by Adam Waheed

Kawasaki Versys in a Niche of its Own

Adventure tourer, dual-sport, supermoto, streetfighter? What exactly is the Kawasaki Versys? That’s the question surrounding the Versys since it first hit Canadian and European streets last year. Like you, we wanted to know what Kawi’s newest import is all about. We approached the press launch in San Diego, California, anxious to form our own conclusions yet a little skeptical about the new mid-size moto’s introduction to the U.S market.

Kawasaki originally designed this multi-purpose motorbike specifically for European and Canadian markets. Although it was only introduced last year, the Versys quickly became so popular that the buzz spread stateside in no time. American consumers spoke up and inundated Kawasaki with emails begging the question: When, where, and how much? Well my fellow citizens, the people have spoken and Kawasaki has answered. The 2008 Versys is here in the U.S. That’s right, you read correctly. The bad news is that Californian customers are going to have to either wait until next year or take up residence in one of the other 49 states.

Upon first glance you might assume that the Versys is a dressed up version of the Ninja 650R, but that can’t be farther from the truth. Yes, the Versys shares the same parallel Twin and steel trellis-style frame, but other than those two similarities it is a completely unique motorcycle. It is a versatile bike designed to do a little bit of everything, hence its name, “Versys.”

During the technical briefing, Kawasaki emphasized a few key design elements. First on its list was the aforementioned versatility. The bike has to fill a variety of different motorcycling niches, including sport, commuting, and touring, on an equally diverse type of roadways – city streets, highways, canyon twisties and rough roads off the beaten path. Performance is the second key design element. Kawi wanted a comfortable machine that would be responsive in terms of both handling and engine power delivery. The rationale is that the machine’s performance be enough for a novice rider to handle, yet still maintains enough edge and excitement when pushed by more advanced riders. This bike should be just plain fun for riders of all skill levels, but how many times have we heard that statement?

The next day, we were subjected to a 160-mile ride originating from Mission Bay, San Diego, moving eastward toward the Cuyamaca Mountains near Julian, California. The adventurous route took us through an assortment of surfaces which enabled us to really get a true feel for the Versys and see if it’s as flexible as advertised.

Throwing a leg over the mid-sized Passion Red machine, I was immediately impressed with how compact the bike feels. The Versys is very slim between your legs and has a narrow seat-to-tank area, which makes the rider feel like they are riding in the bike as opposed to perched atop. Its weight is centered and distributed fairly low making it easy to maneuver at extremely low speeds. Seat height comes in at 33.1-inches, which was spot-on for my 6-foot frame. The seating position is upright and has a very natural, relaxed feeling. It allowed me to plant both feet firmly on terra firma, but the seat height might be a little on the high side for vertically challenged riders (Kawi addresses this by offering a 50mm-lower gel seat as an OEM accessory).

The 33-inch wide handlebars are up high and spaced properly, equating to a relaxed yet commanding bar position. The dirtbike-esque handlebars can be moved slightly fore or aft and both the brake and clutch levers feature five-way adjustments to accommodate different hand sizes. Overall, the cockpit of the bike is comfortable and very roomy, allowing the rider to put in some serious mileage without all of the physical wear and tear that can accompany 100-plus mile rides.

Thumbing the starter, the 649cc 4-stroke, DOHC parallel Twin instantly fired to life. In a sewing machine-like hum, the sleek, low-slung bullet-shaped exhaust emits a quiet, non-obtrusive purr. But don’t let its demure sound fool you. At speed, the twin quickly changes disguises and rewards the rider with a healthy snarl.

The heart of the Versys is a retuned version of the one found in the Ninja 650R. The compact engine shares the same 83mm x 60mm oversquare bore/stroke but has different camshafts and a modified exhaust system featuring a connecting tube between the two head pipes. The engine also sports a lower 10.6:1 compression ratio. These modifications equate to an engine tuned for big power down low and throughout the middle of the rpm range, which is right where you want it for serious street action. The twin-cylinder mill is fuel injected by two Keihin 38mm throttle bodies. Jetting was spot-on and throttle response was instantaneous and devoid of any hiccups or quirky power surges.

The amount of power that the little Twin pumps out is actually impressive, but even more impressive is the sheer smoothness of the powerband. This thing simply stomps right off of idle and continues to pull readily all the way to 9,000 rpm where it starts to lose steam shy of its 10,500 rpm redline. Sure, triple-digit speed blasts are no problem for the compact Twin, but the Versys is most in its element at more tame, legal cruising speeds. If you’re looking for any kind of top-end surge, you won’t find it here – just a constant forward pull that makes riding almost too easy.

