Ever since Yamaha updated their excellent R3, I’ve wanted to see how it stacks up with the Kawasaki Ninja 400. It’s finally time to find out.
HISTORY LESSONThe year was 2007, and my dad took me shopping for my first motorcycle. I didn’t know much about bikes at the time, but I did know I wanted an entry-level sportbike. Realistically, there was only one option: the Ninja 250.
At the time, Kawasaki had a monopoly on the little sportbike market, and their dominance went back to the Ninjette’s introduction in 1986. There were some short-lived competitors like the Honda VTR250, but Kawi got to keep nearly all the sales for themselves for decades. A June 1986 review of the 250R in Cycle World said “…for the present, the rules for 250cc sportbikes are whatever Kawasaki says they are…But that’s only if there are any 250cc sportbikes in the future. This country hasn’t shown much fondness for small streetbikes in recent years, and only time will tell if the 250 Ninja will fade into obscurity, or if it will spur the industry to offer more sporting 250s.”
Letters to the editor in the same issue suggest that American riders were disappointed in the lack of little bikes, noting that “the smallest end of the motorcycle market is sadly neglected by manufacturers” and how “Japanese [manufacturers] and their American marketing firms have apparently neglected to consider the entry-level market because they perceive it as small and apathetic.” Time has indeed told if the industry will continue to offer more sporting little bikes, but it took 25 years for the Ninja 250 to get its first serious challenger. In 2011, Honda debuted the CBR250R, and things have rapidly escalated since: Kawi responded by bumping up displacement to 300, Yamaha showed up with a 325, and KTM trumped all with a 390. It doesn’t stop there, either: BMW joined the party with the G310R and manufacturers remembered that there are other things besides sportbikes, so we started to get small displacement adventure bikes like the Versys-X 300 and naked bikes like the CB300R or the Husqvarna 401 Vitpilen/Svartpilen. The 2007 version of myself would be stunned at all of the options available today!
With all that said, when it specifically comes to small streetable sportbikes, there are two standouts to me. When Yamaha introduced the YZF-R3 in 2015, I thought it was the best of the breed despite weak suspension and terrible tires. I’d understand if someone said the KTM RC390 should also get a special mention, but I think that bike belongs on a track and there were just too many stories of mechanical issues for me to wholeheartedly recommend that bike to a friend. Last year, Kawasaki’s management presumably decided that they wanted to reclaim their position at the top of the market (funny how that’s a bit more difficult when you’re not the only one playing), so they built a new bike from scratch and made it a 400 for good measure. Yamaha has countered with a refresh, but will it be good enough to reclaim the throne?
Photos by Nathan May.
IN THEORYIt’s hard to compete with a clean sheet design when you’re just updating an older bike, but Yamaha did an excellent job of identifying the issues from the first generation and fixing them:
Tires: The original R3 was saddled with bias-ply tires, which I never want to see on a motorcycle. Now Yamaha has chosen radials, specifically the Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300…the same OEM tires specified on the Ninja 400. Coincidence? You tell me.
Suspension: This was an easy complaint for reviewers in 2015, but the R3 now has upgraded KYB suspension front and rear. The USD front forks have stronger rebound and compression damping, and the spring rate is up 20%. The shock is also stiffer, with an 11% increase in spring rate and a 10mm increase in preload (with 7 steps of adjustability). It’s a big improvement, and it’s noticeable even when the bike isn’t moving.
There are several additional updates, but the most notable ones are in the styling department. The R3 now looks more like its bigger brothers thanks to LED lighting, a revised top triple design, LCD gauges, and a front cowling that is supposed to make you think of the YZR-M1 MotoGP racer:
The handlebars have been lowered by 22mm, the tank is lower and wider (but still holds 3.7 gallons), and the revised bodywork is claimed to increase wind protection and reduce the drag by 7%. The only missing thing I would have liked to see is a slipper clutch (there’s one in the Ninja 400), but I’m trying not to be too greedy. From the standpoint of a mid-cycle refresh, the new R3 is almost perfect. But it’s still a mid-cycle refresh, and on paper it sure looks like the built-from-scratch Ninja has lots of advantages.
It’s obvious that the Ninja has the stronger motor, but the difference is probably less than you’d expect:
What’s not as obvious is that the Ninja weighs less than the R3 (366 lb. vs 375 lb. when comparing ABS models), offers more room for bigger riders, and costs the same ($4,999, add $300 for ABS). It seems to be a very impressive package. Frankly, both bikes are impressive – there’s a reason why each of these bikes is the best seller for their respective manufacturers!
IN PERSONIt only took a few miles on the road for me to form my conclusions. As an overall package, the Ninja 400 is a better motorcycle, and I’m struggling to think of a better bargain in the world of streetbikes. That will probably change when the $500 cheaper Z400 is released, but I’m actually at the launch for that bike right now (UPDATE: here’s my review) and I’m not allowed to say anything about it until Monday.
