Monday, February 25, 2008

Enter the Ninja!

Scott asked me to offer what little thoughts I might have on the Ninja 250. I copied this picture from Kawasaki's website. Interestingly, the folks at Kawasaki say the little Ninja accounts for more sales than any other model. This bike was introduced in 1986, if I remember correctly. In 1988 there were some significant changes. Since then the bike's remained pretty much the same, with minor changes being incorporated here and there. I have to say there's been some weird color combinations. I remember one year when there was some sort of Kawasaki Green and a strange plum color mixed together! Whatever color, there shouldn't be a problem getting parts.

The fact that there's a woman rider on the bike in the photo is significant to Kawasaki. They claim that 62% of the owners are new riders. Of that number, something like a third are women. It's this kind of scenario that keeps bikes like this and the Honda Rebel on my radar. As an instructor I'm constantly being asked for my input on what kind of bike riders should start with. I try to keep up with what's available. In my humble opinion, if a person is going to start with a small bike like this, the Rebel is actually better for a newbie. Here's why I say that.

The small Ninja is considered a beginner's bike both because it's small in displacement and physical size. This thing's small. Forgive me as I'm not a tech writer so my numbers may be a little off. This isn't an official review. I'm only sharing my thoughts. The wheelbase is about four and a half feet. For most model years the seat height is somewhere around 29 inches. I think Kawasaki claims a dry weight somewhere around 300 pounds. For both newbies and riders of shorter inseam, it's easy to get both feet planted firmly on the ground at stops. The 2008 model incorporates some major changes; kind of like what happened with the KLR650, another Kawasaki model. On the newer 250 the seat height is about 30 1/2" I think. Besides the short seat, the bike itself is narrow. This kind of thing gives confidence to a newer rider. This part is good.

What isn't quite so good for a newer rider is the fact that the motor needs to be revved so high to make power. Even if a person's not riding like a typical sport bike rider, the engine spins pretty quickly. It's not a high horsepower or high torque bike. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm thinking horsepower is 30 to 35. This 250 has a redline around 14,500 rpm. You know where the tach has to be in order to access the power band. At a typical highway cruising speed, the engine's spinning at about 9,000 rpm. That's roughly twice what Sophie turns, for example. That kind of thing can freak out new riders. The Rebel's a little more tractable in this department.

That's my opinion of the bike for new riders. What about riders who just choose to ride a smaller bike?

Let me share a quick story with you first. It's about an instructor who's a great friend of mine. He was my fellow instructor when Katie took the beginner class. Yes, I taught my spouse to ride. What can I say? In this case it worked for us. Something to do with the trust factor. Tommy's moved to Mexico and is running a resort, now. While he was here Tommy rode a Ninja. It was probably a '95 or '96. This Ninja was the EX500. It looked like the bigger Ninja. Whenever Tommy would tell someone it was a 500 rather than the litre version, he always seemed a little embarrassed.

Don't ever be, or let anyone else be, ashamed of having a smaller bike or scooter. There's a reason for the variety of models and displacements. Pick a bike for what it suits you to have it for. Those who get it won't need an explanation. Those who don't get it don't deserve one. Their opinion will usually be based on some personal shortfalls and shouldn't matter to us, anyway!

Here's a summary of my experiences with riders of the smallest Ninja.


The bike has a 4.8 gallon tank. Most riders using the bike for commuting and the occasional sporting foray get 50 to 60 mpg. That gives the bike a nice range. Some riders claim much higher mileage. Like anything, your results may vary!


I've already mentioned how this bike needs to rev for power. For spirited riding the bike needs to be shifted at around 11,000 rpm. With a six speed transmission, a lot of rowing of the shifter seems to be required. Passing at legal freeway speeds will still need the rider to downshift a couple of times. Once a rider gets used to the bike sounding like it might blow up on the freeway things should be fine!

Speaking of higher speeds, the bike's light weight makes it fun to flick into corners. Most riders I've talked to that ride the freeways say the bike is susceptible to being moved by heavier winds. The wind protection for the legs is fine on the freeway but the bike could use more protection for the upper body. Sustained freeway riding can be tiring.

We've also had a few students bring these bikes to our track-based cornering class. In this venue the bikes get to wind up pretty high. Their sound is peculiar. At idle they sound kind of like sewing machines. At higher revs they don't roar or growl. It sounds more like high pitched screams! I've found it's not so noticable when actually sitting on the bike, thank goodness!

