Redesigned Ninja 650 serves dual purposes

Last fall I stopped into Nielsen Enterprises in Lake Villa to check out some of the new bikes just launched. It sells Yamaha, Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and also a wide variety of ATVs, Polaris Slingshots, watercraft and snowmobiles, so there's always a lot to see there.

However, one new model immediately caught my eye, and that was the new Kawasaki Ninja 650R with anti-lock brakes.

Way back in 2006, I fell in love with what was then an all-new model at a Kawasaki launch event, and after a long day riding it on some great and challenging roads in California, I bought one. It was my first non-cruiser bike, and I still enjoy riding it today.

The 650R has been a huge success for Kawasaki with more than 60,000 sold since its introduction. I rode my Ninja 650 up to the dealership because riding them back-to-back would be revealing.

The current model is the fourth generation, and I've have ridden each one as they were introduced, experiencing the improvements as they came about. This current model makes the largest leap of any of the previous redesigns. It just may be the best performance bargain for an everyday street bike that does either mundane commuting duty or tears it up at a track day.

A big reason why this bike is so improved, especially for canyon carving, is Kawasaki engineers shaved a whopping 42 pounds off this year's model, making it 425 pounds with the anti-lock braking system (ABS) or 419 pounds without. That is a HUGE number for weight reduction. If engineers could shave 42 ounces off their race-ready Sport bikes, they'd throw a party. All that weight savings improves every facet of the 650's performance - from power to handling.

Since the 650 can be anyone's first bike, the weight savings can make it feel less intimidating, while experienced riders will notice the lighter feel in around-town commuting duty and in side-to-side transitions when riding aggressively on more challenging roads, or on a track.

The engine itself has been tweaked to improve power. It starts with a 649-cubic-centimeter, liquid-cooled parallel twin. Changes this year are 36-millimeter throttle bodies and narrower intake ports, fine-atomizing fuel injectors, modified cam profiles, a different airbox design and a reworked exhaust system. Those upgrades make for greater midrange performance lower in the rev range where you want it.

When pulling out of Nielsen's lot onto a two-lane road, the first thing I noticed is how quickly and smoothly the power comes on. The engine is very responsive and feels torquey in the midrange where you want power. Even as you climb up to near the red line, the power continues and there's not much vibration. Everything feels calm and collected.

When it's time to hit the binders, Nissin dual-piston calipers clamp down on dual 300-millimeter discs in front, and a single-piston caliper grabs a 220-millimeter disc out back. It is a very competent setup. The brake lever is adjustable for reach, and offers an easy, progressive pull with excellent feel.

The new Bosch ABS also works well, and more than worth the extra $400.

The new Ninja 650 is now outfitted with an "assist and slipper" clutch, which means you can quickly downshift without fear of locking up the rear wheel, or having it hop all over the place. It's a feature that newbies will enjoy, as well as track day riders. And the adjustable-for-reach clutch lever has a nice light pull and engages easily.

Kawasaki's Positive Neutral Finder is present to make finding neutral at a stop light easy every time.

The 42 pounds of lost weight is easily felt as you lean the bike over into a turn, and it tracks well through the corner. The bike feel stable, and there's a satisfying rush of power as you accelerate out of the turn. In quick side-to-side transitions, this new Ninja just feels more athletic and frisky, and ready to play.

The ergonomics were changed a bit with the handlebars moved forward an inch, and lower, which goes along with the more aggressive styling. Still, I found the upright seating position to be comfortable without a lot of pressure on the wrists, unlike bikes equipped with clip-ons. The very comfortable seat was lowered a bit, something I never mind, and the seat is narrow at the front where it meets the tank, so it's an easier reach to the ground.

The foot pegs have also been lowered and moved forward. I liked the new positions, but I can see where it's possible taller riders might feel cramped. Another change to the ergonomics is the three-way adjustable windshield, so that taller or shorter riders can adjust things to make sure head buffeting is minimal.

Styling is another high point of the 650. It's much more aggressive and now shares the styling cues with Kawasaki's larger cousins in the supersport and superbike classes. The pressed-steel swingarm looks great and the new lightweight, five-spoke wheels improve the sporty look, along with a more clipped under-engine exhaust.

Another big improvement over last year's model is the negative-lighting instrument cluster, which is more readable in direct sunlight. The single gauge has an analogue tachometer with a digital speedometer. There's an adjustable shift light above the gear indicator, and the tach indicator goes from white to pink to red to go along with the shift light. Unnecessary, but cool. You can also toggle between fuel economy, distance to empty, dual trip meters and a clock.

The new Kawasaki Ninja 650 is better in every way than last year's bike, and is a perfect bike for anyone looking for a comfortable, light, entertaining motorcycle that is versatile enough for a new or experienced rider, and as a daily commuter or a weekend track bike.

With all the improvements, Kawasaki only raised the price $200, making the ABS model a steal at $7,799. Stop by Nielsen's and take one out for a ride yourself.

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