2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 First Ride Review

Fun: The Next Generation. The ZX-14R didn't get all the love for 2012—Kawasaki's new Ninja 650 receives a major upgrade that takes its fun factor to a whole new level

The 649cc vertical twin underwent some subtle upgrades (including airbox and exhaust changes) aimed at boosting low-end and midrange power.
A new steel dual-tube swingarm replicates the dual-tube construction of the new frame. The banana-style right side makes room for the larger-volume muffler underneath the engine.
The new windscreen is manually adjustable (using a wrench) to one of three positions within a 60mm range. Adjustable levers are a nice touch.
The previous LCD all-digital instrument panel has been thankfully replaced by an analog tach and new LCD panel that is much easier to read at a glance.
The new two-piece seat provides thicker foam for both the rider and passenger sections. The shape and support is a marked improvement from the previous one-piece saddle.
The new dual-tube perimeter frame is mostly hidden underneath plastic covers. The swingarm pivot section has been redesigned to allow the midsection to be significantly narrower.

When Kawasaki first introduced the Ninja 650R back in 2006, our first reaction was “Why?” Why would the company seemingly step on its own toes by introducing competition for the long-running (and often best-selling) EX500? But after riding the then-all-new 649cc vertical twin, we quickly discovered that Kawasaki indeed had a winner on its hands. The Ninja 650R was superior in nearly every way to the 500, without cutting into any of the aspects that made the EX such a sales success. Although it was easy to surmise that the EX’s days were numbered...

With all the hype surrounding the new ZX-14R, it was easy to assume that all of Kawasaki’s development budget for 2012 was spent on the big flagship we also rode for this issue. It was a bit of a surprise, then, to see the debut of a significantly revamped 650 as well, with the midsize Ninja dropping the “R” designation from its moniker for the new year. Kawasaki obviously is treating the Ninja 650 as a very important model — much more than you’d expect for a motorcycle without the high-profile intentions of its supersport brethren.

Not Just a Facelift
The Ninja 650's engine underwent a surprising amount of improvements aimed at boosting its low-end and midrange performance. Chief among those changes are new pistons that actually lower compression ratio a half-point (from 11.3:1 to 10.8:1), along with a completely revised airbox up top and a new higher-flowing exhaust down below.

The airbox intake is now positioned up between the double-steel-tube spars of the new chassis (more on that later) instead of the previous snorkel that simply took in air from down behind the radiator, making for a cooler and denser intake charge. The airbox internals were redesigned while keeping the same volume, with a paper air filter with more surface area (and better flow and filtration properties) replacing the previous foam type, and the layout optimized to take advantage of the new intake and filter setup.

A connector tube joins the header pipes of the exhaust to smooth out exhaust pulses and significantly reduce peaks and valleys in the torque curve. And the under-engine muffler features a much larger volume and new internal construction, with a new design using three chambers instead of four to improve the catalyzer layout for better flow.

The chassis is all new, with a steel double-tube perimeter design replacing the single-tube setup from the previous generation to provide more rigidity, a slimmer package, and lighter, easier handling than before. A single backbone type rear swingarm pivot section (replacing the previous dual tube setup) not only allows a narrower midsection to allow shorter riders to reach the ground easier — the footpeg mounts are 50mm closer together, a considerable amount — but also permits a stouter rear subframe to be mounted for increased payload capacity and passenger comfort. The swingarm also follows the double-tube design, with the banana-style right side section making room for the larger muffler, and the rear design allowing for forged billet sliding-block rear axle holders for fewer parts and easier rim removal/replacement.

The front and rear suspension weren’t left out of the upgrade department either, with the 41mm conventional fork and side-mount rear shock sporting increased length and stroke. The fork’s overall length increases from 120mm to 125mm, with the longer stroke enabling a lower spring rate for more comfort while damping settings were firmed up a tad to keep the travel under control (the increase in ride height also results in an incremental 4mm more trail). Ditto for the spring rate and damping changes for the rear shock, which sees an increase in overall length and stroke by 2mm. The front wheel has been slightly redesigned for more strength, and Dunlop’s new Roadsmart II (albeit an OEM-spec version, which has slight construction differences to the off-the-shelf Dunlop) will be fitted to all U.S.-bound Ninja 650s.

The instrument panel design has been revamped, with the previous poorly lit all-digital LCD with bar-graph tachometer thankfully replaced with an analog tach and LCD info setup. Included in the information display are new features such as current and average fuel consumption, remaining fuel range, economical riding indicator, low/high battery charge warning, and low fuel warning on the bar-graph fuel gauge. The fuel tank gains 0.1 gallons for a new capacity of 4.2 gallons.

Every single piece of the bodywork is new, with the more aggressive wind-tunnel-developed fairing sporting larger radiator side openings that offer better cooling and direct engine heat away from the rider. The windscreen is adjustable (manually with tools) to three positions within a 60mm range, and the tubular handlebar is 20mm wider. A new two-piece seat replaces the previous single-piece seat, with thicker foam in both the rider and passenger sections combining with a wider rear portion for the rider to provide better overall comfort.

