Sometimes adding new features and software to an existing product works out well; sometimes it doesn’t. Ask Boeing or a Kardashian. Kawasaki’s pre-existing Versys 1000 was a nice-enough but completely nondescript motorcycle until the company decided to throw fresh gadgetry at it for 2019, to the tune of about 50% of the purchase price of the base model. Check the “LT SE+” box, and for $17,999, you’ll be getting: Kawasaki Electronic Control Suspension (KECS), new ride-by-wire fueling with cruise control and Kawasaki Quick Shifter, new electronics including KCMF and KIBS (that’s Kawi Cornering Management Function and Kawi Integrated Braking System), controlled by the new 6-axis IMU, a new TFT color instrumentation dash like the one on the H2 SX SE, new smartphone connectivity with Kawi Rideology app, sweet new self-healing painted bodywork with LED headlights and cornering lights, heated grips, a centerstand, hard luggage… suddenly the Versys is a contender.

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2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 LT SE+ First Ride Review

The BMW 1250RT, of course, is automatically a contender as the follow-up to the R1200RT, MO’s annual Best Sport-Tourer award winner for several years before being dethroned by none-other-than the Kawi H2 SE SX last year. We had to give it to the H2 in 2018 for the audacity of the thing, but it and the BMW obviously approach sport touring from completely different directions: The H2 is more a heavy, comfortable sportbike, and the BMW is more a lightweight Goldwing, whose fields of fire interlock somewhere in the middle. The Versys is sort of neither. It looks more like an adventure bike until you look at its 17-inch tires. BMW’s S1000XR is probably its more direct competitor – but Kawi’s not really going for all-out horsepower here and besides, we already had the BMW RT in the garage. Really, the boundaries for all these market segments continue to blur as the manufacturers probe for rich niches…

The richest niche lately, is big, expensive motorcycles. The profit margin is far more nourishing than the ones for Ninja 400s and G310 GSs. Speaking of profits, BMW sells nearly 3x as many big GSs as it does RTs, but both bikes got the new 1254 cc Shift Cam boxer twin for 2019. BMW threw in a few more upgrades – automatic Hill Start Control, Dynamic Braking Control (makes sure you’ve got the throttle closed during panic braking), and next-gen electronic suspension with a self-levelling feature: No more preload adjusting.

2019 BMW R1250 RT First Ride Review

If you bought the base model BMW, you’d be within $647 of the Kawi’s asking price, but that’s not how BMW rolls. You’ll be needing the Select Package at least ($5,150), or you’ll be doing without cruise control, electronic suspension, central locking, the heated seat, and quite a few other things, including the quickshifter. Kawasaki gives you the whole enchilada for one low, low price, but the enchilada does not include a heated seat or remote central locking (you need the key every time you want in a bag, and you can’t leave them unlocked). You also don’t get the BMW’s maintenance-free shaft drive, but you do get a bike that’s 30 or 40 pounds lighter (we weigh them wet; it’s 596 lbs for the Kawi and 637 for the BMW, but the BMW holds 1.1 more gallons of gas).

Shall we ride?

Ergonomics are where these two begin to depart. It’s easy to slide into the BMW’s low, 31.7-inch bucket seat. The reach forward to the grips isn’t very far nor high, and the boxer’s low cg makes picking the bike up off the sidestand low-effort. You’re sitting in a more compact deep-dish cockpit, behind a wider fairing and a bigger windshield. Seat-to-footpeg distance is shorter than you’d expect, which shorter people like me (5’8”) love – but taller guys, surprisingly enough, tend to like too. (You can raise the seat to its 32.5-in position if you want, and there are no-cost tall- and low-seat options as well.

You can use Kawasaki’s new Rideology app to talk to your bike, adjust its suspension, etc. That tubular handlebar provides a nice place for a mount. The new TFT dash is lifted from the H2.

The most adventure-bikey thing about the Kawasaki is its ergos: The seat’s 33.1 inches high, and its grips are high and wide, attached to either end of a big steel handlebar. Its new fairing and bigger windscreen auger a smaller hole through the air than the BMW’s, but still provide a good-sized cocoon, with taller people wishing for a taller windscreen. The seat’s high because there’s 5.9 inches of suspension travel at either end – 1.2 inches more than the BMW in front and 0.5-inch more out back.

Ryan Adams says: Jumping back and forth between these two made the R1250RT’s rider triangle feel somewhat cramped. Though after spending more time in the saddle it starts to feel perfectly neutral to my 5-foot 8-inch self. Larger riders will likely be more comfortable with the Versys’ wide open cockpit.

