For anyone smart enough to start small, Kawasaki's quarter-liter Ninja is the best choice because it's very nearly the only choice. While Euro-rookies take their pick of sporty tack, we're left with a 14,000-rpm twin that's been essentially unchanged since Ronald Reagan was president. That, however, is not an altogether bad thing.
Despite America's correlation of bigger with better, Ninja 250 ownership is inexpensive without making you feel cheap. A well-kept '95 model capable of turning a 4.8-gallon tankful of gas into 265 miles can be had for about $1500. The 248cc eight-valve parallel-twin has proven to be a solid piece of work after two decades on the road. While less technologically inspirational than, say, a new ZX-6R, a solid, predictable chassis makes the little Ninja a better way to accelerate your learning curve in Sportbike 101. Especially if you dread starting out on some little cruiser.
Styling hews closer to the sporting mainstream beginning in '88, when Kawasaki dotted the engine and chassis with improvements: smaller crank pins and bearing journals to build revs quicker, 30mm CV carbs in place of the original 32mm mixers, 12.4:1 compression, a stiffer frame and swingarm, a 36mm fork, plus new brakes and 16-inch wheels. The 55-inch wheelbase is equivalent to Kawasaki's latest ZX-6R, and at 360 pounds wet, a good bit lighter. With maybe 30 horses showing up at 12,000 rpm, however, its 15-second quarter-mile time is well behind any modern middleweight.
OK, so the ZX750R-inspired fairing looks a bit dated 19 years later. Ergonomics are comfortably neutral. Back-road behavior is forgiving, but sharp enough to reward precision. Effective thrust is concentrated above 8000 rpm-plan on plenty of shifting-but the counterbalanced twin remains surprisingly smooth on the freeway.
With a pair of pistons traveling from TDC to BDC 466 times every second, maintenance is critical. Have the valves been inspected at the prescribed intervals? Listen for any untoward valve noise and make sure the silent cam chain is just that. Insufficient lubrication is certain death. If the bike you're looking at is a quart low, there's only one left in there, so pass. Rookies often move on to bigger and faster things before putting too many miles on their little Ninjas, so there are too many trustworthy examples out there to settle for anything less. Barring that, your Kawasaki dealer will happily sell you an '07 model for $2999.
Sporting scholarship without the physical, financial or psychological intimidation of bigger bikes.
Relatively unsophisticated suspension, nobody home below 6000 rpm.
Anything showing 30,000 miles or more. Smoky exhaust, suspicious top-end noise, low oil level, warped brake discs, spotty maintenance records.
The most fun you can have on a twisty road for less than $1500.