New Ninja 400 takes on 390 Duke and CBR500R

Kawasaki’s new 400 bids to rule the A2 li­cence roost


When did A2 bikes get so ap­peal­ing? Turn the clock back 20 years and en­try-level bikes were about as ex­cit­ing as An­tiques Road­show. Re­mem­ber Honda’s CB400 Su­per­dream in the 80s or Suzuki’s GS500E in the 90s? I rode those bikes and still shud­der now. But to­day new rid­ers have a plethora of bikes to choose from and with Kawasaki re­cently launch­ing their new Ninja 400 they’ve made the de­ci­sion even harder. So we chose to put it against our class favourites from last year, Honda’s CBR500R and KTM’s naked 390 Duke, and sub­ject all three to the

un­for­giv­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of the MCN250 test route.

The Ninja looks like a down­scaled superbike and any­thing but an en­try-level ma­chine. The base model starts at £5249 but we selected the sporty KRT edi­tion at £5399. The ex­tra £150 goes on graph­ics; ev­ery­thing else is the same as the stan­dard bike, and

I’d be head­ing to the ac­ces­sories cat­a­logue and choos­ing a larger screen (£103.95), which is ex­pen­sive but your neck and shoul­ders will thank you for it. The over­all level of fin­ish is im­pres­sive and, with its petal discs and sporty lines, it’s an at­trac­tive bike. A com­par­a­tively nar­row 150-sec­tion rear tyre the only give­away to its true size. I chat­ted to a few in­quis­i­tive rid­ers who were shocked to dis­cover it was only a 400 and on looks alone you would ex­pect it to be the most ex­pen­sive bike on test (but the Honda tops the price chart at £5945, £546 more than the Kawasaki and £1250 more than the KTM). Throw a leg over the Ninja and you find the seat low, thin and nar­row. The bars are close to­gether, as if they’ve been de­signed for a T-Rex, while the pegs are rel­a­tively high. The over­all ef­fect is awk­ward and un­for­giv­ing and takes a while to get used to. It’s the po­lar op­po­site of the Honda, which feels com­fort­ingly fa­mil­iar from the word go.

At 5ft 6in I’m feet-flat on the the Honda and Kawasaki, but not on the KTM, which has a 45mm higher seat. The Duke has the short­est space be­tween the rider and bars, giv­ing a poised and up-for-it su­per­moto stance, which is prob­a­bly why I opt for the KTM for the first sec­tion of this MCN250 test.

The KTM’s ori­gins aren’t the snow-capped moun­tains of Aus­tria but In­dia (the By­bre brakes, a sub­sidiary of Brembo are the give­away). The discs are larger this year, grow­ing from 300mm to 320mm di­am­e­ter, while WP sus­pen­sion and a multi-func­tion 5.2in TFT colour dash with Blue­tooth give the KTM a gen­uine qual­ity feel. You shouldn’t be put off by the ‘made in In­dia’ la­bel. There is also a whole host of Power Parts ac­ces­sories to per­son­alise your Duke. Even af­ter you’ve bolted on a throaty pipe and tail tidy, it will still be cheaper than its ri­vals. Ini­tially the Duke is a de­light. I wasn’t ex­pect­ing the lit­tle sin­gle to be so punchy at the bot­tom end from where it sim­ply picks up and goes. From 2500rpm the fu­elling is clean and the throt­tle re­sponse is crisp. In the thick of A605 traf­fic, the Duke darts into tight spa­ces and, frus­trat­ingly for our group’s col­lec­tive progress, leaves the two fully-faired bikes trail­ing. It zips in and it zips out of tight spots, while the oth­ers, slower-revving and rel­a­tively labour in­ten­sive, feel like they need a strong cof­fee.

Once out of traf­fic, though, the short-geared KTM runs out of revs and gusto. It darts up to 70mph then trails off like a re­mote con­trol car run­ning low on bat­ter­ies, leav­ing me stuck and fum­ing with frus­tra­tion be­hind cars and lor­ries. As the ap­pointed keeper of the keys on this ride, I de­cide I’ve seen the best of the Duke for now and that the ar­rival of these Northants sweep­ers is the ideal mo­ment for a bike swap, so I grab the tasty-look­ing Ninja 400. Now this is much more like it. I no longer feel like I’m on an A2 bike try­ing to make its way in a big bad world or that over­takes need to be cal­cu­lated way ahead of time. The Ninja has enough power to get past slow-mov­ing traf­fic with ease. See a safe gap, knock back one or two gears, get the revs up and go for it. The par­al­lel twin works most ef­fec­tively once you get its nee­dle close to that lit­tle red bit on the ana­logue rev counter. An in­di­cated 100mph comes with­out fuss and if you tuck in tight it will show 120mph, just. Hills and head­winds have lit­tle ef­fect on progress, which can’t be said for the KTM. Put the 390 into a strong head­wind and it will strug­gle to show a ton.

The Kawasaki is the most fun of the bunch. It’s like a mini race bike for the road and de­mands that you keep the revs buzzing, carry cor­ner speed and hit every apex. Even­tu­ally, though, as the miles slip by I get tired of chas­ing revs and rid­ing like it’s the last lap of a Moto3

Fuel stops are few and far be­tween on the thrifty and ef­fi­cient CBR500R

The weather played a huge part in which bike was popluar when we were out on the route

The Honda feels the most spa­cious and the dash is fuss-free too

The KTM is light, flick­able and fun on the right roads

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