2008 Kawasaki Versys Road Test - Motorcycle.com

Pete Brissette
by Pete Brissette

More than ad dollars or favorable website stats, time itself often seems the precious commodity here at the 'Net's biggest online motorcycle publication. Occasionally our busy schedules don't allow us to attend every new model intro. In these rare instances we turn to respected and reliable freelance journos. Such was the case at the unveiling of the 2008 Kawasaki Versys.

Eventually we get ahead of the whirlwind that is the motorcycle industry and seize the chance to get our hands on something we think we’d really like. The Versys seemed to be a reasonably priced and capable all-rounder, but we needed to find out for ourselves. To further expand its capability, we ordered one up with a set of hard-shell saddlebags from Kawasaki’s accessory catalog.

In case you've been under a rock for the past several months, a quick primer on the funky-looking bike - available only in European spec prior to this year - reveals that much of the machine is crafted from the Ninja 650R.

Though it's not a dual-purpose machine in the strictest sense, the Versys can keep you riding when the pavement ends.

Both bikes use a 649cc (83 x 60mm bore/stroke) DOHC eight-valve liquid-cooled parallel-Twin engine. But the Versys has a slightly lower compression ratio (10.6:1 as compared to the 11.3:1 of the 650R)and is tuned for better low and mid-range power by means of altered cam shapes and an exhaust header crossover pipe; the rest of the Ninja’s minimal mid-ship exhaust carries over. Additionally, the Versys has a marginally bigger radiator for better cooling.

The engine re-tuning results in 59.4 hp at 8400 rpm on the Area P-No
Limits Dynojet dyno, down 5 ponies from the 650R¹s 65.7 hp at 8600 rpm.
The Ninja also offers bigger torque numbers (45.5 to 42.0 ft-lbs), but
it can¹t match the wonderfully flat and consistent curve of the Versys.
Torque output from the retuned engine is almost identical from 3800 rpm
all the way to 8100 rpm. It also crosses the 40 ft-lb. mark by 5800 rpm,
while the peakier Ninja has to wait until almost 6500 revs.

A similar pattern of share and share alike follows with the chassis. The semi-double cradle-type steel frame from the modest Ninja is borrowed for the Versys, but a sexier gull-wing style swingarm is much more exotic than the box-section steel unit used on the 650R. Also of note is the switch to a more traditional-looking collection of steel tubes for passenger peg mounts rather than the large artistic piece of cast aluminum used on the Ninja.

Like the 650R, the Versys uses a linkage-less laydown shock, but it has the additional benefit of rebound-damping adjustment the Ninja 650 lacks.
The frame is all but a carbon copy of what the 650R uses. The difference on the Versys' frame is the subframe, passenger peg mounting portion and aluminum swingarm.

What really sets the Versys chassis apart functionally is the suspension. The inverted 41mm fork and offset laydown shock both have rebound adjustment as well as preload and offer 5.9 and 5.7 inches of travel, respectively. The Ninja does without rebound clickers and has far less travel at 4.7 inches front, 4.9 inches rear; it also uses a conventional, right-side-up fork. Chassis dimensions are remarkably close, with the taller suspension yielding a nominal increase in trail (4.3 inches over the 4.2 for the Ninja) on the V and an equally minute 0.2-inch increase in the wheelbase (55.7 inches vs. 55.5). Both bikes have a 25.0-degree steering angle. The Versys shock has a two-stage compression damping circuit that firms as the linkage-less damper compresses.

Lastly, the front wheel and pair of two-piston sliding-pin calipers that are straight off the Ninja, but the Versys has slightly thicker 300mm petal-type rotors. The Versys rides on Dunlop's Sportmax D221, while its sportier cousin has Bridgestone's BT020; both share the same tire size of 120/70-17 front and 160/60-17 rear.

It seems natural to make spec sheet comparisons between these two bikes because they share so much. And it's also a safe venture to call the Versys a parts-bin bike, like the venerable first generation Bandit was for Suzuki. But unlike some other publications, we think it a mistake to compare them in just about any other way. The Versys is an entirely different bike from the Ninja 650R.

