By Surj Gish, with special guest Kerri Dougherty
Photography: Angelica Rubalcaba
Rider: Kerri Dougherty
If your first question going into this review of Kawasaki’s Versys-X 300 is “can it replace the KLR?” I’ve got bad news for you. The answer is no. Or yes. Or maybe, “Can anything really replace the KLR?” Or for some, “Anything can replace the KLR,” with a grimace. Really, you’re gonna have to decide for yourself, based on your feelings for Kawasaki’s long-running big single.
If your second question is, “What’s with the “X” in the name?” I don’t have an answer for that, either. It’s extreme. Or it’s a crossover. Exclusive? Whatever. It’s a Versys, ok?
Just two questions so far, and already two non-answer strikes. We’re gonna have to do a little better than that.
Here’s what I can tell you: if you’re thinking of the Versys-X(treme!) solely in the context of adventure bikes, you’re thinking about it the wrong way. Sure, as Fish says, any motorcycle can be a dirtbike if you believe in yourself, but the interesting thing about the Versys isn’t whether or not it can function as a bona fide lightweight adventure bike, but rather how Kawasaki, who long dominated the beginner bike segment with their Ninja 250s and 300s, have offered up a legitimately new and different option for new riders.
Time was when youngsters flipped their “you’ll shoot your eye out with that murdercycle” parents the bird, they wanted a sportbike with a name like Ninja or Hurricane. You can blame Ewan and Charley, but down, round or whatever, adventure bikes are hot shit, and not just for aging curmudgeons in high-viz onesies.
Until now, the idea of a lightweight, low-cc bike with full-size, proper-upright ergos and a bit of wind protection was unheard of, although you’d occasionally hear of weirdos attempting to make such a bike from a CRF250L or even an XT250 and riding it ‘round the world—or at least well beyond the local coffee shop.
Time was when the options for “small and light,” beginner or no, were these little sporty-bikes, or maybe tiny cruisers. But it’s no coincidence that Honda has recently, radically revamped their Rebel—more about that on page 15—and also offers a standard 300F alongside their sportier CBR300R. Options, baby.
So in that context, consider the Versys-X’s status as a smaller, lighter, tall-rounder, minus the tall. Consider that adventure bikes, whether actually dirt-capable or the more road-oriented “adventure sporties,” remain supremely capable, rideable machines, equally proficient at mundane or magical tasks, from hauling groceries to hauling ass. A smaller, lighter version of such motorcycles makes an awful lot of sense for new riders, smaller riders, and riders who just don’t get why “real” motorcycles have to weigh 600 pounds.
Our perspectives on the Versys-X are many: mine is tainted by bigger bikes, the Goliaths to the V-X’s David, so it feels refreshingly compact and maneuverable, while still offering full-size ergos. Others are similarly affected by their different daily rides, but it’s important to remember that most potential Versys-X buyers won’t have the background that colors our perception of the 300, won’t be shrugging off their dusty hydration pack as they climb down from a gargantuan GS before mounting the V-X, for example.
This is a given, of course—as (cough) real moto-journalists, we’re supposed to be able to set aside our preconceived notions and biases and judge a bike for what it is first, and then for whether it is what we want it to be.
Here’s the problem, and why I mention our perspective issues: although Kawasaki has been careful to not use words like dirt, trail, or anything suggesting off-road readiness, almost all of us bit firmly on the “adventure styled” marketing, hook, line and sinker, and in our heads made the leap to it being some kind of lightweight ADV warrior, if not an actual dual-sport. Thus the question of whether the Versys-X can replace the KLR.
This want for a capable lightweight adventurer is reflected in the general populace as well. Everyone knows that Kawasaki’s Versys motorcycles are more street-oriented tall-rounders, but the presence of spoked wheels had people saying, “Finally, a lightweight adventure bike with a proper dirt setup!”
Well played, Kawasaki…
Until someone does some serious dirt riding on a Versys-X and leaves an engines’ worth of oil dripping down a pointy rock, that is. The bike’s pipe, and more importantly, the oil filter are very exposed. But that’s where personal responsibility and intelligent choices come into play, something we motorcyclists love to yammer on about, ad nauseam.
This jump to “spoked wheels=dirt woohoo!” speaks to a nascent desire for such motorcycles: light enough to be ridden off-road without fearing that one poorly-timed drop will mean walking out, the bike left behind for the buzzards because it was too heavy to get upright again; but big enough, real enough, to function like a proper tall-round-adventurer. We’ve seen this before—a common refrain from complaint-prone American motorcyclists, that “Europe gets all the good bikes.” Never mind that all the good bikes don’t sell when we get them here, and mostly become cult bikes later on. We love talk, but often don’t back up that talk by walking into dealerships with our wallets.
