It started out as an anomaly: a fizzy, affordable half-liter twin in an ocean of fours. But despite its basic box-section steel frame, low-tech suspension and single-disc front brake, the original 1987 EX500 had more to offer than a $2899 sticker price and 50-mpg fuel economy. Essentially the primordial Ninja 1000R engine sawn in half, the 498cc parallel-twin was more than a match for Honda's V-4 500 Interceptor. And though it aimed to please rookie street pilots, commuters and assorted other cost-conscious factions of the motorcycling public, the 500 does more than pinch pennies.
Pushing its 437 lbs. with 50 rear-wheel horsies at 9000 rpm, the Ninja reels off high-12-second quarter-mile times at or a few ticks above 100 mph. Handling manners are athletic yet reassuringly neutral-plenty good enough for the occasional track day with no bad habits to panic beginners. Early EXs rolled on skinny 16-inch wheels that narrow your tire choices, so we'd spend a bit more for a '94 or later Ninja 500R (aka the EX500D) to get wider 17-inch hoops that accept current rubber. The larger-diameter 37mm fork tubes that came on-line in '94 fortified the 500's sporting capabilities, as did a new twin-piston front caliper and rear disc, which was a dramatic improvement over the original drum.
In addition to being easier to look at, the new-for-'94 fairing is better at fending off wind and weather. Electronic ignition and digital advance were welcome additions. Beneath a progression of bold new graphics, Kawasaki's esteemed eight-valve utility player hasn't changed much over the last 14 years. Serious power stretches from 7000 rpm all the way to redline at 11,000. Expect more vibration up there than with equivalent four-cylinder middleweights. But keep it under 80 mph and the Ninja is smooth enough for an occasional 1000-mile weekend. Just add a destination, determination, 20 gallons of unleaded and a few bucks for In- N-Out and Motel 6.
With proper care and feeding, mechanical endurance has proven exemplary over the years. So? Whenever practical considerations loom large, Japan's first genuinely viable sporttwin is always on our short list. It hasn't changed much over the years, and there are more sophisticated middleweights if you're feeling flush. Otherwise, the Ninja 500R is a bigger blast for your devalued dollars than just about anything else in the classifieds.
Entertaining, inexpensive and built to stay that way.
Stock suspension and tires wilt under heated cornering. A bit buzzy beyond 7000 rpm.
Smoky exhaust or excessive valve clatter on high-mileage units. Shun hot-rodded examples.
Perhaps the wisest choice of all if/when financial reality reins in your performance parade.
2003 | $5030
Shown here in celebratory livery commemorating the Motor Company's centennial, America's elemental V-twin is still a bargain. Fast? Sorta. Cool? Again, but generally quite reliable. Ante up a few extra bucks for an '04 or later model and get rubber engine mounts.
2004 | $4885
A great bike saddled with a shocking $7099 sticker, any well-kept 599 is pure value. It's a bit small if you're not. The pipe-rack steel chassis is your friend despite soft, low-rent suspension. That 599cc four is a gem.
2005 | $3455
Though never a match for Kawasaki's EX500, the 487cc air-cooled two-valve S500E twin soldiered on for years as a dirt-cheap, stone-simple beginner's bike. Better brakes arrived in '96. The F-spec upgrade in '04 added an oil cooler and a GSX-R-look full fairing.