Not so long ago, all Japanese manufacturers offered a bargain sportbike of some sort—a model just one notch down from the best they could make. These models promised 80% of the performance at 70% of the price, and managed to capture the cost-conscious or beginner rider who wasn’t quite ready for a full-on sportbike. Call ‘em “next besters,” as in the next best thing.
But when the economy cratered, these models fell away, victims of production costs, low volume and the necessity of consolidating a model line. Farewell, Honda CBR600F4i, Kawasaki ZZR-600, Suzuki SV650S and Yamaha YZF-R6S.
And yet the demand remains for inexpensive, beginner-friendly middleWeights—though, perhaps, only for two of them: Kawasaki’s Ninja 650 and Yamaha’s FZ6R. For the day-to-day riding most of us do, these quasi-sportbikes are better than their thoroughbred counterparts in every respect. They’re cheaper to buy, own and insure, easier to ride, and definitely more comfortable. Whether a 100-horsepower $11,000 middleWeight is unsuitable or simply financially out of reach, these are the bikes bargain hunters look to for that optimal bang-to-buck ratio.
Full fairings give both motorcycles the profile of a proper sportbike, yet their ergonomics are tame. It’s clear these bikes have been designed to excel at the weekday commute and keep you entertained on the weekends—a tall order considering price tags with enough headroom under $8000 to pick up a shiny new helmet.
Let’s meet the players. The FZ6R has been around since 2009, when it was introduced as the replacement for the half-faired FZ6. The Yamaha’s industrial-looking tubular-steel frame wraps around a 599cc four-cylinder engine originally found in a previous-generation YZF-R6. The R6’s peaky character wouldn’t do for the utilitarian FZ6R, so engineers mined the top end to backfill the midrange by way of milder cams, smaller throttle bodies and retuned intake and exhaust plumbing. The goal was to make the power predicable and flexible. The result
is exactly that—with good thrust off idle and totally linear throttle response across the rev range. The FZ’s peak output of 64.4 horsepower arrives at 9750 rpm, with 38.8 lb.-ft. of torque on tap at 8000 rpm. Not tremendous, but 1.3 bhp up on the Ninja and enough juice to jet ahead of traffic and keep most riders entertained.
Over the years, the Yamaha has seen little more than color changes. The Ninja, on the other hand, is essentially an all-new bike. For 2012 Kawasaki took the “R” off the Ninja’s name and gave it a comprehensive overhaul aimed at making it more user-friendly and fun. The frame, swingarm, bodywork and seat are new, and the 649cc parallel-twin engine, intake and exhaust plumbing have been tweaked to improve midrange power. It all adds up to a total output of 63.1 bhp at 8700 rpm, and the twin wins the torque contest with 42.9 lb.-ft. at 6900 rpm. The Ninja also has revised suspension, a new dash, a wider handlebar and rolls on Dunlop’s second-generation Sportmax Roadsmart II street rubber. With its smaller 4.2-gallon tank filled with regular unleaded, the Ninja weighs 462 lbs., quite a bit less than the 476-lb. Yamaha and its 4.6-gallon payload.
Six-spoke wheels and petal rotors resemble the Ninja 1000’s rolling stock. Tokico calipers
Both bikes have an upright riding position, but the Yamaha offers a little more room overall, so it’s more comfortable for taller riders. Legroom is lacking on both bikes, but the Yamaha’s seat can be raised 0.8-inches by repositioning a shim plate on the frame rails, which, consequently, puts the FZ’s seat at 31.7 in.—exactly the same as the Ninja’s. The added legroom makes the Yamaha a bit more comfortable on longer rides, yet it’s still easy to get both feet on the ground at stops. The handlebar is also adjustable and can be moved back by rotating the bar mounts.
Reach-adjustable front brake levers are standard fare, but the Kawasaki’s clutch lever is five-position adjustable as well. Like the Ninja 1000, the Ninja 650’s windscreen is adjustable, and even in the lowest position the Kawasaki’s taller, wider windshield does a better job of blocking the breeze than the FZ6R’s shorter, skinnier screen.
Although it has less torque than the Kawasaki down low, the Yamaha is easier to usher off the line thanks a lighter clutch with a broader friction zone. The Ninja’s clutch engages quickly, so it’s tougher to master, but once you do the Kawasaki is a hoot to hustle around town. An edge in midrange power makes it more fun to flog from stoplight to stoplight, although the suspension sends every ripple and crack straight through to your wrists and backside, while the FZ floats along on a cloud. The Ninja’s front-brake setup offers a firm lever and more stopping power, but we like the extra feel the FZ’s setup offers, even if the lever is a little spongy.
Off the Record
Kevin Hipp, Online Editor
Age: 29 | Height: 5’7”
Weight: 135 lbs | Inseam: 30”
The Ninja totally outshines the FZ6R in terms of looks, but given that they cost the same, I would go with the Yamaha. It offers the best overall package in terms of comfort and performance. If it weren’t for the Kawasaki’s weird suspension and touchy throttle, things would be different. As it is, there would need to be pretty big difference in price to account for the fork springs and fuel module you need to buy to make the Kawasaki right. I still think the Ninja is a great bike, but it’s just got a few rough spots that would make it harder to live with on a daily basis.