Lightweight Sportbike Comparison Test | Big Fun, Little Packages

Honda CBR250R vs Hyosung GT250R vs Kawasaki Ninja 300

The Honda CBR250R’s dash utilizes an analog tachometer with an LCD panel below; some felt the digital speedometer needed to be higher and larger to be seen easier.
Hyosung GT250R’s analog tachometer sits to the left of the large LCD panel, with well-organized info and a large digital speedometer.
The Ninja 300 finally does away with the 250’s antiquated all-analog setup for a half-sweep analog tachometer and small but visible LCD info panel.
The dyno charts above highlight the performance of each test bike in stock trim. Neither bike was dyno tested when equipped with its respective slip-on exhaust, as the performance advantages would be negligible.
The dyno charts above highlight the performance of each test bike in stock trim. Neither bike was dyno tested when equipped with its respective slip-on exhaust, as the performance advantages would be negligible.

Long derided by many in the general sportbike crowd as "newbie" bikes, the lightweight 250 sportbike class has exploded in popularity in recent years — and that's a good thing. This is because it signals that a new generation of riders is finally beginning to take hold in the motorcycle market. For the past two decades, the average age of the American motorcycle rider was steadily climbing, from the mid-20s back in 1981 to a peak of 43 years old in 2008; this showed that the same aging baby-boomers were the ones fueling the market, without any younger generation to replace them. Luckily, the mean age dropped to 40 years old in 2009, and anecdotal evidence of the latest data shows that the average is continuing to fall as newer, younger riders continue to join the ranks.

The sales numbers of the lightweight class back up that evidence. In 2011, the lightweight 250 class outsold the 600 and literbike categories combined by more than a 2:1 ratio. This is why Kawasaki is no longer the lone wolf in the class, with Hyosung moving in with its GT250R in 2005, and Honda finally making a sporting entry into the category with its CBR250R in 2011.

Kawasaki saw the writing on the wall, and surprised everyone in 2013 with its new Ninja 300 ("Gone To The Gym," January 2013). Even Hyosung made some minor upgrades to its GT250R (Delphi fuel injection, new KYB suspension) for the new year. So we decided to not only bring the three together for a head-to-head comparison, but also get some impressions from women riders, throw on some aftermarket exhausts, and even get some racetrack impressions because of the increasing capability of these machines that has resulted in burgeoning lightweight racing classes at numerous club racing organizations across the country.

Daily Life
With electronic fuel injection handling fueling needs for all three of these bikes, there's no more choke fiddling necessary to ride away…well, for two of them, at least. The Hyosung's new Delphi EFI apparently needs to be dialed in a bit better, as the GT250R requires a good amount of warm-up time before it will even run properly. Attempting to ride off before that point only results in an engine that stalls or just refuses to accelerate at anything over eighth-throttle.

The Honda has the roomiest ergonomics, with plenty of legroom and the most upright torso positioning of the trio. Interestingly, the Hyosung has three-position adjustable footpegs, and even in the lowest setting that provided the most legroom, there was never any danger of scraping the pegs; the reach to the clip-on bars, however, is long, splaying out your torso in a very racey position that puts some strain on your wrists. The Ninja 300's layout is very similar to the previous 250, with a slightly more aggressive posture than the CBR, but still plenty comfy for all-day rides.

While the Honda and Kawasaki feel narrow and small from the saddle, the Hyosung feels like a full-size bike, with its 32.5-inch seat height towering over the CBR and Ninja 300 by two inches. Wind protection from the GT250R's fairing is better than the Honda and Kawasaki's comparative tiny windscreens, but the mirrors on the CBR and Ninja provide a much better rear view.

Clutch actuation from the Honda is the best of the three, with a smooth, progressive feel; the GT250R's unit is much rougher, with more effort at the lever, while the Kawasaki's slipper clutch has a very narrow engagement area that sits at the very end of the lever travel. Luckily, the Ninja's short first gear and twin-cylinder torque make it hard to stall. The Hyosung's throttle is an old-school half-turn unit that requires a lot of rotation before you get some real response from the engine room. Complicating matters is an engine with a lot of flywheel that doesn't rev very quickly, a somewhat clunky five-speed transmission (the Honda and Kawasaki are six-speeds) and you end up with a bike that feels sluggish compared to the others despite a decent horsepower and torque curve from its 75-degree 249cc V-twin engine. The GT250R comes off the line well, but even though it's faster on top than the CBR, it doesn't feel like it; the Honda's crisp throttle response, perky midrange, and most of all its lack of heft (the Hyosung scales a whopping 54 pounds more) help it accelerate from a stop and through the middle part of its powerband quicker than the Hyosung.

