Kawasaki Ninja 250R
From the neon-green bodywork to the unabashedly dated dayglo purple wheels, the Ninja 250 makes its intentions clear. (It does leave you pondering its exact displacement, since there's no mention on the bike that it's a 250.) Introduced in 1986, the Ninja was a complete surprise and presaged the appearance of the EX500, which is also still on sale, although considerably revamped. As far as we can tell, the 250 is something of a time-capsule curiosity, almost unchanged from its original guise save for body shape and colors.
It's still a lot of fun to ride. The vertical-twin engine is revvy and surprisingly powerful, although we don't recommend taking on your EX500-riding pals at the dragstrip or even challenging a good-running CB750K at the stoplight. Once you get used to seeing the tach quivering between, oh, about 7000 and 11,000 rpm, all the time, you'll be fine. The eight-valve engine's responses are a bit soft at the bottom, particularly next to the torquey Yamaha (still speaking in relative terms here) but gets its momentum with due haste and spins quite happily to its 14,000-rpm redline. (In 1986, that was heady stuff; now we have 750s pushing that figure...isn't progress fun?)
Coupled with a close-ratio six-speed transmission, the Ninja's powerplant begs to be whipped and thrashed and with your average adult-sized rider aboard that's just what'll have to happen. At least the Ninja will pull to 80 or 90 mph and still have a little left over to avoid the runaway gravel truck or bass-addled homeboy in the jacked-up sport-ute.
In this day of superlight, superfast sportbikes on which the throttle is never open for very long (not on the street anyway), it's something of a revelation to ride the Ninja on a twisty road. Maximum progress is not necessarily set by cornering clearance, tire grip or suspension action but instead by your ability to manage momentum. In most cases, the Ninja will go around corners about as fast as the engine will carry it. Being limited by power (and slightly blunted by the Kawasaki's 334-pound dry weight, the highest here), flatters the soft suspension (only mildly underdamped we're pleased to report) and progressive but not terribly powerful brakes. Sure, you might make better time with something other than the ancient Dunlop K630s on those quaintly narrow 16-inch rims, but that's about the only tire still made that'll fit. Kawasaki updated the EX500 with 17-inch wheels years ago.
Of all the bikes here, the Kawasaki is the one most accommodating of full-grown humans. The riding position is 1980s sportbike/standard, with tallish bars, a wide and cushy seat, and a not-too-tight seat/peg relationship. For this, you give away the low-seat-height advantage of the cruisers-at 29.3 inches, the 250R's seat is nearly three inches higher than the Rebel's-but get back long-term comfort. In fact, if it weren't for the Ninja's frenetic engine (tiny pistons working mightily against short gearing) we'd even say you could tour on the thing, thanks to the pleasant ergonomics and amazingly good weather protection from the angular fairing. Frankly, if we were slumming around in this price range, the Ninja would be our budget beater of choice.
It's the newest model here and Suzuki's only offering near the $3000 price point. Unlike the others, though, the GZ coughs with just one lung: The air-cooled, two-valve ties the Yamaha's for largest displacement but clearly trails the pack in power. In fact, we found that to maintain a good clip on even faster city streets required absolutely punishing the little thumper, snapping off upshifts as soon as the power peaked and keeping the throttle pinned. Lighter riders fare a bit better, but everyone who rode the GZ commented on its lack of thrust. Because of its leisurely acceleration and limited top speed-somewhere around 70 mph for the bigger chaps on staff-we'd have to advise anyone contemplating more than limited highway travel to look elsewhere.
That's a shame, too, because the GZ's chassis is in many ways the nicest here. It's shod with decently sized, grippy tires and reasonably plush suspension that's not just totally too soft. (We understand that most 250 buyers will be small and that these bargain-basement prices dictate inexpensive suspension components, but even our lighter testers commented that the bikes feel engineered for 90-pound riders.) Suzuki fitted good brakes and even made the most of the bike's pygmy dimensions by placing the footpegs well forward and giving the bar a reasonably unconfining bend. Compared with the Honda and the Yamaha, the Suzuki feels usefully larger and far less cramped from the saddle.
And perhaps it's because of the bike's lack of speed that the GZ feels composed on rough city streets and on the highway. Rain grooves, which send both the Rebel and the Ninja dancing and skittering, leave the Suzuki unperturbed. Around town, the bike works extremely well, thanks to the low seat height and superb maneuverability. Just be careful of how you split lanes: A cranky Angeleno in a '78 Caprice could out-accelerate you across the intersection.
In the end, we'd have a lot more affection for this bike if Suzuki would step up and give it more horsepower.