You think the manufacturers don't listen to their customers? With an increasing number of European riders leaning toward the "adventure tour" segment of motorcycling-bikes patterned in a pseudo-off-road-style, sporting a higher ride height with longer-travel suspension, upright seating positions and high-set handlebars, but with decent wind protection-Kawasaki decided to get in on the action at the ground level by introducing the Versys in Europe and Canada last year. Based on the 649cc parallel twin Ninja 650R, the Versys was intended as an entry-level introduction to that bike genre. A much more refined package than the little Ninja, the Versys sports adjustable suspension, a slightly better chassis and a retuned engine to go along with the more comfortable upright adventure tour ergos, all at a very affordable price. It was an instant hit across the pond, and many American riders looked on with envy, wondering why we couldn't get the same model over here.
Apparently the marketing people at Kawasaki U.S.A. thought that stateside riders wouldn't be interested in the somewhat unorthodox-appearing Versys, but they soon found out otherwise. "We received more letters and e-mails asking about the Versys than any other model in our company's history," revealed Jan Plessner, Kawasaki U.S.A.'s public relations manager. That was all it took for the American arm of Kawasaki to lobby the factory in Japan about getting a U.S.-legal version of the machine for its '08 lineup.
We recently had the opportunity to spend a day on the '08 Kawasaki Versys in and around the hills above San Diego, California. And we came away from that experience thinking: For all of you who wrote in to Kawasaki asking to bring the Versys to these shores-good on ya!
Versys Vs. Ninja 650r
Kawasaki reps went through great pains to emphasize that the Versys and Ninja 650R are "two completely different motorcycles," even though it appears that the only shared parts are the engine, frame and wheels. "The Ninja 650R could be considered an entry-level sportbike, while the Versys is basically an entry-level motorcycle," said Karl Edmondson, product manager for Kawasaki U.S.A. However, a close look at the Versys' hard parts reveals it to be much more than a re-clothed Ninja. And riding the Versys showed it to be far more than any entry-level motorcycle.
The 649cc parallel twin engine is basically the same as the 650R, with the exception that both intake and exhaust camshafts sport less duration (intake drops from 272 degrees to 260 degrees, while the exhaust is reduced from 260 degrees to 252 degrees) for better low-end and midrange power. The same style under-engine exhaust is used, but a connector pipe has been added between the two header sections to aid exhaust scavenging. The radiator is 40mm wider than the Ninja's unit, increasing cooling capacity by a claimed 12 percent.
Although the steel-tube frame is nearly identical to the one on the 650R, the steering geometry has been relaxed slightly (rake has been increased 0.5 degrees to 25 degrees, with a corresponding 0.1 inch increase in trail) to adapt to the Versys' higher stance and wider range of intended riding environments. The aluminum swingarm is all new, however, with a more substantial-looking curved box-section design on the right side and braced square-tube construction on the left. The rear subframe has also been reinforced with additional bracing, in order to handle the increased loads of a passenger (which was more of an afterthought on the Ninja) and the optional hard luggage.
Big changes are apparent in the suspension, with the 650R's somewhat wimpy/ cheap-looking conventional fork replaced with a longer-travel (from the Ninja's 4.7 inches to 5.9 inches) 41mm inverted fork. Spring preload and rebound damping are fully adjustable (unlike the Ninja's non-adjustable units), although rebound is only adjustable on the right-side fork leg, probably for cost reasons. The rear shock is still mounted in a cantilever setup (no linkage) but now has rebound damping adjustability to accompany the spring preload adjuster. Wheel travel has also increased in the rear, going from 4.9 inches on the Ninja to 5.7 inches; internal gas pressure has been doubled (up to 284 psi) in order to deal with the increased suspension travel. Wheels are the same, as are the dual two-piston sliding calipers and 300mm petal discs; the discs themselves, however, are 0.5mm thicker for improved fade resistance.
As you'd expect with the high handlebar, the ergos are substantially revised from the 650R. The footpegs are actually lowered and moved forward compared to the Ninja, with a much better and thicker padding on both rider and passenger sections of the seat. The handlebar is not only 3 inches wider than the 650R, but also 4.25 inches higher, offering up a much more suitable riding position for longer rides. Adding to that aspect is a larger fuel tank on the Versys, which holds a full 5.0 gallons instead of the Ninja's 4.1-gallon unit.
