Quarter-litre Quarrel

Story by Roger Parsons and Uwe Wachtendorf//
November 1 2011

It was the most inevitable comparison of the summer. When Honda unveiled the 2011 CBR250R – surprising many of us who had been expecting a 400 cc machine that would bridge the chasm between the small- and mid-displacement classes – we immediately questioned how it would stack up against Kawasaki’s Ninja 250R. Since its redesign in 2008, the smallest Ninja has been a strong seller, monopolizing the quarter-litre class in part because of the “small and sexy” craze started by the 2007 Honda CBR125R. With two enticing 250s now on the market, it was game on. We pitted our long-term CBR loaner against a Special Edition Ninja distinguished by a pearl-white livery.

The most common misconception regarding the Ninja and CBR is that they’re sportbikes; those who believe this are victims of a carefully orchestrated ruse. Both Honda and Kawasaki have wrapped their beginner-friendly motorcycles with exciting skins for no other reason than to inject some life into the small-bike genre. In reality, the personas of these bikes reflect those of standard motorcycles. Strip the Ninja and CBR of their exotic bodywork and you would find a comfortable – albeit less attractive – naked bike. With pegs under the seat and raised bars, the riding position is almost fully upright, but there is just enough of a forward cant to assist both body and machine to slip more efficiently through power-sapping wind.

That’s not to say these machines are incapable of sport-like conduct. Mojo staffers Roger Parsons and Uwe Wachtendorf started their test of the bikes with an extended day at the track to determine which of the two could claim an edge in outright performance. On paper, the pair of 250s appeared very similar; both featured six-speed transmissions, chain final drives, 37 mm front forks, preload adjustable rear mono shocks, and nearly identical braking systems. And at 775 mm, both had the exact same seat height. If there was any advantage to be gleaned from studying the spec charts, it went to the CBR. With a claimed wet weight that is 8 kg (18 lb.) lighter than the Ninja’s, we asserted it would be quicker, but then again, some of the Ninja’s extra weight stems from its larger fuel tank, which holds an additional five litres. Then there are the riders who would instantly negate any weight advantage a motorcycle might have; for example, just putting Wachtendorf – who happens to be 16 kg (35 lb.) heavier than Parsons – on the Honda is enough to turn the tables in our comparison.

Pushing theory aside, the duo quickly discovered on the track that the real story behind these motorcycles was with their engines. Although both displace 249 cc and are liquid-cooled, they have little else in common. Honda chose to fit the CBR with a 4-valve, single-cylinder unit that has a rev limit of 10,500 rpm. Fuelled by a brain-box and injectors, the engine’s forte was its low- to mid-range torque, which quickly moved the bike forward from a stop. Conversely, the carbureted Kawasaki uses an 8-valve, parallel twin, which rewards riders with ample power providing they keep the engine screaming near its 13,000 rpm redline. Riders not used to small-displacement machines typically cringe at the thought of revving an engine that hard, but will eventually figure out that they were designed to be ridden that way.

Neither engine was intended to propel a GP bike to victory; their primary role – to power beginner machines – dictated that they be able to handle the abuse of ham-fisted riders. As such, their design mandate emphasised longevity and reliability before everything else. Despite this, both bikes proved to be overachievers on the racecourse, and their surprising performance kept us giggling like dental patients drunk on nitrous oxide. After many laps, it was obvious that the Ninja had something on the CBR, especially on the straight sections of the track. Aided by its closer-ratio gearing, it was easier to keep the Ninja’s engine spinning at its claimed peak of 24 kW (32.2 hp). Even with our heavier rider aboard, the Ninja had enough power to pull out of the CBR’s draft and pass on the straights, something the Honda couldn’t manage – even with a lighter rider. Parsons best described the situation: “The long start–finish straight became a source of frustration. No matter how much the guy on the Honda crawled under the paint, it wasn’t enough to pass the Ninja.” Our trackside analysis was confirmed by the data acquisition unit, which showed that the Ninja accelerated harder, had the higher terminal speeds and quicker lap times of the two bikes.

An appealing feature of the 250s was their forgiving nature, which Parsons demonstrated by grinding their various components into a fine powder amidst a shower of sparks without upsetting their chassis. “With my limited track experience, these bikes were a ton of fun,” commented Parsons. “I didn’t have to worry about an excess of power biting at the wrong time because all my attention was focused on improving my technique and finding the perfect line through each turn.”

Wachtendorf, too, was impressed by the pair of lightweights. “These bikes are great learning tools, and not just for beginners,” added Wachtendorf. “Veteran riders are reminded of the importance of finesse and corner speed while riding fast, and rookies can safely explore techniques such as throttle steering and trail braking.” The bikes’ low weights meant that neither bike paid a penalty for being fitted with budget brakes, tires and suspensions. Both handled and stopped extremely well with their stock equipment despite being subjected to the rigours of track use. Even when things went horribly wrong, it was possible to manhandle them back into shape, something Wachtendorf found out after he lost the front end of both bikes and managed to avert disaster both times by pushing the bike back up with an extended knee that acted as an outrigger.

