Jeff Allen

Which Small Sportbike Should You Buy In 2018?

We test the best entry sportbikes from Honda, Kawasaki, KTM, Suzuki, and Yamaha

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here’s never been a better time to be a lover of small motorcycles, and small sportbikes are no exception. For decades, Kawasaki’s Ninja 250 ruled the roost as the only real option (only having to fight off the likes of Hyosung) but in the past five or so years an arms race has broken out for the best budget sportbike. Honda debuted the CBR250R—which has now grown into the CBR300R—and Kawasaki redesigned the baby Ninja to a 300. Soon, the KTM RC390 entered the fray, as well as Yamaha’s R3 and eventually Suzuki’s GSX250R. For 2018, Kawasaki debuted the Ninja 400 in order to dethrone KTM’s 40-plus horsepower RC390. As awesome as it is to see these machines in dealerships and all over the streets, it leaves you in a tricky position if you’re in the market for one of these bikes. Which one is best? Or maybe a better question—which one suits you the best? In the process of testing all of these bikes we logged plenty of miles and gathered lots of opinions. Below is our breakdown of each bike’s strengths, weaknesses, and specs, in the hopes that it helps you make an informed decision about which one to buy, or which side to choose. HONDA CBR300R We’ve been big fans of the little CBR since it debuted in 2011 due to its light handling, excellent brakes, well-balanced suspension, and torquey single-cylinder engine. In 2015 Honda bumped the bike’s displacement to 286cc (from 249cc) and updated the CBR’s appearance to look more like, well, a CBR. It’s not a fancy of sophisticated machine, but when it comes to functionality the Honda is hard to beat. Other than lacking in outright acceleration and top speed, this is a seriously fun little machine that offers the kind of ease of use and approachability that Honda has become famous for.

Honda CBR300R
The CBR300R is so fun and easy to ride. We love its quick handling, the engine’s low-end torque, and the excellent brakes.Jeff Allen

You can snag a CBR300R for $4,699 without ABS, but antilock is definitely a good idea and only adds $300 and 7 pounds to the Babyblade's curb weight. Even with ABS and a full tank, you're only looking at a 366-pound machine. That's the lightest option here, and it actually feels quite a bit lighter, whether you're riding it or just pushing it out of the garage. This bike is a great fit for smaller riders since it's so narrow, but even taller riders were comfortable in the saddle and the handlebars and footpegs are pretty much right where you'd want them.

Honda CBR300R dash
There’s not much to the Honda’s dash, but it gets the job done.Jeff Allen

Boosting the engine’s displacement added a bit more power (it’s making 26.7 hp instead of the 24 or so the 250 made) and we love the bike’s new look, but the CBR300R comes up short in terms of engine performance when you compare it to bigger, sportier bikes like the YZF-R3, Ninja 400, and RC390. Even if it’s not as powerful as those bikes, the Honda handles as well or better than anything in the class and has better brakes than everything but the RC390. That single feels pretty strained at 75 mph on the freeway, but around town the CBR’s low-end torque is a real benefit and roll-on power is great below 50 mph. If your riding environment is on the slower or hillier side (think city or urban riding, or highways with lower speed limits), the Honda’s single is a perfect fit.

SUZUKI GSX250R

The GSX250R has grown from Suzuki's original stab at the market for small and sporty bikes—specifically, the GW250 (a.k.a. "Inazuma") which launched as a 2013 model here in the United States. The GW's enormous mufflers and Taipei-ready front fender are a distant memory when you look at the GSX250. The littlest GSX looks sleek and refined, with GSXR-like styling and a cool, full-LCD dash.

Suzuki GSX250R
Suzuki’s little 250 has more than a whiff of GSX-R styling about it.Jeff Allen

With a base price of $4,499, it’s tied for lowest price in the category and arguably the CBR300’s closest rival. It uses a 248cc parallel-twin engine, which put out 20.6 hp on our dyno and 15 pound-feet of torque. That’s also the least of any of the bikes in this class and, maybe most surprising, less than half the power of the Ninja 400 and RC390. It’s even down 6 hp on the 286cc Honda, which gives up a cylinder to this Suzuki. Worsening the GSX250’s strive for performance is its heft—if you average the weight of the other four bikes in this test (370 pounds), the Suzuki is 26 pounds heavier. Plus, the seat is about half an inch taller than both the Yamaha and the featherweight Honda. Even our photographer noticed the bike’s weight when he was wheeling the bikes around to shoot these pictures.

