Late in 2006, Kawasaki Heavy Industries Inc’s motorcycle division – known only as Kawasaki, introduced a pair of new motorcycles – the Kawasaki ER-6 (which comes as the Kawasaki ER-6n as a ‘naked’ bike, and as the Kawasaki ER-6f as the variant with part-fairing), and a motorbike built around the same engine and frame, the Kawasaki KLE-650. Unusual for Kawasaki, however, the KLE-650 wasn’t marketed under that name – instead, it bore the moniker of Kawasaki Versys. ‘Versys’ is a portmanteau of ‘versatile system’, and should be an indication of what this little baby can do...
The Versys is a bike which is very difficult to categorise: It’s based on a pretty straight-forward, middle-of-the-road entry-level bike, but it is quite different: For one thing, it’s one of the tallest bikes you can currently buy. A seat height of 33.1 inch (84 cm) – 35 inches (90cm) with the optional high gel seat – might not sound that impressive, but given the average in-seam in the general population... Suffice to say, this is a very tall bike indeed. In comparison, the BMW GS1200R, which is the de-facto standard bike for serious touring, has a seat height of 33 inches.
Apart from being on stilts (think offroader), it comes with road tyres (think supermoto), a pillion seat (think most motorbikes), a set of (optional) massive luggage (think touring bikes), a re-tuned engine for mid-rev grunt (think city motorcycle), (optional) ABS brakes (think sensible bike) and extremely good suspension.
The Versys is a very strange motorbike indeed, and was a brave gamble on Kawasaki’s part – did they really think they had the know-how to go head-to-head with Suzuki’s V-strom? Well, as it turns out, they do.
Jack of all trades?
While on paper, the Versys seems like a jack-of-all-trade, master-of-none, in practice, it’s one of the most versatile medium-sized engine bikes that has ever hit the roads. It’s not a sports bike (but it’ll pop wheelies and goes like the proverbial shit off a shovel). It’s not an off-roader (it has an under-slung exhaust which means it can’t go though deep water, and the tyres aren’t great for off-roading), but it’ll happily eat up dirt, gravel, grass, etc. It’s not a super-moto (it’s got a pillion seat and is heavier), but it’s still very easy to navigate around town. It’s not a tourer (petrol tank is too small, heated grips aren’t even an option), but you can use it to munch up serious mileage in relative comfort.
The thing which makes the Versys truly awesome is its versatility. It’s not truly prodigiously fantastic at anything – but it is very capable in just about any situation you may find yourself in when doing regular motorcycling. The deliciously long (and 7-step height-adjustable) suspension eats up potholes, gravel, and allows you to ride off and onto kerbs as and when needed (try that on a sports bike...).
The engine is revvy and grunty enough (71 bhp) to cruise in comfort on the motorway (try that on a highly strung supermoto). The balance of this thing is amazing, and filtering in inner-city traffic is easy as anything. With a set of decent tyres (the Dunlops that come factory-fitted are universally considered to be rather rubbish), you can get your knee down and really shred some back-roads.
Better than the sum of its parts
The engine is the same as found on the 650cc Kawasaki Ninja, but has been re-tuned from being an angry hornet to having most of its power in the low- and mid revs: The bike is primarily designed for city and back-road riding, the fuel injection system has been mapped to give a snappy throttle response in the mid-range from 3000-6000 revs.
Why is this a good thing? Surely, re-tuning the engine means you get less power? Well, yes, that is indeed the case. The problem is that on many highly tuned motorbikes, you have to whip it to within an inch of its life to get at all the power, which some people don’t really like all that much: It’s extremely loud, and sucks down fuel at an alarming rate.
On the Versys, under normal riding, there’s never really any need to go above 6000 rpm – and which also means that you’ve got another 6,000 rpm to play with if you really need some power. The side effect of this is that you get better fuel consumption and that you can ride around in populated areas without waking up the whole neighbourhood.
The power is delivered via a 5-speed manual transmission box which is a doddle to use, due to Kawasaki’s ‘positive neutral’ system. If you’re stopped and push the gear lever up from 1st gear, it’ll automatically select neutral for you – which means that you’ll never find yourself fumbling between 1st and 2nd gear. Glorious, especially for beginners.
The up-right riding position means you can look far ahead in traffic, and the relatively small liquid-cooled 4-stroke parallel twin-cylinder 649cc engine is a good trade-off between power (you still out-accelerate 98.3% of cars at stop-lights, and if you can stand the wind buffeting, you can cruise happily at about 100 mph (160 km/h) without trashing the engine completely.
The brakes on this thing aren’t amazing, but you’ll still out-brake all scooters and cars, and the twin petal-disc front brakes will bring you to a stand-still rapidly. And, in the case of ABS-equipped bikes – safely on even the most ludicrous of surfaces.
I've got one!
I bought a Versys as my very first ‘big’ bike (I.e. bigger than 125cc), and have completely fallen in love with it. It’s got more power than I can handle, it’s easy to ride, and is versatile enough that if I decide to specialise my motorcycle choice later on (Say, going down the BMW GS1200R route for more serious off-roading and touring, or perhaps taking baby-steps towards a Yamaha R1, for the opportunity to lose my licence 12 times over in first gear), I’ll have a feel for what I should be looking for.
For now, though, the V is everything I could possibly dream of in a bike... so I’ll hang on to it for a good long while.