2012 Kawasaki Versys vs. 2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 | Cheap Adventure

By Brian Catterson, Photography by Kevin Wing

Adventure-touring bikes are hot right now. So hot, in fact, that folks have been dropping the “touring” suffix lately and just calling them “adventure bikes.” Seems every Tom, Dick and Harry has started calling himself Helge and is planning to ride around the world. Or at least hoping to look like he is.

The trouble with adventure bikes is they’re often expensive. Never mind the fact that the BMW R1200GS is a perennial best-seller, not everyone has 20-large to drop on a motorcycle. At the high end, Yamaha’s Super Tenere, at $14,500, is the bargain of the bunch. That’s a big check to write, especially if the rider in question has a spouse who’s not wholly invested in the, um, investment.

That’s where these two middleWeights come in. Priced at less than half of what a top-of-the-line adventure bike costs, the Kawasaki Versys ($7899) and Suzuki V-Strom 650 ($8299 with standard ABS) can do everything those bikes can do without killing the rest of your travel budget. Plus they get such exceptional fuel mileage that you could literally ride them for years on the money you saved.

Each is now in its second generation. The Suzuki is both older and newer, having debuted in 2003 and been redesigned for 2012. It benefits (if that’s the word) from the same sort of redesign that the SV650 underwent a few years ago, with softer, rounder edges and a two-tone paint scheme. So yes, you could say it’s been hit with the Gladius stick. Nicknamed the “Wee-Strom” in deference to its 1000cc bigger brother, “Wii-Strom” might now be more fitting as it looks like something out of a video game.

The Versys broke cover in 2008, and was redesigned for 2010. Already celebrated in these pages as our 2008 Motorcycle of the Year, it likewise underwent a makeover with a more aggressive shape, vertically stacked headlights and a two-tone paint scheme. It arguably looks even more like something out of a video game, and in fact wouldn’t look out of place in a Transformers movie. Interestingly, both of our testbikes were mustard-colored, the Versys French’s yellow and the V-Strom Gulden’s spicy brown.

“Spicy” only applies to their paint, however, as both of these bikes are capable if not peppery performers. With around 60 horsepower on tap, these twin-cylinder 650s are just powerful enough to be fun for a solo rider, but add a passenger and/or luggage and they fall flat. Oh, they’ll still haul you uphill, and accelerate you to freeway speeds; it just takes longer—plan your passes accordingly. Even so, it’s enough power for most people, most of the time.

Of the two, the Kawasaki’s engine is more captivating. More oversquare, with a bigger bore and shorter stroke than the Suzuki’s, it has a revvy, frolicky feel, all without sacrificing midrange pull. Parallel-twins aren’t renowned for their smoothness, however, and true to form the Versys is annoyingly buzzy at freeway speeds. The V-Strom’s 90-degree V-twin should theoretically run smoother, and while it is less buzzy than the Versys, it still vibrates more than we’d like.

With a tad more torque on tap, the Kawasaki has superior roll-on power, but its on/off throttle response can be jerky. Light flywheels combined with high compression make for pronounced engine braking; a little clutch slippage helps. Tell your sportbike buddies your bike has a “carbon-based slipper clutch.” That’ll throw them.

The Suzuki feels slower under hard acceleration, but actually makes more peak power than the Kawasaki, and is quicker in the quarter-mile. Part of this may be due to the V-Strom’s V-twin engine, which is deceptively happy to lope along. It’s also geared quite low, as you find yourself riding a gear or two taller than normal. Again, as with the Versys, there is pronounced engine braking; a little clutch slippage helps. The V-Strom wins on fuel economy, routinely getting 50 miles per gallon or more. Combine that with its 5.3-gallon gas tank and you can go 250 miles on a tankful. If you commute to work, you’ll fill up once a week. The Versys’ 5.0 gallons against mid-40s average mpg add up to somewhat less.

By Brian Catterson
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I've been riding my 05 V-strom 650 for 45,000 trouble free miles. I use it for commuting as well as 450 to 600 mile touring days and the occassional week-end, two-up. I especially like the nearly 500 lb. payload capacity, much more then even the new Triumph Trophy Sport Touring ride. I sometimes wish it were an 800 cc ride so I did not lust after a Strom 1000 for 2-up riding. No doubt the Versys is a good ride but just does not fit me or my riding preferences. For the record, I am nearly 70 years old, 240#, 30 in. inseam and ride pavement, graded dirt and gravel.
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