The middleweight motorcycle sector is one of the most hotly contested in the marketplace and the 650cc engine category seems to be where all the major players are either giving their models major revamps, or launching something completely new as they go for a piece of the pie.
Even if we confine ourselves to twin-cylinder models, with bikes such as the Yamaha MTO7, and Suzuki SV650, the new Kawasaki Ninja has some tough acts to follow. This is probably why Kawasaki has chosen to give the Ninja such a major facelift.
The bike derives from the extremely popular ER-6N, which has sold in large numbers across the UK and Europe, due to a combination of reliability, fun riding experience, and good value for money. The 650cc bike got a facelift for 2016 but this latest model’s changes are much more than skin deep.
Gone is the high tensile steel twin tube perimeter frame, replaced by an all-new trellis-style frame which only takes-up a piffling 33lb of the bikes’ overall weight. This uses the engine as a stressed member, giving it more rigidity and, says the big K, much better handling and a weight saving of almost 19lbs over the outgoing model.
The weight saving regime carries on throughout the bike with almost 5lbs off the wheels, another 6lbs off the swinging arm, and just over 4lbs cut from the engine. All of which adds to the bikes already incredible flick ability. In real terms, however, as this is aimed at the newer rider, the lack of bulk and ease of maneuverability make it a far less intimidating ride.
Continuing with the cycle parts, tire sizes remain the same (120/70-17 front and 160/60-17 rear) but are now wrapped around redesigned mag wheels, the wheelbase also remains unchanged at 55.5’’overall. Front forks are still nonadjustable 41mm teles with almost 5’’of travel with an adjustable pre-load on the rear mono-shock.
And talking of the rear suspension, the old Ninja’s trademark exposed offset shock, running along the right-hand side of the bike, has now been completely replaced with a new gull arm style swinging arm and mono-shock hidden away and conventionally mounted in the center of the bike. Once again, Kawasaki claims that this gives the back end a much tauter feel on the road and although old Ninja fans say the exposed shock was one of the bike’s trademarks, making it distinctive from the pack, it must be said that visually the new layout has given it a more modern, big bike feel.
Adding to the Ninja’s feel of maneuverability, the re-worked rider and passenger seat has a much steeper step to it, with the rider seat lowered by 15mm. To keep rider ergonomics the same though, the front footpegs have also been lowered by 15mm but have also moved 60mm forward, which may give a slightly more compressed riding position for taller riders.
Passengers will also feel the difference with the new model, as rear footpegs (once attached to the swinging arm) are now fastened to a dedicated hangar bolted to the sub-frame, this should give a more stable ride as the pegs will no longer move up and down independently of the seat.
Staying with the rear end, we come to the only real gripe I have with the entire bike and that’s the awful looking rear tail light/indicator/number plate assembly. Its hideous, full stop. Aftermarket accessory manufacturers must have rubbed their hands with glee on seeing it. The 2016 model looked like it would be more at home on a motor cruiser with a jet ski moored to it and the new one isn’t much better. Surprising really, as the rest of the fairing and frame panels have had a lot of attention paid to them.
Looking side-on, the previous Ninja had almost rounded edges to it, with the nose section slightly curved downwards in a raptorial fashion. The 2017 model has improved aerodynamics, a sharper straighter nose, and much more angular lines, most noticeable in the front section behind the forks, which together with added side panels give the bike a far sportier look, which is in keeping with its Ninja name tag.
The extra fairing panels around the fuel tank have also required a slight redesign giving it a flatter top, which although looks larger, is 1 liter down in capacity. The view over the tank is now different too, thanks to an all-new instrument layout. Giving all the basic information a rider needs, the old layout was however pretty basic. The new clock set- up is much more of an information center, now featuring a central analog-style rev counter with an adjustable shift light and tacho needle, that changes color from white through pink to red, indicating when it’s time to change up a gear.
Warning lights are clustered into a semi-circle on the left with a segregated section on the right housing the gear indicator, digital speedo, clock, trip, and a section at the bottom of the display that can calculate average mpg and tank range. Always handy to have, but you can never beat a quick look in the tank to check on fuel levels.
The riding position on the previous model did tend to be more upright due to the tubular handlebars that rose- up and pulled back quite noticeably. Although very comfortable, especially for taller riders, airflow from the small screen caused annoying buffeting directly into your helmet. This has been overcome with a change of handlebars, switching from tubular to a much lower cast style fork top bar and a 3-way adjustable screen, proving at least that Kawasaki does listen to its customer feedback.
As for performance, one of the best things about the outgoing 650 was the willingness of its perky twin-cylinder engine (one of the main reasons why the ER6 had its own Kawasaki Supertwin race series). Supplying lots of real-world performance and a surprising amount of getting up and go, the only slight let down with the old engine was at 70mph cruising speeds. Whack the throttle open here and the engine just bogs down, needing two downshifts to fourth gear and putting back into the power band before that trademark perkiness returned. Not a massive deal, just a pity it took two gears instead of a single downshift.
Thanks to performance-strangling Euro 4 emission controls, Kawasaki has had to do a delicate balancing act when it came to engine tweaks. This has resulted in a host of alterations to fuel injectors, different Keihin throttle bodies (2mm down on last years), smaller intake ports, and re-profiled camshafts. The airbox has also been re-shaped and the exhaust pipe now features a narrower crossover pipe.
The exhaust note on the older bike was never what you would call a ‘window rattler’ on tick over, and thanks to all that fun-killing silencer packing, its replacement fares no better (without a decibel readout though it’s impossible to say exactly). You can just about hear it when you give it a handful, which is probably down to the better wind-shielding qualities of the adjustable screen. The thought of an aftermarket pipe on the bike is something to be cherished.
Although on paper the enforced fine-tuning has seen a lowering in the power of 3.8 HP, when it comes to roll-on acceleration, thanks to Kawasaki pulling another 1.7 Nm. of torque out of the hat, low and mid-range boost between 3000-6000 rpm has been improved. This, say, Kawasaki, gives the already willing engine better wind on judder-free acceleration from as little as 2,500 rpm in 6th gear, as well as snappier responses in 3rd and 4th. Add to that an incredible fuel efficiency increase of almost 7% and you can see just how skilled engine developers are these days.
Acting as an intermediary between the engine and rear wheel, the new Ninja now comes with a clutch assist and a slipper clutch. The former provides a smooth light pull via an adjustable lever, while the ‘slipper’ allows for more aggressive downshifts without worrying about locking the rear wheel. I’m undecided as to whether this is a good thing or not. Although Kawasaki says this is a bike for all skill levels of rider, surely not having to worry about a heavy left boot locking the rear wheels takes away the novices need to acquire real-world riding skills, but that’s just me.
To be honest, there wasn’t much wrong with the old Ninja, it had a great useable punchy little engine, was all-day comfortable and the handling was confidence inspiring enough to be infinitely clickable. Not all model updates improve matters (I much prefer the old Yam Fazer to the new one) but in fairness, Kawasaki has pulled it off and in the process, given both Yamaha and Suzuki’s latest offerings a real run for their money. The new Ninja is even better than its predecessor and that is no mean feat.