What do we do with all these specs? Rake and trail, torque at rpm, fork-tube diameter, brake disc size? One approach is to assume that the market has already combed out the unfit, leaving a class of pretty equivalent merchantable machines. So all that’s left to do is pick the coolest-looking model.

On the other hand, every class of machines has a story. The first bike into this class was Kawasaki's Ninja 250 twin, hitting the market back in 1986. It has long had a following of riders who want to get there in style, on a responsive and capable bike, but who don't want or need the horsepower of a midsize car. Being ideal as an entry-level bike, that little 250 was right for the post-2008 recession market. To boost its appeal, Kawasaki puffed it up to 296cc in 2012 and now to 399cc.

Honda, after trying its usual market strategy of "building bikes for customers it wishes it had," got real and brought in the appealing, basic CBR250R in 2011, enlarged to 286cc at the end of 2013.

KTM's Kiska Design-styled RC390 single arrived in 2014, followed by Yamaha's YZF-R3 in 2015. Various forces pull these manufacturers in different directions. These can't be obvious economy bikes. Look what happened to the unexciting 1957 Studebaker Scotsman, whose message was, "I hafta drive this painted-hubcap jalopy because I got no money." They also can't be intentionally styled to repel customers upward (I'm thinking of the ugly, chopper-looking showroom putt-putts of the 1990s whose sole purpose was to scare people into buying 600cc sportbikes. Back in those more prosperous times, dealers considered 600s entry-level.)

Therefore, the 300s have to be stylish sportbike replicas, which engage the romance and yearnings of would-be riders who can’t justify 12 large for a 600. Look at the tickets on these bikes: Their price-point is $4,999 (plus another $300 for ABS if that’s your choice). These have to be real bikes, not parade floats with lawn mower engines. These are genny sports motorcycles but with 21st-century-sized engines.

Sportbikes climbed the horsepower ladder back in their day because 1) big numbers were selling bikes, and 2) a primary sales tool in the Golden Age of the 1990s was to win AMA Supersport roadraces. But if you have a careful look at 300cc-class specs, it’s clear that the makers are pushing for midrange, which tells you these are real motorcycles. If a 300 were just a 600cc supersport model cut in half, it would peak at 15,000 rpm, need titanium valves to get there, and have, at best, half-hearted midrange. But these 300s are not that. These are sensible, fun-to-ride utility motorcycles that will spend most of their time in-town, where punchy midrange is the most useful asset. Top speed? Why split hairs over the difference between 102 mph and 102.5? They’re fast enough to get a ticket.

Kawasaki’s Ninja 400
The lightweight-class performance leader, Kawasaki’s Ninja 400 produces more than 43 hp and nearly 25 pound-feet of torque.Jeff Allen

The Japanese offerings carry forward today’s darty Death Star sportbike styling, while the KTM jumps out by being orange, tubular, and origami-inspired. But before you get too far into looks, think of this: Often, the best way to choose a bike is by the reputation of the dealer. If you are happy with buying at cost off the loading dock and can competently handle setup and maintenance yourself, congratulations. Most can’t, so the dealer will be an element in their choice.

We can’t know how far displacement creep (250cc becomes 300cc becomes 400cc) will go in this class, but it is happening because that’s the quick way to achieve the punchy midrange that wins hearts and purses.

Countering that is the obvious fact that Honda designed its CBR300R with fuel economy as one important goal. Like Big Red’s 450cc motocross engine, the 300 has a roller rod. And it has roller rocker arms. But the average test mileage in this group, 55 mpg, translates to a fuel cost of 4.9 cents per mile. Saving 10 percent of that while riding 10,000 miles a year will make you a millionaire in 20,000 years.

KTM RC390s
Ready to race: two track-prepped KTM RC390s.Jeff Allen

One brochure crows about a narrow engine (a single cylinder). Why bother? My tape measure says I’m 22 inches wide—the same as the hulking four-cylinder engine in my son’s Honda CB900F. Why am I saying this? Because stupid details are a lot less important than going to dealers and sitting on bikes. If you feel outnumbered in dealerships, take a bunch of friends and be comfortable. The salesman has to please you because you have the money. If you don’t like him, go out. I bought a bed that way once. I was tired and headed for the door. But the salesman thought I was negotiating and ran after me with a better offer. I took it.

All these 300s have balance shafts to make riding comfortable. All have similar steering geometry, similar horsepower, similar wheelbase, similar weight. Yes, this one has 41mm fork tubes and that one has “only” 38mm. Why? All makers aim for the same price point, but the details of how they do it differ. The bikes feel light and handy as compared with large-displacement machines. None of that is accidental. These are the clearest statement yet that the manufacturers are beseeching you, “Please become motorcyclists! Please buy something! We’ll build anything you want.”

One of these bikes is made in India, and another was originally designed for the Thai and Indian markets. No surprise! The US is no longer the number-one motorcycle market; Asia is. Motorcycles can be made anywhere there is electric power to run production lines. Embrace diversity. And a dealer with a good reputation.