In the automotive landscape, the sedan used to be king, the choice of families looking for versatility and maybe a little fun, assuming you bought the right one. But somewhere along the line, the crossover SUV usurped the sedan, offering a more robust persona, a little more ruggedness, and the flexibility of a rear hatch and tall cargo area.
In the motorcycle world, the sport tourer used to look like a slightly more upright pure sport bike, with no pretentions of toughness or any hint of off-road-ability. Today’s sport-touring landscape has transformed significantly, and bikes like the 2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 ABS LT SE ($19,799) are spearheading the move toward a more adventure-styled, SUV-like motorcycle for those looking for a combination of mile munching and corner carving.
Yes, the Versys looks every bit like a true adventure bike, with the upright front end, brush guards protecting the handlebars, and longish travel suspension, but the Bridgestone Battlax Sport Touring tires and the lack of any off-road setting for the riding modes says otherwise. Much like the modern crossover SUV, the Versys has more off-road style than actual off-road ability, and that will not be an issue for most riders. This bike has far more going for it than just rugged style.
We tested the top-of-the-line SE model, which comes standard with all the electronic doodads the modern motorcyclist could ask for: electronic suspension, electronic throttle, quick shifter, riding modes, accessory power ports, cruise control, heated grips, Bluetooth smartphone app connectivity, and even automatic cornering LED lighting. The greasy bits, shared with the $16,599 base model, consist of a 1043cc inline-four engine, six-speed transmission with chain final drive, aluminum frame with steel sub-frame, inverted fork front, single-shock rear, and 17-inch wheels wearing 120/70ZR17 front and 180/55ZR17 rear sneakers.
The electronic suspension is the SE’s biggest party trick. Using either the handlebar controls or the Kawasaki Rideology app on your smartphone, you can select from three rear preload settings: rider alone, rider with luggage/rider with passenger, or rider with passenger and luggage. The damping settings change with the ride mode that is selected: firm for Sport, medium for Road, soft for Rain, and rider selectable in Manual.
On top of that, the Kawasaki Electronic Control Suspension (KECS) measures stroke speed and compression and, along with vehicle-speed information taken from the inertial measurement unit (IMU), adjusts the damping via solenoids, in real time.
The result is a well-damped ride that stays firm and planted in fast, smooth corners, but still soaks up rough dirt roads in a reasonably plush manner. Big potholes are felt, but not with the kidney punch normally expected. It is a best-of-both-worlds scenario made possible with modern electronics.
The Kawasaki Quick Shifter (KQS) allows for clutchless shifting both up and down the box, a feature you never knew you needed until you try it. Keeping the throttle pinned and rapidly banging upshifts with a twitch of the left foot makes spirited acceleration so much simpler and lets the rider concentrate on the surroundings – a necessity since the strong motor demands your full attention.
Hit the brakes (powerful but lacking in feel), close the throttle and tap downshifts, again clutchless, and marvel as the Kawi’s computer wizardry (aided by the slipper clutch) smoothly matches the revs. Again, in hard braking zones, especially in loose conditions, taking your mind off the clutch is a big bonus. The Kawasaki Intelligent ant-lock Braking System (KIBS) works drama free, with only slight pulsing through the levers when activated, and wasn’t too intrusive, even in very loose gravel conditions.
Interestingly, both the feel of the shift lever feel and feel of the brake lever seemed a little detached, with the shifter feeling rubbery and the brake lever feeling wooden. Neither of these things had any effect on actual performance, but felt a little odd in first use.
Is it powerful?
The electronic throttle valves, which are one piece of electronic wizardry that help the various systems on the Versys do their magic, are essentially a fly-by-wire system; they’re integral to the operation of the cruise control, traction control, quick shifter, and riding modes. Being able to intercept rider throttle inputs and control engine power electronically are key to the operation of these features.
The Sport and Road riding modes give full engine power, while the Rain riding mode reduces power by 20-to-25 per cent and smooths delivery. In Sport and Road modes, the Kawasaki Traction Control (KTRC) did allow for some wheelspin on loose gravel, a bonus for those who like a little roost but still want a safety net. The electronic cruise control is a feature I’d like to see on every bike I ride, and with the advent of fly-by-wire systems, it would probably be an inexpensive addition. The Kawi’s system is intuitive in operation, and a must for longer rides.
Back to the engine, Kawasaki tuned it for a broad spread of power, and it shows. It has power everywhere, building linearly to 118 hp at the 9,000 rpm power peak and redlining at 10,000. It has a little buzz to it, more heard than felt, but not enough to annoy or be uncomfortable. Throttle response is sharp but not snatchy, and takeoffs from a standstill are helped by an “assist cam” in the clutch that allows for the use of weaker clutch springs, which lightens clutch lever operation.
The Versys 1000 may not have the most powerful-feeling engine in the class, but it does not lack for power, and has plenty of grunt to be entertaining. What holds it back a bit is weight more than anything else – at 257 kg (566 lb), the Versys outweighs bikes like the Yamaha Tracer 900 GT and Ducati Multistrada 950 by about 30 kg (66 lb), which is not an insignificant amount.
More electronic wizardry can be found in the LED cornering lights and the various readouts on the full-colour LCD display. The cornering LEDs light up in succession the farther over the bike is leaned, illuminating the road through the corner at night, while the LCD display can be set to show lean angle, throttle position, brake pressure, and G-forces on the bike. These features are not terribly high on the list of necessary options, and the LED cornering light arrays look a little heavy-handed, but they don’t detract from what is otherwise a fine machine.
The LCD display is otherwise well laid out and easy to read, and there is a simplified readout mode that hides the unnecessary gimmicks. Alone, the cornering lights and display gimmickry are not huge incentives to upgrade to the SE model, but the SE’s other features certainly make the case.
Speaking of cases, the Versys 1000’s hard-shell saddlebags fit a helmet, even my XL Arai Corsair-X with its extra vents and fins on top. The bags pop on and off in a flash, and the mounting points are quite well disguised when the bags are off, giving a clean look when bag-less.
The bodywork on the Versys features Kawasaki’s new Highly Durable Paint, which has the ability to heal itself from minor scuffs and scratches. The tall, wide windscreen adjusts for height via two large knobs, and is easily adjustable while in the saddle, sans tools. Wind protection is quite good, with the windscreen, brush guards, and fairing design all contributing to the cause.
Seat height, at 840mm (33 in), is the same as the Multistrada and slightly lower than the Tracer. The bike is adventure-bike tall, and may be a bit of a stretch for those short of inseam. The saddle is roomy and comfortable, with a six-hour ride revealing no complaints.
Is it worth the money?
Price-wise, the $16,599 base model lines up closer to the $14,599 Yamaha Tracer 900 GT, while the $19,799 SE goes up against the $19,745 Ducati Hypermotard 950. In both cases, the Versys provides a more mature, refined ride, with a little less “sport,” saddlebags with helmet-holding capability, and a bit more comfort overall. If your sport-touring needs bend a little more toward the touring end of the spectrum, the Versys ticks the right boxes there.
That is not to say the Versys 1000 lacks in the sporty column, and on top of that it actually rode surprisingly well on some heavily potholed, loose-gravel roads we had the pleasure to ride this spring. Just like the typical crossover SUV does for the automobile world, the Versys provides a decent combination of versatility, cargo-carrying ability, and soft-roading talent, but with some sports sedan performance and handling thrown in for good measure. The future of sport touring looks bright.