Kawasaki Ninja 400 review
With sharp styling, smooth handling and sweet performance, Kawasaki’s all-new Ninja 400 also comes with the seal of approval from three-time World Superbike champ Jonathan Rea.
When the entry-level motorcycle market in this country upsized from the traditional 250cc to 300cc, it was Kawasaki that led the way. Now, it seems that ‘400’ is the new ‘300’, and while Kawasaki weren’t the trailblazers this time around, they have brought a pretty capable offering to face off against the KTM RC390 and Yamaha’s YZF-R3 on both the road and the racetrack.
It’d be easy to dismiss the Ninja 400 as a bored and stroked 300, but the new arrival is much more than that. It’s actually an all-new model that Kawasaki says is closer to the larger Ninja 650 than the 300.
To reinforce the new model’s importance, a number of key Kawasaki personnel behind the new Ninja 400, including Head Developer, Kunihiro Tanaka, attended the Australian launch.
Tanaka-san explained that the bike was created primarily to meet Euro4 emissions regulations for the European market, adding that a 400cc engine was found to provide the best power-to-weight ratio – the “ideal balance”, as he put it – to meet these European market requirements, as well as the Japanese market and our own LAMS system.
That clean sheet design approach to the Ninja 400 was apparent on first viewing, and to further define its difference from the Ninja 300, Kawasaki has placed the new arrival in their ‘Supersport’ family. That means it’s in the same company as the ZX-10R, ZX-6R and the awesome supercharged Ninja H2, while the 300 sits in the ‘Sport’ category.
The H2 connection is important, as the Ninja 400 takes much of its styling inspiration from the hero model (or should that be superhero model?) in Kawasaki’s range.
Treatment of things like the headlights show clear H2 influences. That sharper, more angular approach to design continues along the fairing, with aggressive lines and strong cut out sections for engine venting delivering what’s claimed to be improved airflow around the rider; Tanaka-san said wind tunnel testing had been used in development to ensure optimal aerodynamic efficiency.
The tail section also has elements of H2 styling, like the distinctive cut out channels that run around the pillion seat.
On launch, all the units we had for testing were in ‘KRT Edition’ Lime Green and Ebony, which is one of three colour schemes available; the others being Metallic Spark Black and a Candy Burnt Orange with Metallic Magnetic Grey and Black. Most KRT replicas nail it in the eye candy stakes, and I thought the KRT Edition looked fantastic with its “400” identification on the fairing, but my opinion wasn’t unanimous. Several on the test preferred the subtler Metallic Spark Black, while others noted that the orange version has slight reminiscences of the old ‘Urban Tiger’ Fireblades from the ‘90s – at least based on the photos. Either way, the market will no doubt determine which of the three options is the most appealing.
Overall, the Ninja 400 design is aggressive, masculine and very cool, but you have to wonder how far this design trend can be taken. Short, sharp angles can be great, but overdo it and you end up with a bike that looks like an origami swan. Fortunately, Kawasaki have avoided that trap here.
So, the Ninja 400 certainly looks different, but how different is it under that striking skin? The answer is ‘a lot’. The best way to illustrate this is to compare specs alongside the 300 it replaces.
Aside from the capacity difference – 399cc versus 296cc – there’s also a new downdraft intake set-up and a larger airbox to kick max power from 29kW to 33.4kW and torque from 27Nm to 38Nm.
Another major difference is in the frame – the 400 uses a trellis frame instead of the 300’s diamond frame. Inspired by the H2, the new frame is lighter than the 300’s semi-cradle unit, uses the engine as a rigid-mounted stressed member and allows for a swingarm to be attached without additional frame cross members; again reducing weight.
While the rear suspension is unaltered, front suspension consists of a 41mm fork, up from 37mm on the 300.
The 400 also gets an increase in front brake disc size from 290mm to 310mm, which Kawasaki are claiming is the largest in its class. ABS is standard for now, but a non-ABS version, like that offered on the Ninja 300, may be an option in the future.
The rear tyre is a chunkier 150/60 section, instead of the 300’s 140/70, and while the seat height is unaltered at 785mm, the wheelbase in the Ninja 400 is shorter at 1,370mm, against 1,405mm.
That shorter wheelbase will equate to sharper handling, but perhaps the biggest difference that racers and enthusiast riders will appreciate is the fact that, at 168kg wet, the Ninja 400 is 6kg lighter than the 300. Tanaka-san explained that most of this came from the lighter frame and wheels, but some of that slimming is also down to the fact that the Ninja 400 runs a reduced fuel tank capacity of 14 litres instead of 17.
All in all, it’s pretty impressive that the Ninja 400 can offer more capacity and power, while dropping weight, but – and there’s always a ‘but’ – the Kawasaki is still heavier than KTM’s RC390. That being said, the KTM has less power and torque, a higher seat and reduced fuel capacity, so, you know, swings and roundabouts. . .
Light, Smooth and Cool
Having previously ridden Kawasaki’s Ninja 650 and the Z250 naked, I had a rough idea of what to expect from the Ninja 400, but even before I sat on the bike, I was amazed at how easy it was to manoeuvre – it felt lighter than its listed weight.
Once astride that low saddle, there was a noticeable lack of the ‘cowboy stance’ thanks to the narrowed front and sides of the saddle, which has been combined with a narrowed back end of the engine. Shorter riders will certainly appreciate this feature. The seat’s also well-padded; more so than the 300, with the result being more comfort, both in general riding and on longer stints.
The riding position is closer to upright than sports, thanks to that narrowed front seat section, as well as the footpeg placement and clip-on bars that are actually mounted on top of the fork, rather than down its length.
