Our young sons and daughters, at a certain age, delight in trying on their parents’ clothes, sampling our garments as a form of mimicry. “I’m ready to go to work with you,” says the son, positively swimming in jacket and tie, feet sloshing around in your best dress shoes. He’s being silly, of course, but there’s an underlying desire to be you, to try on those daily responsibilities that seem so much cooler than school. (Then, of course, they become teenagers.)
It’s not too far a stretch to see the Kawasaki Versys 650 and the Suzuki V-Strom 650 in the same way. As smaller versions of bigger motorcycles—literally, in that there are 1,000cc examples of both in their respective lineups, and figuratively, in the broader scheme of bikes from Aprilia’s sleek Caponord to BMW’s brutish R1200GS Adventure—they exist to offer smaller, lighter, less expensive entry points to this continually growing category. True, they fit the clothing better, but there’s still something charming about a 650cc twin trying on the outdoorsman’s garb of a big bike.
Nevertheless: Welcome, kids. Now put our Cole Haans back and hang those jackets up where you found them.
This is a semi-obvious paring of bikes, one we did three years ago after Suzuki gave the V-Strom a nip and tuck for the 2012 model year. Back then, the Wee Strom received new, softer-shaped bodywork, an engine tweak to bring the 645cc 90-degree V-twin to Gladius (now SFV650) spec, revised instruments, and a thicker, taller saddle. Its aluminum-beam frame, semi-off-road wheel combination (a 19-inch front leads a 17-inch rear, in now-conventional big-dual-sport widths), single high-mount exhaust (on the right), and exposed under bits are classic V-Strom elements. Because the smaller Strom was always the better seller, Suzuki was cautious about straying too far from a winning formula.
Today, the V-Strom exists in three basic packages—base, Adventure, and XT—all with ABS standard. To the essential Wee, the Adventure adds aluminum panniers on egregiously wide racks that combine for 82 liters of storage, plus a small wind deflector on the otherwise stock windscreen, centerstand, and a “crash” bar on each lower flank. For the XT, keep all that Adventure stuff but substitute wire-spoke wheels for the cast-aluminum items; their inboard-nipple, center-flange design allows them to run tubeless. When you’re done, prepare to pay $10,399, which is $1,850 more than the base V-Strom 650 ($350 of that comes from the wheels) and, also, a pretty good deal.
Kawasaki did a lot more for the 2015 Versys 650. In case you missed our First Ride review in the April issue, note that the Versys now has entirely new bodywork following the Ninja sportbike silhouette, updated suspension, minor tweaks to the engine and exhaust system intended to liberate more power, and, finally, much improved brake components. ABS is standard on both the base Versys and the LT, which includes Kawasaki’s quick-release, 28-liter (each) hard bags that are keyed to the ignition and color matched. Also part of the updates: a new, adjusts-without-tools windscreen and a half-gallon-larger fuel tank, now a generous 5.5 gallons. Cue the screaming-deal klaxon: The base Versys, with ABS, runs $7,999, while the LT, which adds the saddlebags and hand guards, is just $8,699.
You are not wrong to view these bikes together and wonder if they’re really on the same wavelength. The V-Strom looks the part of a world traveler, now that it has true spoke wheels and rugged-looking metal luggage. A tall sportbike is how you’d describe the Versys, though it carries just a whiff of adventure bike in the styling—especially the tall, narrow fairing—long-travel suspension, and riding position. You won’t mistake the V-Strom for a BMW GS, nor would you put the Versys into the same mental slot as, say, a ZX-6R.
Their personalities fit the visual profiles. Overwhelmingly, the Suzuki feels soft, gentle, sweet natured. Part of that comes from the engine itself. Compared to Kawasaki’s energetic parallel twin, the Strom’s V-twin has much more genteel manners, loping smoothly at highway speeds, gaining revs predictably, dishing out torque with mild enthusiasm. Suzuki has developed the V-Strom’s engine since the very first SV650 and it remains a gem—silken like a 90-degree vee should be, plenty torquey, and possessed of throttle response so seamless and unruffled you start looking for the monogram of a world-class finishing school. At first, you think the DL’s drivetrain wears taller gearing than the Kawasaki’s, but they’re very close; the Suzuki only feels like it’s spinning fewer revs.
Such reservation of mood extends to the Suzuki’s chassis, suggested by actual measurements and verified on the road. Carrying almost 6 inches more wheelbase and a degree more steering-head angle, the V-Strom has little geometrical help disguising its 20 pounds of extra heft over the Kawasaki. Not only does the Suzuki steer slowly and react to your inputs with a semi-quizzical, “You sure you want to do that?” but it rides on suspension calibrated near the low end of your Sleep Number bed. If you’re a 1, you’ll love the velvety ride the V-Strom provides, despite the relatively low-tech Showa shock (a hydraulic preload adjuster is the high point) and damper-rod fork malleable only for spring preload.