The bike does seem to be all right for around town riding and commuting. I've had quite a number of students use the small Ninja for classes. Of course, our speeds are low. Some riders have indicated to me that the bike seems to have a few flat spots in the throttle. Combined with what seems to be a little more drive lash than usual, riding in low gears at low speeds can be jerky. It doesn't seem to be a universal problem. I suspect that individual bike and rider combinations are the factor here. The 2008 claims a different torque curve that's supposed to help this kind of riding.

Carbs still live on the bike, even the 2008 model. In Europe the bike is now fuel injected due to tighter clean air standards. I guess the bike can still meet standards over here without being injected. Kawasaki's trying to keep the bike under $4,000. I haven't shopped one in a long time. My feeling is that new bikes have been around three grand. The 2008 model is probably a little more money.

If a person were to buy a brand new bike, here's something interesting to think about. Kawasaki says to keep the revs below 4000 rpm for the first 500 miles. That's somewhere around 36 mph in 6th gear. For the next 500 miles you're supposed to keep the revs below 6000. That's somewhere around 45 mph in sixth gear. So be prepared to be a slow rider for a while!


This seems to be the biggest complaint I get from those who ride the bike. Remember, though, it's a little bike being held to a price point. Again, I could be wrong but I think the carrying capacity on the bike is somewhere around 340 pounds. That pretty much means no passengers depending on the size of the individuals. Some of the riders I know are pushing the scales at near 200 pounds. So there's bound to be some complaints on the ride quality.

Neither the front or rear suspension has been adjustable up until now. For normal riding, the suspension seems adequate. Where the weaker suspension seems to be the biggest problem is under heavy braking. There's quite a lot of fork dive. I've been told by several people that the rear shock from the EX500 can be mounted on the 250 with very little modification required. It's a heavier duty shock and allows some adjustment.

I've heard that Kawasaki has put a slightly beefier front fork on the 2008 bike. It still doesn't have any adjustment, though. The rear shock now has 5 way adjustability. I don't know if the shock is any more heavy duty. A rider should be able to fine tune it a little more for different kinds of riding, I suspect.

I've also heard that the 2008 bike moves away from 16 inch wheels and is using 17 inchers. The rims are also supposed to be a little wider. This should allow for a lot more tire choices.


I don't know what the valve adjustment interval is. I know there's 4 valves per cylinder but that's about it. Most people don't complain about high maintenance costs so I presume the bike's reliable. The only thing I've heard is about oil changes for those who do their own. While the bike only holds two quarts, the filter is internal. So that means there's a bolt that needs to be removed to get at the filter. Not a big deal to me, but it is to some.

So there's my thoughts on the smallest Ninja. I know there's quite a few people who bought them as beginner bikes and then decided to hold onto them because they became quite fond of them. I've ridden a few and always vowed to buy one. Kind of like my vow to buy a KLR, another sport bike, and so on. One of these days, I guess.

Hope this helps you in your venture, Scott. Thanks for asking my opinion. That doesn't happen very often! If anyone has experiences or input that seems pertinent, feel free to express it in the comment section.

Miles and smiles,



Scott Thigpen said...

Wow, ummm, have you ever submitted anything to the motorcycle magazines? Thats the best review I've ever read. Think about how good it would be if you had put 300miles on a Ninja.
Thank you very much, think I'll start looking for one to turn into a streetfighter look...since most of the Ninjas around here have beat up fairings :)

Conchscooter said...

I love small motorcycles, but a 14,000 rpm deadline feels unnatural to this old fart. If I were young this machine would be very appealing.

irondad said...

No, never submitted anything. Actually, I did submit a letter to the editor of Rider magazine in 1986. Never considered myself a journalist. This was just one rider sharing what he knew with another. Glad it added some value for you!

I like a little less buzz myself as I cruise. A bike like this would have its appeal in some situations, though!

Take care,

Becky said...

That's a great write-up of the little Ninja. I have to also recommend the Suzuki S-40 as a great starter bike, and it looks like a cool cruiser too. Much more torque than the Ninja, but light and easy to maneuver for a beginner. When I moved up to the Vulcan I had to relearn handling, though. That Ninja is sure a sharp looking bike!


Lucky said...

This was a great write up.

One thing I always tell people who make fun of small bikes is that it's a lot more fun to push a little bike to it's limits than to barely dig in to a bigger bike's capabilities.

irondad said...

So right you are. Which is why I bought the CBR600 instead of the liter bike. Even at that, I couldn't really push the bike to it's limits.