Stay tuned for the pics. I have to upload them, slow speed..
By Bart Madson
Zipping past an unexpected Border Patrol checkpoint near Tecate, California, we lean into a banked turn pinned in fourth-gear with the tach hovering near redline on Kawasaki's best-selling sportbike. But it's not what you think. No border agents or any other government officials are scrambling to run us down with flashing lights blazing because, lucky for us, Kawasaki's best-selling sportbike is the Ninja 250R.
Yes, that is not a typo. In fact, the little Ninja isn't just the best-selling sportbike for Kawasaki - it is the Japanese firm's best-selling bike period. Experiencing steady double-digit sales growth year after year, the reliable little Ninja has achieved cult status as the beginner sportbike here in the US of A. And as we discovered at the recent San Diego press launch, the redesigned 2008 Kawasaki Ninja 250R isn't just the "little Ninja that could," it's the "little Ninja that does things way better than it should."
The story of the Ninja 250's unexpected success began when it entered the American market in 1986 - with the design unaltered since the 1988 model year. Now, while not a bad year per se, 1988 saw Phil Collins' Groovy Kind of Love top the music charts. The point being tastes can alter over a two-decade span. On that note, one of the Ninja 250's most glaring weaknesses was its dated styling.
We are happy to report that the old 250's antiquated lines have been jettisoned - much like Phil Collins' career. All-new bodywork adorns the little Ninja, and like a passable fake ID, it pulls off looking like its bigger ZX siblings at first glance. The fairing bodywork sweeps back to a clean tail section, much like its supersport and superbike brothers. An accessory seat cowl, available for $99, can replace the standard passenger seat, further enhancing the 250's sporty look. Also tied into the sportier lines is the single-side upswept 2-into-1 exhaust, which replaces the dual cans of the 98-07 model. And just in case you missed its intention to mimic the bigger Ninjas, the "250" logo is absent from the new bodywork graphics.
The 2008 changes are far from just cosmetic, however, with the Ninja sporting multiple revisions to its liquid-cooled 248cc Parallel Twin. Although it retains a 62 x 41.2mm bore and stroke, Kawi reps claim changes to 70% of the engine. Internal modifications include reshaped intake and exhaust ports, a more compact combustion chamber, thinner valve heads in addition to new camshafts and camchain tensioner. Another enhancement is the more efficient cooling system, with a redesigned Denso radiator and noise-reducing fan keeping the 250 running cool.
Fuel injection will be included on the European version of '08 Ninja 250 to meet Euro 3 emissions, but to keep cost down U.S. models retain a pair of Keihin CVK30 carbs. Kawasaki research listed "price/deal offered" as the top concern in an American rider's decision to purchase the little 250 - the only bike in Kawi's lineup where price was the major concern. Without FI, a choke lever resides on the leftside switchgear.
In terms of real world performance, the little Ninja engine is a scrapper. Far from sedate for a 250, Kawi claims internal mods increase low and mid-range pop. From what we recall of the old 250, this is true, but the extra juice in the lower revs isn't earth-shattering and more often than not a rider is wringing the Ninja's throttle to the stop, hovering near the indicated 13K redline. In fact, we can't recall a bike we rode so often pinned to full throttle since, well, the old Ninja 250. While no horsepower figures are released, spec sheet claims in torque show the new Kawi dipping 1.9 lb-ft in peak production at 16.2 lb-ft at 9500 rpm.
In urban settings, the high-revving Twin is more than adequate and is a fine commuter. Winding country backroads are also well suited to the Ninja 250's tastes. For stints on the Interstate, however, we did find one area of concern. Accustomed to the raw passing power of a 600 or 1000, cracking the 250's throttle open does not deliver the immediate blast to get past that 18-wheeled laggard on the superslab. As we ventured out of San Diego on the I-5 toward Highway 94, it was necessary to downshift to keep the revs high and get the most acceleration for quick lane changes. The Ninja can still scoot around slower obstacles, but a rider needs to exert more than the usual caution by planning ahead and carrying some momentum to slingshot past.
On the positive side of the equation, the diluted throttle keeps a rider out of trouble. The steady acceleration is more than acceptable for the vast majority of riding situations and it may even be preferable for beginners - who are, after all, the real target for this bike.
As we said of the earlier Ninja 250 when it won our 2006 Newbie Comparo, this bike gives a rider just enough rope not to hang themselves. Sure, riding the 250 doesn't remove the inherent hazards of motorcycling, but it is an extremely forgiving mount. When a newb hits a pothole on the 250 and slips the throttle to full blast, they will get a scare but be okay. Compare this to the brave/stupid who hop on a ZX-10 or ZX-14 as their first-ever motorcycle and accidentally blip the throttle only to end up picking themselves off the asphalt wondering a) where their bike went and b) where they can go change their pants.