For the vast majority of duties the typical V-Strom 650 owner will ask of the bike, Suzuki’s chassis and engine tuning are spot on. It is a totally relaxed tourer, able to magic-carpet most highways, even those as carelessly maintained as ours, and the combination of good weather protection, low vibration levels, roomier riding position, and soft saddle all call to mind a midget Gold Wing in suspiciously new hiking boots.
Allow both bikes away from the valley highway into the foothills, and the DL’s calibration makes it feel soggy, slow to respond, dull. Aggressive steering inputs get lost in the bike’s bounding suspension and relaxed geometry. Nothing much happens quickly on the V-Strom, even when you want it to.
Exactly the opposite is true of the Versys, which we’ve called one of the best handling, most engaging motorcycles on the planet. Regardless of price or horsepower. (See? We don’t always have to have 160 hp!) While the Kawasaki gives up a small amount of highway comportment—mostly because the suspension is tauter and busier, but also because the engine, while actually smooth to the touch, always sounds like it’s working hard at interstate speeds—it pays back tenfold once the road turns curvy.
While 500 pounds fully fueled isn’t particularly light, the Versys feels at least 50 pounds lighter. Credit the Kaw’s near-sportbike steering geometry, genuinely short wheelbase, and 17-inch tires for most of that. (The V-Strom wears a 19/17-inch combination that gains access to more dual-sport rubber than the Kawasaki’s 120/70-17 and 160/60-17 combo, it’s true.) Still, there’s some secret sauce here that we know the taste of but can’t describe the ingredients. There’s nothing in the specs to suggest how telepathically the Versys steers, how easy it is to pick a line, change your mind, pick another one, think some more about it when you see a bit of dirt at the apex, and pick one more without the slightest bit of effort. Plus, if you’re the serial-monogamy type, you can select a line with very little effort and the Versys will hold it until you suggest otherwise. Bottom line: Where you want to go, the Versys does too. Without hesitation or complaint.
Changes to the 2015 Versys brought more power, now essentially neck and neck with the V-Strom, the Suzuki holding a very slight edge at the peak and the Kawasaki offering a similarly tiny amount more torque. But that’s just half the show. Except at the very top of the rev range, the Kawasaki makes more torque. And yet it’s also faster revving and generally livelier, sometimes too much so, since Kawasaki has yet to cure the Versys of jumpy throttle response at low revs, to and from closed throttle.
At least Kawasaki has dealt a blow to our previous other major complaint: weak, wooden brakes. While not exactly Monoblock Brembos, the new Nissins have improved power, vastly better feedback, and work well with the now-standard (but not switchable) ABS. Kawasaki flipped from KYB to Showa for the suspension this year, gaining a firmer shock (alas, without adjustable rebound damping), and a separate-function, cartridge-damped fork. Obviously planning ahead for luggage and a passenger, Kawasaki’s engineers made the shock a bit too stiff and the fork a bit too soft for the solo rider with minimal junk in the trunks. But the calibration isn’t off by much, certainly not enough to spoil the fun.
The last time comparing these bikes, we concluded that they’re more different than similar, with the Kawasaki playing a poor man’s Ducati Multistrada, while the V-Strom stood in for a bargain-basement BMW GS. Those conclusions remain true and are even amplified with the changes both bikes have received. Spoke wheels and Trax-built hard luggage take the V-Strom even further into GS land, though we recommend you take care off road until you’ve fitted a bash plate of some kind; the Suzuki’s underpinnings are achingly exposed. And while we like the ruggedness of the ADV-styled panniers, their mounts make the whole arrangement painfully wide. As in, it’s not unusual to drag a bag soon after touching a footpeg feeler. Oh, and we broke the luggage’s key locks with embarrassingly little effort.
Additions of a taller, adjustable windscreen and superb hard luggage have turned the Versys, always a more comfortable long-distance runner than you’d assume, into an even better one. It’s hard for us to avoid going all fanboy on the slick panniers, which are roomy enough to hold a helmet, fit with precision, and are narrow enough to allow us Californians to slide through traffic unimpeded. New rubber engine mounts make the Versys much more serene at highway velocities, while the half-gallon-bigger tank puts 200 miles on the tripmeter without having to worry about refueling. (Incidentally, during our testing, the two bikes returned exactly the same mileage.)
