Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Longtermer test: Kawasaki Versys 650

Words by Gordon Compton

Pictures by Becci Russell/Kawasaki Uk

Black, with limited edition putrid grey salt splatters all over it, one careful owner, serious free cleaning offers only need apply within...

Kawasaki Versys


RRP: £5096 or £5439 (with ABS) OTR

Date Purchased: August 2007

Mileage so far: 13500

Well here it is, a non-ABS Versys 650 thats been well used all year round, been all over the place and quite frankly I'm loving every minute of owning it.

The genre this bike has fallen into, the “dual purpose” category like the Ducati Multistrada before it does not do it enough justice along with (in my own personal opinion) the looks of it.

Despite it’s humble price tag and budget ingredients added to it’s top heavy appearance, the Versys really is more of a bike than the sum of it’s parts would have you initially believe, especially when you get going on it for the first time.

The ER-6F & N variants are what they are, like the Suzuki Bandit, SV650 and dare I say the Honda CBF600 and Yamaha Fazer, first time middleweights. They are built to a price in this busy manufacturers sector, albeit very well, but to a point because of the parts specification being to a tight budget to keep a competitive unit retail price so naturally some areas of each of these bikes will suffer as a matter of course.

Whether it is the brakes, suspension or quality of materials or finish, it is an unenviable task to try and pull off what all mainstream manufacturers have to do to achieve a happy design and product medium.

Saying that, the Versys does not escape this factor scot free by any stretch as it has a handful of price biased handicaps like it’s rivals, but when you are looking at a £5000 bike you have to accept that it’s not going to be all roses.

It does however have something like the Multistrada and the V-Strom had before it, and something that most of it’s rivals lack, and that is true flexibility despite the price tag.

Alright, it’s never going to be an off roader, you can’t get more than 120mph out of it and the brakes/suspension/tyre set up isn’t ideal (more about that later), but it seems to make more sense the more time you spend riding it.

Ok, so you could say that this generally is the case if not with all bikes, but with the Versys it does take a bit longer to get your head round it because any ideas you had from just looking at it are truly blown out as soon as you start putting the miles down. This is mainly because of the fact that it’s comfortable beyond belief, and despite being a little too tall for me (ah bless the little fella) it is still an accessible and easy bike to ride with good basic manners.

Being only 5'9" tall does pose a bit of a tip toe challange at standstill, but once your moving you'll soon forgive the Versys thanks to it's well thought out riding position and deceptively good half fairing. (Note the mirror bashers, they are actually a KTM part but provide an extra measure to stop me mitts freezing off when riding in the winter, and keep the splattered insects off me gloves in the summer.)

The small adjustable fly screen and half fairing do actually work, even though the riding position is unstressed and upright. The cockpit is simple but well equipped, with a big white faced analogue rev counter staring back, and beside it is a clear digital speedo with fuel gauge and clock, all of which are strongly back lit at night allowing everything to be clear whatever the condition. The speedo can also be changed from MPH to KMPH so the units can be swapped to cater for traveling abroad, along with twin trip meters which is handy for touring, keeping an idea of tank range and overall trip distance. The switchgear is of a good quality and is easy to use, plus the addition of hazard lights is a nice touch covering the eventuality of having to stop at the side of the road for any reason. The headlight which is stacked with it's dipped beam above the main beam work well, with a good spread of white light.

A look down the side of the Versys shows some of the odd shapes that seem to stand out when you start looking more closely at it, the half fairing especially as it performs almost as well as a full fairing. The screen has three positions it will adjust to, in this instance the uppermost position which gives reasonable protection to about 90mph before having to worry about ducking down out of the windblast. Thanks to the Versys being out for the last two years or more, there is a reasonable selection of aftermarket parts available including taller screens to cater for the more vertically greedy ones out there. The dash is superbly clear being at its best at night, the clock combined with twin trips and fuel gauge are all easily readable and are practical features if you decide to tour on this bike.

