“The Versys has all the lunge you need in town, and really begins to make you smile after 5000 revs are on the tacho.”
The new bike market is highly competitive now, with the Japanese manufacturers feeling the strain in particular.
So the Kawasaki Versys 650 is one of those motorcycles that needs to offer great value, user-friendly performance and safety.
Alastair Walker took a quick spin to find out if this one ticks the right boxes.
Not many years ago mid-sized twins were the forgotten class of biking.
Machines like the arthritic GS500 Suzuki, the revvy but plain-looking Kawasaki ER5 and the dull, yet efficient CB500 Honda were all worthy, capable novice bikes, yet they lacked any spark of charisma.
Fact is, once you’d got your CBT passed and a year’s NCB built up on your insurance, you couldn’t wait to buy a used Thundercat, a CBR600F or perhaps something different like a Buell, Guzzi V11 or a Yamaha XJR1300.
But over the last few years, bikes like the Bandit 600 have gone upmarket, in a bid to offer more than just a stepping stone to better things. Kawasaki revamped the ER5 into the altogether funkier ER6f/n models and added the Versys 650, which is a credible rival to machinery as diverse as a BMW F650 GS to a more prosaic Yamaha Diversion 600.
The Versys can tour solo with its optional panniers, commute easily thanks to a frugal engine, easy handling and offers the useful standard feature of ABS braking – handy for nervous novice riders.
I also think it looks pretty good, albeit with one or two niggly details where the budget nature of the bike’s build is obvious. Wires sticking out of a connector next to the rear wheel, where road spray can get in and do some damage, plus straggly welding on parts of the frame, all betray the dead hand of corporate accountants back at Kawasaki HQ.
But then, Japan, like the UK is in a spiral of recession, especially within its automotive industry, and it’s understandable that economies have to be made.
On the upside, the Versys thrums into life with a quiet efficiency that suggests the heart of the machine, the 649cc, liquid-cooloed, parallel twin, is inherently durable and under-stressed.
Kawasaki say that the Versys is tuned for mid-range pull, with a healthy dollop of power in the 3000-6000rpm range. I’d go along with that, although I would say that there’s precious little urge below 2000rpm – this is no Guzzi Breva or Ducati 696. Once beyond 3000rpm, the Versys has all the lunge you need in town, and really begins to make you smile after 5000 revs are on the tacho. The gearbox and clutch are superb, so it’s a pleasure to work the gear-shifter and make the bike come alive on a twisty backroad – even in January!
It’s been a few years since I rode the old ER5, but this feels much smoother, as well as more poky than the old twin. The Versys has an overall finesse, a coherent blend of qualities that the rev-hungry, slightly nervous-handling ER5 never had.
More than an OK commuter
The most impressive feature of the bike for me is the ABS-assisted twin front discs. They have the fashionable `wavy’ outline, but the best thing about them is the feel, the control that they offer any rider. The back brake is decent too and the Versys seems the type of bike that could forgive a few learner errors in traffice, and let you ride away in one piece afterwards.
The riding position also helps novice riders; upright, commanding, slightly taller than something like an SV650, or Bandit, as regards seat height, but not a big stretch, even for a modest 31in inside leg. You get a reasonable view from the saddle, the handlebars are just the right width to let you slip between lines of gridlocked cars in town.
The optional panniers were fitted to the test model I blagged for the morning from MMC in St Helens ( cheers Millennium Motorcycles, great Bikers Bistro upstairs too) and these are more Short Way To Work than Long Way Down Africa.
They’re not as small as the old Deauville 650 boxes, but an average size rucksack, maybe a tablet style laptop bag, is what you can squeeze in – forget about packing your full face Arai or Shoei away, there just isn’t the space.
On the upside, you can use that slim profile to thread your way through the shoals of commuter traffic, secure in the knowledge that the panniers won’t clip anyone’s door mirrors.
The widest points are the edges of the Versys’ mirrors, which are curiously retro and oblong shaped, in fact I thought Kawasaki had raided an old CBX750 in the breaker’s yard for them. But the mirrors work superbly and like other basic elements of this motorcycle, the well-padded seat, roomy pillion perch, complete with grab-handles, or the clear, simple instrumentation, all combine to offer practical transport, and a dash of genuinely quirky style.
I’m not that keen on the oddly shaped headlight, or the skimpy front mudguard, which coats the engine in crud with relentless efficiency, but the fundamentals are all spot-on with the Versys. I love the cantilever rear shock too – probably works the same as one set straight up, but it looks trick.
The Versys goes, stops and handles with an easygoing confidence, an affability, that lets you enjoy the ride. There are no scary surprise steps in the power delivery, no grabby brakes to catch out novices. At £4700-ish on the road, the price is in the right ballpark, although a Bandit 1250 can be had for 200 quid less, which is an excellent all-rounder – and fast.
OK, decision time. I think the BMW F650 GS has a slightly ’torquier’ motor, but then it is 800cc, not a 650 – more money though. The 1250 Bandit is much quicker, and cheaper, but the sheer weight would be intimidating for many novice riders. New Suzuki Gladius, and Yamaha Diversion? I haven’t ridden either, but the Suzuki GSR600 is peaky and feels physically cramped compared to the Versys, but the 650 V-Strom offers a true, budget alternative, good luggage capacity too. Think the Kawasaki Versys has the longer zero interest finance of the two twins however…
The Honda Hornet 600 is in a different, much more sporty class – it is a more challenging bike than the Versys, for a learner. But the Hornet is rewarding to ride, and you could love it so much you might keep it for a few years. Meanwhile the Ducati 696 Monster, Aprilia Shiver 750 and Guzzi Breva 750 have those Italian reliability question marks – the Guzzi is heavy compared to the Kawasaki as well.
Well, it’s not exactly controversial, but my vote goes for the Triumph Street Triple 675 as the ultimate first `proper’ motorbike. Why? Well, it has brilliant handling, solid braking and a gutsy, beautifully fluid engine. Well made too, with lots of bits taken from the 675 sportbike, plus a beefed up rear shock for 2008.
Yes, the Triumph is a grand more than the Versys 650, but there won’t be a day that goes by when you don’t crack the throttle open on that triple and revel in every moment of its sheer addictive power.
If all you need is a ride-to-work bike that has semi-trailbike styling, panniers and ABS braking, then test ride the Versys, you won’t be disappointed.
It does almost everything the Triumph does, but for less dosh. Times are tight, so maybe the Street Triple is a big chunk of cash to outlay these days. If that’s the case, the Versys does offer fun, frugality and versatile optional luggage capacity.
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|ENGINE||649cc, liquid-cooled, 8 valve, DOHC twin cylinder|
|PEAK POWER||65bhp @ 8000rpm|
|PEAK TORQUE||45 ft/lbs @ 6800rpm|
|CHASSIS||Steel perimeter type frame, alloy extruded swingarm, cantilevered monoshock rear end.|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||43mm telescopic forks, non-adjustable|
|REAR SUSPENSION||Cantilever monoshock, adjustable for pre-load|
|BRAKES||Twin front discs, Tokico 4 piston calipers, single rear disc, single piston caliper. Anti-lock system standard.|
|WHEELS/TYRES||120/70 Dunlop Sportmax front, 180/55 Dunlop Sportmax rear, 17 in wheels|
|RRP||£4700 (Jan 2009)|
|EXTRAS||Optional hard panniers|
|SUPPLIER KAWASAKI MOTORS UK||01628 856600, www.kawasaki.co.uk.|
|TEST BIKE SUPLIED BY||Millennium Motorcycles, Thatto Heath, St Helens, Lancs. 01744 616161|