Honda squares off against a pair of Ninjas

The Kawasaki 300 is a substantial redesign of the seminal Ninja 250, which for many years ran unchallenged as the de facto entry-level sportbike in the U.S. market. At long last, Honda took up the 250 cudgel, developing its single-cylinder CBR250R in 2010. Kawasaki responded to the CBR challenge by stroking out the Ninja’s Parallel Twin for an extra 47cc, adding fuel injection and chassis tweaks, not to mention surprising upgrades like a slipper clutch.

Honda’s CBR500R builds off the success of its 250 sibling. And the CBR500R is just one of several entry-level Hondas to debut in recent years. Big Red has been downright prolific in its development of all-new designs to initiate new consumers into the riding ranks. The 2013 CRF250L dual-sport, which shares the CBR250 Single and is being utilized by our resident newbie in his Learning to Ride Series, is another example. There are also the two CTX700 models and the NC700X (a 2012 model), which share the same 670cc Twin. Add to the mix Honda’s trio of 500s: the fully-faired CBR500R, naked standard CB500F and adventure-oriented CB500X. And last, but certainly not least, is the $2,999 Honda Grom – one of the most buzz-worthy rides of the year.

So that’s eight, count ‘em EIGHT, all-new budget-friendly designs oriented toward newer riders from Honda alone within the past two years. Add the promised debut of Suzuki’s GW250 later this year, as well as KTM’s 390 Duke – presumably in the upcoming riding season. There’s now a lot more options out there for small-displacement rides.

Ever since our first ride evaluation aboard the Ninja 300, we’ve wondered how it would fare against the CBR500R. The plucky Kawasaki outperforms expectations from its relatively modest 47cc displacement boost. And the manner in which the Ninjette ripped apart the CBR250R in MotoUSA’s 2013 comparison only whetted our appetite for another head to head with the bigger CBR.

And MotoUSA’s CBR500R first ride left us eager for a heads-up comparison too. The brief ride displayed the 500’s easy-to-ride nature but left us wanting more sporty confines to test the chassis. Its 471cc Twin felt an obvious increase over the 300, but we weren’t sure exactly where it stacks up in the sportbike class. Honda is all alone in that 500 segment, with Suzuki dropping the GS500F six years ago and Kawasaki’s Ninja 500 supplanted by the Ninja 650.

That leaves us with our current comparison – the Honda CBR500R squaring off against a pair of Ninjas. The CBR conveniently splits the difference of the 300 and 650 on the spec sheet in terms of displacement, weight and pricing – but how about on-road performance?

MotoUSA followed our usual testing regimen, rolling all three onto the scales and dyno. Then we hustled them around the roads of our Southern Oregon headquarters for riding evaluations. Test riders include the author, plus Cruiser Editor Bryan Harley, who gleefully swapped his usual cruisers for seat time on these zippy little sportbikes. Associate Editor Byron Wilson lends a particularly relevant perspective, himself an entry-level rider and the exact target demographic for these rides.

Despite sharing a number of similarities, each bike exhibited a markedly different character during our testing, which will appeal to various rider demographics. Each mount delivered a pleasing riding experience, newbie or not, and they demonstrate how far the entry-level class has developed in a few short years. Here’s how our editors benchmark the new CBR.