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Sure everybody wants the Open-class bike, the most power, the most expensive, the one with all the electronic stuff, just like everybody wants the trophy mate with the big cylinders. Then after you’ve lived with them for a few years, the maintenance, the narcissism, the psychic wear and tear of constantly stoking the beast’s ego and keeping up with the Joneses can get to be a drag.

There you are on yet another Tom Roderick-style Caribbean cruise, smoke pouring from the VISA card as you spring for more lobster and Moët et Chandon while trying hard to maintain that boyish witty veneer. When you finally break free to the ship’s rail to sneak a desperately needed Marlboro Light, you spot a gray old couple in a rented rowboat with a box of cheap chardonnay and a White Castle bag, laughing deliriously and apparently having a much better time than you are.

These three motorcycles are nothing like that at all, really, but it was a fun coping exercise for me. Sorry. Let’s get on with the road test.

The Kawasaki Versys 650 has long been on our short list of favorite bikes, and for 2015 it’s received a thorough makeover, with svelte new bodywork including a height-adjustable windscreen, a new 5.5-gallon fuel tank and a roomier new ergonomic triangle. Power-wise, a little ECU retuning, a new exhaust and a bump in compression ratio to 10.8:1 are claimed to produce a little more high-rpm power. While the 649cc parallel-Twin is churning out all that nutrient-rich juice, the new Versys also gets a pair of rubber front engine mounts to go with the rear one it got in 2010, and the handlebars are now rubber-mounted as well. Our boy Sean wrote about all of it in his excellent First Ride last December.

And in this corner, in the blue trunks and wearing a surprised expression that appears to have absorbed many a punch, weighing in at exactly 20 pounds more and producing eight more horsepower, the Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS.

This one was last overhauled by Suzuki for the 2012 model year, when it received firmer suspension and a bunch of new engine pieces designed to reduce friction and boost its fuel efficiency by 10%. Happily, its 645cc 90-degree Twin makes substantially more power than the other two bikes here.

Rock not included.

Least like the other two but not at all in a bad way, the Honda NC700X arrived as a brand-new model for 2012, with an all-new long-stroke parallel-Twin that seems to focus more on maximum efficiency than high performance. The NC’s available with Honda’s automatic DCT transmission (in a package that also gets ABS brakes for only $600 more), but for this comparison we opted for the manual 6-speed gearbox, which keeps the NC’s weight down to less than the V-Strom’s, and undercuts both bikes in price by a substantial chunk.

Urbane

That would be suave, courteous and refined in manner – particularly in a big-city setting – which is of critical importance in our little Southern California corner of the world. To get to where the fun begins, you’re always going to have to soldier through where the work takes place. Which is also perversely fun on the right bike.

V-Strom 650 owners are a loyal bunch, and past tests of it on MO and elsewhere never fail to praise the bike for its great seat, smooth compliant ride and good weather protection. It’s a bike that excels when you’re riding it and don’t have to look at it (though its dash remains the Wal-Martiest of the bunch). But this year, the worm has turned: With the Versys’ new, bigger fairing and windscreen, its newfound legroom and its new buzz-kill rubber engine mounts, it’s the Kawasaki that emerges on top of the ScoreCard in the Ergonomics/ Comfort category.

Parallel universe: Note the Versys’ new rubber engine mounts (just northwest of the coolant hose), also new one-piece exhaust and the easy-to-get-to shock preload adjuster knob just above the spring.

It’s all relative: The V-Strom’s 90-degree Twin used to feel so smooth rumbling there beneath you, but ridden alongside the Versys’ new rubber-mounting system and the Honda’s low-revving long-stroke Twin, suddenly this V-Strom feels a bit busy at 80 miles per and 6500 rpm. The Versys is turning about the same rpm, but its vibes are now completely absent from grips, pegs and seat, and with fresh earplugs inside a nice Shoei, its cockpit is the quietest. With its 15mm lower/20mm forward new footpegs, everybody liked the Versys ergos the best even though its cushy seat is a bit narrower than the V-Strom’s.

