When I’m asked for the perfect beginner’s bike, I’m torn, indecisive, elusive even. What do I think is the perfect beginner bike? Or, what do you want to hear me say is the perfect bike? Choosing a first motorcycle is a very slippery slope indeed. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a rookie rider talk him/herself into the latest GSX-R / R6 / CBR 1000 etc. as “the perfect beginner bike”, I’d be a very rich man indeed! The reality is; The quickest way to statistical irrelevance (serious injury) is choosing the wrong bike at the beginning of your motorcycle career, but thankfully the manufacturers have caught on to this and are starting to do something about it.
When I think back…waaaay back to when I first started riding, after I clear away the spilled tears of regret over what I’d do differently (hindsight is 20/20 they say), I consider the options of what was available to a newbie and I smile, those were good ol days. Somewhere between then and now, the two-stroke motorcycle was killed off, the insurance industry stopped supplying personal lubricant and proceeded to bend us over in a grievous manner, beginner bike quality and originality took a serious nosedive and somehow…. motorcycles lost their “cool” factor. That last nail in the potential coffin is what has the manufacturers lying awake at night in terror. Old timers are hanging up their helmets in record numbers these days, and until recently, new riders entering our sport were all but non-existent. As you can imagine, this caused some anxiety in the industry. Then some smarty pants at brand X had an epiphany; perhaps our entry level motorcycles really do suck!
So as previously mentioned, the manufacturers have caught on, and are trying to make motorcycles relevant again. Entry level bikes thankfully don’t look like an afterthought anymore, creative designs, and excellent fit and finish are no longer just reserved for the flagship lines; it’s a full-on renaissance! Now what do I think might be the perfect beginner bike? Still an ambiguous answer but at least there really are some fantastic choices available, here’s my two cents:
So now you’re probably saying, “where is he going with this?”, “I thought this was going to be a motorcycle review”. Well, stop rushing me, it’s coming. This elaborate lead in was setting the scene so to speak. What I’m trying to emphasize is that I really wasn’t expecting to be blown away by these three newbie bikes, but damn…apparently, we’ve come a long way!
The 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 ABS, Z650 ABS, and Versys 650 ABS LT, all share the same mechanical heart, a 649cc liquid cooled parallel twin that makes about 70 hp in all three versions. The same motor in all three bikes that are all intended for different riding/motorcycle styles. To say that I was skeptical is an understatement.
First thing that catches my eye with these new bikes, fit and finish. No big gaps, no cheapo plastics bits, switchgear and gauges look and feel premium, these things certainly look the part, good job Kawi this is starting to look promising! Then we get into some of the specs, nothing surprising here until…
it’s the number that gets my attention, 42 pounds (that’s 19 kg for the metric types), That’s how much weight they managed to remove from the Ninja, and that my friends is huge!
The Z650 is new this year but it is also heroically lighter than its spiritual predecessor, the ER-6N. My biggest question now? With the same engine, can Kawasaki really make these bikes different? Hell yes, they can, as it turns out! Even more surprising is with some gearing magic, this engine suits all three bikes beautifully. All 3 have more than adequate power, near perfect fuelling, and strong braking performance even at the limit when the ABS starts to suggest that you take it easy. They have enough power to get you into trouble, enough engineering to get you safely back out, and easy enough for even a newbie to ride.
So how did we test these bikes? Well…we sure weren’t kind to them, we rode em’ hard and put em’ away wet. More importantly our testers covered a wide range of body types. First there’s me, I’m more than slightly overweight and slightly more than average height, Trevor is the “tall skinny” type and Adam is shorter than us and much closer to “average” than he’d like to admit. Surprisingly, we mostly came to the same conclusions.
650 Versys ABS LT
Adam: “Tall, smooth and comfortable. Feels more powerful than it is, lots of room”
Bob: “Bike obviously much larger, makes engine feel more powerful. Comfortable and agile but needs proper setup to take advantage.”
Trevor: “Upright seating, great brakes, nice midrange pull through corners, great mirrors. Suspension needs proper setup”
Ninja 650 ABS
Adam: “Planted, makes good use of power through gearing, front feels a bit vague Compared to the others”
Bob: “Smooth, stable, planted but front end feels bulky. Good power and great intake sound.”
Trevor: “Good riding position and brakes, predictable handling but noticeable vibration in the grips”
Adam: “Narrow and light, flickable handling, gearing makes good use of power and torque but also makes some unwanted vibration. Cramped leg position but good shifting and Brakes.”
Bob: “Little hooligan machine! Gearing is short but makes great torque, tight cockpit, could use wider bars”
Trevor: “Great instrument cluster, super nimble and flickable, great low end and midrange pull. Needs wider bars.”
Three great examples from an industry that seems to have collectively realized that to sell motorcycles, someone had better be paying attention to the new riders. The old timers just aren’t writing the cheques anymore… but the newbies have mobile payment options! Let’s see if we can make this work.
