Each contender in this trio of middleweight adventure-ish motorcycles offers the qualities of a comfortable daily commuter, capable canyon carver, light-duty tourer and a willingness to wander when the pavement ends, all wrapped up in one machine. Their 650cc-class displacement should provide the majority of riders with adequate power, yet this engine size – along with a lack of high-end electronic gadgetry – also helps keep base MSRPs well below the $10K mark.
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Although these bikes rarely see the limelight, we found they provide a lot of motorcycle for the price; and they differ enough from each other that each bike is sure to find a loyal following depending on their tastes and intended usage.
Three Ways to Motivate
A neat aspect of this collection is the fact that we have three different engine types all in the same displacement range. The V-Strom is still powered by a 90-degree Twin, but it’s now using a recently revised version of the 645cc mill put to service in the Suzuki Gladius. The Kawasaki’s heartbeat comes from a 649cc parallel-Twin – the same engine it has used since the bike’s inception – while the BMW operates with a 652cc Thumper (single cylinder). Each bike is fuel-injected as well; the G650GS uses a five-speed gearbox where the other two are six-speeds.
Associate Editor Troy Siahaan thought the BMW’s five gears were “decently spaced to outrun traffic,” but as E-i-C Kevin Duke noted in his single-bike review of the 2011 G650GS (virtually the same as the 2012 model), the “transmission’s low ‘granny’ gear runs out quickly, requiring early shifts up to second.” Despite well-planned gearing, there’s no denying the littlest GS’s power deficit.
In a world where 150-hp sportbikes are common fare, the peak rear wheel horsepower of the Suzuki, Kawi and Beemer barely register on the horsepower Richter scale. But the G650GS is notably behind even in this small crowd of “low” horsepower motorcycles.
As you can see in the set of dyno runs provided by Carry Andrew of Hypercycle fame, the BMW’s Single is simply outgunned. At a tick less than 42 peak horsepower at 7000 rpm the G-GS is a full 14.5 hp off the pace of the Versys, and it suffers a considerable gap to the Suzi’s commendable 63 ponies at a comparatively high 9000 rpm.
With the exception of a small low-rpm dip, the GS hangs tough with the other two throughout the midrange until it begins to run out of steam around 6000 rpm where the Kawasaki and Suzuki keep spinning up. What we shouldn’t lose sight of is that despite an overall poor showing in peak horsepower, the GS provides sufficient power in rpm ranges where riders will spend the majority of time. A potentially unappealing trait in the GS’s mill is a noticeable amount of clackity-clacking from its top-end.
The story told in the torque dyno graph reveals the BMW doesn’t suffer to the same degree as it does in the horsepower race – only 5 ft-lbs of peak torque separate the GS from the strongest-of-the-group V-Strom, with the Versys splitting the difference.
“The BMW engine is relatively smooth and provides easy-to-use Thumper torque when riding slow, single-track encumbrances,” says Content Editor Tom “T-Rod” Roderick.
Nevertheless, by virtue of its design the BMW is a busy-feeling engine when keeping the Thumper spinning while rowing through the gearbox. The Versys, too, exhibits a buzzy-ness as a result of its Twin’s parallel layout, but while street riding, the GS’s vibrations are more prevalent compared to the Kawi, and likely why BMW installed removable vibration-damping rubber inserts in the G650GS’s footpegs.
With two cylinders and a nearly identical displacement to the V-Strom, the Versys engine gives the Suzuki fits until approximately 6000-6500 rpm when the ‘Strom’s engine continues its upward climb while the Kawi tapers off.
Stretching the Kawasaki’s throttle cable in order to squeeze every drop of power from the upright Twin while running through the gearbox masks the Versys’s otherwise uninspired acceleration, particularly when in top gear. “The Versys’ engine feels just as busy at 5,500 rpm as it does at 10,500 rpm,” notes Tom.
If you’re into entertainment value as much as anything from your motorcycles, then you might willingly overlook the Versys engine’s perceived flatness Tom mentions, in exchange for its eagerness to wheelie – even from second gear with a little encouragement from a loaded clutch. Speaking for myself here, but that quality carries a lot of weight – I loves me some wheelie prowess.
So then we come to the Wee Strom, the motorcycle with the engine which not only possess the most power overall, but is the smoothest in any gear at any rpm, cruises effortlessly at 80 mph-plus, has flawless response from the EFI and provides the “most user-friendly power with an accessible torque curve,” according to Troy. The harmonically balanced V-Twin is a dream, as it’s almost impossible to sense engine vibration in the pegs, handlebars or seat.
