As much as I want to dive right in to the slugfest, I cannot without putting out this statuatory warning. I simply cannot say that the asking price of Rs 4.69 lakh, ex-showroom India, for the Kawasaki Ninja 400 is just, because by no stretch of imagination should the bike retail for that much. So, should we just end the comparison here? Should we just call it a day, shunning the motorcycle to a life of obscurity? Hell no. But hold on. We were sure you guys want to know how she would hold up against the RC 390. If she was really worth that much over the Yamaha YZF-R3 and offer as much of an ease of riding experience as the TVS Apache RR 310. To answer all these questions, before you even ask them, once and for all, we did just that. We pitted the Ninja 400 against each of the aforementioned motorcycles in what we believe are to be the respective motorcycle’s strongest attributes. As Nick ‘The Voice of MotoGP’ Harris would have said, “Let battle commence!”
The KTM RC 390 came bearing the ‘Pure racing’ marketing tag line. Though I’m not one to fall for such gimmicks, the two words are indeed apt. It has been the bike for riders who simply enjoyed riding on the edge of insanity while darting from apex to apex. Yes, it is an absolutely insane experience aboard the pocket rocket. And I thought that it would take something really special to come along and better the KTM at its own game. The game of being so proficient at scampering away from the rest, relegating them to tiny specks in its rear-view mirrors.
However, the Ninja 400 is far from being a spec in the KTM’s mirrors. It just swallows the edge the RC 390 had over its predecessor – the Ninja 300 – and is now ahead of the Austrian when it comes to the numbers game. 26 cee cees more and a whole extra cylinder puts the Ninja at the top of the performance figures game on paper. Unlike abroad, our licencing regulations don’t restrict the motorcycle company’s approach to selling the bike. Case in point, the Ninja 400. In UK, the motorcycle falls in the A2 category of motorcycles and the power has been restricted to 44.38bhp, 1.5bhp more than the KTM. However, in India we get a bit more – 48.32bhp to be exact. That’s almost five and a half more ponies charging out from the Jap twin than the Indo-Austrian single. Even in the torque game the Ninja 400 edges out the RC 390 with its peak torque of 38Nm to 35Nm.
“It takes some next-level-skill to wheelie the Ninja properly, something that my lame clutching techniques didn’t overcome to point the front wheel to the sky”
The moment you line them up side by side, it is the RC that lurches forward with more vigour and purpose than the Ninja. The victory is shortlived however as the moment the speeds start climbing over 45kmph, the twin-cylinder magic of the Ninja helps it blast past the RC. In fact, the short gearing of the RC will force it to run out of breath quite quickly whereas the Ninja still felt like she had a bit left even at 170kmph.
It is the clutch that lets the Ninja down in this regard. Both the KTM as well as the Kawasaki come with Slip and Assist clutch units that make for light clutch action. The one on the RC is more immediate and has a better bite while the Ninja’s clutch has a bit of progression to its action. That does in fact come into play when launching the 400 as you have to be extremely gradual in the way you let go of the clutch. It is also a hindrance when one wishes to conduct acts of hooning. It takes some next-level-skill to wheelie the Ninja properly, something that my lame clutching techniques didn’t overcome to point the front wheel to the sky. Give our man, Mad Mandke any bike and he will get the shot done. And he did. But even he struggled for a bit. Frustrated with that, he immediately handed over the reigns of the Ninja back to me and strapped up on the RC 390. Pulling wheelies on the RC is done effortlessly. The scores are apiece for both. But who has the edge? It had to be decided in the twisty bits then and here is where the RC’s sharpness also turns out to be its Achilles heel.
It starts with the way you sit on the bike itself. The rider triangle is super aggressive as your entire body weight is thrown forward. The clip-ons are just too wide and this isn’t a naked with staight bars where I would liked to have extra leverage. The Ninja is calmer. A 785mm saddleheight means I was able to get both my feet on the ground easily. The rear-sets aren’t too pulled back and the clip-ons here are just right to offer a right balance for sporty as well as city/touring riding. Plus, there is a lot of room to move around on the plush rider’s seat.
