Road Test: Versys V Bandit 650S V MT-03

We destroyed Australia in the rugby World Cup, and quite possibly that’s all that matters. To give our underdog team a bit of extra support, TWO took the backroad route to France on a Kawasaki Versys, a Yamaha MT-03 and a Suzuki 650 Bandit...

By the time this magazine comes out, England’s fate in the rugby World Cup will be sealed. We’ll either be elevated into a rugby-loving nation (if we win) or not really bothered (if we lose). But three days after we rode to France to support our boys in battle, we’d just rubbed Ozzie noses in it and that, frankly, felt good enough to eat.

The English rugby team are unsung heroes in their field, after a shaky start they rose to put up a proper fight just when nobody thought they had it in them. Just like the three machines we rode to France on. Suzuki’s Bandit 650 often gets overlooked in favour of the sexier naked middleweights, the oddball Kawasaki Versys is not at the forefront of most rider’s minds and Yamaha’s quirky MT-03 is often left unconsidered by new riders due to its small engine size. We figured the English underdogs needed some cheering along on underdog machinery, so joined the Barmy Army boys headed south.

The best thing about starting your journey in Caen is that you are within a few miles of some great roads. After a brief stretch on the N158 we turned off the main highway and headed through the Parc Naturel Regional in the vague direction of Laval. Although the countryside is fairly flat the roads twist and turn through forests and small rural French villages with welcoming locals. Each cafe we stopped at brought a fresh wave of admirers for the bikes, because like most people in the UK the French hadn’t seen anything like the MT-03 or Versys before. Except the Frogs were happy to express their interest.

Launching on the back of its already very oddly styled brother, the ER-6n streetbike, the big-trailie, supermoto Versys isn’t afraid of causing a visual stir. The vibrant orange paint scheme only serves to accentuate the freaky curves and mad lines of the Kawasaki. You get the feeling this is a bike that was designed to be practical, then afterwards the designers were given the finished bike and told to smooth the edges and make it look pretty. Which isn’t a bad way of going about things, because although it looks odd, the Versys is a really good bike to ride.

Much like the ER-6n the Versys offers so much more than the sum of its components and its price tag would suggest. As we thrummed along on the wrong side of the road, the parallel twin engine kicks out a modest 64bhp and the suspension, although offering some limited adjustment, is fairly basic. But what a lovely little machine, and all for just £4,995.

As with the rest of the ER range the motor is the heart of the Versys. It spins up remarkably fast and although it’s smooth and glitch-free it isn’t in any way boring or lifeless. There is a lot of fun to be had from the parallel twin, which manages to be both user friendly for new riders and more than capable of encouraging the Versys into silliness such as wheelies should the more experienced wish. Unlike the MT-03 with its single cylinder engine, the Versys can sit at motorway speeds in complete comfort while the deeply padded seat and comfortable bars form a relaxed riding position. Well they did for me anyway. The photographer complained that the seat pushed him forwards onto his balls. Not willing to investigate any further into this statement I noted his comments and suggest you check bollock/tank interference with a test ride should you be looking at purchasing one. I didn’t find it an issue, but this particular snapper is quite old and I’m told old men’s knackers start to drop and go saggy.

Changing the subject slightly but still talking about saggy things, brings us on nicely to the Versys’ suspension. Pseudo-big trailies such as the Versys do suffer a bit with their long travel suspension. To keep the off-road look and height manufacturers have to fit longer than normal forks to this style of bike, which can lead to an odd feeling from the front. Having spent most of the year riding a Triumph Tiger I’m used to this, but co-rider Warren was less impressed, describing it as wobbly and much preferring the sharp handling of the Yamaha.

It’s funny but I wouldn’t have picked Warren as an MT-03 fan. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great little bike, but when it comes to riding he only has one speed – flat out. Riding long-distance with him involves a series of high-speed, near-death incidents while he tries to burn as much fuel in as short a time as possible, fighting a losing battle between his sense of good judgement and enormous ego. And this style of riding isn’t suited to the little Yamaha.

Flat out on the MT-03 involves almost hitting 100mph while bouncing the engine off its rev-limiter. At this point the vibrations are fairly pronounced, which isn’t that surprising, and the windblast tries to turn you into the wing of a two-wheeled microlight. As we passed a coach-load of lunatic England fans who showed us their arses (thanks boys) I can honestly say I’ve never ridden a bike with bars as wide as the MT-03’s. It feels like you are trying to grab both sharp ends of a Texas Longhorn bull at once, especially when you compare it to the narrow bars on the Bandit. But it’s comfortable enough, as long as you stay below 80mph, not that Warren ever did and in doing so managed a personal best of hitting reserve in less than 70 miles.