Another nice touch is the switch position for the parking lights which is the opposite end of the steering key lock position, so there is no chance of locking the steering, walking away, and then wondering later on why you've ended up with a flat battery which can be done all too easily with some other bikes. A slight moan though is the position of the passing light switch, which is right behind the clutch lever! Who the hell came up with that! Obviously someone who knows a bike needs one of these, but doesn't know what it is for, mmm genius!

Something that really does boost the riders equipment (ergh!), is the wide handlebars which make counter-steering a breeze and account for the commanding position, which is confidence inspiring and less tiring in traffic than a narrower sports bike with clip-ons.

Even on the braking stakes the basic two piston Tokico brake calipers on the front end aren’t too shady either, although braided lines do offer more feel than the standard Nichirin rubber lines it is fitted with. (Although the same can generally be said for any bike having this done.) Even the pillion seat isn't too shabby, with a slightly small, but reasonable padded seat with well positioned side hand grips, and a reasonably uncramped pillion footpeg position, even with panniers mounted.

The Tokico two piston front brake calipers are a rather basic but adequate piece of kit thanks to the petal discs they bite on but can be massively improved on by substituting the standard rubber lines for stainless braided lines. This is a relatively cheap modification (around £100) which transform the feel which is minimal at best with the standard lines. Very much a case of what you put in you get out. Also is the addition of a pair of BT021 Bridgestones which improve the grip stakes markedly in the wet, just add some fumbling and swearing to the suspension settings. Job done.

There is a dark side to this bike though however, get the Versys in the wet on the standard suspension settings (which are adjustable) combined with those super budget D221 Dunlop Sportmax’s, then the meaning of mortality take on a whole new meaning.

The rear shock preload is too hard and helps to make the bike chatter around corners, while the front end has too little preload and ends up wallowing and bottoming out as soon as there is anything more than slight pressure put on to the front brake lever. On top of this the front wants to tuck in without warning, and spends most of it’s time in the wet not giving any feedback whatsoever. Not too clever on a relatively tall bike.

But wait…

After 5000 miles of faithless wet and icy conditions, and god knows how many binned sets of unwashable undercrackers, the Dunlops were ditched gratefully for the (newly introduced at the time) Bridgestone 021 dual compound treaded tyres. Initially the tyres went on and scrubbed in unbelievably fast, in I suppose about 50 miles as opposed to about 200 for the Dunlops. The Bridgestones have the same compound as the D221, but only for the centre portion of the tread, whereas the shoulders have a(slightly) softer compound, to give more supple and reassured cornering. Just changing the tyres alone transformed the bikes performance in the wet from a nerve wrecking to a pretty competent tool, and in the dry, unbelievably good grin inducing goodness. So much so I was finding that I was finding it’s limits very quickly, which was down to the ill thought standard suspension settings, so sure enough the rear started to chatter again, front end wallowing, NOOOOOOOOO!!

After doing some research and some head scratching (dandruff, not head lice), I decided that the suspension HAD to be adjusted. Well even though the types of adjustment on offer are limited (Forks: Preload, and Rebound, and rear the same), they are nevertheless effective, so the bike was set for sag (about an hours worth of titting about) and hey presto, sorted. See, that’s the thing, the bike started as promising but hindered slightly but when it is transformed in the grip and suspension stakes, it becomes something a lot greater, great enough to surprise most who have been in the company of it on a twisty road.

THAT is what I am talking about, the ability to be tailored, maybe not to the same level as say a £9000 sports bike, but to a level that is effective and manages to belie it’s budget roots.

The Versys also excels elsewhere too. Despite only having a poultry 64hp at the crank, about 6hp down on it’s sisters, the ER6F and N, and however dull it looks on paper, it certainly doesn’t feel that way on the road. The gearing is low like most other 600/650 bikes so expect about 80mph @ 6000rpm in sixth, but the way it gets there is not exactly setting the world on fire, but is pretty satisfying considering it’s aerodynamic handicap being so upright.

