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.
The Ninja’s rubber-mounted seat, handlebar and footpegs are simply an admission that the engine is turning too much gas into vibration. The vibes travel from one location to another, manifesting as a loud buzz in the fairing at 2500 rpm before moving on to blur the mirrors and numb your butt as the revs rise. The FZ is largely unaffected by shaking-engine syndrome (SES, not currently covered by our health plan, sadly), and the wide-set mirrors remain clear and functional at all revs.
Neither bike has a particularly invigorating exhaust note, partly because they both pipe spent gasses through under-ship mufflers that suck all character from the sound. At least the Kawasaki’s sculpted can matches the lines of the bike, unlike the FZ6R’s bulky breadbox of a muffler.
The Yamaha’s style is mostly appealing, and makes an effort at keeping the bike from looking cheap. The angular fairing, two-piece seat and sharp tail, red rim strips and matching shock spring are hot. The stamped-steel rear brake lever, box-section swingarm and fake air intakes are not. The front end appears properly fierce at first, but then you notice that weird jewel-like lens above the headlight; it not only looks out of place, it doesn’t even serve a purpose since there’s no bulb behind it, at least for U.S. bikes.
The FZ’s instruments reside in an expanse of plastic. The dash pairs an analog tach with a
You’d be hard pressed to find fault with the Ninja’s style, especially in Candy Lime Green. The FZ6R doesn’t look much like its supersport sibling, but the Ninja could easily be mistaken for its good-looking big brother. The bodywork was redesigned to resemble the Ninja 1000’s and features similar fairing-integrated front turn signals, petal rotors and tank-top ignition switch. The FZ wafts some heat in traffic, but openings in the Ninja’s bodywork direct hot air away from the rider, and the reshaped seat is softer and more comfortable than before.
Kawasaki moved the footpegs inboard a full 2 in. so your feet, knees and thighs are fairly close together. That makes the Ninja feel narrow and nimble in traffic, though there isn’t much to latch on to when you’re carving up a twisty road, and the seat’s textured fabric is difficult to move around on.
The Yamaha’s firmer seat is covered in ordinary vinyl so it’s easy to slide across, and the flared tank works well for bracing your lower body in turns. The FZ6R is also much smoother in terms of the ride quality and engine character. All but the most offensive bumps are absorbed by the Yamaha’s suspension, and fine-tuned fueling insures perfect throttle response at all rpm. The Kawasaki, on the other hand, suffers from abrupt on/off throttle response and strong engine braking.
Off the Record
Eric Putter, Test Consultant
AGE: 48 | Height: 5’7”
Weight: 148 lbs. | INSEAM: 29 in.
After stepping off my ZX-6R, I find the Ninja 650 and FZ6R refreshing. Their wide handlebars, relaxed ergonomics and accessible power make them easier to handle and more enjoyable to ride in most situations. The Ninja’s peppy parallel-twin engine is buzzy, but it has better low-end thrust and feels unique—it’s not just a detuned sportbike motor. With such a short inseam it’s nice to be able to flat-foot it on these bikes, but even at my Height there isn’t enough legroom to be truly comfortable. In the end, I’m swayed by the Ninja’s newness and the fact that it’s purpose-built. The FZ6R might work a little better, but it’s too vanilla, especially in white!
Are Yamaha’s YZF-R6 and Kawasaki’s ZX-6R a little too pricey or performance-oriented for y
Suspension is usually where budget bikes suffer most, and the Ninja and FZ are no exception: forks are non-adjustable, and the shocks are only adjustable for preload. The Ninja’s side-mounted unit puts the preload collar out in the open while the Yamaha’s shock is harder to access and adjust.
This combination makes it difficult to smoothly navigate tight twisties, which is a shame because the Ninja’s parallel-twin engine has such good midrange grunt. Once you get the throttle opened, the Ninja squirts off the apex faster than the FZ6R, which is best kept on the boil and is most at home in sweeping corners.
The Kawasaki has softer springs and revised damping at both ends. It also has more suspension travel than before, but unless you weigh a hundred pounds you’ll never get to enjoy it. For average-sized humans, a large portion of the stroke is eaten up as soon as you sit down, leaving precious little travel to deal with bumps and potholes. The resultant ride is pretty harsh, and in simulated panic stops the fork bottomed, causing the front tire to lock up upon encountering the slightest irregularity in the road.