The route we took to get to the rugby was a mix of backroads and pÈage blitzing (when we finally just had to get there). Having spent a day meandering through small French villages we headed to a beautiful little ch‚teaux before our push to Nantes, the location of the stadium. If you are thinking of crossing through France, then seek out a ch‚teaux. Rather than waste money on a horrible hotel get online, find a 300 year-old fat pad to spend the night in and for less than the cost of a seedy room you could be living like the French aristocracy. Well not totally like them, most of them ended up under the guillotine, but in a nice bed in a beautiful house at least.

Keeping the speed down and the superb chassis on the MT-03 shines. Since I first rode the bike I’ve always said it’s one of the best handling bikes available, and I still stand by that statement. Which has stood me in for loads of stick, but then I’m quite used to that. In combining the ethos of a supermoto with a more road-orientated chassis Yamaha has created an underrated back-road missile. With its tiny single cylinder engine and not much else you can sling it from side to side and act a complete loon on this bike. Like the others the suspension is fairly budget, but unlike the heavier Versys and Bandit the Yamaha is never overwhelmed and allows you to get the most from the excellent chassis and keep the corner speed up, which you do need to do if you want to make any progress at all.

A single cylinder engine with only five gears was never going to be that fast, and although the Yamaha is punchy enough up to 70mph it’s frustrating because the chassis can obviously handle so much more. To be fair the MT-03 is aimed at newer riders, so a lack of power isn’t that bad a thing, but the stuttering could be. If you aren’t in the right gear and let the revs drop too low the MT-03 starts to shake itself to bits. Singles hate running at very low revs and this Yamaha is no exception. I reckon inexperienced riders may find this a problem because it’s all too easy to get the wrong gear when you are learning, although there isn’t much that can be done about it, it’s just a character of the engine. But what could be cured with a bit more thought from Yamaha is the lack of weight over the rear wheel.

Change down too many gears and the back of the MT-03 locks up really easily. Although this is amusing for some as it means you can leave big black skid marks into roundabouts, I could see it causing a few scares with younger riders who, possibly, haven’t yet mastered the art of how many gears to shift down.It’s not a huge problem and is probably more a question of just getting used to how the bike feels under certain conditions, and all-round the Yamaha is a great little bike that is brimming with character. But for a few quid less you could have one of the most overlooked bikes currently on the market.

Because at just £4,749 the new Bandit 650SA offers unparalleled value for money. Nearing Nantes, our stadium destination, the Bandit was the bike everyone wanted to be on with its comfortable seat and solid, vibe-free engine. A water-cooled inline four motor, ABS, a half-fairing and one hell of a heritage all for less than both the other two bikes in this test certainly help set it aside. But like buying your bird a gift from Pound Land sometimes this budget price can backfire somewhat, and the old Bandits were a bit suspect in some areas. Finish was poor, the suspension very soft and although the engine was strong, it wasn’t as fast as modern water-cooled units. But the 2007 update has cured the Bandit of many of its faults, in doing so making the new model the bargain bike of this year.

Going from the tiny Yamaha to the Suzuki it does make the Bandit feel like a big barge, but others would say it just feels like a real motorbike and although there is no denying she ain’t no feather-weight, the new Bandit is far better than previous models. The suspension has been sharpened and actually feels like it has some damping, the back end no longer pogos around as much and the brakes have some proper bite rather than a gummy nibble. Warren reckoned it was lardy in fast corners, mainly due to the fact he had just got off the MT-03, and it certainly isn’t that rapid to turn in. It’s a little slow, ponderous and takes some effort to turn, but the other side to this is that it is super stable and feels secure while fully canted over. But the biggest difference in the new Bandit is the engine.

Suzuki could so easily have buggered it up by fitting a water-cooled engine in the Bandit. The old air-oil cooled lump was a beauty with excellent fuelling (thanks to carbs) and a stack of midrange grunt. Fitting fuel injection and a water-jacket could have messed up this balance, but thankfully it hasn’t. Well not that badly, anyway. Although the fuel injection is a bit abrupt at the initial input from a closed throttle, it’s not that bad and the engine still has a hefty midrange. Much like the new water-cooled Bandit 1250, the 650’s engine feels like it has an almost flat torque delivery, giving a constant build up of power, rather than a kick at any revs. For fun and exciting riding it’s not the best, but it is hard to moan too much about the Bandit when you remember the price tag.