Considering that the engine is less than 100HP per litre combined with a dry weight of over 200 kilos you expect the performance to be dull to say the least. Don't believe it for a second as the bike is geared lower than the ER6 and undergone a de-tune to boost bottom end delivery to give the engine a classic twin pop. This makes for an entertaining ride most of the time, but thanks to this lower gearing, the Versys becomes thirsty on long motorway runs, but remains to be entertainment even on the daily commutes across town or on twisties. In my own opinion this is the bike the ER6 should have been unfortunately, and feels alot weaker in comparison to the Versys.

The ER6 however for comparison, feels more asthmatic, needing to rev harder for the bike to awaken and put the power down, and combining this with the harsh and overdamped ride, really does highlight how much more complete a package the Versys is, compared to it's close relatives.

Consequently thanks to this, riding the Versys through town or indeed on a tight twisty road is great fun, as the real pop from this little twin starts from about 3000rpm and dips off at about 6-7000rpm. The engine sweeps over this part of the rev range in a blink with very little throttle input, so as soon as the road opens up, it is initially a bit of a shock finding that there is only one or two gears left to play with.

Copyright: Kawasaki

Don’t go trying this in the wet kids, turn out those pockets and replace those budget O.E Dunlops asap! Don’t be a Scrooge! Good tyres and good suspension set up will transform the Versys into an unlikely, yet formidable tool.

Carrying luggage, and/or a pillion really doesn’t phase this bike either way as it just carries on business as usual, thudding and grunting away like an angry Sumo wrestler locked in a Portaloo. Despite its easy adaptation to tour, the underseat storage is next to non existent and only has room for a u-lock, and the tool kit that comes with it. This is accessed by a keylock which is in the side of the tail unit, which is great until you get soft or hard panniers mounted, then it is nigh on impossible to get to without the risk of damaging the key or the lock cylinder. Also something to bear in mind is that the rear shock does not have a remote preload adjuster so always allow 10 minutes and some swearing with the c-spanner provided to adjust the rear shock if you are taking a pillion out for a hurley.


Just look at that thuddy grunter go… even with an angry Sumo wrestler locked in a Portaloo on the back, and a weeks supply of Readymix, the Versys still goes about business as usual. Please note: Imprisoned in Portaloo Sumo wrestler graphically removed for clarity.

One of it’s unfortunate afflictions not unlike most bikes these days, and mainly thanks to Euro emissions legislation, is that the exhaust note doesn’t really sound like anything until its wound up at speed. However, the big air box has the smile forging skill of spitting and snorting under the tank every time the throttle is shut down from about 5000rpm, which is some form of aural compensation.

All in all this bike compared to the ER6F and N, despite sharing the same frame and a de-tuned version of the same engine just feels more compliant, sophisticated and more substantial, yet more sporting with the entertaining willingness from the engine.

But, unfortunately it’s Achilles heel, compared with it’s more conventional siblings is it’s looks.

This is the case with most manufacturers producing such bikes, just look around, how many V-Stroms do you see compared to SV650’s on the road, Multistrada’s against Monsters, and it goes on.

So is it really all that bad then?

Far from it deaf lugs.

Fact of the matter is these bikes are easily and completely overlooked because of their aesthetics, which is a crying shame as they are all excellent bikes, flexible, practical, and above all fun to ride. I could go on forever banging on how good this bike is, other people have as well elsewhere, in fact it won a very well known UK publications 2008 All rounder of the year award, and in the States too it has received ovation in a place where it has been selling steadily in growing numbers.

Even Kawasaki themselves have always from day one have had a reasonably sized accessory collection before it was even launched, showing off its ability for touring and tailoring the bike to make it 100% personal.


At the £5000 mark the Versys sits well price wise within the first timers/middleweight battle ground and stands a good chance as it is such a competent and flexible tool. Its determined and strong engine belie the fact it is less than 70hp, and make it an unfazed choice for even fully laden touring work thanks to its low gearing.

