Only one bike can earn the entry-level crown

Not so long ago, the entry-level sportbike market was almost entirely dominated by just one machine – Kawasaki’s Ninja 250R. In 2011 Honda stepped up to take a swipe at Kawi’s preeminence in the segment, debuting its CBR250R. Four years later there are more players than ever and some real differences between entry-level sportbikes on the market. MotoUSA got five of these entry-level mounts for a head-to-head competition on the street to see which bike reigns supreme.

Technically, only four of the bikes in this shootout fit the strict parameters of our snappy “sportbike” title, with the outlier being the 2015 SYM T2 250i. Why include the SYM? These bikes are targeted to beginner riders, both in terms of pricing and performance, so its relatively modest $3,799 MSRP ($600 less than the second-most affordable bike in the test, the non-ABS equipped Honda) warrants serious consideration from novice riders purchasing their first motorcycle. It’s also $300 less than the SYM’s more direct market competitor, the Suzuki GW250. Sure, it’s down on power compared to the rest of the bikes in this test, and its streetfighter stance makes it the oddball of the group, but the opportunity to assess its performance value against its more heralded entry-level competitors proved too enticing to resist.

As for the actual sportbikes, KTM and Yamaha are the new kids on the block in this segment. Both push displacement past the 300cc mark, making the RC390 and R3 poised to overpower the competition. Both bikes impressed during our First Ride reviews earlier in the year. The KTM RC390 delivered a surprisingly spirited ride thanks to its torquey 375cc liquid-cooled Single. The Yamaha R3 also got positive marks, being a well-sorted overall package with characteristics amenable to newer riders, such as its mellow power delivery off the bottom and a responsive, stable feel through the corners.

Then there’s the new CBR300R, an upgrade to the long-in-the-tooth CBR250R. The Honda platform was announced less than a year after Kawasaki debuted its Ninja 300 in 2013, but the first models didn’t make it to U.S. shores until midway through 2014. Once here, the CBR300R proved a remarkable improvement over its predecessor thanks to the 37cc bump in displacement, dialed transmission and slick styling.

Then there’s the Ninja 300, which debuted in 2013. This bike ushered in the current 300cc (or thereabouts) engine size and demonstrated that fresh riders down to seasoned experts could have fun on a low-displacement machine. It’s remained largely unchanged since its introduction, save for a switch to Dunlop rubber as stock kit for the 2015 model year. Kawasaki has decades of experience in this segment, however, and hit the nail damn-near-square on the head when it released its first iteration of the 300. Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 is clearly the benchmark Honda, KTM and Yamaha were looking to surpass with their new 2015 offerings.

Five test riders lent their input for this shootout – MotoUSA Road Test Editor Adam Waheed; Cycle News Test Rider Jason Abbott; entrepreneur, graphic designer and road racer Jennifer Ross Dunstan; off-roader Brooklyn McClendon; and me, a novice rider who fits the target demographic for the class.

We took the bikes up and down Los Angeles freeways on the way to the hills outside Azusa, California, to get a sense of how the machines stacked up on the street. We employed our usual scoring methods, with subjective evaluations provided for each bike by each test rider, coupled with objective testing in 10 categories ranging from engine performance to fuel range to arrive at our final rankings.