Motorcycles are amazing. Can you imagine, in the highly competitive world of automobiles, that a company could bring out a particular model and continue to sell it, virtually unchanged (except for a new and improved price, of course), for 20 years? But that sort of thing happens occasionally in motorcycling, as it did with Kawasaki’s Ninja 250R. This little pocket rocket was introduced in 1986, updated for 1988, and that same bike sold for 20 model years, essentially unchanged, through 2007. Now finally, Kawasaki has introduced a new, updated Ninja 250R, and it invited the press to take it out for a 100-mile day last spring.
The Ninja 250R was Kawasaki’s best-selling model for 2007, and thus extremely important for the company. Kawasaki’s research revealed that fully 62 percent of Ninja 250R customers are first-time buyers, and a third are women (in the industry overall, only about 10-15 percent of bike buyers are women). Some 46 percent are 16 to 29 years of age, and 42 percent of all Ninja 250R buyers have six months or less of riding experience. Thus, the model is also important for bringing new riders to motorcycling. With these factors in mind, Kawasaki had to be very careful when updating this model to offer not only a better motorcycle for experienced riders, but also to keep it user friendly for new riders, and affordable. It had sold for just $2,999 in 2007–what would the new bike’s price be?
As for what Ninja 250R buyers wanted, Kawasaki’s research showed that the top three reasons people purchase this model are (in order of importance) Price/ Deal offered, Styling/Appearance and Cost of Insurance. Therefore, the new bike would have to continue to attract new riders, to be rider friendly (defined as compact, lightweight and easy to operate) and affordable, while looking sporty and being a blast to ride.
In an attempt to remain true to the Ninja 250R concept, while improving the bike, Kawasaki started by addressing the 250R’s major concerns. To many riders, the existing 250R felt more like a playbike than a true sportbike. Its lack of low-end torque required that it be revved fairly high from a standing start. To address this, Kawasaki gave the liquid-cooled, 249cc, DOHC, parallel twin new heads with reshaped intake and exhaust ports, and more compact combustion chambers, all in the interest of enhanced midrange. The four new valves per cylinder get thinner heads to reduce reciprocating mass, and to increase flow. The camshafts are new, with increased lift and duration. The six-speed transmission gets new shaft splines, and the twin 30mm Keihin carburetors carry revised jetting. The radiator is new, as is the 2-into-1 exhaust system; the previous version had dual exhausts. As in the past, the bike has chain final drive.
Styling of the all-new bodywork is definitely sporty, yet strongly reminiscent of the Ninja line. Though the fuel tank looks smaller, it holds the same 4.8 gallons as its predecessor. The bike carries new dual headlights and taillight, a new two-piece seat and new switches and controls. While the previous version ran on 16-inch wheels, the ’08 model has 17-inchers that are also wider so it can carry a wider variety of low-profile, bias-ply tires; our test bike carried Bridgestone Battlax BT45s.
Fire up the new Ninja 250R and a reasonable amount of clutch slippage will get it rolling. In town the engine spends a lot of time spinning from 5,000-8,000 rpm, but once you take this show on the road your first impression is that it’s a real screamer. At about 6,000 rpm the engine launches into a delicious mechanical F1 howl that will convince most people it’s now more sport than playbike. On the highway this littlest Ninja was turning 8,000 rpm at an indicated 69 mph in sixth gear, so while it’s smooth it does not present a relaxed ride. Shifting is easy and sportbike precise. Despite the engine’s high-revving nature (redline is 13,000 rpm), it’s possible to lug it down to 3,500 rpm in sixth gear and then pull away without the need for a downshift, so the boost in midrange power is real. Going up long grades, however, was a different story. Several times on long uphills at highway speeds the engine began to bog and I had to downshift once or even twice to bring the Ninja back into its powerband.
The diamond-type steel frame is new, more rigid according to Kawasaki, and rake has been tightened one degree to 26 degrees with 3.2 inches of trail. The result, combined with its lightness and short 55.1-inch wheelbase, makes for easy, low-effort steering so it excels in easy cornering. It offers a pleasant, upright seating position on a firm seat that will probably start to become bothersome after 100 miles or so. OK, this is no touring bike, but it finally gets a fuel gauge.
The bike offers a taut suspension, especially in the rear, with the accent on sportiness rather than plushness. The new 37mm fork offers no adjustments, but the single shock has five preload adjustments. At each end the single petal disc brake (a 290mm up front and a 220mm rear) is gripped by a two-piston caliper, and the brakes are both powerful and well suited to the bike. Overall the ride is stable, solid, and taken as a whole, it’s a good bet there will be no drop in popularity for this model. At worst, some potential buyers might find it too sporty and intimidating (especially if they’re looking for a cruiser), but on the other hand it’s a bike that most riders will not outgrow anytime soon–so long as they keep that engine spinning. As for negatives, with a seat height of 30.5 inches the Ninja may be intimidating for novice or short-inseam riders. An annoyance for me is that, at 6 feet tall, I was unable to position the mirrors out quite far enough to clear my elbows. For 2008 its price has jumped $500 to $3,499, and colors include Lime Green, Candy Plasma Blue, Passion Red and Ebony. An accessory seat cowl that can be fit in place of the rear seat is available for $99.95.
My short 100-mile day ride does not constitute a full road test, but it was a very enjoyable time spent on a very enjoyable bike. Keep its engine spinning, and the new Ninja 250R will deliver an easy, playful ride. I cannot predict that this new Ninja 250R will last another 20 years, but it will certainly lure a lot of new riders into our sport.
If you’re interested in the Kawasaki Ninja 250R, you might also be interested in Rider‘s motorcycle fuel economy comparison review featuring the Ninja 250R.