The Kawasaki Versys 650 has never been a good looking motorcycle in the traditional sense, but what it lacked in conventional beauty it made up for in ability and versatility. For 2015 Kawasaki has revamped the Versys 650 with sharper styling that should please the critics of its previous lumpiness. Personally, I like lumpy; I like odd; and I like the old look better. No matter – beneath the cat-like fascia are a host of changes that make a better riding motorcycle.
At the heart of the Versys 650 is the same 649cc Parallel-Twin that has propelled the model since its introduction in 2008, one of the best powerplants Kawasaki has produced in the last decade. It’s the same mill that resides in the Ninja 650 and now the Vulcan S Cruiser. It’s an engine with nice torque character that’s also happy to rev to its redline without getting away from the rider. For 2015 the Versys’ redline has been lowered by 500 rpm, but even so the power has been increased by five horsepower with an updated ECU and one-piece exhaust. While it’s tough to feel the difference without a direct comparison to a pre-2015, the power character is lively and feels a smidge stouter than before. Overall the power is best described as friendly and useful for any skill level.
What is noticeable is how much smoother the 2015 Versys 650 is. Not that the previous model was a rattletrap, but in some rpm ranges you would get vibes from the tank and footpegs. Kawasaki has added rubber mounts to the front engine mounts (the rear mounts had them already) to reduce vibration. Combined with the rubber mounted handlebars and rubber footpeg inserts, you’d have to be hypersensitive to find any trace of vibration that would be an issue.
(Above) Kawasaki opted to upgrade the rear shock with a external preload adjuster to tune the rear ride height according the rider’s needs. (Below) The adjustable windscreen can be moved through a 60mm (2.4 inch) range for tailored helmet and shoulder protection.
The Versys has always been a comfortable mount, so much so that in 2009 it was my first choice to tour Japan for three weeks in my first piece for MotoUSA – Kawasaki Versys Explores Historic Japan. Now the comfort factor has been increased, not only from the reduced vibration, but from changes to the footpeg position and increased wind protection from the new fairing and screen. There’s now a bit more leg room and less of a bend to the knees and hips with the repositioning of the pegs forward 20mm and down 15mm. At speed the sharp fairing design reduces wind pressure on the body and the adjustable windscreen can be moved through a 60mm (2.4 inch) range for tailored helmet and shoulder protection. While it’s an easy to use system, the twin knobs on the front of the screen are unrefined and cannot (well, should not) be adjusted while in motion. The entire front profile is smooth save two lumpy knobs, it’s a shame they didn’t come up with a better system. They work well enough and give infinite adjustment, so it’s not a total failure.
There are two Versys 650 models available: the base ABS model and the LT, which includes Kawasaki Quick Release 28-liter hard saddlebags with integrated subframe mounts and hand guards. We spent the day on the LT and the bags are easy as pie to open, close and remove from the Versys. The rear subframe has been beefed-up under the newly styled tail section to increasing the payload capacity by 66 pounds, allowing for the addition of a top case to bolster the touring capabilities of the Versys 650. One key operates the bags as well as the ignition. The hand guards are a nice addition not for off-road bashing but for shielding your hands from chilly conditions. At just a $700 upcharge, the $8699 LT also comes with a two year warranty over the ABS model’s 12-month warranty.
With the added weight of the LT’s bags, Kawasaki opted to upgrade the rear shock with an external preload adjuster to tune the rear ride height according to the rider’s needs. While the damping and spring rates have been adjusted for the new rear set up, there is no option for tinkering with compression or rebound. At the front, new Showa Separate Function forks split the damping and spring duties into separate tubes. This allows for adjustable preload and rebound damping, yet no compression. On the road the fork seemed undersprung, especially on the brakes, resulting in a pronounced dive. At the first stop I added two turns of preload to the fork from the stock setting and the difference was pronounced. On corner entry the fork stayed higher in the stroke reducing the weight transfer to the front. If the ride was more spirited and faster I would have added another turn. As it was a cold wet day on the island of Sicily the quick set up change was perfect.
Handling is light and easy on the Versys 650 LT. Although being a tad soft in the front, the ride is rock solid whether in a straight line or dropped into a turn. The leverage from the handlebars combined with an upright position makes for quick direction changes and easy adjustments in your arcs as you turn. At 496 pounds (476 pounds for ABS) the Versys 650 LT is not exactly a lightweight, but it feels lighter on its feet than the spec sheet indicates. The only knock I have on the handling prowess concerns the wet weather performance of the newly fitted Dunlop D222 Sportmax tires. Traction is there but it’s hard to feel it with vague feedback from the tire.
Kawasaki also bumped up the Versys 650’s braking game in a big way with new front and rear Nissin calipers, pad material and master cylinders. The front rotors remain 300mm petal-type but the rear is now a larger 250mm petal-style. One pull on the front lever in earnest shows a huge improvement in power and feel. Gone is the wooden lever and lack of feedback that was the Achilles’ heel of the Versys when hustling at sportbike pace. Now there is a solid initial bite and a connected feel the deeper you get into the brakes. Power is less impressive at the rear, but it does the job without any quirks. ABS intervention is well calibrated and doesn’t get in the way of having some fun, but will save your ass if you need it.
While the face that only a mother (or me) could love is gone along with a little character, the 2015 Versys 650 is a better motorcycle. The increased power, comfort and braking ability just adds to the already likeable personality. It will forever be on my short list of motorcycles I would choose to live with on a daily basis. It can tear up a mountain road or plod faithfully through a commute to the office with comfort. It really is, as the name suggests, versatile.