Kawasaki has set its sights on the sportbike buyer for its three new 2013 releases, all Ninjas. The 300 replaces the 250R with a slew of updates and promises the beginning rider a level of ridability and two-wheeled excitement that won’t be as easily outgrown. Kawasaki clearly wants entry-level riders to set their behinds on the new 300’s seat pad to ensure larger-displacement Ninja purchases in the future, but the truth is that there’s not as much to outgrow on this fun little bike. As a diverse group of moto-journalists discovered at the press introduction on northern California’s twisties, the baby Ninja has plenty to offer for even experienced fun-seekers.
With engine, chassis, and aesthetic refinements, the 300 has pulled far ahead of the Ninja 250R and its main competitor, the Honda CBR 250R. The engine case looks similar to the Ninja 250s, but 45 percent of the engine parts are new. Displacement is upped from 249 to 296cc, mainly due to a longer stroke of 48mm (versus 41.2mm). Larger intake ports and valves, redesigned pistons, and shorter connecting rods all come together to deliver more power. In addition to the bigger engine, digital fuel injection (DFI) has been added. New riders won’t have to worry about using a choke or cold start warm-ups. The DFI offers a smooth idle, quicker, more precise throttle response, cleaner emissions, and better fuel economy. The header pipes have been redesigned to improve low and midrange torque for smooth acceleration. A new cross-sectional angular silencer updates the 250’s round can, and its shorter length improves mass centralization. The two bikes sound almost identical, however, and noise is minimal.
Because the power and torque increase exceeded the 250’s clutch capabilities, the next best improvement to the little Ninja is a new FCC slipper clutch. The new clutch uses a stronger clamping force, with clutch assist offering a lighter pull, while the slipper function provides butter-smooth shifts. Sloppy downshifts are much more forgiving, with the slipper clutch preventing rear tire lockup. That’s great news for beginners and aggressive riders alike. New and smaller riders will also appreciate redesigned levers that require 8mm less reach.
The ride is further improved with a new 150 percent stronger high-tensile steel main frame. A new layout routes the now wider main tubes under the tank with extra gusseting added. The stiffer chassis incorporates front rubber engine mounts that result in less vibration that is immediately noticeable when comparing the two models. The revised subframe incorporates a flatter angle that both offsets a larger rear tire (140/70-17″) and maintains a seat height of 30.9″. Shorter riders will also benefit from a tapered front seat design that allows an easier reach to the ground.
To compensate for the stiffer frame, front fork compression and rebound damping are slightly softer and fork oil level has been raised for a more progressive bottoming resistance. The 37mm fork allows 4.7″ of wheel travel. A Uni-Trak shock incorporates a shorter spring that has been set at the factory to the second step and allows preload to be increased or reduced to one of five settings. Throughout testing, I did not touch the factory settings and found the suspension to work well in conjunction with the chassis to provide a sporty, comfortable ride. I didn’t bottom out at all, and riding over a series of bumps, the bike stayed planted and predictable.
The 0.5″ wider rear tire aids in straight-line stability without losing cornering capability, while the front tire size stays the same at 110/70-17”. IRC RX-01R tires do the job well, and the supersport 10-segment Y-spoke wheel design shares its aggressive likeness with the Ninja ZX-14’s wheels. Braking is accomplished with a single 290mm petal-type disc up front and a single 220mm disc in back, both with two-pin piston calipers. ABS is optional for an additional $500 on the SE version, which is another name for the green/black version. The all-new Nissin ABS unit is the smallest, lightest ABS unit on any of Kawasaki’s motorcycles and is effectively hidden under the tank.
Comparing the 300 to its predecessor, the styling changes are enormous. The aggressive, forward stance of the 300 emphasizes the modern day Ninja sportbike. Without any graphics marking its cc, the casual onlooker will likely mistake the smallest Ninja for one of its bigger siblings. A minimalist tail section, angular design cues, flush-mount turn signals, and dual headlight are consistent with the design of the ZX-10R and ZX-6R. A modern floating windshield design updates the look, and repositioned fairing vents improve heat management.
