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REVIEW: Kawasaki Z650 and Ninja 650 Motorcycles

08 Jun

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Up till Year 2010, if one asks any rider riding a bigger capacity motorcycle in Malaysia as to which is the first machine they started with after upgrading from a kapchai and sports model up to 250cc, and the answer is most likely be Kawasaki’s ER-6N. The ER-6N, with its parallel twin 649cc engine, was the most affordable big bike Malaysians could afford, at a time when fully imported CBU units from USA, Europe and Japan cost more than a Proton 1.3 or 1.5 sedan car.

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Priced just above RM25,000 when it was first available in Malaysia, the ER-6N proved to be reliable, and was excellent as a daily commuting motorcycle. It was soon joined by its sports sibling, the ER-6F, which featured the same engine configuration, chassis, brakes and suspension but with a full-fairing design to differentiate it from the ER-6N, which was a naked sportsbike.

Together, both of them ruled the entry-level of bigger capacity motorcycles in the Malaysian market up till late 2011 when rival models like the Benelli TNT600 (2012) and Honda’s CB500-series (2013) enter the segment with competitive pricings. The ER-6N underwent a few revisions to make it viable against the competitions, and a 3-year warranty with unlimited mileage, coupled with the adoption of better grade tyres, were offered by Kawasaki Motors (Malaysia) Sdn Bhd (KMSB) for Year 2015-16.

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For 2017, both the ER-6N and ER-6F have made way for their respective successors, the Z650 and Ninja 650 in Kawasaki’s line-up globally. Featuring a similar 649cc parallel twin engine but revised internal parts and retuned for better midrange and fuel economy as well as a new chassis, revised swingarm and rear absorber, the new Z650 and Ninja 650 have upped the ante for entry-level motorcycles above 500cc.

Depending on who one asks, the older ER-6N is said to have certain limitations, one of them happens to be the handling when navigating tight, twisty roads as the power delivery is deemed too brutal, making it less agile in that kind of situation. Personally, I do not have that kind of feeling when reviewing the ER-6N and the ER-6F a few years ago.

Granted, the ER-series has no electronic aids whatsoever, other than sensors predicting remaining fuel, average consumption and engine diagnosis (when send for servicing), with the comparison often made against naked bikes of rival makes that come with full ride-by-wire aids, such as power modes, traction control, launch control, engine braking and ABS.

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Call me old school, where riders of my generation relying on RHTC (Right Hand Throttle Control) than electronic aids to get the maximum out of any motorcycle with ease. There’s no doubt any big capacity motorcycle employing electronic aids is much easier to ride than a model that has none but lacking them won’t make a difference among experienced riders.

User-friendliness with smoother power delivery are what set the new Z650 and Ninja 650 apart from their respective successors. These are made possible by Kawasaki without employing the electronic aids mentioned other than ABS for the brakes!

First of all, both the Z650 and Ninja 650 are lighter than their predecessors, made possible with the use of steel trellis chassis instead of the usual twin-beam type, and better fuel economy via the improved performance from the redesigned parallel twin engine has resulted in a smaller fuel tank of 15-litre capacity from the 16-litre available on the older models, contributing to the weight saving.

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The first reaction when a rider sits on either the Z650 or Ninja 650, is the feeling of how light it is. It is like handling a Ninja 250cc or Z250 but with the extra power available thanks to the 649cc powerplant. In fact, the lightweight and compactness of the Z650 and Ninja 650 made it easy for me to navigate a tight corner than a GTR 1400.

During the official media ride organized by KMSB, there was a segment in the routes where the speed limit was just 90km/hr, and I had inadvertently made that tight corner at the same 90km/hr cruising speed while the accompanying marshals and police escorts on their GTR 1400s had to back off, making it look as though I was speeding and overtaken them in the process as I had gone from being behind them to be in front upon completion of that particular bend.

That bend isn’t something new as I had done even faster speeds with it when reviewing other makes but as far as 3rd-party reaction is concerned, I cleared that segment without slowing down. But the Ninja 650 is just so easy to ride that negotiating a corner with it is never a hassle for me. The motorcycling media switched between the Z650 and Ninja 650 during that official test ride, and it was with the latter when the 90km cornering took place.

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As usual, an official convoy ride for the media is just a First Ride impression, and the real review of how great a new bike is (or is it overhyped?) could only be known during an individual review ride when the media collected the bikes several days later from KMSB specifically for that purpose.

First off, as mentioned earlier, both the new Z650 and Ninja 650 have unbelievable fuel economy, compared to their predecessors – during my time with the older models, a maximum mileage of 330km (cruising mode) was what I could eke out of them despite both featured a 16-litre tank capacity. The new models, to my surprise, could reach almost 350km (cruising) while featuring a 15-litre tank capacity!

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Both bikes, together with the new Versys X-250 and Z900 models, are part of what Kawasaki has grouped them under the “Refined Raw” tagline – providing smoother power delivery, fuel economy, superb acceleration (in their respective class), agility and handling. To top it off, all four models now feature a gear indicator built-in to the digital tachometer, something one normally does not get with previous locally-assembled models or those imported CKDs from Thailand. However, it’s available as an optional accessory for the revised Kawasaki Versys 650 of 2015-17 models.

