2008 Kawasaki Versys First Ride - Motorcycle.com

Barry Winfield
by Barry Winfield

We’ve been through all this before.

You know, motorcycle companies that develop models not specifically intended for sale in the USA, but then have to send the bikes here anyway when consumers notice the product in the foreign media and start whining.

Yamaha’s FJR, Honda’s Hornet, the S version of Suzuki’s SV650; these were all models intended for sale in other markets, but in our insatiable lust we just had to have ‘em here too. I guess it pays to be the largest motorcycle market in the world, right? And the most demanding. In the case of the Kawasaki Versys recently introduced into this market, company staff report that they received an unprecedented quantity of e-mail requesting that the bike be made available here.

The Versys blurs category lines, bringing aspects of sportbike, standard and adventure-tourer into the multipurpose equation.

Okay, you asked for it. It’s here. Now the question is, was it worth the trouble? We think so. For one thing, the little bike delivers on the promise of versatility implied by its name. You can see the Versys (Versatile System, get it?) in a whole range of activities, from commuting to leisure riding to light touring.

The bike’s mission—according to its engineers—is to be the ultimate street bike, no mean objective at a price point under seven grand, but achievable in a broad, jack-of-all-trades sense. Based on the Ninja 650R, this new streetbike differs from that machine in a number of important ways. First of all, Kawasaki retuned the engine for more low- and mid-range response, reducing inlet and exhaust cam dwell by 12- and 8-degrees, respectively.

This reduces peak power a little but provides the parallel-Twin 650 with good throttle response right off the bottom. You come to realize how flexible this motor is when stopping at red lights, as you have to shift down through all the gears. It’s the kind of engine that begs you to get into sixth gear as soon as possible, then forget about the gearbox.

That’s not possible in really twisty road sections, of course, and frequent recourse to the box reveals a slightly sticky action that we hope will loosen and smooth out as more miles are piled on. In any event, with the engine’s torque peak reached at 7,000 rpm, you can find a gear that keeps the engine between 6,000 and 7,000 rpm on stretches of canyon road to provide plenty of drive off corners without using frenetic engine speeds. (Its redline is 10,500 rpm.)

Ultra-compact parallel-Twin from the Ninja 650 has been retuned for use in the multipurpose Versys.

"The biggest differences between the Versys and Ninja are found in the chassis."

As is so often the case with torquey engines, the 399-lb (claimed) Versys feels more powerful than its sportier, higher-power Ninja sibling at most operating speeds. Although the Versys exhaust system has a crossover pipe connecting the headers, it is otherwise similar to that seen on the Ninja. Not surprisingly, the exhaust note is familiar, changing from a fruity burble at low rpm to a harder-edged snarl as the revs rise.

The biggest differences between the Versys and Ninja are found in the chassis. An inverted Showa fork with 41mm tubes replaces the conventional Kayaba unit, and its geometry differs slightly in having a touch more rake (at 25 degrees) and a smidge more trail, at 4.3-inches. More important, perhaps, is its increased travel. At 5.7-inches, it supplies a 0.8-inch longer excursion than the fork on the Ninja.

Showa also supplies the rear shock, which is said to have two-stage damping valves for good initial compliance yet progressive control. It, too, provides substantially more travel (5.7-in vs 4.9-in), requiring a new “Gull-type” aluminum swingarm. Although several of the riders on the introductory ride near San Diego began fooling with the fork’s adjustable rebound damping and preload mechanisms pretty early in the ride, only one seemed inclined to twiddle with the rear shock’s similar adjustability.

Indeed, the rear end seems blessed with a nice balance between a cushioned ride and dependable support in corners. Where the front end felt occasionally vague and pattery, the back was supple and secure. But the whole package is still a blast in the hills, with bars that are three inches wider than those on the Ninja 650R, providing lots of leverage for fast transitions.

The seating position is upright and pretty much fixed because of the split-level rider/passenger relationship, but the seat-to-tank junction is conveniently narrow, and the pegs are high enough that you feel seated in the machine rather than on it. Despite ergonomics that favor riders of average stature, this 6-foot-5 rider felt comfortable for most of the time on the daylong introductory ride, only feeling the effects of a rather thin layer of seat foam (33.1-inches from the ground – Ed.) later in the day. The shorty windscreen and nosecone fairing do a pretty good job of blunting the worst of high-speed wind blast, and the screen is adjustable to three levels in 20mm steps. There’s a new instrument panel which is tidy and simple, with an easily read analog tachometer, and a digital speedometer display that’s hard to miss and simple to switch from mph to km/h is you so desire.

More than the levels of comfort, however, the Versys excels in the amount of communication between chassis and rider. The combination of lightness and responsiveness is confidence inspiring, offering a stable learning platform for newer riders while still providing lots of potential for experienced pilots.

"If there are downsides to the prospect of Versys ownership, they are few."

That’s your versatility right there, but it doesn’t stop at canyon carving. Among the accessories offered alongside the Versys are top cases, hard saddlebags, a gel seat, and a larger adjustable windshield. Add the slightly larger fuel tank supplied with the Versys (5.0-gallon vs 4.1-gallons on the Ninja 650R) and the good fuel consumption promised by a 649cc Twin, and Kawasaki’s claim about light touring doesn’t look unreasonable.

If there are downsides to the prospect of Versys ownership, they are few. Opinions on the bike’s slightly bulbous front-end styling tend to be negative in the main, but you should decide for yourself. The sliding-pin calipers gripping the two front petal-shaped discs are somewhat lacking in initial bite, and take a determined squeeze to produce strong retardation. For the bike’s intended role, that’s no biggie.

But the real bug in the ointment for this bike is that it’s a 49-state machine. Yep, while the Versys meets Euro 3 emissions regs, it lacks the carbon-canister vapor recovery system required by CARB for Californian certification. Unfortunately, the Versys fuel tank was simply not designed to accommodate an afterthought modification.

So despite how well this $6,899 bike is suited to lane-splitting on the freeway, Sunday canyon strafing and long rides in the country, it’s being sold only outside California.

Ah well, we still have the weather.

Barry Winfield
Barry Winfield

More by Barry Winfield

Join the conversation