Like Warren Buffett says, nobody knows who’s swimming naked ’til the tide goes out. In much the same way, nobody knows who’s riding naked ’til the horsepower plug gets pulled. On the CW dyno, the Honda CBR250R makes a piddly 23.7 horses, the Kawasaki Ninja 250R just 25.5. Whoopee! All that means on our favorite roads, as it turns out, is that the guy who really knows how to ride will open up an even bigger gap over the one who can’t.
And in absolute terms, I’ve been up and down this particularly twisted SoCal route enough times on so many kinds of motorcycles, it’s hard to imagine anybody riding a bigger bike being able to catch our test mule Cernicky on either of these 250s—downhill, anyway. (MC says he even surprised himself, getting both ends of the CBR airborne in one tight left-right transition. That’s our Mark…)
With 20-some horses to blastout of corners, the only way to go fast is to never slow down. So go ahead and trust the IRC Road Winner rubber on both bikes, and then you can dive into those tight curves like little else on two wheels. Well, some people can— trusting sorts. With dry weights of 337 pounds (CBR) and 356 (Ninja), these two bikes have nearly all the laws of physics on their side. Beginner bikes? If you insist.
The CBR’s high-tech injected Single contains 27 patents, according to Honda, with a 76mm piston the same bore size as in the mighty CBR-1000RR. Forked rocker arms with roller followers work the valves and step aside for shim swapping. Beyond that, time-tested components work very well together.
Well, we already knew what a cornering fool the little Ninja is. But we were a little surprised at how well the innocent-looking new Honda was able to keep up. Not only does it keep up with the Ninja, it actually ekes away from it corner by corner. Both bikes use 37mm damper-rod forks and preload-adjustable, linkage-mounted shocks, but the CBR’s damping does a better job controlling its wheels and mass, its fuel-injected dohc Thumper does a smoother job turning the “power” on and off, its six-speed gearbox shifts a bit more positively, and its 19-pound weight advantage and 1.2-inch-shorter wheelbase all conspire to make the Honda ridiculously easy to ride pretty damn quick. And the beauty of the thing is it continues to function at a high level even under expert floggage. Ridden by itself, the Ninja’s a great corner carver. Ridden alongside the CBR, it’s a bit squidgy/snatchy/plungey, and not as neutral or graceful. The CBR, in fact, conjures up sweet memories of one of the best backroad Hondas of all time, the dearly departed Hawk GT (a 650cc V-Twin that made about twice the power, weighed 56 pounds more and sold for $4 less in 1988).
Once back down the mountain, both of these little bikes are far better commuter/travelers than you’d expect, and, again, particularly the Honda. Can a 250 Single long survive 80-mph freeway cruising? Can the rider? No problem. With the tachometer needle pointing dead-ahead at the “7” on its big, centrally mounted analog dial (in its really nice instrument panel complete with LCD clock and fuel gauge), the CBR is rolling along at a smooth and steady 68 mph indicated, with only a light Thumper pulse coming through the grips.
If you need to pick up the pace from there, that’s no problem, either. You’re right on the cusp of the torque peak. And instead of having to be trucked to the top-secret desert test facility, the CBR’s happy to complete Top Speed Testing right there in the carpool lane: 95 mph indicated at 10,000 rpm is all tapped out at L.A. level, but a steady 80 is easily doable for miles on end. Maybe not hours, but miles. (In actual instrumented testing at 2500 feet on level terrain, the CBR managed 87 mph.)
Honda exerted quite a bit of effort to make the little CBR a smooth runner. This brand-new engine marks the first use of a plain-bearing crank in a Honda Single, which allows a rigid, compact crankcase; and the connecting-rod big-end uses a roller bearing, allowing it to be relatively light. The end result, says Honda, is less friction, vibration and noise. A primary balance shaft is wedged in tight, just forward and beneath the crank, where its spinning weight invades the same space used by the connecting rod, hopefully not at the same time. What you get at cruising speed is a light rumble that you only feel in the grips; and though you know the 76mm piston is down there working its little rings to the bone, it doesn’t feel that way from the saddle—which is nicely shaped and comfortable, by the way.
The Ninja runs smoothly, too, but at 80 mph on the centrally mounted speedometer, you’re looking at 10,000 rpm or so, though it’s hard to make it out on the crowded little analog tach (which is the same size as the too-big gas gauge on the other side of the Ninja’s Playskool-plastic dashboard). The dohc, 62.0 x 41.2mm, 180-degree Twin runs without a balancer, so a bit of sizzle comes through, but it’s nothing to get upset about. Still, like an insensitive escort, the Ninja never lets you forget you’re not so well-endowed in the cc department: It’s not buzzy but it’s definitely busy.
But it is getting a lot of work done: Its extra top-end power helps the Ninja sprint through the quarter-mile a half-second quicker, reach a 6-mph-faster top speed and, most importantly, run 0-60 mph 0.8 of a second quicker.
Both bikes combine upright, standard-bike-comfy ergonomics with full-coverage wind protection (an idea Kawasaki rediscovered on big bikes with the new Ninja 1000). And light weight and low power mean they don’t require boxcar springs to support themselves and keep between the ditches, so both bikes soak up broken pavement and freeway slabs better than you’d expect. The Ninja is especially good at filtering out the small bumps, while both remain perfectly stable all the way to terminal velocity.