There's plenty here to satisfy newbies: clutch effort is light, neutral is easy to find, and the shifter clicks through the gears with positive, easy engagement. But equally notably, the fuel-injected engine fires up easily with a tap of the pushbutton starter, and doesn't require warmup time before you're on your way down the road. The anti-lock stoppers on my test bike worked effectively, and while you'll never confuse the relatively soft brake feel with the binders of more focused sportbikes like its ZX-10R big brother, the available ABS unit-- which Kawasaki says weighs only 1.4 pounds-- brings a layer of security to the brakes that should encourage more aggressive riding from beginners and advanced riders alike. Unlike the Honda CBR250R's system which works with astonishing levels of seamlessness, the Kawasaki's anti-lock stoppers betray their electronics with a noticeable pulsing sensation at the lever and pedal.
Though the weather on my ride day wasn't quite warm enough to reveal the effectiveness of the Ninja's new heat dissipation feature, the roads were twisty enough to yield plenty of observations on the bike's acceleration, handling dynamics, and braking. While it's certainly not menacing or dangerously sharp-edged, the Ninja 300 now packs enough punch to distance itself from its prior iteration (not to mention its arch-enemy, the Honda CBR250R.) It scoots with enough zeal to make for entertaining blasts down the road, with a noticeably more robust torque curve as it winds up to the its 13,000 rpm indicated redline. The 296cc parallel-twin engine's vibrations feel well isolated from the chassis (thanks in part to new engine mounts), and the smooth spinning mill doesn't reveal any perceptible buzziness until past the mid-point of its powerband; incidentally, that's where you'll find the most gratifying crescendo of power. While it's perfectly feasible to short shift and maintain reasonable levels of acceleration, the Ninja really gets going if you peg the throttle and make use of its expansive range of engine rpms.
Thanks to its 379 pound curb weight (383 with ABS), the Ninja also changes direction with ease, offering quick but stable entry, and a well-balanced chassis that enables easy mid-corner corrections. Bump absorption could be better-- let's not forget, the Ninja's non-adjustable 37mm fork and preload adjustable Uni-Trak rear suspension are low end units-- and to that effect, my quicker, more leaned-over corners were met with some flustered suspension responses due to road irregularities. In other words, where a more premium suspension setup would offer more compliance and, ultimately, better grip, the Ninja sometimes has trouble articulating over bumpy surfaces while cornering. Brakes are strong, and though they verge on feeling spongy at times, there's always enough stopping power on hand.
After a day's worth of riding through Skaggs Spring Road which twists and tumbles its way to Pacific Coast Highway, the Ninja 300 impressed with its flickable handling, eager engine, and generally accommodating ergonomics; though it proved somewhat unhappy on bumpier stretches of tarmac and its thinly padded seat produced some saddle soreness after a full day aboard*, the Ninja's overall persona proved that this is a considerably evolved and significantly more satisfying iteration of Kawasaki's high-revving, entry level motorcycle. It's also thrifty on gas: I achieved 138 mpg during a hypermiling contest in which I resorted to unreasonable fuel saving techniques like hitting the kill switch on downhills and lugging the engine, but my peers who rode normally averaged around 75 mpg-- still impressive, and one editor who will remain nameless burned out of the parking lot and held revs at redline in first during the entire route. His fuel economy? A still respectable 50 mpg.
* Ninja 300 buyers who ride for any extended length of time will want to consider investing in a gel seat; Kawasaki says they'll offer one soon