First Ride: 2014 Kawasaki Ninja 300 ABS SE Review

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“The Ninja 300 will smoke a CB500F and out-handle it as well,” wrote commenter Darin last week. The 2014 Kawasaki Ninja 300 has gained quite the reputation as a pocket sport bike recently. Small, light and fast? Sounds good to us, let’s find out if it’s true.

Buyers Guide: Research Ninja 300 pricing, insurance, specs and to compare it to any other bike available today.

What’s New
In 2013, Kawasaki comprehensively overhauled its mature Ninja 250 platform. The most significant upgrade in its 27-year lifespan saw the steel tube frame revised for increased rigidity (up 150 percent), the addition of a wider, 140-section rear tire, a slipper clutch and optional antilock brakes.

Visually, the old bike’s humble looks give way to aggressive new creases intended to replicate the lines of the current ZX-6R and ZX-10R.

The biggest changed between old 250 and new 300 is obviously in the engine. An increase in stroke from 41.2 to 49 mm ups engine capacity to 296 cc. That means power grows from 31 to 39 bhp and torque from 16 to 20 lb.-ft.

The 2014 Kawasaki Ninja 300 ABS SE tested here is the most expensive version, bringing antilock brakes and a set of graphic stickers applied on top of the green paint for a $500 premium of the base, non-ABS Ninja.

2014 Kawasaki Ninja 300

The Ride
I used the littlest Ninja to scoot around Los Angeles for a week, making a couple hour-long freeway trips to Orange County as well. In town, its diminutive proportions and responsive nature see it busting traffic with ease. Small bikes like this one make easy work of tiny gaps between cars that even 600cc super sport bikes struggle with.

I’ve heard frequent complaints about the non-ABS Ninja 300’s weak front brake and contributing RideApart writer Kate Erwin even complained of that on the bike she reviewed a couple weeks back. But, on this ABS model, feel and power are both there, joined of course by the confidence and safety of ABS. It’s a light bike, so it doesn’t take much to bring it to a commanding halt.

Steering is fast, if not razor sharp and the relatively upright riding position takes the weight off your wrists. Together, those upright ergonomics, confidence inspiring brakes, lightweight and quick steering make it a great little city bike.

The motor isn’t quite torquey enough to keep up with larger motorcycles away from a stoplight, but so long as you work the motor hard, it will stay in front of four-wheeled traffic.

Things are less happy on the highway, where the Ninja remains stable and the performance adequate, but the engine’s limited capacity becomes apparent in the high revs its sustains at freeway speeds. 80 mph equals 9,000 rpm and Kawasaki’s parallel-twin is uncharacteristically vibey and harsh. Those vibrations carry through to your hands and feet, making them go numb after 20-30 minutes of steady cruising. That’s enough time to unveil the Ninja’s other serious comfort problem — its plank-like seat. With numb hands, feet and posterior, my maximum cruise time without pulling over for a walk-it-off was capped at 45 minutes. Frustrating when trying to reach a destination that was 60 minutes away.

A problem both in town and on the highway, the suspension feels to be sprung relatively stiffly, but with poor damping control. The two factors combining to make for a harsh, bouncy ride. On the highway, joints between the concrete slabs were a literal pain in the rear end while, in town, great care has to be taken to avoid pot holes and such for fear of being bounced off-line.

Those comfort compromises and the predilection for smooth surfaces limit the Ninja’s outright suitability as a commuter or all-rounder and point to a more sporting focus. So, earlier this week, I donned my leather onesie and took off for my favorite road, prepared to have some fun riding a slow bike fast.

Entirely due to my 34-inch inseam, dragging knee on a motorcycle is a routine, weekly occurrence for me. I don’t try to make it happen, my ape-like limbs just mean its an inevitability if I’m leaning past 35 degrees in a corner. On this particular road — 39 from Azusa to Crystal Lake — my pucks tend to touch down in nearly every major corner. And they do that on a variety of bikes, from a Honda CBR1000RR to a Ducati Multistrada 1200 to an Aprilia Tuono V4R or even on a Moto Guzzi Griso. I say this not to brag, but simply to provide context for the photo you’re about to see.

2014 Kawasaki Ninja 300 Review

Here you go, this is the most impressive photo we came away with. I’m what, 20 degrees over, at most?

And that’s because, in stock form, the Ninja 300 simply doesn’t provide the communication, confidence or performance you need for traditional sport riding.

Why is that? It’s not the small engine. Despite its vibes, it delivers reasonable performance even beyond legal highway speeds. It’s not the new frame, which is much stronger than before, eliminating flex. It’s not the new slipper clutch, which actually helps you ride faster by making it safer to downshift harder and later. It’s not even the stiff, under-damped suspension. The main problem here is the tires.

