2009 Kawasaki Versys 650 | Review

The Adventurous Brother

I’m embarrassed that it took me so long to warm up to the 2009 Kawasaki Versys–it’s a great motorcycle! Built around the popular Ninja 650R engine and chassis, the Versys doesn’t have the warrior edge to it that I so enjoyed about the 2008 650R model. Instead, it’s an upright bike with a blacked-out engine, longer travel, abbreviated fairing, and distinctive headlight, all moving the motorcycle into the Adventure bike class.

The Versys stands a little tall, at 33.1-inches (two inches taller than the Ninja), but the narrow tank and friendly weight distribution make the 454-pound (claimed wet) 650 exceedingly easy to handle. I might be on my toes at a stoplight with my 30-inch inseam, but I am not uncomfortable with the situation.

Pulling away from a stop, one immediately discovers what an easy, friendly bike this is to ride. The 649cc, parallel twin, DOHC engine is tuned to deliver smooth power off idle, with plenty of low to mid-range torque, plus a nice boost around 6000 rpm. There’s no hiccupping as you enjoy the scenery at neighborhood speed, and once you shift up another gear or two when you hit the boulevard, the Versys purrs right along. The redline is at 10,500 rpm, but there’s no need to run the motor up that high.

The controls are easy to reach, and operate as flawlessly as one would expect from a Japanese bike. The clutch pull is satisfyingly smooth, the shifter is precise and the single 220mm petal rear disc has the appropriate amount of slowing action. With the upright ergonomics and wide handlebars, the rider is in a confident and comfortable riding position.

The Versys dons the commuter hat with ease. The added height from the long-travel suspension gives the lane-splitting rider an advantage, and the bike’s narrow physique allows sinuous maneuvering through the uneven lanes of four-wheeled vehicles. When a sudden gap opens, a quick twist of the throttle allows you to take instant advantage as the liquid-cooled engine delivers an immediate response. Twist, click, twist, click-suddenly you’ve blown past the jam and the road ahead is wide open.

A quick peak in the sharp-at-all-speeds handlebar-mounted mirrors confirms the quickly receding traffic snarl. A shift of the eyes to the uncluttered instrument panel-giving space to the essential basics (digital speedo, analog tach, clock, trip meters, indicator lights and a much-appreciated fuel gauge)-reminds the rider that he is on the way to work, not the canyons. Roll off the throttle and the blast of air rushing around the three-way adjustable windscreen diminishes.

On the weekend there is time to check out the sporting nature of the Versys in a more appropriate setting. Canyon rides are a total blast as the Versys zips self-assuredly through the corners. The relatively wide, tall bars (compared to a sport bike) offer plenty of leverage, not that it’s needed on a bike this nimble. With plenty of cornering clearance, the bike turns well and holds its line. Commuter bike? You must have been mistaken. The 17-inch Dunlop Sportmax D221 tires have a firm grasp of the asphalt and dual 300mm petal discs in front keep confidence in hand, allowing the rider to push hard when so inclined. The substantial five-gallon tank narrows between the riders’ knees, and textured plastic panels below the tank provide a reassuring grip surface.

As a street-only Adventure bike, it offers an entertainingly nimble alternative to its competition, most of which displaces over 1000cc. And, on some of those tightest roads in the Santa Monica Mountains (Google Cotharin Road), the appeal of a narrow mid-displacement twin makes itself quite apparent.

After several hours of riding, the foam seat remained comfortable, but the buzzy footpegs become a distraction when accumulating miles at a stead rpm on the open Interstate. That’s a shame, because Kawasaki offers a nice set of bags for the bike, and this would make a great sport tourer (which is what most Adventure bikes ultimately are). But, if you stay off the straight and flat, the bike is easily rideable from dusk-to-dawn.

Not extraordinary in any single category, the Versys’ parts add up to an unexpectedly impressive total. It is a nice accompaniment to its very close brothers–the Ninja 650R sport bike and ER-6n naked bike–giving potential buyers the opportunity to buy the bike that’s just right for their needs.

Photos by Don Williams

Riding Style
Helmet: HJC SY-MAX
Jacket, gloves and pants: Firstgear TPG
Boots: Sidi Discovery Rain