Let’s face it; although these motorcycles have the capability to ride off-pavement, the majority of their miles will spool up on the street. And when you’re droning the freeway or constantly clutching your way through traffic, a smooth, quiet engine – that’s also muscular and manageable – is an enjoyable asset.
We found things to admire about each engine, but in the end a clear consensus emerged that gave the V-Strom a Best Engine vote across the board.
A Paved Majority
There isn’t a bike among the three that isn’t a good candidate for slicing around twisty pavement. However, the Versys excels at canyon carving where the V-Strom and GS, while good in their own rights, lack the Kawasaki’s twisty-road prowess.
The Versys and V-Strom have closely matched steering geometry; and the BMW’s 4.5-inch trail figure is merely 0.2-inch longer than that of the V bikes, but the Beemer’s 28.0-degree steering rake is notably more relaxed, which can pay dividends when riding off-road sections. Where the Versys steps away from the small herd is with its inches-shorter wheelbase that measures 55.7 inches (58.2 BMW, 61.4 V-Strom) and its sportbike size rubber.
The V-Strom and G-GS each have narrow 19-inch front wheels wrapped with tires with large tread blocks to offer greater traction on unpaved surfaces. The Kawasaki shows its pavement intent by wearing Dunlop Sportmax D221 tires with a 120/70 x 17 front, 160/60 x 17 rear. This tire size combo allows riders a wide selection of good, grippy tires to choose from, not to mention the handling advantage a sportbike-type tire offers when riding aggressively on twisty roads.
“The Versys enjoys the best cornering clearance of the three,” says Tom. “The GS grinds its sidestand (attributable to our test unit’s low suspension option) while the Strom’s footpegs will dig in before anything on the Versys touches down.”
Tom’s accurate assessment about the Kawi’s carving prowess shouldn’t overshadow the V-Strom and G650GS’s good road manners.
The Suzuki’s cruiser-long 61-inch wheelbase translates into initial steering input that requires deliberate effort; it simply takes more energy to initiate turn-in for a flowing corner, and transitioning between turns also demands some work on the rider’s part. The BMW, oddly, exhibits a falling-into-the-corner sensation during the first 20-percent of the transition from upright to leaned over – a phenomenon often experienced on motorcycles with high a C of G.
Less-than-snappy handling traits aside, both the GS and V-Strom offer excellent stability and communicative, confident feedback from the front-end once each bike is fully leaned in the corner.
Considering the Suzuki’s skinny front tire that, by design, compromises between a sticky-pavement bun and something fire-road-ready, I was impressed by how willingly the ‘Strom continued to comply with my requests to lean deeper into each turn. And its front end never once signaled to me, “Hey, pal. Take a break, will ya?!”
If you’re considering one of these motorcycles and know with a high degree of certainty that more than 90% of your riding will consist of pavement, and you have a tendency toward sport riding, then the Versys should move near the top of your short list. With its upright riding position, wide handlebar and aforementioned tires, the Versys is the progeny of a one-night stand between a Z1000 and Ninja 650R.
Suspension performance from each motorcycle is more than adequate in terms of bump compliance, as well as overall ride comfort. And unless you’re dreaming of competing in the Paris-Dakar, the 5.5 to 6-plus-inches of suspension travel offered from this trio worked well on and off-road.
Each model has a spring preload adjustment along with a degree of rebound damping adjustment in the shock. However, both the V-Strom and GS thoughtfully provide a remote dial for shock spring preload, accessible near the rider’s right leg – an ideal feature for when you’ve just added a passenger or luggage and realize in short order you need to firm up the rear end.
The Versys’ offset laydown shock uses a ramp-style preload adjustment – more convenient than a traditional locking-ring arrangement, but nowhere near as practical as the dial-a-ride adjusters on the BMW and Suzuki. This linkage-less shock is conveniently located along the perimeter of the right side of the frame. Nevertheless, the ramp-style preload adjuster requires either a specific tool, or a hammer and robust flat-blade screwdriver, to adjust – not nearly as handy as a remote dial.
With the exception of Tall Tom’s distaste for the way the Versys positions taller riders in its saddle, we were generally content, if not down right impressed, with each bike’s ergonomic layout. The BMW we were given for testing had BMW’s low-suspension option installed which made the GS feel like an 8/10ths scale bike compared to the others. And for a taller folks like Tom, the low suspension was just too low, giving it a “toy-like presence,” according to T-Rod. That said, short riders will surely enjoy the security of piloting the littlest GS, by far the lightest bike in this trio.
