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

But you can’t blame the tires for the CBR’s comparative lethargy. No, that falls to the soft suspension, which works perfectly with those low footpegs to kill any buzz you might have accidentally generated. Even our lighter testers wished for firmer legs to keep the bottoms of the squishy, rubber covered pegs off the deck. The CBR doesn’t have quite enough power to make squat an issue, but the two-piston Nissin up front can put the CBR on its nose easily—abetted by very good ABS. We think the Ninja’s brakes will do the same thing, but you use them so seldom that we can’t really remember. Bottom line: A healthy flog leaves an experienced rider feeling like the Honda wants to be somewhere else. The clown on the Ninja is laughing his ass off.

The roles reverse when you get away from the mountains. Smooth beyond all expectations, the Honda coddles the rider with its easygoing nature, low-buck suspension that gets flustered only over the worst pavement, and an ergonomic package that makes shorties and tallies equally happy. Add the things Honda usually does well, too: Clear, wide mirrors, a great seat, good aerodynamic coverage (especially considering the size of the fairing), and shiny, stout plastics. By contrast, the Ninja looks and feels a bit boy racer, not exactly temperamental on daily commutes or short highway rides, but definitely a bit out of its element.

If we don’t sound over the moon about the CBR500R, it’s mostly because of our expectations. We assumed it would be a step between the willing CBR250R and a true supersport like the CBR600RR. It’s not. Instead, it’s something entirely different, a sensible small motorcycle with good build quality, solid performance, and commendable efficiency. It’s the bike you’d recommend to a new rider, an acquaintance. But for your friends with true sporting intentions and a thirst for authentic mechanical presence—point them at a Ninja 300. Save a couple of bucks and forgo the ABS. The littlest Ninja looks great in Pearl White.

Off the Record

Zack Courts
Associate Editor
Age: 29
Height: 6’ 2”
Weight: 185 lbs.
Inseam: 34 in.

Honda’s new 500s are important bikes in the context of the motorcycle market, not to mention Honda’s history. Based on the 500R’s purposeful, sporty look, I was really excited to turn it loose on a twisty road. As it happens, I was deceived by those looks; the CBR500R has the look of a sportbike, but the soul of Honda’s own NC700X (mature to a fault, in other words). Rather than being disappointed, mostly I’m excited for the naked 500F model, which I think will align much better with the engine’s calm dynamic. Between the 500R and the Kawasaki, it’s the Ninja 300 for me. It’s cheaper, sprung better, and even though it’s down on power, the baby Ninja is more exciting to ride. Ironically, it’s the more capable of the two bikes, despite the size and price. And we all know how popular irony is these days.

Marc Cook
Editor in Chief
Age: 49
Height: 5’ 9”
Weight: 195 lbs.
Inseam: 32 in.

This is the second Honda that I admire but don’t love—and that includes my long-term NC700X. What I really want doesn’t exist (but a man can dream): A middleweight machine with the heart of an old Kawasaki EX500, but built to Honda’s high standards. I want smooth suspension and strong brakes, which the CBR has, but I also yearn for a powerband with some texture. The CB (and the NC) have torque traces as fat as outfield grass. Can’t even really call them curves. Result? Bikes that feel slower and duller than they are. Opposite the CBR is the Ninja, which seems a little soggy right from the bottom, crawls up to really useful thrust by 6000 or so, and runs hard right to 12K. It’s what, to my mind, a sportbike should feel like, regardless of engine displacement.

Annette Carrion
Associate Online Editor
Age: A lady never tells
Height: 5’ 2”
Weight: How rude!
Inseam: 27 in.

The Ninja 300 is a good fit for my petite frame, and it has enough power to keep me interested. But for how long? After riding the Honda CBR500R at highway speeds, I was satisfied with the extra horsepower. Don’t get me wrong, the Ninja 300 can keep up with traffic quite well, but it works harder at it than the CBR. The only gripes I have with the CBR500R are the extra weight and the styling. Because it’s a heavier bike, I didn’t feel as comfortable moving it around as I did the Ninja 300. I also prefer the aggressive sportbike styling of the Ninja 300 over the modest looks of the Honda. Although the CBR does have more bite, in the end, I want to feel comfortable and confident on my ride. So, I’d pick the Ninja 300.

“Hey, that’s not a fair fight,” you’re saying. Sure, the Honda’s engine is 37 percent larger. But it also makes 42 percent more peak torque, and, at the top of the CBR’s powerband, beats the Ninja’s horsepower and torque output by 38 and 40 percent. Then again, the 300 is still 1000 rpm shy of its torque peak. Although the posted redline is 8500 rpm, the CBR pulled to 8800 on our SuperFlow dyno. A little bit of over-rev would help the Honda on the street. Numbers and charts don’t describe the Kawasaki’s free-revving nature—a stark contrast to the Honda.

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