2008 Kawasaki Ninja 250 Review Part 1 of 4
The 2008 Ninja 250 is the bike everyone is talking about this year since it has received a MAJOR face lift from the engineers at Kawasaki. Best Beginner Motorcycles was lucky enough to catch up with Gary Jaehne, the author of Sportbiking- The Real World: The Advanced Riders Handbook and Sportbiking - The Real World 2: Rider and Bike Tuning Handbook. Gary Recently purchased one of the '08 Ninja 250s and has written a 4 part ride report of his experience.
The 2008 Ninja 250 is the bike everyone is talking about this year since it has received a MAJOR face lift from the engineers at Kawasaki. Best Beginner Motorcycles was lucky enough to catch up with Gary Jaehne, the author of Sportbiking - The Real World: The Advanced Riders Handbook and Sportbiking - The Real World 2: Rider and Bike Tuning Handbook. Gary Recently purchased one of the '08 Ninja 250s and has written a 4 part ride report of his experience. Part 1 - First 50 Mile Ride Part 2 - Ridden in Anger Part 3 - Looking for Nits Part 4 - Full Anger Mode & a Miracle
'08 Ninja 250 – First 50 Mile Ride; "Real World" Impressions
Just got home from logging the first 50 miles on one of the new 3rd-Generation ('08) Ninja 250s (that I just took ownership of thanks to a surprise from an incredibly cool Wife!), and decided to try to do a quick brain-dump of my first impressions of the bike. First impressions are generally some of the most valuable moments in getting unbiased and accurate feedback. The combination of having not yet seen any full-blown road tests of the '08 Ninja 250 show up in print within any of the mainstream motorcycle publications, not seeing anyone locally post a real world impression of one yet on the forum, and the recognition that few (if any) of the eventual magazine testers will have roots as deep into these little bikes as myself (83K miles, and roadracing)…… I decided to put those thoughts down here for anyone that has an interest in this bike. Read on, or skip ahead to the next thread, as fits for you. In an effort to provide an effective method for readers be able to skim through the write-up to the key elements that interest them about the bike, I decided to break things down by key elements, and then expound on each with impressions from this real world first ride. All of the evaluations will be based on a premise of "comparison", with the reference point being the previous generation (1988-2007) Ninja 250.
What item(s) most positively impressed?
1) The engine – torque/midrange 2) The "firmness" (no bottoming out) of the suspension 3) The precision and smoothness of the transmission's shifting
What item(s) were less then perfect?
1) The "firmness" of the suspension (less forgiving on bumpy backroads) 2) More wrist weight on the handlebars (extended miles riding comfort)
The press info that's showed up from Kawasaki has stressed the changes to the engine being focused on "increased midrange". Reading this same shtick in multiple places I'd been left with the impression it was just a marketing way of trying to draw attention away from a potential loss of horsepower that the more heavily smogged '08 engine was going to produce. From a first ride, first impression perspective, I've got to give the engineers a "thumbs-up", and say …… you guys weren't blowing smoke! While having to recognize this is only 250cc's of engine we're talking about ….. I've got to say that this new bike definitely has excellent "grunt" for such a small displacement. There's no question that this characteristic will be a huge plus to making the bike even more user-friendly for newer riders. The official recommended "break-in" procedure specifies keeping the engine below 4,000 RPM for the first 500 miles. Say what??? Guess what speed 4,000 RPM is, in 6th gear? 36 MPH!! OK …… sure, I'll ride the bike for the first 500 miles never going faster then 36 MPH at any time, and that'll be just fine on the normal public roads …… right! Today's first 50 mile ride on the bike was done in a nice loop on some of the less traveled twisty backroads in the Santa Cruz mountains, here in Northern California. Despite the total impracticality of the 4K break-in engine speed, I did consciously keep from revving the engine any higher then was realistically necessary. Keeping the engine lower in RPM then my normal Ninja 250 riding adventures, gave me a perfect opportunity to sample this "mid-range" that the Kawasaki engineers were claiming. Today's route included climbing some steep and twisty uphills too. The ability to maintain a steady pull, despite the engine working in a much lower then normal (for spirited riding on one of these little bikes) RPM range, was quite impressive! It almost felt like I had an extra hundred CC'sof engine doing the work. Cool stuff. I can't comment on the overall power output of the bike at this point, having not yet taken the engine anywhere close to the RPM range (10-13K) where that happens on these little 250cc machines. Once the engine has reached the broken-in phase, I'll post a follow-up with impressions on that aspect. Stay tuned.
