San Diego is known for its sunny disposition, but as we learned at the press introduction for the Kawasaki Ninja 650, it’s also a city that knows how to give the cold shoulder. The forecast had mentioned high winds and the chance of rain, but somehow we ended up riding across the El Cajon Mountains amidst fluffy white stuff. It was a good thing we were on such neutral, lightweight, easy-to-ride machines.
In fact, almost all the changes Kawasaki made to its novice-level Ninja 650 for 2012—and there’s a laundry list—make the bike even more manageable than its already ultra-practical predecessor, the Ninja 650R. The concept for the 650 remains the same: Build an affordable bike that’s easy to ride yet looks like a horny honey in hot pants. Stick to that formula and sell stacks of them. Such has been the case with the now six-year-old Ninja.
While by no means puny, the 650 is small, and has become even more compact in 2012 thanks to a new chassis, which uses a double-pipe perimeter frame and swingarm. This setup makes the bike considerably narrower, and also brings the seat height closer to the ground. Moreover, the new frame design, combined with an increased fork length and stroke, softer springs and revised damping settings, noticeably improves the mid-sized Ninja’s steering feel, leaving it even lighter and easier to flick, while adding needed compliance to smooth out pavement irregularities.
Also confidence-building are the bike’s upgraded Dunlop Roadsmart II tires, which stick beautifully, even when you’re schlepping around San Diego County’s mountainous backcountry, where some of the forgotten side roads can be crazy dirty and, in places, cracked to bits. It’s in these types of situations where the Ninja’s 461-lb. claimed curb weight comes in handy, especially if you’re a mid-sized person, and not a 200-pounder breeching the limits of the bike’s rather basic suspension system.
Being the right size for this machine is also an asset when you’re juicing it. As in previous years, power offered by the parallel-twin is sharpest and most useable between 6000 and 10,000 rpm, though a revised compression ratio is said to have boosted torque by 5 percent below 7000 rpm (and, combined with new ignition timing, to increase fuel economy by 10 percent). In reality, you still need to wind this baby up tight to make it fly right, though spinning it past 10,000 rpm will only land you in a top-end dead-spot.
New-from-the-ground-up styling, including cues adopted from both the Ninja 1000 and ZX-14, give this bargain bike a richly aggressive look. Additional benefits of the new bodywork include improved airflow and reduced heat and buffeting. And that annoying buzz emitted from the old fairing? Gone. The bike’s new adjustable windshield proved to be a great addition, and offers a dramatic change in wind noise, protection and buffeting between its three heights—though, unfortunately, it’s a bit awkward to unbolt the shield and readjust it with only two hands, so you’ll need to call over a friend in order to do it efficiently and without scratching the plastic.
Beneath the windshield you’ll find an all-new instrument cluster with a neat, multifunctional display that lets you dial through important stats, such as current and average fuel-consumption rates and remaining range. Another fuel-management tool is the nifty ECO (for "economy") indicator light, which illuminates when your throttling is conducive to maximizing mileage. While that’s one light I probably personally wouldn’t see very often, perhaps some buyers of this budget-minded bike might.
Lastly, the Ninja 650 sports a new, plusher two-piece seat for 2012, though we didn’t do enough miles to truly test it on our one-day, sun-to-snow adventure in San Diego County. I will say, I’d be more than happy to have this bike around long enough to grow bun-worn. For its low price (only $300 more than last year’s far less sophisticated version), sheer ease-of-use and 50-mpg-plus rating, it’s the kind of bike nearly everyone would enjoy having on hand. And not just for those days when it snows in the desert.