Instrumentation is comprehensive for a smaller bike and is actually the same dash unit from the Ninja 650, with an analogue tacho, gear position indicator and shift light in the central display, flanked by a large, easy-to-read digital speedo to the right with functions like the fuel gauge, tripmeter and engine temperature, while the warning lights are on the left.
The Assist and Slipper Clutch from the Ninja 300 carries over to the 400, but Kawasaki are claiming 20 per cent lighter clutch action on the new model. From start-up, I found the clutch action to be ridiculously light, with absolutely no effort required – silky smooth clutch operation is always welcome!
With the launch held at Lakeside Park raceway in Queensland, all our saddle time was spent on track, so an assessment of the Ninja 400’s road abilities couldn’t be made, but with the engine performance and that super-smooth clutch action, I’d imagine performance in traffic would be easy, with enough accelerative grunt to get you out of harm’s way.
The venue also gave us time to check one of Kawasaki’s other claims with this model – the repositioned fan shroud that pushes hot air out and away from the rider. Given I haven’t ridden the Ninja 300, I couldn’t judge the differences, but I certainly had no complaints in terms of heat soak after my time in the saddle.
On the Right Track
As easy as the Ninja 400 was to get up to speed, I found the power to be more at the top end than the bottom, so working through the gears was necessary. But we were on a racetrack, so we were all having a go, especially down the main straight!
Obviously, in real world conditions, things are a little more relaxed, so the sort of frequent and frantic shifting we were doing wouldn’t be necessary on the street and the torque would be more than enough for traffic manoeuvring. Either way, that light clutch operation makes gear shifting easy.
With its beefier front end, the Ninja 400 always felt well-planted on the track. Combined with responsive steering, it was easy to hold a line through a bend, too, so I’m sure the confidence I felt flicking it through corners on a circuit would translate to equally trouble-free performance on the road.
We also got to experience the bike’s performance in the wet, as a heavy shower hit the track during one of our sessions. The 400’s handling couldn’t be faulted in the rain, either, and it was in those conditions that the OEM Dunlop GPR 300 tyres and standard ABS really came into their own.
Wet or dry, braking always felt reassuringly solid with that big front disc, and I was easily able to wash off speed when required – to the point where the rear brake wasn’t required in certain corners. LAMS newcomers and returning riders will love the confidence that comes with ABS.
To test the sort of performance the model is likely to deliver in race conditions (the Ninja 400 is eligible for Supersport 300 competition) a couple of sessions were done on Dunlop’s race-spec Alfa 14 tyres. As you’d expect, these softer-compound hoops were grippier, but for regular road use, the GPR 300s were superb and I was surprised at how well they performed on a wet track, even in sections where there was standing water.
Kawasaki’s New Star?
Back in 2015, the Ninja 300 was Australia’s top-selling road bike (excluding the Honda CT110 Postie Bike that always skews the figures), so can the Ninja 400 reclaim the #1 crown for Kawasaki?
Based on last year’s sales figures, probably not, as the LAMS market seems to be moving toward cruisers (Harley’s XG500 and the Honda CMX 500 Rebel, for example), but sports-styled LAMS bikes are still doing OK, so I’m sure Kawasaki have got a winner on their hands with the Ninja 400.
As already mentioned, the Ninja 400’s obvious competitor is KTM’s RC390: both share a similar capacity, performance and road race focus, but the KTM is lighter and slightly cheaper.
When you look at what else is on offer in the 400cc class, Yamaha’s SR400, the Gran Milano/Gran Turismo from SWM and CF Moto’s 400NK are about the size of it, but these arguably have neither the looks nor the performance of the Kawasaki.
Look further afield and there are road-legal LAMS off-roaders, like the Suzuki DR-Z400, as well as 500cc machinery like Honda’s CBR500R, Royal Enfield’s bigger models and Benelli’s new Leoncino. But go larger in capacity and you’ll usually go higher in price, too.
Speaking of price, the Ninja 400’s $7,699 ride away offer is probably the one thing that’ll count against it in the market. That’s not to say the price is unreasonable, but it’s still a big outlay. Kawasaki have made that outlay easier, though, with a $44/week, 4 per cent finance deal, so check in with your Kawasaki dealer to get all the Ts and Cs on that.
Summing up, the Ninja 400’s performance, light weight, comfortable riding position and manoeuvrability all exceeded my pre-ride impressions, so I’m sure it’ll impress first-time riders, too. But of all the boxes it ticked, the biggest for me was its styling.
Every new rider wants a bike that looks cool, but they usually forego this wish until they get their post-LAMS ride. With the Ninja 400, there’s no need to make that compromise. It’s a great-looking machine with big-bike style and bags of street cred that’s still LAMS legal.
As it’s so enjoyable to ride – the performance is more than enough to satisfy most requirements – I believe it’s a ride that newbies will hang onto after their LAMS restriction is over, too.
So, rather than get your LAMS bike and count down the days until you can get rid of it, how about getting a Ninja 400 that you can enjoy both during your LAMS period and beyond?
Kawasaki Ninja 400 specs
Type: Parallel twin, 4-stroke; Displacement: 399cc; Bore x Stroke: 70mm x 51.8mm Compression Ratio: 11.5:1 Engine Start: Electric Ignition: Digital Induction: EFi Cooling: Liquid Max Power: 33.4kW @ 10,000rpm Max Torque: 38Nm @ 8,000rpm
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate Gearbox: 6-speed Final Drive: Chain
Frame: Steel, trellis-type Front Suspension: 41mm telescopic fork, 120mm travel Rear Suspension: Uni-Trak monoshock w/adjustable pre-load, 130mm travel Fr Wheel: 17-inch Rr Wheel: 17-inch