2011 Kawasaki Versys Project Part 1

September 27, 2011
JC Hilderbrand
JC Hilderbrand
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Hilde is holding down the fort at MotoUSA’s Southern Oregon HQ. With world-class dirt bike and ATV trails just minutes away, the hardest part is getting him to focus on the keyboard. Two wheels or four, it doesn’t matter to our Off-Road Editor so long as it goes like hell in the dirt.

The Versys is one of Kawasaki’s great do-all bikes. We snagged a 2011 model as a last-minute fill-in for a Pacific Coast Tour from Southern California. Little did we know the 650 Twin would start to grow on us, and so it was decided to keep the Kawasaki street bike and find some products to help accentuate its capability.

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Take a look at the 2011 Kawasaki Versys now that we’ve installed some touring and protective accessories.

As the name implies, versatility was high on the list when Kawasaki designed this motorcycle. An upright, comfortable seating position allows the rider a solid platform and excellent view of their surroundings. Immediately we decided this bike could be a useful touring mount if it had some carrying capacity. Strapping a duffel bag to the passenger seat wasn’t quite what we had in mind, so our first call went in to the Italian company, Givi. This accessory manufacturer produces luggage and protection with a 24-month warranty on all of its products.

The newest hard cases from Givi are the Trekker series. Compared to Givi’s traditional streamlined, smooth edges, the Trekker bags are much more utilitarian looking. The square cases are black plastic with an aluminum finish on top and have a rugged appearance similar to what you would find on a BMW GS or comparable adventure touring machine. The top case is available in 33-liter or 46-liter capacities, both rated to hold 22 pounds. Ours came as part of the TRKPACK3, which includes the larger top case and a pair of 33-liter side panniers for $925. We easily fit a full-face helmet and our jacket in the top case. The entire luggage is capable of holding a large laptop case and they all have internal straps to help keep items from bouncing around.

One of the best features of the Trekker bags is the mounting hardware. The racks are sturdy and the connection is simple. Givi equipped the Trekkers with its patented MONOKEY technology which allows a single key to open the case as well as remove it from the racks. Each bag comes with two keys, and all six keys are matched, which means it only takes one to access all the bags. We’ve got plenty of spares!

2011 Kawasaki Versys Project Bike
The Givi Trekker hard cases add some bulk to the rear of our Versys, but they are extremely useful for commuting and touring.

Using the latching mechanism is simple and secure. It only takes a single use to get the hang of it and there are no complicated or hard-to-see connecting points. The only complaint we have is that the bags are locked every time. It would be nice to have the option of leaving them unlocked. The key must be inserted every time the rider wants to open a bag; however, we’re happy with the security it provides and are willing to cope with such a small gripe.

We have not ridden the bike in rain yet, which leaves the question of waterproofing, but the Trekker bags have a recessed, waterproof foam seal which runs around the inner edge of the lid. It looks like it will be a secure seal, but we’ll have to wait for some inclement weather before knowing for certain.

After spending a couple weeks with the latest crop of mega-adventure touring bikes in the 2011 Adventure Touring Shootout, we had plenty of experience with different sets of luggage. For the most part, there were glaring errors in most of the designs. This surprised us considering that the OEMs built the cargo specifically for their own machines. So far the Givi Trekker bags are outperforming virtually all of the ones we recently sampled. Since they were all factory accessories and cost in the neighborhood of $1000, we’d rather equip all of the bikes, except for the KTM, with the Givi Trekker bags.

Loading up for a long-distance trip is going to be nothing but a struggle if the rider has to fight for every mile. We installed Givi’s model-specific windscreen to make sure that isn’t the case. The windscreen is 18.9 inches high and 14.6 inches wide; much larger than the standard unit. Compared to Givi’s 2006-09 Versys model, this screen is about three inches narrower, but is taller and has less taper at the top. Kawi’s stock screen cannot funnel air over the rider, but the Givi shield creates a turbulence-free cockpit for riders at least 5’11.” Straining to sit up higher reveals the path of airflow, but we’re able to enjoy a quiet ride while seated comfortably without slouching. The thick plastic is slightly convex and does not have any wild contours. As a result it has no distortion and doesn’t refract light in a distracting way. Considering the amount of protection afforded by the stock windshield, this is a bargain at $120.

2011 Kawasaki Versys Project Bike
The extra weight of the luggage has lightened the front end and we’re running out of shock preload settings.

One product that we haven’t gotten to fully test are the crash bars. Givi makes model-specific tubular engine protection which is designed to save the bike’s minimal but delicate bodywork, and engine cases. The $200 investment will seem like chump change if we wind up tossing this thing. We’re doing our best not to fully evaluate them, but we can say that they fit extremely well. All of the Givi components mounted without issue, including the luggage racks and top plate. The directions for all of the hardware are very sparse, but we managed without issue thanks to the high-quality fit.

The extra weight of the bags and brackets is noticeable by itself and it affects the Versys’ handling. The Kawasaki’s preload-adjustable shock only has a few more notches of adjustment and we might need to upgrade the suspension in order to help support the added weight. The front end pushes through corners and offers less precision for the rider. Fully loading the bags makes the sensation even worse and adding a passenger further complicates the handling. We won’t be riding with passengers very much, but weekend supplies and a tent are to be expected. A heavier spring rate looks like the first option.

Now that the Versys has taken the first steps as a project bike, there are several more ideas we have for sprucing it up. First are more aggressive tires. We already have a set of Pirelli MT 60-R dual sport tires which have been receiving star-studded reviews from Motorcycle-Superstore.com customers. We anticipate having good luck with these motorcycle tires as well though wonder how they will affect the suffering front end feel. Since our goal is to make this bike capable of dirt roads, the Pirellis were a simple choice because they are one of the only tires that match the Versys’ stock sizes. 

2011 Kawasaki Versys Project Bike
We’ll be exploring more off-road potential with a set of dual sport tires from Pirelli.

Shifting is the Kawi’s biggest flaw. The transmission is clunky and takes serious effort on the lever. Rapid, multiple downshifts can get hung up and refuse to engage. The Versys likes to be shifted deliberately, one gear at a time while the bike is in motion. Stopping at a light and trying to tap down into first/neutral requires rocking back and forth and dabbing the clutch. Mostly we’re able to ride around these quirks, but the general hard shifting is unavoidable. An oil change and swapping to some high-spec lubrication might help take some of the edge off.

We’d also like to do something about the skinny footpegs, but the mounting brackets are the real concern according to some Kawi insiders. With the pegs slightly high, standing up is a bit uncomfortable. Bar risers and a motocross-style handlebar would help get us upright and also allow for hand guards. Poor weather and off-road riding in our future means full wrap-around bar protection would be a good idea. Another is finding some coverage for the Versys’ unprotected belly. The exhaust headers and muffler are all dangerously exposed.

For now the Kawasaki project has shown some great improvement. Not only has the added storage made it better for long hauls, but it’s more realistic as a commuter as well. We’ve been getting around 45 miles per gallon when ridden primarily in town, even with a passenger, and will continue to evaluate this entry-level street bike in the coming weeks.