The FZ6R’s suspension isn’t perfect, either—it wallows through fast turns and can feel loose at speed—but at least the wheels follow the road. Even though it’s heavier and longer, testers felt more confident bending the Yamaha into turns since it’s more stable on the brakes and at full lean. The Ninja’s sacked suspenders make it feel flighty on bumpy roads, but given a perfectly flat, freshly-paved section of road it flicks in quick and tracks true. Clearly the Kawasaki would benefit from some suspension work to make quicker/heavier riders happy.
But if you’re in the market for one of these low-buck sportbikes, then spending money on modifications and upgrades probably isn’t an appealing idea. The Ninja may be newer and more stylish, but the suspension is jarring and the touchy throttle response is annoying. And that bodywork buzz! The FZ6R is more comfortable, lays its power down smoother, and handles better right off the showroom floor. In stock trim, FZ6R edges the Ninja in enough areas that we’re going to call the Yamaha the best of the next-besters.
Words: Ari Henning
One benefit of buying a modestly priced bike is that you might actually have some money left over for riding gear. When you’re on a budget, buying second-hand is a great alternative to purchasing new—you’ll get more or better gear for the same dough. Where? There are terrific deals to be had at consignment stores, swap meets and on eBay and Craigslist.
The good thing about garments like jackets and gloves is that they show their wear. Look for road rash, blown seams or other signs of an impact. Is all the armor intact and in place? Avoid garments with obvious damage or missing pieces. Footwear is pretty straightforward: if the boots fit and the price is right, go for it!
Unlike apparel, helmets can conceal damage that might compromise their integrity, so it’s best to buy new unless you’re 100 percent sure of the helmet’s history. Manufacturers give lids a five-year in-use lifespan, so check the date sticker (usually found on the inner EPS lining). Double-check supposedly unused helmets to be sure they haven’t been stored in a harsh environment.
Beyond that, it’s a matter of finding gear that fits you, but for the sake of style, steer clear of stuff from the ‘90s!
|2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 | $7499
|Engine type:||l-c parallel-twin|
|Valve train:||DOHC, 8v|
|Bore x stroke:||83.0 x 60.0mm|
|Front suspension:||Kayaba 41mm fork|
|Rear suspension:||Kayaba shock with adjustable spring preload|
|Front brake:||Dual Tokico two-piston calipers, 300mm discs|
|Rear brake:||Tokico single-piston caliper, 220mm disc|
|Front tire:||120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Roadsmart II|
|Rear tire:||160/60ZR-17 Dunlop Roadsmart II|
|Seat Height:||31.7 in.|
|Fuel capacity:||4.2 gal.|
|Weight (tank full/empty):||462/437 lbs.|
|Measured horsepower:||63.1 bhp @ 8700 rpm|
|Measured torque:||2.9 lb.-ft. @ 6900 rpm|
|Corrected ¼-mile:||12.32 sec. @ 105.70 mph|
|Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph:||4.40 sec.|
|Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.):||54/34/44 mpg|
|Colors:||Black, green, red|
|Warranty:||12 mo./unlimited mi.|
|Contact:||Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA |
9950 Jeronimo Rd.
Irvine, CA 92618
|2012 Yamaha FZ6R | Price $7590
|Engine type:||l-c inline-four|
|Valve train:||DOHC, 16v|
|Bore x stroke:||65.5 x 44.5mm|
|Front suspension:||Soqi 41mm fork|
|Rear suspension:||Soqi shock with adjustable spring preload|
|Front brake:||Dual Akebono two-piston calipers, 298mm disc|
|Rear brake:||Nissin one-piston caliper, 245mm disc|
|Front tire:||120/70-ZR17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart|
|Rear tire:||160/60-ZR17 Dunlop Sportmax Roadsmart|
|Seat Height:||30.9-31.7 in.|
|Fuel capacity:||4.6 gal.|
|Weight (tank full/empty):||4.6 gal.|
|Measured horsepower:||64.4 bhp @ 9750 rpm|
|Measured torque:||38.8 lb.-ft. @ 8000 rpm|
|Corrected ¼-mile:||12.48 sec. @ 104.01 mph|
|Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph:||4.40 sec.|
|Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.):||49/38/42 mpg|
|Warranty:||12 mo./unlimited mi.|
|Contact:||Yamaha Motor Corp. USA |
6555 Katella Ave.
Cypress, CA 90630