What a difference a few years make. When I pitted the Ninja 650 against two of its rivals for a Rider magazine comparo test back in November 2016, I came away unimpressed — Kawasaki’s street-oriented sportbike felt overweight and uninspiring compared to its lithe sparring partners. But then Team Green put the Ninja on a diet and training regimen for 2017, shedding 43 pounds (!) thanks to a new steel trellis frame, hollow-press aluminum swingarm, wheel assemblies and engine changes. The offset lay-down shock was replaced with a Ninja ZX-10R-derived horizontal back-link shock, and the new package was wrapped in sharper, sportier bodywork.
In addition to the significant weight loss, the Ninja’s 2017 training regimen included improvements to its engine, brakes and ergonomics. The liquid-cooled, DOHC, 4-valve-per-cylinder, 649cc parallel twin was retuned for better performance in the low- to midrange, where most street riders spend the majority of their time, and it got new injectors for more precise fueling, a mechanical gear position indicator, a revised airbox, a redesigned exhaust and smaller throttle bodies. A new 2-piston Nissin front brake caliper provided noticeably better performance and feel, and optional Bosch 9.1M ABS was said to be lighter and more responsive. (Read the complete details in Rider’s First Ride Review of the 2017 Ninja 650 here.) Suddenly this was a fighter to be reckoned with.
For 2020, the Ninja 650 seems to have reached a milestone in its development, with refined styling that brings it inline with its ZX-6R and ZX-10R siblings, a new 4.3-inch full-color TFT display with switchable background color and ambient light sensor, connectivity to Kawasaki’s Rideology app and the latest Dunlop Sportmax Roadsport 2 tires. Specs and features only tell half the story of course; like a martial artist, mastering the movements is one thing — putting them to use is another. Since it was Rider‘s Senior Editor Greg Drevenstedt who rode the revamped 2017 model, I haven’t been on a Ninja 650 since the 2016 comparo, and after spending five hundred or so miles on this newest version it’s clear this is a much improved motorcycle.
Overall performance figures haven’t changed that much — peak horsepower is slightly down, mid-range power and torque are slightly up and peak torque is about the same — but with 43 fewer pounds to lug around, the 2020 Ninja 650 is now responsive, quick on its feet and quite fun to ride, emitting a rewarding intake howl as the rpms spin past 5,500. Its steering geometry has been sharpened, with the rake tightened up by a degree and the trail reduced by 0.4 inch, and ergonomics are small-frame-friendly — seat height is down more than half an inch to 31.1 inches, clip-ons are perched well above the triple clamp and the 4.0-gallon gas tank is narrow between the knees. So while my 34-inch-inseam legs got a bit cramped on longer rides and I found myself wishing for thicker seat padding (Kawasaki’s one-inch taller “extended reach” seat might solve both issues), I found the Ninja 650 to be comfortable enough for a 2½-hour-long freeway slog to Palm Springs or an afternoon ride on some favorite canyon roads. Of course, if you’re a smaller rider this new Ninja will fit you like a dream.
Kawasaki says that about 60% of Ninja 650 owners primarily use it to commute and ride recreationally, but it’s on those sporty canyon roads that the Ninja’s newfound fighting spirit truly shines. It’s quick and flickable, with enough power to remain entertaining without demanding too much of its rider, nor requiring license-risking levels of speed. As is common in this category and price range, suspension is still rather basic, a bit underdamped and non-adjustable except for spring preload on the rear shock — the 41mm KYB fork has 4.9 inches of travel and the KYB shock 5.1 inches. Subsequently the bike can get pretty nervous when riding aggressively in rough corners, but on smoother roads the Ninja tracks through corners with confident stability, and the new Dunlop rubber offers predictable grip and feedback. An assist-and-slipper clutch mated to the six-speed gearbox also makes easy work of quick downshifts and commuter traffic alike.
The 2020 updates are admittedly mostly cosmetic, but they’re like an outward representation of the Ninja 650’s forward progress — a black belt, to continue our martial arts analogy. The TFT display includes a slew of useful information, all easy to read even in direct sunlight, and new twin LED headlights not only look the business but also function extremely well, throwing bright white light far down the road as well as to each side. Overall this new Ninja 650 is at peak form, representing the new heights of performance and style we can now expect from today’s middleweight motorcycles.
2020 Kawasaki Ninja 650 Specs
Base Price: $7,399
Price as Tested: $7,999 (ABS, KRT livery)
Warranty: 1 yr., unltd. miles
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse parallel twin
Bore x Stroke: 83.0 x 60.0mm
Compression Ratio: 10.8:1
Valve Train: DOHC, 4 valves per cyl.
Valve Insp. Interval: 15,000 miles
Fuel Delivery: DFI w/ 36mm throttle bodies x 2
Lubrication System: Semi-dry sump, 2.4-qt. cap.
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet assist-and-slipper clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Ignition: TCBI w/ electronic advance
Charging Output: 372 watts max.
Battery: 12V 8.6Ah
Frame: High-tensile steel trellis, hollow-press aluminum gullwing swingarm
Wheelbase: 55.5 in.
Rake/Trail: 24 degrees/3.9 in.
Seat Height: 31.1 in.
Suspension, Front: 41mm fork, non-adj., 4.9-in. travel
Rear: Single horizontal backlink shock, 7-position adj. preload, 5.1-in. travel
Brakes, Front: Dual 300mm petal-type discs w/ 2-piston floating calipers & ABS (as tested)
Rear: Single 220mm petal-type disc w/ 1-piston floating caliper & ABS (as tested)
Wheels, Front: Cast, 3.50 x 17 in.
Rear: Cast, 4.50 x 17 in.
Tires, Front: 120/70-ZR17
Wet Weight: 424 lbs. (as tested)
Load Capacity: 440 lbs. (as tested)
GVWR: 864 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 4.0 gals., last 1.0 gal. warning light on
MPG: 87 AKI min. (low/avg/high) 59.9/60.9/62.0
Estimated Range: 244 miles
Indicated RPM at 60 MPH: 4,400