The first perk is that the bike now comes with a 5-position spring "preload" adjuster for the rear shock. That'll be great for allowing riders to optimize the geometry of the bike for their weight. At 170 lbs, I found position #3 (1 is stock) to be a good starting point. The two major shortcomings of the previous generation Ninja 250's suspension, was the easy "bottoming out" of the front forks (due to REALLY soft springs), and the total "pogo-stick" bouncing behavior the exhibited due to nearly zero rebound damping. The '08 bike is downright "firm" in the spring category; front and rear. The stock rebound damping is actually quite controlled too. The front forks rebound is pretty much right on the money (for an old-school technology damping rod design), with the rear shock having a bit too much rebound …… if anything. On today's brief first-ride, I included a route that covered some of the very tight and bumpy backroads that we make part of our regular weekend rides. The added "firmness" of the new bike's suspension made things feel a lot more like being mounted atop any of the current crop of hardcore sportbikes, then the rather "plush" feeling of the past generation Ninja 250's soft suspenders. A bit of a double-edged sword in this case, as what will make the bike better for pushing a bit harder under ideal road/track conditions (smooth, faster, and minimal bumps), becomes a bit of a handicap in keeping rubber to pavement on some of the rougher roads that exist in the real world. During the last stint of today's ride I did the run down Felton Empire Road. A good portion of this road is paved with a relatively fresh layer of exceptionally well groomed asphalt, with very few bumps. It was on this section that I first got to appreciate where the new bike's suspension will shine!The bike is definitely in its element on such pavement conditions, and will likely be able to be ridden quite quickly through the turns when the pavement conditions are right (as in this form of asphalt at a track).
Conditions during today's brief ride were not ideal, with the roadways still having a lot of damp spots from recent rains. The road conditions, combined with virgin rubber on the tires, engine break-in limitations, and "new bike syndrome", kept from getting a full feel for the bike's handling. Despite that, some general feedback on how the bike responded going into turns, reacted mid-corner, and delivered in making line adjustments was noted from the ride. The new bike seems to have better trail numbers then the previous generation being quite stable for such a small/light bike. I tried to deliberately induce some headshake on a few straights, to see how the bike would react. Was pleased to see that the bike exhibited a solid degree of self-centering of the steering; actively working to steady things back down very quickly after the deliberately induced wiggle. Despite the stability, the bike definitely was not slow steering. The combination of the bike's light weight and very narrow tires resulted in the little Ninja turning in with very little effort, and dropping right onto the requested line.
The feel of being on the two version Ninjas, and riding down the road, are quite different. I'd describe the feeling on the two bikes as: Previous generation:.................... Sitting "Down in the bike" (low CG) '08 version:................................ Sitting "On top of the bike" (more sportbike feeling) For low speed maneuvers and general control on rough roads, the low CG and seat height of the early generation bike is superior. The '08 model follows the lead of the more serious sportbikes of today, putting the rider more inline with the upper plane of the bike, which is a great position for carving up turns at higher speeds on good pavement. Good and bad …… depending on the application. For shorter riders, the older bike was better in this respect. One very noticeable difference I noted on the new bike, was the amount of weight that I felt on my wrists while riding. The seat to handlebar relationship on the older design machine had the bars sitting up significantly higher. The forearms, at least for about a 6 foot rider, were nearly horizontal while seated on the bike. On the '08 bike I find that my forearms have a bit of a downward slope to towards the grips, and I had to be more conscious of keeping from putting undesired weight forward on my wrists ….. especially when riding the steep downhill sections on today's ride. The more mainstream sportbike orientation of the bars (lower) on the new bike will likely serve as a plus for serious performance use; but will make extended hours in the saddle a little more fatiguingfor the more casual rider or commuter. A bit of a win-lose situation; depending on the rider.
The shifting on the previous generation Ninja 250 wasn't bad, but it definitely gave you a solid notice when it was being notched up and down between gears. Granted this bike is very new at this point, but the minimal foot pressure required to make gear changes, combined with a very precise feel when the next gear engaged, put a smile on my face.
One of the behaviors I'd gotten used to on the previous generation bike, was the "lurch" that was often experienced when dropping the bike from neutral into 1st gear …. especially when cold. It was an issue where the fiber and metal plates had a habit of wanting to not totally disconnect, despite the clutch being properly adjusted and pulled in fully. I was pleasantly surprised that the new bike clicked into 1st gear without so much as a nudge; despite the bike being barely warmed up in the garage before heading out. Nice improvement!
Being in the early break-in phase, I'd consciously been easy on the brakes during today's short ride, to allow the pads/rotors to bed-in. During the last few miles of the ride I did experiment a little bit with firmer lever pressure. The bite of the front brake seemed solid for a single rotor/caliper equipped machine. At this point I'd have to rate them to be at least as good as the earlier generation, if not slightly improved.Being a "semi-wave" rotor design, and possibly a different compound in the pads, it's not unexpected that they might continue to surpass the previous generation bike's brakes, once I'm pushing them harder. The rear brake felt good, and not really anything noticeably different then the old bike. Rear brakes are more of a complementary braking tool, and the one on the new 250 seems more then up to the task. Decent "feel", which is important for a rear brake to be most effective.
