Kawasaki's 39 horsepower Ninja 300 bonsai superbike
Kawasaki's best-selling motorcycle is not the lightning fast Ninja ZX-10R litre sports bike, the only Japanese bike still in the race for the World Superbike Championship. Nor is it the company's 200 mph ZX-14R Ninja projectile. Ironically, it's the diminutive Ninja 250 which translates the performance DNA of the brand into a more practical and affordable "learners" bike with definite sporting aspirations.
On the fortieth anniversary of the bike which changed everything (the original 900cc Z1 superbike), Kawasaki has announced a 300cc version of its entry-level, four-stroke, parallel-twin Ninja 250R, and those sporting aspirations have been comprehensively realized.
A significant redesign of the 250 was recently announced for the Japanese marketplace after three decades of incremental improvement and the new 300 gets all those features, plus an extra 50cc.
Most significantly, the engine is entirely new, and although the stroke is only slightly longer, the power output of the new liquid-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve, fuel-injected parallel twin is claimed to be 29 kilowatt or 38.9 horsepower - that's roughly a 20% increase in power over the current Ninja 250 and puts it into the same performance envelope of the thinly-disguised two-stroke quarter liter racer-roadsters of not-long-ago ... and instead of the hydrocarbon-broadcasting, ecological disasters of yesteryear, we now have finely-tuned, fuel-injected, responsive and squeaky clean engines which the other ASEAN motorcycle manufacturers will not be able to match, at least not in the foreseeable future.
Both the new Ninja 250R and Ninja 300 are clearly aimed at Honda's sweet single-cylinder CBR250R which has taken significant market share from the Ninja in many important "monied" marketplaces since its release.
It's not surprising that the Honda CBR250R should draw such an aggressive response from Kawasaki - just as prestige automotive brands provide entry-level vehicles to introduce aspiring enthusiasts to their brand, the emergence of dozens of Chinese and Korean brands has now elevated the Japanese establishment into the utmost upper strata of motorcycledom.
Accordingly, Honda and Kawasaki are fighting over what they perceive as long-term customers, so the prestige/horsepower war that has traditionally been fought with flagship four-cylinder liter-plus models has now being escalated to Defcon 1 in the lower, entry-level classes.
A quick perusal of the specifications reveals a completely new motorcycle - new motor, new induction, new frame, new suspension, new brakes, new wheels, and a superbike class feature set - many of the features which sell liter-bike supersport machinery have been added to the bonsai Ninja.
Apart from the massive horsepower boost, clumsy agricultural carburettors have been replaced with finely calibrated, second-generation fuel-injection, and features which have only recently become available on superstock contenders have been added to the mix - a 290mm petal-disk, twin-caliper brake, advanced suspension, and astonishingly, a slipper clutch.
The slipper clutch was derived to mitigate the engine braking of high compression racing four-strokes on the entry into corners on the racetrack ... and not all that long ago.
Apart from adding unnecessary stress on the engine, chain, clutch and gearbox, the dysfunctional stress of engine braking unsettled the bike on corner entry, and getting a bike into a corner on the limits no longer required the additional effects of engine braking as the rear disk brake had more than enough power and feel to provide optimum retardation. What was once a bonus on big four-stroke singles with anemic drum rear brakes had become a problem and the slipper clutch was the answer.
Such invention is less than a quarter century old at the elite level of motorsport, so whether it's warranted on an entry-class machine is debatable – we'll reserve judgement on the need for a slipper clutch on such a small free-revving engine until we've ridden one. Whilst it sounds like a minor case of overkill, it may be just another refinement on the way to the perfect motorcycle for riders who have not yet developed the feel to push a motorcycle to its limits.
The ABS (anti-lock braking system) is claimed to be significantly more sophisticated, and a new more rigid diamond frame, revised suspension, a wider 140 mm rear tire, better heat management (to direct hot air away from the rider), plus a range of features from larger Ninja and ZZR models such as a ZX-10R-style floating windscreen, dual headlights similar to the Ninja ZX-6R, a ZZR1400-style fairing and wheel design, aluminum foot-pegs and a silencer shaped much more like the bigger Ninja models (and far more advanced in its design.)
There's also a completely new instrumentation package, with an analogue-style tachometer, a multi-function LCD including fuel gauge, dual trip meters, clock, and an "Economical Riding Indicator."
The new Kawasaki Ninja 300 will be available at Kawasaki dealerships later this month or next. Different colors and specifications will be available in different markets, but for now, we're aware of Pearl Stardust White, Ebony or Special Edition Lime Green liveries, and some markets will get ABS as standard, while others will get them as optional. Pricing has not yet been announced.