The next morning, with wigs at the ready and England tops hidden under our jackets, we headed into Nantes. Despite what many say about the French being rude (only true in Paris, I find) they do have one thing going for them: they love their bikes! We were waved through all the traffic by friendly cops who were more intent on staring at the bikes than looking to see if we had a ticket to the match (which we didn’t) and made it right next to the stadium and into a conveniently located bike park. Try that tactic in the UK and you’re odds on to be stopped by some dayglow-jacketed Hitler and told to eff off.

Safely at our destination of Stade de la Beaujoire and in the company of like-minded Englishmen, we could release our inner hooligan and live up to the repuation of the British Abroad. Stupid wigs on, jackets off and we mingled with the ever increasingly drunken supporters. While getting increasingly drunk ourselves. Setting up camp outside the stadium, touts were flogging tickets for the England-Samoa game inside for as much as £300. We considered trying to swing it on expenses but thought against the idea. With Johnny Wilkinson back on form and kicking like a mule we settled down and watched the game in a nearby bar, and 44 points later England had the game in the bag. The underdogs had come out on top and our journey had been victorious.

The next morning and several thousand beers later (or so it seemed) we filtered towards our favoured bikes for the motorway blast back to Caen. I was stone deaf, as for half the night the oompah support bands had been banging their double-bass into my earhole. I needed something easy to ride, and for me it was the Kawasaki every time. I love the character of the little Versys. Warren hopped back on the MT-03, putting up with the motorway windblast and poor tank range for the hooligan potential when he turned off it. And the photographer with the saggy balls clambered awkwardly onto the Bandit and muttered off into the sunset.


Where the ER-6n is a brilliant yet rather odd-looking piece of two-wheeled joy which somehow manages to make itself as useful to new riders as it is killer fun for the more experienced, the Versys is none of the above.

Its tall riding position is super practical but appears to have been created by jacking the whole plot up without balancing the suspension to match. The result is a bike which pitches back and forth like a seesaw on a spacehopper as soon as you even think about having some fun. And with the styling having gone to hell in a handbasket too in the transition from ‘quirky-but-cool’ ER-6n to ‘hit with the ugly stick from all directions’ Versys, I could happily never see one of these again. Really rather disappointed with this.


Brilliant, brilliant motorbike. I know it’s not comfortable, and I’m also aware an 80-mile tank range is hardly convenient, but this bike is more fun than a spud gun in a potato factory and makes you feel both invincible and about 10 years old.

This could be bad as the ‘10 years old’ part of the equation means you end up riding the MT like a total twat the entire time. Well I did anyway. But as top speed is an indicated 109mph and the chassis is so tautly, precisely and perfectly matched to the power this means it’s very hard to get into trouble on an MT.

All in all the MT lifts the best bits from supermotos and dirt bikes and throws them into a usable road package that will make you grin like a baboon while keeping your licence.


Oh faithful Bandit how jolly good you are. You’re so comfortable with your plush seat, your lovely neutral riding position and your svelte fairing with its excellent wind protection and curious ability to keep my legs dry even at 110mph in drizzle. You’re so practical too, with that pillion grabrail, bungee hooks, plush pillion perch, and centrestand. I know it looks like it was made with a big hammer in a Liverpool shipyard circa 1910, but that matters not when I need to lube my chain. You’re also adaptable, dispatching motorways, town traffic and even a spot of back road bashing with a steady and occasionally exciting aplomb. And you’re a total bargain.
Trouble is you’re ugly, rather dull most of the time and I’d never. ever buy you. Sorry.



Price: £4,995

Engine: 649cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve parallel twin

Power: 65.4bhp@8,500rpm

Torque: 50lb.ft@7,000rpm

Weight: 212kg

Seat height: 840mm

Colours: Orange, black, silver


Price: £4,749

Engine: 656cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 16-valve inline four

Power: 83.8bhp@10,500rpm

Torque: 44.6lb.ft@9,000rpm

Weight: 238kg

Seat height: 810mm

Colours: Black, blue


Price: £4,899

Engine: 660cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 4-valve single

Power: 45bhp@5,800rpm

Torque: 42.6lb.ft@4,900rpm

Weight: 191kg

Seat height: 805mm

Colours: Black, white, red