Pros: Lightweight, Inexpensive, Durable, Comfortable, Simple, Good Gas Mileage, Versatile
Cons: Styling, headlight, thinner tires, high revs at highway speeds
Almost everywhere you look, you will find the Ninja 250R listed as one of the best beginner bikes available anywhere. There are lots of reasons for this, which, oddly enough are discussed later in this review - but what you don't see nearly as often is that this bike is worth keeping long after you buy another more powerful one to keep it company in the garage bay. Hard to believe? Read on, skeptics. Non-skeptics just close your browser and go buy one. Trust me.
Category 1: Power
This is the part that gets everybody worried. "Oh, it's a 250, it's so slow!" - anybody who says that is afraid to really ride the bike. Oh yes, if you look at a dyno chart, the horsepower tops out at about 28, and the torque at about 12. Those aren't high numbers, let's be honest, but if you're looking for a speed demon, you're looking in the wrong place anyway... it is a 250, after all. Something that you can't tell from the numbers is the rev range - which is huge, by the way. Redline on the dial was moved from 14k to 13k in recent model years, but it's the same engine, and oils are only getting better - which means that despite the lower power, the thing can accelerate like mad. Actually, it's 5.4 seconds to 60, which puts it on par with a Porche Boxster and the 300hp/300ft-lbs. Subaru WRX Sti. Not bad company, eh? The secret to going fast is just being willing to twist the throttle and make her scream, which she's built for and begs for. Another nice thing is, you don't have to have a peaky powerband to get that power - the delivery is smooth and predictable, exactly what you want in a beginner bike. The iron law of displacement is only put off for so long, unfortunately, because when you get further up the gears, the available torque begins to lessen, and you'll find that at 70mph+ you're going to be twisting the throttle to near wide open or completely wide open to accelerate at a rapid rate. Not only that, but 65mph is about 8000rpm in 6th gear. I found that to be very disconcerting at first, because my mental concept of 8000rpm was that it was reserved for times when you needed to wind it out for acceleration. Once you get used to the sound of the little cylinders zipping back and forth that fast, though, you'll notice that the bike is happy as a clam doing 8000 and that you still have 6000 more rpms to rev through. One other thing which is both good and bad is the strong engine-braking on the bike. For a novice rider, it's great, all you have to do to slow down is downshift (you'll do a lot of shifting in general during the relatively annoying engine break-in)... the downside is that engine braking is the same thing as involuntarily stepping on your back brake a little every time you let off the throttle, so if you're riding very close to the edge, you have to be aware of the traction imbalance and make sure to use your front brake to compensate. All sport bikes have this issue because of the high compression ratios they use in the engine, but I thought it was worth a mention here for the new riders.
Category 2: Handling
If I only had one word for this section there is no doubt what it would be: "Wow." The 308lbs dry isn't increased much by a full 4.8 gallon tank of gas plus battery, and the 16" wheels don't generate as much rotational inertia as larger ones, so this sucker turns like a dream while still maintaining its stability. How Kawasaki managed that last part I'm not quite sure, but it's amazing anyway. Some riders may be intimidated by the idea of trusting a quick turn to the relatively thin tires, but again, the low mass makes the stress placed on the tires much less than in other bikes and they hold very well. I can't imagine how good it would be with aftermarket tires! The light weight does have its disadvantages, though. You'll find that a passing 18-wheeler is considerably more important to pay attention to than on a heavier bike, and if you are unfortunate enough to ride in high winds that are perpendicular to your course, you have to just get in a tuck and lean in to the gusts.. and although the engine is perfectly happy zooming along at 70, the short wheelbase makes it feel a little less stable than I would like at that speed. I've never been in danger from any of these, but they're something to consider. One other thing I have to mention is that the suspension is very soft. This is a good thing in a beginner bike, and you will appreciate it after riding a different bike... it's so cushy and comfortable. It does mean that you will pitch forward a bit and compress the front shocks under medium braking, and I'd guess that you'd bottom out the front shocks during a panic-stop. While this is annoying sometimes, I think the benefits for a beginner far outweigh the detriments to handling. Besides, it's easy to get new shocks or put in heavy shock fluid and fix that problem.
