2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 ABS | First Ride Review

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
Kawasaki has upped the ante with the 2018 Ninja 400. Not only does it outdo its Japanese competition displacement-wise, it’s also a true sportbike at home on both the track or street. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

A funny thing (well, two things actually) happened as I rounded turn 7, a 180-degree hairpin that catapults you down the backstretch of the hilly Sonoma Raceway, on the new 2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400. It was late afternoon, the last session of the day, and the mild early February sun was backlighting the massive green hill guarding the west side of the track.

Thing One was that I even noticed said sunlight or the hill at all. In fact, I noticed all kinds of things that wouldn’t normally show up on my radar when I’m riding about as hard as I can around a racetrack. Oh, look at that bird up there! Is that a hawk? Gosh, the sunlight looks pretty on those hills. And…are those sheep? Yep, those are sheep.

Thing Two was that I realized I’d spent all day flogging a 399cc motorcycle around a track, and not once had I thought, “I wish this thing had more power.”

In a nutshell, I was having an absolute blast.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
As much as we like the KRT lime green color scheme, this Pearl Solar Yellow/Pearl Storm Gray/Ebony variation is our favorite. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

Walk through the paddock at your local track day and ask the riders (many of whom likely also race at the club level) about their first sportbike. Many will tell you that it was a Ninja 250R. The trouble with a 250, though, is that it can be easy to outgrow, and for many riders it’s just not powerful enough to cope with freeway traffic. Plus bigger’s always better, right? Not quite—500 or even 650cc “entry level” sportbikes have existed in all four Japanese OEM lineups at some point, but they are often perceived (correctly or not) as dumbed-down versions of the “real” sportbikes. Three of the Big Four have already bumped up their quarter-liter machines to 300cc, including Kawasaki, but with the 2018 Ninja 400, Team Green is throwing down the gauntlet.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
A 103cc bump in displacement over its Ninja 300 predecessor is only the beginning. The Ninja 400 is all-new, with upgraded suspension, a new chassis and better brakes. (Photo by Brian J. Nelson)

The Ninja 400 is all-new, from its larger 399cc, DOHC parallel twin, to its assist-and-slipper clutch, to its steel trellis frame that uses the engine as a stressed member, and a swingarm that bolts directly to the back of the engine a la the Ninja H2 hypersport models.

In addition to the extra 103cc, Kawasaki says that the new engine’s improved performance is due in large part to its downdraft intake and large, 5.8-liter airbox. It spins up quickly, with most of the fun happening above 6,000 rpm. It’s not as dependent on high rpm as its 250 or 300cc brethren—executing a quick pass at highway speed still requires dropping a gear and grabbing a handful, but if you’ve got more room a downshift is no longer a requirement.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
This graphic illustrates how minor the difference in size between the old 300 and the new 400.

On paper, the Ninja 400 is a rock star in its class. Kawasaki claims an output of 44.8 horsepower and 28 lb-ft of torque, which is on par with the racy KTM RC 390 and should handily best any of the Japanese 300s. Verification will have to wait until we can pull together a comparison test, but Kawi brags that the Ninja 400 will out-accelerate Yamaha’s R3 to the tune of seven bike lengths from zero to 200 meters, and in a 6th-gear roll-on from 75 mph, it will be 4.5 bike lengths ahead after 200 meters.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
The analog/backlit LCD display is borrowed from the Ninja 650. It’s easy to read at a glance and contains tons of useful information. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

Despite the increased engine displacement, the Ninja 400 weighs in at a svelte 362 pounds (claimed, wet; the ABS model adds 4 pounds). That’s more than 17 pounds lighter than the Ninja 300, 9 pounds less than the Yamaha R3, and about the same as the single-cylinder CBR300R. Only the KTM RC 390 (also a single) tips the scales with less weight.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
On the street, the Ninja 400 is smooth and easy to ride. Handling is confidence-inspiring, perfect for both new riders and those looking to progress their skills. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

A largest-in-class 310mm brake disc, the same size as that used on the Ninja ZX-14R, provides stopping power up front, and a 2-piston caliper squeezes the 220mm rear disc rather than the single piston used on its Japanese competition.

