Army of One

Story by Uwe Wachtendorf, Lawrence Hacking, and Clinton Smout//
September 1 2012
new Kawasaki motorcycle

It’s an analogy that only Canadians would understand. You’re at the local rink for the weekly shinny game when a new guy walks into the dressing room. He’s big, but since you’re polite, you would describe him as stout rather than fat. You don’t know anything about him except one thing: when the puck drops, he’s going to be the biggest pylon on the ice. But, once the game starts, inexplicably it’s the opposite that happens. The keg with legs turns out to have wheels and he seems to practically fly across the frozen surface.

Kawasaki’s new-for-2012 Versys 1000 is the new guy who turned up at shinny. It’s big too – some might call it ungainly – but man, can it move.

The tall fairing and robust build of this big Versys (there’s a 650 too) suggests that it’s a serious adventure-touring machine, but don’t be fooled by its looks – it isn’t. And to be fair, Kawasaki doesn’t assert that it has prodigious off-road skills. “Not so fast,” said Motorcycle Mojo’s professional off-road testers. In their hands, the Versys 1000 proved itself capable of feats that defied physics and shouldn’t have been possible for a motorcycle of its size, weight, and design. The off-road abuse it received was extraordinary – I honestly felt for the machine – and yet it seemed none the worse for wear after its ordeal.

There’s something equally interesting and cheeky about the Versys 1000: It’s the only motorcycle of its kind to use an inline-four. As Kawasaki Canada’s Jeff Comello explained it, the Versys 1000 will “feel like home” for any rider who is used to piloting a sportbike but is searching for a more rider-friendly platform.

It would be tempting to sum up the Versys 1000 as a sportbike with comfortable ergonomics and a luggage rack, but that would only be telling half the story. And while it may not be extreme enough for the small fraction of adventure riders who actually venture well off the beaten path, we found out that it does make a great fit for most riders, who really just need a motorcycle with some decent dirt and gravel manners.

Ironing Out the Creases

The current trend in adventure-touring is to provide riders with motorcycles that flaunt big cubes and a go-anywhere attitude – even if most buyers are only interested in their creature comforts.

With the introduction of the 2012 Versys 1000, Kawasaki has created and filled a one-motorcycle niche. This unique machine is sophisticated in its standard features, yet it’s been built to a price point that provides excellent value. It reflects Kawasaki’s ability to read the market and come up with a design that satisfies the real demands of the average adventure-tourer buyer.

When I first hopped on the new Versys 1000, I had no preconceived ideas about its intended use. What struck me first about the motorcycle was its styling; clearly modern – possibly even ultramodern – it appeared to have been designed by a comic-book artist whose only drawing tool was a straight edge. Further emphasizing the Versys 1000’s futuristic styling is a tail-heavy seat that features a high pillion perch. Even the bike’s mirrors are detailed with sharply creased lines. I surmised that Kawasaki painted the bike dark grey in an attempt to counteract its extremely angular design and to appease older customers who might be less accepting of such an avant-garde design.

Actually riding the Versys 1000 revealed another side to the machine. The tall, quick-revving bike ate up roads, devoured distances, and surged past traffic with ease. If it had ever slipped my mind that I was riding a 1043 cc motorcycle, I was quickly reminded of it every time I rolled on the throttle. The engine is very strong; seemingly devoid of any flywheel effect, it reacts quickly to throttle inputs that are supported by big torque. Slightly buzzy at higher revs, the thoroughly modern engine’s character is not exactly my cup of tea, but there’s no denying the effectiveness of its state-of-the-art power.
Controlling the big dog’s bark is an industrial-looking, but highly efficient exhaust system that sounded very agreeable from the saddle. However, the exhaust can looked a bit unfinished, as if it had been built to a more frugal price point.

Part of the Versys 1000’s electronics is an engine management system that allows a rider to control power output and therefore the feel of the engine. You have the option of switching from Full to Low power, which reduces peak engine output to around 65 N-m (89 hp) and softens the throttle’s response. Traction control (KTRC) is also available and was very effective in its operation. Switched to its most sensitive level (Mode 3), the Versys 1000 was especially controllable; in fact, it felt more like riding a different, lower-output motorcycle instead of simply a bike that had a noose tightened around its neck.

