If you’re reading this article, there’s a good chance you’re curious about the 2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 because you’re a newer rider researching your first motorcycle. And if you’re new to motorcycling, you probably have a lot of questions about whether the new Ninja 400 is the right fit for you. I’m not new to motorcycling, but I had all of the same questions, and after two days riding Kawi’s latest lightweight I’m excited to share what I’ve learned. Since it’s easy to get overwhelmed with info or lost in a long article, I’ve broken this review out into sections based on the most common comments posted while doing Facebook Live from the press launch. So whether you just want to scan the headlines for the topics that interest you or you’re committed to absorbing every possible detail about Kawasaki’s new 400, hopefully this article does the trick.
What’s New for 2018?
It’s hard to know where to begin! Point at a part and it’s probably been reworked. From the tires (now radial Dunlops, with a larger 150-series bun out back) and wheels (now a five-spoke design, and more than a pound lighter) on up to the dash (totally reworked, and very similar to the Ninja 650’s) and headlight (new shape, LED lights), Kawasaki overhauled the whole bike. The green engineers have improved quite literally everything, and they did it without raising the price. A base-model Ninja 400 is just $5,000, while ABS (an excellent safety feature for anyone) adds only $300. Fancier paint means peeling another two Benjamins off your billfold, but however you slice it you’re getting a lot of bike for the money.
The most obvious and exciting update is the engine, which has grown from 296cc to 399cc. It’s got a lot more low-end and midrange power with even more linear delivery than the 300, so the performance is still very beginner friendly. Kawasaki USA would only cite torque figures (28 pound-feet), but if you look at the Kawasaki Europe website it lists peak output at 44 hp. That’s a thrill-inducing number of ponies, but not so much that you’re likely to wheelie over backward or otherwise get yourself in trouble.
WATCH: 2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 Dyno
As a new rider you want something that looks cool, and the Ninja 400’s bodywork make it a perfect doppelganger for its 600cc and 1,000cc siblings—you’ll most definitely be getting waves from your sportbike brethren on the street. Other notable changes include an overhauled front brake with a larger 310mm disc and new Nissin caliper and master cylinder, plus a beefier 41mm fork (the same size as on the YZF-R3). The frame is completely new, too, with a shorter wheelbase, longer swingarm, and steeper head angle, all to improve handling. The entire package is lighter by some 17 pounds, says Kawasaki, with a curb weight of just 366 pounds with ABS and a full tank.
Is It Comfortable, And Would It Be a Good Daily Rider?
It may look like a thoroughbred supersport when it’s leaning on its sidestand, but the Ninja’s riding position is quite relaxed and the suspension doesn’t hammer your backside like a track-taut 600. In fact, the fork and shock are fairly plush without being soggy (at least for this 175-pound rider), which is a hard balance to find at the $5,000 price point—this new Ninja and Honda’s CBR300R are the only bikes that strike the balance. Some taller riders (closer to 6 feet) found the legroom a little limited, and I wasn’t a fan of the forward slant of the seat or the way the muffler crowded my size-12 boot, but those are my only two complaints about comfort. Kawi has an accessory seat that adds height and might fix the slope too.
Other things that will make the Ninja a good commuter are the super-light clutch pull and positive neutral finder that eliminates the need to hunt for that green “N”. And I love that there’s actually some underseat storage—enough for a small toolkit and plug kit, anyway—and bungee hooks integrated into the passenger-peg brackets and rear fender so you can strap a tail bag to the seat.
How Are the Engine Vibes, And How Is It on the Freeway?
Parallel twins aren’t know for being smooth and some folks thought the Ninja 300 was pretty buzzy, but the 400 cruises down the freeway at 70 mph with just 6,500 rpm on the tachometer, so the vibes are minimal. Things do get buzzy above 8,500, but by then you’re distracted by how hard the engine is pulling. Roll-on power is improved thanks to the added displacement, so merging with freeway traffic is easier and passes can be made more quickly and thus more safely. I recall finding myself near wide-open throttle when riding the Ninja 300 or CBR300R on SoCal’s fast-paced freeways, but that’s not the case with the 400. It cruises with traffic at a quarter throttle, with plenty of revs to spare if you need to pick up the pace.
How Big Is the Tank, And Does It Get Decent Mileage?
To my surprise, our Facebook audience had a lot of questions about tank size, fuel grade, and fuel mileage. What a practical bunch! Well, even with a tuned-up engine the Ninja 400 still drinks regular-grade gas, so filling up the 3.7-gallon tank won’t hurt your wallet. And while the engine may be some 30 percent bigger, it returns great gas mileage, at least according to the onboard computer. It showed around 50 mpg on average at the end of our street ride, so you can expect to get at least 150 miles out of a tank.
