Sportbike Shootout at the 4k Corral

Less is not more, but it’s much more than it used to be.

Sportbike Shootout Comparison Test

Sportbike Shootout at the 4k Corral

Sportbike Shootout at the 4k CorralJeff Allen

A small-arms race! What fun! (Not to be confused with a small arms race; behold the power of the hyphen!) The Kawasaki Ninja 250 had been the best-selling sportbike in the U.S. and pretty much ruled the 250cc sportbike class until the Honda CBR250R got here two seasons ago and dethroned it in a thrilling heads-up comparo (April, 2011) and, according to the most recent number, was slightly ahead in 2012 sales. But soft, what light Ninja through yonder showroom window breaks, but a virginal new 300, all innocent-like in white plastic and itching to regain the mini-sportbike throne? We'll see your 250 Single and raise you one cylinder and 47cc!

As it turns out, that simple lengthening of the little 250 Twin's stroke by a mere 7.8 millimeters (less than a third of an inch) and the switch from carburetors to fuel injection, have paid tremendous dividends. Last year, the Ninja 250 tortured the dyno with 25.5 horsepower. This year's new 296cc parallel-Twin uses its extra cc to produce nearly 10 hp more—35.3 horses at just under 11,000 rpm (Ninja 300 on the CW dyno). That's enough for a full 10 mph higher top speed: Now the Ninja does the Ton and then some! (Exactly 104 mph according to Road Test Editor Don Canet.) Even more impressive, the 19-percent bump in displacement results in a 33-percent increase in peak torque, which seems to make the little bike way more than 33-percent more usable for everyday riding around.

Honda CBR250R

Honda CBR250R - Sportbike Shootout

More thrilling, less filling: Little bikes with sit-up ergos are surprisingly effective curvy-road tools in the right hands. Be glad if youJeff Allen

Honda CBR250R

Ups

  • Cheap to buy and run
  • Great character
  • Speeding tickets unlikely

Downs

  • Time for a 350?!
  • CRF250L perhaps more intriguing...
  • Big Repsol sponsorship check never arrives

Meanwhile, the pert little Honda CBR250R that knocked us for an infatuated loop two years ago is back again for $600 less than the base $4799 Ninja, though the Repsol cheerleader sweater on our testbike makes up most of the difference. Adding ABS to the Honda kicks the tab up to $4699. Adding ABS to the Ninja hikes it way up to $5499 because Kawasaki makes ABS available only on the $200-pricier green SE version. (The relatively low price tags are partly a result of the bikes being manufactured in Thailand.)

And it’s been a while since we tested a Hyosung, so it was high time to give the Korean manufacturer a shot. Our $4299 two-tone GT250R retails for $200 more than the same bike in solid black, white or red, and ABS is not available. Off to the races!

The big problem for 250s has always been that getting to the races from most places in Our Great Land requires a certain amount of freeway cruising, and we were impressed by how well the little Honda was able to pull that off. Top speed is only 88 mph, and though you know in your brain that the little piston is working hard, the rest of the bike feels surprisingly serene going with the typical-in-these-parts 80-mph flow. Suspension is low-tech but effective, and ergonomics are excellent for anybody reasonably normal-sized, though smaller is definitely better.

One beauty of low power is that since the manufacturer doesn't have to worry so much about you wheelying over backward, it doesn't insist upon draping you over the fuel tank. Though you may be mistaken for MotoGP star Dani Pedrosa in traffic, the CBR serves up a comfortable, completely natural standard riding position, and its light weight and tight turning radius endow the bike with extreme user-friendliness. In town, with its instant off-idle Thumper power, the CBR is the next best thing to a skateboard for zotting in and out of tight places instantly and accurately.

Hyosung GT250R

Hyosung GT250R - Sportbike Shootout

Hyosung GT250R - Sportbike ShootoutJeff Allen

Hyosung GT250R

Ups

  • Adjustable footpegs and front brake lever
  • Nice, compliant suspension
  • We're thinking...

Downs

  • Some parts appear to be North Korean
  • Brake pads may be sintered Chinese baby formula
  • It's a 650-sized 250; kinda heavy and big

The Hyosung is a surprisingly not-bad freeway ride, either, mostly because of its compliant suspension and greater size and weight, but it’s playing a different, older game than the other two bikes. The GT250R is the only machine here with handlebars “clipped-on” under the top triple-clamp, and its riding position brings back memories of the original Aprilia RSV Mille, of all things. It puts a lot of weight on your wrists, which is okay for a while, but you’re never sad when it’s time to trade back to the Honda or Kawasaki. The GT-R’s fuel-injected, eight-valve, air/oil-cooled 75-degree V-Twin makes a bit more power than the Honda, with nicely mapped fueling that helps it trace a smooth power curve on the dyno. And its five-speed gearbox shifts okay. While all three bikes are pretty smooth, the Hyosung’s grips are vibiest at 80 mph (around 8000 rpm). In lower-speed urban use, the GT-R also vibrates a bit more than the others. Throw in a mediocre clutch and racer-boy ergos, and the Korean bike is a little out of its element around town. It does have nice (appearing) components, like an inverted fork, dual discs up front and a span-adjustable brake lever. The problem is in the execution: Twice as many brake discs seem to give about half the stopping power of the other two bikes. But ridden alongside these two near-perfect Japanese/Thai bikes, every failing is glaringly obvious. Lots of small things, like hardware-store fairing brackets and ugly, chromed-over welds, give the impression that many field-expedient shortcuts were taken on the way to that low price—which is, in fact, $100 more than the base-model Honda. Hyundai and Kia have made huge strides building automobiles. This Hyosung, however, is still not a first-string player.

