Honda CBR500R vs. Kawasaki Ninja 300 | Batting 500

Honda’s new CBR500R takes a swing at the Ninja 300. Did it whiff?

By Marc Cook, Photography by Kevin Wing

As extra-large fans of smaller-than-average motorcycles, we have anticipated the arrival of Honda’s new CBR500R and CB500F machines with all the temperance of an in-season baseball player at an all-you-can-eat steakhouse.

We’ve been salivating over the small Hondas because they fit so beautifully into the current sporting mix, cleaving in above Honda’s own CBR250R and Kawasaki’s Ninja 300, but comfortably beneath the much more expensive 600cc supersports and 650cc twins (from Kawasaki and Suzuki). From a distance, the CB500s seem to inhabit the perfect middle ground in size, weight, and performance. And value. Honda’s highest-priced 500 is the ABS-equipped CBR500R, at $6499. The cheapest is the non-ABS CB500F naked bike, at $5699. Even A-Rod could afford one.

The final reason we’re so hot on these small Hondas is that they appear to be well built, and are undeniably handsome, if not exactly stunning. We’ve had our fill of cheap bikes that feel, well, cheap. Skimpy suspension, cheesy brakes, breathless power, poor-fitting and buzzy plastic—we’ve seen it all, and got the furrowed brow to prove it. When Honda’s CBR250R arrived with above-average fit and finish (and a willing demeanor), our hopes soared. Surely the CBR500R will continue that trend.

The difficulty of evaluating a category crosser like the 500 is establishing a benchmark. We chose the new Kawasaki Ninja 300 because it’s closest in price—still $1000 lower with both bikes having ABS—and, we figured, probably not too far away in performance. Look at it this way: The nearest bikes up the range are an $1800 jump (without the benefit of ABS) and move quickly out of economic range. Finally, we know the Ninja 300. It punches way above its weight.

In case you missed it, Kawasaki’s rework of the Ninja into a 300 this year made a good motorcycle great. A 47cc bump through a 7.8mm increase in stroke gives the twin-cylinder Kawasaki newfound midrange power coupled with a delightful (if diminutive) high-end rush. And while Team Green merely fiddled in the margins with the 300’s chassis, it continues to impress us as fit and friendly in its own way. We can pick nits about pure power or suspension compliance, but the 300 never fails to leave us smiling. And isn’t that why we ride?

Where Kawasaki simply boosted the ceiling of an already lively sportbike, Honda has taken a totally different approach. All of the CB500s are “world” bikes, meaning that we get basically the same spec as everyone—we’ll come back to why this is important. The CBR500R is, by all appearances, the most sporting of the three. The CB500F is a mechanically identical naked model with a handlebar in place of above-the-clamp clip-ons, and a quarter fairing replacing the CBR’s maxi-coverage skin. An NC700X-like CB500X will arrive late in 2013.

Because we wanted to put Honda’s latest twin up against the Ninja 300, we chose the sportier CBR500R. And because we already had an ABS model of the Ninja hanging around, we got the ABS-equipped version for this comparison. (Fun fact: We got our CBR well before the offcial U.S. press launch, but it took some out-of-the-box thinking. And cash. For the how and the why, all will be explained in this Saturday's Cook's Corner blog.)

Honda’s stated aim with the new CBs is to “reestablish the 500cc market and take it into the future.” As part of that effort, Honda built the CB500 to be the “lowest displacement full-size motorcycle” in the entry-level market. It needs to be “easy to handle, reassuring, and fun,” according to Honda’s European press materials.

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