sport-touring tires get the job done, but we’d fit stickier rubber to exploit the Ninja’s light handling.
And even though Kawasaki says the digital instruments were lifted off its MotoGP bike, the bar-graph tach is harder to read than a large analog gauge would be. Otherwise a fuel gauge, two tripmeters and a clock are useful info to have, and after dark the red-glowing display looks good. A four-way flasher function for the turn signals is also a nice touch.
The fairly high and wide windscreen was extensively engineered, Kawasaki says, and we find it gives no weird buffeting and offers reasonable protection for cool-weather riding or rain. “The fairing feels solid and is not buzzy,” noted one of MO’s testers, long-time roadracer, and all around cool guy, Kaming Ko.
A five-way adjustable clutch lever is another feature useful to adapt to a wide range of hand sizes.
The larger brakes haul the bike down from any speed as they are supposed to, but Kevin Duke noted they feel “wooden and numb.” I agree, but think they are adequate, and if they really became an issue, better compound aftermarket brake pads and stiffer lines are not-very-expensive options that should significantly improve these brakes.
Despite the reputation of the Ninja name and the 650R’s sporty intentions, we believe this bike is really a Standard-style sportbike in a full-fairing disguise.
While fun to flick around, it offers enough real world power and comfort for most riders to go anywhere and fulfill a variety of purposes. It is inviting enough for new riders if they take care to respect its power, and it will also be reliable for commuters. Further, it is not too tame for those returning to the sport.
At a reasonable $7,099 MSRP, the Ninja 650R is worth checking out by anyone looking for a good all-around sporty bike.
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