Comparison: Small Sportbike Shootout

Superlight Superbikes: Honda CBR300R vs. Kawasaki Ninja 300 vs. KTM RC390 vs. Yamaha YZF-R3

We can’t explain it, but the pitter-patter of 300-class machines makes us feel like it’s the first day of summer vacation. Maybe it’s the juvenile joy we get from holding throttle cables tight while we watch tachometers reach for the sky. Or perhaps it’s something about the buzz of sub-400cc engines that releases some chemical in our brains that flashes fond motorcycling memories across our cerebral cortex. What’s that tingle near the back of the gas tank? Is that a 300cc motor at 9,000 rpm or just pure, adolescent happiness pumping through our veins? We maybe can’t tell, and we definitely don’t care.

Either way, in order to test well one must study. So, before we take recess to tickle the canyons of Southern California and see how this latest crop of bantamweights with a sporting bent stack up, a quick history lesson.

Honda arguably sparked the modern version of this battle when it introduced the CBR250 in 2011. It was a stately and refined alternative to Kawasaki's long-standing Ninja 250, and soon Team Green fired back. In 2013 the Ninja 300 debuted, with all-new styling and a larger, 296cc engine that towered over the CBR (as well as Suzuki's under-performing GW250 standard that was finally introduced to the US last year). For 2015, Honda has updated the CBR by punching the 249cc single out to 286cc and updating the bodywork to more closely resemble the larger-displacement members of the CBR family.

VIDEO: The Small Sportbike Shootout" episode of On Two Wheels:

Spurred by the furious hum of quarter-liter battle, both Yamaha and KTM have entered the fray, Yamaha with the parallel-twin YZF-R3 and KTM with a purposeful-looking single dubbed the RC390. Both are striking to the eye and have larger engines than either the Ninja or the CBR. The seeds of rivalry have been sown.

Needless to say, our long-standing love of small-displacement bikes has our tachometers nearing redline. The most likely reason that we adore small bikes is because we were once small, both in stature and experience. These machines transport us back to the beginning of our motorcycling lives, and we imagine a new rider taking this step into a new adventure. Like bursting through the door into the spring sunshine with a summer of fun ahead, these motorcycles represent the potential beginning of something awesome—the first step in a long journey of enjoying the world of two wheels. The bell’s ringing. Let the chaos begin!

» Sometimes, the bike that finishes last in a shootout like this is something to be avoided at all costs. We make fun of its clothes and haze it mercilessly in the lunch line. Not true here. The Ninja finishing fourth in this shootout does not mean it’s a bad bike. Far from it, in fact.

In many ways, riding the Ninja reminds us why we like riding small bikes so much. First of all, its temperament is impeccable. Short gearing and a smooth engine mean the Kawasaki is more than happy to trot along at surface-street speeds. The seat is appropriately low (30.9 inches) and, depending on the shape of your backside, all-day comfortable.

The dash is futuristic but sorely misses a gear-position indicator.©Motorcyclist

The riding position is sporty—if anything the pegs feel a little higher than they need to be—but not aggressive. Some complain that the Ninja’s shock is a little too stiff, but if you’re more than 140 pounds you’ll appreciate the better balance offered by the Kawasaki (the Yamaha and KTM shocks are sprung for very light riders).

Where the wee Ninja really shines is on an undulating, twisty road. Taut handling and surprisingly grippy IRC bias-ply rubber inspire confidence, and the little parallel twin that politely putted around town totally comes alive in the top third of the rev range. It makes a credible 34.5 hp at just over 11,000 rpm and does it with an energy that makes it seem like it’s asking for more. Keep the Kawasaki’s engine spinning and there’s more fun to be had than on any other bike here, apart from the KTM.

A petal-style brake rotor looks stylish, but the little Ninja’s brakes aren’t great.©Motorcyclist

The first blemish on the Ninja name comes when you squeeze that right lever. Braking power is the worst of the bunch, even on the non-ABS model we tested. Truthfully, none of the bikes in this class has stellar brakes, but the Kawasaki clearly trails the pack in terms of feel. The only other notable knocks against the Ninja are disappointing mirrors and a slightly dated dashboard, lacking a gear position indicator and any real style.