Which brings us happily around to the Kawasaki. If you rarely get on the freeway and seldom exceed 60 or 70 mph, the Honda’s just as sweet and maybe more so; seventeen pounds lighter than the Ninja and 50 pounds less than the Hyosung, the little CBR is one of the sprightliest, most ambitious rats in the race, with integrated propulsion/stopping/handling systems that complement each other almost perfectly.

For 2013, though, the CBR’s got nothing on the Ninja 300 but price. With the Kawasaki’s new injection system and augmented low-end power, the Ninja gets out of the hole as well as the Honda. It still requires a big handful to get moving since it takes 8000 rpm in first gear to get to 25 mph (a quicker-opening throttle cam would be nice), but once rolling, you almost forget you’re on a tiny bike: 0 to 60 gets here nearly 2 seconds quicker on the Kawasaki, and its 90-mph quarter-mile terminal speed is more than the Honda will ever see.

Kawasaki Ninja 300

Kawasaki Ninja 300 - Sportbike Shootout

Hai! 47 more cc got the little Ninja 10 more horsepower and a metric shedload more torque. Fresh bodywork, tasty paint and wheels and a 140-section rear tire give it a look thatJeff Allen

Kawasaki Ninja 300

Ups

  • Possibly the greatest-ever performance boost from 47cc
  • Amazingly competent high-speed battle cruiser
  • Nicely finished fairing hides all the parts that keep the price down

Downs

  • Why can't we have Pearl White with ABS?
  • Encourages people to write in about their EX500s
  • Only lithe, adventurous passengers will fit on back

Sucking more air/fuel mixture through intake valves that are 1mm smaller than before transformed this little engine and, therefore, the whole bike. All that extra torque allowed a three-tooth-smaller rear sprocket, which lets the engine turn far fewer rpm at cruise; 80 mph at 9000 rpm doesn’t feel buzzy or even particularly busy, so well-insulated is the counterbalanced Twin in its rubber front mounts.

And not only are things calm, cool and collected at that speed, there’s actually acceleration available from there, right past 100 mph. At the other end, you can dive below 40 mph and pull back out of it without shifting. This is one small bike that has no problem mixing it up with freeway traffic. Or any North American traffic, for that matter. It’s just as nimble as the CBR around town, with a similarly comfortable sit-up riding position and well-dialed, if-not-plush, suspension.

And by now we should all be familiar with how well motorcycles this light are able to dissect technical mountain sections; it’s like playing some Crash Bandicoot racing game with a 6-year-old. What could go wrong? Bikes like this are the antithesis of threatening; they’re encouraging.

The big difference is this: Two years ago, we said experienced riders might have a hard time living with the CBR or the Ninja 250R as an only bike but that either one could be a great back-up ride. This year, even we jaded, coddled and thoroughly dissipated motojournalists have to admit that the Ninja 300 actually could be an only bike. And for new riders? Both are great starter machines. You might find the Honda marginally less intimidating right off the bat, but you’ll love the Kawasaki’s superior performance as your skills improve.

It’s big enough, it’s fast enough, it’s more comfortable than most, it actually looks pretty nice in its trick new wheels and bodywork. And it gets over 50 mpg even when you’re caning the nipples off it.

All you have to ask yourself now is this: Is $4799 close enough to the $5499 Honda wants for a new standard-style CB500F (or maybe the fully faired $5999 CBR500R that it might be worth holding off to read those reviews? Might the small-arms race escalate into a medium-size one? Here we go again, thank God!

SPECIFICATIONS

Honda CBR250R Hyosung GT250R Kawasaki Ninja 300
Price $4599 $4299 $4799
Dry weight 337 lb. 387 lb. 354 lb.
Wheelbase 54.0 in. 56.0 in. 55.5 in.
Seat height 31.1 in. 32.2 in. 30.6 in.
Fuel mileage 74 mpg 62 mpg 54 mpg
0-60 mph 7.4 sec. 7.6 sec. 5.6 sec.
1/4-mile 15.96 sec @ 77.69 mph 16.06 sec @ 80.09 mph 14.38 sec @ 90.51 mph
Horsepower 23.7 @ 8554 rpm 25.9 @ 10,110 rpm 35.2 @ 10,920 rpm
Torque 15.8 ft.-lb. @ 6950 rpm 15.7 ft.-lb. @ 6740 rpm 17.9 ft.-lb. @ 9840 rpm
Top speed 88 mph 93 mph 104 mph