2016 Kawasaki Versys 650 road test review (India)

Oh boy, have I been waiting for this bike to come out and go on sale. For the simplest of the reasons - I think the Kawasaki Ninja 650 is terrific with a capital T, but it's missing a few things. Anti lock brakes are the obvious one, of course. More importantly, the Ninja 650 (and the Er-6n) blends a high level of ability with a price tag that will suck the air right out of your chest. The Versys, on paper, seems to have the all the right bits in place and at Rs 7.35 lakh on-road Mumbai, it retains that strong sense of value pricing. Too tall a promise? Let's find out.

Design, finish and build quality

Is the Kawasaki Versys 650 good looking? Hmm. It's a tricky question. The Versys will only be available in that metallic black colour for now. As usual, this is to keep the spare parts stocking logistics within reason in comparison to its sales volume. And as usual, it means eventually, more colours will become available. The good thing is that the beaky-birdy-predatory fairing design remains more or less the same as big brother Versys 1000. However, the actual fairing appears scaled down a bit and that's the ticket. It makes the 650's fairing proportionate compared to the 17-inch front wheel and makes the bike look striking and distinctive.

I prefer the flatter-topped tank design infinitely more than the Ninja 650's 'mountain'. This will make tank bags easier to mount and it just looks better as well. Aft of that, body work is minimal. I will point out the grab rails, though. The mounting points for the optional hard panniers are neatly integrated and you don't really notice them. That said, I'm not a fan of the web of steel tubes that form part of the subframe that's been beefed up for this model year. Cleaner lines in this area would perhaps have made the Kawasaki Versys 650 look neater and slightly more sporty.

Finish levels are pretty good but there are other motorcycles in this segment that are a notch or two higher up the finish level ladder than the Versys 650. On the flip side, the build quality feels impeccable. We failed entirely to rattle the Versys 650 - we tried hard enough - during the test run and it does feel like a motorcycle that'll age very slowly even under duress.

Powertrain, performance and economy

Let's quickly run through the powertrain details - more detailed stories are available at our website. The engine is a 649cc parallel twin that is both liquid-cooled and fuel-injected. It's a simple 8-valve DOHC layout. A 6-speed gearbox and chain final drive complete the picture. This is the same engine and gearbox - in hardware terms - as the Ninja 650 and the gear ratios are exactly identical between the two. What Kawasaki did do is work on the state of tune. The V650 trades in a couple of horses on top to create a more robust torque curve across the range. The peak torque, 64Nm at 7,000rpm, remains unchanged though.

But you will be surprised by the Versys 650 even if you've spent months riding the Kawasaki Ninja 650. The engine feels vastly, vastly smoother and happier on the Versys. There's a lightness to the way it responds that would stand the Ninja 650 in good stead. It also vibrates less - not that the Ninja 650 was egregiously bad or anything. What it means is that the riding experience feels more sprightly and responsive. It's an improvement that frankly is welcome but completely unexpected.

The torque spread is delicious too. You don't really need to work hard to find speed, whether momentary or over a day's long ride. The Versys runs eagerly and cheerfully in top gear at most speeds. In terms of numbers, 0-100kmph is 4.3s, a hint slower than the Ninja 650. But I'd most certainly prefer the V650 to the N650 in our riding. There's an ease about the way the Versys delivers it performance that I found makes riding more peaceful and joyful than the Ninja 650.

Economy? We got 21.1kmpl in the city which is terrific and 26.8kmpl out on the highway - which again is a solid figure. It means overall economy (75 per cent city and 25 per cent highway) is 22.53kmpl. How does a 480km tank range sound to you?

In the real world, these numbers do work. On the way back to Kawasaki in Mumbai, the Versys posted one of the fastest Mumbai-Pune transits we've ever managed with no movement in the fuel gauge at all. The shock was that we weren't trying. In fact, I was riding at a pace so that Ashok could keep up on the Mahindra Mojo. That's the kind of effortless speed the Versys 650 has. It's special.

Any issues? Well yes, one. The Kawasaki Ninja 650 and the Versys 650 share exactly the same gearbox. That shows up at 6,000-6,500rpm at fast cruise highway speeds in sixth gear. I wish Kawasaki had actually given the Versys a much taller sixth so that 120kmph would be about 5-5,500rpm. It would have made the bike superb in the cruise. Instead, I looked for seventh gear for a while until I settled in and got used to its feel.

