The Friendly Assassin

Story by Uwe Wachtendorf// Photos by Jeff Stephenson
November 1 2012

Evolutionary,rather than revolutionary, best sums up Kawasaki’s newly updated 2012 Ninja 650. That’s not a bad thing. The outgoing 2011 model was already a competent mid-sized motorcycle, one with the unenviabletask of bridging the formidable chasm between Kawasaki’s sporty, yet beginner-friendly Ninja 250 and Ninja 400 models, and the supersport Ninja ZX-6R, not to mention its bigger brethren, the mad-as-hatters Ninja ZX-10R and Ninja ZX-14R.

The list of improvements that Kawasaki’s engineers wanted made to theNinja 650 included engine performance, rider comfort, handling and styling. And you’d be forgiven if a cursory glance at the resulting new motorcycle left you with the impression that not much had actually been changed. Although strikingly different in its details, the new design maintains its lineage by cleverly retaining signature items such as its side-mounted shock. Official Kawasaki styling notes point to the Ninja’s lines,which all move forward and downward to create a crouching stance. Indeed, with its taller fuel tank and shorter tail cowl, the barrel-chested, mass-forward design gives the Ninja the persona of a bulldog.

Kawasaki Ninja 650 front brakes The new compressed appearance bears more than a passing resemblance to its hyper-sport relatives. The slash-cut openings in the fairing side panels are similar to those on the Ninja ZX-14R, and similarly, it uses one fin for each of the engine’s cylinders. And just like on the most powerful Ninja, a new head lamp design, front fender and more compact integrated turn signals give the Ninja 650 a more aggressive face.

I’m swayed by the impressive profile of the Ninja’s body work,carved by the gale forces of a wind tunnel; it’s visually intriguing, especially the continuous line drawn between its headstock and rear axle by the new twin-tube frame and swingarm. In the field, the bottom line was simple: The motorcycle drew more than its share of long wistful looks from car drivers, their eyes pleading that I trade places with them.

In contrast to its sporty appearance, the 650’s riding position is that of a standard motorcycle. Sitting almost fully upright, my hands fell on a comfortably high handlebar, while my buttocks were gently cradled by a nice saddle that was reshaped and better padded, and allowed for altering my position.The distance from seat to ground level hasn’t changed much; however, the chassis has been slimmed, and shorter riders can now place their feet closer to the bike’s centreline.

My only beef with the motorcycle’s riding position was with the peg’s heel plates, which flared outward to follow the contours of the swingarm. Large-footed riders who prefer to have the balls of their feet on the pegs will find the heel plates forcing them into a slightly pigeon-toed stance.
Up front, the new bodywork is said to afford better wind protection and to minimize head buffeting. The fairing’s windshield is now adjustable between three positions over a 60 mm range. The screen does require an Allen key to adjust, but given that I was satisfied by the wind deflection already offered while in its lowest setting, there shouldn’t be much need to move it very often.

The cockpit, although well laid out, felt somewhat spartan. The switchgear, in particular, with its small buttons, looked to be more of a budget item than most other components. Nonetheless, the flight instruments were pleasing to look at. Legible and thoroughly modern, fuel mileage data is the one added frill above the basic information provided by trip meters and a clock. The multifunction LCD is controlled by two buttons on the left side of the tachometer, which is a long reach for a rider on the move, but at least the buttons are oversized and easy to punch with an extended, gloved finger. White LEDs are used to backlight the tachometer, while the LCD’s readout is bathed in a blue light. Both look sophisticated and offered good visibility at night.

A superfluous function of the instrumentation is the Economical Riding Indicator. I first encountered its ECO icon during the launch of the current Concours 14 a few years ago, but it’s been a fixture on every new Kawasaki I’ve ridden this year. The small icon that appears in the LCD doesn’t have a practical purpose other than to virtually reward Game Boy–generation riders for fuel-efficient behaviour. And with the Ninja 650, that’s an easy achievement. Good fuel efficiency is an unexpected strength of the motorcycle, and I was surprised to still see the ECO icon displayed while riding 125 km/h into an appreciable headwind. The Ninja averaged a respectable 4.9 L/100 km during demanding testing, but a gentler throttle hand did coax a sub 4 L/100 km economy, which makes the 650 a frugal motorcycle to run.

As with my test of the Ninja ZX-14R, I was vexed by the fuel-range display. With the bar graph–style fuel gauge urgently flashing its last bar, the remaining fuel distance disappeared, and I was convinced that the motorcycle was running on fumes. Pulling into the first gas station, I was surprised when the 16-litre fuel tank only took 11 litres to fill.

Kawasaki’s decision to adopt a parallel twin for its mid-sized Ninja took into consideration that the engine produced decent power out of a compact package, a characteristic that would only help the motorcycle’s overall handling. The engine’s 180-degree crankshaft and transmission shafts are laid out in a triangular pattern to make it very short front-to-back; a semi-dry sump is used to reduce its height; and plated, linerless cylinders are implemented to minimize its width.
The cassette-type transmission houses the input and output shafts along with the change drum to further contribute to the engine’s overall density. As a bonus, the cassette also eases access for transmission maintenance. Further adding to the engine’s compactness is the routing of coolant lines within its cases.
When you hear the Ninja approaching, there’s no question that it’s powered by a twin – a parallel-twin, more specifically. At low revs, the engine’s chuffing vibrato did little to inspire its rider. Only from mid-stride to redline, where the Ninja’s exhaust produced a raspy snarl and the air-intake ducts generated an induction blat, could the soundtrack be called memorable.

