Kawasaki 2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 - first ride

2019 Versys 1000

Team Green ratchets up the spec on its big-bore adventure tourer

Handles well Loads of kit options SE is packed with excellent technology
Could use more top-end power Quickshifter isn't great

THERE’S something about an underdog that we all love – here in Britain at least. The plucky outsider, taking on the number one, David vs Goliath, the dark horse that wins the day. From FA Cup upsets, to Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican bobsleigh team, there’s nothing better than rooting for your side, though it’s up against seemingly-insurmountable odds.

Kawasaki knows what it’s like to be on both sides of the fence of course. Currently, no-one can beat the green team in World Superbike racing, where it’s definitely the number one top dog, thanks to Jonathan Rea and the awesome ZX-10R Ninja. And on a slightly more mundane level, it bucked the downward trend in bike sales in the UK last year, scoring an impressive 9.6 per cent increase in 2018 registrations thanks to exciting new machines like the H2SX and the Z900RS.


But in one of the most important new bike sectors – the adventure market – it’s definitely a bit of an outsider. Sure, its Versys range has carved out a solid niche as well-rounded adventure-styled road bikes, at a decent price (the 650 in particular is a great little machine). Kawasaki’s keen to insist that it’s not in the ‘proper’ adventure market – though this is the closest they get. But compared with the might of BMW’s GS range, and the exotic delights of the Ducati Multistradas and KTM Adventures of this world, even the big Versys 1000 can look a wee bit overshadowed.

The big K is looking to change that for 2019 though, and it’s given Versys Major a hefty upgrade, raiding its high-tech toy cupboard for the SE version in particular. This fancy version is liberally festooned with the best kit Bosch and Showa can provide (all with a GIANT CAPITAL ‘K’ prefixed to their various ‘akronyms’…) Stacks of sweet, sweet tech, plus a tremendous dollop of touring accessories and a slick revamp of the bodywork all looks good – but the foundations have been left mostly untouched, with just a change to ride-by-wire throttle valves for the motor, and the same aluminium frame and swingarm as before.

Has the Versys been transformed into more of a giant-killer? Well, we’re here in the Canary Islands to find out. And I say ‘Islands’ advisedly, because Kawasaki’s put on a bit of a jaunt for this launch. We’re starting off on Lanzarote, with a morning riding about there, before catching a ferry to the neighbouring island of Fuerteventura, spending the night there, then sailing back to Lanzarote and heading home. A fair bit of riding then – and the ferries are only every few hours at this time of year, so if we miss one, we’re snookered. Best get on then!

Getting set on the Versys outside the hotel, the first impressions are strong. It’s not too high for my weirdly stunted 28” inside legs (I have short limbs and a long body, for my sins), and there’s lots going on with the dash and the switchgear. We’re on Grand Touring SE versions, meaning we’ve got the full three-box luggage package and all the bells and whistles you could want. I’ve got an overnight bag with a change of kit, a working day-sack with laptop, cameras, notepad, spare gloves and clear visor, and Kawasaki’s provided a packed lunch for day one. The PR folks have also packed a first aid kit, though it’s not clear how much use some Elastoplast and a crepe bandage will be if you get it wrong and end up crashing into the jagged lava fields round the photo location. Burial at sea might be the best option, for bike and rider.

The Givi-sourced hard cases suck up all my kit with ease. The top box is cavernous and the angular side cases have plenty of space too – although as I found out on the ferry, my new Arai Tour-X 4 lid won’t quite fit into the pannier (the peak gets in the way), which is sub-optimal. I’m all packed now though, my phone is mounted on the bars and plugged into the 12v socket. I’ve even managed to link it to the bike via Bluetooth, using the new Rideology app. The line of test bikes roars into life, and we sweep out of the hotel car park like a giant green serpent, heading for the photo stop.

I’ve not spent a lot of time on the old Versys 1000, so much of this is fairly new to me in some ways – but very familiar in others. That’s because Kawasaki has copied and pasted a lot of stuff from the H2SX SE, which I spent some time on last year. The Versys SE’s colour dash, cruise control and switchgear are all very similar to the H2 SX SE kit, so I’m used to the lean angle readout, the cruise control, menu navigation and the like. The steering feels very light for a machine of this size and mass, which might be down to the luggage and all my crap out back, but is encouraging round the car park. A few people online had complained about a top-heavy feel, but I’m not really getting that.

The first few miles are steady as you like, bumping over speed humps in town, following the Kawasaki lead rider. The electronic suspension shows off straight away here – the (fairly savage) sleeping policemen soothed away by Showa’s cunning semi-active fork and shock, and I’m impressed by the super-smooth, low-down urge of the engine. What’s not so good straight off – and will continue to irk throughout the two day ride – is the quickshifter. It’s sort-of okay on upshifts, when you’re in the groove, but on downshifts, and slightly lazy upshifts, it just doesn’t work very well. It often doesn’t seem to bother blipping the throttle, or properly cutting power, and this reticence, coupled with a very long, overly-flexible lever, means you have a pretty vague setup all in.

Like a resourceful shopkeeper returning to paper credit card slips in a power cut, I resort to good old-fashioned clutch and throttle antics – and all is well again. We’re at the photo shoot now, so there’s a few hours of hanging around, riding behind lunatic tracking cars, and trying to look fast on cold tyres for cynical snappers who’re used to shooting Jonnie Rea at ten-tenths, rather than this bunch of Jonnie-come-latelys trundling about.

I’m doing my best though, and the Versys is too. The game here is, of course, the lean-o-meter. One benefit of the Bosch IMU inertial measurement unit is that the bike knows how far it's leaning over - and the colour SE dash shows your maximum lean angle, in cold, hard numbers. And at each stop, those numbers are compared, to see who’s got it over more. Childish, yes, potentially lethal on this road, yes, but a hoot nonetheless. I’m just pipped to the ‘acute’ title by the devilish Martin Fitzgibbons when we hit the high 40°s – a testament to the Versys’s strong handling and the very decent Bridgestone T31 rubber. There's much more ground clearance than you'd think too, and the pegs only go down with extreme provocation...

We’ve got a real treat coming up though. Unusually for a riding launch these days, where you generally have a chaperone front and rear, KHI is giving us all TomTom satnavs, an optional planned route and a destination (the ferry port, then the hotel in Fuerteventura), then lets us do what we want. With my packed lunch in my panniers, a fancy new motorbike and two islands to play with in glorious blue-sky weather, what could be better?

NEXT - more riding impressions, tech rundown and conclusion!