Editor in Chief Marc Cook probably summed it up best when reaching to describe the Ninja’s strengths. “It’s not terribly refined,” Cook said, even sadly admitting that the Kawi is down on power to the KTM and Yamaha, “but for some reason it’s just a lot of fun.” The boss’ personal feelings aside, the Ninja benefits from doing everything good enough but suffers because it doesn’t do anything exceptionally well.

Don’t take this the wrong way. The Ninja is still a boatload of fun, and if you bleed Kawasaki Green you can be proud to own a 300. It doesn’t have a single serious downfall or glaring error in design; it finishes in fourth position here only as a natural result of the category moving ahead and improving year to year.

KAWASAKI NINJA 300  
PRICE $4999 ($5299 w/ABS)
ENGINE 296cc, liquid-cooled parallel-twin
BORE x STROKE 62.0 x 49.0mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.6:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 8v
FUEL SYSTEM EFI
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate slipper
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Tubular-steel backbone
FRONT SUSPENSION KYB 37mm fork; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION KYB shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.2-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Tokico two-piston caliper, 290mm disc
REAR BRAKE Tokico two-piston caliper, 220mm disc
FRONT TIRE 110/70-17 IRC Road Winner
REAR TIRE 140/70-17 IRC Road Winner
RAKE/TRAIL 27.0°/3.7 in.
WHEELBASE 55.3 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 30.9 in.
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 381/354 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.5 gal.
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 60/48/54 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 243 miles
CORRECTED 1/4-MILE 14.55 sec. @ 89.45 mph
TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON (60-80 MPH) 10.4 sec
WARRANTY 12 month, unlimited miles
CONTACT [kawasaki.com][]

» Let’s get right to why the Honda finishes third: power. While the tiniest CBR can hold its head high for being the cheapest and the lightest ($4,399 and 359 pounds, without ABS), it also offers the smallest displacement and the fewest ponies—just 27.8 hp at the wheel. Part of the problem is the application. It’s geared similarly to the Kawasaki, meaning very short, but the Honda doesn’t have as many revs to work with.

The CBR carves canyons like nobody’s business despite having the smallest engine and the least power.©Motorcyclist

Although there isn’t a lot of it, peak power comes at 8,400 rpm, by which time the 286cc single is sending literal vibes through the clip-ons that it’s being revved hard. Peak torque arrives at 6,600 rpm, and the motor is much more comfortable at that speed. Trouble is, the short gearing means in order to keep up with freeway traffic (in California, anyway) you’re likely to be at around 8,000 rpm in top gear. There are two pieces of good news here: One is that sprockets are cheap and gearing the Honda up is easy; the other is that there are very few other faults in the CBR.

The CBR looks more mature than the others, at least in solid red. Boy-racer graphics are also available.©Motorcyclist

First of all, it wins the yearbook title for “most approachable.” The light weight and low seat (30.7 inches, incidentally) contribute to this, but it’s the refined powertrain that really makes the CBR a treat to ride. The clutch is predictable with good feel at the lever and the engine produces seemingly perfect, linear power. It doesn’t hurt that you can idle around a parking lot in first gear at 4 mph; that’s Grom territory for friendly gearing.

Even though it’s nearly as easy to ride as a Grom, the CBR packs a full-size serving of capability. We were amazed when riding these bikes in a group at how the Honda held its own when we tackled the mountain roads north of Los Angeles. The steering doesn’t feel as sharp as the KTM’s, but ultimately it has a better balance in the suspension than any bike in the group and is arguably more stable too.

The CBR dash is informative but not terribly interesting.©Motorcyclist

It did occur to us that the Honda seems to handle better because it’s slower than the rest of the bikes. Even going uphill, though, the rider on the CBR pulled away from a certain blue bike in this test, purely from the confidence the chassis offers. The CBR shares the same IRC rubber as found on the Ninja 300, and we have zero complaints about these tires. There’s plenty of stick.

