First UK road test: Kawasaki Versys 650 review

Kawasaki's 'dual purpose' 650 has grown into a serious middle-weight tourer and fun all-rounder

THE UK winter can make a colour-less landscape. What’s needed, obviously, is a yellow Kawasaki to brighten things up.

The Versys 650 has been given a similar restyling to the new Versys 1000 - and hasn't it improved it?

It’s got the same pointy face as the thousand, with aggressive new twin headlights. It’s all a bit more ‘#@&% off! I’m a Kawasaki!’ than the old one, which had stacked headlights.

There are three colours - black, white and yellow - and I rode the yellow one. I don't think I would normally be a fan of an all-yellow motorcycle but with the Versys' new styling it works. It's like a bit of summer trapped in a motorcycle paint job. I'm sure I was getting a tan by the end of my 200-mile ride, the first UK road test of the new ‘dual purpose’ Kawasaki.

It's also like having a bit of hi-vis without wearing any of the wretched stuff. That can't do any harm in London - where I had real fun on the Versys 650.

It's one of those bikes that make battling through busy traffic an actual pleasure. Like the Versys 1000, it's high, wide bars make it good at tight, low-speed turns as you weave through traffic, but it doesn't discouraging filtering through narrow gaps with its bulk. It feels agile and easily manoeuvrable. It would be a great bike to do the manoeuvres in the bike test on (and it's available restricted to 47hp for A2 licence holders).

The seat is low enough to let me, at 5'9”, get the balls of both feet on the ground but high enough to provide a good view over the roofs of cars.

It encourages you to squeeze through closing gaps and spaces that are hardly there, then dodge around a car for another one, wiggling the bars left and right to get the mirrors past a van's as you hustle your way to the front. The mirrors are wide-set and big but repay you with excellent rearward visibility.

Out of the city, the leverage through those wide bars makes it just as easy hustle around bends on twisty B-roads, and it feels lighter than its claimed 216kg.

As well as restyling it, for 2015 Kawasaki has updated the Versys's suspension and brakes and strengthened the sub-frame to take panniers and a top box. The engine - the 649cc parallel-twin from the ER6 range and new Vulcan S - has been tweaked for 5hp more than it made in the old model.

It takes the Versys to 69hp and 47lb. That's 2hp less than a Suzuki SV650S and exactly the same torque. 

Which just shows how peak figures can be deceptive. I own an SV650 and it doesn't feel nearly as strong as this Kawasaki.  

I'd like a meatier, less lawnmower-ish sound from the stubby exhaust, but you can't question this engine's commitment, nor its spread of torque. It pulls from 3,000rpm in fourth and gets lively at about 4,000rpm.

Twist the throttle fully open in first and that liveliness is an easy torque wheelie, another similarity the 650 has with the Versys 1000. The Versys 650 wheelies more easily than a Yamaha MT-07, which likes to be encouraged by leaning back a little. No need for that on the Versys. Sit however you want. 

The red line is at 10,000rpm and peak power at 8,500rpm. That broad spread of torque means there's no need to change gear to chase it.

The suspension is on the soft side and felt more so through the 41mm upside-down Showa forks than the off-set shock. There's a generous 150mm of suspension travel at the front and 145 at the rear.

It's fine for ploughing straight through potholes or over speed humps in the city but elsewhere it encourages forward and aft pitch when rolling off and on the throttle. It’s a little more ‘dual purpose’ than necessary, especially for a bike that isn’t really dual purpose at all, with a 17-inch front wheel that’s unlikely to see dirt.

Pre-load and rebound damping can be adjusted at the front, so there's scope for twiddling. At the rear you can change the pre-load with a new remote adjuster.

The brakes, twin discs with two-pot Nissin calipers at the front and a single piston caliper at the rear, were as powerful as they need to be on a middle-weight all-rounder, offering good bite and feel in response to two-finger pressure. The rear on my test bike made an intermittent annoying whiny squeak when applied, and occasionally when not. When my foot was on the pedal, I could feel an accompanying vibration through it. No doubt it's an issue with the particular bike I rode.

There are no fancy electronics like traction control but you do get ABS as standard.

The Dunlop Smortmax D222 tyres coped well with all conditions of the test tide, ranging from crumbling city roads to damp country ones.

As with the Versys 1000, there are three versions of the 650. There's the base edition, at £6,749 plus on-the-road charges. There's the Tourer, which comes with hand-guards and 27-litre panniers at £7,299. And finally there's the Grand Tourer, with hand-guards, panniers, a 47-litre top box, fog lamps, a gear indicator and a power socket, at £7,999.

I rode the base edition which has none of the above but has gained a new adjustable screen. Screen adjustability can be taken for granted on bigger tourers but seems like a welcome treat on a middle-weight.

It slides up or down by 65mm and at its highest is level with the chin bar of my helmet. Adjusting it requires loosening two knobs on the front. You have to stop and get off but it’s not a difficult operation.

Average consumption on a mix of roads was 48.1mpg according to petrol receipts, or 49.3 according to the fuel economy metre on the dash. The clocks, a digital display with an analogue rev counter, also tell you your range. With the Versys’ new 21-litre tank - two litres more than the old one - it should be over 200 miles from full. 

The pegs have been moved down and forward a bit and the riding position feels roomy and relaxed. Some said the old one could get a bit vibey so Kawasaki has added new rubber engine mounts. It's now really smooth at fast motorway speeds, with no vibes through the bars that I could detect. I had no quarrels with the seat after some hours on it either.

With its eager torque and aggressive new styling, the Versys 650 is a bit like the naked MT-07 made practical. Or, since the Kawasaki has a longer model history, you might say the MT-07 is a bit like a Versys 650 made impractical.

The question is, is the Versys 650 worth £1,400 more than the £5,349 MT-07? I like an adjustable screen but not that much.

At £6,749, the Versys could be getting dangerously close in price to Yamaha's MT-09, which has far more power and torque for another 200 quid.

But the naked MT-09 isn't especially practical either. The Kawasaki is, and makes an excellent middle-weight tourer as well as a really good-fun all-rounder. 

Watch our video review of the Versys 650

Model tested: Kawasaki Versys 650

Price: £6,749 plus OTR

Engine: 649cc parallel-twin

Power: 69hp @ 8,500rpm

Torque: 47lbft @ 7,900rpm

Kerb weight: 216kg

Frame: Steel diamond

Tank capacity: 21 litres

Seat height: 840mm

Colours: black, white, yellow

Watch our video review of the new Kawasaki Versys 650.

Read our Yamaha MT-09 Tracer review

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