2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650 Review
The Ninja 650 combines new aggressive looks with improved performance and livability
Photography by Kevin Wing
There is a reason why the middleweight sport category is one of the strongest segments in the market these days. These easy-to-ride and unintimidating bikes are generally affordable to buy new, inexpensive to maintain and operate, fun to ride, and can perform a wide variety of tasks well, such as running errands, commuting, and fulfilling your weekend warrior needs, which could even include a trip to the track.
But, for so long now, there was always a price to pay when it came to these wallet-friendly and practical bikes. And it had nothing do to with greenbacks but instead—pizazz. To keep MSRP attractive, middleweights often fall short when it comes to having an aggressive, eye-catching and racy look, which has always been reserved for the premium (and pricier) “super” sportbikes. And middleweight sport motorcycles usually lack panache when it comes to engine performance and anything not absolutely necessary to perform well enough for whatever task the bike is asked of it by its rider. In other words, these bikes usually come off the showroom floor pretty bare-boned. At one time, you were lucky if ABS was even offered as an option. Things are changing, though. The new Kawasaki Ninja 650 is proof of that.
However, the Ninja 650 has always been a decent looker and performer, more so after getting a significant refresh in 2017. But Kawasaki figured it was time for a distinctive visual update and blinged it up with some fancy electronics.
From the Ninja’s saddle, it’s impossible not to notice the cockpit’s new display. Kawasaki fitted the Ninja with a nice large 4.3-inch all-digital TFT (thin-film-transistor technology) color dash, a first for Japanese middleweights. This gives the Ninja that high-tech, high-grade feel which you don’t often find on a budget-minded middleweight sportbike. And the screen’s background is reversible between white and black. Very cool. The display is not all about looks, though. It’s also extremely functional by providing a ton of useful information, far more than just your normal speed, rpm, mileage and fuel-level readouts. We counted at least 16 different pieces of valuable information at your disposal.
And a bunch more information can be had through smartphone Bluetooth connectivity via Kawasaki’s new Rideology app. A chip is built into the instrument panel that allows the bike’s owner to connect to the Ninja wirelessly, where several instrument functions can be accessed, logged and reviewed from atop the motorcycle or the comfort of your living room.
Overall, we found the new display to be a significant upgrade from the previous Ninja. Not only does the new dash give it more modern appeal, but it is also easy to read—with the essential readouts prominently displayed, depending what configuration you chose to look at—and operate.
To grab your attention afar, the Ninja gets several tweaks in the styling department, all intended to give it a sportier look. The most obvious is the new twin LED headlights that scream ZX-10RR. The upper cowl is wider with a more pronounced slant, and the redesigned windscreen is lower and now flush fit to the cowl, and it’s positioned in a more upright angle to provide increased wind protection. And the fairing bolts have been replaced by hooks for a cleaner and smoother surface; this seemingly small detail actually gives the Ninja a more upscale look. A redesigned seat, which has thicker and wider padding, also contributes to the Ninja’s sportier styling (and comfort).
The icing on the cake is the Ninja’s new Dunlop Sportmax Roadsport 2 tires, which replace the outgoing Sportmax D214 tires.
When it comes to the meat and potatoes, the new Ninja isn’t exactly new. The liquid-cooled DOHC parallel-twin engine is unchanged from its last makeover in 2017, as is the tubular steel trellis frame and KYB suspension, which is again non-adjustable (except for the shock’s spring preload). The Nissin brakes are also back, as are the five-spoke wheels. Also unchanged is price: $7299 for the standard, $7899 for the ABS version, and $7999 for the green KRT paint scheme model with ABS. Three color options —white, black, and green KRT—are available.
The Ninja 650 still comes with some high-end components that don’t normally see on middleweights, such as an assist and slipper clutch, six-speed transmission with positive neutral finder, Kawasaki’s Air Management System (which redirects hot engine air down to the ground and away from the rider), semi-high-quality brakes, adjustable clutch and front brake levers, Kawasaki’s Horizontal Back-link suspension system (ala ZX-10R), and a gull-shaped swingarm.
Again, the first thing you notice after throwing your leg over the new Ninja 650 is the new TFT dash. It’s a significant improvement over the previous LCD unit. It’s way more functional and, without question, gives the Ninja a high-end look. No other bike in the class offers a dash like the Ninja.