The catalytic equipped single muffler on the new bike is definitely a bit quieter then the twin-pipe generation machines. At idle this added quiet is most noticeable, with the tone and volume becoming more on par with the earlier bike once the RPM and throttle position increase a bit while riding. I really like the clean look of the single muffler. Kind of wish it were "black chrome" (instead of "shiny chrome"), as it'd blend in nicer with every other non-main color scheme painted item on the bike (swingarm, frame, forks, subframe, wheels, etc) that's done up nicely in a mean looking black theme.
Though the spec sheets indicate around a 30 pound increase in weight for the '08 model, I suspect a portion of that was some under-rated numbers that the original bike may have been carrying around in the brochures for many years. Either way, the weight of the two version bikes didn't stand out as being different while riding. If anything, due to the higher placed seating position, it made the bike feel lighter …… due to it wanting to flick over to lean angle with less effort.
The OEM tire are Bridgestones, in a 110 size up front and a 130 on the rear, on 2.75" wide and 3.50" wide rims; respectively. Though being rubber from a current crop of tire offerings from Bridgestone, they are the older technology "bias-ply" style (versus the state-of-the-art "radials" seen on the high-end sportbikes today). The combination of the conservative pace on today's first 50 mile break-in ride, and the road conditions, didn't provide a real chance to find out how good or bad the stock tires perform. I will say that I didn't have a single moment of slippage, and did see that the area of the tread surface that was used had been within about ½" of the edges (front and rear) by the time I got home. I found them to be quite decent skins (for OEM rubber) for most riders use.
In this area it was a bit of a gain/lose situation. The gain was the addition of an analog fuel level gauge (which I like!). The loss is the absence of an actual water temperature gauge, being replaced by an idiot-light. The other noticeable change in the instrument cluster is the tachometer; with the difference being the much smaller size on the '08 machine. On the earlier generation bike the tachometer and speedometer were equal in size; sitting side-by-side. On the '08 bike the tachometer is significantly smaller then the speedo,and tucked off to the leftside of the cluster. I guess the thinking is that for safety, a rider should be most focused on their speed, and hence the larger sized gauge for that purpose (?). As a result of the reduced size of the tachometer, the spacing between 1,000 RPM increments is resultantly much closer together. Being able to quickly glance down and immediately determine the current RPM of the engine is a bit more challenging. Not really a problem, but just a bit of a step backwards from that aspect in user-friendliness of the old bike.
Again a bit of a win-lose situation. The loss is the presence of a center-stand on the bike. Though it added weight, and was a potential ground clearance limiting item, it did make tire changes and bike washings a less daunting task. One of the additions being the welded-on swingarm spool mounting bosses on the back of the new bike. The hole size of the bosses is identical to many other mainstream sportbikes (the ones off my ZX-10R fit right on!), which makes getting spools an easy task. The spring preload adjuster on the rear shock was already mentioned in the suspension section, but definitely shouldn't be missed when referencing nice added "features" to the '08 bike.
Before ever taking the bike out for its first mile of riding, I spent a number of hours going over ever nut-n-bolt in ensuring the everything was setup right. I was impressed with the way that everything was cleanly designed an put together. Things are in the right places, and well thought out. When riding the bike, I was impressed with the very "solid feel" that I got from it. Nothing rattled, shaked, or in any way felt out of sorts, despite navigating some rather bumpy roads today.The front and back of the bike felt very "connected"; with neither end moving from side-to-side independently. I guess it just felt like there was more bike underneath me, then what would be expected of economy priced, entry-level 250cc machine.
Last but not least. Regardless of how good a bike performs in every other category, if looking at it parked …… while walking up to it to go for ride ……. doesn't "move you", there's not much chance of true love ever developing in the relationship. The new '08 Ninja 250 has that covered in spades for me! Looking at the little "Bright-Green Ninja Machine" sitting up on the rear stand in the garage, under the lights, is a pretty sight to see! The designers of the bodywork and ergos on the new bike did an awesome job in coming up with this new package. The clean look of the bodywork and paint, thanks to a near total lack of the radical poser graphics that have showed up on some machines over the years, is all business. I swear that from a pure "looks" perspective, in my opinion, this new '08 Ninja 250 takes a lot of the other changed-for-'08 mainstream, bigger-bore sportbikes to school. A bike who's looks definitely deserve the right to wear the "Ninja" namesake.
CONCLUSION – RIDE #1:
What's my overall first-ride impression of the new '08 Ninja 250? I was impressed! I couldn't wait to get a chance to ride the bike "in anger" (means to its potential) in the future.