The final category that the CBR wins unanimously is brakes. Honda’s simple, two-piston Nissin caliper and 296mm disc are calibrated just right, providing plenty of power and solid feel at the lever. An ABS option adds $500 to the price, and it’s an easy decision in this case. The CBR would still be the cheapest bike in this bunch even equipped with ABS.

Other than the distinct lack of horsepower, this is an excellent bike. The only other major thumbs down the CBR garnered was due to the senseless gas-cap system, whereby the cap comes off in your hand instead of hinging out of the way like every other civilized machine. Some testers dinged the Honda for a lack of personality, but objectively it’s a terrific motorcycle. It’s comfortable, composed, stylish (emphasis on ish), and handles like a dream. In the words of Road Test Editor (and CBR300R owner) Ari Henning, “Come on, Honda. Make it a 350 already!”

HONDA CBR300R  
PRICE $4399 ($4899 w/ABS)
ENGINE 286cc, liquid-cooled single
BORE x STROKE 76.0 x 63.0mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 10.7:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 4v
FUEL SYSTEM EFI
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Tubular-steel twin-spar
FRONT SUSPENSION Showa 37mm fork; 4.7-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Showa shock adjustable for spring preload; 4.1-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Nissin two-piston caliper, 296mm disc
REAR BRAKE Nissin one-piston caliper, 220mm disc
FRONT TIRE 110/70-17 IRC Road Winner
REAR TIRE 140/70-17 IRC Road Winner
RAKE/TRAIL 25.3°/3.9 in.
WHEELBASE 54.3 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 30.7 in.
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 359/339 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 3.4 gal
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 56/51/54 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 184 miles
CORRECTED 1/4-MILE 15.23 sec. @ 84.3 mph
TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON (60-80 MPH) 8.2 sec
WARRANTY 12 month, unlimited miles
CONTACT [powersports.honda.com][]

» Yamaha had a few years to study the competition, and the results suggest they did their homework. Initial impressions of the new R3 are that Yamaha perfectly combined the strong, high-revving twin-cylinder engine from Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 with the polite ergonomics and suspension of Honda’s CBR300. As always, though, riding all of the bikes back to back revealed the strengths and weaknesses of each machine.

The first thing we noticed is how incredibly smooth and strong the power is from the R3’s 321cc mill. It’s only 24cc larger than the Ninja engine but feels noticeably more potent, especially low in the revs. When it comes to sustained highway travel, the R3 is peerless. Yes, it’s down on outright power to the KTM, but the Yamaha’s engine feels quiet and refined at freeway speeds; a welcome break from the Kawasaki’s buzzy pegs and the Honda’s pleading for mercy.

VIDEO: See and hear the new R3 on the dyno:

An excellent dash makes speed, engine rpm, gear position, trip data, and fuel level easily visible at a glance. The little lens at the top is the shift light.©Motorcyclist

Ergos and comfort are pleasing too. The rider triangle is very similar to the other Japanese bikes, though the Yamaha’s bars are closer to the saddle. While the seat height is comparable to the Honda and Kawasaki, the R3’s shock is much softer. This makes it feel lower, and for commuter use it’s quite plush, but it also detracts from handling (we’ll get to that in a minute). Add brakes to the long list of R3 strengths, by the way—the binders have solid feel and plenty of power. It’s worth pointing out, however, that we’re sad to see no ABS option from Yamaha—at least not this year. Maybe on next year’s lesson plan.

The rest of the R3’s amenities are top notch. The dashboard, for example, shows more information than the other bikes and looks the best doing so. Fuel level and gear position are displayed prominently, and there’s even an adjustable shift light. The cockpit looks like it was designed by George Lucas, circa 1980. It’s terrific.

