As a response to these highly fragmented times, do-it-all motorcycles are making a comeback, says Steve Bond. Bikes you can take toward all four compass points and never feel out of place. Kawasaki’s Versys represents the breed and sits high on Mr. Bond’s “Motorcycles I’d Spend My Own Money On” list.
In the beginning, there was cold and darkness. “Let there be light,” yada yada yada and on the seventh day, we had an interesting concept called a motorcycle.
Times were simpler then. There were no cruisers, sportbikes, sport tourers or dual purpose bikes. Want to go racing? Just tape over the lights, slap some numbers on your motorcycle and hit the track.
Feel like exploring far away places? Fill your backpack, bungee the tent and sleeping bag to the motorcycle and go west young man. Or east, or north but go somewhere!
But like everything else in our segmented society, we got sidetracked and motorcycles evolved into one-trick ponies. Taking a hypersport litre-bike over hill and dale to check out a secret fishing spot is about as fun (and life threatening) as cutting hot laps on a racetrack on a stretched-out V-Twin custom.
Fear not. Do-it-all motorcycles are making a comeback and I’m liking it a lot. Motorcycles such as Kawasaki’s Versys 650, which entered the Canadian market as an ‘07 model but appears down south this year as a 2008 offering, and is, according to PR materials, short for “Versatile System.”
Using the same 649cc liquid-cooled, parallel Twin as the 650R Ninja, the Versys mill has mellower cams and different EFI mapping that shaves a little off the top but gives it a hefty kick in the mid-range. The eager motor builds revs very quickly and a burst of throttle when rowing up through the gears has you quickly at highway speeds. It pulls quite strongly right off the bottom and builds linearly right to the 10,500 rpm redline. With the abundant torque (42 ft/lbs. claimed), there really is no point in wringing the engine’s neck, although it spins quite happily to the upper reaches of the rev range.
The steel trellis frame looks similar to the Ninja 650R but the massive, gullwing swingarm is all Versys. Wheelbase is up a bit to 1415mm (55.7 inches) and the trellis theme carries over nicely to the subframe, replacing the godawful passenger peg mounts of the Ninja and providing an attractive, strong mounting point for the optional hard bags.
The male slider front forks are very rigid and to cut costs, only the right side contains the preload and rebound adjustment. The rear laydown shock is similar to the 650R in that it’s on the right hand side of the swingarm instead of being buried way down in the bowels. Preload and rebound damping adjustment is likewise, a snap. Both ends of the Versys boast an inch or so more suspension travel than the 650R and I found it soaked up road irregularities nicely, without losing composure.
Swinging a leg over, I first noticed the comfortable reach to the wide bars and relaxed riding position. Being long of inseam, I had no problem with the 837-mm (33-inch) seat height, although shorter riders may want the optional gel seat to drop an inch or so off that. Although, at $459 retail, it’s probably cheaper to get your legs lengthened. The cockpit is a wonderful place to spend several hours with a comfy seat, nicely positioned pegs and bars and a well-designed instrument cluster with white-faced tach, digital speedo and LCD fuel gauge, odometer, twin trips and a clock. Nice.
The handlebar fairing diverts much of the windblast and the small screen is easy to adjust, although you will need a screwdriver. I set it on the highest position and it was fine for me, providing a fairly still air pocket. Kawasaki offers a higher and wider optional screen that includes an adjustable deflector for $145.
At 181 kg (398 pounds) dry, the Versys is relatively light and narrow so you can really squirt through city traffic. It’s also tall so that when you’re in said traffic, you can see over all those gigantic SUVs and minivans. Handling is exemplary. It steers with a light touch, the tubular bars give good leverage around town and the rigid chassis and sport rubber makes the Versys capable of some incredible lean angles. It’s only when you really push hard that the budget suspension starts to fray at the edges with a bit of wallowing.
The 17-inch wheels front and rear allow an infinite choice in premium street rubber and so equipped, I’d have no problem doing a track day on the Versys. I’m betting it would embarrass a number of sportbikes on a shorter track where the emphasis is on handling rather than flat-out top speed.
The 19-litre fuel tank and the miserly way the Versys sips dead dinosaurs should give a cruising range of well over 300 km before the low fuel warning light starts blinking.
The 300mm petal shaped front rotors are lifted right off the ZX-10 sportbike and are squeezed by twin pot calipers. The initial bite is on the soft side but once you squeeze harder, stopping power increases on a linear level with good feel and feedback. I’d personally ditch the odd crossover brake line between the calipers and go with twin braided lines direct from the master cylinder to improve feel.
The six-speed tranny shifts positively with a light, short throw and the gearing seems perfectly matched to the characteristics of the engine. The clutch is light with a broad engagement and is buttery smooth. The power delivery is smooth and linear with no hiccups, flat spots or power surges throughout the rev range. Freeway cruising speed comes up at just 4,500 rpm and getting by an obnoxious RV or transport plugging up the passing lane won’t require a downshift.
The major disappointment with the Versys is the lack of a centre stand, and the underslung muffler means that there’s absolutely no way to fit one. Boo! This isn’t such a hardship when you go home every night but when touring (an activity the Versys keenly encourages), chains need lubing and adjusting and it’s highly impractical to tote a race stand along. Secondly, there’s no luggage rack (a la 650 V-Strom), which makes it difficult to fit a tail bag or tie things to the pillion seat. Again, this is something that Kawasaki must’ve researched at some point so it’s a huge oversight that these items weren’t addressed.
I really like the Versys and for a while, I thought it might bump Suzuki’s 650 V-Strom from the top of my “Motorcycles I’d Spend My Own Money On” list but in the end, it came up a little short. Its MSRP ($8,499) is the same as the Strom (quelle surprise) and both bikes have eager, twin cylinder powerplants and similar riding characteristics. The Versys gains points with the 17-inch front wheel (with accompanying crisper handling and greater tire choice), adjustable levers, highbeam flasher and optional hard bags. The Wee Strom sees that with optional bags and flasher switch of its own, then raises the ante with a standard luggage rack, better seat, a larger fuel tank for a greater cruising range and optional centre stand.
If you want a motorcycle that does it all, consider the Versys. It sits a solid third with me—right behind the Wee Strom and the 1250 Bandit. And that’s pretty good company.
– Steve Bond