When it comes to power though, the Kawasaki has the other two covered by a long shot. While it might not quite have the low-end of the Honda's single, the Ninja 300's extra displacement (in addition to other internal modifications) basically allows it to leave the others for dead once past the 30 mph mark. Zipping through traffic is done with ease on the Kawasaki, and you can holeshot most automobiles from a stoplight — and do it without exceeding the speed limit.

On the highway, the difference is even more drastic. While the Honda and Hyosung don't have much left in their throttles at 70 mph, the Ninja 300 has plenty in reserve, and passing situations that would bring hesitation on the other two are handled with ease on the Kawasaki. Adding icing to the cake is that the Ninja's vertical twin engine is easily the smoothest of the bunch, and despite its added displacement over the previous Ninja 250, the Ninja 300 offers vastly improved fuel mileage, with our daily averages hovering around the 60 mpg mark (up from 47 mpg with the 250). Even with its downsized 4.4-gallon fuel tank (from the 250's 4.8-gallon unit), the Kawasaki will go more than 240 miles before you need to start looking for a gas station; that puts it well ahead of the Honda, whose 3.4-gallon tank somewhat hobbles its 70-mpg average, and well on par with the Hyosung's 65 mpg average and 4.5-gallon tank.

Canyon Dancing
The Ninja 300's advantage over the two stretches even further when the road turns twisty. Although the Honda's engine has a very hospitable character that comes off slower corners well, it flattens out fairly quickly at 8400 rpm, forcing the rider to shift more often than the twin-cylinder bikes if the road is any faster than a goat trail. The Hyosung's V-twin engine actually works quite well in curvy sections, with better low-end power than the Honda while carrying farther and higher up top; stifling that potential, however, is the aforementioned long-turn throttle that takes some effort to work, poor front brakes (more on that in a minute), and the OEM-spec Shinko SR740/741 tires (we're pretty sure they're OEM-specific because they have "GT250R" stamped on the sidewalls).

While the IRC RX01 rubber on the Honda and Kawasaki is more than adequate for twisty road riding, the Shinkos steer slower, have less grip (especially when leaned over) and poor bump absorption qualities. We were especially wary of the front tire, as it seemed to take forever to warm up, and with the extra lean angle enforced by the GT250R's longer 56.5-inch wheelbase — the Honda and Kawasaki are much shorter, at 53.9 inches and 55.3 inches, respectively — confidence in the canyons was sapped on the Hyosung.

The CBR steers quicker than the other two, with agility in the tighter stuff that can give the Hyosung fits. But as the pace ramps up, the Honda quickly starts to come unwound, pitching and weaving as its soft suspension and chassis let you know they've reached their limits. The Hyosung's new KYB suspension is a definite upgrade from the previous units, with much better compliance and overall control; still, it doesn't take much speed for the GT250R's weight to overpower the damping, resulting in a bike that soon becomes a handful to deal with.

Meanwhile, the Ninja 300 remains unflustered, its steering only a smidge behind the CBR in quickness, but with a stability and controlled feel that the other two can only dream of. Despite its non-adjustability (other than five-position spring preload), the Kawasaki's spring and damping rates are well sorted, with enough compliance for slow-speed stuff while maintaining good control of the chassis as the pace heats up.

Add to that an engine that towers over the other two in this comparison, and it's literally like cheating when riding the Ninja 300 in the company of the other two. While the Hyosung and Honda rider are huffing and puffing to maintain their pace, the person aboard the Kawasaki is usually looking back wondering what all the fuss is about.

Ironically, braking from the Hyosung's dual front disc setup is nowhere near the capabilities of the Honda or Kawasaki's single-disc braking components. In fact, the front brakes on our GT250R were bad enough that we thought the brake pads might be glazed or contaminated, as a very strong pull was necessary to get any decent stopping power (we tried cleaning and re-bedding them in to no avail). The brakes also had a spongy feel to them that no amount of bleeding could cure.

Meanwhile, the Honda's single 296mm/dual piston caliper combination provides good power and feel without being overly aggressive in the response department to bite the hand of an inexperienced novice. But our regular testers agreed that the Kawasaki's slightly smaller 290mm disc and dual-piston caliper setup provided the best blend of response, power, and feel that would suit both experienced and novice rider alike. To top it all off, our LE model was equipped with Kawasaki's latest ABS that is very transparent, with a surprisingly high threshold of intervention and no shuddering when coming to an emergency stop.