Anyway, this seeming pent-up need for a small-to-middlin’-weight motorcycle that is good on the street and reasonable on the dirt is what led us to look at Honda’s CB500X with an eye toward turning it into a dirty-capable bike (“Too X-y For My Adventure – 2016 Honda CB500X” – October 2016) around this time last year. The truly dirt- viable options (think KTM) are too dirt-oriented; the go-to options like Kawasaki’s own KLR and Suzuki’s DR650 are more than a little long in the tooth, and the KLR in particular is a bit porky; the CRF250L isn’t powerful enough and lacks wind protection… the list of potential options and reasons why not is frustratingly long.
To help with our perspective problem, I asked Kerri Dougherty of Motobird Adventures, who rode Bungee Brent’s Backroad Bash with the Wrecking Crew this year, to put some miles on our Versys-X. She rides a BMW F650GS Dakar, and much like Wreckers Gwynne and Risa, has enough real-deal adventure cred to make your average retired dentist go back to quietly sipping his latte, lest he be outed as an imposter. You can read her take on the bike a little further along, but now that I’ve thoroughly inundated you with the blah blah blahs, I should tell you a bit more about the bike itself.
It’s easy to say that the Versys-X 300 is basically a Ninja 300 with upright ergos and longer suspension. That’s true… sort of. But not really. It does use the Ninja’s 296cc, 8-valve, liquid-cooled parallel twin engine, retuned for more midrange power. The six-speed tranny includes Kawasaki’s Assist & Slipper Clutch and Positive Neutral, which are more than just words capitalized to make them sound important—both aid in ease of shifting and thus lower the bar for folks who might be learning the very concept of shifting at the same time they’re learning to balance on two wheels.
Kawasaki’s docs claim that the Versys-X’s “Short final gearing enhances low- to mid-range power feel and response,” and while none of us would call the V-X a mid-range monster, first gear seems especially low and makes for easy balancing acts and ‘round-towning. But like the littlest Ninja, the Versys-X feels best when you’re twisting the throttle like its dancin’ time with Chubby Checker.
We don’t totally agree with the old adage, “It’s more fun to ride slow bikes fast…” because after all, fast bikes are really fun, but it’s truly a blast to wring the Versys-X out. If you’re not into that—or not ready for that—the little twin is easy to manage.
That’s really where the similarities to the Ninja 300 end, and anyone who isn’t familiar with Kawasaki’s long-running little guy might not think the two bikes were connected at all.
The chassis offers “real bike” ergos, unless your idea of a “real bike” is a GS or a Road King. It’s not as big as either of those beasts or other similarly oversized machines, but it is what many will consider to be more normal-sized than other beginner bikes. The new frame uses the engine as a stressed member for stiffness, and hangs reasonable suspension components from either end: 41mm fork tubes with 5.1” of travel up front, non-adjustable of course, and a single shock out back with 5.8” of travel, adjustable for preload of course. I say “of course” because this is standard stuff for bikes in this price range, and the bouncy bits work acceptably. Smaller riders did feel that the bike was over-sprung, bigger riders wanted beefier springs—the usual. If we were to add a Versys-X to the CityBike long term test fleet, we’d surely do some unspeakable things to the springs, but the suspension is workable as delivered.
Brakes are a teensy bit less likeable. I never got into real trouble, and even with stock tires rarely got the Bosch ABS to join the party. The single front 290mm and rear 220mm rotors are both squeeze by 2-piston calipers, and they get the job done. There’s nothing to complain about… but I’m a little spoiled by steel braided lines and would like a little more feel at the front lever.
Note that “needs more feel” is exactly the kind of complaint most potential Versys-X owners won’t know to make. The brakes are fine, and when some numbnuts on an FJR thought it was ok to enter the split at a 45-degree angle without looking for motorcycles already in the split, the Versys-X stopped in a very composed, drama-free way, leaving me to worry only about the important task of swearing at this dangerously perfect example of how we motorcyclists are sometimes our own worst enemies.
It wasn’t just the brakes that helped keep that encounter manageable, though. The Versys-X is easy to manage—the low seat helps, but the overall package is just so friendly, whether you’re in the city or wicking it up on the backroads.
Even at freeway speeds, the bike works well, although you may start wishing for a bit more of a windscreen. Vibes are tolerable, even if spinning such high revs takes some getting used to. The tach gets into the red at 12k, and you’re gonna be turning 10k at freeway speeds. My freeway speeds, anyway.
That so little of the 300’s jingly-jangling makes it to the rider is certainly due to vibration control efforts all over the bike: the weird rubber ring wedged between the spokes and brake rotor in the front wheel, that we first thought was a shipping leftover; the bits of metal on the bottom of the pegs, clearly there to dampen the vibes; the uh… plug-shaped weights on the end of the grips.
