The Kawasaki Ninja 650

Review: An Entry Level Streetfighter That Punches Above Its Weight


Cars : Motorcycles By Photo by Kevin Wing
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Tuna Canyon Road is four miles of paved perfection. Connecting Topanga to the waves, this canyon route is a slithering patch of asphalt that rides like a road that time forgot. There are no houses flanking its curbs, no pedestrian-friendly sidewalks, and, most importantly, no oncoming traffic. That’s right, this is a one-way affair, and no brake lights up ahead. I can bob and weave, make use of the entire width of the road, hug the natural apexes created by the Malibu Coast Fault. Which means I can push this all-new Kawasaki Z650 just a little bit harder.

It’s hard to tell if the Z650 is so engaging because of the roads I’m on, or if the roads are so fun because of the bike. Sure, my six-foot frame would appreciate an extra inch or so of legroom — and I should have dialed up some extra preload in the rear shock — but thanks to Kawasaki’s fresh take on their unmasked Ninja, this thing handles almost as quickly as a Grom. Team Green developed this bike as the bigger brother of their own monkey-bike, the Z125 Pro. That means power took a backseat to flickability during development. Which is why Kawi only breathed on their tried-and-tested 649cc parallel-twin engine, opting to smooth out delivery and provide grunt where it was needed most — in the mid-range.

The engineers decided to hang the engine from an all-new, H2 inspired trellis frame. This makes the mid-sized Z not just physically slimmer in the saddle, but also much lighter than the bike it replaces. The frame changes alone shaved off 11 pounds, and thanks to some crafty work with a pressed-steel swingarm, the move to a smaller engine, and other refinements, the Z650 tips scales at 105 pounds less than the Z800 predecessor.

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You feel this as soon as you settle into the saddle. During stop-and-go stints within downtown Santa Monica, there were no struggles to stand flat-foot at lights, and the bike never felt like it could get away from me. At points I was rocking the whole bike side-to-side in time to tracks from the new Tribe Called Quest album, waiting for lights to change. The revised chassis geometry and slim, straight bars make 90-degree, grid-street negotiations a breeze, meaning this thing will do well for urban commuters too.

The roads of California never cease to amaze me. They twist and curl, rise and fall, flowing over mountains, through valleys and along the picturesque coast. Other states boast similar claims, but none offer the quantity and quality of the Golden State. From Monterey and Big Sur to SoCal’s famed Angels’ Crest and Ortega Highways, all the way down to the Campo Road along the Mexicali border, California is a rider’s paradise. I’ve been lucky enough to ride some incredibly powerful machines through these parts in the past, but, thanks to its diet and revised dynamics, this sub–100 horsepower, entry-level Kawasaki Z650 is more than enough bike to challenge experts on this turf.