1987-2007 Kawasaki Ninja 500R

Smart Money

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Kawasaki

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.

Cheers
Entertaining, inexpensive and built to stay that way.

Jeers
Stock suspension and tires wilt under heated cornering. A bit buzzy beyond 7000 rpm.

Watch For
Smoky exhaust or excessive valve clatter on high-mileage units. Shun hot-rodded examples.

Verdict
Perhaps the wisest choice of all if/when financial reality reins in your performance parade.

Value
1987 $1155
1994 $2215
2004 $3310

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