The bike’s suspension was upgraded as well, with a 41mm Showa fork and a new bottom-link rear shock with 5-position preload adjustment (requires the toolkit, which is included). I found it to be stiffer but more compliant than the previous model—ideal for the track and much better on gnarly roads than before, although larger testers still managed to bottom out over the worst bumps.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
The 310mm front brake disc is the largest in its class. While I experienced some chatter when really clamping down, the brakes worked well. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

So why start a leap-frogging displacement war? When does a small bike stop being small and start being a middleweight? Kawasaki’s reps didn’t answer those questions directly; instead they referred us to their Ninja 250 and 300 owner data, while also pointing out that these models represent half of Kawi’s total sportbike sales in the U.S. Predominately male (80 percent) and mostly new riders (55 percent have been riding for a year or less), their wish list was simple: give us more speed, a larger engine and supersport looks. No real surprises there.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
Thank you, Kawasaki, for putting luggage hooks on the tail section! (Photo by the author)

After spending two days on the Ninja 400, one on the street and one on the track, it’s clear that Kawasaki has not only delivered on its owners’ requests, it really knocked this one out of the park. There’s a new line drawn in the small bike sand that the other Japanese OEMs likely won’t ignore.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
Kawasaki says the clutch has a 20-percent lighter pull than the Ninja 300; combined with the assist-and-slipper clutch, the Ninja 400 is supremely easy to ride even in stop and go traffic. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

Jenny’s Street Gear
Helmet: Shoei RF-1200
Jacket: Alpinestars Stella Vika
Pants: Spidi J&Racing Denim Jeans
Boots: Sidi Gavia Gore-Tex

This being a sensible, beginner-friendly bike, Kawasaki paid some attention to everyday comfort and ergonomics. The rider triangle is fairly neutral for a sportbike, with clip-ons mounted to the top of the fork tubes, and handlebars that sit 15mm closer to the rider than the Ninja 300 for a shorter reach and easier handling when riding aggressively. Supersport-style aluminum footpegs are 9mm farther forward and 9mm farther down than the 300’s, contributing to a riding position that should be more welcoming to riders of all sizes.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
Curvy road delight on California’s Highway 1! (Photo by Kevin Wing)

The well-padded seat is a reasonable 30.9 inches off the ground, and narrow enough in front that even smaller riders should be able to touch down easily. A redesigned radiator fan cover redirects hot air down and away from the rider, which also helps keep the parts the rider’s legs and knees touch from getting hot. Crawling from stoplight to stoplight at the end of our street ride, I reached down and could feel the hot air being blown down, while the tank and frame remained cool to the touch.

The attractive backlit LCD/analog display (borrowed from the Ninja 650) is easy to read at a glance and includes a bunch of useful info—a clock, gear position, engine rpm (analog), fuel level, coolant temperature and speed are continuously displayed, and the odometer/dual tripmeters and range/fuel consumption data are switchable.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
Kawi says around 80 percent of its Ninja 250 and 300 buyers are male…but I bet that figure starts to change in the next few years! (Photo by Kevin Wing)

Jenny’s Track Gear
Helmet: Shoei RF-1200
Suit: Spidi Poison 2-Piece
Boots: Sidi Vertigo Lei

Kawasaki’s owner data indicates that its Ninja 250 and 300 owners spend more than 50 percent of their riding time commuting, so it makes sense that we spent a full day on the street, riding a combination of freeways, country roads and grinding stop-and-go city traffic. With an easy clutch lever pull and wide engagement point, the stoplights were no problem, but I did notice some annoying vibration in the right grip when we were cruising at higher speeds (indicated rpm at 75 mph was 7,500). The seat and riding position were all-day comfortable, however, and I also appreciated the luggage hooks integrated into the tail.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
The back stretch of Sonoma Raceway is a series of long S-curves. We were able to keep the 400’s throttle pinned wide open throughout the stretch—a benefit of small bikes! (Photo by Brian J. Nelson)

On the track, however, we were able to get a complete picture of the Ninja 400’s abilities. In short, it doesn’t feel like a small bike. It’s easy to fling it around, but its short wheelbase/long swingarm design also makes it quite stable and forgiving. There obviously isn’t enough power to get you into serious trouble, but it performs well enough to keep even a pack of jaded superbike-racing journalists (yours truly not included) grinning and having fun all day.

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
Tucked in, I saw 101mph on the speedometer and the Ninja 400 still had more to give. (Photo by Kevin Wing)

Between the Ninja 400’s weight, performance and handling, I found it to be a Goldilocks combination that should keep experienced everyday sport riders happy, as well as provide an excellent entry point for new riders that won’t be quickly outgrown. The price is right, too; non-ABS Ninja 400 models are $4,999 in Metallic Spark Black and Candy Plasma Blue, and the ABS models come in at $5,299 (Metallic Spark Black) and $5,499 (Pearl Solar Yellow/Pearl Storm Gray/Ebony or the KRT Edition Lime Green/Ebony).

