My very first experience aboard a Kawasaki Ninja 650 (it’s been so long ago, it could well have been a 600) was during a Kawasaki track day that followed a weekend of riding Kawasaki iron, where I stuck primarily to cruisers. The track day was conducted by Keith Code’s Superbike School in Zen-like fashion. I tried the bike on for size and the fit wasn’t even close. My elbows and knees interfered with one another in disturbing fashion and I pointed out to the instructor that I didn’t feel at all comfortable on the bike and felt that I would not be in control. He insisted that I give it a try in the paddock anyway. I complied, and he agreed that it didn’t make for a pretty sight and rounded up a Z1000 for me to ride instead, which worked out much better.
When I learned that a Ninja 650 was on the way for me to review, I was immediately apprehensive, but figured I’d give it a shot, since I now had considerably more sportbike experience under my belt. Enter the 2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 which still eschews a bold sportbike persona, but with fresh styling that provides a much more civilized and friendly riding position — especially for older, oversized riders such as myself. The bars are positioned higher and allow for a more upright position – no more tank hugging either. Essentially, the bike has undergone pretty much a complete redesign. The redesigned twin-pipe perimeter frame provides enhanced rigidity, stable handling, a low seat height and improved aesthetics, while the twin-pipe swingarm assembly also offers improved rigidity and pleasing styling. The exhaust system has been redesigned too, and features a new connector pipe, a higher-volume 3-chamber muffler assembly for improved mid-range torque while maintaining peak top-end power, along with a higher quality finish. Redesigned bodywork benefits aerodynamics, improves engine-heat dissipation and displays sporty looks that resemble Kawasaki’s flagship ZX-14R. The clutch serves up an easier-pull cable design for reduced fatigue and enhanced control. Suspension settings have been revised, with increased wheel travel front and rear, providing improved ride comfort while offering optimum compliance in varying scenarios. Brake pads are improved and offer better performance and control as well.
The instrument cluster assembly is new, featuring an analog tachometer and a digital readout module that delivers at-a-glance information for the rider. The 20mm wider handlebar makes for added rider comfort with improved directional input, and speaking of comfort, the reformed 2-piece seat assembly is made up of thicker and wider foam to enhance the comfort of both rider and passenger. Want more? Fuel capacity is increased for longer range, the battery is more compact, and Dunlop’s grippy but durable Roadsmart II tires come as standard fare.
Power is provided by a 649 cc four-stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve parallel twin with digital fuel injection from two 38mm Keihin throttle bodies with motive force geared through a six-speed sequential manual gearbox to the rear wheel via an O-ring final drive.
Suspension componentry consists of 41mm hydraulic telescopic forks with 4.9-inches of wheel travel up front, and the new twin-pipe swingarm with single offset laydown shock, adjustable spring preload and 5.1-inches of wheel travel in the rear. Bringing the new Ninja 650 to a halt are front dual 300mm petal discs with two-piston calipers, and a single 220mm petal disc with single piston caliper in the rear. Standard rolling stock is provided by Dunlop Sport Maxx Roadsmart II rubber (120/70-17 front and 160/60-17 rear) mounted on Black 6-spoke supersport-style alloy wheels.
In terms of its visual appeal, the Ninja 650’s new fairing’s angular nose houses a dual headlight design featuring multi-reflector bulb hoods and twin position lights similar its Ninja supersport siblings. A 3-way manually adjustable (tools required) windscreen aids in deflecting air away from the rider and reducing wind buffeting at higher speeds, and the redesigned, larger capacity fuel tank (4.2 gallons) blends harmoniously with the radically shaped new fairing, while the sleek tail cowl featuring a thin LED taillight accentuates the new bodywork’s athletic appearance. Mirrors are Supersport-types like those found on Kawasaki’s ZX-10R and 6R. An inner rear fender helps keep the tail cowl’s underside clean, and the redesigned front fender minimizes water splash, while its shape matches the Ninja 650’s new bodywork styling.
My 2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 sported Kawasaki’s traditional color, but in a Candy Lime Green finish and came with the base price set at $7,499.
The Ninja’s 55.5-inch wheelbase and 83.1-inch overall length, along with its 460.8-pound dry weight make for a highly manageable and maneuverable riding machine. The seat height of 31.7-inches might tend to pose a bit of a problem in touching down when stationary for those with shorter inseams, but I found it just right. Acceleration was smooth and plentiful. The ride quality was compliant without being too soft or too firm, soaking up road surfaces nicely. Handling characteristics were sporty and responsive with good feedback. Trail braking allowed for cooking into tight backcountry curves and the bike exhibited great balance. I’m not a “knee-dragger” by any means, but riding the Ninja 650 felt like an orchestrated ballet, turning rhythmically one way, then the other with graceful ease. It is exceptionally maneuverable and easy to manage.
In the final analysis, the new 2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 is an affordable, great-looking sportbike without the riding discomfort of many traditional all-out sportbikes. It’s not a heavy tourer either, but seems to fit nicely somewhere in between. Add self-canceling directional signals and a gear indicator, and the 650 Ninja would be even more special. It could well serve as an ideal entry-level sportbike.