The End Result
While some will reason that Kawasaki is cheating by enlarging its engine to 296cc, in truth there is no displacement limit on any class — only a gentlemen's agreement between manufacturers creates any category displacement limit outside of racing interests. And the Ninja 300's superior performance comes at a price: the base model sticker jumps up to $4799, with the limited edition racing green/ebony model adding another $200, and the LE ABS model we tested coming in at $5499. The Honda CBR250R starts at $4199, with the Repsol package we tested retailing for $4599, and the CBR250R ABS model priced at $4699. The special two-tone paint package Hyosung GT250R we tested has a sticker price of $4299, while the base model runs $200 cheaper.

Just as we noted back in our 2011 comparison of this category ("New Beginnings," May 2011), unlike its competition, the Kawasaki has performance that isn't outgrown in a year or two. And with the new Ninja 300, that performance potential has grown even higher. Does that make it worth the higher sticker price? We think so.

Test Notes 2013 Honda CBR250R
+ Lightest and most agile in the class
+ Good midrange, best fuel economy
Begins to wheeze at 70 mph
Small capacity fuel tank
x Got the lightweight class running again
Test Notes 2013 Hyosung GT250R
+ Big bike components and feel
+ New KYB suspension
Delphi EFI needs dialing in
Needs to lose weight
x Still needs some refinement
Test Notes 2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300
+ Best engine, chassis in the class
+ Slipper clutch, improved fuel economy
Higher sticker price
Clutch engagement a little narrow
x Destroys the class in one fell swoop

250s On A Racetrack?

We know what you're thinking: "Why the heck would they test these bikes on a racetrack? They're not meant for that." And for the most part, you'd be right. Except that the lightweight classes in club racing organizations across the country are one of the few that are growing in numbers. In fact, associate editor Bradley notes that at the local CVMA (Chuckwalla Valley Motorcycle Association) race meets at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway in California, the lightweight classes have full grids, something that none of the other racing classes the past few years have come close to due to the economy. It's easy to see the reason why; the bikes (and track-ready tires) are relatively inexpensive, there's not a lot of modification involved, and the fun factor is through the roof.

The Ninja 300 generates some pretty impressive corner speeds, and even its stock suspension will work adequately at track paces without coming all undone. It'd be interesting to see what a set of sticky tires and a little suspension work could produce on the Kawasaki. Oh, and the legality of the 300 in the Lightweight class? Bradley says the CVMA is approving them, and it's a sure bet most other organizations will follow suit.

That said, it's a pretty easy guess which bike dominates the lightweight grids across the country: the Kawasaki Ninja 250. The micro-Ninja has the high-revving engine and agile chassis that is tailor-made for competition. Thus, it's not much of a stretch to reason that the new Ninja 300 takes that performance to another level, and you'd be right. The Honda CBR250R is more agile and is lighter, but its single-cylinder engine can't produce the same horsepower because it can't rev as high, and its soft suspension quickly gets wallowy at track speeds, allowing the low-set footpegs to start scraping pretty early. No reason to mention the Hyosung, as its old-tech air-cooled V-twin with five-speed transmission simply won't hang with the new-tech Honda and Kawasaki.

Exhausted 250s

The lightweight sportbike class' boost in popularity hasn't been lost on aftermarket companies, many of which have amplified their parts catalog to complement the segment's growth. In an attempt to better explore the many options that have resulted from this development, we put in a call to three separate exhaust manufacturers prior to wrapping up this year's comparison test — many of the aftermarket options for these bikes extend past exhausts, but we figure this is a great way to shine some light on the growing alternative to OE components.

The stock Honda exhaust was the heaviest of the bunch and tipped our scales at 15.38 pounds when equipped with its multiple heat guards, making Yoshimura's 5.40-pound stainless/stainless/carbon TRC slip-on a perfect addition. The slip-on perfectly complemented the single-cylinder engine's low-end thump, and was up to Yoshimura standards in regards to fit and finish. Retail for the TRC slip-on ranges from $379 to $549 depending on construction, though our stainless/carbon unit filled the middle ground at $419.

Recent changes to the stock Hyosung exhaust have made it difficult for exhaust manufacturers to keep pace, but Hindle was quick to provide a slip-on for the 2013 GT250R. The company's option was much more appealing than the rough-around-the-edges stock system and saved us around 5 pounds (the Hyosung unit weighs 8.18 pounds, while the Hindle weighed just 3.38 pounds). The exhaust note was just incrementally improved, but it's nice to see aftermarket options for a bike that's admittedly difficult to find parts for. Retail for the Hindle slip-on is $274.95 to $374.95, and no less than five constructions/finishes are available. Our titanium test piece cost $324.95.

