2015 Kawasaki Versys 650 LT

First Ride Review

As Inspector “Dirty” Harry Callahan advised, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Male or female, it’s always good to keep your ego in check. Many of us don’t need 100-plus horsepower or whiz-bang electronics. We’d happily trade bragging rights for comfort, nimble handling, fuel efficiency and low weight. Since we’re touring riders, a set of hard, lockable saddlebags and some wind protection would be nice. And we love a good deal; a sticker price below five figures leaves room in our budget for accessories, gear and travel expenses.

Few bikes fit that bill as well as the Kawasaki Versys 650, which has been extensively updated for 2015 (it debuted for 2008 and got a minor refresh for 2010) and is now available in two versions, an ABS model ($7,999) and a new LT model ($8,699) that adds 28-liter Kawasaki Quick Release (KQR) saddlebags, hand guards and a longer warranty (12 months for the ABS model, 24 for the LT). That’s $700 well spent. (The larger Versys 1000, introduced in Europe and elsewhere for 2012, has also been updated and will finally be available in the U.S. in 2015.)

Perhaps you previously dismissed the Versys because it looked as if it had fallen out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. Time to reconsider. Just as the ugly duckling grew up to be an attractive swan, the Versys has gotten a major facelift with styling cues taken from the Kawasaki’s Ninja sportbikes. The quirky stacked headlights have been replaced by a pair of mean-looking cat-eyes, and the sharp-edged upper fairing sports a downforce-generating chin spoiler and side channels that direct air flow around the bike. A new, larger windscreen offers 2.4 inches of height adjustment without tools.

Powering the Versys is a liquid-cooled, 649cc parallel twin with DOHC and four valves per cylinder, essentially the same engine that’s found in the Ninja 650 and, in highly modified form, raced in flat track against the legendary Harley-Davidson XR750. Reliability shouldn’t be a problem. When we last tested a Versys 650 in 2012, it made 60 horsepower and nearly 45 lb-ft or torque at the rear wheel, with the torque spread out broadly across the rev range. Kawasaki says a new one-piece exhaust and ECU revisions add a few horsepower and improve fuel economy, and a larger 5.5-gallon fuel tank (up from 5) extends range.

The Versys 650 press introduction was held in Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, which, on a map, looks like a triangular ball being kicked by Italy’s boot. Our 100-plus mile route wound its way through a confusing, tangled web of narrow roads lined with guard rails, stone walls or centuries-old buildings, passing through villages and climbing the foothills of 10,990-foot Mount Etna, the tallest active volcano in Europe. The streets were wet or paved with cobblestones or had weird camber, or all three at once, and hiding around many of the blind corners were surprises like smoke-belching trucks, a herd of sheep or a clapped-out Fiat Panda driven by an espresso-addled maniac. In other words, the perfect place to expose the weaknesses of a motorcycle.

Fortunately, I didn’t find many. The Versys 650 was a gentleman and a scholar, instilling me with absolute confidence. Its 180-degree crank generates a pleasing yet polite rumble and its counterbalancer mutes most unwanted vibration. New rubber engine and handlebar mounts and rubber-covered footpegs isolate the rider from whatever buzziness remains. Power is delivered in a crisp, linear fashion with none of the abruptness or vagueness that can plague bikes with electronic throttles (the Versys uses tried-and-true cables). There’s no snatch in the chain-final drive, the clutch works like a charm and the 6-speed transmission is as smooth as whipped butter. Rather than forcing you to adapt to it, the Versys is putty in your hands, a flexible, user-friendly machine that will do whatever you ask of it. Docile and friendly around town, smooth and efficient on the highway, peppy and exciting as you approach the 10,000-rpm redline.

The Versys has a long-legged stance similar to many of today’s adventure tourers, but with none of their off-road pretensions. The one potential hitch in the Versys’ get-along is its 33.1-inch seat height, which puts it out of reach for many buyers; seat height is not adjustable but an accessory low Gel seat is available. On the other hand, the rangy dimensions allow plenty of legroom, especially since the footpegs have been moved down 0.6-inch and forward 0.8-inch. You sit upright thanks to the tall, wide handlebar, and the seat is plush and tapered in front for an easy reach to the ground. The stepped seat should give the passenger a good view, and a new, beefier subframe allows a higher payload. Larger passenger grab handles have integrated hangers for the saddlebags, leaving a clean look when they’re removed. The LT’s 28-liter KQR saddlebags are lifted straight from the Ninja 1000; both will hold a full-face helmet and they’re color- and key-matched to the bike. If you add the optional 47-liter KQR top trunk ($274.95, plus mounting kit), total luggage capacity tops out at 103 liters. The bikes we rode were fitted with several useful accessories, including a gear position indicator ($206.95), grip heaters ($224.95) and LED fog lights ($514.95), all of which worked well.

Weighing just under 500 pounds in LT trim with a full tank of gas, the Versys 650 is playfully light and easy to toss back and forth through tight corners, aided by that wide handlebar, a short wheelbase and just-right steering geometry. New suspension and brakes give the Versys 650 improved road manners and they perform admirably, taking plenty of abuse without complaint. An inverted Showa separate-function fork has the spring in the left tube and damping components in the right, saving weight and reducing friction. The 5.9-inch-travel fork uses longer outer tubes for more rigidity, and it’s adjustable for rebound and spring preload. The 5.7-inch-travel KYB rear shock has a stiffer spring and revised damping rates to accommodate a passenger and luggage, and it has a remote spring preload adjuster but no damping adjustment. New Nissin calipers, master cylinders and brake pads provide more initial bite, better feel and more power, and ABS is standard. A pair of 2-piston calipers up front squeeze 300mm petal-style rotors and a 1-piston rear caliper squeezes a 250mm petal-style rotor. Both wheels are 17-inchers shod with new Dunlop Sportsmax D222 tires that offer good grip and handling.

Dirty Harry got his name because he got “every dirty job that comes along.” The Versys 650, which got its name by mashing up “versatile” and “system,” will handle every rough, convoluted road you can find, but without the attitude. It looks better, performs better and is a much more capable tourer/commuter/you-name-it, and it’s a real bargain to boot. The LT model is the way to go, and it looks sharp in both Candy Lime Green or Pearl Stardust White.