Surprisingly, our designated passenger liked the Kawasaki’s back seat much better than the BMW’s. The Kawi seat is higher and provides much greater visibility, more comfortably upright ergos, and better handholds. With the BMW’s more forward and higher passenger pegs, she felt like she might occasionally roll off the back. (Photo by Ms. Rogers)

The Versys’ new KECS (Kawasaki Electronic Controlled Suspension) has really transformed the bike, taking its ride into the same magic-carpety realm as the BMW. The more you ride them, the more you appreciate how fresh and un-beat-up your rear end feels every time you climb off. Like the BMW, a little fettling the buttons on the left handlebar lets you go from sofa, on the long boring parts, to sporty when the road goes curvy. If you’re not happy with the normal Sport, Road or Rain settings, you can also electronically further adjust damping settings at both ends – and you can also program all your preferences into a quickly accessible customizable Rider mode; then you can instantly flip through all four modes on the fly with just your left thumb.

The Versys enjoys a good flogging. The rubbery-feeling quickshifter grows less annoying with time.

The more you ride the Kawasaki (both these bikes, really) the more you appreciate how well the suspension works; having a 120-pound passenger on back is nearly unnoticeable, as the suspension automatically compensates. On the Kawi, you punch in the two-people-plus-bags icon to preload the rear shock. The BMW’s new self-levelling system means you do nothing: I was scrolling around looking to dial in more preload only to see if it would help Christine feel less likely to roll off the back of the bike, when I remembered there’s no way to do that on the RT. Then I borrowed my kid’s “If you can read this” t-shirt.

Straight & Narrow

Of all the things Kawasaki added to the Versys, electronic cruise control is the most important one for turning it into a bike you can use for long distances, even if it does max out at 85 mph. Dialing in Rain mode sets suspension to full-pillow and engine power to 75% – which is still plenty for toddling along at 85 – but Road isn’t much less comfortable. The wide handlebar, smaller windshield and firmer seat are slightly less conducive to passive scenery-reeling than the BMW cockpit, but I’d be happy to go cross-country on either bike if the Man would let me. If it was chilly, I’d prefer the BMW because of its heated seat. Also because of its 1.1-gallon bigger gas tank – 6.6 gallons – and the fact that it returns 47 mpg in drone mode to the Versys’ 38-ish.

Ryan A says: Not only does the Kawasaki Versys LT SE + come with heated grips, it also comes with a right ankle heater. To be fair, the heat was mostly noticeable when it was combined with the 95-degree ambient temperature of the California desert at lower speeds.

Long & Winding

If the tables turn when the going gets sporty, it’s not by much, but the Kawasaki takes the upper hand. The wider bar gives more leverage and control for stuffing the Versys into corners, and there’s about 40 pounds less of it to stuff. With the higher roll center provided by its inline Four, the Kawasaki feels a tad lighter on its toes in quick direction changes; the BMW counters with a feeling of supreme plantedness and stability. The Beemer uses a steering damper; the Versys does not.

Ryan A. says: For more aggressive riding, I enjoyed the Kawi; with it’s more spacious cockpit, the rider has more room to move around on the bike, and with the large handlebar there’s plenty of leverage to bend the Versys to your will.

Whatever the BMW might give up going into the corner, its 94 lb-ft of torque pulls back at the exits (the Versys’ 211cc-smaller engine can only manage 71 lb-ft). The BMW’s on-rails cornering behavior and traction control encourage you to open the throttle early, and reward you with the kind of escape velocities you wouldn’t expect from looking at a thing that looks like a BMW-RT. It reminds you Red Pridmore won the first AMA Superbike championship on an RT, in 1976.

1254cc boxer Twin vs 1043cc inline Four appears to be a decisive win for the BMW, but the Kawi’s a bit lighter. Both bikes’ fueling is faultless, but the Versys seems to be crying out for some kind of aftermarket help, yearning to breathe a bit freer…

In fact the two bikes are a pretty fun match for each other, each using its own talents to arrive at what feels like a pretty equal pace, and that pace can be eye-openingly quick if you’ve never ridden a big sport tourer. Both of them have made us firm believers in electronic “rider aids.”

Me anyway. If I was at first loath to trust “lean-sensitive” ABS, I think I’m now fully woke. Now it’s fun to not trail-brake into corners as much as to go flying in on the verge of what feels like too fast, and then mash both brakes – more like sportscar than motorcycle. Both the Kawi and BMW hunker right down and easily slow their roll with zero drama. Encountering unexpected tight corners on unfamiliar roads, this tech can literally be a lifesaver.

Back on the gas, rinse, repeat.

Kawasaki’s KCMF uses its new IMU to keep you from both losing front traction on the brakes, or the rear on the gas. While I’m a little sad that I’m relying a bit less on my “skills,” I’m also greatly relieved; we’re not getting any younger or smarter over here are we? Having those failsafe systems just makes me feel more secure, and that adds to the thrill of the ride.

