2012 Kawasaki Ninja 650 road test
Shumi puts the 2012 Kawasaki through its paces
We aren't normal. As a motorcycle market, that is. Our history with big motorcycles is brief and incomplete. Our liking for motorcycles, on the other hand, is startlingly well-formed, even if the lion's share is on the part of people who cannot yet afford cars and move on from these dangerous, ready to tip-over devices that can only carry two more people or just two quintals of onions at best.
But then there are those of us who love motorcycles in the very same way that riders in the developed world love them. For their freedom, for their dependence upon the rider to complete them, for the risk they represent and the thrills they bring. For the solitude on them, and for the companionship of them. And they are the ones in trouble. The big litre-bikes are not only eye-wateringly expensive, but also difficult to use everyday - they're always heating up, grumbling at the crawling... Not happy. And on the highway, they are ergonomic nightmares that only want to shatter off the bumps and hop about like randy bunnies.
And that is where motorcycles like the Ninja 650 come in. The sole issue, then, is that it isn't as aspirational, perhaps, as say a Kawasaki ZX-10R.
But as we noted when we first rode it, the Ninja 650 is a source of peculiar satisfaction. It does everything a commuting motorcycle should without losing its grasp on the fun and thrills end of the spectrum. All this and a decent price too! The old one left a big impression after the first ride. We never received a test bike, but we were clear that this was a good one. Is the new better still?
Design, build & finish
The styling and other changes you see here came out as the 2012 Ninja 650 and if you remember we'd carried an update recently on the 2013 650 which only introduces the optional ABS unit, which we will not be getting. So let us begin with what we aren't going to get.
We aren't getting the optional ABS unit in India and you still will not be able to get your Ninja in any colour but green. Bajaj explain that every option and every colour adds to the spares inventory that dealers must carry to ensure service is effortless and spares supplies are without constraint. Eliminating options and colours is the simplest compromise between allowing customers to own a Ninja 650 at a reasonable price, meeting their service and spares quality expectations during the time it takes for the Indian market to mature a little bit more. There is an internal, undisclosed, threshold in sales terms at which point, this cost-effective model restriction will give way to more and more options. And at that point, Bajaj will be happy to offer the other colours, optional ABS etc to you. Personally, I'd have liked to see the ABS go on sale here no matter what. And I'd heartily recommend that you get yours with it.
So what you do get then, is a nearly new motorcycle from the last time. To focus on the styling, I quite liked the old one already. What Kawasaki have done since is to sharpen it up and make the styling more consonant with the new ZX-10R, which by the way, looks hideous to me. Good thing it's bloody quick so you'll mostly see the vastly smaller and sharper rear-end, eh?
Back to the Ninja and the big visual change you will spot is the tall tank and the trio of exit vents on the fairing just below the new twin tube twin-spar frame. Front-on there are dramatic new head lamps which reminded a few of the journos at the launch press conference of the earliest twin-headlamp ex-China aftermarket fairings we used to get. Me? I think they look sharp but they could have been more effortless. As is, it looks like a large, Japanese motorcycle and the green fairing identifies it as a Kawasaki. The screen lest I forget is adjustable now, though it requires a fair bit of fiddling, removal of the visor itself and a 4mm Allen key to accomplish. I'm six feet in boots and the stock position was perfect for me, though.
The tail unit is far better in design, looking comfortable to the eyes as well as thin in profile and sharp to suggest a sporty nature. And the fact that it is now a stepped seat adds immeasurably to that impression.
Build and finish levels are pretty good though the area around the vents on the fairing can feel a bit flimsy when you put pressure on it say when cleaning the bike out with a cloth. Also, when you remove the rear seat to access the little cubby underneath, you realise that the rider's pad is also anchored by the pillion pad and it will simply slide off easily once the pillion pad is off. This is great for convenience when you need to access the battery and stuff but feels a little flimsy. It isn't actually an issue at all because with both seats mounted the pads are really secure, but it is, until you get over it, a bit disconcerting.
The meters are all-new as well, featuring a large tachometer with a digital readout underneath that has the speed, a multi-function display (includes range, economy and more) as well as 'Eco' mode indication that comes at certain throttle opening and speed combinations to reinforce the fact that you're riding in a way that will return great economy.
On the whole, the styling isn't as sharply muscular as a current sports bike and that's not a bad thing in my books. It looks honest, large and appealing. Which is a very good combination for India, I think. There is scope for the design to have been better but as Kawasaki has shown with a number of their bikes recently, form is currently playing underling to function at Team Green.
Engine, performance & economy
Kawasaki's 649cc parallel twin is well-liked, by riders and engineers alike. It is very compact and uses stacked gears to allow a short engine length and a long swingarm. Both are important ingredients for a good handling package. Chain-driven twin overhead cams work four valves per cylinder, allowing a 10,500rpm ceiling along with the ability to pull effortlessly from just off idle. A secondary counterbalancer handles any vibration that the engine might produce.