With its 33.1-inch saddle height, wide handlebar and neutral riding position, climbing aboard the Versys is reminiscent of a dual-sport. But the broad, comfortable seat with distinctive passenger area is more like the BMW R1200GS than it is any plank-like saddle found on most D-P bikes. So friendly is the roomy rider triangle that Kevin Duke believes that "it is as comfortable running city errands as it is draining its generously sized 5.0-gallon tank in a single stint." Speaking of fuel, we saw an observed 42 mpg during normal motorjournalist testing antics and a high of 54 mpg one day when the Versys served as a mellow-going photo mule. Even passengers like the do-it-all Versys, as it boasts a broad pillion area with contoured grab rails to keep them happy.

But the V bike is more than just a cozy place on two wheels. Handling is agile without sacrificing stability. The wheelbase is pretty sporty but it's tempered by the modest rake angle. Still, KDuke found that "the tall and wide handlebar offers plenty of leverage for quick steering transitions," and our photog Fonzie even referred to it as "urban motocross-style" handling during his maximum seat time. That's a pretty good assessment in my view as I was often tempted to stick my foot out, motard-style. Considering a 6-pound gain over the Ninja's claimed dry weight of 393 lbs, the Versys is a flick-able bike.

Hand-in-hand with ergos is the rider environment. The simple instruments consist of a large, white-faced analog tach front and center with an LCD display on the right offering speed, fuel gauge and clock along with the usual odo and trip meters. An array of idiot lights are to the left. Kevin makes an excellent point about what would be a smart addition to the cluster: a gear-position indicator. Other things like adjustable reach clutch and brake levers are a nice touch.

Despite 300mm petal-type rotors borrowed from the supersport ZX machines, the two-piston sliding pin calipers don't offer a lot of feel. A single four-piston caliper of higher quality may have been a better choice.

Considering its minimal bodywork and abbreviated windshield, the Versys has surprisingly good wind protection that helps shrug off the elements. Though I noticed there was a bit more buffeting from the manually adjustable (in 20mm increments) three-position windscreen than I would've liked, Fonzie seemed satisfied with it in the highest setting. But he also said he'd love to try the accessory screen from Kawasaki ($124.95) that's 2 inches taller and 3 inches wider than stock. If you need more plastic in front of you, another screen called the Vario is available for $189.95 that adds an additional lip to the larger accessory windshield.

Max torque on the Versys isn't appreciably different than on the Ninja 650R, but it makes the most of what it has fairly early. Usable twisting force comes on as early as 4000 rpm with the lion's share of torque remaining steady all the way up to around 6000 rpm where the final few foot-pounds climb and peak around 7200-7300 rpm. A nice, smooth line flat enough to serve tea from. Power builds in a similarly linear manner but starts fading well before 9000 rpm. Rather early in my opinion, considering the 10,500 redline on a tach that displays 13,000 rpm. Oh well, it’s not a racer.

"...we think it's a mistake to compare them in just about any other way. The Versys is an entirely different bike from the Ninja 650R."

The key characteristics of the powerplant, however, have to be user friendliness and smoothness. The balanced mill lacks any of the sewing machine buzz inherent in many vertical Twins and provides ample passing power at freeway speeds. Cruising at speeds in excess of an indicated 80 mph doesn't seem to bother this do-it-all steed in the least. Just twist and go. Throttle response was good but we all noticed an erratic-at-times idle speed from the automatic fast-idle circuit in the twin 38mm throttle bodies.

Alfonse had the most seat time on the Versys. We had to promise him a steak dinner and three nights of karaoke to get it away from him.
The rider triangle is not only comfortable, it's downright practical.