It’s a testament to the impressive rideability of the $5,399 (add $300 for ABS) Versys-X that I found myself choosing it over other bikes in the garage for my daily commute—even without a topcase! The 19” front wheel is helpful for the near-fire road condition of many Bay Area roads, and coupled with the longer travel, makes the bike an enjoyable round-towner. There’s even a small but functional rack, and Kawasaki also offers what can only be described as “cute” hard luggage: side and top cases. There are optional crash bars, hand guards and auxiliary lights too, if you want to make your V-X look more adventurous. But the killer accessory? Center stand, of course.
Kerri: The Real Adventurer’s Take
As a smaller adventurer, I’ve been throwing around 650s with the stubborn enthusiasm of Napoleon, and so have been eager to see what recent chatter about smaller adventure bikes would bring. Daily my BMW F650 Dakar and I ramble through the hills of San Francisco, delicately balancing at those uphill stop signs and barreling down the hills, doing our best to avoid suddenly stopped Ubers and tourists who think it’s perfectly fine to stand in the middle of the road looking at everything around them except the other humans and moving vehicles.
When I’m lucky enough to steal away for some traveling, the Dakar is fantastic, most definitely an upgrade from its predecessor, that rattle box of a KLR650 I managed to not kill myself on. I refuse to adjust the height of my bikes, lowering links be damned, because if Gaston Rahier can do it, so can I!
That all being said, when I take these bigger bikes off road and through Baja, I sometimes think to myself that it could be nice to be able to get both feet down at the same time. So when Editor Surj offered me the opportunity to test out the Versys-X 300, shortly after one of those off-road moments, I jumped (see: played it cool) at the opportunity to try out the rumor that had materialized into a real machine.
On a totally indulgent level, the bike’s digital dash shows what gear you’re in, how much gas is left in your tank, when you are riding as eco-efficiently as possible and how many miles you’re getting per gallon of gas. While not new, these bits of live data are big steps up from the analog gauges I’m used to.
I was able to get a range of about 225 miles out of the 4.5 gallon tank, which is a decent distance. In the city I averaged around 50 MPG, but out on the highways and backroads I was able to push that to 54 MPG. I hope this doesn’t turn me into one of those hypermiling Prius drivers, always competing to be as efficient as possible while sacrificing the pleasures of driving.
The 300 is zippy and responsive, with a lightness that allows it to be nimble without the usual battles of pushing around the weight of a larger adventure bike. But I was also pleased to find that I wasn’t pushed around by the wind on Bay Area bridges as much as I expected.
The Versys-X is also skinnier than most adventure bikes, which along with its deftness makes it a good lane splitter. That said, I’d love something slightly louder, as the Ninja engine really only makes much noise when revving over 7,000 RPM. To hear it, you might think I was one of those young, daredevil heathens, speeding down the highway with t-shirts billowing out behind them, when really I was just doing 20mph and trying to engage the eco-mode.
Even with the requisite roaring RPM, the bike holds its own on the highway, remaining comfortable, with barely any noticeable vibration while riding over 75mph. I personally suggest holding about 66mph in 6th gear to pay proper respects to the little beast, but to each their own.
Ergonomics are mostly good for smaller riders. Levers are close enough to the handlebars that I could keep my hands on both throttle and front brake at the same time. They’re also light, responsive and easy on the hands. Between that and the smooth shifting, the Versys-X made what could have been an extended adjustment period, a very quick and easy one.
The seat is hard. I initially imagined a future with a very sore bum. But in top motorcycle travel shape, I usually don’t like to go more than 3 hours without a break, even with a cushy seat. So while I imagined that the hard seat would be an issue, it was surprisingly fine.
The seat’s bump stop was nice, and was especially valuable when going up the city hills. The riding position is supposed to be upright but I found that I was leaning forward just a bit—not the most comfortable position for longer rides. There’s space on the seat for me to move forward and get into a more upright, dirt-style position, but moving that far forward in the saddle felt awkward and I found that I was much more comfortable rearward, against the bump stop.
And I was able to get both of my feet on the ground at the same time! This was a new and exhilarating feeling, almost as if I had full control over the motorcycle. In comparison, my F650 felt heavy and slow when I returned to it and I immediately found myself missing the quick power and nimble handling of the Versys 300.
The Versys 300 is a great intro motorcycle, easy to manage and very fun to ride. I wouldn’t take it over the same unpaved roads that I’ve stubbornly wrestled other bikes on; the spoked wheels and seating position seem to be more of a nod to dual-sporting than an actual invitation to go anywhere off-road. And like the men in Point Reyes who came up to me in the parking lot said (after feeling the need to rest their hand on my shoulder), “Well, you don’t really take those other bikes off-road, do you?”
Actually, I do.
But Kawasaki’ slogan for the Versys-X 300, “Any road. Any time.” is accurate, and the 300 can still offer adventures on well-groomed forest service roads, which can take you to truly stunning locations.
Kerri is something of a dynamo on her Dakar, and the founder of Motobird Adventures, a motorcycle tour company for women riders, run by a woman rider. Find out more at MotobirdAdventures.com.