Both bikes come equipped with the same Thai-made IRC Road Winner RX-01 tires that have an abstract tread pattern that looks like the work of Jackson Pollock on a bender. Their sport-biased compound is claimed to balance wear resistance with the grip required for aggressive riding, but what really saves the rubber on these bikes is the lightness of the machines and their lack of big power. Despite 12 hours of hard lapping and 2,000 kilometres of commuting, neither set of tires showed signs of significant wear. Only the rear tire of the Honda had a few marks, a few gouges in the sidewall from the teeth of an underfed pet rabbit in Parsons’ backyard.

Tire size was another contributing factor to the Ninja’s performance edge. Although both bikes have identically sized front tires (110/70-17), the Honda boasts a fatter rear. Its 140 mm rear versus the Ninja’s 130 might give the Honda more street cred and arguably offer better traction, but it comes at the cost of placing an added demand on the motorcycle’s modest power output.

With the opening round going to the Ninja, Parsons took control of the second round of testing. Saddled with a 250 km round-trip commute to the Mojo office, he was the perfect candidate to determine their real-world practicality, rideability and fuel efficiency. However, before he had even turned a key, Parsons had to deal with a few misconceptions regarding smaller machines. “I always figured small-displacement bikes were only good for beginners knocking around town,” he said. “My concern over using these tiny terrors for a long commute centred on the perception that they wouldn’t be comfortable for stints longer than half an hour, or be capable of keeping a safe pace on major highways.”

Just starting the bikes highlighted differences between the two. The Ninja’s 30 mm Keihin carburetors required the use of a manual choke when the engine was cold and needed a few minutes to warm up before riding. In contrast, the Honda’s fuel-injected engine only required a simple press of the starter button – actually two presses of the button – as every time the CBR was started it would run for a few seconds before stalling, but then run well after the second start.

Underway, Parsons’ reservations regarding comfort and pace were immediately dispelled. Both bikes proved to have commodious cockpits and comfortable seats that didn’t penalize larger riders for wanting to use a smaller machine. The rider’s view revealed that the Honda’s combination of a digital and analog dash was more in line with modern amenities than the dated analog display used by the Kawasaki. Both feature large, legible tachometers, something that riders of these machines will appreciate, as both engines built up revs quickly and accelerated well enough to keep ahead of four-wheel traffic. From a dead stop, the Honda received Parsons’ nod of approval over the Ninja as its street-friendly torque and wider gear ratios required less use of the transmission to make good progress. Gear shifting, something the riders of small-displacement machines are required to do a lot, was light and the clutch action of each proved to be very smooth, with a wide range of engagement.

A pleasant surprise for Parsons was that both the CBR and Ninja were capable of greatly exceeding the posted limit on major highways. Both could easily cruise all day in top gear at a steady 120 km/h, and despite the busy revs that had the Honda’s tach hovering over the 7100 rpm indicator and the Kawasaki’s at 9500, there was still a reserve of acceleration available. At highway speeds, the fairings and windscreens fitted to these bikes to give them their sporting appearance were greatly appreciated. Both worked well at directing a smooth flow of air up and toward the helmet; the only time buffeting was experienced was when a bike was caught in the dirty air of a large truck.

Aside from their modest purchase prices and lower insurance costs, the other great advantage of small motorcycles is that they’re frugal with fuel. Parsons’ daily commute combined city streets, country roads and open highways at a pace best described as spirited. After running several tanks of gas through each bike, we calculated that the Ninja averaged an impressive fuel economy of 3.8 L/100 km (74 mpg) and wanted to celebrate, but that was until the CBR’s results were tallied. If it was ever in doubt, the advantage of its computer-controlled fuel injection was made obvious; the Honda managed to upstage the Ninja again by returning an average of 3.0 L/100 km (94 mpg).

Overall, both testers concurred that the CBR was a more appropriate choice for the street; its better rideability, fuel economy, and more comfortable seat was enough to tie this match at one apiece. At the onset of our comparison we had expected that it would be easy to crown an outright winner, but we unanimously preferred the Ninja on the track and the CBR on the street. Breaking the tie for us was arguably the Ninja’s greatest handicap, its cost. Whether it’s a beginning rider or someone who wants to add a second motorcycle to their stable, money is an important consideration. The Honda’s base price of $4,499 is $500 less than the Kawasaki’s – or more importantly, for the same price you can equip the CBR with ABS brakes, an essential option that isn’t even available on the Ninja.

We can’t say that tears were actually shed when these two machines were returned to their respective manufacturers, but there were long faces and the mood was decidedly sombre. The provocative and enticing designs of these two machines have changed the landscape of motorcycling, revived an interest in small-displacement machines, and stirred the emotions of new riders. A shock for us was that they caused a paradigm shift in our appreciation of motorcycles. Riding the Honda CBR250R for the summer and comprehensively testing the Kawasaki Ninja 250R has convinced us that big things can actually come in small packages.


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