Category 3: Styling
You know, I almost wish I didn't have to write this category. The simple fact is, the front of this bike is ugly. Not Dodge Tomahawk kind of ugly, but "Dear God, they should've fixed that back in 1987 when they had the chance," kind of ugly. The windscreen is basically a piece of curved Plexiglas bent in one dimension, and the headlight is square. No, really, stop laughing, it is. The rest of the bike is, well, a whole whole whole lot better. The faring is well made with good lines and a nice inward slope on the gas tank to accommodate your knees, the decaling is tasteful but not boring, the engine is blacked out, and the wheels are arranged in a tri-style with two sub-struts for each of the three sides. The bike is available in a bunch of colors that seem to vary a bit each model year too, so if this year's model colors don't suit you, maybe last year's or next year's will. The taillight is a little small and almost moped-ish, but there are actually open slots to insert two more taillight bulbs in the rear structure, so that is easily remedied if you are willing to do a little custom work. I always felt like a rookie when I was riding it but then I saw my brother on it, I was surprised. It looked awesome. The combination of suited-up rider and the bike is greater than the sum of its parts. My feeling is that despite the fact that the bike isn't gorgeous sitting on the centerstand, it is a beginner bike, and that leaves nowhere to go on your next bike... except up! :-)
Category 4: Braking
This is another "Wow" category which is marred only by the soft suspension problem I mentioned earlier. Because the brakes have almost no mass to bring to a stop and the disc is still a good size, this bike will stop on a dime. Period. The brake handle is not quick-adjustable like on the 500R, but I found that it never needed adjustment. I wish my car stopped like this bike!
Category 5: Comfort
This bike is marketed by Kawasaki as a beginner bike and commuter. For both roles, it is unmatched. The seating position is more upright, the pegs are in a neutral position neither too far forward or too far back, and despite its dated appearance, the windscreen is surprisingly effective. The seat is good for a bike of this size and price, and I have ridden for several hours straight without becoming uncomfortable. Amazingly, there are people who love their 250s so much that they turn them into touring bikes! A new saddle, touring windscreen, a new sprocket to widen the gears a bit, some bags, and you're set for long distance cruising in luxury. Additionally, because each cylinder is less than half the size of a coke can, the fuel economy is just smashing (you can expect 50+ under hard use) - this is one time when you won't mind buying premium gas, even with prices as relatively high as they are. The keyword for this bike is "versatile."
Category 6: Value
When we first entered the bike market, we (spelled "my mother") didn't want to spend very much money, and after much looking around, reading of reviews, and talking with other bikers, we got the 250R. Every time I ride it I'm always astounded by the performance level for such a small machine, and even more astounded at how little it costs! (MSRP $2999 for 2004) This is truly a "most bang for your buck" kind of situation. If you look around for the other market offerings in that price range you'll begin to see what I mean. The Honda Rebel (think mini-Harley) is a 250cc twin that is substantially less capable, and the Buell Blast! is a 500cc single standard-style which is (for me) exquisitely uncomfortable. There really is no comparison and really no decision to make - the Ninja is the way to go.
I bet you skeptics are still waiting to find out why this bike is worth keeping, aren't you? It's actually not something I expected. When you're riding other bikes in the twisties and trying to go fast, you can pretty much be lazy and let your technique go sloppy - with all that power, what does it matter? With the 250R, the fact that it doesn't have a massive amount of power instantly on-tap means that you have to start braking properly, entering corners properly, and using the throttle to the greatest effect possible by downshifting and staying focused on the right rev range for the upcoming curves. The 250 will make you a better rider - I promise you'll be pleasantly surprised. Oh, one thing I love about this bike is that when you rev it high and put the engine hard through its paces, the carbs make the sexiest sound in the whole world. The revs sound good when you're not pushing it too - all of a sudden, a casual zip down the road sounds like you've stolen a GP bike and are taking it for an illicit spin. I miss that on my 500, honestly... there's something strangely compelling about an engine that starts kicking power out where most cars are at redline. I would recommend this bike to any beginner looking for a first bike, it's perfect, and the annoying break-in period will make sure you have some practice before you have the power. I know it saved my skin. I would also recommend this bike to anyone who wants to have a light, quick, intuitive and fun machine to take out whenever the mood hits them - it really is amazing. The practical side also reminds me to suggest this bike for anyone who needs to commute to work, whether it's 3 miles or 30 miles - This baby will eat city streets for breakfast and spit out the pebbles.
UPDATE: For more information on the 250R, try these two websites:
http://www.ninja250.info/ - THE spot for 250R info
http://www.kawasaki.com/ - the official Kawasaki website
UPDATE: We recently went on a 1000 mile tour of eastern Florida and my brother rode the 250 the whole way - completely stock, I might add. The bike performed wonderfully, and while the revs were a bit high while at speed, he didn't have trouble keeping up with my 500 or my parents on their Harleys. It made quite a showing in my opinion... imagine, taking a 250 on serious touring without modification!