The Versys has a wide-ratio six-speed gearbox, with a very short low gear that provides lots of thrust but runs out fairly early. This makes response quite snappy at low speeds but requires an upshift while traversing a large intersection. Shifting from the wide-ratio six-speed tranny is positive on the upshift but requires some conscious thought going the other direction, as there's what feels like a little gap between gears. Pull on the cable-actuated clutch is light, but I couldn't keep myself from wanting to snug up the cable as it also felt a bit sloppy. Duke remarked that it engages a bit abruptly toward the end of its travel – not ideal for newbs.

For a street bike the Versys has long-travel suspension and, according to Duke-in-Chief, it "handily sucks up bumps while providing ample cornering clearance." Indeed, the bike provides a very compliant ride, but all that travel does come at the price of a some front-end dive - not like a KLR650 though! - when the front binders are squeezed. On the issue of the brakes, they're powerful enough but lack feedback, feeling a touch wooden at times.

The Dunlop D221 tires are a bit of a compromise. They appear to wear quite well and offer decent stick when warmed up, but Duke wasn’t impressed with their grip when cold.

Kawasaki has made a number of goodies available to the Versys owner. In addition to the windscreen options, a 2-inch lower gel seat is available for a premium of $399.95. Hard luggage is a nice addition and really enhances the practicality of an already very practical bike. We went with the Versys branded Givi-made side bags that retail for $379 and also require $249 mounting brackets. We were impressed with the hardbags easy on/off operation and their capacity to hold a full-face helmet, although Fonzie's full-face Icon seemed a smidgen too large to allow them to close fully. A rear trunk - call it a top box if you're a Limey - can be had for $139.95, but you'll need the $159.95 bracket to go with it.

In many ways this motorcycle defies strict categories. Heck, even Kawasaki has it listed under both Dual Purpose and Sport on its website. Among the three of us Fonzie had the most miles under his belt, and was left asking the question, "Is this the dawn of a new standard motorcycle?" A more poignant question couldn't have been posed.

Perhaps Kevin's commentary says it best:

"Here’s a bike that anyone can hop on and go anywhere. It’s as much at home running to 7-11 for a gallon of milk as it is slicing up a twisty backroad. It easily runs ahead of 80-mph freeway traffic with a plush ride that encourages loading up the saddlebags for a sport-touring interstate romp. It’s not a sportbike and it’s not a cruiser - it’s a motorcycle, a machine that amazingly doesn’t seem out of its element anywhere."

The Versys: Dawn of a new standard?
The Perfect Bike For…
Anyone who rides street motorcycles.
Highs: Sighs:
Amazing versatility View from the mirrors is as good as it gets on a motorcycle. Modest $6899 price tagDespite its dominating presence, the headlight isn't especially bright, even on high beam Slightly notchy tranny on downshifts Probably not available in California until at least model year 2009


Engine Type

Four-stroke, liquid cooled, DOHC, four-valve per cylinder, parallel twin


649 cc

Bore & Stroke

83.0 x 60.0 mm

Compression Ratio




Fuel Injection

Digital fuel injection with two 38mm Keihin throttle bodies


Digital CDI



Final Drive

O-Ring Chain


Semi-double cradle, high-tensile steel


25°/4.3 in.

Front Tire Size


Rear Tire Size




Front Suspension / wheel travel

41mm hydraulic telescopic fork with adjustable rebound and preload / 5.9 in.

Rear Suspension / wheel travel

Single offset laydown shock with adjustable rebound and spring preload / 5.7 in.

Front Brake Type

Dual 300mm petal discs with two-piston caliper

Rear Brake Type

Single 220mm petal disc with single-piston caliper

Fuel Tank Capacity

5.0 gal.

Seat Height


Dry Weight

399 lbs.

Overall length

83.7 in.

Overall width

33.1 in.

Overall height

51.8 in.


Passion Red


12 months

Good Times™ Protection Plan

12, 24, 36 or 48 months

* Model not available in California

Related Reading

2008 Kawasaki Versys First Ride
First Ride: 2006 Kawasaki Ninja 650R
2008 Kawasakis: First Look
2006 Suzuki SV650S v. 2006 Kawasaki Ninja 650R

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