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.

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.

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.

Ergos

In most of our ergonomic measurements, the Honda and Kawasaki are close. But look at the seat-to-peg distances. The Honda offers a more “open” riding position than most sportbikes, especially those in the CBR’s size class. Honda clearly wanted the 500 to feel grown up. Other influences include the CBR’s vastly better seat and greater wind protection from a slightly larger fairing. Think of the Honda as a standard-style bike with a full fairing rather than a downsized supersport. The Ninja feels compact and racy, but not overly aggressive.

Tech Spec

Honda CBR500R | Price: $5999 ($6499 w/ABS)

Engine type: l-c parallel-twin

Valve train: DOHC, 8v

Displacement: 471cc

Bore x stroke: 67.0 x 66.8mm

Compression: 10.7:1

Fuel system: EFI

Clutch: Wet, multi-plate

Transmission: 6-speed

Measured horsepower: 44.5 bhp @ 8700 rpm

Measured torque: 28.9 lb.-ft. @ 7000 rpm

Corrected 1⁄4-mile: 13.63 sec. @ 93.80 mph

Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 8.26 sec.

Frame: Steel semi-double-cradle

Front suspension: Showa 41mm fork

Rear suspension: Showa shock with adjustable spring preload

Front brake: Nissin two-piston caliper, 320mm disc, optional ABS

Rear brake: Nissin one-piston caliper, 240mm disc, optional ABS

Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop D222F

Rear tire: 160/60ZR-17 Dunlop D222

Rake/trail: 25.5°/4.1 in.

Seat height: 30.9 in.

Wheelbase: 55.5 in.

Fuel capacity: 4.1 gal.

Weight (tank full/empty): 430/405 lbs. (ABS model)

Fuel mileage (hi/low/avg.): 61/43/53 mpg

Colors: Black, Pearl White/Blue/Red, Red

Available: Now

Warranty : 12 mo., unlimited mi.

Contact: American Honda Motor Co., Inc.
P.O. Box 2200
Torrance, CA 90509
866.784.1870
www.powersports.honda.com


Kawasaki Ninja 300 | Price: $4799 ($5499 w/ABS)

Engine type: l-c parallel-twin

Valve train: DOHC, 8v

Displacement: 296cc

Bore x stroke: 62.0 x 49.0mm

Compression: 10.6:1

Fuel system: EFI

Clutch: Wet, multi-plate slipper

Transmission: 6-speed

Measured horsepower: 33.0 bhp @ 11,000 rpm

Measured torque: 16.9 lb.-ft. @ 9800 rpm

Corrected 1⁄4-mile: 14.23 sec. @ 89.85 mph

Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 9.36 sec.

Frame: Steel double-cradle

Front suspension: KYB 37mm fork

Rear suspension: KYB shock with adjustable spring preload

Front brake: Tokico two-piston caliper, 290mm disc, optional ABS

Rear brake: Tokico two-piston caliper, 220mm disc, optional ABS

Front tire: 110/70-17 IRC Road Winner

Rear tire: 140/70-17 IRC Road Winner

Rake/trail: 27.0°/3.7 in.

Seat height: 30.9 in.

Wheelbase: 55.3 in.

Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal.

Weight (tank full/empty): 386/359 lbs. (ABS model)

Fuel mileage (hi/low/avg.): 60/48/53 mpg

Colors: Ebony, Lime Green/Ebony, Pearl Stardust White

Available: Now

Warranty : 24 mo., unlimited mi.

Contact: Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA
9950 Jeronimo Rd.
Irvine, CA 92718
949.770.0400
www.kawasaki.com

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