If you're following along this journey because you're maybe going to do it yourself, or you really want to know the nitty-gritty of how an airplane is built, have I got a treat for you! If you're just kind of interested but not that interested, probably skip this one.
When I bought my Ninja 250 in 2006, I knew it wouldn't last forever. I didn't know what might be around when it came time to replace it, but I know the answer now. The Littlest Ninja started smoking recently, indicating some form of semi-advanced oil usage, and I have neither time nor inclination to tear the engine down and overhaul it.
So, it's time to look at the small-bike market. And what a market it is!
Kawasaki has kept the dream somewhat alive, with the Ninja 300. It's fuel-injected now, and no longer looks like it was designed in the late 80s. Yamaha has entered the ring, with the YZF-R3. I've never owned a Yamaha, so this is especially interesting. Honda has the CBR300. And, somewhat unexpectedly, KTM has the 390 Duke.
I start with my obvious biases: I like twins. Single-cylinder bikes have never appealed much to me. Three- and four-cylinder machines are fine, but usually have too little torque and too much rev to make good 250cc class street bikes. Twins seem like the right configuration at this particular size. However, I'm going to withhold judgement with the KTM, since it's a single, and I've read overwhelmingly positive stuff about it.
I recently took a trip with a friend, where we traded off between my Ninja 250 and my SV650 (which is how I spotted the smoking, as I followed the Ninja) on a long weekend of riding. It was an informative weekend: he's riding a Harley Sportster now, and was stunned at how easy life is on a more upright bike. He also confirmed what I've long thought: although the SV is a great bike, there's something very engaging about the Ninja, and it's both more interesting and more enjoyable to ride.
So my inclination is to stick with something very 250-ish with the new bike. The Honda Grom and the Kawasaki Z125 are very interesting looking, but don't hold out any promise of being distance bikes, and I will continue to take multi-hundred-mile trips on whatever is my next bike.
With this in mind, I went out to one of the local testosterone-parlors and tried my hand at a Ninja 300 and a YZF-R3 (they'll call me when a 390 Duke shows up, apparently they're hard to find at the moment). Each bike I rode was a used example, the R3 being from 2015, and the Ninja from a similar vintage, though I didn't note the exact year.
I rode the R3 first. My initial impression was very favorable. A narrow tank and light perceived weight while sitting still were very Ninja 250-like. I liked the instrument cluster, with its 180 degree tachometer. I really like that it has two headlights, and when the high beam goes on, the low beam stays illuminated. More light, as they say, is better. It also has the turn-signal lights on all the time as markers. Points to the Yamaha for lighting. None of them are LEDs that I noticed, so demerits there, but not terrible.
Upon starting the bike, the impression went down a little bit. The engine sounded oddly clunky, and the throttle cable was hugely loose without any obvious way to adjust it. Obviously this is a used bike, so I'm not placing any real weight on the loose cable, but the fact that I couldn't figure out how to tighten it was a little distressing.
The suspension felt good sitting still, which is a major improvement over the stock Ninja 250: I had to spend $800 or so upgrading the suspension to make it feel like I wasn't riding a children's toy. The tool compartment under the passenger's seat is miniscule, which is disappointing considering how much space could be offered there. It doesn't have any sort of grab bar, which seems like an odd ommission.
Once rolling, I noticed a thing which became a running theme: the clutch starts its engagement smoothly enough, but right at the end, I had a very hard time not jolting as it went from slipping to fully engaged. It became distressing as the ride went on, and one out of four shifts was distinctly abrupt. However, the gearbox was smooth and precise and very nice to use.
In coming to a stop, I noticed that the front brake engages with a sharp bite, though it's not unusually powerful once it's engaged. The front suspension had an odd clunking feeling as I tried to come to a smooth stop, as if I was completely lifting off a set of springs as it uncompressed. I noticed this several times, enough that it was a little distracting.
On the brief stretch of freeway I rode, the amount of heat sweeping past my legs was impressive. The Ninja 250 blows air under the seat, making it uncomfortably hot, and I'm not sure which I dislike more.
Interestingly, after riding both bikes and getting back on my 250, I realized that none of them was noticeably more powerful. This was surprising, since on paper at least, both the R3 and the Ninja 300 have considerably more oomph than the 250. It may be that with my grr-grunt break-in procedure (lots of high-pressure action inside the cylinders, and progressively longer heat cycles, avoiding any thought of RPM), my 250 is simply an unusually powerful example, and the used bikes I was riding were broken in per the factory method.
