Kawasaki Ninja 400 ABS Review - Little Ninja Grows Claws

 

The 250 LAMS sector became the 300 area recently and now Kawasaki ups the ante with a learner 400 twin. It’s not just a 300 rebooted either, for this all-new offering is lighter, stronger and feels more like a shrunken ZX-6R

Words: Peter Louisson   |   Photos Tom Gasnier

In the LAMS area almost anything goes, within power to weight reason. Everyone once had a 250 on offer, but then 300cc became popular. I recall the former Editor Owen remarking the Ninja 300 was the best sub-$10k bike he’d ridden. Back then, mid-2013, the Ninja 300 SE with the special green and black paint job sold for $9989. It was the best extra 47cc ever added to a motorcycle engine he reckoned.

Anyhow, after sampling the new Ninja 400 we can report that in 2018 this bike rewrites the value equation, costing even less than the bike it replaces. If you want to just go with the solid colour - any colour available, so long as it’s black - rather than the Team Green livery, you’ll pay $7995, making this arguably the best bang for buck buy in the LAMS area.

Is it a whole heap better than the Ninja 300? Hard to say as the Ed never attached timing gear to its predecessor, and I never swung a leg over it, but it really is streets ahead of the former Ninja 250, even on price (that was $8995 when tested in 2011). Virtually nothing has been carried over from the 300 when creating its successor either.

Road and track ready

We had our first shot on the new baby Ninja at the Pukekohe race track a couple of months ago, and subsequent rides on road confirm initial impressions. What we noticed at Pukekohe was vastly better performance both in the acceleration and retardation areas, and nimble handling within constraints of seemingly average tyres, but otherwise not too much else, for all around we were being cut up by the bigger Kawasakis in the range, including the new retro bike, the Z900 RS (more on that one next month).

On road, about the only similarity to the old bike is the inline parallel twin engine sound. Everything else feels new and improved. And that’s literally because it is.

Amplifying the zingy performance is wet weight that’s down by 8kg. Not a bad trick, in going from 300 to 400cc

To ride, this feels more like a compacted version of the ZX-6R than a bigger Ninja 250. It flows beautifully down the road, and doesn’t really feel like a learner machine. Perhaps that’s because it is near to the limit of the LAMS power to weight ratio (142kW/tonne, just beneath the permissible 150), without needing any restriction of any form (no ECU tampering or throttle limiter), so it can rev heartily, up to 12,000rpm, pretty decent for a twin.

Peak power of 33.4kW arrives at 10,000rpm, with max torque of 38Nm chiming in at 8000rpm. That’s 4.4kW up on the 300, and 11Nm to the better, at 2000rpm less. The 250 needed revs at the top end, even for general riding, and had lacklustre mids but the 300 evidently changed all that with a longer stroke engine, and this is more of the same, easily pulling top gear at 50km/h, and happily going lower to around 2000rpm yet still pulling away tidily.

Grunt for all occasions

It therefore has grunt to match the go, unusual in the sector. Yamaha tried with its MT-03 and BMW with its G310R, but neither is a fireball at modest revs. Yet what a difference 80-90 extra cc can make over those smaller machines.

For town work, sixth gear at 50km/h is a breeze. Between the lights, upshifting between 3000 and 4000rpm works well, while for highway work the power band starts in earnest at 6000 and continues on until around 10,000rpm, though 9000 is plenty as the last few revs add vibes. At 110 indicated, the rev counter shows 6500rpm and there’s virtually nil in the way of bar tingles, the forward mounted mirrors giving a clear view behind, only beware of blind spots.

Where the 250 used to feel a bit out of its depth plying secondary highways, this laps them up. Amplifying the zingy performance is wet weight that’s down by 8kg. Not a bad trick, in going from 300 to 400cc.


It’s all about attending to everything on the bike, carving out grams in all areas. So cue a new engine and new frame. The latter is the primary reason for the weight saving, in the move to a trellis frame like that of the H2. But the engine is also more compact, and lighter. The combination of reduced weight and added power sure is telling. For performance this is almost twice as quick as the Ninja 250. Truly.

Only a few LAMS bikes manage a 0-100 run in under 5sec, and you can add this one to the list. It edges the bigger engined CBR500R, and it’s only 0.2sec slower than the 655cc MT-07 on both our performance criteria. Bear in mind each of these sells for roughly 50 per cent more than the Ninja 400, around $12k.

Brake no longer broken

Helping with speed is a terrific gearbox, light, positive, no false neutrals, just as you’d like, with a correspondingly slick slip and assist clutch. It surely helps extracting the most out of the engine. Brakes were always the sore point with the Ninja 250, and really weren’t up to much. The new machine gets fresh stoppers to counteract the added pace, a two-piston caliper gripping onto what Kawasaki says is the biggest disc in the business, a 310mm unit borrowed from the ZX-10R.

No radial mounting here but it isn’t needed; there’s decent bite and power, only the stopping distances weren’t quite what we expected, with a best from 100 of 46m. We’d lay the blame at the Dunlop Sportmax GPR300 tyres, arguably the one aspect of this amazing value bike that aren’t quite a match with the rest of the components.

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Still, at this price, we’re not complaining at it’s by far the easiest aspect of any bike to fix. We’d add that the rear brake is stunning, full of power and feel, ideal for learner riders diving into a corner carrying a bit much speed. A dab of rear brake and the panic’s averted.

The rest ain’t bad either

The new Ninja handles and rides with poise and precision totally eluding its ancestor. With a shorter wheelbase but extended swingarm, as is the modern trend, this mixes improved turn-ability with enhanced stability.

And the ride is also more sophisticated, especially in the rear where only the worst bumps upset the applecart. Helping is a new seat with almost twice as much padding as before. The riding position is decent too, great for a mix of commuting and open road work, the pegs set just right, the upright clip-on bars no real stretch, and the tank easily gripped by your knees. Where the 300 resembled the ZX-10R in its design, the 400 takes on the lines of the awe-inspiring supercharged H2.

Just check out the profile; its cowl and headlights are a dead ringer for the range-topping fire breather. It also picks up the LCD instruments of the Ninja 650, complete with gear position, fuel gauge and instantaneous and average fuel use. The latter averaged around 25km/L or 4.0L/100km. On 100km/h cruising figure on fuel use around the 3.5L/100km mark.

Of the LAMS machines on offer currently, the closest to the Ninja 400 is KTM’s pair of 390 twins, the Duke and RC390, both singles developing much the same power, and likely nearly as quick but both cost more ($8500-$8999). BMW’s G310 goes for the same amount as the Ninja 400 but being a smaller single isn’t as potent or quick.

The MT-03 is less expensive but is rather outpaced by the Ninja 400. Like the look but want more Ninja? The black is the lone colour but isn’t ideal, hiding the edgy lines of the bike. Moreover, people don’t see it; some silly idiot pulled out directly in front of me in a suburban street.

Thankfully this now stops really well, and helping is ABS as standard. Opt for the Team Green paint scheme instead. Yes, it adds $500 to the bottom line but transforms its looks and visibility.

The Stats

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Model Kawasaki Ninja 400 ABS  Price $7,995

Engine 399cc, liquid-cooled, fuel injected, IL2, 33.4kW / 38Nm

Transmission 6-speed, chain final drive Vitals 4.95s 0-100km/h

3.75s (107.1m) 80-120km/h, 46.00m 100-0km/h, 166kg