Kawasaki picked a prime location for a revved-up and ready-to-ride motopress to get its first hands-on assessment of the 2013 Ninja 300: Skaggs Springs Road. This flowing ribbon of blacktop flanking Lake Sonoma provides a scenic route through the coastal mountains between U.S. 101 and Pacific Coast Highway north of San Francisco. It’s also quite challenging and entertaining for sportbike riders who are more interested in the next corner rather than some majestic overlook. As it played out, though, the latest iteration of Kawasaki’s legendary lightweight sportbike is as equally adept at sightseeing as it is at apex strafing.
While more torque across the littlest Ninja’s 13,000-rpm rev range from a 47cc bump in displacement to 296cc was a given, the updated engine now also has a more-relaxed nature. According to Kawasaki, taller final gearing (42-tooth rear sprocket, three down from the 250R) combined with a taller internal top-gear ratio allows the six-speed 300 to match the cruising velocity of its predecessor while turning far fewer revs. At an indicated 60 mph in top gear, the analog tachometer registers just 6800 rpm, not the nearly 9000 rpm of the 250R. That’s significant, even if you’re not an interstate traveler.
A vastly more rigid, semi-double-cradle steel frame plays a key role in the 300’s improved performance, as well. Even with rubberized front engine mounts, handling is superb. While I felt a hint of buzz through the grips at any given rpm, vibration is significantly less pronounced than on the 250R. Fuel-injection mapping is spot-on, with no lag or stumbles. Driveline lash is not excessive, either.
Shifting is silky-smooth and light, and the addition of a Japanese F.C.C.-brand slipper clutch removes any concern about matching engine revs with rear-wheel speed during downshifts. To put the new setup to the test, I shut the throttle, dropped three gears and dumped the clutch while entering a bumpy corner. The result? Absolutely zero rear-tire-skittering drama.
The “assist” feature of the clutch also performs as advertised, yielding pinky-finger-light lever effort. As with the 250R, however, the new clutch has a narrow band of engagement that takes place virtually at full release of the lever. Smooth takeoffs from a stop are easily achieved with little throttle application or clutch slip.
Even with its slightly smaller 4.5-gallon gas tank, the Ninja 300 should be better suited for longer hauls. The saddle is nicely padded and shaped, and it sits just 30.9 inches off the ground.
As with any small-displacement sportbike, corner speed is the name of the game with this claimed 379-pounder. The new chassis provides more neutral steering feel with no trace of the sensation of falling into corners that I’ve experienced while riding the 250R and Ninja 500. I was also pleased with the enhanced sense of grip and stability that I got from the 140/70-17 IRC rear tire, which is 10mm wider than the 250R’s 130/70-17. Front tire size remains 110/70-17.
We encountered some rather rough stretches of road on our ride, and I’m happy to report that the suspension proved up to the task. The 37mm conventional fork has been treated to lighter damping for improved ride comfort, but oil level is higher, increasing resistance to bottoming under hard braking or over sharp bumps. The shock has firmer damping and a more useful range of spring-preload adjustability to better accommodate a greater range of rider weights.
This bumpy part of the ride was also an opportune time to throw a leg over a Ninja 300 SE equipped with anti-lock brakes. If you can swing the $700 premium, I’d say go for it. The system functions as well as those fitted to bikes that cost far more than this Kawasaki. (The base Ninja 300 comes in Ebony or Pearl Stardust White for $4799; add $200 for Lime Green/Ebony with SE graphics.)
Just as the competition had begun to close in, Kawasaki has answered the challenge. In every sense, the Ninja 300 is a worthy successor to the best-selling Ninja 250R.