Sportbike chauvinists who insist there's no replacement for displacement have probably never enjoyed the massively entertaining experience of riding a small, light bike that corners like a rat in a sewer pipe and doesn't come alive until the tach needle swings into five-digit territory. Kawasaki's Ninja 250R is such a bike. Look beyond its teacup-size pistons and its unintimidating personality and you'll find the beating heart of a very small, very fierce lion—one that can also be a pussycat when necessary.
The Ninja 250R reached American shores in 1986, parachuting into the heat of the battle raging among manufacturers to produce the quickest and fastest bikes available to the public. Its 248cc twin-cylinder engine had a dizzying 14,000-rpm redline, and although some riders complained about how long it took to get there, many simultaneously praised its civility while putting around town off the cams. Mid-15-second quarter-miles didn't raise any eyebrows nor did the prosaic damper-rod fork and Uni-Trak rear shock, but fuel economy to shame every car in 1986 (and most bikes) grabbed the attention of commuters.
Kawasaki likes to get the most from its models, many of which have been in the lineup for decades, and the Ninjette is no exception. From 1988 to 2007 changes were minor, including smaller carbs, more ignition advance, higher compression, and final-drive gearing changes, all aimed at silencing the critics of the slow-revving engine by making it snappier. The stylists got their hands on the 250R too, clothing it in au courant sportbike bodywork that led many to mistake it for one of Kawasaki's larger sportbikes as it zipped by. The big changes came in 2008, with all-new bodywork, an engine retuned for more midrange, 17-inch wheels, and better suspension and brakes.
Despite its single-minded sporty look, the 250R's personality isn't just split; it's fractured into several pieces. It's a standout in the bang-for-buck category as a club racer or trackday bike. Few other commuter bikes beat it for economy and style. The 250R even has modest touring chops. Toss a pair of soft bags over the seat, add a tank bag and a backpack, and you're sport-touring on the cheap. Or go nuts and hit the highway hard, like the rider on the 250 Ninja who bagged 12th place in the 2003 Iron Butt Rally, covering 11,186 miles in 11 days. You can't get much more hard core than that.
True to their original intent, a lot of 250Rs start their lives under beginning riders, and some used ones tend to show the scars. Cosmetic damage to the bodywork is the most common manifestation, along with bent bars, footpegs, and levers. Surprisingly for an engine that routinely revs so high, there isn't much that goes wrong with it—at least not consistently. The inattention of the aforementioned rookies means you should ask about oil changes and valve-clearance checks and whether they were done on time and by whom; don't be shy about asking for proof in the form of receipts.
On the flip side, keep an eye peeled for the subtle tip-offs that point to hard trackday use, like beveled footpegs, mismatched bodywork, safety-wire holes in hardware, scuff marks on the mufflers, and tech-inspection stickers on the windscreen.
Runs like a hamster in a wheel, as much fun as some bikes three times its size. Dictionary definition of "pocket rocket."
Too rev-happy for some riders, too displacement-challenged for others. Hard to earn street cred on a 250.
Dead batteries, gunked-up carbs in beginner bikes that got parked after their owners moved on to some other pursuit.
If riding a 250R doesn't make you break out in a grin, you're in the wrong sport.
1986 | $1320
1988 | $1345
1990 | $1375
1992 | $1390
1994 | $1045
1996 | $1095
1998 | $1165
2000 | $1275
2002 | $1425
2004 | $1640
2006 | $1930
2008 | $2305
2010 | $2795
2012 | $3400