By Byron Wilson, Associate Editor

No longer leading the pack

For a long time, Kawasaki monopolized the entry-level sportbike market with its Ninja 250. When Honda came around in 2011 to challenge that green supremacy, Kawasaki stepped up displacement with the Ninja 300 it debuted in 2013. The assault on Kawasaki’s preeminence in the segment is fiercer than ever in 2015 thanks to Honda’s power bump with the CBR300R, the new R3 and RC390. Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 has impressed MotoUSA testers in the past for its agile handling and rider aids like ABS and a slipper clutch, but with a wide field of contenders bringing their A-game, Kawasaki has finally fallen from the top of the entry-level sportbike heap.

At the heart of the 2015 Kawasaki Ninja 300 ABS (the version we tested in this shootout) lies the same 296cc Parallel-Twin engine found in the 2013 model. It’s still a high-revving mill that rewards riders who keep it around 10,000 rpm. But it also features the mellowest bottom end of the entire group, the SYM included, a point that left a few of our testers wanting more.

“Even though it’s got a Parallel Twin engine, it didn’t have that much more power than the single-cylinder bikes,” says Waheed. “You have to rev the thing up so high to even make it go anywhere that it kind of makes it not as fun to ride.”

Off idle it builds from about seven horsepower and 12 lb-ft of torque and by 4,000 rpm almost matches the output of the SYM at 10.3 horsepower with 13.5 lb-ft of torque. From there it continues to grow gradually until you reach the upper 8,000 to low 9,000 rpm range where you get into the meat of its power, maxing out at 10,000 rpm with 17.37 lb-ft. The pull then starts to drop off slightly as it passes by peak 34 horsepower at 11,100 rpm. Yamaha’s mill is the only other Parallel Twin in the test and is similarly high-revving but pays off in stronger pull off the bottom end and higher peak numbers in both engine performance measurements.

In terms of a seat-of-the-pants assessment of the Ninja 300’s engine, the Honda remains the direct rival. In subjective scoring of engine performance and engine character, the two bikes split the vote. On the dyno it was similarly close, with the Kawi edging ahead of the CBR in horsepower but falling short of the available torque on the Honda. Drivetrain assessments were similarly split between the two machines. The Kawasaki’s slipper function is dialed-in well, providing a very smooth transition while downshifting, but even that added benefit wasn’t enough to put it ahead of Honda’s silky, precise gearbox.

The Kawasaki’s chassis setup left some of our testers wanting more as well. The more aggressive riders of the group felt the cornering ability of the Ninja 300 was lacking and didn’t inspire the same confidence as the Honda, Yamaha or KTM.

“The chassis is still a little bit sluggish-steering,” explains Waheed. “When you’re going around turns kind of fast, the chassis doesn’t react as well to aggressive riding as the Yamaha, the Honda or the KTM.”

On the other hand, Dunstan and I found the handling to be quite good. Speaking from a novice rider’s perspective, the Ninja 300 felt stable and planted through turns. Of course, that’s at a significantly reduced pace compared to that of the other riders, but of the bikes in the test I found myself pushing faster into turns on the Ninja than any of the others.

The suspension setup puts the Kawasaki in direct competition with the Honda once again, both sporting 37mm, non-adjustable forks and five-way preload adjustable single shocks on the rear. The Honda’s configuration ended up edging ahead of Kawasaki’s in the final subjective scoring tally though, finishing in second place on three out of four scorecards.

Braking confidence was boosted by the ABS system, which “really worked great,” in Waheed’s estimation, but got dinged for the fact that it can’t be disengaged like the KTM.

“I couldn’t believe how hard you could brake into turns where the asphalt was a little bit wet with some gravel,” continues Waheed. “With the ABS you could brake really hard.”

This will be a welcome feature for riders that need to grab a handful really quick in emergency situations, but ultimately the braking package fell short of the other sportbikes. The second-heaviest bike of the group at 384 pounds, the Kawasaki came to a full stop from 60 mph in 148.4 feet, placing it second-to-last among the five bikes tested. Subjective rankings also placed the Kawasaki fourth out of five bikes.

Instrumentation is a combination of an analog tachometer with a digital display that provides a fuel gauge, mph and odometer/trip meter and clock. Unlike the Yamaha, KTM and SYM however, the Ninja 300 doesn’t include a gear position indicator.

Fuel range figures reveal that the Kawasaki is also second-to-last in terms of miles per gallon, achieving a 46.9 mpg average during our test. Where the Kawasaki gains back some points in our fuel assessment is in its range, thanks to the most generous-sized tank of the bunch. Fill up the 4.5 gallons on the Ninja 300 and expect to get 211 miles between fill-ups.

Another hit to the Kawasaki came in sound testing, which awards top points to the quietest machine. The Ninja 300 hit 92 decibels at its peak; the only machine with more wail in this test is the KTM.

The $5,200 ABS version of the Ninja 300 we tested is also one of the most expensive motorcycles, only $200 less than the highest-priced KTM. You can get a non-ABS version for $4,999, putting it nearly equal to the $4,990 R3 but still a fair bit of change short of the $4,399 CBR.

In the end, Kawasaki’s supremacy as leader of the entry-level sportbike field is now a thing of the past. The Ninja 300 ABS is still a solid machine for the newer rider, providing some room for error with its mellow power delivery off the bottom and rider aids like ABS and slipper clutch. But in light of the new and updated competition, the Kawasaki’s shortcomings are impossible to look past. The other manufacturers have shown that better handling and power delivery are achievable in the entry-level sportbike class without creating a machine that’s over the heads of riders still developing their skills. Kawasaki sits fourth overall in the final tally, and though it was neck-and-neck with the Honda in a number of areas, the green machine will need some refinement in the coming years to regain its place at the top of the heap.