Kawasaki's new Ninja 300 was the last to be modified, and benefited from a Two Brothers' unit that weighed 4.18 pounds (the stock system weighs 9.70 pounds). The slip-on's sound seemingly brought the 300 to life, and while we feel like fit and finish was down when compared to the Yoshimura unit on the Honda (the head-pipe/slip-on connecting bracket looked like an afterthought), we were extremely happy with the performance of the unit. The Two Brothers Black Series V.A.L.E. slip-on retails for $459.98 to $559.98.

The lightweight sportbike class has, in the past, received less attention than it's deserved, which is why it's nice to see companies increase interest in the segment. Our slip-ons didn't require aftermarket fuel modules or timely installs either, and in the end proved a great-sounding, weight-saving alternative to the stock units.

Specifications
Honda CBR250R Hyosung GT250R Kawasaki Ninja 300
MSRP $4199 (base model); $4599 (Repsol package, tested); $4699 (ABS model) $4099 (base model); $4299 (two-tone paint, tested) $4799 (base model); $4999 (Limited Edition model); $5499 (LE ABS model, tested)
Engine
Type Liquid-cooled, four-stroke single Air/oil-cooled, four-stroke 75-degree V-twin Liquid-cooled, four-stroke parallel twin
Displacement 249cc 249cc 296cc
Bore x stroke 76.0 x 55.0mm 57.0 x 48.8mm 62.0 x 49.0mm
Induction PGM-FI, 38mm throttle body Delphi EFI, 28mm throttle bodies Keihin EFI, 32mm throttle bodies
Chassis
Front suspension 37mm conventional fork, 4.7 in. travel 41mm inverted fork, 4.7 in. travel 37mm conventional fork, 4.7 in. travel
Rear suspension Single shock absorber, 4.1 in. travel Single shock absorber, 4.3 in. travel Single shock absorber, 5.2 in. travel
Front tire 110/70-17 IRC RX01F 110/70-17 Shinko SR740 110/70-17 IRC RX01F
Rear tire 140/70-17 IRC RX01R 150/70-17 Shinko SR741 140/70-17 IRC RX01R
Rake/trail 25.0 deg./3.7 in. (94mm) 25.0 deg./3.7 in. (94mm) 27 deg./3.7 in. (94mm)
Wheelbase 53.9 in. (1370mm) 56.5 in. (1435mm) 55.3 in. (1405mm)
Weight 356 lb. (161kg) wet; 335 lb. (152kg) dry 410 lb. (186kg) wet; 381 lb. (173kg) dry 386 lb. (175kg) wet; 360 lb. (163kg) dry
Fuel consumption 53 – 72 mpg, 70 mpg avg. 55 – 70 mpg, 65 mpg avg. 58 – 69 mpg, 60 mpg avg.
Performance
Quarter-mile 15.84 sec. @ 79.16 mph 16.28 sec. @ 79.12 mph 14.01 sec. @ 91.54 mph
Roll-ons 40 – 60 mph/8.02 sec.; 60 – 80 mph/9.72 sec. 40 – 60 mph/7.09 sec.; 60 – 80 mph/9.68 sec. 40 – 60 mph/5.67 sec.; 60 – 80 mph/6.99 sec.

The Women's Perspective

Similar to what we did in our last 250 comparison ("New Beginnings", May 2011), we got some outside perspectives besides our regular staff testers. This time, however, we got two women riders to give their evaluations on the three bikes. The timing is spot-on, as the female rider ranks have continued to grow; the latest Motorcycle Industry Council data shows that the number of women riders has nearly doubled from 2003 to 2009, accounting for more than 26 percent of the total motorcycle riders in the U.S.

April Trestick is our managing editor, and she's been riding for nine years; she owns a 2004 Ducati Monster and a 2009 Triumph Bonneville, and is five feet, five inches tall. Annette Carrion was formerly our web producer responsible for much of our website content publication; she has been riding for three years, owns a 2004 Kawasaki Ninja 250, and is five feet, two inches tall.

There aren't any opinions on the Hyosung from either Annette or April because they couldn't feel comfortable on the GT250R at a stop due to its tall 32.5-inch seat height and long reach to the bars. Strike one against the Hyosung.

Annette Carrion

Kawasaki Ninja 300
It's great that it's got a low enough seat height for people like myself, yet it just feels more 'grown-up' than the Honda. I had problems stalling the CBR, but no problems at all with the Kawasaki. The engine, I felt like it was definitely more powerful than the Honda. I liked the handling of the 300 better as well; it's very smooth, I just felt more comfortable on it. The 300 has a nice dash, it's easy to read. The 300 just feels like a bike that you would probably not outgrow as fast.

