by Gus Breiland
I have been riding a Kawasaki KLR650 for about 5 years now. For any of you who have cared to read the few things I have written, you should have gleaned from those scrawlings that my grammar is poor, my writing is juvenile and I prefer small displacement motorcycles (which should most likely be called mid displacement motorcycles) somewhere in the 500 to 750cc range.
The 650 single has given me a valiant effort and I have ignored its quirks and foibles until today. Today I met the 2009 Versys 650 and the KLR 650 is now a thing of the past. A relic that time will soon try to forget.
My life is about commuting; not grand adventures, poetic road trips or lavish bike releases. Just commuting. I spend an hour to and from work on the road each day. Some days it’s the freeway, some days it is side roads, some days it is trying to get off one for the other. Minneapolis traffic is inconstant and unreliable at best. One day at ten to 8am means clear sailing on the on ramp; the next day a 15-minute wait.
I spend my mornings trying to find a stop sign-less leg to the last leg I have worked on. One of these days I will find a smooth ride to work, but it is still elusive. In the afternoons, I want to get home. 3 different routes take me home; each with 1 or 2 contingency plans if I get behind a rolling road block or someone who likes their cell phone more that the road in front of them.
The KLR tried, it really did. It was light enough, nimble enough and had the fuel capacity to almost get me through a week’s worth of commuting, making it a joy. But, carburetion and one of the worst front brakes in motorcycle disc brake history made it one of the worst commuter bikes ever.
And then came the Versys. A fuel-injected, 650 twin with seat height, fuel range and brakes that make commuting a competitive sport again. The bike has narrow enough hips to let you try to win your sport, instead of just thumping along in the slow lane waiting for the time to pass. The seat height is excellent; at 33.1inches it allows you to see through Suburbans putting box trucks and semi trailers as your only real vision impairments.
I loved the Versys for commuting. The 650 twins’ fuel injection is as it should be, immediate and responsive. Touch the magic button and combustion starts. The Versys uses 38mm Keihin throttle bodies with ECU controlled, sub throttle valves for optimum performance and rideability. The sub throttles, located behind the main throttle valves, give the Digital Fuel Injection system a more precise throttle response, similar to a constant velocity carburetor.
When you read through the literature on the Versys, Kawasaki focused on compact, short, and reduction. Basically, they state that the motor is the most compact motor in its category. This reduced the overall footprint of the Versys according to its maker.
The motor is smooth. A heck of a lot smoother than the KLR single (to be expected), but I also felt it was smoother than the Vstrom V-twin. It had enough snort to propel me around corners and carve up traffic, while the 6-speed transmission gave me plenty of options for longer treks to see the farmers prep their fields for planting.
The monster brakes are what sold me on the Versys as a commuter. The twin 300mm petal discs, with two-piston calipers up front and a single 220mm petal disc with single-piston caliper in back, stop on a dime. They allow you to be somewhat aggressive and dive in and out of traffic with the confidence that you can stop when needed.
I did think the bike felt a little smaller than the Vstrom, (in my opinion Kawasaki’s direct competitor for the Versys). If we look at the overall footprint of the Versys, the width of both bikes are the same, 33.1inches, but the wheelbase is 55.7 inches on the Versys and the Vstrom is a bit bigger at 61.2. The Versys runs 2 x 17 inch tires and the Vstrom has a 19 in front and a 17 in back. This translates to cornering and maneuverability, but takes away from stability on longer rides.
With 5 gallons of fuel, the Versys gave me plenty of miles between fill-ups. It’s 5.0 gallons showed me about 42-44 miles per gallon on a brand new motor. I would hope that after the break-in, the motor would loosen up a bit to find a few more miles per gallon.
However, the bike is lacking some environmental protection like the Vstrom. You will be in the elements on this bike as the windscreen is narrower than the Strom and the bodywork does not give the same bubble to ride in as the Strom. I noticed the lack of bubble on my 2 longer days of riding. The windy day and traveling speeds made for turbulence that jostled me a bit in the saddle.
Night riding was good. The Strom still continues to have the best headlights I have been behind. The Versys is much better than anything I currently own or have owned, as far as standard running lights. The high beam was lacking a bit and seemed to illuminate the ground just in front of the wheel, instead of than throw ing light down the road.
The cockpit was pretty straightforward, compact and basic. An analog tach is surrounded by a digital speedo, fuel gauge, 2 trips, and a clock. A couple of idiot lights and some toggles for indexing between readouts; and that pretty much sums it up. The controls have the added features of a passing light trigger on the left pointer finger and 4 way flasher, a safety feature all bikes should have.