The Suzuki’s wide fuel tank cover and largest (and manually adjustable) windshield do an excellent job of keeping the rider protected from the wind. The Versys (also with an adjustable windscreen) and G650GS garnered good comments for wind protection, but the Suzuki was by far the lead choice for the bike we’d want to take on a trip of many, many miles. The Suzuki’s rider triangle has the roomiest cockpit – a desirable attribute for long days in the saddle. However, the V-Strom’s physical size is less than appealing when the pavement ends, as we’ll see later.
The combination of an analog dial and LCD info screen is common to the three motorcycles. But the Suzuki’s LCD afforded the best view since its characters were large and bold, making it easy to take in the screen at a glance. The BMW’s LCD has smaller character displays and its vertical RPM bar graph is difficult to decipher at times. The Kawi instrument panel strikes a decent medium between the Beemer and Suzuki, however the Suzuki is the only one to offer a GPI as well as the choice of toggling between a clock and ambient air temp.
When it comes to hardware used for slowing down, the BMW reveals its off-roady nature by way of a single front disc and caliper – the typical setup on a true dirtbike or motocross machine. The Versys and V-Strom run with dual front rotors and calipers.
Each brake set was more than adequate for slowing each bike, but the added power provided by a dual disc/caliper combo was hard to deny when ridden at elevated speeds. And more important to our way of thinking is the ease of power modulation and feel from a brake set – the V-Strom had both these qualities nailed. And lest we forget, the V-Strom and BMW both have ABS as standard equipment. Good stuff in this price range! Sadly, the Kawasaki is out of the loop on ABS.
I preferred the V-Strom’s higher threshold of ABS intervention compared to the Beemer’s more intrusive system. And when the Suzuki system did kick in, it was far more refined feeling than the G650GS ABS that manifested obvious pressure feedback, or pulsing, at the brake pedal.
However, and this is a crucial “however,” the BMW ABS is rider defeatable, that is to say, you can disable ABS at the push of a button – a definite advantage for off-road riding, as when in the dirt and gravel sometimes you’d like to allow the (rear) wheel to lock up in order to better negotiate turns or technical sections.
The Suzuki V-Strom ABS is an always-on system. The Versys is an always-off system.
As mentioned, the Wee Strom isn’t the sportbike-in-standard-bike-clothing like the crafty Versys is. But the Suzuki’s larger stature serves to make this motorcycle the preferred choice as the tourer of the group, the bike we’d select as our mount for multi-day trips, thanks to its comfortable riding environment, great wind protection and overall smooth-riding qualities, from both its engine and chassis.
With the GS (Gelände/Strasse) designation as part of its model name, you expect the BMW as the bike best suited to exploring unpaved paths. Although the Versys and V-Strom aren’t out of their element entirely on gravel or poorly maintained Forest Service roads, the G650GS has a number of features and qualities that conspire to make the Beemer a better than average off-roader for what is otherwise a street bike.
For example, removing the rubber inserts from the BMW’s footpegs reveals “toothed” pegs that provide a good gripping surface for the sole of a boot – just like on motocross and dirtbikes. The rear brake pedal is also toothed and wide, again, like on a dirtbike. The ‘Strom and Versys use standard streetbike pegs and pedals.
Additionally advantageous for dirt riding is the GS’s single-cylinder engine design. This layout allows for a compact engine package that minimizes exposing vulnerable parts that might get banged up in the dirt.
Contrarily, the V-Strom’s 90-degree engine arrangement has the forward cylinder’s exhaust header precariously close to ground, and its wholly unprotected oil filter looks like it’s just waiting for a big rock to ruin the day. There isn’t a 100% certainty these components on the Zook will suffer damage, but we’d be nervous about dodging rocks off-road on a big trailie with an exposed oil filter and head pipe.
The one potentially weak-link on the Beemer mill is the location of its regulator/rectifier positioned just in front of the right side engine cover. Although it hides behind what looks like an engine guard, the guard is merely plastic. However, an aluminum lower engine bash guard is offered as an accessory, as is an optional tubular aluminum engine guard.
The BMW’s claimed 423-pound road-ready weight is as much as 50 pounds less than the V-Strom and approximately 30 less than the Kawasaki. While the Japanese machines can blame some of their heft on an additional gallon and a half of fuel capacity compared to the 3.7 gallons on the GS (and their extra engine cylinders), it’s where the GS carries its fuel that matters more for off-roading than does its lower capacity.
