2008 Kawasaki Ninja 650R | Commuter Test
I had resisted the urge to ride a motorcycle to work for quite some time. There were plenty of good reasons to stay in my quite-fun Acura CL Type S, ranging from the amount of stuff I carry to/from work each day, to reduced lunchtime errand options, to helmet hair I would have to live with all day, and the to-be-expected safety concerns. But, I finally succumbed last summer when the price of gas when flying past the $5/gallon mark. Months later, with gas just over $2/gallon, I am still riding…and not looking for excuses to get back in the car.
What got me started on the right wheels was-the 2008 Kawasaki Ninja 650R, a quick and nimble bike with a power delivery that is smooth and forgiving. The 31-inch seat height, narrow body and light weight make it easy for my 5’6", 115-pound frame to handle.
That first Monday morning, as I hoisted up an Ogio backpack laden with as much of my normal cargo as I could carry and prepared to join the fray on two wheels instead of four, I must admit I was nervous. I have been riding for over 20 years, but I had never ridden through commuter traffic. Most of my hours in the saddle have been on dirt, though in the past couple of years I have accumulated a fair number of miles on asphalt. Still, most of those have been canyon rides on the weekend, after-midnight urban street strafing, and full-speed rides out on the open road. Except for a bit of lane splitting on Pacific Coast Highway during summer traffic snarls, and one busy ride from Malibu to Monterey a couple of years ago, I had not had many occasions to mix it up with cars, trucks and other enclosed vehicles.
Passing straight through the onramp carpool lane is a nice start. The 650’s upright seating position allows a good view over most cars, and hand and foot levers are within easy reach making low-speed handling stress-free. Still, there is no point in sitting in traffic when aboard this narrow and responsive 2-wheeled bright green machine, so I slide between the #1 and #2 lanes and shift up a couple gears.
Negotiating the slit between lanes requires nonstop focus, as unpredictable movements from cars are a constant hazard. Controlling the bike, however, is completely intuitive. The Ninja’s transmission is precise and effortless and the clutch pull is light. The low to mid-range power is plentiful, so rolling on or off the throttle as conditions dictate can be accomplished with grace. Well-positioned mirrors-low and forward-help keep track of surrounding vehicles without conflicting with fellow commuters.
Slow speed riding in the lower gears eventually heats the liquid-cooled bike up and I can feel it radiating up from the engine. When the pace picks up, the rush of wind channeled over my helmet by the windscreen is welcomed. I can easily shift through the six gears and let the Ninja rocket up to 85 mph for a few quick minutes before my exit appears. It’s just a taste of how much fun this bike would be unbridled.
On the weekends, the 650 shows off its speed and agility. Winding through the canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains, as well as sparsely traveled backroads, is a blast. The fuel-injected DOHC 649cc parallel twin has plenty of horsepower to keep the adrenaline flowing, and the dual front and single rear petal-design rotors inspire confidence with their smooth-but-strong grip, even on Piuma Road’s steep, tight, downhill sections.
Although one might expect a bike designed to attract riders from both the sportbike and sport-touring market to be rather bland, the Kawasaki Ninja 650R is anything but. It’s sporty, Japanese-dependable, confidence-inspiringly easy-to-handle and great looking. While I was initially reluctant to join the weekday riding community, preferring to spend my two-wheel time on something fast and fun on the weekend, the Ninja 650 hooked me by effortlessly doing both jobs.
Photography by Don Williams