First Ride Review: 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650

Better than a Maury Makeover, Kawasaki’s new Ninja drops 42 pounds and comes out sexier than ever!

Kawasaki says: “Lighter weight, new ergos, and an engine with more character.” Motorcyclist says: “Thanks for listening, Kawasaki!”

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 review by Brian Hatano
Is that a Ninja 650 or a ZX-6R? A long list of new and redesigned components including sharp new bodywork makes it a little more difficult to tell them apart.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

The 2017 Ninja 650 is Team Green's latest iteration of a model that was introduced in 2006 with the company's first liquid-cooled, 650 twin engine. An approachable, easy-to-ride package with an affordable price tag and sporty styling has made this Kawasaki's most successful model in the 650-twin platform. Previous Ninja 650s had lots to offer at a great price point and in our last comparison test of four affordable middleweight sportbikes, it pegged the friendly meter over the other three. But when compared to the other bikes in the test, its wow factor was less than stellar. An odd seating position, brakes and suspension that lacked feedback, and a bland motor all combined to rank it fourth of four in the comparison behind the Yamaha FZ-07, Suzuki SFV650, and Honda CBR650F.

2017 Ninja 650 test ride by Brian Hatano
Powering the 2017 Ninja 650 is the same 650 twin that powered Bryan Smith to the AMA Pro Flat Track Championship last year, revised for 2017.Photo: Brian J. Nelson
2017 Ninja 650 seat
Kawasaki reduced seat height by 0.6 inch and also narrowed the width to help with short legs reaching the ground.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

For 2017, the Ninja 650 will continue to be an entry-level sportbike for new riders as well as one that bridges the gap between a small-displacement starter bike like the Ninja 300, and a more powerful race-bred middleweight like the ZX-6R. And it seems that Team Green took our critiques to heart when it came time for the redesign.

Kawasaki redesigns the Ninja 650 for 2017
Kawasaki has determined that 40 percent of Ninja 650 buyers will be new to motorcycling, and the larger 60 percent will be experienced riders looking to replace an older, smaller bike.Photo: Kawasaki
All-new trellis frame for the 2017 Ninja 650
All-new trellis frame is high-tensile steel with minimized bends to increases rigidity and disperse stress. The frame itself weighs just 33 pounds.Photo: Kawasaki

As soon as you throw a leg over the new 650, you'll be greeted by a revised ergonomic triangle that effectively ironed out the kinks in the old seating position, and Ninja 300 riders will find a familiar feel to it. Kawasaki accomplished this by dropping the seat by 0.6 inches and bringing foot controls forward by 2.4 inches for a more natural posture. Handlebars are now slightly forward and lower than before allowing you to ride in a slightly more aggressive stance for a longer period of time. At 5-foot-9, I found the ergos to be a perfect fit; however, riders pushing six feet might want to look into the Ergo-Fit extended-reach seat from the accessory catalog which will provide an additional inch of comfort.

Eight hours of slicing twisty roads through California's wine country aboard the new 2017 Ninja 650 was ample time to get a feel for what essentially is a mid-sized streetfighter draped with bodywork. The Ninja 650 shares much of the same architecture as the recently unveiled Z650 naked bike including the all-new trellis frame and gull-arm swingarm, both of which contribute to a claimed 42-pound weight reduction over the 2016 Ninja 650. In terms of mass, that's like removing a five-gallon bucket of water from the bike!

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Better ground reach on the 2017 Ninja 650
Bodywork is closer fitting and with a narrower seat, ground reach is improved over the 2016 model.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

The new trellis frame replaces the heavier steel-tube perimeter frame of the outgoing 650; the more rigid structure allows the use of smaller tube diameters with thinner walls that account for nearly 19 of the claimed 42-pound weight reduction. The new gull-arm swingarm is a pressed-steel unit with a unique shape that sheds another 6.2 pounds. Even more weight is trimmed from the wheels (a combined 3.9 pounds of unsprung weight gone), engine components, exhaust system, fuel tank and bodywork.

The result is evident from the moment you pull out into traffic. The lighter weight and lower seat height makes the new Ninja a pleasure to manage in stop-and-go situations as you head out to more challenging roads. Surely a confidence-builder for even the newest of riders.

Brian Hatano on the 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
New bodywork is closer fitting and more aggressive looking with an upswept tail and sharper upper cowl. Also new on the Ninja 650 for 2017 is the Kawasaki Air Management System (KAMS), a radiator fan duct that redirects hot air to the ground, aiding in keeping you cooler on hot days. It’s most effective at a standstill or at low speeds.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

Our test ride took place on an icy cold winter day right after some heavy rains. Not ideal for spirited riding and our planned route was changed at the last minute due to rock slides and unstable surfaces. Our alternate course took us through the scenic hills of the local vineyards along California’s central coast, providing sections of twisting roads and sweepers with numerous elevation changes.

On the throttle, the 649cc parallel twin provided what Kawasaki promised: plenty of torque that does a good job of pulling up into the power band on up to the 10,000 redline. Having to pass a few big rigs along the two-lane roads gave us a chance to grab a gear and really feel it pull through the rpm range. Although the basic engine is unchanged, the broad torque curve and smooth throttle response is the result of new cam and head design, new 36mm throttle bodies with slimmer intake ports and fine-atomizing injectors, and a new airbox designed for mid-range power that also emits a sweet intake sound at full twist.