Not only is the BMW’s significantly lowest wet weight an advantage for dirt-type riding – dedicated off-road riders will attest that the lightest bike possible is best – but its fuel tank is located under the seat. This brilliant design helps lower the bike’s center of gravity – a low C of G is just one more bonus for dirt riding. The BMW’s underseat dual exhaust doesn’t lower the bike’s center of gravity, but it does, however, move the canister up and out of harm’s way.
The Suzuki also uses an underseat exhaust, but the Versys’ compact under-bike exhaust canister (a design carry over from the 2006 Ninja 650R), while good for moving weight down low, means it, like the V-Strom’s head pipe and oil filter, has greater potential to get banged up.
Finally, the BMW’s wide handlebar has a flatter profile as compared to the other bikes’ more upright shape. This dirtbike-like shaped handlebar gives the GS a slight advantage of better steering leverage when off-road.
Although Troy, Tom and I are by no means expert-level dirt riders, Troy is a self-confessed dirt-riding greenhorn. “The BMW was the perfect fit for a dirt noob like me,” admits Troy. “Its lowest seat height (31.5 inches in standard trim) of the three gave me confidence to put my feet down, and its power is soft and predictable – just what a new dirt rider needs.”
On the flip side, the V-Strom’s ergos and overall dimensions that proved best for street riding were seen as clear drawbacks in the dirt. “The V-Strom is physically and visually large for 650cc bike,” says T-Rod.
In addition to weighing the most, the ’Strom’s seat-bar relation means more reach to handlebar. That big, wide fuel tank that made for great wind protection out on the street not only moves weight up, it’s also visually heavy to the rider’s eye, which in turn makes the rider cognizant of the bike’s weight. This combination of reality and perception works to erode the rider’s confidence in the Suzuki’s dirt-ability; the small size and lowest weight of G650GS has the inverse effect on the rider’s psyche.
Before we give you the impression the V-Strom and Versys are all but worthless off-road, know that Tom and I came away content with how well the Suzuki managed to rip down gravel roads without feeling like a front-end wash-out was imminent or that the suspension was overwhelmed and ill-suited for anything other than pavement. And perhaps most impressive was the adeptness with which the Versys and its previously mentioned street-only tires handled the exact same environments the GS traversed.
All three scoots performed admirably in mild off-road settings, but the BMW is simply designed with dirt riding in mind. With the twin-cylinder bikes, serious dirt riding is more of a notion than intent.
When we selected the G650GS, Versys and V-Strom 650 we weren’t fooling ourselves into thinking one of the three might surface as a bike worthy of an around-the-world feat – we’ll leave that to the likes of BMW’s R1200GS or KTM’s 990 Adventure. While we weren’t surprised by the BMW’s dirty prowess, the Versys and V-Strom left good impressions for how well mannered they were when the pavement stopped.
Nevertheless, our 650 Adventure-Tourers are closer to tourer than adventurer, and we suspect the sweeping majority of riders will also see them for what they are: streetbikes.
The $7899 Versys is a streetbike through and through. If we were choosing one of the three as the best canyon carver, a bike that retiring sportbike riders might gravitate to and one that would make a great vehicle with which to assault the daily commute, the Kawasaki is an excellent choice.
However, if you have a wandering spirit and find yourself daydreaming about what might exist on the other end of that unmaintained two-track lane you pass every night on your way home from work, then you might consider the BMW or the V-Strom to better satiate your wanderlust.
If, as Tom says, you’re doing “50/50 street and dirt,” then the littlest GS should register as a top pick for you. And – bonus! – at $7850 it is the least expensive bike, yet includes rider-switchable ABS. A BMW as the cheapest bike? Excuse me whilst I catch my breath…
Holding the Beemer back from scoring higher was its power deficit, not so exciting styling and single front brake/rotor combo where the other two bikes offered better performance from dual front calipers and discs.
It’s the $8300 V-Strom’s competent package, highlighted by its best performing engine and well-rounded rider environment, which came out on top with a best overall score of 82% from our in-house voting (76% for the Versys and 71% for the G650GS). And when you consider for a mere $400 more than the Kawasaki’s price you can have the V-Strom’s refined ABS as standard equipment, the V-Strom is all the more appealing.
