need a back-torque limiting clutch, consider that a new rider
will find the Ninja’s light lever effort beneficial (although it can
also cause grabby engagements with high rpm starts, like most
clutches of this type), and the back-torque limiter means a clumsy
downshift won’t upset the chassis, which is a safety and confidence factor. Also, we did push the R3 hard enough to find that
its compression braking can be an issue under combined hard
slowing and downshifting, so keep this fact in mind.
All four use cable-operated clutches that allow their engagement points to be adjusted via threaded thumbwheels. The Kawasaki’s slip/assist clutch requires by far the least effort, perhaps
half what the KTM and Yamaha need, although the Honda’s
lever effort isn’t quite so high. Still, all are relatively easy to
operate, and again the Yamaha was rated the best although the
rest were also very good.
Ranking: R3 & CBR tie for 1st, KTM 2nd, Ninja 3th
The amount of suspension travel provided on a given machine
usually tells a lot about how comfortable its ride will be, as the
jarring impacts of bumps and potholes can be minimized if they
are absorbed over greater wheel movement. From this perspec-
tive, the KTM RC390 looks best, offering 5.91" of travel at each
end. In contrast, Yamaha’s R3 provides 5. 1" at the front and 4. 9"
at the rear, Kawasaki’s Ninja 300 gives 4. 7"/5.2" front/rear and
the Honda CBR300R makes do with the least travel; 4.65" front
and just 4.07" rear.
Why would a manufacturer shortchange suspension travel?
Seat height considerations, usually, which is why the cool-est-looking Harley-Davidsons tend to have the worst ride quality.
And particularly in this class, meant to appeal to newer and often
female riders of shorter stature, a lower seat in the showroom
can tip a purchasing decision, even if it may not be so desirable beyond the dealership’s parking lot. But in this case, we
didn’t find a clear relationship between suspension travel and
seat heights. In fact, the best-selling Ninja’s seat is lowest at
30. 5", the R3 is next at 30. 7", the Honda is third with 31.0" and
the KTM is by far the tallest at 32. 3".
However, a suspension’s spring and damping rates can matter
more than simply travel, and that’s the factor that really separates
this group. The newcomers to the class, the KTM and Yamaha,
have by far the best damping systems, while the Kawasaki now
feels distinctly old school, with an underdamped, loose and
bouncy action that detracts from its adhesion and ride quality.
The Honda’s suspension behavior is better than its shorter travel
would suggest, but it’s not much better than the Kawasaki.
But what really stood out in our comparison testing was just
how good the R3’s ride quality is. Regardless of the road, from
rough freeways at high speeds to poorly maintained back country
twisties, the Yamaha was hard to fault—plush and controlled
with perfectly matched front/rear spring rates. And we had to
give credit to its Michelin tires for part of this remarkable performance. Michelin’s latest Pilot Street rubber tends to use softer
sidewalls than competing brands, and while this isn’t always an
advantage, for instance on a heavy bike like a BMW R1200RT,
when the greater slip angles a soft tire creates can make steering
feel vague, on a lighter machine like the R3, the tires’ greater
compliance—which is in fact its primary suspension—can
noticeably improve road holding and cornering grip, making
the mechanical suspension’s job easier.
The KTM wears WP suspension built by the Austrian company’s Indian subsidiary. However, the “RC” in the bike’s designation stands for Racing Competition, and the 390’s suspension
seems to have been tuned for smooth racetracks. On our local
roads, its stiff spring rates and firm damping can be punishing,
enough that 100 miles can feel more like 300.
Rankings: R3 1st, CBR 2nd, Ninja 3rd, KTM 4th
All of these machines are refreshingly lightweight, so they
don’t require massive brakes to slow down. The Honda is the
lightest at 358 lbs., the KTM next at 364.5 lbs, the R3 is 5-lbs.
heavier at 369.5 lbs. and the Kawasaki is heaviest at 376 lbs.
And, not surprisingly, their braking equipment is very similar
as well. All are fitted with single discs front and rear, and all the
fronts are covered by two-piston sliding calipers, while the rear
calipers are single-piston types.
The Honda uses a 296mm front disc that’s fixed to the spokes
of its front wheel, eliminating a conventional carrier to save a bit
of unsprung weight. At the rear is a small 220mm disc. Both the
Honda and Kawasaki wear the same tires made by IRC, Road
Winner RX-01 models in 110/70R17 front and 140/70R17 rear
sizes mounted on the same size 2.75 x 17" and 4.00 x 17" wheels
respectively. Although the IRC tires perform adequately, they
don’t give a lot of feedback, and we’d suspect that a grippier