Luckily, you don’t lose that premium feel as soon as you touch the starter button. For a parallel twin, the Ninja has a nice, throaty and aggressive sound. Most Japanese parallel twins of the past don’t do that but instead sound…well, dull and uninspiring. Not the Ninja. And not only does it sound spicy, but the engine also performs well. As before, the Ninja 650’s sweet spot can be found from down low to midrange. It has excellent bottom-end power and torque. It will scream all the way up to its 10,000 rpm redline if you want, but it’s in the lower rpm rev range where most of the fun is. It’s where the Ninja 650 is happiest, which, in turn, will make you happy, too.
With just 649cc in displacement to work with, the Ninja 650 makes the most of every single one of them, and, as a result, delivers remarkably good power. And since it’s lugging around only 419 pounds, 423 with ABS, it does feel pretty darn zippy. With a low center of gravity, combined with a narrow profile, the Ninja 650 feels exceptionally light and nimble between your legs, not to mention very agile and stable in the turns.
This thing is an absolute gas to ride on the twisties. Low seat height also contributes to a feeling of pure control and dominance. At just 31 inches, the Ninja sits low to the ground, and the riding position is comfortable, too. Not too leaned over, not too straight up and down. Though anyone over six-foot might start feeling a little scrunched. But our 6’1” test rider said he felt just fine on it after a long day in the saddle, the added seat padding had something to do with that, as well, he said. And speaking of the seat, one of the many accessories that Kawasaki offers for the Ninja 650 is a sleek looking seat cowl, which gives it a more super-sport-bike look. It can be had for around a couple hundred bucks.
The small windscreen does an excellent job keeping wind blast off your torso, but that’s about it. Which, for some—us included—is plenty. Kawasaki does offer an optional tall screen, not sure if that would really make much of a difference, though.
Anyone considering the Ninja 650 will probably spend some time commuting on it, and it’s an excellent bike for that. It has no problem keeping up with the flow of traffic on the freeways while turning a sane 4500 to 5000 rpm. According to the Ninja’s computer, 42-45 mpg seems to be the norm. Plus, if you need more storage space—and you will since it essentially has none—Kawasaki offers a 30-liter top case as an accessory for the Ninja 650.
One of the reasons Kawasaki can keep the price the same as before was by keeping things simple in the suspension department. No frills here. Yes, it would be nice to have more adjustability and a USD unit, but that would drive up price. However, what Kawasaki did fit it is quite good. The suspension soaks up chop well at city speeds, and it doesn’t really start showing signs of deficiencies until speeds begin to really ramp up, especially on moderately bumpy roads. Overall, Kawasaki did an outstanding job coming up with a suspension setting that we believe will keep John Q. Public happy. There is room for improvement, for sure, but you won’t feel the need to run straight to the suspension shop as soon as you get it home from the dealer.
Middle-of-the-road best describes the Ninja’s Nissin brakes. They’re good and plenty strong enough while also offering a good feel. And we love the adjustable front brake (and clutch) lever, which is something you don’t often get on “budget” motorcycles. Overall, our ABS-fitted Ninja stopped well. ABS wasn’t overly eager to kick in, and when it did, it did so without much fanfare. It just did its job nicely and discreetly, then let you go about your business of having fun.
There really isn’t much not to like about the Ninja 650. It’s sporty enough for experienced riders and simple enough for beginners, without question. And it truly is a bike of all trades, which is fantastic for someone who wants a one-bike garage, because it’s practical for commuting, comfortable enough for light-duty touring, and sporty enough to satisfy your weekend thrills, which can include taking it to the track! And all this for well under $10,000? You have to be kidding?
No, we are not! CN
2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650 Specifications
||$7399 Standard / $7599 KRT Edition / $7799 ABS KRT
||Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, DOHC, 4-valve, parallel twin
|Bore x Stroke:
||83.0 x 60.0mm
|Max Torque (claimed):
||48.5 ft.-lbs. at 6500 rpm
||DFI with 2 Keihin 36mm throttle bodies
||6-speed w/ Positive Neutral Finder
||Assist & Slipper clutch
||High-tensile steel trellis frame
||41mm hydraulic telescopic fork; non-adjustable
||Horizontal Back-link w/ adjustable preload
|Front Wheel Travel:
|Rear Wheel Travel:
||120/70-17 in., Dunlop Sportmax Roadsport 2; optional ABS
||160/60-17 in., Dunlop Sportmax Roadsport 2; optional ABS
||Dual 300mm petal disc w/ 2-piston caliper
||Single 220mm petal disc w/ 1-piston caliper
|Weight (curb, claimed):
||419 lbs. / 423.4 lbs. ABS
||Lime Green/Ebony (Kawasaki Racing Team KRT), Metal Spark black, Pearl Blizzard white