First Ride Review
Is lightweight touring the Next Big Thing in motorcycling? If so, Kawasaki has grabbed the hole shot with its new Versys-X 300 all-rounder. Two days on this bike at a Southern Utah press launch showed off its potential for on- and off-pavement touring in a red rock paradise. “Don’t be afraid to rev this thing,” Kawasaki’s Jeff Herzog told us before leading out from Green River, Utah, on a short stretch of freeway. Not that we had much choice—cruising with traffic on the 80-mph Interstate meant revs a-plenty. The potent eight-valve, fuel-injected parallel twin lifted from the Ninja 300 is spinning more than 9,500 rpm in the top of its six gears at that speed, but you’d never know it without a glance at the analog tach. Kawasaki’s counterbalanced mill is blissfully smooth from just off idle to the 12 grand redline.
Kawasaki dropped final drive gearing by 9 percent from the Ninja to maximize the versatility of the new 300. The benefit is a first gear low enough for easy plonking on the choppy dirt roads we encountered. Combined with a clutch that requires just a single finger to operate (but has a short engagement zone), the Versys-X is beginner friendly. Its 32.1-inch seat height and narrow waist help newbies feel confident as well. A 5-foot, 1-inch tester was comfortable on the bike, while the taller guys were a little cramped; my 5-foot, 8-inch frame was right at home. Straddling the stock seat for the entire ride, my rear didn’t complain until the end of the second day.
The X rolls on 19- and 17-inch front/rear spoked rims shod with street-biased IRC dual-sport tires. They don’t look aggressive, but stuck well in the rocks and dirt as well as on the pavement. The non-adjustable front fork gives a smooth, predictable ride, its 41mm stanchions and 5.1 inches of travel sufficient for typical dirt roads and small rock ledges. A preload-adjustable rear shock rounds out the all-surface handling package. Part of the credit for the 300’s overall good handling—it eats up tight tarmac and is rock stable in the sweepers—goes to the frame design. Kawi hit on the perfect geometry, incorporated the subframe into the main structure, and beefed up the rear shock mount to handle anything the road dishes out.
The motor’s internals are untouched from the Ninja baseline, but dual throttle valves were fitted to flatten out the power curve and the intake modified to beef up low- to mid-range torque. Even so, it’s not a tire-spinner on dirt roads. Rolling along southern Utah’s scenic two-lane highways, I was often in sixth gear at 50 to 55 mph. From there I could enjoy the multi-colored geology on display and still accelerate with a throttle twist, or tap it down a cog or two for passing. Touring range is excellent—the average mileage reading on the instrument panel never dipped below 50 mpg, and the X carries an adventure-empowering 4.5 gallons of liquid energy.
Kawasaki gave us all the ABS version of the Versys-X, which worked well on both street and dirt. You can’t disable the system for off-pavement riding, but the X isn’t a honk-on dirt demon and the ABS didn’t intrude on the off-pavement experience. ABS is a $300 option, and for new riders it’s worth every penny. Factory accessories abound for the X, including hard luggage, crash protection and driving lights. It was unanimously agreed on a 32-degree morning that the optional hand guards should come with the bike.
Whether lightweight touring catches on or not (and it should, given how simple and fun it is), the smallest Versys is a bike that new riders, commuters and anyone looking for a good time on two wheels shouldn’t ignore. And though it’s not a full-on adventure bike, the Versys-X 300 is a well-balanced package that will take you off the grid and into the wild with confidence. Its upright seating, easy-pull clutch and ABS package make it an excellent entrée into both road riding and exploring the back of beyond.