Cheap, cheerful and a bit of a softie
I'm glad Kawasaki didn't invite me to the international launch of the revised Kawasaki KLE650 Versys in sunny Sardinia in 2010.
No, really, I am. For there would have been a explosive and potentially embarrassing guffaw from the New Zealand section of the bike press when the hosts made the claim that the original 2006 Versys didn't sell as well as expected because it lacked appeal to superbike riders.
Surely Kawasaki should have known the only superbike pilots attracted to this soft, cuddly, comfortable 650cc all-rounder would have been those who have suffered one track-day concussion too many.
I reckon the real reason the original Versys didn't sell in the numbers expected was that Kawasaki hit it firmly in the nose with the unsightly stick, then denied the parallel twin-powered bike the marketing resources required to overcome such a visual handicap.
Had I made the long journey in 2010 to some luxury digs a stone's throw from the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and generally soaked up Kawasaki's legendary hospitality, I could have told you that it has done much to fix this handicap two years ago. For the current version of the bike no longer looks like the cheap plastic model you used to find in the bottom of a packet of cornflakes. Instead, it looks like a quality plastic model, like a bike that companies such as Tamiya and Moebius would be proud to call their own.
It still lacks grace visually and looks unfinished, but it no longer needs a bag placed over its nose before you ride it. Evaluated simply as a facelift, the 2010 upgrade has been a success.
The engineering changes pale in comparison with the improved cosmetics. A year before the 2010 Sardinian soiree, the 2009 model year Versys received a softer suspension tune and new exhaust plumbing to make it Euro-3 compliant.
Along with the restyled front end and stacked headlights, the latest version also has a new rubberised rear engine mount, a slightly more sumptuous pillion seat, softer footrest rubbers, smaller indicators, a new LED tail-light and new mirrors mounted on wider stalks to take advantage of the more fuzz-free view enhanced by the improved isolation of engine vibrations.
The changes might not look impressive on paper, but then, the Versys has always been a bike that has added up to more than the sum of its inexpensive parts.
The improvements might be incremental, but its obvious Kawasaki has listened to those who had the courage to buy the 2006-2009 model, and taken heed of their comments.
The new exhaust the bike received in 2009 not only cleaned up its emissions, but gave better access to the 61 newton metres torque peak, and added extra vigour to the endearing snarl of the 649cc liquid-cooled twin.
Add this increased responsiveness to the artificial impressions of reduced engine vibrations, and you will swear that Kawasaki packed this engine off to some expensive charm school to learn better manners.
It provides its humble 64 horses of power in a much more refined way, while the usual Versys virtues of decent fuel economy and resistance to stalling at low revs remain.
I wish the six-speed gearbox had also received some attention in the powertrain upgrade. The lever has a long throw, and it takes a lot of left ankle effort to engage the next ratio.
Perhaps it's fortunate then that this easy-going engine isn't fussy about gear choice. It will chug along with the same low-rpm relentlessness as a large- displacement cruiser V-twin, or rev out to a frenzied 11,000rpm if that is the rider's wish. This willing nature is a big factor in making the Versys such a stress- free ride.
The other is the long-travel suspension, which will absorb almost anything a New Zealand back road can put in its path. You quickly learn not to tense up as a large pothole approaches, secure in the knowledge that the 41mm Showa inverted front forks and rear monoshock have the wheel travel and spring rates to take care of the business at hand, with the damping required to control the compression and rebound movements of the springs.
However, this soft, absorbent package doesn't encourage sports riding; nor does the indifferent grip of the Dunlop Sportmax tyres (same rubber as the 2006 version).
Get too enthusiastic in the corners and the increasing wallow of the Kawasaki will signal its desire for a mellower pace. Unfortunately, the bike's soft nature also extends to the performance of its brakes.
So sportsbike pilots will steer clear of the $14,995 Versys 650. However, others might find this comfortable, economical, versatile ride the affordable Japanese version of the BMW R1200GS.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 649cc liquid-cooled DOHC 8v parallel twin stoked by fuel injection to develop 47kW (64bhp) at 8000rpm and 61Nm of torque at 6200rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed sequential gearbox, chain final drive.
Frame: Steel-tube trellis frame with curved alloy swingarm, 41mm inverted fully adjustable Showa front forks, fully adjustable rear monoshock.
Hot: Still the same ultra user- friendly bike, but with less challenging looks and a smoother nature.
Not: Better tyres and brakes will still be on the wishlist of Versys buyers.