Ninja 250 v the freeway

Can a Ninja 250 hang with big-city freeway traffic?
Published November 13, 2008

The most common question I get with regard to the Ninja 250 is how well it tackles the freeway. I had doubts myself, and I got the bike with the understanding that I’d be doing mostly city riding. Any unpleasant exertion from the freeway would be only an occasional annoyance since I planned to rarely hit the superslab.

I actually avoided riding freeways for the bike’s first 1,000 miles or so, partly because the freeway was sort of intimidating but mostly because I wanted to wait for the engine to break in before subjecting it to a steady rpm. My first few freeway trips were short rides to work when I was late–my usual route takes me on some fun city roads but takes about twice as long as the local freeways–but it wasn’t until I had to go about forty miles south of the city that I gained real confidence in the bike’s freeway capability.

I took that confidence and finally rode from San Francisco to Sacramento (and back), 200+ miles round. The trip, one way, takes roughly an hour and forty-five minutes at 75-80 mph via 101 N to I-80 E. It’s a familiar ride (I’ve family near Sacramento), but also a pretty boring one. In my car, I can relax and cruise mindlessly. I sort of took that relaxation for granted before I set out to make the trip on my bike.

You can’t really ever relax on a motorcycle in traffic, especially at 80 mph on freeways that CalTrans is halfway through tearing up.

I quite enjoyed the first hour of the trip and was thoroughly impressed by the bike. There’s one massive hill as 80 passes by Vallejo that had me worried when I ran the ride through my head the day before. In my old Volvo, I’d have to floor it, the automatic transmission would kick down a gear and the car struggled to maintain 70. It wasn’t a huge problem because most cars get slowed by the hill, often chugging down to 60 mph or slower. I imagined I’d have to downshift to fifth on the Ninja, maybe even fourth, to avoid slowing to a crawl and getting run over by some a-hole in a GTO.

The Ninja easily stormed the hill in a gear too high

As I approached the hill, I got even more concerned–traffic had backed up at the freeway interchange at the base of the hill and I wasn’t able to build up any momentum to carry me up the mountain. But as the interchange traffic cleared, the bike just pushed up the hill in the clear right lane. The uphill acceleration definitely exceeded my expectations and when I reached the top of the hill and went to click into sixth gear I found that I was already there. The Ninja easily stormed the hill in a gear too high.

I never once had to downshift for power on the trip. At 80 mph in sixth gear, the bike’s turning a little under 10,000 rpm which puts it solidly in its powerband so keeping up (and passing) freeway traffic is never a problem. Any doubts I had about the 249cc engine were obliterated by that ride.

The 250 has enough juice to keep up with traffic even at speeds in excess of the limit

Still, the second half of the ride was miserable. It was September in the Sacramento valley, which means 100 degree temps and I was, as always, in full gear. The short wheelbase and light weight of the bike combined with the stiff suspension were hell on the chopped-up pavement (I-80 was really in a bad way, probably still is knowing how quickly CalTrans works). And the ride was about 45 minutes too long for comfort. By the time I got to Sacramento, I wanted nothing to do with riding the bike but still had the return leg to do later that day. Mercifully, the ride home was cooler, but still less than pleasant.

I learned valuable lessons about riding the Ninja 250 on the freeway that day. I learned that power is not a valid concern–the bike has more than enough juice to keep up with traffic even at speeds in excess of the speed limit. Even still, I also learned that long freeway trips on the Ninja aren’t fun. The riding is boring, the ride quality is punishing.

For typical commutes, the little Ninja is perfectly comfortable on the freeway but when it comes to distance touring there are other bikes better suited (I don’t suspect a 600cc or bigger sportbike would’ve been any better). I’ve taken day-long rides on back roads and coastal highways without discomfort, but 80 mph and choppy, boring pavement did me in after less than two hours. If I make another trip to Sacramento, it’ll be via more interesting roads, even if it takes twice as long. And, lord’av’mercy, in temperatures below 90.