My overall impression of the R3 was that it was very Ninja 250-like (a good thing), with a considerably sharper clutch and transmission. The suspension was a bit soft, and the rest of the bike was about the same. If I were buying a race bike, the R3 would be at the top of the list, particularly with some suspension upgrades.
Getting on the Ninja after the R3, the first thing I noticed is that it feels distinctly heavier sitting still. According to Wikipedia, the Ninja is indeed 17 pounds heavier, but it felt like more than that. I assume it keeps its weight up a little higher, which contributes to a perception of weight at a standstill.
The particular bike I rode was customized by the previous owner, so I was treated to adjustable shorty levers on the handlebars (bright pink!), and an aftermarket CF muffler with a distinctly blatty sound. I also realized, as I rode along, that the handlbars were twisted to the right about 10° from where they should be. Based on this, I rode more gingerly than I might have otherwise done. I had no desire to find out what else about the bike might not be completely straight. Fortunately, it showed no bad habits as I rode; the handlebars were just a little disconcerting.
I immediately noticed that the clutch was much more pleasant to use. No abrupt jolt at the end of engagement. The gearbox was also about half-way between the mushy clunk-box in the 250 and the scalpel I'd found in the R3. Had I ridden the Ninja 300 first, I would have been impressed, but after the R3 it felt a bit disappointing. Still, it worked fine, and would not dissuade me from owning a Ninja 300.
The instrument cluster on the 300 is a little disappointing. For some reason, they have set up the tachometer with about a 100 degree sweep (it's more than that, but it feels very limited), so that it's hard to tell what the needle is pointing at. It includes a fuel gauge, but no indication of engine temperature (the R3 has engine temperature, and also fuel efficiency, along with a better tach; points to the R3 for instruments, without question).
On the heat issue, I noticed a little heat sweeping past my legs on the freeway, but not a huge amount like on the R3. It seemed better controlled, and much less present.
I was again surprised to find that the 300 is not much more powerful than my 250. I assume this is something where the difference would make itself known as I rode it less conciously. I think I was expecting a really substantial power increase over the 250, and that just wasn't there. I also have to keep in mind that these were used bikes, with over 4000 (R3) and 2000 (Ninja) miles on the clock. A new, properly broken-in bike may be a different matter.
I was almost unaware of the suspension on the Ninja 300, so I'll call that a win. I did bounce the front once at a stoplight, and found none of the clunking like I'd felt on the R3. It just felt smooth and solid. The feeling of solidity continued on the freeway, where the 300 felt a bit more planted than the R3, but only barely. Neither bike would excite any comment except for the odd clunk coming to a stop on the R3. The 300 also felt slightly better sprung for someone of my relatively heavy weight.
My overall impression of the Ninja 300 was that it was a bigger, more refined bike than the R3. This is not necessarily a positive thing, as one of the things I really like about the 250 is that it feels just a little toy-like, as if it shouldn't be as awesome as it actually is. The Ninja 300 felt a bit like moving from a small but sporty car like a Miata to a heavier sporty car, like a mid-range BMW.
There are some on-paper specs that matter to me. Probably the biggest one is fuel range. Reports I've read suggest that the R3 will expect to get fuel efficiency in the 50-60 MPG range. The Ninja 300 is supposed to get up into the 60s, even to 70 if you're riding very gently. The R3 has a tank capacity of 3.7 US gallons, and the Ninja has a tank capacity of 4.5 US gallons. This all boils down to the fact that the Ninja will have about 50-70 miles more useable range than the R3 if they're ridden with equal spirit. That's a lot, when you're looking at 200 vs. 270. Many are the times I would have been happy to have another 50 miles available before refuelling, and that is a compelling thing.
Kawasaki has a long, long, looong track record with small street bikes. The first Ninja 250 came out in 1986, and by the time my 2006 was purchased, they'd probably paid off the tooling 15 years previously. Yamaha has been making small bikes for a long time too, but not in this particular format. I feel like they've done a great deal of work on single-cylinder engines for dirt bikes and dual-purpose bikes, and I don't know how well that translates to this kind of baby twin track bike. This is probably a minor issue, but it's one that occurs to me.
I haven't made any firm decisions. I really can't, until I've tried out the 390 Duke. It comes so highly recommended that I would be foolish to act without giving it a chance. So, I must wait patiently until whatever import issue is sorted out, to give the Austrian contender a chance. I'm very curious to see what I think.