Suzuki GSX250R dash
The dash on the GSX250R is one of the high points—it’s a simple, two-color LCD, but all of the info is clear and prominent. This is more like it, KTM.Jeff Allen

That’s the bad news. Practically, the GSX250 works well. It handles nicely considering its mass, and in general behaves exactly like a small sportbike should. It’s also plenty comfortable, even for riders more than 6 feet tall, with reasonable ergos and a decent seat. Lastly, the dash is clean and chock-full of information. The only other bit of bad news is the front brake is also the worst of the group, and there’s no ABS option. Truth be told, the GSX250 is a smooth and nicely built little machine that would likely serve you really well. It’s just a little hard to recommend it considering it’s surrounded by similarly priced options that perform better and have more features.

YAMAHA YZF-R3

Like the GSX250R, the R3’s bones were born on foreign soil. Yamaha’s R25 sportbike that has graced showrooms elsewhere in the world for years shares a lot of parts with the R3 we get in the US and Europe (the R25’s bore is punched out from 60mm to 68mm). That also means a more traditional 180-degree crank, so the R3 fires the same way as the Ninja and GSX, not like the oddball, crossplane R1 or MT-07 engines. The 320.6cc parallel twin pushed out 35.1 hp on our dyno, which isn’t class-leading but puts it within shouting distance of the KTM and Kawasaki. Likewise, this non-ABS R3’s weight is right with the green and orange bikes, at 372 pounds.

Yamaha YZF-R3
Yamaha’s R3 might not turn heads with wild graphics, but the shape is quintessential sportbike. It looks mean and aggressive, without losing comfort and versatility.Jeff Allen

Even being technically the second-heaviest bike of the group, the R3 scores high marks for ease of use. Everything from the sub-31-inch seat height to the clutch and transmission are brilliant if you're a beginner. More advanced riders who can push a motorcycle harder will be the first to find the R3's flaws. The front brake isn't as soft as the Suzuki's, but it lacks feel and power when you heat up the pace. Same goes for the squishy shock, which can't be saved by cranking up preload. Arguably worst of all, the bias-ply Michelin rubber is not made for sport riding. Yes, we've heard reports of 10,000-plus miles out of them, but they chatter like crazy if you lean on them—and that's a shame considering the R3 would be a terrific choice for a first trackday.

Yamaha YZF-R3 dash
The best-dash award would probably have to go to Yamaha. It looks like it’s straight from a spaceship cockpit, and displays all of the pertinent info clearly. The clear lens at the very top is the shift light.Jeff Allen

The good news is the R3’s problems are pretty easily fixed (especially the tires), and the rest of the bike is excellent. Special shout-out to the designers of the dash, which looks like it was taken from the set of a sci-fi movie. The digital speedo is easy to read, and the huge face of the analog tach adds a whiff of performance. The shift light, gear-position indicator, and prominent fuel gauge get a gold star from our perspective too. At the end of the day, the R3 suffers from the same problem as the Suzuki—the competition is stiff, and while the base price of $4,999 ($5,299 with ABS) is more than fair, you’ll need a few bills to put it in the fight. Even still, the Yamaha offers plenty of punch, a sexy dash, and if your heart is tattooed with tuning forks, it’s an option you can choose with pride.

KAWASAKI NINJA 400

Truth be told, Team Green's outgoing Ninja 300 was already (and remains) an excellent bike for any level rider. But Kawasaki upped the ante for 2018, totally redesigning the bike as outlined in this First Ride review we recently published. From a bigger, 399cc engine to an all-new frame and vivid LED headlights, the Ninja 400 is improved in every way.

Kawasaki Ninja 400
In profile the Ninja 400 looks approachable but also very rakish and sporty. Plus the rim stripes look awesome at speed.Jeff Allen

Making a bike stop quicker, accelerate harder, and weigh less is great, but not if it’s suddenly a lot more expensive. Thankfully, Kawasaki kept the Ninja 400’s price the same—$4,999 without ABS. Adding ABS adds $300, which is a very reasonable premium considering how much safer emergency stops are with antilock functionality. And even with an ABS module and associated hoses, the 400 only weighs 371 pounds. That’s more than 15 pounds lighter than the 300 it replaces. Power-wise, this new engine raises the bar by cranking out 43.4 hp on our in-house dyno, just edging out the RC390 for top bragging rights.