With 23.5 degrees of rake angle, the RC is razor sharp. It tips in quickly, too quick for most people’s liking. The short wheelbase and the centralised mass help it turn directions in the blink of an eye. If that sort of aggression level is what you are after, then the RC works out just fine. However, if you would want to think for a fraction more and allow yourself to be more composed through a corner then the Ninja 400 is frickin’ be-a-utiful! Gosh, she is sharp and not frightening, allowing you to prepare for the corner entry, mid and exit perfectly.
“The Ninja’s semi-floating dual-piston Nissin calliper with a 310mm rotor offers brilliant bite, progression and feedback, but they are still a notch below the KTM”
Even the suspenders on the Ninja have been tuned to rip the corners with finesse. It would be surprising to know that the Ninja had a firmer ride setup than the RC but that doesn’t mean that it was harsh by any means. The rebound damping has been tuned in such a way that there is no skittishness experienced which is a bit of the case in the RC 390. Just take a look at the suspension travel figures. Both the 41mm conventional forks on the Ninja 400 and the 43mm USDs on the RC 390 have the same 125mm of travel. It is the rear monoshock units where the Ninja gets only 130mm of travel while the WP unit of the KTM has 150mm of travel.
The RC 390 has the edge when it comes to the braking department as well as with the choice of rubber used. Even though KTM switched to the H-rated version of the Metzeler M5s for the 2017 edition of the RC 390, they are certainly the better of the two pair of shoes. Do not get me wrong, the Dunlop Sportmax GPR-300 are leaps and bounds ahead of the IRCs that the Ninja 250 and the subsequent 300 came shod with, but they are no match for the supremacy of the German tyre manufacturer. Even the front brakes (fixed four-pot Bybre calliper with the 320mm rotor) on the RC 390 are exceptional. The Ninja’s semi-floating dual-piston Nissin calliper with a 310mm rotor offers brilliant bite, progression and feedback, but they are still a notch below the KTM. Both motorcycles come with ABS as standard but the KTM’s system can be switched off completely, that is if you have a death wish. The RC also gets adjustable levers which the Ninja sorely misses out on. The non-availability of Metzelers and adjustable levers aren’t a deal breaker for buying the Ninja 400 but when you consider the premium that you are paying, you would expect them to be a given.
Sure, horsepower and acceleration are things to consider when one wants a performance-oriented motorcycle. But, if you are of the kind who wants your supersport to excel even on the open highway, the KTM RC 390 is not the ideal choice. The back-breaking experience is not something I would sign up for willingly; that is something more up Abhishek’s alley. I would, and have, signed up for the Yamaha YZF-R3. The R3 has been my faithful companion for a couple of years as I have enjoyed countless experiences on my baby. I could have brought that along for test but there is an updated version on sale now that solved a couple of issues I faced. Namely, the absence of ABS and grippier tyres. Yamaha India did listen to the outcry from enthusiasts across the country and introduced the ABS-equipped R3 at the Auto Expo 2018 which also got Metzeler M5 tyres. And that is what we managed to bring along, thanks to our buddy Avinash Davare’s recent purchase.
Now before Yammie fans crucify me for not involving the R3 in the performance test, I would just like to highlight that the R3 would not have been able to catch up with the other two due to its power deficiency as well as softer suspension setup. That said, the setup plays a great role when it comes to touring. And the motor is extremely refined and tractable. All these allow you to have fun in the saddle for long hours. That for me makes the R3 the perfect benchmark for a supersport that loves to go touring.
The Ninja is very similar in its ways to the R3. Both have a very neutral riding posture that is not overly aggressive and neither too laid-back. Both bear parallel-twin hearts that pump out melodious tunes when you open the taps. The fairing design allows you to enjoy the highways. Both have a really plush seat and pillions are fairly comfortable on both. There are luggage hooks to tie your bungies and they both come with large 14-litre fuel tanks to let you roam for miles on end. Both come bearing semi-digital info clusters with tachometers that display the revs the way that Gods intended to – via a needle.