Merging the KTRC and Power Mode functions gives a rider eight engine-management options to select from. In days past, we relied on our throttle hand to adapt to various riding conditions, but now it’s almost a no-brainer. As an example, for blasting down a perfectly paved and sinewy back road, I’d have the KTRC switched to Mode 1 (the least intervention) and use Full power. And if that road led to a rain-drenched, broken-up section of asphalt, I’d select Low power and Mode 3. Best of all for devout off-roaders like me, the Versys 1000’s traction control can be switched off completely to provide enough drive to climb a loosely packed surface.

The bike’s chassis worked very well and performed to the level of motorcycles that cost a lot more. Its handling provided a well-planted ride on pavement, where it steered quickly and would hold an ultra-precise line. The suspension also performed to a high standard, adapting well to the variety of conditions the bike was subjected to. On paved roads, the bike offered a relaxed, smooth ride, and it provided lots of laughs on dirt and gravel surfaces. I felt secure enough riding on gravel, but there’s no question the motorcycle was more at home on any type of pavement.

Since the Versys 1000 comes with a 17-inch front wheel, a smaller size than you would normally find on an adventure-tourer, a rider can’t completely relax on unpaved roads. The slightly twitchy front end is the result of a compromise – a wheel size that offers great feel on pavement and decent feel off-road. Mostly because it’s fitted with enduro tires, the Versys 1000 works better off-road than any motorcycle designed for street-only use.

I didn’t have any issues with brake performance; they were impressively strong and much needed because of the speeds the bike was capable of reaching. The ABS worked well too and gave me a lot of confidence when I was tired, especially while riding on unpaved roads.

I am of average height, and I found that the adjustable windshield effectively deflected the elements and provided a wind-free pocket that added to my comfort. The rider’s compartment was well designed for long-distance riding – it had a wide handlebar with good grips, well-placed and functional controls, and a mostly comfortable seat (although wide, the seat sloped toward the front of the bike, which made it slightly numbing).

Overall, the Versys 1000 performed at a high level. It is truly ready for any type of ride, and you won’t have to turn around if the pavement ends. It’s a capable long-distance tourer that can perform double duty as an everyday commuter or a city bike, at which time its distinctive styling is more likely to be appreciated.
It’s obviously been produced to meet a specific price point, but even so, it comes standard with a number of high-spec, high-tech features that work really well. Simply put, with the Versys 1000 you get a lot of motorcycle for the money. Kawasaki’s engineers deserve to be saluted for their effort.

I’m Not an Animal

First impressions are important for males in the animal kingdom when they are seeking a mate and need to procreate. Counter to this instinct, I take my time to determine if I like a motorcycle, which is a good thing, because my first impression of the Versys 1000 was that it looked like it was constructed from my son’s Lego set. Kawasaki’s designers must love triangular shapes, as they seemed to be everywhere on the bike except its radiator and wheels; the bike’s front end looks especially quirky to me.

Its looks were quickly forgotten during my first ride, which proved that it was a much better motorcycle than my first impression had suggested. I immediately felt at home, comfortable with its feel, and inspired by the sound and power of its 1043 cc inline-four – this bike really hauls. The Versys’ engine is a modified version of the one found in Kawasaki’s Z1000 and Ninja 1000. Its fuel-injected power is controlled by a sophisticated electronics package that includes two power modes and a three-level traction control, which makes sure the rear wheel remains hooked up.

The exhaust note was full and throaty – without being obnoxious – but I couldn’t hear the exhaust at highway speeds, which is good, especially if you ride long distances. There’s no question this engine is more than capable of delivering a spirited ride. Although the transmission shifted effortlessly, I kept trying to shift into a non-existent seventh gear while on the highway (my ears are clearly attuned to taller gearing). Final drive is handled by a chain. I had no problem adjusting it using the included tool kit, located under the seat in a neat canister.

