Kawasaki 300 punches above its weight
Japanese bikemakers have a fine tradition of building lightweight sports bikes with high-revving twin-cylinder engines, notably the 305cc Honda CB77 of the early 1960s and a long series from Kawasaki starting with the Z250 in 1983.
Today's quarter-litre bikes, however, are nearly all single-cylinder budget bikes, built down to a price rather than up to a standard - with one honourable exception.
For 2013 Kawasaki has 'stroked' its long-running Ninja 250R, increasing capacity from 247 to 296cc, and giving it a healthy performance boost in the low and mid-range. Build quality has also been significantly improved, creating a bike that's fit to stand alongside its bigger stablemates in almost every way.
It's a hard-edged little street racer that punches way above its weight and, unlike most of its competitors, actually does what it says on the tin, even when carrying a big (106kg) rider.
GOOD TO GO
But for South African riders, 'sports bike' means a transverse four of at least 600cc and 80kW. Few have ever ridden a machine smaller than 400cc, and fewer still are prepared to master the skills needed to get the most out of a little bike.
And at R59 995 this is no budget bike; you can, in fact get a lot more bike for less money, until you start looking not at what you're getting for your money, but at what it can do for you. Then the scale starts to swing back the other way.
Thanks to very well-sorted Keihin fuel-injection, the busy little parallel twin starts first time, every time - hot, cold or in between - and, after 10 seconds to get the oil flowing, it's good to go. There's no temperature gauge but, after two or at most three kilometres the engine's response becomes noticeably crisper and it's happy to rev like a Grand Prix bike.
It makes a high-pitched, rather unsettling whining sound at low revs, but the hard-edged growl from the airbox that starts at about 6500rpm and builds to the redline at 13 000rpm defines this bike's persona.
This is not a delivery bike.
Chase the red line through the gears and the bike will reach the national speed limit quickly enough to embarrass anything on four wheels this side of a supercar and quite a few bikes with notably larger engines.
The six-speed gearbox, as you'd expect of a bike with just 29kW and 27Nm to dispose of, is and crisp and positive in action, with a very short throw but without the extra lash Kawasaki builds into its bigger 'boxes.
The clutch is light and sweet, but without the familiar thump as it goes home that makes the big Kawasaki fours such a delight to launch off the line; given the tiny dimensions of this unit, that's probably a good thing.
The easiest (and quickest!) way to get this Kawa up and buzzing is to get the clutch home before it hits the power band at 7000rpm and then forget about it - the transmission lends itself to seamless upshifts, with just the slightest twitch of the throttle wrist to unload the cogs.
Downshifts, with or without the left hand are, if anything, even better, thanks to a standard-fit, Superbike style slipper clutch - the first we've seen on a bike this size.
ACCEPTABLE SPEEDO ERROR
Although 140km/h came up quite quickly, it took about two thirds of our notorious Six-Kay Straight before the digital speedometer flicked over from 169 to 171, with a steady 11 200rpm showing on the analogue rev-counter and the rider draped over the tank like melted cheese.
True speed, according to Mr Garmin and his friends in the sky, was exactly 160km/h, reflecting an acceptable speedometer error of 6.4 percent, but the test Ninja had only about 540km on its odometer at the time and a slightly more mature example, more sympathetically run in and with a lighter rider, would probably be able to improve on those numbers.
More importantly, however, the 300R ran dead steady at terminal velocity, with no tendency to wander and not the slightest twitchiness at the 'bars. In fact, although the bike turns in like a terrier after a rat, it didn't shake its head once throughout the test period - amazing in a lightweight motorcycle with a short-coupled 1405mm wheelbase and budget suspension, adjustable only for rear preload.
Its action can best be described as firm, which led to a choppy ride on our bumpy test section, albeit without any fading. The wide, flat seat is also very firm - not quite the proverbial plastic plank but not far short of it. The clip-on handlebars are raised about 60mm above the upper triple clamp and the 17-litre fuel tank is shorter than it looks, making the seating position both more upright and more compact than you'd expect, and emphasising this mini-sportster's dinky dimensions.
If the baby Ninja does have a weak point, it's the brakes; the single 290mm petal disc and twin-cylinder floating calliper on the front wheel are not quite up to the standard set by the bike's superb chassis and willing little engine. They're perfectly adequate around town but lack both bite and power when pushed hard; we also managed to induce a little fade after a sequence of frenetic runs through our ride and handling section.
Build quality, however, is excellent. The test bike was beautifully finished in several different shades of black, with a fully lined fairing and a minimum of visible fastening. Fit and finish were superb, except for one gaping seam right under the left handlebar - if the bike was mine I'd be in there the first weekend trying to fix it!
Behind the 'floating' screen there's a very smart instrument pod that includes a half-moon rev-counter in classic black with white markings and needle, and a liquid-crystal speedometer display panel with a fuel gauge, odometer, two trip meters and a clock. There's also a nod to the bunny-huggers, in the form of an eco-riding light, which only comes on at small throttle openings, below about 6000rpm. It wouldn't stay on at anything above 70km/h, even in ideal conditions which, on this bike, is purgatory.
However, experimentation with the bunny-lamp led us to discover the bike's sweetest cruising speed, at an indicated 110km/h with the rev-counter needle pointing straight up at 7500rpm - are Kawasaki trying to tell us something?
Maybe it's that the stroked twin is very fuel-efficient; even though we spent most of the test period wringing the Ninja 300's neck, it returned a very creditable 4.22 litres per 100km including performance testing, underlining its credentials as the thinking rider's hooligan tool.
The 300 Ninja is built in Thailand, which until June 1939 was known as Siam. According to Cyril, the fact that is has two cylinders makes it IOL Motoring's first Siamese twin.
Price: R59 995.
Bike from: Mike Hopkins Motorcycles, Cape Town.
Engine:296cc liquid-cooled four-stroke parallel twin.
Bore x stroke:62mm x 49mm.
Valvegear: DOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.
Power:29kW at 11 000rpm.
Torque: 27Nm at 10 000rpm.
Induction: Digital electronic fuel-injection with two 32mm Keihin throttle
Ignition: Digital electronic.
Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet slipper clutch.
Transmission: Six-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by chain.
Front Suspension:37mm conventional cartridge forks, non-adjustable.
Rear Suspension: Uni-Trak linkage with monoshock adjustable for preload.
Front brakes:290mm petal disc with twin-piston floating calliper.
Rear brake:220mm petal disc with twin-piston floating calliper.
Front tyre:110/70 - 17 tubeless.
Rear tyre:140/70 - 17 tubeless.
Fuel tank:17 litres.
Top speed(measured): 160km/h.
Fuel consumption(measured): 4.22 litres per 100km.