Naming a motorcycle can’t be easy. There’s a lot of connotation to consider, so to pick something bold and recognizable you’ve got to be ready to back it up with performance befitting the moniker.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 comes with updated bodywork, giving it a much more sporty appearance than before. Shanda Hurst photo.

The Kawasaki Ninja is a perfect example. There’s a lot implied in a title like that. Speed, agility, power, precision. And most of the bikes dubbed Ninjas have at the very least one or two of those qualities.

The exception for me in recent years has been the Ninja 650. My previous experience with the bike left me feeling that it was a little too bulbous. A bit too heavy at the bars. Not really Ninja-ish, in other words. So you can imagine how pleased I was to find the 2017 Ninja 650 a thoughtfully changed, and vastly improved, motorcycle. Much more deserving of the name.

Noticeable and Effective Updates

Back in November, Kawasaki revealed some big plans for its middleweight sportbike. Broadly speaking these changes include revised engine components, a new high-tensile steel trellis frame and gull-arm swingarm, updated braking components, sportier bodywork. All with the aim of creating a lighter (down a remarkable 42 pounds!) better handling motorcycle with more low- and mid-range.

From my first approach, the changes were apparent. The bodywork is aggressive. The side panels, integrated turn signals, low-profile headlights and tank indentations exude a sport bike aesthetic. Previously the Ninja 650 projected more of a sport-touring vibe, and I’m pleased to see Kawasaki leave that look behind.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
This is a great machine for backroad adventures, commuting or weekend getaways. Shanda Hurst photo.

Sitting on the bike is a night and day difference from before too. The slim bodywork and narrower four-gallon tank make it feel like your knees could touch. A lowered seat, down 0.6-inches to 31.3-inches, makes it easy for me (6-foot tall, 32-inch inseam) to flat foot at a stop with plenty of room to spare. The bike feels exceptionally small between your legs. It carries its weight low, apparent when you gently tip it side to side when it’s off the kickstand. The bars and pegs are a bit lower and more forward, too. You settle into a sporting stance on take-off, but it’s not dramatic enough to demand a full supersport tuck (i.e. still comfortable).

Roll the throttle and release the clutch and a few more updates become apparent. First, Kawasaki includes a new slip and assist clutch on the Ninja 650. The assist portion of the equation makes the clutch pull light enough for single or two finger use, and engagement is smooth. The slipper keeps the back end from jumping around when jamming down the gearbox. Both elements work well.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 has engine refinements aimed at improving low- and mid-range performance. Shanda Hurst photo.

The throttle is responsive without being jumpy and fueling is dialed for around town use and mountain shredding alike. To achieve this, Kawasaki swapped out the old 38mm throttle bodies for 36mm throttle bodies with slimmer intake ports along with updated fine-atomizing injectors. Additionally, the airbox was updated and the exhaust shortened. The retuned mill has a new head and camshaft design, as well as a new open-deck aluminum die-cast cylinder and plated, linerless cylinder bores.

These changes contribute to the 42-pound weight savings of the machine overall, and give the Ninja 650 some more snap in the low- and mid-range. That early pull builds steadily up through 7000 to 8000 rpm, with the updated instrument panel blinking its shift light at you by 9000 rpm and the redline cutting power by 10,000rpm. Its narrow profile and quick-to-action character makes sorting through congested traffic a lot of fun. It also decimates twisty roads. You can tip in to a corner a gear too high and still have access to decent pull. Or you can keep it in the 6000 to 8000 rpm sweet spot and enjoy the wound-out wail of the stubby underbike silencer as is rises to a crescendo the belies the fact that you’re on a Parallel Twin. These are supposed to be dull, right?

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
It may not have supersport power, but the new Kawasaki Ninja 650 definitely has some get-up-and-go. Shanda Hurst photo.

Of course, this last assessment needs just a little context. Torque and horsepower aren’t close to what you’d get on an Inline-Four machine of a similar displacement. But for a novice rider that is seeking a bit more thrill, or an experienced rider that wants to tax a bike to its limit, the new Ninja 650 delivers. It’s a gentler sportbike, an accessible sportbike. Not words to stir the heart necessarily – but practical, usable and fun nonetheless.