While power delivery on the Ninja is tolerant, the new 6-speed gearbox is more lenient than Brittany Spears chaperoning a Vegas bachelorette party. Even when we tried to confound the idiot-proof system with some intentionally ludicrous downshifts, the Ninja's transmission handled the extreme gear changes with a nurturing admonishment rather than rear-wheel lockup. The new, more durable clutch delivers seamless engagement - one would have a difficult time conceiving a better transmission to hand over to a green rider.
The often held notion that it is more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow is often scoffed at. But there is truth to the assertion, especially on public roads. Unless you want your license revoked and cut up into a million pieces, the ZX-10R cannot be ridden to its limits anywhere other than the racetrack, and even then, unless your last name is Hacking or Hayden, you ain't getting everything out of the bike. Yet, almost anyone can ride the Ninja 250R to its potential, which makes it an absolute blast.
Handling on the Ninja is quite a revelation. Even though the new model has added a surprising 29 lbs for a claimed dry weight of 333 lbs, the Ninja is still super slender and feels quite light. The last Kawasakis we rode were the ZX-14 and Concours, so believe us when we say the little Ninja is much easier to navigate in the parking lot. For foot-dabbing newbies, the 250 is going to be a treat.
At speed the 250 Ninja is just as welcoming. In the tight, twisty stuff the super-light and compact bike is a scalpel where larger machines are broadswords. Side-to-side transitions are ridiculously quick and our journo testing crew had a ball tossing 250s around California's Highway 94 just north of the Mexican border. Like a swarm of killer bees, our 250 hoard mobbed the desert canyons with pert, buzzing exhaust notes ricocheting in our ears.
Light, slim and low to the ground, the Ninja 250R sports a redesigned chassis with all-new suspension components. The 37mm Showa fork, which replaces a 36mm Kayaba unit, has revised settings but is still non-adjustable. A Kayaba single rear shock is now five-way adjustable for preload, replacing its non-adjustable predecessor. The new units do an effective job, but at 210 lbs I felt about 30 - 40 lbs too heavy for the front end. That said, my non-ideal BMI never bottomed out the fork, which we recall occurring on the older machine. So, overall, the suspension changes are a definite improvement.
Steering geometry has been altered, with rake angle decreased from 27 to an even 26 degrees. But the most important improvement to the Ninja is the move up to 17-inch wheels, which replace the old 16-inch units. With wider rims the new six-spoke wheels support lower profile modern tires and are a major contributor to the improved handling. Yes, it is still a small machine, but the new Ninja feels like a bigger bike on the road, lacking any skittishness in the corners.
The Ninja 250's riding position has been tweaked, somewhat sportier than the '07 but still delivering a pleasant upright stance. Handlebar height has been raised and reach to the bars was just right for us. The footpegs felt cramped for this tester's 6'1" frame, but the neutral ergos figure to be right on par for entry-level riders - Kawasaki research indicating 62% of Ninja owners are first-time buyers, with one third of owners hailing from the fairer sex.
Although raised by 1.2 inches, the slender 30.5-inch high seat still allows easy reach to the ground. Even the shortest in our testing group were able to tip-toe around without trouble. Standing flat-footed a 32-inch inseam had us straddling the slightly forward-sloping perch with a couple inches to spare. One minor complaint is that after a 100-mile ride our backside was stiff. On the plus side, however, the protection delivered by the new windscreen is a pleasant surprise.
Also new for 2008 are the single 290mm front and 220mm rear petal-style rotors with dual-piston calipers. Teamed together the Ninja's new brakes are quite effective and a couple simulated emergency stops further increased our confidence in the little Ninja's efficient braking performance.
The 250's new instrument console now features the analog speedo in the larger center position, flanked by an analog tach and fuel gague (the previous model had the tach taking center stage). But the big change to the display is a new fuel gauge, which replaces the old temperature gauge and keeps track of the 4.8-gallon tank. We seemed to go through a tank pretty quick during our intro ride on the '08 bike, but fuel economy figures to be somewhere in the 50-60 mpg range we observed during our previous Ninja 250 test, which ensures more than a 200-mile range. Quality mirrors round out the impressive view behind the controls and even though a large rider's elbows block out the interior half of the view, they are better than the previous units.
One of the greatest aspects of the previous 250 was its amazing value. At $2999 it was the best deal out there. The new and improved Ninja has upped the asking price by 500 bucks, but it's still an amazing bargain when compared to its 250 rivals.
With little direct competition and an attractive, refined package, we see no reason why the Ninja 250R won't continue with its immense success. Kawasaki already expects as much, with the enthusiastic dealer response at the 250's September debut. In fact, Kawasaki admits having trouble getting enough of the Thailand-built Ninjas on U.S. shores to meet the dealer demand.
The only surprise about the Ninja 250 will be if it doesn't continue its reputation as a best-seller. Too often we want bigger, faster and more powerful over practical, affordable and simple. The press is just as guilty, if not complicit in these prejudices, but the bottom line is that if you are riding the Ninja 250R and not having fun, the problem lies with the rider, not the machine.