2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300 | Small Bikes Rule!

Going Big in the Small Bike Class

By Marc Cook, Photography by Kevin Wing

There was a time when experienced riders openly dismissed the Ninja 250R and bikes like it. Today, with fuel prices high and rising, a new sporting ethos arising from the good work done, in part, by the Honda CBR250R, and a slew of other factors, the small-displacement sportbike is due for some respect. Now, with the Ninja 300, it earns a bit more. A new Kawasaki tradition?

Chassis alterations come with the Ninja 300’s newfound, if petite, brutishness. According to Kawasaki, the reworked double-cradle, steel-tube frame uses main tubes 150 percent stronger than before; the top tubes are farther apart under the fuel tank and benefit from additional gusseting. This stronger frame no longer needs as much support from the engine as a stressed member, so the front mounts are now rubber isolated. While Kawasaki had the frame jigs apart, it reset the non-detachable subframe’s angle to help maintain a low seat height. While the wheelbase spec is slightly longer than the 250’s, it’s not because of frame or swingarm changes. Instead, the rear sprocket has three fewer teeth, so the axle rides further back in the adjuster channel. New wheel designs are used, while the rear hoop is a half-inch wider to accommodate a 140mm-wide tire. Finally, grownup rubber for the littlest Ninja. Well, mostly; the 300 rides on IRC bias-ply tires that, to everyone’s surprise, limit the bike’s handling not at all.

The rest of the running gear gets modest updates as well. While the brakes are similar to the 250’s—up front, a single 290mm disc gripped by a twin-piston, sliding-pin caliper—ABS is now an option. According to Kawasaki, the Nissin-built ABS module weighs less than half of the unit on the ZX-14R, and is small enough to fit under the fuel tank. Kawasaki specifies different front brake pads for ABS and non-ABS models, with the antilock bikes using a sintered pad for better initial bite. The non-ABS bike, which we rode extensively at the model launch, had good brake feel and adequate power, but the ABS bike was better; the front bites gently enough to keep new riders out of trouble even before ABS kicks in. For its part, the Nissin ABS works very well, with reasonable thresholds and quick recovery once traction returns—definitely worth the $700 price bump.

While reworking the chassis, Kawasaki toyed with the Ninja’s suspension settings without really changing parts. The shock has increased damping in both directions—but even then is still very light—with a shorter spring that allows owners to run less preload than was possible on the 250. The spring rate is the same. Up front, the non-adjustable, 37mm cartridge-less fork’s damping rates come down from 250 spec, but there’s more oil in the legs to provide a more progressive effective spring rate. We rarely bottomed the fork. Ride quality is generally good, though the suspension’s low-rent ancestry is evident in the way the wheels clomp over sharp-edged bumps.

First and lasting impressions are of a delightfully featherweight bike, with a compact riding position and near-instant steering response—the Ninja feels almost ridiculously small and light. Like you could hoist it over a curb with one hand, maybe clean-and-jerk it over your head. At 386 pounds with gas, the 300 is only 3 lbs. heavier than the last 250R we tested, and a modest 31 lbs. heftier than a non-ABS Honda CBR250R. Specs watchers will also carp about the greater seat height of the Ninja compared to the Honda (all of 0.4 in., at 30.9 in.) but the cut of the Kawasaki’s seat ensures flat-footing at stops yet preserves comfort.

Building on the 250R’s sporting performance is one thing—a thing, as it happens, the 300 does with the effectiveness of a bulldozer moving peanut shells—but the new Ninja is a vastly better all-around bike. The engine is smoother throughout the rev range, thanks to the new balance factors and rubber engine mounts. It has sufficient roll-on performance to make highway cruising a low-stress affair, and the new digital/analog gauge package is a dramatic improvement over the 250’s circa-1980s dials. It's efficient, too. We averaged 53 mpg in mixed use.

Kawasaki is confident that the 300 will distance itself from both its own 250 and the popular Honda one-lunger. So confident that the price differential doesn’t seem to be a concern: The Ninja 300 starts at $4799. A lime-green Special Edition model is $200 more. ABS adds just 5 lbs. and $500 to the SE’s price; ABS is available only in SE trim.

Number of times per second each of the Ninja 300’s two, 62mm pistons travel from TDC to BDC and back at the 13,000-rpm redline.

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