Harnessing the torque-filled power of the 649cc machine is a wide ratio six-speed transmission. Mis-shifts were non-existent and transmission engagement was a painless affair. Gearing was narrow enough to easily keep the Twin in the meat of its power, but wide enough so we weren’t constantly rowing the tranny. When it comes time to slip the bike into neutral at a stoplight, the bike features Kawasaki’s “positive neutral finder” feature which works flawlessly.

The clutch was equally as pleasing. Action is particularly light and has progressive engagement as well as good feel, which lends itself well to riders of all skill levels.

In the handling department, the Versys features a beefy 41mm inverted front fork. The fork has 5.9-inches of travel and is adjustable for both spring preload and rebound damping. The link-less Showa rear shock is horizontally mounted and is connected to an aesthetically pleasing gull-shaped aluminum swingarm. The rear shock offers up 5.7-inches of travel and offers the same adjustability as the fork.

The sum of the chassis parts equates to a bike that handles responsively at all speeds. Parking lot turning radius is extremely short and the bike feels this nimble even at highway speeds. The extra leverage provided by the wide handlebars allows the Versys to turn almost telepathically. Once cranked over on its side in a corner it has a surprisingly good amount of road feel from both ends. The Versys is also surprisingly stable. The chassis is well sorted and devoid of any twitchiness that is sometimes common on bikes with long-travel suspension. The one complaint that we had was springy fork action which has a tendency to spring back up rather quickly after heavy front brake use. But, by adding a few clicks of rebound, the fork traveled back up in its stroke in a more controlled fashion. As you would expect with rear suspension sans linkage, the shock spring is fairly beefy, but the ride is not compromised. Rear suspension action remained plush and not overly jarring. Much to our delight, ground clearance issues were non-existent, even mobbing through some extremely tight, bumpy San Diego County back roads.

Another exclusive feature on the Versys is the three-way adjustable windscreen. The screen was originally mounted in the middle position, which was a little on the low side for me. At a water stop, I pulled out the supplied tool kit and went to work moving the windscreen up 20mm to its highest setting. The adjustment was unexpectedly painless and afterwards the Versys did an admirable job of sheltering me from the effects of wind at speed.

Tucked behind its windscreen, the instrument cluster features a large white-faced analog tach as well as digital speedo, clock, dual trip meters and an odometer. A digital fuel gauge keeps tabs on the large five-gallon fuel tank. The instrument panel is uncluttered and easy to see at a glance. The only thing missing from the legible instrument package is the standard issue coolant temperature gauge, which would be a bonus considering that this bike is capable of traversing roadways where services might not be easily accessible.

Stopping power on this 399-lb. bike (claimed dry weight) is provided by two 300mm petal-style semi-floating front discs and dual-piston calipers. A single-piston, 220mm petal-style disc keeps rear-wheel speed in check. The front stoppers have a very minimal amount of initial brake bite, which is excellent for a novice rider. But worry not aggressive riders, just pull back the lever a little further and you will find plenty of power accompanied by a reasonable amount of feel. The rear brake is appropriately matched to the front setup, offering virtually the same amount of initial brake bite and relative power once the lever gets stomped deeper in its stroke.

The quality brakes control a pair of six-spoke, 17-inch wheels that are similar to the ones found on Kawasaki’s ZX-6R and ZX-10R sportbikes. Dunlop Sportmax D221 tires in sizes 120/70 front and 160/60 rear shod the aluminum wheels and provide ample amounts of traction on all of the road surfaces we encountered.

After a full day flogging the Versys around all that San Diego had to offer, I was in awe. The Versys ate up everything we could throw at it. In the corners, it had all the asphalt-carving attributes of a supermoto bike. On the straights, it offered the long-haul comfort factor of a sporty tourer. When the going got a little rough, the Versys shined like a modern dual-sport, offering stability and a level of off-road prowess that you won’t find on your typical street bike.

A full line of OEM accessories, including a hard top case, hard saddlebags, gel seat, and additional windscreen options allow the Versys to be tailored to any particular rider’s needs.

Whether you’re looking for another motorcycle to diversify your two-wheeled portfolio, or if you’re a beginner just getting into motorcycling, the $6,899 Versys has what it takes to fulfill any type of riding you have in mind. Except, of course, in California.