2001 Kawasaki Ninja 250 Review
Posted August 27, 2003
Starting in early 2002, I became interested in Kawasaki's Ninja 250. This is a small, inexpensive motorcycle with some surprisingly high-quality components and specifications. It also happens to get fantastic gas mileage, claimed at 55-70 MPG. For a variety of reasons, I wasn't able to get one of these bikes until this summer.
Kawasaki first introduced the Ninja 250 (also called an EX250E, and GPX250, and being closely related to the ZZR-250) in 1986, in the US. In 1988 it underwent an overhaul, and emerged as the EX250F (still called a Ninja 250). Since 1988, the bike has remained virtually unchanged, with literally fewer than 50 very minor changes having been made over the intervening years.
There is a great deal of additional information about this bike available online. Due to its low price and excellent setup, this is a very popular motorcycle. I'll let the other sites do the majority of the introduction:
Engine and Transmission
The Ninja's engine is a vertical in-line twin, displacing 248cc. Kawasaki claims it puts out around 33 HP, and most dyno testing seems to reveal 23-28 HP at the rear wheel. With a claimed dry weight of 304 pounds, this puts the bike's power:weight ratio at 0.082, as compared to 0.177 for the Moto Guzzi Le Mans, and 0.121 for a Porsche 911 Turbo -- larger numbers are "better"). The engine is designed with an extremely high redline, at 14,000 RPM. It is only by revving very fast that this tiny engine can produce so much power.
The engine is watercooled, which is pretty standard for a sportbike, but impressive for an inexpensive beginner's bike. It's far cheaper to design and build an engine that's aircooled, which is the route taken by all other beginner-targeted machines I can think of, such as the Honda Nighthawk 250, Yamaha Virago 250, Honda Rebel 125 and 250, etc. Watercooling means that the engine can be kept much closer to its ideal operating temperature, and can thus be more efficient and powerful.
In practical terms, the engine is not very impressive until you get it above 6000 RPM. From 6000 to about 8000 RPM, there's enough power to be useful, and this is a good cruising range. When accelerating hard, I typically take the engine past 11,000 RPM before shifting. The rev limiter kicks in right around 14,000 RPM, keeping you from accidentally damaging the engine.
The sound of the engine as it revs up to 8000 RPM could be described as either "cool" or "wimpy" depending on what your standards are. Above 8000 RPM, it starts to sound like it's screaming and destroying itself -- this isn't the case, but that's kind of what it sounds like, particularly to someone who's not accustomed to it. Right around 9000 RPM, the engine induces uncomfortable vibrations into the frame, handlebars and pegs. It's not awful, but it's not pleasant. This is also the loudest RPM, hitting some kind of resonance and increasing the noise for a span of nearly 1000 RPM.
It should be noted that Kawasaki's recommended break-in regimen has you limiting engine RPM to 4000 for the first 500 miles. That translates to around 36 MPH in 6th gear, so don't plan on going anywhere fast when you first get a new Ninja. The next 500 miles are to be kept below 6000 RPM, which is better, but still translates to around 45 MPH in 6th.
The transmission is a standard dog-type constant mesh transmission (that is, it's the same basic transmission as almost every other motorcycle from the last few decades). This bike has a wet clutch, which means that the clutch plates are immersed in engine oil. I'm not honestly sure of the benefits of this design, except that it seems to allow greater cooling, and the clutch will stand up to much more abuse than a dry-type clutch.
I have found the transmission to basically fade into the background when I'm riding, which means it does it's job well enough. The only complaint I have is apparently true of every bike with a wet clutch: first thing in the morning, shifting into 1st gear can easily kill the motor. Since the clutch springs press the plates together, and squeeze oil out from between the plates, the plates can become "locked together" if they sit for a while. The alternatives seem to be revving the motor as you shift into first the first time, or holding the clutch lever for quite a while, as oil slowly seeps back between the plates.