This is not a dual sport by any means. The short wheelbase and smaller front tire puts this bike on the road for folks who like upright riding positions, plenty of speed to get into trouble, but under a 1000cc’s for insurance and weight. The bike looks like the designers morphed the frame and exhaust of a Buell, with the engine and profile of a Yamaha TDM. The benefit to having the TDM profile is your tank bag will sit flat on the tank, allowing you to use what you already own instead of having to buy a bike specific tank bag. Be warned, however. Kawasaki put 2 big plastic pieces on either side of this nice, flat 5 gallon tank, so you will need to turn your magnetic tank bag 90 degrees to use it. A minor issue to most. It isn’t a beauty, but if you can get past the superficial and get into the heart of the machine, the Versys will continue to impress and please you.
The Versys is for the rider who, while dreaming of someday riding around the world on a single dual sport, knows they will be commuting to work for the next few years. Depending on their weather protection needs, the bike will suit them just fine for longer trips. Fiddling with the factory settings on the suspension will help, as out of the box, the bike is a bit stiff. The fuel range and performance of the bike allow the rider to not spend their time standing at the gas station and as the aftermarket industry recognizes how affordable the bike is, the Versys will become a strong player in the commuter / small to mid displacement road bike market.
The Versys will also allow you to go play with your friends on Rustic Road hunts in Wisconsin. The performance of the bike and the cornering capabilities will turn any Gus Breiland into a capable Valentino Rossi (with an eating disorder) on alphabet roads. This is an excellent universal bike that won’t break your bank account. Priced about $400 MSRP bucks less than the Strom, the Versys will allow you to be a bit different from your Vstrom riding friends.
Thank you to Delano Sport Center for the opportunity to ride the Versys. DSC can be found online at http://www.delanosports.com/ or in Delano Minnesota at 820 Babcock Blvd W (Hwy 12). 763 972 2677
by Thomas Day
Gus handed over the Versys at about 8PM on a rare, temperate, early April evening. Our test bike was decked in Kawasaki’s Candy Lime Green, which was a nice thought after this particularly nasty winter. The weather was perfect, mid-70s, but the sun was going down fast. I had been fighting off a cold or flu all day long, but I thought I’d take a chance on getting in some early evening and night miles before calling it a day.
The Versys is truly a “naked bike” and the tiny shield provides minimal wind protection. Still, I immediately liked the Versys during the downtown freeway-cager-dual. The skinny profile, high seat (33.1”), standard knee-bend, well-positioned mirrors, and quick throttle response puts the rider in a good position to survive urban traffic pitfalls. I headed north of the cities and tooled around a couple of familiar small lake roads.
I compare everything to my V-Strom’s lights and the KLE650 compared well. I’m not a fan of night riding, but if I absolutely had to cover some miles at night, the Versys’ lights would make it safe and reasonably comfortable. I kept an eye out for hoofed rats and put in about 60 miles before calling it a night. The nicely tucked-in signal lights do their job, too.
When I pulled into my garage, I took some time to scope out the Versys’ details. The console is ergonomically neat and useful. The front suspension gives 5.9” of travel and the rear is good for 5.7”, pretty similar to adventure touring numbers. The shock has adjustments for the spring preload and rebound damping, as do the forks. The underseat territory exposes easy access to a small tool bag, owners’ documents, the battery, fuse holder, and a pair of helmet hooks. There is room under the seat for a decent tool kit. Both levers are adjustable to fit your reach and style of shifting and braking. The rear brake is also conveniently adjustable. After a few moments of fooling with the controls, I had the bike feeling as familiar as my regular ride.
The air filter is hidden deep under the tank and plastic, which makes cleaning of that oiled screen device slightly cumbersome. The stainless exhaust/catalyzer is brilliantly contained under the engine, with the output aimed at the ground, adding an additional bit of noise suppression that will irritate the loud pipe punks into feats of engineering foolishness. From the side, it looks like the convoluted under-engine exhaust is protected by a bashplate, but it’s just a cosmetic plastic panel hiding the pipe. The exhaust shape does, however, eliminate most of the aftermarket centerstand options.
It’s hard not to compare the Versys to my V-Strom, so I’ll just give in to that fault and make the best of it. The Kawasaki is 28 pounds lighter and has a 5 1/2” shorter wheelbase and a seat height that is 1” taller than the Suzuki. That results in a bike that feels smaller and more nimble. In the garage, standing next to my V-Strom, the Versys looks unnaturally svelte, or the V-Strom looks like something that would invite a verse or two of Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “I Like Big Butts.” The Versys’ narrow profile is perfect for urban commuting; especially if you are lucky enough to live somewhere enlightened enough to allow filtering and lane-splitting.
