WORDS: Chris Moss PICS: Lel Pavey
WE SHOULDN'T have been too surprised back in late 2006 when the first Versys 650 models were wheeled out into Kawasaki showrooms. The firm’s ER6n and ER6f budget bikes had already proved very popular during the year they’d been on sale, and the middleweight adventure bike market was looking good to grow. By using the ER6 engine and key chassis components as a base for the new Versys the Kawasaki engineers had a sound logistical and economic head start.
The first model, featuring underslung exhaust and side-mounted rear shock won many friends. At the press launch, journos reacted optimistically, deeming the new bike fun, friendly, and versatile. The future, they predicted, appeared positive, with the Versys especially likely to suit anyone relatively new to bikes, or a bit short of two-wheeled experience. Costing just £5000 back then looked like it would guarantee great sales. Alas, the journos’ crystal ball proved a bit off target and the 650 didn’t become the star they’d expected.
Three years later, the Versys got its first upgrade. It was hardly what you’d call radical, but shaper lines gave it a more pleasant appearance, with a rubber mounted motor giving smoother running. Better suspension helped handling, pillions sat more comfortably on a wider seat, and new mirrors improved the rearward view. The 2010 bike was weightier, but the revisions and ABS option did the trick, and sales improved.
By the time 2015 arrived, the Versys appeared in its third and current incarnation. A much more modern looking steed thanks to the restyled twin-headlight headlight, the improved looks boosted the bike’s appeal. As well as that, the engine got another 5bhp, slightly more torque, and additional rubber mounting to kill vibes even more. Suspension control improved and the rear shock gained a remote preload adjuster. ABS became standard, a 2-litre larger tank helped take you further, with the trips becoming even more comfy thanks to lower-sited footrests and a taller adjustable screen. Porkier to the tune of 8 kilos it may have been, largely down to heavier wheels and stronger rear subframe, but the latest Versys was rated as the best one yet. It also came in a Touring option complete with colour-matched 28-litre panniers, rack and hand guards. Even more mileage-friendly was the Grand Touring version with its additional 47-litre top box, fog lights, digital gear indicator, and 12v socket. It’s this model we’ve tested here.
Early impressions of the Versys lead you to believe, quite justifiably, it’s a bike that can successfully turn its hand to many roles. Almost everything needed to judge the Kawasaki as a capable multi-purpose machine is in place. Even a short ride ticks many boxes.
The riding position will get a thumbs up from virtually all sized riders. The relationship between seat, footrests and bars gives it the chance to easily accommodate those of longer limbs. And though the bum perch itself is a little high, with experience this becomes a less daunting issue for those (like me) of shorter leg who can’t plant their boots flatly on the floor. In saying that, assessing this point alone in the showroom might be a wise move before taking to the road. The upside of the loftier riding position is the excellent view it provides. Being able to look over cars and hedges really improves riding safety. Having enough room to move around easily adds to the bike’s relaxed feel. After clocking just a few miles on the Versys it’s easy to see its potential as a machine happily capable of much longer hauls. And with more mileage comes more approval.
One obvious stand out feature is the Kawasaki’s parallel twin engine. With its broad, dependable spread of power and torque, healthy progress can always be reliably called on with minimal effort. Low rev strength means, despite its slick action, the six-speed gearbox doesn’t require much use to raise speed and subsequently maintain it. The friendly punch is another calming and endearing feature of the Versys. There is enough extra speed available from the 68bhp motor at higher rpm to warrant sampling it, and it often proves useful for overtakes. But as the 650 can never be described as thrilling when spun harder, it’s really not worth thrashing too often. Instead, its flexibility, smoothness and user-friendliness are the features which generate ever increasing admiration. It really is a real world and effective engine, and with the bonus of being able to return 55-75mpg, it’s financially friendly too.
As well as being easy on the mind, the twin’s usability is similarly undemanding of the Kawasaki’s chassis. Its spec isn’t especially high, with a steel frame, basic suspension and brakes not giving you too much pub ammo. But just like its engine performance, the 650’s handling is easy and dependable. The leverage offered by its wide, ‘weight-lessening’ bars lets you flick the Kawasaki about with ease and often has you questioning its claimed 216 kilo kerb weight. From the seat, the Versys doesn’t feel anywhere near as heavy as that, and certainly doesn’t need any brute strength to make it head where you wish. Allied to its nice steering and notable overall balance, it’s an easy bike to master. That virtue applies wherever you ride it, but makes it particularly adept in town where speed and direction changes are more frequent and often less predictable. You can rely on the brakes and suspension in that environment too. There’s a slightly budget feel to the action of the forks and shock over some of the roughest surfaces, and with limited adjustment that can’t really be dialled out – though the remote preload adjuster for the rear shock is very convenient. In the context of the Kawasaki’s price and role though, the suspension’s performance is more than acceptable and I wouldn't be rushing off feeling any need to upgrade it. It’s the same story with the brakes. They might be fairly low tech in design with their twin-piston sliding calipers up at the business end, yet what might sound lacking on paper is easily good enough on Tarmac. You’d really need to be making unrealistic demands of the stoppers to find them lacking. The ABS is excellent, neither triggering too early nor taking too long to reapply pressure when it does cut in.
Impressive though it is as a commuter, it’s perhaps its ability out on more open roads where the Versys scores highest. For such a modest machine the Kawasaki deals with the job of taking you far and wide with total competence. I didn’t ride this one for too long, but I have travelled for some considerable distance on another example, knocking out the miles effortlessly. The position of the hand adjustable screen can’t be altered from the seat, but can be relied upon to provide good shelter from the wind and rain, as too can the handguards. The combination reduces energy-sapping physical strain so important to mile-eating ambitions, and you definitely won’t be ending your day prematurely for rest on this bike. Some testers I know have complained about the seat comfort after a couple of hours riding, but I’ve never had an issue. If you told me to get down to the south of France in one hit on this bike tomorrow, I’d be happy to take the job on.
The all-important very healthy fuel range is another ally to mile-dispensing, with refuelling stops only required every 220miles at the earliest, with 300miles or even more being possible with more restrained use of the throttle. Not sure about you, but I really do view that as a significant advantage to covering ground effectively. With the standard-fitment panniers and top box of this, the Grand Touring model, you really do have a bike you can holiday on for a few weeks. Though as I only wanted to do 50miles for testing and photography, I left them behind at Gloucester-based dealer Thunder Road (01452 313131) who kindly loaned me the Versys. The absolutely immaculate, 2017, sub 1000 mile machine was on sale at the time for £6999, but unsurprisingly sold just a few days after I’d used it.
No doubt the new owner will enjoy the impressive versatility of the 650. It’s a real multi-tasker, highly capable of providing great service whenever and wherever you choose to ride it in a friendly and forgiving fashion. The Versys might not be a bike that excites, but if you’re like me and prefer machines that just get the job done efficiently and effectively, then the Kawasaki definitely stands a chance of getting your vote.
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