A basic brake setup offers R3 riders plenty of power, but initial bite is soft and there’s no ABS option available.©Motorcyclist

So with comfort, power, and amenities, you’re sitting on the perfect bike, right? Not quite. In creating the friendly motorcycle the R3 is—as EIC Cook put it, “Not as meek as the Honda but just as easy to ride”—Yamaha tuned out some handling prowess. The shock is definitely the softest of the group (lightly sprung by an order of magnitude) which makes the R3 ride low enough in the rear that it adversely affects agility. It’s not that the R3 handles badly—when a bike is this small it’s never going to be horribly high effort to turn—but it’s noticeably harder to steer than the others in the group. Too much weight on the rear end, which is only partly mitigated by running max shock-spring preload, causes a bit of rear-end chatter and sends steering feel off to detention.

The Yamaha’s other obvious handling flaw comes from the Michelin Pilot Street rubber, which breaks traction surprisingly early. We’d like to blame it on bias-ply technology, but the Ninja and CBR are shod with bias-ply IRC sneakers that stick admirably.

Riders serious about squeezing all of the performance potential out of the R3 will want better tires and a stiffer spring. For everyone else, the R3 delivers what this class is defined by in spades: solid performance, loads of style, and a sub-$5,000 price tag.

YAMAHA YZF-R3  
PRICE $4990
ENGINE 321cc, liquid-cooled parallel-twin
BORE x STROKE 68.0 x 44.1mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 11.2:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 8v
FUEL SYSTEM EFI
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Tubular-steel twin-spar
FRONT SUSPENSION KYB 41mm fork; 5.1-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION KYB shock adjustable for spring preload; 4.9-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Akebono two-piston caliper, 298mm disc
REAR BRAKE Akebono one-piston caliper, 220mm disc
FRONT TIRE 110/70-17 Michelin Pilot Street
REAR TIRE 140/70-17 Michelin Pilot Street
RAKE/TRAIL 25.0°/3.7 in.
WHEELBASE 54.3 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 30.7 in.
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 370/348 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 3.7 gal
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 56/50/53 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 196 miles
CORRECTED 1/4-MILE 14.23 sec. @ 90.5 mph
TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON (60-80 MPH) 7.5 sec
WARRANTY 12 month, unlimited miles
CONTACT [yamahamotorsports.com][]

» KTM's entrance into this class is groundbreaking for a few reasons. It's a twinkle in Austria's eye that signals global intentions and at the same time very much throws a cat among the pigeons in terms of both culture and performance. This isn't just KTM plunging gracefully into the swimming pool; this is a cannonball.

Just look at it! Wheels and a steel-trellis frame splashed in signature electric orange, LED running lights above its pouty lower lip, an underslung exhaust system, and a beautiful, cast-aluminum swingarm with inboard axle adjustment. We could go on. The point is, the RC390 is edgy and modern, without question, and not obviously built to a price point.

The RC’s looks might be polarizing, but you can’t deny the details. Note the beefy, 43mm inverted fork.©Motorcyclist

But if the KTM looks different, it feels even more so. Immediately evident is a much more committed riding position, with a seat that is more than 2 inches taller than the other three bikes and clip-ons 1.3 inches lower. The seat is not uncomfortable, but it is quite thin compared to the Japanese saddles; at least it’s narrow enough at the front that short-legged riders aren’t inconvenienced.

Thumb the starter and the 373cc single jumps into an excited idle that totally matches the RC390’s aesthetic, meaning noticeably mechanical and animated. If exhaust notes had a color, this one would be orange. One positive click from the transmission and a slip of the nicely calibrated clutch and you’re off enjoying the best this class has to offer.

As far as everyday usability, the RC390 works just as well as any of the other bikes. Where it differentiates itself is a charismatic engine and razor-sharp handling. The low end of the KTM’s revs work nicely to chug around town or through a parking lot, and at around 6,500 rpm there is a noticeable step in power, as though a turbo kicks in and breathes a little extra life into the motor until the vicious rev-limiter kicks in at 10,000 rpm. Gear spacing is much more appropriate on the RC, too, unlike Honda’s CBR (the only other single), which constantly has you wishing for a seventh or even eighth gear.

