Kawasaki Ninja 250R vs. Honda CBR250R - Comparison Test

Small but meaty: Can Honda’s new Single outrun America’s biggest-selling sportbike?

Kawasaki Ninja 250R vs. Honda CBR250R - Comparison Test

Kawasaki Ninja 250R vs. Honda CBR250R - Comparison Test

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 _blast_out 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.

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.

Honda forked rocker arms
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.

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.

Kawasaki Ninja 250R vs. Honda CBR250R - Comparison Test

Kawasaki Ninja 250R vs. Honda CBR250R - Comparison Test

But they’re really not about touring, are they? Rat-racing around the urban maze is where these little bikes shine. And once again, the Honda shines brightest. Crisp injection through its 38mm throttle body lets the little Single spool right up into the meat of its 7000-rpm-centric powerband, and once there, the lightweight Honda puts the hurt on all its four-wheeled competition. You can also just cruise around smoothly at 3500 rpm in top cog; for a 250, the thing is way flexible, and driveline lash is minuscule. The Kawasaki is good, too, but it needs more rpm to get rolling and thus more throttle twisting and shifting and general drama. So even if the Ninja is a tick quicker, it seldom feels that way in the real world. Carburetion is by carburetor, and the Ninja just doesn’t fuel as smoothly (Europe gets EFI).

Just when some of us (okay, maybe just me) had ourselves convinced that a scooter is the only way to fly around town, here come these 250s to call that thesis into question—especially, again, the Honda. They weigh about the same as a top-of-the-line Vespa but will rip the baguettes off a $5999 GTS 300 Super i.e., and when it comes to handling, there is no contest: Both bikes' mountain-road capabilities translate directly to the urban starting grid. Pass the bus on the outside, brake late and downshift, set up wide for the right onto 19th Street, trail-brake in and clip the apex avoiding the baby strollers and mamasitas, then back on the gas hard and power ahead as the speedo climbs past 35. Traction control is for sissies. Tight left onto Pomona, then an immediate downshift and a quick flick right into the In-N-Out Burger drive-thru, standing up an Expedition, heh-heh...

2011 Kawasaki Ninja 250R
The Ninja is a great, frolicsome little motorcycle with cool styling and a fierce (for a 250) Twin. It’s a great way to get started in motorcycling and remains an excellent way to get around.

The only fly in the ointment is you can’t flip up the seat and throw in a bag of groceries like on a scooter. (At least the tanks are steel so your magnetic bag will stick to them.) On a positive note, fewer people question your manhood on a real live motorcycle, even if it’s a tiny one. The motorcycle.

As jaded motojournalists, we’d find it tough to live with either of these as an only bike but, just as with a scooter, both are fantastic second steeds for urbanites. And as training wheels for those just getting into motorcycling, they’re so much easier and more forgiving to ride than the RDs, Mach IIIs and things we came up on it’s ridiculous, especially for $3999. ABS is available as a $500 option on the black or red/silver Honda (our testbike was non-ABS), while the Kawasaki shown here in Special Edition Ebony/Lime Green is an extra $250 over the basic-black model, as is the Pearl White/Ebony SE version.

Maintenance-wise, you’ll be synching the Ninja’s two carburetors and inspecting its eight valves every 7500 miles—and removing the cams if any of those shims need replacing. The Honda is easier. Its valves want initial inspection at 600 miles and then not again until 16,000—and its little roller-equipped rocker arms slide aside to let you access the shims when needed. Don’t fool with the EFI, which adjusts for altitude and has an Idle Air Control circuit to keep things in line when the throttle is closed. Someday you may need to buy a sparkplug. If these little engines are hard on oil, it’s not reflected in their makers’ recommendations: Change it every 6000 miles, says Kawasaki, every 8000, says Honda. Seems so heartless...

What you’re giving up with either 250, apart from horsepower, is all the fun-to-look-at and play-with componentry we’ve come to expect and covet on more-expensive bikes. Adjustable levers? Not so much. And no radial-pump master cylinders, vacuum die-cast swingarms, titanium exhausts, suspension clickers or artisanal castings of any sort. Do you need that stuff? Not to access the essential joy of moto you don’t, especially when you’re new to the game and don’t know any better. Though a weedy old-school two-piston sliding caliper clamps the single front disc brake on each bike, neither one has any problem performing lurid nose wheelies (credit to Cernicky for doing this important research). Anyway, the excellent fit, finish and paint on both bikes is far superior to the “entry-level” machines of not many years ago. The Ninja looks a little racier, the Honda a bit more refined.

Kawasaki Ninja 250R vs. Honda CBR250R - Comparison Test

Both bikes’ steel frames and box-section swingarms look like they may have come from the same supplier, and both get the job done just fine. Sporty- looking they might be, but both also provide nice upright ergos and cockpits capable of comfortably supporting bigger pilots than you’d suspect.

Speaking of people just getting into motorcycles, late-breaking word on the industrial grapevine is that our favorite pastime isn't just for codgers anymore. Demographic research working its way down the pipeline is said to reveal quite a few Gen X and Y persons have been getting into bikes in the last couple of years, which only makes sense, given the tough economic times. (We knew all along that the kids would get tired of Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty eventually and would want some non-virtual scars.) If that's the case, Honda's timing with the CBR250R could be better than it's been in quite some time, as it enters a niche Kawasaki has had to itself for many moons. (And as a world bike, the little CBR fits in nicely with Honda's global plan to move more low-margin units in Asian markets.) How nice a niche? For each VFR1200F Honda sold in the U.S. in 2010, Kawasaki moved about 30 Ninja 250Rs. Hmmm...

Well, kudos to Kawasaki; the Ninja is a great, frolicsome little motorcycle with cool styling and a fierce (for a 250) Twin. It’s a great way to get started in motorcycling and remains an excellent way to get around. But our editorial hat is off to Honda. The CBR just plain works better everywhere, eliciting more toothy grins wherever it goes. On the spec chart, it’s about as impressive as, well, as a 250-Single-powered sportbike. On the road, this little Thumper might be the best two-wheel thing Honda’s done for motorcycling in a long time, ­plus you can get three or four of them for the price of a DN-01. Things are looking up.

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