I really liked the Versys 1000’s upright riding position and comfortable seat, which provided room to move around. There was also lots of room for two-up riding, and the standard rear carrier made it easy to strap luggage down. The handlebar’s height and reach felt perfect for my tallish stature while seated; however, if I had a couple hundred kilometres of gravel to ride, I’d move the bars forward and the control assemblies down to provide better ergonomics while standing up. One thing I found unusual was that the front brake lever could be adjusted to fit the size of your hand, but the clutch lever couldn’t.
The fairing provided good wind protection for my upper body, but I would fit it with a taller windshield. The stock windshield’s height can be manually adjusted over a 30 mm range, but it didn’t pass my test of providing a visor-up, buffet-free ride at highway speeds.

Kawasaki promotes the Versys 1000 as an “any street, any time” motorcycle. Back-country touring and adventure riding typically doesn’t involve straight and smooth highways, so our test route provided demanding curves, had little traffic, and varied between good pavement and nasty gravel. The Versys 1000 was clearly more at home on paved streets than gravel roads, but we proved that you can actually ride it off-road. Naturally, there are other bikes more suited to rough terrain; the Versys 1000 lacks a skid plate to protect its exhaust and crankcase, and its big, unprotected radiator wouldn’t last long on dirt roads with the front wheel throwing up rocks.

The biggest indication that the Versys 1000 wasn’t intended to compete with motorcycles such as the BMW R1200GS is the size of its front wheel. If you’ve heard of gyroscopic precession, you will already know that larger front wheels, once rolling, work better over unstable surfaces such as sand and gravel. The BMW’s 19-inch front wheel is therefore better suited to serious adventure work than the 17-inch wheel on the Kawasaki. Despite this, the Versys 1000 managed to handle rough back roads with enough ease to inspire confidence. The bike was fitted with Pirelli Scorpion Trails that worked well off-road and even remained hooked up on wet, paved roads.

The rough back roads did challenge the Versys’ suspension at times, but overall, it rode out frost heaves, bumps and pot-holes well. During our aggressive riding and braking I would have preferred a stiffer suspension under me, but at least the inverted fork and rear shock can be adjusted for spring preload and rebound damping. The rear preload has a remote adjuster, which is great for travelling when you have to make adjustments for varying loads.
ABS is standard on the Versys 1000 and it worked well on pavement, but as with other Japanese motorcycles, you can’t turn it off for a gravel road. When using ABS off-road you should always allow more space for braking, since it will take the motorcycle a longer distance to stop.

The instruments use an analog tach and a digital speedo; both could easily be read whether it was day or night. The switchgear was simple to reach and use, especially when adjusting the traction control and the power mode on the fly through the multi-function button on the left side of the handlebar.
After three days of testing, I really got to like the Versys 1000. Even though it wouldn’t be my first choice for an off-road trip around the world, I would definitely consider it for a similar trip on pavement. Its adventure-touring ergonomics make it a very comfortable bike on a long haul, but it’s equally at home around town and on short commutes. Equipping it with Kawasaki’s optional luggage would make touring adventures that much better. However, what I found most impressive was the excellent value the Versys offers at a list price of just $13,999.

2012 Kawasaki Versys 1000 Spec Chart

MODEL 2012 Kawasaki Versys 1000
List Price $13,999
Warranty 1 year
Engine Type Liquid-cooled, DOHC, four valves per cylinder, inline-four
Displacement 1043 cc
Power (claimed) 86.8 kW (116 hp) at 9000 rpm
Torque (claimed) 102 N-m (75.2 ft-lb) at 7700 rpm
Bore and Stroke 77 x 56 mm
Compression Ratio 10.3:1
Fuel Delivery Fuel injection (four 38 mm Keihin throttle bodies)
Transmission Six-speed
Final Drive Type Chain
Front Suspension 43 mm inverted fork with adjustable rebound and preload
Rear Suspension Single gas-charged linked shock with adjustable rebound damping and remote adjustable preload
Wheel Travel Front: 150 mm (5.9 in.)Rear: 150 mm (5.9 in.)
Brakes Front: Two semi-floating 300 mm discs with four-piston calipersRear: One 250 mm disc with one-piston caliper
Wheelbase 1520 mm (59.8 in.)
Rake and Trail 27 degrees/107 mm
Tires 120/70-17 front; 180/55-17 rear
Weight (wet) 239 kg (527 lb.)
Seat Height 845 mm (33.3 in.)
Fuel Capacity 21 L
Fuel Economy (average) 6.7 L/100 km (42 mpg)
Fuel Range (calculated) 313 km

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