The new, lighter steel trellis frame is suspended by a straight-forward, non-adjustable 41mm fork and preload adjustable horizontal back-link shock. The latter is moved from its asymmetrical position on earlier Ninja 650s to directly underneath seat for better mass centralization.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The sportier look is complemented by a new trellis frame and slimmer cockpit. Shanda Hurst photo.

You’re kind of stuck with the suspension set-up as-is barring any aftermarket upgrades since it lacks significant adjustment options. The suspension is a little bit soft, but not unduly so. It holds stable in a corner, and isn’t dramatically disrupted when you hit a bump in a lean. The front end doesn’t dive too bad under hard braking and normal surface street imperfections are easily managed.

The braking package did get some attention for 2017, with new Nissin calipers and an updated Bosch 9.1M ABS unit. I like the feel of the front brakes on the new Ninja 650. It’s a little soft initially but is progressive and provides a connected feel to the binders. Slight pressure changes at the lever result in noticeable modulations in braking power. It’s a good level of communication for a motorcycle lower on the spectrum of technological sophistication.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Adjustable brake and clutch levers allow fit at the bars to be refined. Shanda Hurst photo.

ABS doesn’t cut in too early or too radically either. You really need to yank the lever or hammer the rear brake to feel any pulsations. The brake lever is five position adjustable also, as is the clutch lever. These refined touches show Kawasaki is paying attention to some of the finer details that can make a big difference in finding a comfortable fit on the bike.

The five-spoke wheels are shod in Dunlop Sportmax D214 rubber, standard issue on the new Z650 and Z900 motorcycles too. I’ve run the tires previously on the outgoing Z800 and, while adequate for a stock tire, an upgrade to a Sportmax Q3 or something similar will do wonders for riders looking to really push the Ninja.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The X-pattern taillight is new on the 2017 model. Shanda Hurst photo.

Finally, as was alluded to earlier, the Ninja 650 comes with an updated instrument panel. Part of the engine modifications included making room for a mechanical gear position indicator and the information is displayed on a negative-lit LCD display that is easy to see from ride position. There’s a shift indicator light, and the tach needle also changes color to pink when a shift is needed. It goes to red if you get above the rev limiter. Standard issue information is included as well. There’s an analog tach, digital speedometer, trip meter, coolant temperature, clock and fuel gauge sorted on the right side of the display.

Finally, retaining a bit of its sport-touring bent, the Kawasaki Ninja 650 has a three position adjustable windscreen. You will need some tools to move it around though.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
Handling is much improved on the new Ninja 650. Shanda Hurst photo.

The Sum of Its Parts

I’m not likely to ever own a sportbike as my one and only daily rider. They’re just not comfortable enough for me to ever seriously consider. But the looks and prowess of sportbikes are definitely appealing to me, which is why I think the new Ninja 650 has struck a chord. It’s got the looks and the beginnings of high-level performance, but is still comfortable enough to want to spend some serious time on. With Kawasaki’s extensive catalog of accessories you can easily turn this machine into a sport tourer. Toss some higher spec tires on there and stiffen the suspension with some new fork springs and you could even have a fun track bike.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The windscreen of the Ninja 650 is three position adjustable, a nice touch for sport touring riders. Shanda Hurst photo.

With motorcycles like the Versys 650 in Kawasaki’s line-up, it seems a smart move to position the Ninja 650 as a milder sportbike rather than a mid-range sport tourer. I’ve had an absolute blast on afternoon loops through the foothills around my home and commuting through traffic is kind of exciting with the low- and mid-range pep offered by the updated Twin. It’s not a scorcher on the top-end, but when you’re pushing the bike you’re touching triple digits at the top of fifth-gear and have a whole other gear to go. If license-suspending speeds are your thing, you can find ‘em with the Ninja 650. It cruises in sixth gear at 65mph right in the middle of the rev range too when you’re being more civilized, leaving the meaty part of the powerband available to pass and maneuver when necessary.

The stock exhaust sounds pretty good too, particularly when you’re revving the thing out. I can imagine an aftermarket silencer turning this machine into a real head turner in terms of aural appeal.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
This 650 is much more Ninja than its predecessor. Shanda Hurst photo.

