Sometimes, less is more and that’s definitely been the case for Kawasaki’s plucky Ninja 650, proving that you don’t need big power to have big fun.
In the year that I’ve been riding the bike, I’ve covered over 14,000 miles, in all weathers and through all seasons. I’ve taken it on track, rode through Europe and commuted every day with it, and it’s delivered on every expectation I’ve had, and then some. I think the thing that has impressed me most has been the 650’s ability to charm, no matter what I’ve done on it.
When Kawasaki announced the replacement to the trusty ER-6F at the tail end of 2016, I was immediately drawn to the bike that was going to replace it in the line-up of the green-themed marque. It was both practical and, with styling cues straight from the flagship ZX-10R, quite beautiful too.
The 648cc parallel-twin motor was the same that was used in the ER-6 of old, with a few modifications to see it through Euro4 emission regulations. It’s a tried and tested number that has proved both popular and reliable for years now.
I had it tested on a Dyno and found it to push out 60.5bhp at the rear wheel, which doesn’t necessarily sound like a lot, but is pretty much ideal for nearly all situations with the exception being when it was taken on track. I find that the motor has enough poke to keep up with most things when ridden on the road, and will top out somewhere between 125-130mph. Don’t fret though, this was all carried out on circuit, not the roads, but it proves that the bike is perfectly capable when it needs to be.
The biggest change over the ER-6 that it replaced was the steel trellis frame and sportier styling. Kawasaki also put the new bike on a pretty hefty diet, losing 19kg in the process. It was leaner and despite thinking that I wouldn’t feel the difference, it makes the bike feel lithe and nimble through the corners and generally makes the bike more responsive.
In my time with the machine, I’ve went a little overboard with the accessories that I’ve put on. There’s a simple reason for this, I wanted to experiment and explore just what I can do with a bike, which at £6,549 offers fantastic value for money.
For starters, I put an aftermarket full Arrow exhaust system on the bike, moving the rear wheel horse power from 60.4, to an almost err, dizzying maximum rear wheel horsepower of 63.5. It might not sound like much, but the power increases by between 2-3bhp throughout the whole rev range. I was surprised to feel the increase as much as I did. The new system is also an impressive 4.5kg lighter than stock and was probably the thing that I picked up on most when riding the bike. Without the added weight of the stock system on the bike, it makes that machine that little bit more flickable. And, with such a significant weight reduction, the bike becomes more eager to turn in.
A further benefit also comes from the addition of a Rapid Bike fuelling module, which is a self-learning unit that alters fuel ratio of the bike and stops it running rich with the Arrow system added. It’s a clever bit of kit, and after installation, made the throttle response butter-smooth. It’s hard to accurately describe just how much of an improvement it made. It’s something I wouldn’t have originally thought of adding, but which has made a marked improvement to the bike overall.
Handling-wise, the bike is very good, especially given that the suspension is somewhat basic, and the brakes average. Kawasaki have provided a good compromise between good handling and comfort over distance. There’s enough in the suspension to have a lot of fun, even when pushing it on the road.
Show it a track though, and the shortcomings become more apparent. But not enough to deter me however, it’s still a really fun handling machine. And, nothing makes me happier than stuffing it up the inside of some bloke thinking he’s an absolute hero on track on a bike with three times the horsepower. When they say ‘it’s not the size that matters, it’s how you use it’ they weren’t talking about some sleazy innuendo, they were simply making reference to how much fun you can have with this bike.
I’ve done some pretty big trips on it too, with plenty of long days in the saddle and am always pleasantly surprised by just how comfortable it is. The longest stint I’ve spent on the bike being a lengthy 550 mile day riding back from the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit, following an excellent track experience in 25-degree Belgian sunshine - a very rare treat indeed.
This is all thanks to the relaxed riding position, which sees me sitting upright on the bike in a natural posture. The controls are brought up to me too thanks to the raised handlebars, also meaning that there’s no excessive weight on my wrists as would be the norm on a traditional sportsbike.
The three-way adjustable screen also helps to reduce fatigue on longer journeys too, and helps keep me out of the elements in winter. The mechanism isn’t the most intuitive to use as others on the market, requiring the screen to be removed with the toolkit located under the seat. But for a motorcycle in this price bracket, it’s still impressive nonetheless, and very effective.
I’ve tided up the aesthetics at the rear of the bike too, replacing the pillion seat with the official Kawasaki seat cowl, adding an R&G tail tidy and a pair of R&G pillion footrest blanking plates. It might not be to everybody’s taste, but I think it really helps give the bike a proper sporty presence.
The biggest reservation I have with the bike is more to do with the tyres that it came on and not the bike itself. As standard, the Ninja comes shod with Dunlop Sportsmax D214 tyres. While they’re a great tyre to commute on, lasting well, they’re not the best tyre to use when pushing on, and are especially not a track tyre. Now, I understand why Kawasaki use these as the standard tyres, they’re relatively cost effective. I’ve opted to try a few other brands in the time I’ve had it though depending on the riding I’m doing.
The tyres that impressed most were Metzeler’s Roadtec 01. They were brilliant the moment I fitted them and made the bike feel like it had uprated suspension, they really were that good! In dry conditions they offer an incredible amount of grip and in the wet I’ve yet to find a road tyre that’s better!
One of the things I really like about the 650 is its simplicity. It’s a real no frills affair with this bike - you don’t expect it to set the world on fire with ground-breaking performance, but what you get from it instead is a motorcycle that genuinely charms and flatters the rider, no matter on riding ability. If you want to ride it hard, you’ll come away satisfied that you’re riding the bike closer to the edge of its ability, especially on the road. And, if you’re newer to riding, then it’s the perfect tool on which to hone your skills and will genuinely help you to really learn to love motorcycling.