First Ride: 2013 Kawasaki Ninja 300 review

The perfect 250 is... a 300

Link: Kawasaki Z250 revealed

YOU know what Bruce Banner looks like the second after he's lost control of his mild scientist self? The first hints of green in his skin, a couple of muscles starting to balloon up like popcorn, the trousers seams starting to throw a stitch? That's Kawasaki's new baby Ninja for you. One hulkier step up from the 250R - which had  a successful four-year run - the 2013 Ninja 300 really ups the ante in the small-sportsbike class. (Sadly, though, even when it gets really, really angry, it still won't morph into a ZX-10R).

From the styling to the engine, the Ninja has been heavily revised, almost enough to be termed an all-new bike, and in doing so, it's left the 250 class behind: "I don't like your game. I'm going to play my own game. Yah boo." So does a 300cc, 38 bhp sportsbike compute? Well, sure, it's not ridiculously powerful, not arm-yankingly kerrrazy, but it'll do very nicely for the real world, thank you.

First off, it looks gorgeous, with proper big-bike styling that fools many a passerby into thinking it's a 600 (aided by the lack of any stickers except, simply, 'Ninja'). It has big-brother design cues - especially the twin headlights, windscreen, fairing and exhaust. Its genesis is clearly a scaled-down middleweight rather than a hopped-up 125. This is a 'small' bike you can own and stare at fondly without feeling like you're at the arse end of the food chain. The sexiness factor is important to riders of all ages, sizes and pocket depths. Otherwise we'd all be driving P-reg Fiestas, wouldn't we? So thanks, Kawasaki, for making small sexy too.

The build quality is top-notch, and there's nothing on the bike that looks like a compromise. Kawasaki has clearly built the Ninja 300 to a spec rather than to a cost. But more on that later.

You sit 'in' the bike, all sporty-like - leaning forward with a bit of weight on your wrists and tucking your feet a fair way back - but comfortably so, not hunched over like a prawn on a barbeque. The seat is about 10mm higher than the 250R's, which it needn't be; the turning circle could have been smaller, given the chiefly-urban environment that I'd imagine the majority of Ninja 300s will inhabit; and you need a radar to find that sidestand... but enough nitpicking; let's ride.

The 296cc engine has been given a longer stroke to create the capacity and output boost, while new cylinder heads, pistons and crankcases transform its character. With 7 bhp and 4 lb-ft over its predecessor, the Ninja 300 is a willing performer. The rubber-mounted parallel-twin engine feels smooth, light and revvy. Hoo boy, does it love to rev. I swear I felt its breath tickle my ear as it urged me to hit 11,000 rpm in each gear. Or that's what I'll have to tell the police officer who pulls me over...

Power delivery is linear, with enough torque to pootle around as low as 3,000-4,000 rpm and be able to nip into gaps without having to downshift. It's meaty between 4,000 and 6,000 rpm, suitable for most urban needs. But it's from 8,000 rpm or so that the party begins. A mad, invite-only, teen house party. At 9,000 rpm the little Ninja's already doing tequila slammers. At 10,000 there are pink pills being bandied about. At 11,000 it's disappearing into a room with that red-haired girl with a pierced tongue. But push on towards 13,000 and it hits the limiter, where the girl says no, and the neighbours tell you to turn the music down or else.

Incidentally, the Ninja boasts a slipper clutch, or a back-torque limiter - great for preventing you screwing up the engine by downshifting at unhealthily high revs (which having a gear indicator display might avoid?). It also makes for an easy, light clutch action.

Capable of 33, 52, 70 and 84 mph in the first four (of six) gears, the 172 kg Ninja accelerates from 0-60 mph in about six seconds, on the way to an indicated top speed of 110 mph (with maybe a couple more mph to be squeezed out). 

Our first 115 miles with the bike included some motorway work and a few speed test runs. In the city, while the engine just kept asking for more revs, I forced myself to ride in 'eco' mode every now and then, and also did a day's worth of two-up miles in stop-and-go traffic. After all this, the Ninja returned a creditable 58 mpg.

The Ninja 300's a capable handler, with its stiffened chassis making cornering feel composed and precise. The 290mm front petal disc, while effective, could be better in terms of feel. (We tested the standard non-ABS bike).

On the whole, the Ninja 300 is a good-looking, well-made and satisfying package. But realistically, it all comes down to the pricetag. And the £4,799 that Kawasaki wants for it - or £5,199 for the ABS version - is a hefty chunk of change for a 300. Heck, you could buy a dealer-vetted, three-year-old 600cc sportsbike for that money.

But maybe, just maybe, you simply don't want 100 horsepower and the occasional brown stain in your underpants. If you are a smaller-built / younger / newer / born-again rider, looking for a sporty bike that you can have a healthy dose of fun with and yet feel entirely in control of - and have lower insurance and running costs to boot - the Ninja 300 ticks the boxes.

Do you own a Ninja 300? Add your owner review and discuss the bike here.