2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300 | Small Bikes Rule!

Going Big in the Small Bike Class

By Marc Cook, Photography by Kevin Wing

They say: “The ultimate lightweight sportbike!”
We say: “There is a replacement for displacement.”

Kawasaki is just following tradition here. Upon seeing Honda’s CB750 in the late 1960s, Team Green changed course and kicked out the 903cc Z1. A year after, the largest two-stroke streetbike was a 305, Kawasaki dropped the H1 onto the scene, a brutal 500cc triple, followed four years later by the insane 750cc H2/Mach IV. A decade ago, the company “cheated” with the ZX-6R, which boasted a 636cc engine—and it’s set to do it all over again this year.

Kawasaki followed this proven path once more, seeing it as one sure way to answer the common complaint of small motorcycles: lack of usable, street-ready power. That’s how we get the Ninja 300, a bike without a displacement class. (Actually, it has one; in countries with tiered licensing, the same bike will be available as a 250.) Why a 300? Several reasons, starting with the fact that the existing parallel-twin engine could be expanded this far without an expensive redesign, and ending with smart marketing. The 300 needs room between it and the Ninja 650; building it as a 400 or 450 would cramp the categories.

To get the smallest Ninja’s power out of the basement, Kawasaki committed a substantial rework of the 250R’s engine, though it kept the basic architecture. Pistons travel a longer stroke, 49mm against the 250’s 41.2; the bore remains 62mm. Kawasaki went to lighter, Alumite-coated pistons so it could retain the old 13,000-rpm redline. Shorter connecting rods accommodate the increased stroke so the engine’s overall height remains the same. Other bottom-end changes include a revised counterbalancer with dual weights that are thicker, 4 percent heavier and 10 percent further from the shaft axis.

For every Ninja 250R owner who wailed about cleaning or jetting carbs, there’s this: Move up and get a dual-valve electronic fuel injection system instead. In place of the 30mm carbs are throttle bodies with 32mm primary butterflies (directly controlled by the rider) and 40.2mm secondaries. They feed larger intake ports that end in 1mm-smaller intake valves. These changes, alongside the lowered compression ratio, down a full point from 11.6:1, and exhaust header with longer primary tubes, show that Kawasaki was looking to increase maximum power through displacement and boost midrange torque through a specific state of tune.

Were these efforts successful? Oh, you bet. On our SuperFlow dyno, the Ninja 300 pounded out 33 horsepower at 11,000 rpm and 16.9 lb.-ft. of torque at 9800 rpm. Compare that with the last Ninja 250R we had, which moved the needle to 24.7 bhp at 10,250 rpm and 12.8 lb.-ft. at 9500 rpm. It almost seems like the 300 is peakier, but it carries at least a 4 bhp advantage from 4750 to 10,250 rpm. It’s the area under the curve that counts: Overlay the charts and you’d swear the difference was more than 47cc.

It’s as good out on the road, too. The 300 idles smoothly but revs with a diminutive roar, a small person with an unexpectedly gravelly voice. Pull in the very light clutch—its springs are softer because of a combined slipper/assist design that improves clamping force without abusing your left hand—select first and it’ll pull away with just a handful of revs. The Ninja feels like it has less flywheel than the single-cylinder Honda CBR250R, so it takes a bit more throttle to maintain revs once the clutch bites, but then it starts to make instant headway. Adequate power comes on as low as 3000 rpm, but then starts to pull smartly by 5000. All of the fun lives between 9000 and 12,000 rpm—there’s a noticeable flattening of power near the redline—but if you find yourself anticipating poorly and try to exit a corner at 5000 rpm, it’ll still pull up onto the powerband. Try that on the 250 and you’ll be looking to see if you’ve mistakenly planted your boot on the brake pedal instead of the peg.

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.


216
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.

Ergos

Tech Spec

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
Frame: Steel-tube double-cradle
Front suspension: Kayaba 37mm fork
Rear suspension: Kayaba 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 (high/low/avg.): 60/48/53
Colors: Ebony, Lime Green/Ebony, Pearl Stardust White
Availability: Now
Warranty: 12 mo., unlimited mi.
Contact: Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA
9950 Jeronimo Rd.
Irvine, CA 92718
949.770.0400
www.kawasaki.com

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