Criticizing a motorcycle for its sound is, of course, a superficial and subjective exercise; far more important is the engine’s actual performance, and here, little fault was to be found. As part of the Ninja 650’s makeover, Kawasaki engineers set a goal of making its 649 cc, liquid-cooled engine easier to use in an urban environment, where moving briskly from a stop is as important as the ability to pass traffic on an open highway. To accomplish this, the compact parallel-twin was given more mid-range torque; pulling away from a stop still required a generous throttle hand (the engine is anemic below 3000 rpm), but once in its sweet spot between 4000 and 6000 rpm, the engine pulled with real intent.

In practice, the parallel-twin proved itself a more practical solution for around-town use than an inline-four of similar displacement. With its usable midrange – and a maximum torque of 47.2 ft-lb that arrived at a relatively low 7000 rpm – roll-on acceleration, even in top gear, was good.

Fuelling through the Keihin 38 mm throttle bodies, which use sub-throttles to smooth the engine’s response, produced a linear power delivery free of any flat spots that would have made the engine difficult to modulate.

The rigid-mounted engine uses a balancer shaft, and the handlebar, seat bracket, and foot pegs are rubber-mounted to help quell any vibration. The setup worked well. Even with the engine screaming at its redline, it was still possible to distinguish my surroundings in the Ninja’s mirrors.

Helping to support Kawasaki’s claims that the Ninja 650 is an easy motorcycle to ride was its light gear shifting action; however, the barely broken-in transmission did require a deliberate prod of the shift lever when selecting second gear from first in order to avoid it dropping into neutral.

The Ninja 650’s better-than-expected suspension was a pleasant surprise. The motorcycle’s redesign retained the distinctive offset single shock that made the previous model so easy to identify. The so-called “laydown” shock is oriented to follow a direct line between the frame and swingarm. Like the front fork, it’s been lengthened and its settings revised to give it a longer stroke (2 mm for the rear and 5 mm for the front). The longer strokes allowed Kawasaki to use lower spring rates and revise the suspension’s damping accordingly.

At slow speeds, even a poor suspension is capable of a somewhat civil ride, but when the pace picks up, its flaws will quickly become obvious. For a budget-priced machine, the Ninja 650 not only absorbed a good knock at speed, it also kept its composure over undulating road imperfections and bumps that appeared in rapid succession. To describe the suspension as sport-oriented would be an embellishment of the truth, but it did provide a surefooted ride through the natural chicanes of a tightly woven road.

Using the engine as a stressed member, the chassis incorporates a new high-tensile, double-tube steel perimeter frame and gull arm–style swingarm. According to Kawasaki, the frame’s rigidity was tuned to enable easy, yet sporty handling, and the shortened wheelbase intended to quicken steering. Kawasaki designers believe the new one-piece rider/pillion foot-peg stays complement the swingarm. While I’ll concede that the bracket’s design does unclutter the rear of the motorcycle, it covers too much of the visually interesting swingarm for my liking.

At 209 kg almost fully fuelled, the Ninja 650 isn’t a light motorcycle. However, in contrast to most motorcycles, which do well to hide their weight with speed, the 650 also feels lighter than its actual weight at slow speeds. This inherent balance made the motorcycle a treat to ride when I was picking my way through dense city traffic, and it turned inner-city obstacles into a personal slalom course.

The bulk of the braking chores were carried out by a pair of 300 mm front discs and two-piston calipers. The system, which has been augmented by revised brake pads, is put under pressure by a 14 mm master-cylinder piston that delivered decent stopping with average lever feel.

Determining an ideal roll for the Ninja 650 isn’t a straightforward proposition. Its sleek styling and bold paint suggest it has sporting pretentions; its comfortable ergonomics and wind protection whisper sport-tourer; its easygoing road manners imply it was designed to be a big-city commuter. Complicating things further, the 650 is competent enough to entertain an experienced rider on more challenging roads, yet it is also well suited for novices to develop their skills on.

However, the most compelling argument for the Ninja 650 is its $8,300 price tag. When I returned the motorcycle to Kawasaki Canada in mid-June, I was told that they had almost sold out of the new mid-sized motorcycle. The Kawasaki may refuse to allow itself to be slotted into one convenient sub-genre, but for that kind of money, the Ninja 650 can be whatever you need it to be. By the looks of its sales record, a lot of Canadian riders have already figured that out.

2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 Spec Chart

MODEL 2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
List Price $8,299
Warranty 1 year
Engine Type Liquid-cooled, DOHC, four valves per cylinder, parallel-twin
Displacement 649 cc
Power (claimed) 53 kW (72.1 hp) at 8500 rpm
Torque (claimed) 64 N-m (47.2 ft-lb) at 7000 rpm
Bore and Stroke 83.0 x 60.0 mm
Compression Ratio 10.8:1
Fuel Delivery Fuel injection with two 38 mm Keihin throttle bodies
Transmission Six-speed
Final Drive Type Chain
Front Suspension 41 mm telescopic fork
Rear Suspension Offset single-shock with adjustable preload
Wheel Travel Front: 125 mm (4.9 in.)Rear: 130 mm (5.1 in.)
Brakes Front: Two semi-floating, 300 mm petal discs with two-piston calipers. Rear: One 220 mm petal disc with single-piston caliper
Wheelbase 1410 mm (55.5 in.)
Rake and Trail 25degrees/110 mm (4.3 in.)
Tires 120/70-17 front; 160/60-17 rear
Weight (wet) 209 kg(461 lb.)
Seat Height 805 mm (31.7 in.)
Fuel Capacity 16 L
Fuel Economy (avg.observed) 4.9 L/100 km (57.7 mpg)
Fuel Range (estimated) 327 km

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