Questions/comments, always welcome
Helmet snobs…I hate helmet snobs. They offend my inner cheapskate, and my engineering brain favours function over form most of the time (although I certainly do appreciate sexy gear). Let’s face it, fit, finish and materials can make the price of a helmet skyrocket in a hurry but safety is mostly controlled by the test ratings of the big 3 (D.O.T., Snell, and ECE). The rating systems don’t change with the brand name or price category, they are a constant. Brand loyalty I understand, when you find a brand that fits your head shape (my wife tells me that mine is square), your wallet and your safety requirements you stick with it, but for some reason there are a few names in the industry that seem to carry more…cachet.
HJC has long been associated with the “value” segment, and helmet snobs be damned, I like them because they always fit consistently on my oddly shaped melon, they’re my “go to” lid. Mid-range helmets at entry level prices, what’s not to like about that? In recent years HJC has entered the high-end market and has listened to feedback from customers, testers, and racers to produce what I believe to be their greatest creation to date, the RPHA 11 pro.
The RPHA 11 pro checks off all the right boxes: Light and aerodynamic, D.O.T. and ECE certified, sexy (especially if you go for the incredibly cool graphics options), the best ventilation of any helmet I have personally strapped onto my pumpkin and the best part… In Canada, retail pricing of the RPHA 11 starts hundreds of dollars cheaper than the nearest competition and yes, I’m referring to the Shoei RF1200.
So, I’m painting a rosy picture here, does that mean I’ve discovered the helmet unicorn? Perfection? Well, no… But I must say that HJC is on the right track. I do have some relatively minor gripes that keep the RPHA 11 from achieving full helmet nirvana.
First problem is the visor, specifically the pinlock pegs. Visibility is very good vertically, as this is primarily a sporting/racing style helmet, lots of visor real estate there. The problem is that the pinlock pegs at either side of the visor are just out of my peripheral vision but seem to reappear occasionally when shoulder checking or scanning intersections and for the first little while can be rather distracting. A minor redesign of the visor would do wonders here. Second, is the volume level inside the helmet. It’s not bad but there is room for improvement here. If you wear earplugs (and you should) this is basically a non-issue, but the “premium” helmets have really set a high bar and is definitely a goal that HJC should consider. My final gripe is: Why do the ultra-cool graphics like Boba Fett and Lightning McQueen (officially my new favourite graphic ever) make the helmet almost double in price? I understand licensing and royalties etc. but damn! That makes my inner cheapskate get all uppity again.
So here I am bitching and moaning about minor issues, but what do I like about this helmet you ask? Literally everything else! In true HJC fashion the value factor is astounding, this is truly a premium lid at clearance sale pricing. The venting is nothing short of miraculous, opening the vents unleashes a vortex of fresh air that should keep you cooled on even the hottest summer day. Even in size 2XL to fit my giant cranium, the RPHA is impossibly light and the aerodynamics are spot on, I experienced almost zero wind buffeting. And did I mention value? HJC includes two visors, one clear, one tinted with perhaps the best quick change visor system in the business, as well as a pinlock antifog insert. The inner liner is pure premium here, removable and washable anti-microbial fabric and emergency release cheek pads, breath deflector and chin curtain as well. Helmet snobs…This is one sexy helmet, and the “premium” manufacturers had best take note, there is some new competition in town and they’re on a roll.
Big thank you to Molly @ HJC USA for sending me this sexy gear to test
Questions/comments, always welcome
So, what do I call this thing anyway?
A “Moto Blog?” Seems pretentious at best, maybe a bit “Hipster.” Neither of which describes me very well. I’m too nerdy to be a hipster and way too plebian to be pretentious, so I suppose I’m comfortable enough with myself to say I’m somewhere in between. OK…now that I’ve talked myself into it, Moto Blog it shall be.
Now that we have that out of the way, what exactly am I planning to do here? I’m so glad you asked! First, a bit of background.
Motorcycles are in my blood. They’ve been part of my life since before I could string together coherent sentences. I can’t recall a single moment of my life that didn’t in some way include motorcycles, for better or worse. Motorcyclecourse.com is a family business, started by my Father in 1974, kept afloat on a shoestring budget by my Mother. My Brother and I have been involved in one way or another since birth, and officially I’ve been training people how to ride motorcycles since I was 18 years old (unofficially since well before that).
Alright, back to my point. What am I planning with this blog? Well quite simply I’m going to give you my opinion, actually it’s more than that. Motorcyclecourse.com has grown since 1974. In fact, it now employs almost 100 professional motorcycle instructors and when you have that kind of talent at your disposal you’d be foolish not to take advantage of it. So, armed with my opinions, and my talent pool I will try to answer the questions that I get on every motorcycle course; “What should I buy?” And “where should I buy it?”
It should be interesting to see where this goes!
Comments/questions/ideas please feel free to email