Test ride: 2019 Kawasaki 650 Versys

Those who ride adventure-inspired bikes are often in search of just that: adventure. Their wanderlust may take them off the beaten path to exotic or foreign places beyond the realm of cell service, but my first destination with the Versys was simply to get home to downtown Toronto during rush hour in the rain.

Dodging overly aggressive and shockingly incompetent taxi and Uber drivers while navigating pothole-ridden city streets, it’s not the kind of excitement you’d find in any travel brochure, but it certainly wasn’t boring. Thankfully, the Kawasaki Versys 650 LT ABS made for a worthy weapon. And for an MSRP of $10,299, it’s a damn good deal, too.

See all the specs for the 2019 Kawasaki 650 Versys here

You can’t really tell the size of the Versys from this angle, but it’s right in the middle between the 300 and 1000 of the lineup.

The 650 once occupied the lower echelon of the Versys roster, though it now finds itself coming to terms with middle child syndrome as it centres the lineup between the Versys-X 300 ABS and range-topping Versys 1000 ABS LT. It was revised in 2015 and again in 2017, and most recently saw the addition of the LT package with KQR hand guards and colour-matched, detachable saddlebags and new colour options. My tester was optioned in Metallic Flat Spark Black and Metallic Matte Fusion Silver.

What do you get?

Pretty much any motorcycle is a treat to ride on a smooth road under sunny skies, but a bike shows its true colours in inclement weather and challenging conditions. Just as I was about to swing my leg over the middleweight adventurer and the sky began to darken and sprinkle rain, it occurred to me that I had left my wet weather gear at home. “I’m not made of sugar, what’s a little rain?” Rookie mistake.

The 28-litre hard saddlebags are standard and remove easily if preferred.

The compact 649cc parallel-twin DOHC engine is optimized for low-and mid-range torque and high-rpm performance. It fires up eagerly with an initial blip then settles into a barely audible idle. Adjusting the mirrors, acclimatizing myself to the various controls and slim, upright riding position, I set off in what had become a steady downpour.

The hand guards and the (manual) three-way adjustable windscreen provided decent protection from both wind and rain as I merged onto the highway, briskly getting up to the speed of highway traffic. Power delivery is smooth, responsive, linear and more than ample, particularly without the weight of a passenger.

Is it any good?

Predictably, this smooth commute was short-lived. The fast-flowing traffic ground down within moments to a screeching and unexplainable halt, allowing me to test out the Versys’ stopping capability. Good initial bite was followed by linear, predictable braking as I came to a safe standstill in the pouring rain.

It is often said that Toronto has two seasons: Winter and Construction. Rather than rolling closures, somebody decided that all of the bridges over the Don Valley Parkway should undergo construction simultaneously. Clutch in, clutch out, clutch in, clutch out.

And so it went for the next hour, offering ample time to acclimatize to the Versys’ clutch operation, which is light, predictable and smooth. During the excessive stop and go, the Positive Neutral Finder was also much appreciated.

The design and layout of the crank, cassette-style transmission and transmission shaft, semi-dry sump oil system, and the muffler with a three-way catalyzer were all developed to optimize space and keep weight low, but not so low as to be sheared off while traversing bumps or potholes. Rubber engine mounts and a 180-degree crankshaft with balancer shaft mean minimal vibration, until the higher rpm where the parallel-twin vibrates at a curious frequency.

Just one light illuminates for the dipped beam – that’ll annoy the OCD among us.

How was the ride?

The portions of road not under construction were in need of heavy refurbishing. Thankfully, these streets were soaked up by the 17-inch wheels and long travel suspension. The Showa Front Fork separates damping and spring functions into each fork: rebound in the right and preload in the left. The single rear shock has a hydraulic preload adjuster, allowing for tweaking without tools based on riding and weight conditions.

The steady rain gave way to a torrential downpour. Not simply hyperbole, the streets were literally flooded as sewers and drainage systems struggled to keep up. Basements were submerged in water and cars were stranded in what looked like an apocalyptic storm. The Versys however, was unfazed.

My initial riding experience may not have been the vision engineers had when they designed the Versys, but its agility, versatility and ease of use was well suited to this kind of journey as I dodged erratic and distracted drivers veering into my lane. With a fuel tank of 21L and a comfortable, upright riding position, you could ride it longer and farther than I did on this trip. Thankfully, the week also included some sunshine and temperate weather as well, so it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Is it worth it?

At a time when everything in our lives is becoming automated and taken over by technology, the relatively analogue Versys is a breath of fresh. Yes, it features ABS brakes, but it doesn’t complicate things with multiple riding modes, toggles, dials, screens, and menus to navigate. This comes in handy when the task at hand is simply staying upright and unscathed. The dash is easy to read, with a speedometer, tachometer and fuel gauges, clock, odometer, and gear selection. What more do you really need?

The nimble and well-priced Versys-X 300 ABS has received much acclaim since its introduction. The Versys 1000 LT tops off the lineup with a more powerful engine, upgraded suspension and standard ABS. Both are good options for riders, but much like Goldilocks, neither the 300-X nor the 1000 LT would suit my own needs. At an MSRP of $10,299, the Versys 650 LT is just right for me – especially through Toronto construction in the pouring rain.

See all the specs for the 2019 Kawasaki 650 Versys here

In Toronto traffic, this is likely the last thing you’ll see of the 650 Versys.

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