The bigger motor makes the Ninja fast enough that it seems unfair to call it a beginner bike. It’ll dust just about any vehicle you encounter in traffic, it can sit all day at 100 miles per hour, and it actually has power to pass when you need it to. I really hope Kawasaki is able to put this motor in the next Versys-X.
What impresses me the most is how good the Ninja is overall – whether you want to commute, race, or even tour, this “little” bike is surprisingly competent. When I rode from Los Angeles to Las Vegas and back for the Mecum auction, all the bike needed was a tail bag. The ergonomics were comfortable for hours at a time, though I wouldn’t have minded a thicker seat.
This is not to say that the R3 is a bad motorcycle. In fact, it’s got several advantages over the Ninja, the most significant of which is that it’s more engaging in the twisties. This is due to the upgraded suspension and the more aggressive riding position, and that makes the R3 the better choice to perfect your lines, get on the track, and start your path to be the next Valentino Rossi. If you put me on a racetrack with the Ninja 400 and the YZF-R3, I’d have a faster lap time with the Kawasaki but I’d have more fun with the Yamaha.
On paper, I thought my only complaint with the Yamaha would be the lack of a slipper clutch. In reality, I didn’t miss it very much. Instead, I found the brakes to be my major concern. At regular street speeds, they were fine. But once I got aggressive in the canyons, I constantly wanted more bite.
The last surprise was with 2-up comfort. As the Ninja 400 is ergonomically friendlier, I assumed that it would also be the more enjoyable steed for a passenger. Vy disagrees, noting the foot pegs are too narrow and too close to each other. This forces her to uncomfortably angle her knees inward. In addition, the Ninja’s passenger seat is significantly smaller than the R3’s:
IN…SANEThis is where I get to bitch about decisions I don’t understand (or just don’t like). Thankfully, it’s a short list for both bikes. I had two gripes with the Ninja: 1.) the mirrors don’t have enough field of view and 2.) the exhaust gets in the way of your right foot. Both are annoying, but the latter is particularly inexcusable because of anecdotes like the one Lemmy included in his review of the Kawasaki H2 SX SE: Croft Long, Kaw’s Two-Wheel Product Manager, said “I walked into Wal-Mart, bought a pair of size 13 construction boots, and dropped them on the table in front of the engineers.” Croft, where were you on the Ninja 400?
Other than that, I would have liked to see a hazard light switch and shift light (the R3 has both), but those aren’t deal breakers. The tachometer needle lights up red as you approach redline, but it’s too faint to see during the day. It’s a cool touch, but it’s not a shift light.
The R3 design isn’t free of odd features, either. I detest the placement of the horn button, which is to the right of the left-hand controls. I don’t understand why that’s the case, and I’m sensitive to it as this is presumably a beginner bike – Yamaha should be training riders to expect the horn button in the usual spot on the bottom left corner. What’s particularly infuriating is that the horn button was in the normal place in the last generation. Why would you change this?
My other R3-related complaint is with the product planning department. There are three colors for the R3 – Vivid White, Matte Black, and the one you probably want: Team Yamaha Blue. Certain colors get ABS (a $300 option) in what feels like a somewhat arbitrary decision. Now, Yamaha isn’t the only company that does this – I don’t like that Honda only offers ABS on the red Monkey and not the yellow one – but this is how Yamaha breaks it down:
Vivid White = ABS is standard
Matte Black = ABS is optional
Team Yamaha Blue = ABS is not available
Why would you not make ABS an option on the color that’s so deeply associated with your brand that it’s named after it? My complaint is obviously based on the assumption that Team Yamaha Blue will be the best selling color (maybe it won’t be because safety-minded buyers are now stuck with white or black), but this bums me out. When Yamaha let me take a bike home after the launch, they asked me which model I wanted. I love the blue, but I wanted ABS so I brought back the Matte Black example you see in Nathan’s photos. Kawasaki had a similar ABS-depending-on-color-choices situation last year, but that’s been rectified for 2019.
One last thing – I think I’m legally obligated to complain about the hideous non-LED turn signals that Yamaha USA seems to be stuck with, so this takes care of the requirement.
The Yamaha’s ABS/paint job dilemma would bug me when buying the bike, but the Ninja’s lack of foot space annoys me every time I ride it. At least it gives you an excellent excuse to buy a new exhaust!
VERDICTThis decision’s a simple one. If your life is all about corners or if you want to get into track days, take a close look at the Yamaha R3. It might just be the ultimate expression of “more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow.” But if you want a do-it-all street bike, Kawasaki deserves your money. The Ninja 400 is easy to ride and the 399cc motor is powerful enough to entertain even experienced riders. Somehow, you get all the benefits of small bike ownership without the usual negatives.
Check out the 2019 Kawasaki Ninja 400! Check out the 2019 Yamaha YZF-R3!