Rather than consider these two against each other—because, well, we believe that the Versys is simply the better motorcycle—you might think back to the child wearing his parents’ clothing. Here, the V-Strom 650 looks a little silly next to the newer, extensively updated V-Strom 1000. He has some growing to do before he’s no longer dragging the coat sleeves across the floor. Just the opposite is true of the Kawasakis. While we admire the Versys 1000 for its long-distance capabilities and easy torque, there isn’t one of us here who would rather have it over the 650. Maybe it’s a case of small parent/big kid, but the Versys 650 looks great in adult clothing without having to, you know, actually be all grown up. And who among us isn’t a kid at heart?
Off the Record
Editor in Chief
WEIGHT: 190 lb.
INSEAM: 32 in.
As a former Versys owner, I’m probably biased. I liked the 2012 model I spent a work-shortened vacation on so much that I bought one when I really didn’t have a shortage of bikes around the house. Its versatility—hey, good name, Kawasaki—and impossibly good handling won me over, as did its good mileage, comfort, and low cost.
The new one is even better. Dramatically improved brakes lead the charge, along with less polarizing styling and more power. But the two items I find most compelling are the new engine mounts that turn the Versys 650 from a fuzzy, slightly frantic freeway ride to one much more calm and unflustered, and, of all things, the larger fuel tank. Five-and-a-half gallons are perfect for this bike: not too big to weigh it down but enough for 200-plus-mile highway legs with ease.
WEIGHT: 185 lb.
INSEAM: 34 in.
Many an argument was had over the cover comparison (KTM versus BMW) in this issue. Not with this one. It was completely unanimous from the very beginning. What really blows my mind is that this result goes against everything I ever thought I loved about motorcycles. V-twin or parallel? V-twin. Spoked wheels or cast for an ADV bike? Spoked. Metal, top-loading saddlebags or plastic clamshells? The top-loaders, obviously. And yet at the end of the day there is simply no question that the Versys is a better bike, despite being a cast-wheeled, plastic-bagged, parallel twin. It’s lighter, more agile, and much more engaging. Plus, it’s cheaper than the Suzuki! Really, the Wee Strom never stood a chance. The Versys isn’t just the best bike in this test; it’s one of the most versatile and rewarding motorcycles for sale today.
Before this year’s Versys updates, the V-Strom 650 had the measure of the Kawasaki’s parallel twin. Not anymore. A new exhaust system and updated ECU settings give the Versys great low-end and midrange grunt, which go nicely with the engine’s frisky demeanor. For its part, the V-Strom’s SV-derived mill is smooth and very tractable.
Tighter in every dimension, the Versys certainly feels more compact and sporty. For ’15, Kawasaki moved the footpegs down and forward, eliminating complaints from taller riders.
|TECH SPEC||KAWASAKI VERSYS 650 LT||SUZUKI V-STROM 650XT|
|ENGINE||649cc, liquid-cooled parallel-twin||645cc, liquid-cooled 90° V-twin|
|VALVE TRAIN||DOHC, 8v||DOHC, 8v|
|BORE x STROKE||83.0 x 60.0mm||81.0 x 62.6mm|
|CLUTCH||Wet, multi-plate||Wet, multi-plate|
|FRAME||Tubular-steel twin-spar||Aluminum twin-spar|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||Showa 41mm fork adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping; 5.9-in. travel||Showa 43mm fork adjustable for spring preload; 5.9-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||Showa shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.7-in. travel||Showa shock adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping; 6.3-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Nissin two-piston calipers, 300mm discs with ABS||Tokico two-piston calipers, 310mm discs with ABS|
|REAR BRAKE||Nissin one-piston caliper, 250mm disc with ABS||Nissin one-piston caliper, 260mm disc with ABS|
|FRONT TIRE||120/70R-17 Dunlop Sportmax||110/80R-19 Bridgestone Trail Wing|
|REAR TIRE||160/60R-17 Dunlop Sportmax||150/70R-17 Bridgestone Trail Wing|
|RAKE/TRAIL||25.0°/4.3 in.||26.0°/4.3 in.|
|SEAT HEIGHT||33.1 in.||32.9 in.|
|WHEELBASE||55.7 in.||61.4 in.|
|MEASURED WEIGHT (tank full/empty)||500/467 lb.||520/488 lb.|
|FUEL CAPACITY||5.5 gal.||5.3 gal.|
|FUEL MILEAGE (HIGH/LOW/AVG.)||50/42/46 mpg||50/42/46 mpg|
|RANGE||253 mi. (including reserve)||244 mi. (including reserve)|
|¼-MILE (CORRECTED)||13.29 sec @ 99.2 mph||13.40 sec @ 94.7 mph|
|TOP-GEAR ROLL-ON 60–80 MPH||5.4 sec.||6.2 sec.|
|WARRANTY||24 mo., unlimited mi.||12 mo., unlimited mi.|
|MORE INFO AT||kawasaki.com||suzukicycles.com|