Negative-lit dash for the Ninja 650
The new dash is now a negative-backlit gauge. Easier to read and just looks cool. There’s a new gear position indicator, adjustable shift light that incorporates a tach needle that changes color (from white to pink to red) at the user-selected shift points.Photo: Brian J. Nelson
Ninja 650 adjustable windshield
New for 2017 is a three-position windscreen that is easily adjusted after removing four screws. Setting it at its full height moved the wind blast up above my visor but still hitting the top of my helmet.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

Although throttle response was crisp and smooth, I did experienced a few quirky engine hiccups throughout the day. It occurred as I was just starting to get back on the throttle after decelerating. Nothing serious, just a momentary hesitation before the engine would start to pull. After the ride, I asked Kawasaki test rider Derek Keyes if this was unique to my bike or if it were happening with all the bikes. He explained that this lean condition was certainly more noticeable in cold temperatures (high-40s to low-40s), but new Euro 4 emissions requirements are making it more challenging for the tuners.

Ninja 650 engine
New engine cases are lighter and now accommodate a mechanical gear position indicator. Kawasaki’s Derek Keyes told us that the revised 649cc engine actually produced a couple horsepower less than the 2016 engine but torque was greatly improved.Photo: Brian J. Nelson
2017 Ninja 650 swingarm
The new swingarm is a hollow-pressed steel gull-arm design weighs 10.5 pounds. That's 6.2 lighter than the 2016 arm.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

As a mid-sized sportbike, there is nothing intimidating about the Ninja 650. With 42 pounds of weight removed, the new Ninja 650 is easy to handle at slow speeds, and now maneuvers like a lightweight bike at higher speeds. A revised rake and trail adds to the improved handling and quick steering characteristics. Suspension-wise, the non-adjustable front end of the Ninja 650 is unchanged from 2016, but gone is the offset rear shock absorber. In its place is a centrally located shock with a horizontal back-link system that adds a pivoting lever for the rear shock mount similar to what the ZX-10R uses. That adds a progressive movement as the shock compresses, and Kawasaki says it’s a benefit of trickle-down Superbike technology.

Horizontal back-link rear shock
The offset rear shock absorber has been replaced by a centrally located one with a horizontal back-link system that adds a pivoting lever.Photo: Kawasaki
2017 Ninja 650 new wheels and tire, Nissin brakes
New 5-spoke wheel design appears to have thinner spokes than last years wheels and the result is a savings of 3.9 pounds, front and rear. New Nissin brakes exhibited good lever feel and Bosch ABS was a welcome feature on those gravelly, wet surfaces.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

In spite of the cold pavement with the occasional patches of loose gravel, the Dunlop Sportmax D214 tires stayed planted, and the new Nissin binders up front worked well with the new ABS to bring speeds down with an easy one-finger pull on the lever. A new “Assist & Slipper” clutch provides some slipper-clutch function but the “assist” feature contributes to a nice, light clutch pull that small hands will greatly appreciate.

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Since 2006 Kawasaki has sold more than 60,000 motorcycles powered by the 650 parallel-twin engine in the US, and it’s no surprise to learn that 70 percent of those were Ninja 650s. This statistic serves to exemplify just how important this platform is to Kawasaki and why they’ve turned their engineers loose on the redesign of a new and improved Ninja 650 for 2017.

Will it rank at the top in our next four-way comparison? Until we can get our hands on all four bikes again we can only speculate, but one thing is for certain: Kawasaki listened, made some significant improvements, and raised their own bar for a mid-displacement sportbike in this ever-popular budget-friendly category. Job well done.

MIC sales stats for the Kawasaki Ninja 650
According to MIC data, Kawasaki owns a 43-percent market share in the 600-699 displacement size of all types of bikes. Much of that is due to the Ninja 650, one of the company’s best-selling motorcycles.Photo: Brian J. Nelson

TECH SPEC

EVOLUTION
An affordable step up from the Ninja 300 for riders wanting a middleweight sportbike but aren’t quite ready for that ZX-6R.
TECH
PRICE $7,399 ($7,799 w/ ABS)
ENGINE 649cc liquid-cooled parallel twin
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER NA
CLAIMED TORQUE 48.5 lb.-ft. 6500 rpm
FRAME Tubular-steel trellis
FRONT SUSPENSION Kayaba 41mm fork; 4.9 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Kayaba shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.1 in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Nissin dual-piston calipers, 300mm discs with ABS
REAR BRAKE Nissin single-piston caliper, 220mm disc with ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 24.0°/3.9 in.
WHEELBASE 55.5 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 31.3 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.0 gal.
CLAIMED WEIGHT 419 lb. wet (426 w/ABS)
AVAILABLE Now
CONTACT kawasaki.com
VERDICT
Sharpest Ninja 650 to date with more usable torque, improved ergos and a dramatic reduction in weight. For only $200 more than a 2016, this bike will sell.
2017 colors for the Kawasaki Ninja 650
The color lineup for 2017 includes the KRT Edition (MSRP: $7,999), Pearl White Blizzard, Metallic Black Spark, and Candy Burnt Orange.Photo: Brian J. Nelson
3-way adjustable windscreen
New feature for the 2017 Ninja 650 is a three-position windshield that is easily adjusted by removing four screws.Photo: Kawasaki
Brian Hatano's motorcycle gear
Brian's gear:
Helmet: HJC RPHA 11 Pro
Jacket: Scorpion USA Battalion
Pants: AGV Sport Kevlar Jeans
Gloves: Fieldsheer Pro-Rider
Boots: AXO Striker
Photo: Brian J. Nelson