Even in terms of agility and stability they are closely matched. Their steering geometries are just about the same, the Ninja’s trellis frame bearing a 0.3-degree sharper rake angle than the R3’s diamond. For India, they have identical kerb weights as well at 173 kilos thanks to their saree guards and such accessories that completely spoil the look of the bike but are mandatory due to our homologation laws. Thankfully, we removed these eye-sores. All of the above made my job that much harder to pick between my current love and the new contender.
There are some differences which did help steer the debate in each other’s favour. The R3’s engine refinement is unmatched of the four motorcycles here. Sure, in the displacement charts it ranks third but the engine just refuses to cause any form of discomfort to the rider. The vibes do start creeping in on the Ninja 400 at around 5000rpm which remains a light buzz until you redline the bike. The new 399cc parallel-twin motor is no longer as refined as its predecessors. Secondly, there is no slipper clutch on the R3. Ok, the technology is beneficial for blah blah blah reasons and so on and so forth. But, the clutch action is light and it allows for side-stepping action that sometimes makes the Ninja 400 feel too serious. And lastly, it is the tyres again which do not require to be elaborated upon further.
“Gliding over bumps is not what the Ninja 400 does but it does not even throw you off balance, providing that sweet spot between relaxation and sportiness”
The Ninja runs away when it comes to straight-line proficiency. The power gap is just too much. And it is not just the power, it is the torque as well, which is 9Nm more and crucially made at 1000rpm lower than the R3. The clutch slip aside, the R3 struggles to keep pace with the Ninja if one opts for high speed blasts. The extra torque advantage comes in handy when you need to make that crucial overtaking manoeuvre at triple-digit speeds. Speaking of blasts, wind deflection is slightly better on the Ninja than the R3. Despite what it may look like, the Ninja 400 is slimmer than the R3. The clip-ons are slightly towards the rider and the seat height is 5mm taller. All this made it just a bit better for me to tuck into the best aerodynamic shape that my 38-inch waist allows me to.
The suspension makes up my mind for me. Even though the Ninja is slightly firmer there is none of that prolonging of the bump that one comes to experience on the R3. Gliding over bumps is not what the Ninja 400 does but it does not even throw you off balance, providing that sweet spot between relaxation and sportiness. The R3’s soft suspension setup does attract a certain kind of customer who wants a bit of a relaxed ride. But it is just a bit too soft for my liking.
The Ninja 400 also has the edge when it comes to braking. There are a couple of factors that come into play here. Firstly, the R3’s smaller 298mm front rotor simply doesn’t offer the same braking performance as the Ninja 400. The lever feedback also seems a bit spongy in this regard. The ABS unit just feels a little more intrusive on the R3 than the Ninja.
Why the hell would we pit the TVS Apache RR 310 against the Ninja 400 in the city? Of all the people in the world, I was one of the privileged few who got to race the RR 310 Pro Kit on the track. The RR 310 was built on the track. It was designed in the wind tunnel. It is a result of TVS’ 35 years’ worth of racing experience. Then why the city? If you roll back through the months, you’ll find Aninda had written that the experience of living in the city is an enjoyable one in his long term report. “Despite the clip-ons and the rearsets, I am happy to say I haven’t had the need for a physiotherapist yet. And mind you, my commute isn’t a short or easy one. I do more than 20km each way and I cut across the entirety of Pune through peak rush hour.” These were his exact words and I cannot dispute him on this aspect one bit.
Before I delve into the actual nitty gritty, I have to bring in the styling factor here. The main reason I withheld talking about the Ninja 400’s looks was because I felt that the RC 390 and the R3 did not come close to evoking the weakness-in-my-knees emotion that the Ninja 400 and the RR 310 bring about. The RR 310 looks sultry and sexy in its Racing Red avatar. Those Bi-LED twin projector headlamps look absolutely stunning. The shark fin inspired fairing brings about its sharp detailing and I love the white racing stripes that run through the length of the motorcycle. The switchgear is of top notch quality, Kawasaki needs to take a look in this regard. The Ninja 400 is styled to be a direct descendant of the legendary ZX-10R. Those small winglets surrounding the LED headlamps have been derived from the supercharged H2. I like the lime green colour, similar to what I have on my old Ninja 250. We only get the Ninja 400 with the KRT livery but why would you want to opt for anything other than that? Although red is my favourite colour, the Ninja 400 is the better looking of the two bikes for me. But hey, looks are subjective.