Is It Any Good as a Sportbike?
Some beginner bikes are sheep in wolf’s clothing, or they have serious flaws in their setup (crappy tires, super-soft suspension, wooden-feeling brakes) that inhibit an otherwise solid package. Fear not, because the Ninja 400 is quite capable and and has enough sporting prowess to keep you entertained for years to come—it certainly kept this 25-year veteran smiling in his helmet, even at the racetrack (more on that in a moment). The little green rocket is a gem on a winding road, slicing through corners with ultralight steering and excellent stability that’s leaps and bounds better than what the Ninja 300 offered. The new Dunlops grip better than they have any right to, the suspension has adequate support for aggressive riding, and the power and sound of the high-revving engine are genuinely exhilarating. The only drawback is the front brake, which, despite being all new, isn’t great. It works well enough, but when the pace picks up and you want precision the lever feels spongy and doesn’t offer a lot of feedback. The clutch lever is also so light that it’s occasionally hard to tell where freeplay ends and tension begins, but you’ll likely get used to it quickly.
Will It Be Any Good at a Trackday?
Most riders dream of attending a trackday and enjoying the freedom of riding in an environment without cops or sandy corners or traffic. That’s an excellent aspiration, and the Ninja will be a great dance partner when the day comes. I was fortunate enough to ride around NorCal’s Sonoma Raceway for the second day of the Ninja press launch, and even as I write this I find myself smiling as I think about the fun I had burning laps around one of the best tracks in America. We ran the bikes bone stock (including tires!) and besides the spongy brakes there was nothing holding me back from melting knee pucks and turning fast laps that would have netted a trophy in a Lightweight Twins class. It would be perfectly acceptable for a $5,000 bike to drag its footpegs, have tires that chatter, and suspension that wallows when pushed hard at the track, but the Ninja doesn’t do any of that.
Isn’t a 400 Too Big for Beginners?
Now that the Ninja is a 400 some people have asked if it’s too big or fast for beginners, or if it’s more performance-oriented and therefore less appropriate for daily riding. I’ll admit that I too am wondering where the displacement ceiling is for the small-bike class, but for the time being it’s a 399cc, and that’s certainly not too big given the way this engine delivers power. Displacement is only one part of the equation. Other factors include power characteristics, physical dimensions, seat height, curb weight, and of course price. These are all things that manufacturers tweak to create a “beginner bike,” and Kawasaki walks the line beautifully with the Ninja 400.
In terms of overall dimensions the Ninja is no bigger than the competition, and the only bikes that are lighter are the singles from KTM and Honda. And while the added power may seem like a bad idea for someone with a freshly minted license, I think it’s important to have enough oomph to quickly jet away from dangers in traffic and at intersections. If Kawasaki had upped the power output without updating the chassis and brakes to match, then I’d have a problem with beginners getting on the Ninja 400 since, as the saying goes, there’s no better way to make a bike handle worse than by making it faster. Thankfully the Kawi’s handling, suspension, and brakes are well suited to the speeds the bike can achieve.
Am I Going to Outgrow It in Six Months?
No, not unless your only objective is to blaze through life at triple-digit speeds. If there are people in your life (or on the forums or social media) telling you that you need a 600 to be a real rider or that a small bike is going to get boring, ignore them. They’ve got too much ego, or they don’t recognize that there’s a lot more to motorcycling than outright acceleration.
I spent the press launch with a very experienced group of guys, including one friend who placed at Pikes Peak and a colleague who held an AMA Superbike Pro for the better part of a decade, and the consensus was unanimous—the Ninja is an impressive bike and a blast to ride. That’s coming from people who have ridden nearly every bike under the sun. The real beauty of the 400 is that it offers a lot more margin to grow, so you’ll keep learning and having fun for longer than you would on a 250 or even the outgoing Ninja 300. Small bikes rule because they teach you proper cornering and bike control, and you can wring their neck without risking your license or your safety. They’re also easier to manage, cheaper to buy, cheaper to insure, sip gas, and hold their resale value quite well. Well, until a game-changer like the Ninja 400 shows up, anyway.
|PRICE||$5,499 (as tested)|
|ENGINE||399cc liquid-cooled parallel twin|
|CLAIMED HORSEPOWER||44 hp (as per European website)|
|CLAIMED TORQUE||28 lb.-ft|
|FRAME||Tubular-steel twin spar|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||Showa 41mm fork; 4.7 in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||KYB shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.1 in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Nissin two-piston caliper, 310mm disc with ABS|
|REAR BRAKE||Nissin two-piston caliper, 220mm disc with ABS|
|SEAT HEIGHT||30.9 in.|
|FUEL CAPACITY||3.7 gal.|
|CLAIMED WEIGHT||368 lb. wet (CA model)|