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 ABS KRT Edition (Photo by Kevin Wing)

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 ABS Specs
Website:
 kawasaki.com
Base Price: $4,999 (non-ABS)
Price as Tested: $5,499 (KRT Edition)
Engine Type: Liquid-cooled parallel twin, DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 70.0 x 51.8mm
Displacement: 399cc
Transmission: 6-speed w/ positive neutral finder, cable-actuated assist-and-slipper clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Wheelbase: 53.9 in.
Rake/Trail: 24.7 degrees/3.6 in.
Seat Height: 30.9 in.
Claimed Wet Weight: 366 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 3.7 gals.
Claimed MPG: NA

2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400
2018 Kawasaki Ninja 400 in Candy Plasma Blue (shown with optional accessories; photo by Kevin Wing)

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19 COMMENTS

  1. This has “Bike of the Year” all over it and although I have two liter-plus bikes and a 900, I am susceptible to subbing it for my cruiser (with its 30 mpg limitation). Why, especially? In ’63, I had my first Super Hawk and found it to be a go-anywhere bike, riding it from Boston to D.C. in 11 hours one September day, i.e. highway speeds all the way. No, not a great reserve of power in that application but about the same weight and size as the new Kaw 400, which has at least 50% more BHP and torque, plus EFI, ABS, liquid cooling, better tires and a better chain. (Having neglected to lube the chain on my D.C. run, it needed a link or two removed soon after). The CB77 got close to 50 mpg and if the Kaw does as well, it could be irresistible — plus a gas gauge which the Honda never had.

  2. Here we go again! Instead of sticking to around a 300cc displacement which is what a quarter liter bike should be, Kawasaki chose the old, and tired route of increasing displacement. This is not upping the ante, and competing on level ground, it is simply giving up, and opting for the easy way out. How can a 400cc twin be called a liter class bike? besides, this is one ugly looking bike.

  3. Kudos to Kawasaki for producing a beautiful, cost effective model that will appeal to riders across the spectrum (except Mishin, apparently, lol).

  4. I like it, and I’m looking forward to a naked, and a Versys, iteration. The glaring flaw in this article is no mention of the crank configuration. Come on, folks! 360? 270? 180? The bikes personality is in those numbers.

  5. “There obviously isn’t enough power to get you into serious trouble”
    I’ve gotten into serious trouble on a Honda S 90.

  6. “A largest-in-class 310mm brake disc, the same size as that used on the Ninja ZX-14R”
    OK, but there’s only one.

  7. Mishin is right/wrong. This obviously ain’t no ‘quarter-liter-class’ bike. But even 300 cc is cheating.
    But I’ve certainly got my eye on this bike. Let’s see how much they cut corners on suspension and brakes. If this is solid right out of the box, I’m getting one.
    Then what will I do with my FZ-09?

  8. Hey, the Kawasaki Ninja 400 is a dynamic motorcycle which can do it all, be it racing on a track our touring on the open roads. I love how the fit and finish is, all embodying the true spirit of the ninja. Ninja 400 also draws inspiration from it’s elder brothers and it’s great to see the whole line-up now in India too.

  9. Why are some of you whinning about “cc cheating”? Ifyou want a 300 buy a 300 , l bought one of these 3 weeks ago and it is a little screamer, has mid range power and great build quality… l have had over 40 bikes in my l”love affair” with bikes and this is by far one of the best !!! So fun !! , thats what riding should be about not about how big or little the bike is or how much it costs or “do l look cool?”…or how fast will it go ?…fun …fun …fun!

  10. I have never owned a Kawasaki as I drive new model BMWs. I have 3 son’s and two ride, but my 19 year son has never shown an interest. That is until I brought home the 400. Now he has his permit and we have rode on several occasions together. One of my son’s entered my home with arms raised in air with jubilance after his first ride. Proclaiming I love the new bike! My out-the-door price with military discount on an ABS version was $4932!!!!! It made no sense to buy used when a new bike priced so low. I took it to the Black Hawk Farms raceway and had an all out blast.

  11. Back in the day my favorites were Yamaha’s RD series; the 400 twin offered everything to the cost conscience rider looking for exhilaration. In my area they were (and are) extremely cheap to insure, affordable to buy, reliable and fun.
    Not too small to outgrow, not to big to be priced out of the market.
    This is why they were everywhere.
    The KTM 390 came close to rekindling those memories but it appears this 399 twin has absolutely hit the target the industry seems to have forgotten about for so long.
    Kudos to them for a job well done (albeit overdue).
    And if Yamaha follows suit might I suggest one in the yellow KR paint style?

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