The IRC Road Winners, as also fitted to the Honda CBR250R, are ancient bias ply items (the radial motorcycle tire was introduced one year after the Ninja 250) that limit the Ninja’s performance. Any time you start applying cornering force to them, they squirm around, destroying feedback; their outright grip is limited and they just don’t inspire any confidence. I’m a fairly experienced rider, I can only imagine these limitations are exaggerated in the hands of a beginner.

Additionally, the inability to achieve high degrees of lean ultimately limits the Ninja 300’s cornering speed and the amount of fun you can have with it on a good road like this one. If it’s to be a sport bike, it needs to corner. With these tires, the Ninja 300 doesn’t do that.

Pirelli now offers its excellent Diablo Rosso II radial tire in sizes that will fit the Ninja 300. The upgrade will cost you $240, but will also totally transform this motorcycle.

Read More – Page 2 >>

  • Josh

    It’d be nice if the cruiser reviews showed vaguely the level of gear that the sporty reviews do… Onesy optional, some sort of boots and pants, not.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      I think we wear more gear than is typically shown on any given type of bike in most other publications. I know we’re one of the few to show street riding in full race leathers and you’ll see Tim (our cruiser editor) riding big, heavy, slow, uncomfortable bikes in a full-face helmet, boots, gloves, and a jacket with full armor including a back protector.

      • Josh

        You’re absolutely right. I really like the list of gear at the end of the article. I guess it’s the jeans that bug me. Get that man a set of the new Rev-It Jeans, or Maple, or… something!

  • VagrantCoyote

    Having owned both Kawasakis and Hondas in the past and loved all of them, smart money is the CB500F for the money, no question. Great review Wes!

  • appliance5000

    The 500f is $6000 with abs – but point taken. I went from the ninja 250 to the 500f and it’s 2 different worlds.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Thanks, brain fart.

  • Stephen Mears

    I didn’t know bias ply tires on new bikes was still a thing! Shame!

    • Mark Vizcarra

      Yeah they are on mostly harleys

  • BillW

    So, tires, suspension and seat can all be fixed by the aftermarket. Vibration, not so much.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      At what point does the ROI become a problem on a $5k bike though?

      Tires: $240
      Seat: $350
      Suspension: $500-$1k
      Total: minimum spend of $1k, or 1/5 the price of the bike or a downpayment on any other bike of your choosing.

      • runnermatt

        I’ve decided that if I were to win the lottery I would go all in on my CBR250R. Ohlins suspension, good brakes, engine work, etc. Why would I do that you say. Because I would have the money and I could make people say “Why?” lol

      • Justin McClintock

        Wes, that’s true….assuming you leave whatever other bike stock as well. But chances are you won’t. So that argument pretty much gets thrown out.

  • Dan

    Still waiting for the KTM to (finally) arrive and spank this class. Price won’t be comparable to the cb500 but who cares – I think there’s demand for a higher spec sportbike below 600cc. Any idea if the RC390 is actually coming stateside?

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      KTM doesn’t care enough about you to answer those questions, sorry.

      • Brett Lewis

        I have an authorized Motus dealer (1 of like 6 that exist) in my locale, but would have to travel hundreds of miles to visit a KTM dealer that sold/serviced street bikes. I could drive a few miles and stroke a check for any of the Italian bikes, or a Triumph or BMW. It’s the same issue that turned me off with Husqvarna.

      • Reid

        The dealer 20 miles from my house in the middle of po-dunk nowhere will definitely have a few RC390s when they come out. You guys should make a trip to beautiful Walton County, Fla!

  • taba

    I’ve two CBR250Rs and put the Diablo Rosso IIs on the bike I took to CSS. Transformational.

  • kawatwo

    I don’t know why Kawasaki continues to keep IRC in business :) And you get used to 9000 RPM on the freeway. Tough choice between the 300 and 500!

  • Joe Bielski

    This may be a dumb question (my school teacher said there are no stupid questions, just stupid people), but I read somewhere (on the internet, so it MUST be true) that a chassis that uses bias ply tires was designed to use those tires and putting radials can negatively affect the handling. I’ve got Bridgestone BT-45 tires on my ninja 500 poop mobile and thought about slapping radials on it….

    • Stephen Miller

      Put the radials on and don’t look back.

      • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

        Yeah, just run the good stuff.

    • Mark D

      The Diablos mentioned above aren’t made in the 130 size needed for the EX500. A 140 will technically fit, but its not ideal. Given that my beloved 500 is a bucket of bolts, I think adding radials (especially with the stock suspension) is polishing a turd. I run Pirelli Sport Demons, and they are much improved over the BT-45s I used to have.
      If you do decide to slap some on, I’d be curious to hear what you think. What the bike really needs to handle is new springs and emulators on the front; its sprung for a 135 lb. person.

