Kawasaki Versys 300 will go further afield than the others
I was going to start this by saying that the new $8995 Kawasaki Versys-X is the debutante of a whole new class of motorcycle – the lightweight adventure bike. For it will soon be followed by other go-anywhere, weatherproofed easy-riders like the BMW G310 GS and the Honda CRF250L Rallye.
Then I clocked the rego label and saw the model prefix of the X-rated Versys – KLE. It suddenly occurred to me that Kawasaki once built something very similar many suns ago. It first grappled with the whole twin-cylinder, quasi-trailbike with luggage rack and windscreen concept when it built the KLE500 back in 1991.
That big-wheeled 500 was one of the most forgettable bikes ever, and was universally panned for being underpowered, uncomfortable and under-suspended. But the French loved it so much that it enjoyed seven years of continuous production and didn't stop wasting resources until 1998.
Kawasaki then revived the KLE500 for European markets in 2005, but quickly found that there was a far superior competitor in the marketplace by then – the Suzuki DL650 V-Strom. So after a further two years the KLE nameplate was finally shelved, but it bounces back here, this time attached to a more resolved and well-thought-out motorcycle.
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Speaking of V-Stroms, I was surprised at how many I saw – both 1000s and 650s – while doing a recent "drive of shame" (commuting in a car during rush hour) on an Auckland motorway. It highlighted that adventure motorcycles (ADVs) make great vehicles to get to and from work on. Their high, upright riding positions give great visibility and control; they have high windscreens and generous bodywork to keep the worst of the weather away; their powertrains are usually frugal, tractable and pack the sort of mid-range punch that instantly claims any gap in the traffic. They're also usually over-engineered, so can carry lots of stuff.
You get almost all of the above qualities with the Versys-X, and being affordable, light (178kg), and modest in cubic capacity, it's also a great commuter that can be ridden on a learner licence.
But the Kawasaki is far from being a one trick pony. It's 19in front wheel and skinny tyres mounted on wire-spoked alloy rims make it more dirt-friendly than other Versys models, and it retains their emphasis on comfort and weather protection. I'd be happy to embark upon a round-the-globe tour through third-world nations aboard its firm-yet-friendly seat, but Kawasaki New Zealand evidently wants the test bike back next week.
Speaking of seating, Kawasaki now has a new rider-tailoring program at its points-of-sale. If the ergonomics of a participating model don't suit, a dealer can fit something that fits the buyer better at no increase in cost. For the Versys-X, there's the choice between this 815mm high seat, with its significant reduction in rider seat padding, or one that raises the seat height further but is a bit kinder to the posterior. At 178cm tall, I felt pretty attached to the former pew, especially as it allowed both feet to fully reach the ground when stopped.
The rider sits in quite a cocoon of still air aboard the Versys-X, protected by the generous windscreen and bodywork that's designed to deflect road spray. There's also a substantial rear sub-frame, carrying a seat of a pillion-friendly length, and an alloy luggage rack. So you can load this bike up a lot more than the Ninja 300 that provided the platform. Park the inevitable accessory top-box on the rack, and you'll have a bike readymade for distance work, whether that's the weekly commute or some more adventurous application.
This ADV does have a sporting heart though, courtesy of the lightly-revised Ninja 300 engine. Changes were made to the EU4-compliant exhaust and airbox, but the 296cc parallel twin still thrives on revs, and will spin out to a heady 12,750rpm. All those revs all the 300 to generate more power than the ancestral KLE500, and it delivers it progressively and smoothly, helped by a counter-balancer.
The biggest change to the powertrain from Ninja duty is gearing, which keeps sixth relatively high, but lowers the other five ratios in relation to the Ninja. This means you could round up the cows with the Versys-X if you have too, as it'll trundle along happily in first, feeling light and naturally balanced while standing on the pegs.
Generous steering lock aids both the Kawasaki's ability to venture away from formed highways and the performance of U-turns when riding downtown. The quick-fire gearbox and slipper clutch make light work of shifting gears aboard the Versys-X, and there's a large gear indicator display nestled between the analogue rev counter and digital speedo that'll become an oracle for any riders confused about which gear they're in.
The basic suspension of the Versys-X delivers 130mm of supple travel for the front 100/90-19 tyre, and 145mm for the 130/80-17 rear. It's a chassis that feels perfectly tailored to our gravel road network, taking potholes and corrugations in its stride. And those are the riding conditions where the Versys-X best demonstrates why it's worth another $2000 over the Ninja 300. So welcome back KLE; I didn't know I missed you, but I have.