This time, the NC tied the V-Strom for second-most comfy. Even Terrible Tom Roderick, who normally has nothing but harsh words for the unassuming Honda, admits it’s a superior city bike: “Rider ergonomics of the NC are the epitome of a neutral seating position. There’s also plenty of legroom for taller folk, and a soft yet supportive seat upon which to sit. It’s a motorcycle you can truly, comfortably sit atop all day, not feeling worse for the wear when you dismount. When kept within the confines of each bike’s intended purpose, the NC700X is by far the best urban motorcycle of these three – perfect for the motorcyclist living in San Francisco without a car.”

Brilliant. The locking boot will contain a helmet or a 12-pack; 3.7 gallons of gas goes under the seat (and makes the NC feel light and controllable), which is enough for 200-plus mile range given the NC’s awesome 60-plus mpg.

I’m going to have to “amen” him on that. Any sort of adventure involves carrying things, and if you want to do that on either the Versys or the V-Strom, you’ll be ponying up an extra $700 for the Versys LT, or over $10K for the V-Strom Adventure or the new V-Strom XT. The base NC700X Honda comes with storage right where the gas tank used to be, no extra charge. It doesn’t hold as much as two saddlebags, but it also doesn’t make the bike any wider, which can be a big deal if you live someplace as cheek-by-jowl as San Francisco. The NC’s marsupial appendage is more convenient than selective memory when you’re running for office.

Nothing could be much simpler than loosening those two knobs to slide the Versys’ windscreen up and down a few inches. Both hand levers are adjustable.

Adult Entertainment

Okay, so these are more practical motorcycles than most, but just because you’re mature doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still be fun to ride … wait … The conventional wisdom says the V-Strom’s 19-inch front wheel and Bridgestone Trail Wing tires are going to make it most “off-road” worthy and most adventurous, for riders who want to recreate Long Way Round or whatever, but they’re still cast wheels instead of spoked ones (the new V-Strom 650 XT ABS gets wire-spoked wheels, panniers and crash bars for $10,399), and now that Continental makes TKC-80s in 17-inch sizes too, the V-Strom’s 19-in. front isn’t such an advantage. Throw in that the Versys weighs 20 pounds less than the V-Strom, and there’s really no reason why you couldn’t go just as many ill-advised places on it. Or the NC for that matter, which also weighs 2 pounds less than the Suzuki, carries its weight really low, and has an even stonkier motor.

As for the MO crew, we have no time for Patagonia; Azusa is more our typical adventure, and for unravelling our favorite two-lanes up in the San Gabriels, the new Versys again carries the day. The V-Strom makes more power and torque, but all three of us liked the Versys’ engine better anyway, and the Versys blows the V-Strom out of the water in the Handling portion on the official MO ScoreCard – also Suspension and Brakes. What’s going on really is that the Versys’ chassis is so buttoned-down and communicative, it encourages you to twist the throttle earlier and longer – and the tighter the road, the easier it is for whoever’s on the Versys to open a gap.

In fact the V-Strom peaks with 8 whole hp more than the Versys (and 15 more than the NC), but its plusher suspension and skinnier front tire don’t give it quite the confidence on pavement; off it, the roles are reversed. Tom says: “The larger front hoop of the `Strom (coupled with a wheelbase longer than the other two) makes for a comparably slower steering bike when being measured for its sportiness. This disadvantage on the street turns into an asset as soon as you leave the pavement. For riders who prefer stability over agility, the Strom is the bike of choice among this trio.”

The NC signs off early, but it’s doing good work at only 2500 rpm. None of these bikes are horsepower monsters, but all of them seem to have all you need about 99% of the time in the non-virtual adult world.

Trizzle agrees, saying, “while Burnsie and Roderick were romping through the hills on the Honda and Kawi, I was having a tough time on the Strom trying to keep up, that large and skinny front tire not providing much confidence on pavement. However, if you want a bike that’ll tear up the twisties, what are you doing looking at the Strom, anyway?”

Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS
+ Highs
  • 63 horses is the most
  • Biggest, widest seat and cockpit
  • It’s the one you’d least mind crashing
– Sighs
  • Why is the oldest bike the most expensive?
  • If you think traction control’s for weenies, here’s your bike.
  • Fit and finish is not its strong suit

It’s fitting that the V-Strom is the most likely to become involved in an abusive off-road relationship, since it’s already the most agrarian looking. A good skidplate to shield its exposed organs is a necessity, as it is on the others.

Some of the children had mean things to say about the Honda before the ride, but I’m gratified to see that at the end of the test and back at our desks, we all agree it handles a bit better than the V-Strom and equals that bike in the suspension category. It’s still hard for some of us to get past the Honda’s 6500-rpm redline – the same problem lots of riders had with the old Sportster-based Buell XBs. Sure it only revs to 6500, but the NC’s 670cc Twin is already putting out more torque than the other two bikes ever will, at only 4200 rpm instead of 7200. You will bump into the rev limiter a few times while acclimating, but the 6-speed box works fine and clutch pull is nice and light.

Honda NC700X
+ Highs
  • The 6-speed is really good if you already know how to shift anyway
  • Every bike should be able to carry a basketball in its gas tank
  • Seems like this one’s going to be way economical in the long run
– Sighs
  • Less protection from the elements than the other two
  • A turbocharger wouldn’t hurt it
  • The storage compartment isn’t refrigerated

Granted, the NC is down on horsepower to the Versys and V-Strom, but it never gets dropped very far behind, especially on the way down the mountain. Geometry- and weight-wise it’s nearly identical to the V-Strom, but with a 17-inch front tire that gives it more solid front-end feel. Then, when it’s time to hit the freeway, cruising at 4000 rpm is way more relaxing than 6500; like the Versys, the Honda cruises serenely along with very little or no vibration reaching the rider. I promise I won’t mention the 60 mpg again, which is on the order of 50% better than the Versys.

Kawasaki Versys 650 ABS
+ Highs
  • Modern, mass-centralized, quick-handling tight little package
  • More comfortable, smoother-running and refined than ever
  • Big 5.5-gallon tank and better wind protection than before
– Sighs
  • Almost inspires us to go all Walden pond and get rid of our other bikes
  • Makes it hard to justify spending more than $8K for any vehicle
  • No 10% off for AARP members

New Pecking Order

Amongst midsize bikes with beaks, the V-Strom finds itself at the bottom of this trio in spite of making the most power. The old SV V-Twin is still a pip, but its containment vessel is suddenly a bit leaky and creaky, and the fact that it’s the priciest motorcycle here doesn’t help any in this price-conscious market segment. “Hasn’t Suzuki payed off the tooling for this bike already?” asks Siahaan. “Having the highest price tag here is a little strange.”

Speaking of dollars if we must be so crass, for $1100 less than the V-Strom, Honda’s still slightly revolutionary NC700X overcame its horsepower deficit to eke out a second-place finish ahead of the venerable V-Strom. It’s not quite as sporty as the new Versys and not quite as adventurous as the V-Strom, but it’s close on both counts. And we all agree it’s the undisputed around-town king of the group – and a great, smooth travelling companion to boot.

Emerging as the clear winner at the end of the official MO ScoreCard, though, is Kawasaki’s new and improved Versys: $7,999 gets you an ABS-equipped super-versatile, super-comfortable and ridiculously sporty motorcycle that’ll keep up with just about anything as long as you steer clear of closed circuits, and $700 more for the LT (with Kawasaki’s excellent KQR bags and handguards) transforms it into one of the best mid-sized touring bikes money can procure. Not only is it a good time to be a motorcyclist, it’s a good time to be a sophisticated mature(ish) adult.

