By Courtney Olive

Small bikes can do it all

If you read Part I of Project Ninja 300, you’ll recall the premise of the story was to spend a season on a Kawasaki Ninja 300 running the gamut from 2,000 mile tours to track days to ordinary commuting. The idea is that small bikes can do a lot, particularly today’s crop. Still, it’s hard not to want to squeeze a little more out of a bike by modifying it along the way. In the first article, I completed Phase I of the build, which focused on bang-for-the-buck improvements: tires, brakes, and gearing. Now, in Phase II, the goal is to squeeze a little more out of the engine, and protect the bike’s exterior. Then get out and ride the sucker!

The Build – Phase II

On a small bike where even one or two horsepower is a significant gain, the tried-and-true combination of a lighter, more free-flowing exhaust with a better-breathing air filter can really make a difference. Enter SpeedMob, the exclusive U.S. distributor for Arrow exhaust and various other go-fast bits. Arrow exhaust was a perfect choice for Project Ninja 300 because the collector and “X-Kone” silencer are interchangeable with stock components. This provides good options for the budget-minded smallbore rider because you can purchase just the silencer, use it with the stock collector for awhile, then later complete the full system by upgrading to Arrow’s racing collector.

The full Arrow system is also 13.5 pounds lighter than stock and, overall, it is a tremendous aesthetic improvement. However, Arrow dropped the ball in the looks department when it came to the silencer mounting bracket, a clunky piece of flat bar-stock with 90-degree bends. One would expect something more artful from Arrow’s Italian designers. Aside from that, the system itself is sharp looking and perfectly proportioned to the bike.

The other pieces of the performance equation are a BMC high-flow air filter and what is known as the “snorkel mod.” This consists of removing the rectangular tube from the backside of the air box by simply reaching inside the air box, pushing the tube loose, and removing it. The theory being that air can more easily enter the air box when it’s not sucking through a straw. In any event, it’ll at least make more of an intake snarl – the puttery Ninja needs all the acoustic improvements it can get.

With the Arrow components and intake improvements in place, it’s critical to next adjust the air/fuel mixture to account for the changes. This is where the Dynojet Power Commander V comes in. The PC five allows fuel/air to be adjusted, as well as ignition timing. For this delicate process I turned to EDR Performance in Beaverton, Oregon.

Eric Dorn of EDR has logged more miles tuning bikes on his dyno than many riders do in a lifetime. His results speak for themselves with local, national and international racers relying on EDR for everything from tuning to engine builds to a complete build of a 2015 R1 delivered to EDR straight from the dealer and immediately torn down to the frame and crankshaft. The Ninja 300 presented a slightly less glamorous challenge, but Dorn and his crew took on the work with equal care. After EDR installed the Arrow system, BMC filter and Power Commander, Dorn set about dialing it in on the dyno.

The baseline pull with stock components revealed two weak spots: a slight dip in the power curve from 7,000-9,000 rpm and a lack of any increase in power from 10,500 rpm to redline. After adding the Arrow full system and intake mods and adjusting the fuel settings via the Power Commander, Dorn was able to eliminate the dip from 7,000-9,000 rpm. This would be useful on highway driving, since that’s where the motor spends its time at those speeds. But it wasn’t an eye-popping improvement. And the high rpm range remained lackluster.

So Dorn removed the “decibel killer” insert in the end of the Arrow silencer. This was the breakthrough that brought the top end to life. Where the bike had previously plateaued, it now continued to gain power all the way to redline, with a significant final gain of four horsepower over stock. Taking out the decibel killer also boosted the Ninja’s noise level considerably. For some this may be a good thing, but for most – i.e., those of us with neighbors – it makes you Public Enemy No. 1. Luckily a simple snap ring is all it takes to put the insert in or pull it out, so you can “take the restrictor plate off the Red Dragon” when it’s time for a track day or canyon riding.

The final piece of Phase II of the build we’ll call “protection.” SpeedMob supplied rubber protection (cue giggling) and Twisted Throttle supplied hard parts protection (more giggling). By rubber protection I mean handgrips from Ariete and tank grips from Tech Spec. The handgrips really are easy on your hands, and the TechSpec tank grips not only raise grip and protect the tank from scratches, but also, to my eye, adding a little black helps turn down the volume of the loud lime-green tank. A downside is they’re surprisingly heavy (being almost a quarter-inch thick).

Twisted Throttle set the bike up with a total package from R&G Racing: frame sliders, crankcase covers, axle sliders and a lightweight muffler bracket that neatly replaced the heavy passenger pegs. If you buy one piece of gear from this group, it should be the frame sliders. R&G’s are beefy and would have probably saved this bike from being totaled had they been in place under the prior owner’s ill-fated piloting. All the R&G components are solidly constructed, but racers take note: The R&G case covers seemed thin and may not be good for more than one slide.

With the bike now hammering out 36.5 screaming five-digit-rpm ponies, and being able to stop and grip the road (or at least protect itself from a fall if not), it’s time to head out for some testing.

Around Town Riding

You’d be hard pressed to find a better around-town bike than the Ninja 300. Darting through traffic is a breeze thanks to its light weight and quick steering. The gears are so low and closely spaced that you reach third or fourth in any distance over two blocks. Some might find it annoying to toggle through the gears this much. I found it made the morning commute a lot more fun than never getting above second gear and feathering the clutch on a larger sportbike.

The bike also introduced a “worry free” aspect to my city riding. I didn’t worry about it getting tipped over; the R&G sliders stick out so far from the frame that there’s almost no way any other part would contact the ground. I didn’t worry about it getting stolen. I’m sure it happens, but the resale or part-out value of a smallbore bike doesn’t seem like enough to tempt thieves. I didn’t worry about not being seen in traffic – it’s lime green after all.

I joke a bit on that last point, but it leads to another urban observation. The average-joe-nonrider notices this bike, and he’s impressed. In two months of riding the Ninja I’ve gotten more “nice bike” comments than in two years on my Street Triple R. When someone who doesn’t ride (and presumably never gives bikes a second thought) is moved enough to stop and say something nice, your bike is clearly doing something right.

Of course, these unsuspecting citizens don’t have to know that when you swiftly but politely leave the parking lot, you’re nearly pinned. And therein lies the beauty of around-town riding on this bike. You can actually RIDE it and no one is the wiser. On larger bikes so much of city riding is an exercise in frustration, plodding along with on-idle/off-idle transitions. With the Ninja 300, a stoplight can be a mini drag race at (mostly) legal speed limits. A clear corner can be a Keith Code “once the throttle is cracked on, it must be rolled on smoothly and continuously” moment, without fear of exiting the turn in triple digits. A rise in the road can be a chance (maybe your only chance) for a wheelie – here it comes, here it comes, waaaaait for it, GRAB it!

Next Time: The Ninja 300 tackles five curve-filled days on an 1,850-mile ride. Plus, a track day!