Hold the unmarked switch under the “SET” button to turn off ABS.©Motorcyclist

Cockpit amenities are also distinctive but not always better. A bar-style tachometer that runs along the top of the all-digital dash unit isn’t terribly easy to read. Average fuel mileage is among the other interesting data points that are displayed, but it’s all a little muddled and not very attractive. You’ll get used to seeing the small block-graph fuel gauge plunge, too, since the KTM carries just 2.6 gallons—the smallest by 0.8 gallon!

Here’s the thing: For every niggle we have the KTM makes up for it five times over with a slew of lovely details. In the case of the cockpit, it’s true that we don’t love the dash setup, but animosity was cast aside when the sun went down and we noticed the handlebar switches are all backlit. “Those illuminated switch clusters are awesome,” Ari said. “Why don’t all high-end touring bikes have that?”

Like the other bikes, we based most of the KTM’s “sport” performance metric on how it handled a ribbon of pavement laid into a hillside or canyon. And in the case of the RC390 it’s really more a question of whether the road is worthy of the bike. The more aggressive ergonomics put you in a much more commanding position, feeling like you’re on top of the machine. It’s like a true sportbike. No, it is a true sportbike, just smaller than usual. It defines “flickable” and changes lines telepathically.

The RC’s solo cowl is actually padded.©Motorcyclist

Pirelli’s Diablo Rossos, the OE tires, are excellent, and while the brakes aren’t as solid as the Yamaha’s or Honda’s, standard ABS is comforting. In short, you will run out of fuel or road before you’re bored. At our first stop after tackling our first set of twisties, someone commented, “This thing is going to embarrass some riders on 600s.” Anyone who wants to know how a sportbike should handle can find out by riding an RC390.

As you can see, there are any number of reasons why the KTM wins this comparison. It’s the fastest, best equipped, and the most capable sportbike. Then again, this is a test of bikes aimed at less experienced riders, so why would the most expensive, least-accommodating machine take the crown? Simply put, among all of the 7/8-size motorcycles available the RC390 reminds us the most of a full-size bike, in presentation, capability, and attitude. Pick any one and you’ll be happy, but the orange one will make you happier for a significantly longer time.

KTM RC390  
PRICE $5499
ENGINE 373cc, liquid-cooled single
BORE x STROKE 89.0 x 60.0mm
COMPRESSION RATIO 12.5:1
VALVE TRAIN DOHC, 4v
FUEL SYSTEM EFI
CLUTCH Wet, multi-plate
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
FRAME Tubular-steel trellis
FRONT SUSPENSION WP 43mm fork; 4.9-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION WP shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.9-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Bybre four-piston caliper, 300mm disc with ABS
REAR BRAKE Bybre one-piston caliper, 230mm disc with ABS
FRONT TIRE 110/70-R17 Pirelli Diablo Rosso II
REAR TIRE 150/60-R17 Pirelli Diablo Rosso II
RAKE/TRAIL 23.5°/3.5 in.
WHEELBASE 52.8 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.3 in.
MEASURED WEIGHT (TANK FULL/EMPTY) 365/349 lb.
FUEL CAPACITY 2.6 gal
FUEL ECONOMY (HIGH/LOW/AVERAGE) 61/51/56 mpg
RANGE (INCLUDING RESERVE) 146 miles
CORRECTED 1/4-MILE 13.91 sec. @ 94.0 mph
TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON (60-80 MPH) 6.8 sec
WARRANTY 12 mo., 12,000 mi.
CONTACT [ktm.com][]

Off the Record

Ari Henning
Road Test Editor
AGE: 30
HEIGHT: 5'10"
WEIGHT: 175 lb.
INSEAM: 33 in.

The fact that we were able to stage this test in the first place puts a smile on my face. I love that the manufacturers are putting effort into the small-bore class because the result is a fleet of totally legitimate little bikes. There are choices now, and, frankly, they’re all good.