Both the Z650 and Ninja 650 come fitted with a higher grade default tyre from Dunlop – Sportmax D214T as opposed to the usual Sportmax D222 used on their predecessors. The new tyres are the same fitted on the discontinued Z800 and the latest Z900 naked sportsbikes. Technically, the D214T variant is a dry/wet hybrid offering great grips on the wet and dry. However, being a hybrid tyre, don’t expect it to be as great in extreme cornering ability similar to the rubbers designed for track and sport usage when riding either 650cc bike when the tarmac is dry.

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The gripping performance is similar to an intermediate tyre when used in the dry – it grips really well for as long as the rider doesn’t go above the limits to what it is capable of. This includes cornering at speeds above 125km/hr without a worry. With the numerous improvements Kawasaki has put into the new Z650 and Ninja 650, a capable default tyre is essential to help complement the bikes’ handling too. One can imagine the hassle if the tyres and bike do not complement one another when riding. Potential buyers of both models can rest assured there’s no need to switch to other compounds until they have wear out both front/rear set.

Between the Z650 and the Ninja 650, which is the better bike?

This is subjected to rider and individual preference. Both bikes, although the same basically in specifications, their performances do differ. As a naked sportsbike, the Z650 is great for city riding and traveling from one town to the next one, provided the distance is not more than 100km away.

In theory, the naked Z650 should handle traffic congestion in the city much better than the Ninja 650. However, in my review ride, the latter is instead, the better of the two, which is not a surprise to me. The ease that the Ninja 650 slices thru the congestion is remarkable as both the front rearview mirrors are much lower than most cars’ side-mirrors, making it nearly impossible to come into contact with any, unless the idling car happens to be a Perodua Kancil or Kelisa variant.

NINJA-650_9The Z650, as a naked, features a wider, and higher level of handlebars, thus elevating the front rearview mirrors to be on similar height as most cars’ side-mirrors. So in cases of extreme congestion, the Z650 will be unable to lane-filter thru the rush hour crawl but the Ninja would have no issue doing that, and doing it even better than most kapchai riders.

However, to switch lanes during a tight congestion, the Z650 does a better job than the Ninja as the lack of a full-fairing means it could navigate in-between the idling cars as the latter’s fairing would prevented maximum steering movement for that kind of situation.

Speaking of steering angle, both models could do a 1-pointer U-turn within the width of a single road lane unlike the competitions particularly those from the Continental brands, which needed a 3-lane equivalent or several pointers just to make the turn. But I stopped short of subjecting both bikes to cross over the overhead pedestrian bridges for kapchais which can be found in several districts in the state of Selangor.

I have the utmost confidence that the Z650 (but not the Ninja) could get to the other side of the road via the said overhead bridge with ease, but in reality, there won’t be a lot of owners who will try it so it is not necessary to prove it could.

The front suspension and rear absorbers are by KYB. While the forks remain non-adjustable like their predecessors, the rear shock absorber is, with 5 levels. The rear absorber is n longer positioned sideway, it is now placed centrally, providing a much better feeling with the connection of the tyres between tarmac and bike.

Acceleration is the biggest difference in riding a bigger capacity motorcycle – it is the main reason why it is fun and exciting to enjoy riding a 2-wheel petrol-operated vehicle. Outright top speed is reserved for the race track, there’s no way a rider could enjoy riding a motorcycle at or near the top speed on public roads. Of course, there’s the tolled highway but that’s just risking safety and higher chances of being summoned for speeding (but that’s another story altogether).

Both the Z650 and Ninja 650 have the standard acceleration that is useful to power out of tight situations; places that even a kapchai could but the former duo could do it faster and better thanks to the extra “oomph” in their acceleration. And cruising either bike between 105km and 120km/hr is much better than any bike with engine capacity below 200cc. An average kapchai at these speeds would have its engine feel like it is about to self-destruct anytime but the Z650/Ninja 6550 is only utilizing 2/3 of their power in a similar situation.

Between a kapchai and the 650 duo to be used as a daily commuting machine, the latter would be the ideal choice as the overall fatigue will be less or none if the rider commutes to work daily in KL/PJ from places as far as Bentong, Rawang, Klang, Nilai, Seremban and Kuala Pilah.

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UPDATED: The price difference between the Z650 and the Ninja 650 is more than just the latter having a full fairing parts and sporty handlebars. The Ninja 650 is much more comfortable in long distance riding/cruising than the naked Z650 – after 70 minutes of continuous riding on the saddle, I had to take a 10-15 minutes break in-between when riding the Z650 while with the Ninja 650, the feeling is comfortable all the way till the 2-hour mark before any butt-fatigue is being felt.

Also, the Ninja 650, being a sports bike as opposed to the naked Z650, the wind protection aerodynamics courtesy of its full-fairing design, allows it to go from cruising at 137km/hr in 6th gear to 178km/hr within 6 seconds! The Z650 seems to struggle in similar capacity as it takes even longer to reach 170km/hr, like 16 seconds or more!

The fairing inclusion also made the Ninja 650 to attain a top speed of 209km/hr with a rider of my height and size, sitting upright. However, with the Z650, I struggled to reach 180km/hr as the wind pressure is just too strong when sitting upright. While I was told by other media reviewers that the Z650 is capable of attaining a top speed of above 190km, getting closer to 180km was the fastest I did with it, and I am not a rider that prefers to crouch behind the handlebars in order to increase the last few available kilometres out of any reviewed motorcycle.

 
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