Midsize Urbane Adventurers Scorecard
Category Honda
NC700X
Kawasaki
Versys 650 ABS
Suzuki
V-Strom 650 ABS
Price 100% 93.8% 87.7%
Weight 96.2% 100% 95.8%
lb/hp 75.8% 90.7% 100%
lb/lb-ft 100% 94.9% 95.9%
Engine 78.3% 86.7% 83.3%
Transmission/Clutch 81.7% 80.0% 80.8%
Handling 78.3% 86.7% 76.7%
Brakes 71.7% 80.0% 76.7%
Suspension 76.7% 83.3% 76.7%
Technologies 68.3% 68.3% 67.5%
Instruments 78.3% 80.0% 71.7%
Ergonomics/Comfort 83.3% 83.3% 80.0%
Quality, Fit & Finish 81.7% 82.5% 76.7%
Cool Factor 70.0% 80.0% 70.0%
Grin Factor 73.3% 81.7% 73.3%
Overall Score 80.3% 84.4% 79.9%
Midsize Urbane Adventurers Specs
Honda NC700X Kawasaki Versys 650 ABS Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS
MSRP $7,499
(DCT ABS: $8,099)
$7,999
(650 LT $8,699)
$8,549
(Adventure $10,049)
Type 670cc liquid-cooled parallel-Twin 649cc liquid-cooled, parallel-Twin 645cc liquid-cooled 90-degree V-Twin
Bore and Stroke 73.0 x 80.0 mm 83.0 x 60.0mm 81.0 x 62.6mm
Fuel System PGM-FI (one) 36mm throttle body DFI with two 38mm throttle bodies EFI
Ignition Computer-controlled digital transistorized with electronic advance TCBI with digital advance CDI
Compression Ratio 10.7:1 10.8:1 11.2:1
Valve Train SOHC; 4 valves per cylinder DOHC; 4 valves per cylinder DOHC; 4 valves per cylinder
Emissions EPA, CARB compliant EPA, CARB-compliant EPA, CARB-compliant
Horsepower 47.7 @ 6400 54.9 @ 8200 rpm 63.2 @ 9000 rpm
Torque 42.6 @ 4700 38.9 @ 7200 rpm 41.0 @ 7250 rpm
lb/hp 9.89 8.27 7.50
lb/torque 11.08 11.67 11.56
Transmission 6-speed; multi-plate wet clutch 6-speed, multi-plate wet clutch, positive neutral finder 6-speed, wet disc type
Final Drive Chain Chain Chain
Front Suspension 41mm fork; 5.4 in. travel 41mm inverted fork; adjustable spring preload and rebound damping, 5.9 in. travel 43mm fork; adjustable spring preload, 5.9 in. travel
Rear Suspension Pro-Link single shock, adjustable spring preload; 5.9 in. travel Single shock; remote adjustable spring preload, 5.7 in. travel Single shock; adjustable rebound damping and remote spring preload adjuster, 6.3 in. travel
Front Brake Single 320mm disc; 2-piston calipers (ABS optional) Dual 300mm petal discs with two-piston calipers, ABS Dual 310mm disc, ABS
Rear Brake Single 240mm disc; single-piston caliper Single 250mm petal disc with single-piston caliper, ABS 260mm disc, aBS
Front Tire 120/70ZR-17 120/70ZR-17 110/80R-19
Rear Tire 160/60ZR-17 160/60ZR-17 150/70R-17
Rake/Trail 27° / 4.3 in. (110mm) 25° / 4.3 in. (109mm) 26°/ 4.3 in. (109mm)
Wheelbase 60.6 in. 55.7 in. 61.4 in.
Seat Height 32.7 in. 33.1 in. 32.9 in.
Curb Weight 472 lb. 454 lb. 474 lb.
Fuel Capacity 3.7 gal. 5.5 gal. 5.3 gal.
Tested Fuel Economy 60 mpg 42 mpg 49 mpg
Available Colors Black, Red Candy Lime Green, Pearl Stardust White Midnight Black, Racing White, Intense Yellow
Warranty One year, Transferable, unlimited-mileage limited warranty 12 month limited warranty 12 month limited warranty

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