That being said, the KTM is on another level on all counts. This isn’t just a beginner’s bike. This is a small sportbike that just happens to be suitable for beginners. The R3 is an edgy machine with a great motor, and I respect the Ninja for holding the torch for all those decades. As for the CBR, I was worried it would be outclassed, but it’s not. Yes, it’s down on power, but it still has virtues that the other bikes lack, namely refinement and ease of use.

Any way you slice it, it’s a good time to be a beginner.

Marc Cook
Editor in Chief
AGE: 51
HEIGHT: 5'9"
WEIGHT: 190 lb.
INSEAM: 32 in.

In the broad view, I support this finishing order. But I’m concerned that the Kawasaki trailing the pack might make some think it’s not a good motorcycle. In fact, it’s probably my favorite of the three Japanese machines. (The RC390 has broken away like Marquez.) Why? I simply like the Ninja’s character. The Honda is a Honda—very refined but far too slow. The Yamaha is similarly refined, but its super-soft suspension kills any verve the engine promises. For me, the Ninja 300 is the right combination of just enough power for everyday riding and a spirited grittiness that makes you want to push it hard and enjoy the fruits of your vehicular adolescence. No, the Ninja is not perfect, but something about its makeup really clicks with me. Despite the flaws, it’s the only one of the mainstream bikes I’d want to own.

Julia LaPalme
Guest Tester
AGE: 34
HEIGHT: 5'5"
WEIGHT: 135 lb.
INSEAM: 30 in.

Of all the small bikes we rode, I especially enjoyed the Honda CBR300R. The riding position, seat height, and narrow bodywork were well suited for my 5-foot-5 frame and 30-inch inseam, allowing a comfortable reach to the handlebars without folding me up like a Swiss army knife. I’ve been particularly obsessed with suspension feel lately, and the CBR’s springs give just the right amount of firmness. Not as rough as the KTM RC390, while still being compliant enough to offer me confidence through quick turns and over dips and bumps. Throttle response was immediate without being twitchy, and clutch engagement was neither too abrupt nor too vague. While the CBR has the fewest horses, the single cylinder engine’s low-end torque won me over, making the tight twisties of our test route an effortless conquest.

DYNO

No surprise here, the KTM’s larger engine is much stronger everywhere in the rev range. What’s surprising is that the Honda hangs with the other two Japanese bikes up until about 7,500 rpm. The Ninja’s engine looks like the lame duck here, but keep it spinning in or near five-digit rpm and you’ll be grinning in your helmet.

ERGO

The three Japanese bikes nearly share ergo data, apart from the shorter reach to the R3’s bars. Obviously, the RC390 feels like a totally different animal, with a much longer stretch to lower bars. Note how low the Honda’s passenger seat is, making the shape of the bike less aggressive.

KTM 390 Duke: Son of the Beast

KTM's Duke naked bikes have a reputation to uphold. The 1290 Super Duke R was dubbed "the beast" by its own designers, and the 690 Duke is a devil-on-both-shoulders kind of ride. Here we have the 390 Duke. Could beastliness survive this far down the displacement scale? Oh, yes.

While based on the RC390, the Duke feels and acts differently. It has a 37mm-longer wheelbase than the RC, has more rake (25 degrees versus the RC’s 23.5), 25mm more front-suspension travel, and a 20mm-lower seat. You also sit more forward on the bike—the seat-to-grip distance is a massive 5.9 inches tighter on the Duke—so while the RC feels a tad long and narrow, the Duke is just tiny. It’s also 15 pounds lighter than the RC.

Nothing in the specs prepares you for how frisky the Duke feels. Its smooth, 373cc thumper has enough off the bottom to stay ahead of traffic and gains a big heap of torque at 6,500 rpm, so from there to the 10,000-rpm redline you have sufficient thrust to move 340 pounds of bike as though the engine were bigger. Handling's great, the steering is light and direct, and suspension action is fine considering the price point—a mere $4,999 with standard ABS. Think of it as a snarling little beast on a kitten-toy budget. —Marc Cook