Street machine ignites jaded nerve ends

By Jacqui Madelin

The Kawasaki Ninja 300 conquers Jacqui Madelin

The pillion's high, but seating is angled for comfort. Photo / Jacqui Madelin
The pillion's high, but seating is angled for comfort. Photo / Jacqui Madelin

Talk about deja vu. Last time I pointed a lime-green snout down this stretch of swervery it was a hard-core ZX-6 - a road-legal racer that barely idles at the open road limit in any gear.

It was a dry, sunny day and I was on form; the result was a few kilometres covered at an illegal, highly irresponsible pace. If anything had gone wrong they'd have been scraping me up for weeks, but when I pulled up every nerve ending was singing with delight.

This time was different. Instead of taking my need for speed to the track I was aboard Kawasaki's Ninja 300, which is at its best at real-world speeds, relying on its high-rev flexibility, light weight and sweet handling to fling it through bends, a bit less rapidly, a lot safer - for life and licence - and as invigorating on a bendy road.

The 300 is better than its smaller 250 stablemate at longer distances, has a smidgen more power and an aura closer to a grown-up bike's, from the aggressive snout highlighted by those twin headlights, through the sharply-defined bodywork and back to that attenuated tail; pity the poor pillion expected to perch there.

Yes, this Ninja looks all mean, green sporting machine until you step aboard, when you'll find a more upright stance than expected. Not for you the fetal curl needed for true sports bikes, nor wrists and shoulders screaming in agony after a few city kilometres. You can also look around you more effectively - a boon in traffic - without losing one iota of controllability.

This isn't a big engine, a 296cc unit that, like the 250, specialises in tractable low-rev delivery and a tangible extra urgency at high revs, with more power and torque than the 250 for the same weight, and peaking at the upper end of the rev range. Sit in sixth at 100km/h and 7000rpm for long-distance cruising, and the light buzz through fingers and toes promises more.

Tipping it into the first bend, keeping that speedo needle glued to 100 as you snick down to fifth and 8000rpm, then fourth and you're approaching the 10,000rpm torque peak with maximum power 1000rpm later, a nudge under 100km/h in third gear, howling into that curve then holding its line, skimming the tar as you lift on out. Lovely stuff, and all delivered with a smoothly linear response entirely alien to the ZX's hair-trigger reactions, but much nicer to live with on real roads.

As for the slipper clutch usually seen on top-end sport bikes and the biggest departure from the more pedestrian 250, it's aimed at avoiding rear wheel lockup during a clumsy gear-change. For me it merely meant lighter lever action, for which my hands thanked me, and a smoother transition through the box.

You can make the most of it on this bike, with its wider rear tyre, stiffer frame and revised suspension settings. Front and back get softer spring rates for better comfort and firmer feel at speed, while those wishing to test the tolerance of their pillion sweetie can adjust the preload to alter stiffness and ride height.

I liked the easy-to-read digital instruments though wasn't sure why they bothered with an indicator to flag economical riding - if you're corner-carving you won't be paying much attention.

The Ninja 250 delivered a good learner bike that's priced at $7589 and could grow with its owner, with low-rev flexibility that's good for confidence, and high-rev mania rewarding a bit of effort as the same rider gains experience. The 300 adds steak knives - more power at the top end without sacrificing round-town tractability; nimbleness without nerviness; and just enough extra comfort (and capacity) to go further afield.

- NZ Herald

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