Road Test : 2015 Kawasaki Versys 650 vs Old Versys !

In 2006 Kawasaki released what was, on paper at least, a competent, good value, easy to ride machine. While off-road pretensions were considered, the ‘Versatile System’ was created for the wants and needs of the whole EU market – a slightly older audience that would be riding mostly on the road. More Range Rover Sport than Land Rover Discovery.


If that leaves you feeling uninspired, you couldn’t be more wrong. For good reason, a loyal following has built up around what some have previously described as ugly; it’s a relatively inexpensive bike that is far more than the sum of its parts.

The Kawasaki Versys name is wholly appropriate – this is a bike as happy nipping to the shops as it is crossing continents. It’s a road-bike at heart, and despite its relatively low price and basic suspension, it handles incredibly well.

A Proven Power-Plant

The Versys’ 649cc parallel-twin has proved itself a reliable, solid motor in this, the ER-6 and now the Vulcan S.

The engine was always intended to be a modular unit for middleweight platforms, but there was much debate over whether it should be a V-twin, a triple, a four or a parallel twin. For many reasons, but mainly due to size, weight, cost and the potential speed of manufacture, the idea of a twin won through. We’re told the engine was close to becoming an in-line four, but the power delivery of two cylinders was preferred... but then configuration was a question.


The ER-5’s motor was a straight forward parallel twin benchmark – in spirit at least the engine donated by the GPZ500S was half of a GPZ1000RX, so the discussion began of which engine of the time would be the inspirational big-brother. The ZX-12R started the thinking behind the ER engine, and the long deliberation of cylinder angle and aesthetics.

Avoiding a web of ugly external coolant pipes meant designing internal water passages. The gearbox became a racebike-style cassette design, though for manufacturing reasons, not racing image; the Japanese company was already planning to set up facilities in Thailand, so simple assembly methods were ideal.

The idea was always to create just one base engine that would be adaptable to other uses – fast revving and sporty in the ER-6f, mid-range commuting performance in the ER-6n, with slight changes for the Versys and for cruising in the Vulcan S.

More Than Just A Prettier Face

The MkII Versys saw a facelift that still had its detractors in 2010; popularity rose, but the 2015 redesign was created after realising that the potential market of the bike could be younger. Wanting to maintain the original audience, but at the same time excite a new market, the ‘family’ styling now reflects the DNA of the ER-6f and Z1000SX.

The Sicilian press launch of the new 650 showed that this was far more than a new set of plastics; Kawasaki appeared to have addressed customers’ complaints of weak brakes, poor screen, soft suspension and engine vibration, but the best way to see if the engineers had really got it right was to lend it to the owner of the previous model.


Our tester, Graham Mudd is an Army installation technician. An IAM rider and Blood Biker, he mainly uses the bike for fun now, but has done plenty of miles commuting since he bought the bike new in September 2013; “When I used to get called away a lot, I’d throw everything in the panniers to go down and meet the team. It was all on the M6 and M25 – I couldn’t be bothered to sit in traffic, and I had to pay my own fuel, as work provided a van, but it was worth it; I could go for a blast while I was down there, calling in at the Poole Bike Night and other meets.”

Graham, now 35, has had bikes since he was four, when his Dad built him a custom fuel-in-frame C50; “I had a TDM850 before this, but I was spending too much keeping it working. My wife just said; ‘Look, cut your losses. I’m happy for you to buy a new motorcycle, but you’ve got to keep it for a long time, and you’re not allowed to modify the engine.’

" Bolting bits on is fine, but every problem I’ve had with bikes has happened when I started tinkering with the engine; my Bonneville broke when I was running hot cams and a 35mm flat-slide carburettor. I did have that 10 years, and got 102,000 miles out of it though. I like adventure bikes; maybe not as big as the GS, but I wanted something that could do it all; that could tour and commute."

"I loved the TDM, so wanted something in a similar vein, but more modern. It was practical, tall, and really comfortable, but the TDM was just getting old. So the long process of test-riding the V-Strom, Transalp, WK650, Versys and more began… I did a shortlist of what I wanted in a bike – the pros and cons. I eventually narrowed it down by price to the Versys and V-Strom, but the Suzuki was just a little bit tall for me [Grahamis 5ft 9in] – I was on tiptoes at a standstill. "

"A lot of people say it’s ugly, but I like it. It’s very functional, and I like that. It looks like it could take a hit and stay the same... like a boxer! I’m usually quite practical in my decisions; the only bike I’ve ever bought on impulse was a Kawasaki ZXR750... never again. It was beautiful, but it put me off sportsbikes for life. I bought it on a whim when my GS500 caught fire, and got it because it looked so good. I should have ridden it first... After a year I chopped it in for the Bonny."

The Versys is what many would call a "great beginner’s bike", but to let it languish under that moniker is to do it a huge disservice. Graham is an experienced biker, and while he’s owned bigger bikes, the 64bhp of his Versys is plenty: “My dad always reckoned that an 800-900cc triple was the ideal engine configuration, but I like the parallel twin, and this is powerful enough to be fun. It’s not enough to get a novice into trouble, but it’s not so under-powered as to be boring; very few times have I ever wished for more.

Back to Back Riding

Somehow, while riding west of Stafford, Graham and I encountered warm sun, cool cloud, rain and snow. Rolling hills, busy towns and mudstrewn roads all put both bikes to the test, and proved the 2015 bike is built on an already solid platform.

You’d be hard pressed to claim the newer model was much quicker, or that it handled like a completely different machine, but the refinements certainly make a difference; “Kawasaki clearly listened to its customers, and made improvements where they were needed,” said Graham after riding the 2015 bike. “The OE tyres are better than you got with the Mk II and the front-end doesn’t dive like mine. Top gear roll-on seems to have more go – I’d probably have changed down on the older one. The induction roar from the new airbox is great too.

“It really is a much better bike. It’s nothing major, but just the little bits here and there make it a better bike as a whole. The screen’s not as protective as my aftermarket Givi, and I missed the handguards and heated grips. The brakes are a vast improvement though; mine has braided lines and it’s still not brilliant. The new seat is better than the original, but I’ve got the aftermarket gel seat; it’s better than the standard one on the new bike which is a bit too soft."

“I’m glad they haven’t changed the engine or the chassis too much – that’s what made the Versys such a great bike. It still handles brilliantly – it’s still got that agility and crisp handling that I always liked. Kawasaki has done a good job.”

Verdict :

So what did I think? The Versys is clearly a big improvement over an already accomplished bike. Graham’s machine suits himdown to the ground, and I’ll ruthlessly plagiarise many of his mods with my long-term test 2015 Versys 650. My 125 mile ride home as the sun started to drop was one of the best I’ve had in years; the Versys is everything its spec sheet indicates, but the combination of practicality, efficiency and low-price create a bike that’s much more, well, versatile.