Say Hello To The New You
It'd be easy to think that all these changes to the Ninja 650 wouldn't add up to much more than window dressing on an already capable package, but a day spent with the new Ninja 650 showed us otherwise. Those who tend to equate these types of bikes with the words "dull" or "weak" are in for a surprise with the Kawasaki.

Immediately noticeable on the new Ninja is the redesigned seat. While the previous perch was by no means a torture rack, the thicker foam and wider rear portion of the new saddle provide much better support for longer rides. The handlebar is not only wider, but seems to have a straighter bend than the previous setup, making the bike feel roomier overall. The new 650’s narrower midsection surely plays a role here as well.

Lever effort and feel from the cable-operated clutch work with the powerplant’s amiable response off the bottom to still make for novice-friendly take-offs from a stop. Swing the tach needle past the 5000 rpm mark though, and the new 650 quickly displays a marked increase in steam all the way up to about 1000 rpm short of its 11K redline. Not an excess that could swiftly put novice riders in over their heads, mind you, but enough to boost the fun factor considerably — for riders of all skill sets. Throttle response is silky-smooth, as is the linear character of the powerband. And although the stock exhaust note is still a bit nasal, the relocation of the airbox intake adds a nice howl when you get on the throttle.

We didn’t really like the previous model’s brakes, which felt rather wooden and required a lot of lever effort to get decent stopping power, even taking the Ninja 650’s novice rider intentions into consideration. That issue has thankfully been remedied on the new 650, with a new pad compound offering much better feel and progressiveness to bleed off speed with more authority, yet not be so responsive as to possibly bite an inexperienced hand.

Even though the double-tube frame’s steering geometry is nearly identical (save for a smidgen more trail) to the old model, the new Ninja’s steering habits are definitely more agile, while still remaining impressively neutral. Most of the credit here surely goes to the new Dunlop Roadsmart II rubber, which not only offers fairly precise steering but surprisingly good grip as well. Bump absorption while leaned over was also exemplary, especially with the front tire.

Granted, we never really pushed the bike hard enough during our street ride to see if the new chassis was any real improvement over the previous edition, but what we did find was that the new suspension rates are a step up. While the budget origins of the components can’t be ignored — the 41mm conventional fork is non-adjustable, and the non-linkage-equipped rear shock is adjustable only for spring preload — the overall action has been improved on both ends of the scale. The ride at cruising speeds is plusher than before, while still offering more control when the speeds and aggression pick up to provide a much broader performance envelope. Only when the pavement is really broken up or the pace reaches near expert levels does the suspension start to come unwound, although heavier riders may approach that limit sooner.

We never got the chance to adjust the windscreen to its highest setting to see if it would help keep the windblast off our chest during the rather chilly temps we saw during our ride, but we heard from a couple of other motojournalists on the ride that all it did was create more turbulence around the helmet area; we’ll reserve judgment until we get one for a full test. The new instrument panel is a definite plus, with the analog tach far easier to read at a glance, and the LCD panel offering up more and better information, including the remaining mileage counter (estimating how many miles left before you run out of fuel) which we found rather useful. The same style mirrors that are found on all the Kawasaki Ninja models provide a decent rear view on the 650, while the engine counterbalancer keeps vibes from excessively fuzzing out the images as well as bothering the rider.

The Preliminary Verdict?
With the Suzuki SV650 (and its ill-fated Gladius successor) dropping off the 2012 landscape, the Kawasaki Ninja 650 now remains as the sole choice of over-250cc motorcycles suitable for novice riders from the Japanese manufacturers. We find this current situation somewhat misguided, especially considering the numerous letters we get every month from new riders looking for a sporty motorcycle that are over six feet tall and 190 pounds (making them a bit big for a 250). Kudos to Kawasaki for continuing to make this option available and providing a stepping stone that helps build the next generation of sportbike enthusiasts.

Kawasaki has succeeded in making a definite improvement to the Ninja 650's performance in numerous areas — and in doing so, the company has once again shown that the motorcycles in its lineup that are often labeled as "beginner bikes" are actually far from the usual dismissive assumptions in performance and ride that accompany that genre. And to get all this for just a $300 bump in price? We can't see any reason why Kawasaki won't be selling a boatload of these when they arrive. SR

2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650
MSRP: $7499
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC, parallel twin
Displacement: 649cc Bore x stroke: 83.0 x 60.0mm
Compression ratio: 10.8:1
Induction: Keihin digital fuel injection, 38mm throttle bodies, single injector/cyl.
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Roadsmart II J
Rear tire: 160/60ZR-17 Dunlop Roadsmart II J
Rake/trail: 25 deg./4.3 in. (109mm)
Wheelbase: 55.5 in. (1410mm)
Seat height: 31.7 in. (805mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gal. (16L)
Claimed wet weight: 460.8 lb. (209kg)