Of the three bikes, the Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS is the best two-wheeled Swiss Army Knife here.
|Extra Notes and Observations|
|Wide foot on sidestand good for parking in soft ground or sand|
|Rear rack contains lockable storage compartment, and is ready to accept accessory top box|
|Tire valve stems oriented at 90 degrees to rim at base of wheel spoke make it incredibly easy to air up tires|
|Available accessory center stand a handy feature for parking/working on the bike, but a bit of liability when off-road riding|
|3-pos adjustable clutch lever; brake lever is fixed|
|Optional low suspension reduces standard seat height from 31.5” to 30.3”; optional tall seat is 33.1”|
|Optional heated grips available|
|No helmet lock|
|Seat release hidden inside rack’s locking storage compartment; maybe not convenient if accessory top box is installed|
|According to BMW motorcycle fleet management, G650GS “has a small battery,” so when running heated grips and lights together, be sure to turn the key off when shutting down the bike instead of hitting kill switch to prevent draining battery charge|
|Metzeler Tourance tires|
|Observed MPG: 53.8|
|Bridgestone Trail Wing tires|
|3-pos manually (with tools) adjustable windshield|
|Under seat helmet D-ring hook; maybe difficult to use if helmet D-ring strap is short|
|No luggage rack, but passenger grab handles are substantial|
|5-pos adjustment for clutch and brake levers|
|Observed MPG: 42.8|
|Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS|
|LCD displays ambient air or time but rider must choose; also has an Avg. MPG reading|
|Optional tall seat 20mm higher; optional low seat 20mm lower|
|3-pos manually (with tools) adjustable windshield|
|Rear rack is top box ready and comes with protective top rubber cover|
|5-pos brake lever adjustment; clutch lever fixed|
|Hooks under seat for helmet D-ring|
|Observed MPG: 43.6 (dash display Avg MPG said 46.4)|
|By the Numbers|
|2012 BMW G650GS||2012 Kawasaki Versys||2012 Suzuki V-Strom|
|Engine Type||Liquid-cooled Single||Liquid-cooled Parallel Twin||Liquid-cooled 90-degree V-Twin|
|Bore & Stroke||100.0 x 83.0mm||83.0 x 60.0mm||81.0 x 62.6mm|
|HP (BHP or Rear Wheel)||41.9 rwhp @ 7000 rpm||56.5 rwhp @ 8250 rpm||63.2 rwhp @ 9000 rpm|
|Torque||36.2 ft-lbs @ 5500 rpm||39.4 ft-lbs @ 7250 rpm||41.0 ft-lbs @ 7250 rpm|
|Frame||Steel, Bridge-type||Steel, semi-double cradle-type||Aluminum alloy Twin-spar|
|Rake/Trail||28.1 degrees/4.5"||25.0 degrees/4.3"||26.0 degrees/4.3"|
|Front Suspension||Non-adjustable 41mm fork; 6.7"/6.5"(low susp.)||41mm USD fork w/stepless rebound, spring preload adjustable; 5.9"||43mm fork w/preload adjustment; 5.9"|
|Rear Suspension||Single shock – preload and rebound adjustable; 5.7"/5.5"(low susp.)||Single offset laydown shock w/13-position rebound damping, 5-position ramp-style spring preload; 5.7"||Single shock w/remote 5-way spring preload adjustment, stepless rebound adj; 6.3"|
|Front Wheel||Cast Alum 19"||Cast Alum 17"||Cast Alum 19"|
|Rear Wheel||Cast Alum 17"||Cast Alum 17"||Cast Alum 17"|
|Tires||Metzeler Tourance 110/80 x 19 F, 140/80 x 17 R||Dunlop Sportmax D221 120/70 x 17 F, 160/60 x 17 R||Bridgestone Trailwing 110/80 x 19 F, 150/70 x 17 R|
|Front Brakes||Single 300mm disc, double-piston floating caliper w/ABS||Dual 300mm petal discs with two-piston calipers||Dual 310mm discs with two-piston calipers, ABS|
|Rear Brakes||Single 240mm disc, single-piston floating caliper w/ABS||Single 220mm petal disc w/single-piston caliper||Single 260mm disc w/dual piston caliper, ABS|
|Fuel Capacity||3.7 gal. U.S.||5.0 gal. U.S.||5.3 gal. U.S.|
|Weight||423 lbs road ready||454 lbs road ready||472 lbs road ready|
|Seat Height||31.5"; low susp. 30.3"; tall seat option 33.1"||33.3"||32.9"|
2012 Kawasaki Versys Review
2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS Review
2012 BMW G650GS Sertao Review
2011 BMW G650GS Review
2011 Adventure-Touring Shootout: Triumph Tiger 800XC vs. BMW F800GS
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