KAWASAKI NINJA 650 TESTED
The lightweight 650 that wants to be a sportsbike: Kawasaki revamp the ER-6f with a dose of Ninja spirit
An ER- 6 with Ninja spirit. Meet the lightweight that wants to be a sportsbike
2017 KAWASAKI NINJA 650 SIMON HARGREAVES
THE RECENT DEMISE of the ZX-6R potentially leaves a hole in Kawasaki’s midrange. Unfilled, it would be the first time in 40 years the big K didn’t have a sporty middleweight in their line-up – as far back as the launch of the original Z650 in 1976. And, arguably, every one since was a classic: GPz550, GPZ600R, ZZ-R600 and ZX-6R.
Clearly this is as unthinkable to Kawasaki as it is to the rest of us, which partly explains why they’ve taken the faithful ER-6f – the parallel twin all-rounder for anyone from commuters to ladies, novices and TT Supertwin racers – and re-engineered, re-styled and re-sexed it with a large dollop of Ninja sauce.
So the ER-6f is now sleek and sports-faired with ZX-ish bodywork, from the sharp nose back across the sculpted 15-litre tank (one litre less than the ER, and including a welcome ‘gut’ recess to allow normal-sized humans room to breathe) to a stumpy tail unit. The tiny screen has three positions, adjustable with a T-bar Allen key (so don’t do it on the move), and the Ninja’s riding position is sportier – the ER’s single handlebar is replaced with clip-ons, set lower and raked back in a sports-touring layout. The pegs are shifted forward and down, and the new seat is much lower, at 790mm instead of 805mm. It’s a comfy, VFR800-ish riding position; nowhere near as shopping-trolley as the ER-6f but not a wristy race rep.
Under the skin, the Ninja is essentially the same 649cc parallel twin as the ER, which most sportsbike riders will find underwhelming. But the motor is 2.5kg lighter thanks to careful component design; it’s also 4bhp less potent, makes a fraction more torque and loses 500rpm – 67bhp at 8000rpm and 48.5lb.ft at 6500rpm. So it’s as much tuned to be useful as thrilling. The changes are not, say Kawasaki, because of Euro 4; the engine was designed recently enough to have the new regulations factored in. They say it could happily make more top end, but that wasn’t what they wanted from it, and instead tuned it for low-down performance.
They’ve done this with a few intake
‘Point-to-point on a country road, an ER-6 won’t see which way the new 650 went’
and exhaust tweaks. A modified airbox with a single intake port and longer intake funnels, 2mm narrower throttle bodies, less duration and valve overlap, reshaped intake ports, fine-atomising fuel injectors and long header pipes all improve efficiency at low and mid rpm, which means more torque lower down, less at the top end, and better fuel consumption.
No-one would pretend the Ninja’s 67bhp is even close to the ZX-6R’s 130bhp. But it’s a willing, smooth, engaging little 180° twin-pot – fast enough for back-road frolicking, but never fearsome. Power comes in steadily and evenly, and there’s plenty of overtaking shunt in any gear from 5000-9000rpm. In top, thrumming at 85mph, the motor pulls 6500rpm. At that rate it guzzles gas at 55mpg, giving a realistic range of 175 miles.
The other thing that helps its fuel economy is having less weight to lug around. Kawasaki managed to grind 2.5kg off the ER’s engine and transmission. They’ve also chopped an astonishing 10kg out of the ER’s steel tube frame, thanks to steel tube stress modeling expertise gained from the H2. The Ninja’s tube walls are thinner and there are fewer of them. There are also fewer frame lugs and brackets. A new swingarm takes another 2.5kg out. In all, the Ninja is now just 193kg wet compared to the ER’s 211kg.
And it feels it. In fact it’s almost too light; the ER-6f is a substantial thing – it’s not a toy and has a sense of solidity. Yet the lighter Ninja 650 will absolutely run rings around the older bike on agility and braking, and point-to-point on a country road the ER won’t see which way the new 650 went. It’s also, materially, less. The Ninja isn’t especially cheap and plasticky, but it’s so narrow, light and flickable, it feels more like a Ninja 300 than a middleweight.
Springs are a problem. The Ninja has budget suspension – unadjustable forks and preload-only rear are softly sprung and revalved versions of the ER’s kit. But they’re not refined enough to carry off truly sporty riding. If you turn up the wick, it’ll start to lose control and grip over bumps.
Which, if the Ninja 650 is judged with sporting intent, is a problem. With sorted suspension and proper tyres it’d be brilliant fun – right up to the moment you started wanting more engine (like, an inline four...). But for image-conscious ER customers, the Ninja 650 is perfect. Sexier than the ER, with a direct visual tie-in to bigger, faster, scarier Ninjas, it’s also plenty rapid and agile enough to please almost anyone.
ENGINE The updated ER- 6f parallel twin sheds 2.5kg in weight, and gets tuned for more midrange at the expense of a bit of top end. Supertwin racers will get it back, and more, with ease. CHASSIS All new steel tube frame saves 10kg over the ER- 6 item (no, not a misprint). New swingarm saves 2.5kg. Thai Dunlops, twin-pot sliding brakes and bouncy springs are all budget additions.
New 650 is agile and quick – just don’t expect supersport levels of performance
STYLING Lower seat and clip-ons are sportstourer-tastic, but race rep fairing has Ninja written all over it – literally. Sculpted tank is nice, pillion seat is higher than ER’s. 1 Ninja 650 gets X-shaped rear LED light (naked Z650 has a Z-shaped unit. Neat) 2 Dash features gear indicator, analogue tacho and LCD screen 3 Clip-ons replace ER-6’s one-piece handlebar, but they’re not wrist crushers 4 New swingarm saves 2.5kg over the old bike’s unit 1 2 3 4