We mostly bought in to Honda’s creative line of thought. That is until we realized that Kawasaki has had the 649cc parallel-Twin-engined Versys in its lineup since its 2006 European launch, eventually arriving on our shores in 2008. The Versys (VERsatility SYStem) was updated in 2010 with cosmetic upgrades, an adjustable windshield and vibration-reduction efforts you can read about here.
So, does Honda’s New Concept stand up in the face of an established and well-reviewed player like Kawasaki’s utility scoot? Is the Versys worth a $900 premium? Let’s find out.
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Same But Different
Despite a design that is more than six years old, the Versys has a lot in common with the NC700X. Front and rear tire sizes (120/70-17, 160/60-17) are identical, and their weights are within 20 pounds of each other. Suspension travel hovers at or just below 6 inches, and seat heights vary by less than a half inch.
It’s in the engine bay where this Japanese duo differs most. Honda’s New Concept strategy is based largely on the fresh lay-down cylinder design that opens up a capacious cargo hold where the fuel tank normally would sit, expanding the bike’s usefulness in commuter or touring roles. The engine also stands out for its undersquare arrangement in which its stroke (80.0mm) is larger than its bore (73.0mm), the inverse of most motorcycle mills aside from some cruisers. This contrasts greatly with the Kawi’s oversquare (83.0 x 60.0mm) bore/stroke ratio.
The NC’s undersquare design benefits several areas, including keeping the engine narrow. But improved fuel economy is the biggest advantage. Efficiency is lost by an engine’s internal friction, which is affected by piston circumference and spinning up at higher speeds. The NC’s relatively narrow pistons offer a lower resistance, and the low-revving undersquare layout has a rev ceiling of just 6500 rpm. Conversely, the Versys redlines at a comparatively stratospheric 10,500 rpm.
The low-revving character of the Honda’s engine is unlike any other mid-displacement parallel-Twin. Compared to most moto mills, this one feels like a diesel. Ample torque is cranked out at surprisingly low revs, giving a rider constantly accessible power. But, ridden like a regular motorcycle, you’ll probably bump into its rev limiter a few times before acclimating. I found it the first time I merged onto a freeway.
The NC’s low rev ceiling has a side benefit of minimizing a parallel-Twin’s inherent vibration. After all, it’s at the midpoint of its rev range at only 3000 rpm. Cruising at 5000 rpm is no big deal for most moto engines, but that’s just 1500 revs from max on the NC. Still, it’s clearly the smoother engine.
“The Versys lets you know you’re on the hot rod of the two by raising the vibration level up a bit,” comments guest tester Martin Firestone. “Not in a bad way, just a bit buzzier feeling.”
The Kawi’s motor responds as you’d like expect from a motorcycle such as this. Although retuned for more torque and lower revs than the Ninja 650 powerplant it’s based on, it has a considerably revvier nature than the Honda.
The Versys’ maximum torque of 39.4 ft-lb arrives at 7200 rpm, 2500 rpm past the NC’s peak of 43.7 ft-lb and, indeed, higher than even the NC’s rev ceiling. The horsepower battle goes to the Versys because its engine revs higher. It’s churning out 56.5 hp at a fairly low 8250 rpm, while the Honda’s 47.7 horses are attained at just 6400 rpm.
“Although different in tune and power delivery, both engines run awesome,” Firestone observes. “The laid-down engine of the Honda is better suited for commuting and freeway use with its super-smooth and less revvy engine and awesome MPG.”
Indeed, the Honda proved to be a frugal fuel sipper. It consumed just over a gallon of gas during one light-wristed 90-mile stint, equating to a remarkable 78 mpg. And it achieves mpg in the high-40s even when mercilessly flogged. The Versys delivers good mileage, but don’t expect much more than 55 mpg even when riding conservative. Mid-40s are more likely. However, the Versys can carry 1.3 gallons more fuel than the 3.7-gallon cell underneath the NC’s seat.
Considering the Honda’s tuned-for-torque strategy and its slightly larger displacement, it came as a surprise when it got dusted by the Versys during roll-on contests at highway speeds in both 5th and 6th gears. This proves the Versys has enough torque to pull slightly taller gearing, so a sport-touring rider logging many highway miles could switch to a rear sprocket with a tooth or two fewer to tone down vibrations that aren’t killed by the rubber engine mounts and rubber footpeg inserts added in the bike’s 2010 upgrades.
The 700X’s engine excels in the commuter role, with an ultra-smooth and ever-ready powerband aided by a cooperative clutch that ensures quick getaways and easy low-speed running. The low-centered weight from the lay-down engine design delivers amazing low-speed balance. Its 6-speed transmission is practically flawless, being both buttery and precise, and it shifts gears easier than the notchier tranny in the Versys. A heavier-than-necessary throttle spring is a small nit to pick on the NC.