Honda CBR250R

The 250's power is good, I was surprised on the freeway that it handled the speed OK. The Honda's suspension for me wasn't bad, it just didn't feel as smooth as the Kawasaki. The CBR250 feels just a tad wider in the middle than the (Kawasaki), so I'm a little bit more on my tiptoes. The CBR250's mirrors are better, they have an oval shape that makes it easier to see out of; the way the Kawasaki's mirrors are shaped, it makes it difficult to see behind you. Even though the 300 has ABS, the 250's brakes weren't bad.

Which bike would you buy?

Even with its higher price, the Kawasaki, I feel like it's a bike that I would keep for a very long time. It would be an investment for me.

April Trestick

Kawasaki Ninja 300
The Kawasaki feels more like a big bike, it's not as dumbed down as some of the smaller bikes have been. The Ninja 300 just has a longer life span with any given rider because of its performance. I would be happy to own it now, and I'm not necessarily a beginner; but I think it would make almost anybody a better rider. It handles well, it definitely has more predictable power than the Honda. I haven't spent much time on a single (cylinder), and the power comes on differently than the parallel twin — the Kawasaki is much more powerful.

Honda CBR250R

The Honda's much more beginner-oriented. Its riding position is a little more upright, but both of them are really comfortable, and you could ride around on them all day — maybe the seat's a little better on the Kawasaki, but the Honda has much better mirrors. It also vibrates much more than the Ninja, particularly at higher speeds; it was working a little bit harder than the Kawasaki. It took me a bit to get used to the power, how it came on, but once I rode it the second time I liked it; you just had to wind it out more to get the same speed as the Ninja 300. I wouldn't have any problem recommending the Honda to someone.

Which bike would you buy?

I'd go for the Kawasaki, it's just a lot more fun to ride. The price difference wouldn't matter that much to me.

Opinions

Bradley Adams
I supposed the Ninja 300's engine updates would prove a benefactor in this year's little bike comparison (I think the saying goes something like… "there's no replacement for displacement"), but I was curious if the added ccs would legitimately allow the Ninja to run circles around the Honda and Hyosung — both of which performed well in last year's test. That doubt disappeared upon rolling the 300 out of the garage and rolling the throttle on; the Kawasaki's engine is that vastly improved.

The Ninja's benefits don't expire in the engine, and the retooled chassis feels more stable and composed than in years past. What's more, the suspension action is superb at both a casual or aggressive pace.

It wasn't a first round knockout however, and the Honda put up a modest fight thanks in part to better ergonomics and quicker steering characteristics. The fact that I nearly rotated the grip on the throttle tube in the search for added speed says about everything you need to know though. Then there's the Hyosung; if it actually stopped (or ran on cold mornings/nights), I wouldn't have minded riding it, but apparently that was too much to ask for this time around.

Eric "E-Money" Nugent
Take a group of 250/300cc bikes, and a six-foot-tall, 211-pound rider…in my head, not the best combination, but surprise, surprise! Clearly I'm not going to say any of these pint-sized machines are rocketships, but for what they had to pull around all day, I was impressed. All of them offered a fair amount of room; the Honda was the most comfortable of the bunch with its rubber-covered footpegs, and even though we were hovering around 8000 rpm to keep up with traffic on the highway, it was surprisingly easy to ride for a fairly long trip. The Ninja 300 already has the upper hand as the extra 50cc are greatly appreciated; the styling is more aggressive and it's still a fun bike to ride through the canyons. The Hyosung is a bit of a contradiction; it's sized like a modern day 650cc machine, yet it has a 250cc engine. It looks like a big bike with dual front discs and inverted forks, but I think the other big-bike attributes — tall seat, long reach to the bars — hurt the Hyosung more than help. The Kawasaki and the Honda have a true entry-level feel with great styling and price tags. So If I'm getting on the road for the first time, I'm taking the Ninja and running, with the CBR getting the next nod.

Kent Kunitsugu
I have to say I was disappointed with the Hyosung. New suspension bits and a new EFI setup sounded like the company had done its homework from our last comparison, but the 2013 model didn't even measure up to the 2011 version, especially in the engine department. The 2013 model revved sluggishly, as if it had the flywheel of a Harley inside. And I'm hoping the front brake problem was an anomaly.

As for the Honda and Kawasaki, while the CBR250R has plenty of attributes for the novice rider (including a low sticker price), it paints itself into a corner with its "just enough performance" mentality. These motorcycles are expensive enough that they can't be completely considered temporary startups; many owners are looking at them as a two- or three-year investment, so you want performance that won't leave you wanting more after a year. The Ninja 300 has all the novice-friendly attributes of the Honda, but with performance that you won't grow out of quickly. Definitely worth the extra dollars in my opinion.