Kawasaki Ninja 400 dash
Kawasaki kind of nailed the dash of the Ninja, with a nice big tachometer and a digital speedo and gear-position indicator that are easy to read. The only one that’s arguably superior is the R3.Jeff Allen

As far as riding goes, the Ninja excels as a daily commuter and as a back-road sport machine. The ergos are neutral and comfortable, power is linear (with a thrilling top-end rush and high, 12,500-rpm redline), the suspension is well calibrated, and the Ninja handles quite well. If you’re looking for a full-feature dash, the Ninja has it. Fit and finish are top-notch too. The only bike that can compete with the Kawi’s sense of refinement is Honda’s CBR. Our few complaints here are semi-soft brakes and a muffler that’ll be in the way if you have big feet. Other than that, this is a versatile and stylish little sportbike that’s ready to shuttle you to work or school or usher you into the A Group at trackdays.

KTM RC390

When the RC390 hit the streets in 2014 it was revolutionary. Here was a sizzling-hot 7/8-scale sportbike from a boutique manufacturer that only makes badass bikes. Everyone—from new riders to guys on BMW R1200GSs with 100,000 miles on the odometer—took note. And no wonder. Just look at it. The RC390 is tall, lean, aggressive. As we said in a previous write-up on the RC, "It's a true sportbike, only smaller."

KTM RC390
It’s hard to argue that any of the other machines are more eye-catching than KTM’s RC390. Check out that trellis frame and 320mm brake rotor.Jeff Allen

That means a high seat that’s not particularly comfortable, low clip-ons, an engine that runs hot, a tiny 2.6-gallon gas tank, and a harsh rev limiter. But who cares? The cool factor on the RC390 is through the roof, and it’s as much fun to ride as you’d imagine. It ties the Ninja 400 in terms of pricing, ringing in at $5,499 with ABS. You can’t get it without ABS, but you can turn ABS off with a secret button on the dash. KTM’s 373cc single is evidently in a high state of tune considering it pumps out 42.5 hp and 24.4 pound-feet of torque. That engine has a lumpy idle and feels pretty buzzy when revved up, but it’s characterful and plenty powerful for freeway cruising or ripping up a twisty stretch of asphalt.

KTM RC390 dash
This KTM dash is maybe a little too simple. The bar-type tach across the top is small and hard to read, as are a lot of the pieces of data.Jeff Allen

For 2017 the KTM got a bigger front brake, adjustable levers (front brake and clutch), and new mirrors. It’s still got backlit switches (genius!), squinty projector-beam headlights, a fat inverted fork, and distinctive styling—plus an impressive 370-pound weight with a full tank. What it doesn’t have, at least compared to bikes like the Kawasaki and Honda, is a whole lot of practicality and refinement. Like a true sportbike, the RC390 trades a bit of comfort and composure for performance. And we can’t ignore that the RC has a history of mechanical problems, making the KTM a little less attractive if your new bike is going to be your sole form of transportation. For plenty of people, though, motorcycles aren’t supposed to be practical. They’re supposed to be emotional and thrilling. In that respect, the RC390 reigns supreme.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Realistically, this battle for small-bore supremacy came down to the two biggest bikes here. We know the whole point is that these bikes are small, and it probably feels a little backward that we’re ranking the Kawasaki and KTM at the top—but we promise it’s not because they have the most power. Even though the extra grunt is a nice benefit, it’s truly the options and refinement that set the green and orange bikes apart. Switchable ABS and adjustable levers on the KTM or the beautiful dash on the Kawasaki, for example. (The biggest surprise might’ve been the Honda, which has a stellar chassis and excellent build quality—it’s just missing the features of the KTM or Kawasaki.)

KTM and Kawasaki
It came down to these two, perhaps no big surprise, but it's not just about power.Jeff Allen

The Ninja 400 and RC390 have nearly identical performance numbers and pricing. Really, what it comes down to is attitude. Kawasaki has had the most time and number of models to develop the littlest Ninja and it really shows—it's all-day comfortable and offers exactly the right refinements to serve a motorcyclist. It is a comprehensively pragmatic, fun, well-engineered motorcycle. KTM's RC390 feels less like a small sport-touring bike and more like a baby Ducati Panigale. It's thoroughly aggressive and European, even if it's small.

So do you imagine yourself on the legendary Ninjette, gleaming in World Superbike paint and versatility? Or do you think you need the KTM’s racy, trellis frame and hot-blooded engine? The good news is there isn’t really a wrong answer—even the Honda and Yamaha are good choices. For the record, as much as any gearhead (us included) will be drawn to the sex appeal of KTM’s ground-breaking and oh-so-cool RC390, we know the smart decision would be to put a Ninja 400 in the garage.