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