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

While the CBR’s engine is truly all new, it’s hardly cutting edge. The nearly equal bore and stroke (67mm bore and 66.8mm stroke) imply what the 500 actually is: a torque-rich, low-revving machine. The 500’s bore is the same as a CBR600RR’s, as is the bore spacing, but that’s where the similarities end. Honda gave the 500s a modest, 8500-rpm redline—not as crazy low as the NC700’s 6500 rpm, but well below the Ninja 300’s 13,000. A slow-revving engine benefits from reduced internal friction, something Honda tackled in other ways. The forked rocker arms—there is just one cam lobe for each pair of like valves—have a rolling element to reduce friction, and the pistons are treated for the same reason. A gear-driven counterbalancer takes the edge off the engine’s 180-degree crank layout.

Techno highlights point to a smooth, fuel-efficient engine with safe power characteristics. Another design target was to come in at the 35-kilowatt (47 horsepower) limit for certain license classes abroad. Ah, the light goes on: If your goal as an engine designer is 47 bhp from 471cc, you don’t need high revs and higher technology. That kind of power is easy with today’s technology; the challenge is to make the engine smooth, quiet, and efficient with that modest power cap. Mission accomplished. Our dyno revealed 44.5 bhp at 8700 rpm.

Specific power was just one mandate. The new CB series also had to be “full sized.” Fans of the Ninja 250R and 300 who found those bikes too small will delight in the Honda. It has very similar proportions to the Kawasaki but feels scaled about 15 percent larger. We say “feels,” because the Honda actually isn’t much bigger. Its 55.5-inch wheelbase is less than a quarter inch longer; seat heights are identical (according to the manufacturers); and our ergonomic measurements have the seat-to-bar distance tighter on the Honda than the Kawasaki, which has slightly less bar rise.

Two physical factors reinforce your senses. First, Honda gave the CBR a prodigious amount of legroom—1.3 in. greater than the Kawasaki—but it actually feels like more. Second is heft. With its 4.1-gallon tank full, the Honda weighs a portly 430 pounds—actually 2 lbs. heavier than a Ducati Panigale S. Seriously. The Ninja? Try 386 lbs., wet. As a result, the Honda feels compact and manageable even for lighter, shorter riders, but the Kawasaki is a feather, a mere tiffin of a motorcycle beneath you.

“The Honda’s low-set, rubber-sheathed footpegs are really an allegory for what the bikes have in store,” said our resident beanpole, Zack Courts, after a day’s ride on both. And he’s right. What’s in store starts the instant you thumb the starter button. Kawasaki’s resolute little twin fires up with a quickened heartbeat, kicking out a definite throb you feel throughout the bike, like a puppy who’s just recognized his master. The Honda is cooler, extremely relaxed. Coming to life with a muffed whir, the solidly mounted parallel-twin chuffs contentedly at idle and revs gracefully, but not particularly quickly, when you twist the throttle. By now you’ve noticed the low redline on the LCD-segment tach, which is far more legible than the tiny squares on the NC700X’s gauge but not nearly as effective as the Ninja’s good, old-fashioned analog meter. (Speaking of instruments, the CBR500R’s cluster is cleaner and more comprehensive than most, and includes a fuel gauge, dual tripmeters, and even a counter for the amount of fuel consumed.)

Start your journey and the Honda still feels like the larger, more substantial machine. It has a lot more low-end torque than the Kawasaki, along with a light, progressive clutch and seamless off-idle fueling. Brand-new riders will appreciate the CBR’s city manners—the 500 kicks off enough torque to pace four-wheel traffic without using more than, say, 54.8 percent of the rev range. It’s amazingly smooth, too; after hitting a sweet spot at 4000 rpm, where the vibration drops to near zero, tingles increase toward the redline, though they’re never offensive. If you think all 180-degree parallel-twins are squirmy machines, you haven’t sampled Honda’s effort.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Ninja’s eager, undeniably more charismatic gem of an engine, which gets slaughtered on the dyno but still manages to hold its own on the road. You shift more, it’s true, and there are many more occasions when you hold the throttle wide open waiting for something to happen. But the 300 thrives on this treatment, offering satisfying acceleration when you keep it boiling between 6000 and 12,000 rpm. Shorter gearing helps. Pound the shifts, tease the rev limiter, give it the business all day long—the 300 just asks for more. It’s Bill Murray’s masochistic dental patient in Little Shop of Horrors.

Find the right environment and the Ninja will offer nonstop thrills. While both these machines have fairly low-tech running gear—the only adjustments you’ll make are to rear preload, and you could stuff all the brake pads in one pocket without arousing suspicion—they get the job done. Honda’s chassis, in the low-key spirit of the engine, asks for cool and calm. It steers quickly—or so you think—until you switch to the Ninja, which seems to anticipate your intentions, tilting rapidly on narrow, bias-ply tires, holding a line only as long as necessary, preferring to be in transition rather than equilibrium. Honda, for some inexplicable reason (styling, perhaps?), picked tires big enough for an SV650—a 120/70ZR-17 front, 160/60ZR-17 rear, happily common sizes for the tightwads among us—and they doubtlessly slow the 500’s steering.

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