In addition to braking and accelerating, both bikes’ electronic suspensions are busily erasing mid-corner bumps all the while – the Kawasaki adjusting itself every 10 milliseconds – to ensure tire contact patches stay glued to the pavement, which is part of why they handle so well. You might be able to unravel our test roads a bit quicker on a real sportbike, but not by much, and only if you have limited imagination as to what might be around blind corners. All those electrons really have moved the game forward.

Creature Comforts

It looks so innocent. All those carefully bent pieces of plastic make for a serene cockpit from which to terrorize the curves.

Ryan Adams says: The electric-adjustable windscreen on the Beemer alone is nearly worth the premium of the German machine. Sofa king convenient. The Versys 1000 LT SE +’s windscreen is unforgivable. Not only does it require two hands to adjust it to your preferred height, but with the low pressure inlet in the middle, vision through the already yellowed plastic is skewed. Recently, I had to ride the Versys a mile-and-a-half down a rocky sandy road to camp and was left looking around the windscreen on one side or another to check for obstacles in front of me. While I would hardly call the new Versys an adventure bike, it’s still the preferred steed for light off-roading between the two.

He’s right. A windshield you move up and down with your left thumb is one of those things you never knew you needed until you have it. On the road, you’re constantly adjusting to get smooth airflow as conditions change, or lowering it all the way through town to get airflow. The Versys windshield is better than no windshield at all, and of course easily replaceable as the aftermarket swings into action.


The BMW wins this one hands down also. Not only are its bags big enough to hold an XL helmet each, the central locking remote fob lets you in and out easily. On the Kawi, you need the ignition key every time, because you can’t just leave the bags unlocked. (It’s another thing you don’t know is a slight PITA until somebody removes the irritant.) The Kawi does have an external helmet lock.

The Kawi’s bags stick out a bit further than the BMW’s. Be careful not to clip its left bag on the BMW’s right one when you’re right next to a ditch. It’s a shame the bike only has the new self-healing paint on its dorsal surfaces.

Also, the BMW gives you two glove boxes up front. The right one has a USB port waiting for your phone, and locks when you hit the remote along with the bags. The Kawasaki has an old school cigarette lighter socket that needs a cheap adapter from the 7-Eleven. At least there’s a round handlebar for a phone mount on the Kawi. On the BMW, you’ll need to spring for the new GPS that our Select-packaged bike is pre-wired to accept.


You can Bluetooth your phone up to both bikes. The Kawi’s new 5-inch TFT display is pretty swell, but it won’t tell you who’s calling or texting – only that someone is. Which is pretty lame in the age of the eternal robocall. The RT, sadly, did not get BMW’s excellent new 6.5 inch TFT display like the GS bikes did. Its analog gauges are a bit hard-to-read and dated. But it’s got a stereo I’ve never used. Sorry.

Shaft drive

Some people say they’d never buy a sport-tourer with chain drive; other people say they’d never buy a BMW with a shaft because a few of them had problems 20 years ago. Your call. The Versys comes with a centerstand. Chain-lube your heart out.

The cornering lights are pretty swell, too. They light up sequentially as the lean angle increases; the top one lights up even at freeway lean angles and really does aid visibility.

At the end of the day – a long one with a still-springtime-fresh butt at the end – these bikes are both more thrilling to ride than most people who haven’t ridden them would expect, in all manner of circumstances from Iron Butt Rallying to tearing down Latigo Canyon. The mighty MO Scorecard tells the tale: The Kawasaki wins the Objective portion with its low price and lower weight, with the BMW putting up a good scrap thanks to its tremendous engine… then goes on to trounce the Kawi in most of our Subjective rankings. In the end, it winds up being a close-run race anyway, the Beemer pulling out a 91.5 to 88.9 victory. (In my First Ride reviews of the bikes, using our simplified scorecard, I had it 90.5 to 89.5 for the BMW.) I mean, before the new Versys fell into our laps, we wouldn’t have even considered this comparison. As it turns out, the LT SE+ acquits itself extremely well.

Ryan says: For the long haul, I would choose the BMW R1250RT. If i’m putting down 400+ miles per day, I want the smoothness and convenience the BMW delivers in terms of wind protection, rider comfort, and technology. If I found myself blasting off for a day ride into the mountains that may even involve a fire road or two, the Versys is more versatile. It’s fun to ride hard. The 1000cc-inline Four spools up torque smoothly and the open cockpit allows the rider space to hang off of the bike a bit – or not if your looking to max out the lean angle indicators. Both machines are fantastic touring bikes though they occupy slightly different niches in the “touring” landscape.

If you’re a BMW guy let’s face it, you’re not going to sweat the extra $7,000, so yes, you shall have the BMW. On the other hand, if you always kind of wanted to be a tricked-out electronically suspended BMW guy, but didn’t want to spend the money, then the Kawasaki is a way more than reasonable facsimile for 30% off, and a fantastic, do-everything motorcycle for the money.

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