2008 Kawasaki Versys 650 | First Ride

It Slices! It Dices! Two-Wheeled Multi-Tool, Anyone?

Just like lipstick on the girl next door, there's nothing quite as nice as a coat of bright-red paint to sex up an otherwise plain-Jane motorcycle. Kawasaki's new-to-the-States Versys 650 wears it well, the crimson bodywork conjuring a sporty impression, while its tall, lean chassis hints of adventure. On the European market it's adored for its efficiency, but in the U.S...well, we all know usefulness doesn't always translate. Even if it is painted red.

Right away you can forget the bike was derived from the mild-mannered yet much sportier Ninja 650R. As the designation states, the Versys is a "Versatile System." Kawasaki Product Manager Karl Edmondson goes as far as to call it a "jack of all trades," a kind of street-intended multi-tool that's a good choice for sport riding, commuting, cruising, touring, pothole leveling, wheelie mastering-you name it. Certainly, the bike has the suspension to back up the whatever-comes-your-way advertisement: almost 6 inches of travel front and rear via a fully adjustable, inverted fork and gull-wing aluminum swingarm controlled by a likewise adjustable offset, laydown single shock.

Nice road feel, too, with great feedback in fast-to-slow cornering and near-effortless low-speed maneuverability thanks to revised steering geometry and a wider, higher bar arrangement than what's found on the already upright Ninja 650R. The new bike's long travel provides supple cushioning for road irregularities, but stiff springs in the fork and a free piston and two-stage damping valves in the shock allow the bike to stay nicely settled during aggressive riding.

Brakes are the same petal-disc setup found on the 650R, but use thicker discs up front to offer an even stronger drawdown. And while the two bikes share the same parallel-twin powerplant, the Versys has been re-tuned to deliver stronger bottom-end and midrange torque by using revised intake and exhaust cams, shorter duration, lower compression and new mapping. Peak power on the Versys is found between 4000 and 6000 rpm, dropping at about 6500 rpm, just where the Ninja's oomph is lighting up. Overall, the extra torque makes the Versys a more relaxing ride: fewer gear changes, more low-speed pull, less buzzing, but still enough poop to race around. A newly adapted balance tube between the exhaust headers helps even the engine's power delivery, adding to already-smooth communication from throttle to rear wheel.

Though very narrow and lightweight at a claimed 399 lbs. (dry), the Versys is tall with a 33.1-inch seat height. Kawasaki will be offering a shorter gel-seat option, as well as a taller-than-stock version. We hope either is better than what comes on the bike, a two-piece device that proved crippling after only 100 miles. For the passenger, the Versys offers a much more neutral riding position than what you'll find on the average sportbike, with well-placed grab rails and a secure-feeling seat bed.

To enhance tourability, the Versys comes standard with a medium-size, wrench-adjustable windscreen, which works nicely for medium-height riders. Two gradient-tint accessory shields are offered (both taller for increased wind protection), as well as a full hard-bag system, including a large top case. The reinforced subframe is rated to carry 397 lbs., so an average-sized rider and passenger plus a weekend's worth of gear are easily supported. Fuel consumption is claimed as an optimistic 55-65 mpg, but even with real-world riding, the bike's 5-gallon tank should provide a range that's more than adequate for touring. Conversely, the Ninja 650R carries almost a gallon less.

As mentioned, the Versys has been selling like lemonade in the desert on the European market, and units arriving here in the States are the exact same model. But if you live in California, you're out of luck: This bike won't be available until we get a charcoal canister-equipped version, possibly in 2009.

Taken as a whole, this new Kawasaki standard is a likeable streetbike with an easygoing nature and a host of potential uses-a kind of nicheless wonder that really might be malleable enough to do a little of everything. Passionate types will probably find the concept bland, but look at it this way: The Versys is purpose-built not to have a purpose. And it's red!

Tech Spec

A sweetheart in Europe, this new, do-it-all 650 has yet to win the admiration of niche-minded America. Not yet available in California.

Suzuki V-Strom 650 and Yamaha FZ6 are about it, unless you count the dearly departed Ducati Multistrada 620.

Price: $6899
Engine type: l-c parallel-twin
Valve train: DOHC, 8v
Displacement: 649cc
Bore x stroke: 83.0 x 60.0mm
Compression: 10.6:1
Fuel system: EFI
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate
Transmission: 6-speed
Claimed horsepower: na
Claimed torque: 44.8 lb.-ft @ 8250 rpm
Frame: Steel semi-double cradle with aluminum swingarm
Front suspension: 41mm Showa fork with adjustable spring preload and rebound damping
Rear suspension: Single Showa shock with adjustable spring preload and rebound damping
Front brake: Dual Tokico two-piston calipers, 300mm discs
Rear brake: Single Tokico one-piston caliper, 220mm disc
Front tire: 120/70-ZR17 Dunlop Sportmax D221
Rear tire: 160/60-ZR17 DunlopSportmax D221
Rake/trail: 25.0/4.3 in.
Seat height: 33.1 in.
Wheelbase: 55.7 in.
Fuel capacity: 5.0 gal.
Claimed dry weight: 399 lbs.
Colors: Passion Red
Available: Now
Warranty: 12 months, unlimited mi.
Contact: Kawasaki Motors Corp. USA
9950 Jeronimo Rd.
Irvine, CA 92618

Does a lot of everything, might not do a lot for everyone.****

They say: "A motorcycle that begs to be ridden wherever the pavement might lead." We say: "With looks like these, it had better beg to be ridden!"
A gull-wing swingarm beats the 650 Ninja's box-section bit. Two-stage damping makes the Versys' Showa shock more advanced.
Functional post-postmodernism abounds: Height-adjustable windscreen can be raised or lowered 20mm from the standard slot.