And its light, slender profile makes the bike feel a lot like its smaller sibling, the Ninja 300. Direction changes are effortless; you can whip the Ninja 650 all over the place with minimal effort. It’s also not cheap feeling. The fit and finish are quality. The lines and different materials blend harmoniously. Even the new X-style taillight demonstrates a commitment to detail that is fantastic on a bike you can have for just under $8000.

I see this bike appealing to a wide variety of riders. New and less experienced motorcyclists that take riding seriously and respect the machine and the confines of their ability could easily manage the bike. And there would be plenty of room to grow as skill improves.

Commuters will love the handling and comfort of the bike, and it’s prowess on the highways. We averaged 42 miles per gallon on the Ninja 650. That will get you around 168 miles per fill-ups, another appealing aspect to riders going to and from work.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650
The Kawasaki Ninja 650 has potentially broad appeal, suitable for novice and experienced riders alike. Shanda Hurst photo.

Experienced mountain road aficionados will be able to push the bike to its performance limits and still find some of the satisfaction of an exhilarating drive off the corners and deep lean angles.

At the end of the day the new 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 is more Ninja than ever. It’s not a supersport by any means, but it’s energetic and much more light on its feet than before. And it’s still versatile enough to consider as a sports tourer for those that have longer trips in mind. Kawasaki’s targeted improvements have resulted in a remarkably better motorcycle.

2017 Kawasaki nInja 650 dyno

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 Highs & Lows

    Light weight and agile
    Low- and mid-range great for a variety of riding circumstances
    Updated looks are really sharp
    It’s a gentle sportbike, may not be evocative enough for some
    More budged-minded Dunlop Sportmax tires

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 Riding Kit

HJC RPHA 11 Pro Marvel Spiderman Helmet
The HJC RPHA 11 Pro Marvel Spiderman Helmet backs up its head-turning graphics with serious build quality. Premium materials are used throughout, ventilation is generous and creature comforts abound. Shanda Hurst photo.
Joe Rocket Atomic Ion Jacket
This Joe Rocket Atomic Ion Jacket has stood up against rains, cold weather and sunny conditions alike. It’s a versatile jacket with great ventilation and true-to-size fit. Shanda Hurst photo.
Joe Rocket Eclipse Gloves
The lightweight Joe Rocket Eclipse Gloves are a perfect choice if you’re looking for a comfortable and breathable summer glove. Shanda Hurst photo.
Joe Rocket Accelerator Motorcycle Jeans
The Joe Rocket Accelerator Jeans are extraordinarily comfortable but still feature many of the protective elements of a top-quality riding jean. Shanda Hurst photo.
Joe Rocket Superstreet Leather Boots
Joe Rocket’s Superstreet Leather Boots are comfortable from the first wear and have an aggressive design perfect for wailing on the backroads. Shanda Hurst photo.

2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 Specifications

Engine: 649cc liquid-cooled Parallel Twin, DOHC, four-valve
Bore x Stroke: 83 x 60mm
Compression Ratio: 10.8:1
Fueling: DFI with Keihin 36mm throttle bodies
Clutch: Wet, slip and assist
Transmission: Six-speed
Final Drive: Sealed chain
Frame: High-tensile steel trellis
Front Suspension: 41mm telescopic fork, 4.9 inches travel
Rear Suspension: Horizontal back-link, adjustable preload, 5.1 inches travel
Front Brake: 300mm discs with Nissin double-piston calipers
Rear Brake: 220mm disc with Nissin double-piston caliper
Wheels: 5-spoke, 17-inch
Tires: Dunlop Sportmax D214, 120/70 ZR17; 160/60 ZR17
Curb Weight: 426 pounds (ABS), 419 pounds (non-ABS)
Wheelbase: 55.5 in.
Rake: 24.0 deg. Trail: 3.9 in.
Seat Height: 31.1 in.
Fuel Capacity: 4.0 gal.
MSRP: $7999 as-tested (KRT Edition ABS), $7399 (Base), $7799 (ABS)
Warranty: One year with optional Kawasaki Protection Plus