From the rider’s seat, the cockpit is vastly improved, with a sleeker, less distracting instrument display. The analog tachometer is centralized, with white numbers on a black background for easy visibility; warning lights surround it to the right and left. Always visible on the backlit LCD in the lower-right corner is a large, easy-to-read digital speedo, fuel gauge, and clock. Below that, an odometer and two trip meters are toggled with a push button on the left side of the dash. An economical riding indicator (ECO) works to help the rider achieve the most efficient fuel economy. It’s displayed when the fuel usage is optimized and disappears when you’re being a gas hog. Mirrors have been redesigned to offer a wider viewing area.
Cargo hooks and a flat passenger seat make securing luggage easy. The rear seat pops off with the key in a new, rear tail lock position. Once removed, a small item storage compartment is revealed. Lift that plastic lid to reveal another, larger compartment underneath. This holds the factory tool kit and manual, but there’s plenty of room to add a rain suit or tire patch kit. The rider seat requires tools to be removed. Kawasaki also offers a tankbag and tailbag, as well as gel seat, seat cowl, tank pad, engine guards, and tall windscreen as accessories.
A flared gas tank sports a more aggressive look, and holds 4-1/2 gallons of fuel. Kawasaki made a point of showcasing the extraordinary fuel economy of the Ninja 300 by holding a 40-mile contest to see who in our group could get the best mileage. Official average numbers are not yet available, but our turtle-slow race proved that the bike is capable of getting triple-digit numbers. In fact, our first place finisher, RoadBike contributor Basem Wasef, claimed top honors with an incredible 137.39 mpg! I finished in third place with 98.79 mpg. One journalist who rode at a normal pace finished with a respectable 86.64 mpg, showing what this bike can do on a tank of gas.
Our real ride day had us pinning the throttle on some pretty technical roads. It was there that the real fun of the 300 was apparent. Performance in all aspects of the redesign was spot-on to Kawasaki’s presentation. Sometimes these press intros can get pretty competitive, and keeping up with more experienced riders was a challenge. At times, I made shift errors and found myself in too low a gear through the tight switchbacks, but quick downshifts were easy, and I was always able to catch up and stay with the front of the group. Power was immediate and available throughout the powerband. Braking hard, the rider feel was responsive without being grabby, and clutch engagement was super-smooth. The seating position was upright and comfortable, and only after the day’s 140 miles did my rear end feel tired from the flat seat. Taking the bike on the highway, I was impressed with its responsiveness even at 70 mph. Passing was no issue at that speed, and vibration at the grips was minimal, even at high rpm.
Jumping on the available 250R for comparison’s sake, I immediately noticed the lack of power, especially on the low end. It took a lot more rpm to get the bike moving in pace with the 300s. While I’d been averaging about 7000 rpm on the 300, the 250 needed to be at least 9000 rpm to keep up. Shifts were much harsher and throttle response was vaguer. The high rpm along with the solid-mount engine sent so much vibration to my hands that after a few minutes I was begging for my 300 back.
My hat’s off to Kawasaki for taking a good bike with a solid reputation — the Ninja 250R — and turning it into a great bike. The market’s been flooded with large-displacement bikes that will easily toss a beginner, so it’s refreshing to see this kind of attention given to a small, light, easy-to-maneuver bike. This is the type of easy rider that will bestow confidence in new riders, so that they may live long enough to trade up to a bigger bike. An inexpensive, sporty standard offering high value and guaranteed excitement, the Ninja 300 is a great addition to anyone’s motorcycle garage.
By Tricia Szulewski, Photos by Kevin Wing
List Price: $4,799/$4,999 (SE)/$5,499 (SE ABS)
Engine: Four-stroke, liquid-cooled, parallel twin
Bore X Stroke: 62 x 49mm
Compression Ratio: 10.6:1
Fuel System: Digital fuel injection with dual 32mm throttle bodies
Final Drive: Chain
Overall Length: 79.3″
Rake/Trail: 27 degrees/3.7″
Seat Height: 30.9″
Fuel Capacity: 4-1/2 gallons
Curb Weight: 379.3 pounds
Warranty: 12 months
2013 Colors: Ebony, Pearl Stardust White; Lime Green/Ebony (SE)
Originally published in RoadBike Winter 2013