A small quarter-fairing covers a new instrument panel with centrally mounted analog tachometer flanked by warning lights on the left and an LCD panel on the right sporting a digital speedometer, odometer/tripmeter, fuel gauge and clock. The windshield can be mounted in one of three different positions (in 20mm height increments).
The Versys may be intended as an entry-level motorcycle, but one area where it falls a bit short in that aspect is its somewhat tall seat height. At 33.1 inches, the saddle is a full 2 inches higher than the Ninja 650R's (and taller than many sportbikes), which could cause apprehension with shorter novice riders; an accessory gel-padded seat is available, which is nearly 2 inches lower. Other than that, however, the Versys' comfy, upright ergos are conducive to easy control, with the tall, wide handlebar and narrow feel working with the agile yet neutral steering and user-friendly engine to produce a very amiable motorcycle.
But it's definitely not all about entry-level riders with the Versys. The 650R engine didn't exactly shine on top-end, so retuning the cams for better low and midrange power has actually made the parallel twin engine more enjoyable to use on a daily basis. While the new cams haven't turned the Versys into a veritable torque monster, acceleration feels more responsive than the Ninja, whether zipping through traffic or carving up a tight, bumpy canyon road. Snappy, usable power can be found anywhere less than 8500 rpm; venturing beyond that point on up to the 10,500 rpm redline is basically pointless, so it pays to stay in the midrange when dialing up some steam from the engine room. The Versys is claimed to weigh only seven pounds more than the 650R, and overall gearing is short, so acceleration is a lot more brisk than you'd expect-although it's still not quite on par with Suzuki's SV650 V-twin.
Where the Versys gets a leg up on the Ninja, however, is in the suspension and handling department. While not exactly hlins-rivaling material, the higher-spec suspension bits offer up a far better overall ride, keeping the chassis controlled enough for canyon work, while remaining plush enough for long stints on the highway (which, with the gas-sipping engine, larger fuel tank, comfy ergos, good wind protection from the fairing and the accessory hard luggage, is an easy role for the Versys). Where the 650R's non-adjustable damping and spring rates can start to become unglued when ridden hard through bumpy corners, the Versys' long travel and improved control allow you to better exploit its lithe-handling chassis and keep corner speed up. And even though it has much more legroom than the Ninja, ground clearance was never a problem with the Versys.
Braking power from the twin 300mm petal discs and twin-piston calipers was more than up to meeting the performance of the engine and chassis, and we actually found the Versys' brakes to have a bit better feel than the Ninja's nearly identical units. There's a little more chassis pitch when getting on the brakes hard due to the longer-travel suspension-but nothing drastic that is cause for any alarm. The new OE-spec Dunlop Sportmax D221 tires offered up very good grip, nice sidewall compliance and didn't seem to show any adverse wear after our 170-mile loop.
About the only real complaint we could conjure up with the Versys-other than the need for a tad more power-was the heat coming off the radiator. While not extremely bothersome, it was noticeable, especially in the hotter climes we rode in. Because of the lack of bodywork to direct the airflow coming off the radiator, any airflow comes back directly onto the rider's legs.
Although they definitely are two different motorcycles, we can't help but think that the Versys may end up stealing some showroom sales from the Ninja 650R. For only $500 more than the Ninja's $6399 sticker price, you're getting a lot more versatility and even a bit more performance with the Versys, a combination that's hard to overlook. The only real drawbacks other than the price are the aforementioned radiator heat, the tall seat height-and the fact that the Versys is not legal in California. Due to the tight release schedule, Kawasaki was only able to obtain DOT/EPA certification for the other 49 states.
So if you're in the market for a bike that offers a lot of fun and versatility for not a whole lot of cash-and you don't live in California-we'd suggest taking a close look at the new Kawasaki Versys
**2008 Kawasaki Versys
Type: Liquid-cooled, DOHC four-stroke, parallel twin
Bore x stroke: 83.0 x 60.0mm
Compression ratio: 10.6:1
Induction: Digital fuel injection, 38mm throttle bodies
Front tire: 120/70ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax D221 G FA
Rear tire: 160/60ZR-17 Dunlop Sportmax D221 G
Rake/trail: 25 deg./4.3 in. (109mm)
Wheelbase: 55.7 in. (1415mm)
Seat height: 33.1 in. (841mm)
Fuel capacity: 5.0 gal. (19L)
Weight: 381 lbs. (181kg) dry