Ride, handling and braking

The arrival of ABS makes it easy for us to recommend this motorcycle whole-heartedly, unlike the super-affordable Ninja 650. The Versys 650's brakes could do with a little more feel and bite but they're all right. Hard stops are easy and the ABS system knows just what's needed.

The ride will beggar belief. Part of this is the extra suspension travel and part of it is the actual suspension. The Versys 650 uses Showa's most excellent Separate Function Forks. Essentially, Showa uses the left fork leg to allow you to set the ride height via pre-load adjustments. The right leg contains the damping gear and you can set the rebound damping if needed. Eliminating duplicated components saves some weight over a traditional fork. The forks also allow you to set preload and rebound damping (or Tension as it says on the fork cap). The rear shock is a simple offset monoshock but Kawasaki give it a remote preload adjuster. Which is also a good thing because you can quickly set preload to the riding conditions (one up, two up, two up with luggage) without needing tools or effort.

Why you'd actually need adjustability is another issue though because the base setup is excellent. The Versys 650 thrives in Indian conditions. Good roads show an extremely plush controlled ride that's absolutely lovely. Intermediate roads are dismissed effortlessly as the suspension absorbs the punishment quietly. But the Versys 650 really shines when you big bumps. Here the combination of the 170mm ground clearance and a solid setup create a comfortable ride where the motorcycle stays poised and calm even when the wheels are working frantically. It's beautiful. I'd take the bike anywhere at all in India without worry. And I've never landed speedbreaker jumps - the cornerstone of motorcycle ride quality testing - with softer, more pillowy landings than on the Versys 650.

While the Versys is plush, it isn't wallowy at all. This allows it to handle rather well around corners. The Dunlop Sportmax tyres are plenty grippy and cornering the tall Kawasaki is fun. The sense of lean is exaggerated but it's a sharp handler that is trustworthy in practically every situation. Mid-corner bumps, well, they don't exist as far as the rider is concerned until the lean angles reach silly degrees.
It is tall, let's not forget, though. So if you were to pit it against the Ninja 650 at, say, a racetrack, the N650 might have a slight edge, mind you.

Nuances and observations

But there is more to the Versys than this. First, it's a eye-openingly great commuter. Yes. It sits you high up - seat height is 840mm - and that gives you a view of traffic that looks farther forward. It allows you to spot gaps like a phenom and commuting through light traffic is superb. If you're short on the inseam though, you'll have to work on your confidence for stop-go traffic. At 6-foot, more or less, I was on confident tip-toes. It's a hurdle to be sure, but one I'd encourage you to learn your way around.

Second, it's a terrific tourer. This isn't a surprise. It's got a wide, comfy seat, all-day ergonomics and a standard adjustable screen than really does work brilliantly. A friend's been looking for a two-up with luggage commuter for Indian backroads and he was the first chap I called after I rode the bike. I didn't actually sit pillion but the seat foam's the same as the rider's and about as wide so it should work well.

Finally, the Versys is surprisingly naughty. It is considerably taller but only 5mm longer on the wheelbase than the Ninja 650. This and the extra torque combine to make the Versys 650 a lot more cheeky than the more ploddy Ninja 650. Ride hard down a bumpy road and the Versys 650 will often lift the front wheel off crests. It feels controlled and calm doing this and you learn to expect this behaviour. You'll laugh with it and smile loads. The Versys 1000 is cheeky too but with its amazing engine that's to be expected, this one, not so much. But I'm glad for it.

Verdict

I loved riding the Kawasaki Versys 650. Kawasaki claims it is a motorcycle that is hard to classify because it blends the best of many formats. It's a tall claim but in our conditions, it does produce a persuasive result.

I like the refinement of the engine as well as the nature and quantum of performance as well as economy. I absolutely loved that the indestructible feel of the Ninja 650 gets combined with a lot more sophistication when it comes to handling road irregularities producing a light-footed, tightly controlled, unflappable riding experience on the Versys. ABS brakes work well and complete the list of vital equipment as far as I am concerned. The brake upgrade and the suspension's obvious quality make it easy for me to say that the Rs 1.2 lakh Kawasaki is charging over the Ninja 650 is easily justified and the Versys 650 is absolutely terrific value, especially if you actually intend to ride a lot. Here then, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the finest purchases a hard core rider can make right now.

Also see:

Choosing between the Kawasaki Versys 650 and the Ninja 650

Image gallery: 2016 Kawasaki Versys 650

.