The Versys also outshines “normal” motorcycles in urban use, delivering good punch via fairly short gearing that works well on the street. “It has spunky low-end power that’s good around town,” observes MO’s Content Editor, Tom Roderick, adding that its engine feels much busier than the NC’s.
Different But the Same
Outside their engine compartments, this pair is remarkably similar. Each plays to the Adventure-style niche du jour, with relatively long-travel suspension and hints of dirt-ready pretense. Neither is truly ready for any serious off-road work, but both handle mild dirt duty quite well.
“Tires aside, both handle well on a trail and if not ridden beyond their capabilities were up to the task,” says Firestone, a longtime dirt rider. “Can you say picnic?”
Their tall suspensions add up to fairly tall seat heights. Loftiest is the Versys at 33.1 inches, a skosh higher than the NC’s 32.7 inches. With legs astride, the 700X’s thickness through its midsection actually makes it feel higher than its specs. With my 32-inch inseam, I was forced onto the balls of my feet when at a stop. The Kawi’s narrower seat offers legs a more direct downward trajectory.
It’s a mixed bag in terms of seating comfort. The NC’s seat is slippery but roomier. The Versys has a gripper-type material that keeps its rider in place, but its shape slopes up at rear and confines taller riders. Roderick, our most vertically blessed staffer, says he hated the Kawi’s saddle.
“Although other testers didn't experience the same level of discomfort,” remarks the near-six-footer, “I think the seat's shape and the high positioning of its footpegs conspire to create a tight seating position for taller riders.”
As for myself and our guest tester, we didn’t have the same issue. “Both have comfortable seating and a great bar-to-peg relationship,” says the 5-foot-11 Firestone. “Both are very comfortable, and I could and did ride both all day and evening with no regrets.”
Long-haul comfort is aided by small but beneficial nose fairings and windshields that do an appreciable job deflecting air around a rider. The Kawi’s is adjustable for height and angle, while the NC has just a simple vertical range over two positions. Both require a screwdriver to make changes. If more protection is needed, both OEMs offer larger windscreens from their accessory catalogs.
“Both bikes have small mini windshields that look very cool to me,” observes Firestone. “The Honda provides a bit more shielding from the wind, and that gets more apparent the faster you go. Pretty good for such a small shield.”
Compared to sportier bikes, the Versys demands little from its rider. Bars are placed fairly high, so there’s no pressure whatsoever on a rider’s wrists. But with the 700X’s slightly better wind protection, less buzz from its engine and greater legroom, it’s a smoother traveling companion over longer distances.
“The Honda’s super-smooth engine simply hums down the road with a super-stable ride, and it ruled the freeways for me,” says Firestone.
Both hand levers on the Kawasaki are adjustable for reach, while the Honda’s are fixed. Lane-splitters will be annoyed that the Honda’s mirrors are located outboard of its bar ends, adding unnecessary width in tight quarters. Both have large and sturdy passenger grab handles that, in addition to a more secure pillion, offer several options of tie-down points.
If your favorite aspect of riding motorcycles is dismantling a twisty road, the Versys will deliver greater satisfaction. Its steeper rake (a full 2 degrees) and shorter wheelbase (by a significant 4.9 inches) endow the Versys with incredible agility. It knifes into corners with more eagerness than the tamer Honda, with the latter having the lazy steering response usually associated with using a 19-inch front wheel.
“I preferred the Kawasaki over the Honda in the canyons as it simply goes faster, better,” Firestone enthuses. “The Honda is super smooth on the more open canyon roads, but when the going got tight, the Kawasaki got going.”
Aiding the Versys is a more sophisticated suspension. It uses an inverted fork up front that is adjustable for preload and rebound damping, while a direct-acting shock (with the same adjustments as the fork) works through an aluminum swingarm. The NC700X’s suspenders, including lower-tech conventional fork, have no provisions for adjustment other than rear preload, and it uses a heavier steel swingarm.
Despite its lack of adjustments, the NC’s suspension performs well at absorbing bumps while being a bit tauter than expected from a commuter-style motorcycle. It has a well-tuned balance that comes up short only when ridden aggressively by heavier riders.
Braking performance is another area in which the Kawi’s higher specifications give it an edge. While the 700X uses a single front disc, the Versys employs a pair up front. The Honda offers a nicely firm feel from the front lever, and the single-disc setup performs above expectations, but it simply doesn’t offer the outright power of the Kawi.
Somewhat surprisingly, ABS isn’t an option for the Versys. Combined ABS is offered on the NC, but it’s only available with the DCT transmission option that adds a princely $2000 to the MSRP.
