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