Kawasaki’s Versys-X 300 impressed us when we first rode it this spring, with John Burns reporting that it would be a good machine to “propagate your bigger adventures.” Then, after some time on it this summer, its versatility and affordability helped us decide to give it accolades as the Honorable Mention in our Best On/Off-Road Adventure motorcycle of 2017. To better put it to test, we assigned our newest editor, Brent Jaswinski, to load up the littlest Versys with camping gear and head out on the road for an adventure of his own. –Ed.
The world is a big place and there’s a lot to be seen. However, there’s simply not enough minutes, hours or even years in this crazy space-time continuum we live in to see it all. While this might be the most obvious understatement of the year, the new Kawasaki Versys-X 300 most certainly is not. There’s a new class of lightweight adventure/touring motorcycles on the market and they’re designed to get people out there, to escape the city, off the grid and into the wild.
Don’t let the small-displacement motor fool you into thinking that the Versys-X 300 isn’t a capable machine, because I’m here tell you it is. Over the course of two days and about 500 miles, I had the pleasure of becoming very well acquainted with this entry-level adventurer. I threw everything I could at the poor bike to see what it could and couldn’t do, and to my pleasant surprise, the list of coulds turned out to be a lot longer than I had expected.
The Versys-X 300 is a great all-arounder that comes with all the equipment you would expect from a versatile adventure/touring bike including a large 4.5-gallon fuel tank, a tall windscreen, rear rack, long-travel suspension and 19- and 17-inch spoked front and rear wheels. The 296cc counterbalanced, twin-cylinder motor is derived from the Ninja 300 and spins like a top right from the bottom of the revs all the way to its 12k redline. Paired with the motor is a six-speed transmission whose final drive gearing has been reduced by 9%, relative to the Ninja 300 donor, to maximize the bike’s versatility.
The result is a first gear that allows the Versys-X to crawl along with a low chance of stalling. You almost literally have to try to stall it, otherwise it just keeps chugging along. This is beneficial in the tighter, trickier off-road scenarios you’re likely to find yourself in aboard the Kawi, because after all, with a bike like this, the adventure doesn’t stop just because the pavement ends. Low gearing is a benefit to budding riders as it builds confidence. Stalling sucks – it’s frustrating and embarrassing for new and seasoned riders alike. It’s the last thing a new rider needs and something a vet rider can appreciate. Additional kudos to the clutch that requires just a single finger to operate.
While this gearing reduction is great for slow-speed and off-road maneuvering, the Versys-X 300 runs out of legs pretty quickly on top, sort of… Casual riding around town sees you shifting into sixth around 50 mph, but sixth gear is looong and there’s thousands more revs to work with. Cruising down the freeway at 80 yields about 9,500 rpm, which is pretty high in the rev range considering it redlines at 12,000. But you wouldn’t know the motor was working that hard unless you looked at the tach. The motor is that smooth, and besides, no one is buying the Versys-X 300 to set land-speed records or go dragracing – that’s not what it was designed for.
Additionally, the bike has a fairly steep 24.3-degree rake that makes it super nimble and quick-steering around town, although speeds north of 80 mph can make the front end feel a bit nervous. Like I said, though, speed is not the bike’s intention and I don’t hold this against it. But for what it’s worth, sixth gear pinned, right up to the rev limiter, reads 96 mph on the speedo. A lighter rider could crack triple digits, I’m sure.
Riding the Versys-X 300 through twisty canyon roads is a blast. The suspension is firm enough and translates a good feel for the road to the rider. This portion of my time spent with the little 300… Well, actually, hold on, I keep wanting to say ‘little’ but the bike isn’t really ‘little’ at all. It’s full-sized in nearly every dimension except for perhaps the displacement of its motor. Anyway, it was in the canyons that I really put the Versys-X through its paces. We shared a lot of full-throttle action, and although the engine temperature rose up to its higher limits, the little motor never wavered and kept spinning along smoothly. We at MO are avid proprietors of riding small bikes fast because often times you get to use 100% of their potential, and the Versys-X 300 proved to have plenty of potential.
After the canyon roads, I introduced the lightweight overlander to the dirt and sand of the desert. I didn’t get too gnarly with the Versys-X because I didn’t want to potentially break a bike I don’t own, but nevertheless, the bike traversed terrain that most owners might be skeptical to attempt. This included a foot-and-a-half deep river crossing, a few log jumps, some dicey single-track, a couple sand washes and several miles of fire roads. I’m happy to report that the Versys-X tackled everything without the slightest of hiccups.
Perhaps the bike’s most impressive attribute noticed while off-roading was how well the ABS brakes worked. As a disclaimer, I think ABS brakes are great when you need them, but it irks me when they’re too sensitive and engage over-eagerly. (This was one of my few qualms about the otherwise great-performing Kawi Z900.) Barreling down a whooped-out fire road at about 50 mph, I grabbed a fistful of front brake and slammed the rear. Now I know what you’re thinking, trying to lock up the brakes on a rough dirt road going that fast ought to go over like a fart in church, but the Versys-X 300 remained planted and came to a halt swiftly and predictably. The suspension soaked up the bumps and kept the bike well balanced. Surprised by the results this initial experiment yielded, I decided to try it again, and again with the same results. It was at this point in our journey when I finally felt like I had broken the horse – we now had a mutual trust and understanding of each other.
The rest of our time spent together was gravy. And though it’s not a full-on adventure bike, the Versys-X 300 is a well-balanced package that will take you off the grid and into the wild with confidence. While it does most things as well as a bigger bike, I wouldn’t be doing our readers justice without pointing out its shortcomings. First of all, I’d like to mention that the step seat was roomy, but after 50 miles, my ass started begging for mercy. I’ve ridden dirtbikes with softer seats, and while it wasn’t so much the firmness on top that bothered me, it was more so the pressure points on the upper inside of my thighs that got me squirming.
Another thing I noticed was that the windscreen could have been a wee bit taller. It deflects air nicely at faster speeds, but the wind stream would hit me right in the top of the helmet which caused some unwanted turbulence. This, though, is a product of my 6-foot-1-inch height more so than anything else, but a little adjustability would be nice. Finally, the rear rack provides ample space for you to carry your belongings with plenty of different anchor points, but the Versys-X 300 would benefit immensely from a small, waterproof storage compartment somewhere in the front fairing. Just a thought, Kawasaki.
These small grumbles pale in comparison to what the Versys-X is actually capable of, and with a price tag of $5,699 w/ABS ($5,399 without), there’s even less to complain about. With its 4.5-gallon fuel tank and gas-sipping motor, refueling stops are few and far between. Despite often turning the twist grip to its stop, the Versys-X 300 delivered an impressive 62.4-mpg, which makes it kind to your wallet.
Overall, Kawasaki designers hit the nail on the head with the Versys-X 300. There will be riders to dismiss the smallest Versys based only on its engine displacement. They will assume it’s slow to accelerate, must be hammered continually to maintain cruising speed, and given its low price, will feel cheap. Those people will miss out on a great machine.
However, these same reasons are part of what makes the Versys-X 300 so much fun. Its unintimidating demeanor is perhaps its greatest strength. Combined with the rest of its features, the Versys-X 300 is an impressive intro bike both on- and off-road that should largely satisfy a rider’s appetite for two-wheeled adventure.