“Brakes on both bikes felt very good when ridden at the pace they were designed for,” Firestone remarks. “Keeping in mind these are both closer to commuter bikes than sport bikes, I’d say they are spec’ed out very well in the chassis and braking departments.”
Neither of these bikes will win many beauty contests. Their adventure-bike-ish profiles make them appear ungainly from some angles. To our eyes, the biggest style wart is the nose of the Versys that appears odd and funky, and not in a good way. Otherwise it is nicely finished and modestly pretty. We used last year’s model in our testing, but 2013 editions are available in two attractive new colors: a classy Pearl Stardust White or a lustrous Candy Thunder Blue.
The 700X is blessed with a more up-to-date style than the Versys, with various features flowing smoothly from one into the next. Its overall profile hints of the Ducati Multistrada, if you squint tightly,
“Style and looks being purely subjective, I liked the Honda best,” Firestone weighs in. “The things that stick out for me were the faux tank area, the beak-style front fender and the mature graphics and paint scheme.”
Not much of a distinction between instrumentation. The Honda’s LCD panel is a fresher design, but its bar-graph tachometer is more difficult to read than the white-faced analog unit on the Versys. The Kawi’s 4000-rpm greater rev range adds to the importance of its legibility.
Even more than the differences between engines, it’s the NC’s amazingly capacious storage compartment that might decide how your money is spent. The bike’s inclined cylinders and underseat gas tank opens up the area where fuel is typically stored, allowing a considerable 21 liters of stowage of whatever you need carried.
Sure, a Versys rider can carry a backpack for a quickie trip to the grocery store, but the always-ready enclosed storage in the Honda is immeasurably more convenient. Whether you need space to tote sunglasses, a rainsuit, a bottle of water or a post-ride six-pack, the NC has a secure place for it.
If you’re serious about onboard storage, lockable saddlebags and top boxes are available from each OEM’s accessory catalog, as well as the aftermarket.
Our time aboard these relatively affordable and incredibly versatile machines gave us renewed appreciation for the core virtues of motorcycles. Here’s a pair of bikes that are capable of comfortably handling any assignment, with enough power and pizzazz to forget that you’re riding an inexpensive bike.
“For me, there was not a clear-cut winner here,” Firestone states. “Both bikes felt great the moment I rode them, and the more I rode them, the better I liked them.”
As comparable as this duo is, it’s Honda’s New Concept that sets the 700X apart from its more traditional rival from Kawasaki. It’s very easy to operate in urban environments, and it’s this friendliness that makes it as simple to ride as possible. There’s no need to search for revs to access its power, and its low center of gravity gives it exceptional low-speed balance.
“If it came down to the owner being primarily a commuter, the smoother, lower-priced and more fuel-efficient Honda would get my vote,” Firestone comments, adding that its storage compartment makes the NC especially versatile. And riders of minimal experience will appreciate its noob-friendly nature, friendlier still if equipped with its unique DCT option that discards the clutch lever.
But as much as we appreciate Honda’s design and execution within a new paradigm, it’s the Versys that will appeal most to experienced riders looking for an affordably priced do-it-all roadster. It can ably handle nearly any motorcycle mission you’d care to throw at it, and its greater performance capabilities can be thrilling to exploit.
“If a more spirited, faster paced, canyon carver is what you’re looking for, the Versys is for you,” Firestone states. “The Kawasaki’s horsepower advantage and higher-revving engine makes it the racier bike of the two.”
The equation gets more difficult when factoring in prices. With an MSRP of just $6999, a 2012 NC700X stickers in with a $900 price advantage over the Versys. It’s likely Honda will increase the NC’s price for 2013, but we’ll have to wait until February 8 to get its official MSRP. Meanwhile, the Versys jumps $100 for 2013 to $7999.
Both bikes offer terrific value for someone with room for only one bike in the garage, but the winner depends on the kind of rider you are and what you’re expecting out of it.
|By the Numbers|
|Honda NC700X||Kawasaki Versys|
|MSRP||$6999||$7999 (2013), $7899 in 2012|
|Bore x Stroke||73mm x 80mm||83mm x 60mm|
|Horsepower (rear wheel)||47.7 @ 6400||56.5 @ 8250|
|Torque (rear wheel)||42.6 @ 4700||39.4 @ 7250|
|Front Suspension Travel||6.0 in.||5.9 in.|
|Rear Suspension Travel||5.9 in.||5.7 in.|
|Front Brakes||320mm single disc||300mm dual disc|
|Fuel Capacity||3.7 gal.||5.0 gal.|
|Wheelbase||60.6 in.||55.7 in.|
|Seat Height||32.7 in.||33.1 in.|
|Weight||472 lbs||454 lbs|
|Fuel Economy (OEM Rated)||64 mpg||48 mpg|