According to Kawasaki’s marketing literature, the Versys (marketing-cutesy-speak for “Versatile System”) is a sportbike. The suspension, upright riding position, tall seat height, and styling hint at something else. The KLE650 may be competition for the V-Strom, but the Versys is a different animal. Gus compared it to the early 90’s Yamaha 850 TDM, although it might be even closer to the intent of the 900 TDM that Yamaha has kept selling right up to 2009 in Europe and other civilized parts of the world. Kawasaki is not aiming the Versys at the KLR adventure touring crowd the way Suzuki pointed the V-Strom. This is more of an adventure commuting bike. The roughest road Kawasaki probably intended for the Versys would be cobblestones or practically any St. Paul residential street. The Rest of the World has enjoyed the Versys’ ancestor—the KLE500 parallel twin adventure touring bike—since 1991 and, in 2007, Kawasaki replaced and upgraded that versatile vehicle with the 650 which made it to the US in the 2008 lineup.
Kawasaki says, “The Versys was created for pavement riding on back-roads and city roads. As a result, the fuel injection system was . . . fully mapped so the mid-range from 3000-6000 revs would receive a nice and strong response from the throttle.” I expected a little more bottom end performance, but once I got used to having to rev the motor above my usual shift points, I found plenty of performance in the 650 twin. On the highway, 6th gear at 4000rpm = 55mph and 5000 = 70mph. At the end of the shifting cycle, the bike always felt like it could use another gear, but that was partially because I was trying to take it easy during the break-in miles. The mid-sized twin rolls smoothly away from stops at anything over 2000rpm and the power was usable near 1500rpm. If you downshift late, you’ll still have plenty of power to pull smoothly through the tightest corners. During my ride, the Versys got 45.5mpg over a wide range of plugging-along-in-town and hauling-ass country road miles.
For my test ride, I headed north out of St. Paul, into the countryside. The view from the seat is unobstructed by the tiny shield and “clean air” is all that hits your helmet, since the shield is too low to provide coverage or turbulence above mid-section. Taking my favorite two-lanes toward Taylor’s Falls, I kept a light hand on the new engine while getting a feel for the bike’s handling. Winding my way to Red Wing, I had nothing but fun trying to find the Versys’ limits on Wisconsin’s county Letter Roads. Like the late-80’s Honda 650 Hawk, the Versys chassis is up for anything the motor can deliver. That adds up to a confidence-inspiring ride providing a challenge for experienced riders, and fun for newbies.
On the way up the viewpoint in Red Wing, I almost touched a toe in the switchbacks. Maybe later in the season, I’ll be able to push the bike hard enough to make it work a little; but in April I’m lucky to have moments of mild competence. On the way back from Red Wing, I slipped up and found myself on a fairly hostile, gravel road and the Versys handled it at least as well as my V-Strom. I think there is an adventure touring bike barely under the surface of the KLE650’s sportbike veneer.
No perfect day goes uncontaminated. By late afternoon, I’d managed to evolve my earlier symptoms into a full blown flu. On a sunny 50?F day, I was shivering from chills, my joints ached, I’d filled my helmet with snot, and I’d coughed and sneezed so often that my face shield was opaque. Even with all of those complaints, the Versys was comfortable. In fact, I think the KLE650 is fitted with the first Japanese factory seat that I think could be described as “competent.” I’d put in about 300 miles and 8 hours on the bike with my loaded ‘stich courier bag slung across my back for my first “long” ride of the season and my knees still worked, my back was no worse for the wear, and I’d had fun.
In the August issue, “Motorcyclist Magazine” called the 2008 Versys the “Motorcycle of the Year,” which created a blast of late season arguments. When a Versys found its way to the middle of the campground at last year’s Boring Rally, it drew a crowd of admirers. Before the recession hit, Kawasaki was bombarded by an email campaign asking the company to bring the Versys to the US. If the economy doesn’t kill this effort from Kawasaki, the Versys ought to be a hit. With an MSRP of $7,099, the Versys is priced $400 below Suzuki’s popular V-Strom.
Accessory/farkle manufacturers have been busy creating add-ons for the KLE650. Kawasaki/MRA are providing larger windshields and an adjustable top spoiler. GIVI has created tall windshields, luggage, and rear racks. Several companies make aftermarket seats. Zeta offers the XC Deflector handguards with an “optional LED flasher strip.” You can buy suspension lowering kits. The usual suspects make hooligan-style exhaust and slip-on systems. For the adventurer touring crowd, Mototoys of Australia makes a stylish bashplate and at least one US farkle supplier is working on a centerstand.
Selected Competion: BMW F650GS, Harley-Davidson VR1000, Moto Guzzi Breva 750, Suzuki V-Strom, Trimuph Scrambler, Yamaha FZ6.