For the new model, Kawasaki updated this engine. The air intake was revised while a paper filter replaces the earlier oil soaked foam thingie. The fuel injection system is unchanged with its dual 38mm throttle bodies but inside the over square bores, the pistons feature new crowns that drop compression from 11.3 to 10.5. This is not a small change and reflects a calmer engine in nature, less stressed at high revs in feel.
A crossover pipe has been added to the exhaust headers to produce smoother peaks and shallower valleys in the power and torque curves and a bigger muffler with fewer chambers allows the engine to make more torque below 7000rpm. The gearbox is a six-speed unit.
The engine is noticeably smoother in feel than the older one but it doesn't sound great with the stock exhaust. It has a mechanical edge to it which isn't evocative. On the other hand, there is just enough vibration to let you know it's running and the difference in power (in quantity and delivery) is noticeable. The last Ninja 650 was already good on this aspect but this one is a bit better, coming on the power stronger at lower revs and feeling like it has more stamina on top.
Our bike was almost new but despite positive shifts, I had two issues with the gearbox. First, the slotting is notchy and on downshifts, the shift feel is grainy and hard. Second, the distance between the peg and the shifter is a bit long so I ended up shifting with my toenail which grew uncomfortable very quickly. After repeatedly missing shifts in hard riding, I finally adapted by using the middle of my heel as a pivot for my foot for sure shifts rather than the usual - the arch of the foot. Given that I wear size 10s, above average for India, I think the bike might need a longer shift lever that comes closer to your foot from the gearbox output shaft for Indian customers.
To the numbers then. The Kawasaki surprised us with 30.52kmpl on the highway which is excellent for a motorcycle this size and then it returned an equally surprising 15.96kmpl in the city. And it backs this up with great performance numbers as well. Roll on acceleration was excellent in all gears and the Ninja even posted a 4.61 second run to 100kmph in less than perfect conditions.
The Kawasaki Ninja 650 is billed in India as a practical superbike and I cannot disagree there. It does manage adequate economy with generous performance. The engine doesn't try to cook your legs even in heavy traffic and it's a delightfully tractable motor - I repeatedly spotted myself pottering along at a near-silent 40kmph in fifth gear without a care or concern. And then passing everything in a flash with just a downshift and a whiff more of throttle. The previous Ninja was a good bike to handle our conditions with, and this one is slightly but noticeably better.
Handling, ride & braking
The chassis on the bike is all-new. The visible sign are the twin tubes of the twin spar frame. What you won't notice is the slightly longer, retuned monoshock (side-mounted as usual). Or the sole change in geometry - slightly more trail. The front suspension also has a little more travel and the new OE tyres are Dunlop Roadsmart IIs.
Together, all this adds up and becomes the most significant change in the motorcycle. The first thing you notice is the ride quality. There is a smoothness to the Ninja 650 now that is breathtaking for a sporty motorcycle. The suspension is able to take the edge of the bumps very, very well and even large potholes are dealt with better than any sporty large displacement motorcycle you care to name. But this is without losing the stiffness or composure that is essential for good handling.
The new chassis and the well-appreciated Dunlops work very well together. This is a stable motorcycle that feels unhurried but responsive on the turn in and squats under power just enough to give a lot of feel for the rear tyre when exiting on the power. The footpegs are mounted closer, which also helps cornering clearance and makes the bike feel a bit narrower, which in turn enhances your sense of control over it.
The brakes are very good both in power and feel. The rolling stoppie I managed during performance testing from 80kmph to a stop felt completely natural and not once did I feel the need to back off the brakes despite the slightly slick surface.
Like in the engine department, Kawasaki have successfully managed to improve the motorcycle without losing any of the abilities and character that make the Ninja 650 such a well-received motorcycle all over the world, including here in India.
The old Kawasaki was an impressive motorcycle but also extremely frustrating. You immediately grasped how useful as well as thrilling it would be in India. And that it's price was very, very pocket-friendly. And then if you had turned up at the ProBiking showroom as little as four weeks after bookings opened, you'd have faced the Mount Everest of frustration - it was sold out and new bookings were mostly declined on supply constraints.
When word came of the new model (finally) getting launched. I got worried because my flock of little birdies said the price would go up. Between the sold out old model and the rocky rupee-dollar relationship, the affordability was heading for extinction.
So imagine my surprise when Bajaj launched the motorcycle at Rs 4.99 lakh ex-Delhi, a mere Rs 42,000 more than before. It's still a solid buying proposition. The motorcycle is more linear in feel than before, still handles rather well while offering a noticeably better ride quality on our roads, has better tyres than before and isn't that much expensive in the bargain either.
Bajaj have always been able to get prices that cause consternation among the competition and smiles amongst its prospective buyers and the Ninja 650 hangs on to that ethos very nicely.
So ultimately, the only things missing in the Ninja 650 recipe is this. Current owners admit freely that their steeds are all-round excellence personified and they love their Ninja 650s. They all also admit that the bike is a stepping stone to bigger aspirations in the same breath. And that is the only thing the Ninja 650 lacks in India. A bigger brother to look up to.