  • mustangGT90210

    Minor nitpick to a great article. The cover photo for the article doesn’t have Kawasaki spelled right. It says Kawsaki lol

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      D’oh. We had a ton of technical issues getting this article up and I guess that got overlooked. Thanks for pointing it out, fixed now.

      • mustangGT90210

        No problem bud, keep up the good work!

  • JohnnyWaffles

    I like all the feel-good g’yuk! comments quoted from the other reviewers, the reason I started going to RideApart for real reviews and other publications for bathroom reading.

  • Piglet2010

    What others say – I am surprised you did not mention that all three reviewers over at MotoUSA preferred the CBR500R over both the Ninja 300 and Ninja 650: http://www.motorcycle-usa.com/114/17108/Motorcycle-Article/2013-Honda-CBR500R-Comparison.aspx

    But it might be worth picking up a used Ninja 300 in a couple of years to make into a track day bike.

  • DavidyArica Freire

    While I agree with some of the points made in the article, I must say why does ride apart have so much hate for the N300?

    In your other article you gave it a 6/10, citing “5/10 is average. The Ninja is a 30 year old platform that needs better brakes, better suspension, a modern frame and a modern engine.

    Well it does have decent brakes, the frame has been made stronger and suspension updated, all points from your article just now!

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Sure, and the addition of ABS takes it up to 7/10.

      Sorry, but we’re just being honest here. It’s decent learner/budget fodder, but not much more.

      • DavidyArica Freire

        Well I certainly respect that, and your opinion has more weight of course.

        But as the owner of a 300 myself, it has amazing potential for just about anything you throw at it.

        I just want people to judge it based on its class not what is lacking based on other classes, that’s all.

        • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

          Sure, and for about the same money, you can now get a much more capable motorcycle. That has to be reflected in the review and the rating number, which is basically just a numerical summary of the review.

          We’re tough graders. 5 is average, at 7/10, the Ninja 300 is not only above average, it’s very good. Just far from the best option at that price.

  • DavidyArica Freire

    Also while the stock IRC are not the best anybody with some decent cornering skills can take it more than 20 degrees of lean, don’t believe me look at the link below for someone racing with stock IRC and doing well above your “20″ degree limit.
    http://youtu.be/cyYY7J7MzxI
    Just so much hate for no appropriate reason, let’s not forget this is meant as an entry level bike, not a repli racer, they do make those btw.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      You suggesting I don’t have riding skills?

      • DavidyArica Freire

        No, but if I a mere motorcycle enthusiast can go further than 20 degrees, than you should too.

        It is how you described the limitations on your review that may lead people astray. I was simply pointing out that 20 degrees is not only possible but very likely, even with IRC on. ;)

      • JerseyRider

        Hey Wes, I’ve got a newbie question. When you’re downshifting are you supposed to go down one gear at a time and let out the clutch after each successive gear change? Or can you downshift more gears then one while the clutch is in? I’ve been doing the latter when I approach a full stop but I read an article suggesting this might be the wrong technique.

      • IAmAConservativeICannotBeWrong

        hey if it’s good enough for Giacomo Agostini to race, it should be good enough for you ;)

    • Zach

      This is a good point, I’ve ridden both EX250 and EX300 stock rubber hard enough to drag knees plenty of times. They’re aren’t the best tires, to be sure, but the bike is not that hard to ride fast.

    • beefstuinit

      Irrational hate? Bias ply tires on a bike with sporting intent are a joke. I’ve ridden one of these myself and it needs some love before it can be pushed like a sporting machine.

      Is it more likely that they irrationally hate this one motorcycle or that you bought one so you get butt hurt when you read a negative review?

  • imprezive

    I rode my 2008 Ninja 250R from OC to Carson City, NV and did over an hour in the stock saddle multiple times. I don’t know if the 300 is just worse but I can’t imagine that much. It’s not an ideal highway cruiser but it’s not as bad as people make it out to be.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      Sure, and I once road a bicycle 100 miles in a single day, but that doesn’t make it competitive with a good motorcycle. It’s our job to tell you how a bike works in relation to the rest of the market. Try a Honda 500 in comparison to your Ninja, I think you’ll be astounded at how much more motorcycle it gives you.

  • Von

    so it CAN’T smoke or out-handle a CB500F? lol Darin

  • Harve Mil

    Bias ply tires and a slipper clutch? Isn’t that like having breast augmentation on only one breast?

  • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

    No, the 300 is definitely an improvement over the 250 in every area. Remember that our reviews are written from the perspective of experts with experience across virtually every bike on sale.

  • Terry Davey

    Ebony Ninja 300, NoN ABS owner here, I like the review. This is my first bike have been riding for about 6 months now and I am ready to upgrade. All the points made in the review have merit, I don’t have a lot of experience but I agree with this assessment. I would say for someone who dose not have the skill set yet to push the bike to the limit it has been a great learning tool.

  • LaCrika De TuMai

    Getting mine on Saturday!