Suspension and Brakes
The suspension, unfortunately, is nothing to write home about. There are no adjustments available anywhere, so you have to hope that Kawasaki set the bike up well enough for you. Fortunately, this seems to be the case, but many riders choose to upgrade the rear shock by replacing it with that from a Ninja 500. This is not a difficult upgrade, and Ninja 500 shocks are apparently available on Ebay for under $50. I will be performing this modification in the near future.
The brakes are surprisingly good for so cheap a bike. It has disc brakes both front and rear. This compares quite positively to the more-expensive Nighthawk 250's front and rear drum brakes -- drum brakes went out in the 70's, folks! The brakes have plenty of stopping power to get the bike and yourself hauled down from speed. I replaced my bike's pads with EBC organic pads, and they were at least as good as stock, once they'd broken in a little bit. I recommend replacing the stock brake lines with stainless steel braided lines, an upgrade I haven't yet done myself.
The Ninja 250 is a fun bike! I weigh around 230-240 pounds in my riding gear, and usually carry at least 10-20 pounds in my tank bag. Yet this bike is still propelling me to any speed I desire (up to a limit, of course, around 90 MPH) with commendable power. I had definitely been worried I'd have trouble keeping up with traffic, or feel like the bike was too underpowered, yet it does just fine. It's not going to win a race with a larger motorcycle, to be sure, but I can easily keep ahead of the sluggish commuter traffic I normally ride with.
Likewise, I had been worried that it would be too physically small for me. Indeed, it's a small bike, with a claimed seat height of just over 29 inches (compared to something like 33 for the BMW's I'm used to). I find that my legs are a bit cramped when riding, but it hasn't ended up being a problem. The seating position is quite comfortable, not leaned over far at all, as befits a beginner's motorcycle. I haven't taken the bike on a long ride, but I have a feeling that I'd be comfortable for as long as a few hours, before joints and butt would start complaining.
The bike handles like, well, a small motorcycle. It's surprisingly crisp in corners, again dismissing the "cheap bike" idea. There is appreciable brake dive, but that's to be expected from this quality of suspension. High speed handling is fine, if a bit skittish. Wind is more noticable than on other, larger motorcycles; but again, this is to be expected with such a small and light bike. I would not necessarily choose this bike as a long-distance tourer.
In the relatively few tanks of gas I've put the bike through, I've seen around 50-55 MPG. That number would go up if I was riding on freeways more, or doing more weekend touring.
Recommendation for Beginning Riders
I do not recommend this bike for beginning riders. In my opinion, the engine's performance is too strongly tied to revving hard, which is likely to intimidate new riders. Other than the engine, the bike is great for beginners, but that engine problem prevents me from recommending it. I wish I could transplant the Nighthawk 250's engine into the Ninja frame (the only thing I like about the Nighthawk 250 is the engine). If you are a new rider, and think you'll enjoy revving the motor hard when you need to get ahead of traffic, it would be an acceptable choice, but this is not the bike for timid riders.
A Ninja 500, Suzuki SV650, or similar non-supersport bike in the 500-650cc class is more suitable for new riders who don't want to worry so much which gear they're in. Particularly a used bike like a Honda Nighthawk 500, VFR 500, etc. would be a better choice. If you can find one, and can afford it (by which I mean both the initial purchase price and the maintenance or restoration costs), a BMW R65 makes a great first bike.
If you haven't yet, check out the beginnerbikes.com website. They have an excellent review of motorcycles suitable for a beginner laid out in an easy-to-use and approachable format.
You should leave this article with the final impression that the Ninja 250 is great. It has a few shortcomings (particularly for beginners, as noted above), but gives you one heck of a motorcycle for your money. With a few upgrades (mostly to tires and suspension), this bike would be an excellent do-everything bike -- Leon Begeman just placed 12th in the Iron Butt Rally 2003 on a Ninja 250 (a feat which merited a standing ovation from other Iron Butt riders). Even though it's based on mid-80's technology, this is a stunning motorcycle for the price.
Created by Ian Johnston. Questions? Please mail me.