The fueling on this bike is not the most frugal, but doesn’t suffer any stuttering or jerkiness that would slow the confidence of a newcomer and makes for a friendly and accessible power delivery. Even hanging the throttle out of a corner in a gear too high doesn’t seem to upset it, like it would say a middleweight four like the Bandit or Hornet that needs to be revved to make use of their top end delivery.

The flip side though, is the poor choice of tyres which are fine in the dry, but are alarmingly bad in the wet helped along by the standard suspension settings just make matters far worse than they need to be. And on a bike in the wet they really don’t need to be THAT BAD!

Another issue that is something to bear in mind is the seat height. Kawasaki have got around this by offering seats with either more or less filling to affect the overall seat height. A great idea, but at the best part of 300 quid a pop they are either something you have to have or something you make do without.

In fair defence though for the two above points, the fact the Dunlops are cheap tyres and would help to keep the overall unit price down. The seat however has been offered by Kawasaki for the last two winter seasons running, along with hard panniers and mounting kits which is a stonkingly good deal all at the same OTR price. It has meant though waiting till the end of the year before parting with cash.

It is worth bearing in mind that dealer prices are competitive and with things the way they are, these maybe two strong points that could be put over to make a deal if buying new. (CHECK OUT THE NEWS SECTION FOR THE LATEST DEAL)

As for the used bikes available, most have had their tyres changed over, to the same as I have, or the excellent Conti Attacks, or alternatively, the Avon Storm or Distanza sport touring tyres. Michelin and Pirelli offer good alternatives, but mileage can be quite different depending how the bike is going to be ridden. It cannot be reinforced enough, how much difference to the Versys's manners this alone makes, so budget within reason, as it is easy to spend too much, and sacrifice mileage for a relatively small increase in grip. Sport touring tyres seem to definitely suit this bike best for good longevity and performance generally.

Overall the Versys is a fairly priced package that is fun to ride, fairly cheap to run and service, but because of a tight production budget typical with this sector of bike, there are some areas of finish such as the frame and some electrical connectors that do require regular TLC to keep rust and the effects of the elements at bay.

The lack of a remote preload adjuster on the rear shock, and the poor underseat storage space, which can be difficult to access when touring, is a pain, but isn't the end of the world, especially considering this is supposed to be a more basic package than it actually is.

However, go beyond it’s looks and you will find a more plush and composed package than most at this level, all you need to do is take one for a ride to be realise it.

If you are looking for a fairly tough, do most things without grumbling bike, this one will stand out in a list of many, and be a bike that takes a lot of abuse before you get bored with it.

Ditch the blinkers and try one.


Engine type Liquid-cooled, 4-stroke Parallel Twin

Displacement 649 cm³

Bore x stroke 83 x 60 mm

Compression ratio 10.6:1

Valve/Induction system DOHC, 8 valves

Maximum power 47 kW {64 PS} / 8,000 rpm

Maximum torque 61 N·m {6.2 kgf·m} / 6,800 rpm

Fuel system Fuel injection: ΓΈ38 mm x 2 (Keihin)

Ignition Digital

Starting Electric

Transmission 6-speed, return

Frame type Diamond, high-tensile steel

Rake/Trail 25°/108 mm

Suspension, Front 41 mm inverted telescopic fork with stepless (right-side) adjustable rebound damping and adjustable preload

Suspension, Rear Offset laydown single-shock with 13-way adjustable rebound damping and 7-way adjustable preload

Wheel travel, Front 150 mm

Wheel travel, Rear 145 mm

Tyre, Front 120/70ZR17M/C (58W)

Tyre, Rear 160/60ZR17M/C (69W)

Brakes, Front Dual semi-floating 300 mm petal discs

Brakes, Rear Single 220 mm petal disc

Steering angle, left / right 35° / 35°

Dimensions (L x W x H) 2,125 mm x 840 mm x 1,315 mm

Wheelbase 1,415 mm

Seat height 840 mm

Fuel capacity 19 litres

Curb Mass 206 kg / 209 kg (ABS)

Complies to EU emission limit EURO 3

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