“The low-end torque plus the meaty mid-range of the single-pot motor of the Apache does a good job of making little of traffic”
Moving on. The Apache forces you to bend forward to reach the bars while you are sitting a bit upright on the Ninja. The rearsets on the Apache are in fairly neutral territory, making transitions from floor to pegs that much faster. The mirrors on the Apache offer better visibility of the traffic behind you. The low-end torque plus the meaty mid-range of the single-pot motor of the Apache does a good job of making little of traffic. The Ninja 400 is on par when it comes to tractability as it has a wide torque band which begins at slightly over 2,500rpm and stays all the way to 11,500rpm. The reverse inclined motor of the RR allowed TVS engineers to divert the heat away from the rider, something that becomes extremely beneficial in rush hour situations. And while I didn’t face a torrid time on the Ninja, the engine temperatures were a bit higher than usual, which was accompanied by the whizzing sound of the radiator fan.
Coming to the aural experience and the Ninja 400 is definitely the one to talk about. The rasp produced by the twin cylinder motor gets an extra bassy tone thanks to the larger air-box than the Ninja 300 has. The rumble increases as the juices start flowing and with it comes the excitement to try to go faster. Excitement that the BMW-sourced reverse-inclined motor on the Apache lacks. And we all know about the big vibration saga that revolves around the motorcycle since its first ride.
Both of these motorcycles come with taut suspension that are on the firmer side but do not send shocks up the rider’s spine when going over a bump. Both closely matched when it comes to chassis efficiency and it is hard for me to pick between the two in the matter. The braking of the Apache could have been a bit better but that’s not to say that the Ninja is miles ahead. Sadly, the stock Michelin Pilot Sport radials are simply not good enough for a bike of the Apache’s calibre. The Dunlops offer better cornering feedback and are not jittery when it comes to gripping on loose tarmac. Both could do better by slapping on a pair of Metzelers but in the end the Ninja has the edge here.
After riding the four motorcycles back to back there are some interesting observations with a clear result that Hrishi and I, for once, completely agree on. The TVS Apache RR 310 is in fast company here. It may be the cheapest of the lot here but that is also due to the absence of a bit of tech and oomph that the others possess. And while it does well in the city when it comes to fuel efficiency, returning 31kmpl to Aninda, the Ninja doled out close to 20kmpl on the on-board computer. Not bad for a twin-cylinder after a day of hard riding in mixed situations at the hands of Hrishi and I.
The Ninja being leagues ahead of the KTM RC 390 was a big shocker for me as I thought the Indo-Austrian would give a good challenge to the Ninja 400. The overall effortlessness of the Ninja plus its brilliant drive snatches the title of the go-to performance supersport in the class from the KTM. I just wish the 400 got better tyres and less clutch slip.
Lastly, the motorcycle that I regard as the best of the three established ones – the Yamaha YZF-R3 – comes the closest to beating the Ninja 400 at the test which I deemed fit the bill. It is with a heavy heart that I concede the victory to the Ninja, even when I consider only touring abilities. The R3 simply languishes behind in the race and its Achilles heel, aka the soft suspension units, are something that I wish Yamaha would fix in the next iteration.
The Kawasaki Ninja 400 then is the undisputed king of the sub-400cc class. Irrespective of what you ask of the bike. The class which began as a quarter-litre segment with the Ninja 250R, has grown over the years and it feels good to know that they are in it to win it. And it shows! The Ninja 400 is the preferred choice of racers in the World SuperStock Championship 300, four out of the top five, running the mean green machine.
Sadly, I cannot envisage paying the asking price of Rs 4.69 lakh for the Ninja 400. Come on Kawasaki India, let’s get the pricing right. You’ve got a winner on your hands. Don’t let the competition run away with the trophy!