Bike Review – 2017 Kawasaki Versys-X 300

In Dual-Sport, Japan, Reviews by AbhiLeave a Comment

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It all started when Charles Fleming asked if I wanted to join him for a ride up California’s “highest motorable road.” I thought it’d be fun to scale a big mountain on a little bike, so I asked Kawasaki if they’d loan me the recently-released Versys-X 300, and Charles called up Honda for a CRF250L Rally. I kept the Versys-X for a long term evaluation, and after a few months I feel that this is one of the best bikes of 2017.

Charles’ story briefly mentions that I took the Kawi into a mine. Here’s what it looked like with my old phone. I want to go back there with a better camera…

For Charles’ story, head on over to the Los Angeles Times. For more on what I think about the Versys-X, read on. Let’s start with the basics:

What I like:
  • Cheap to buy ($5,399 base price), cheap to run (50+ mpg), and cheap to fix (I haven’t broken anything yet, I’ll get back to you).
  • Ninja 300-derived motor provides enough power.
  • Who cares if you drop it? It’s easy to pick up.
  • Dollar for dollar, this might just be the most versatile motorcycle currently available.
What I don’t like:
  • The seat is comically stiff.
  • Always-on ABS and no skid plate limit the off-road potential.
  • Kawasaki loaned me a gray one instead of the much cooler green. Oddly, they are swapping out the green for red in the 2018 model so now it will look like it’s a Honda.

The Verdict

My pick of the 300cc market. Slow, reliable, and capable of doing just about everything you would ever need to accomplish on two wheels, the Versys-X is like the Ford Ranger of motorcycles. This isn't a beginner bike, though newbies will find it easy to ride. It's a motorcycle for those of you that want to explore and know weight is the enemy.

Check out the Kawasaki Versys-X 300!

Photo by Charles Fleming

ON PAPER

Let’s look at the name for a moment: Versys-X 300. Versys is actually a portmanteau of Versatile and System. The “X” doesn’t officially seem to mean anything, so you can pretend it stands for whatever you’d like. Xtra. Xtreme. Xtravagant. Xpialidocious. Alright, I’m sorry. Moving on…

Xtra Transparent? OK, I’m really done. Photo by Nathan May.

The “300” obviously comes from the displacement of the motor, and the motor itself comes from Kawasaki’s smallest Ninja. If I’m being precise, the parallel twin engine displaces 296cc. Kawasaki modified the intake, exhaust, and gearing to shift emphasis lower in the powerband. It doesn’t really matter, as output numbers are 34.6 horsepower at 10,800 rpm and 17.6 lb-ft of torque at 9,700 rpm. The takeaway here is that you’re going to be spending a lot of time flirting with 5 digit values on the tach. It takes a couple of rides to get used to because the sound of the motor at high revs will make you think that you need to shift, but the engine is absolutely fine sitting at 10,000 rpm for as long as you want to ride. Don’t forget your earplugs.

Get used to having your needle kissing redline. Photo by Kawasaki.

Even though this is the smallest of the lineup (which also includes the 650 and the 1000, I think the 300 is the most versatile of them all due to its capability both on and off-road. The bigger brothers are more pavement-oriented.

As you’d expect, the smallest of the Versys lineup is also the cheapest. The base model is $5,399 or you can add $300 if you want ABS. Both versions are available in either Candy Lime Green/Metallic Graphite Gray or Metallic Graphite Gray/Flat Ebony. The styling is inoffensive to the point of being bland – especially in the latter paint scheme.

With that said, it looks pretty purposeful in Candy Lime Green with all the accessories.

One of the main reasons I like the Versys-X is how little it weighs: 386 pounds when the 4.5 gallon tank is full of fuel. Just by itself, that number gives you confidence when you’re at the start of a trail and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the crux of it. You’re not worried about how you’re going to deal with your 525 pound ADV once it falls over – this is an adventure bike that encourages you to explore as opposed to the ADV bikes we all like to joke about as they’re outfitted to the gills for Starbucks runs. You’re not going to conquer rock gardens with the Versys-X, but that’s not the point.

This bike is great for riding out to your destination for hours on the freeway and then hitting the gravel or a fire road without a problem. So let’s discuss how it handles pavement and other surfaces.

Photo from Kawasaki.

ON ROAD

I’m 6’2″ and I found the ergonomics to be very comfortable. The significantly-scalloped seat has a height of 32.1″ and it’s comfortable when you first sit down but after a few minutes you’ll notice that is way too stiff. If it wasn’t for the seat, you could knock out an Iron Butt Association 1,000 mile/24 hour ride without much of a problem.

Splitting lanes and maneuvering around in general is easy as the smallest Versys is narrow. In town, acceleration is peppy thanks to short gearing but you can still cruise at 100 miles per hour if you don’t mind a bit of vibration. The non-adjustable windscreen provides adequate protection (there are very few stock windscreens I like in that regard) and visibility from the mirrors is above average. Hard bags are an option that my loaner was not equipped with, but I had a standard luggage rack which was perfect to strap a bag or a Baby Jack to:

Photo by Brody Cox.

An odd gripe I have is that the bike is barely leaned over on the kickstand, which means it’s too easy for the bike to get knocked over on the other side if a clumsy friend of yours accidentally bumps the Versys when he walks by. Don’t ask me how I know. The handlebar end, footpeg, and exhaust got a couple of scratches but the bodywork remained pristine.

While practicing for the 24 Hour UMRA race, I decided to take the Versys out for a session on the kart track for fun. It didn’t embarrass itself as the upright seating position and wide bars were perfect for the slow speed curves of a small track, and the 19″ front wheel (a compromise for pavement and dirt) wasn’t a liability. Still, I don’t think anyone’s planning on tracking their Versys-X, so let’s just chalk this up to me being weird and move on.

Photo by Brody Cox.

On the street, the Versys-X punches above its weight class. I did a day trip with a group of friends to Santa Barbara and back and it wasn’t until we had finished up that they realized I was on a 300 – they assumed I was on the Versys 650 because I had no problem keeping up. I had Vy on the back several times and I was surprised that the KYB suspension had no problems coping with another human. That’s a common trend with this bike – throw anything at it and it will usually have no problem. Unless you specifically want a ~300cc bike for the track, I’m not sure why anyone who is considering a Ninja 300 wouldn’t buy a Versys-X instead. Tell me why I’m wrong in the comments, please!

OFF ROAD

If you’re the kind of person that thinks riding off-road is all about leaving giant rooster tails, then a.) you’re awesome, please send me photos and b.) you’ll probably want to skip this section. Yet despite the small motor, this is the best of the Versys lineup in the dirt because of the 19″ front tire, light weight, and better-than-expected suspension. The forks and shock are on the firmer side, but that’s appropriate in this application. Combine that with travel of 5.1″/5.8″ front/rear and 7.1″ of ground clearance, and you’ve got something that won’t let you down when you’re on the path less traveled.

The suspension is better than you’d expect. If you really want to get adventurous, the tires will probably be the limiting factor.

So the basic components are satisfactory, and that’s great. But as I mentioned above, the reason this bike is so fantastic is simply that it’s so approachable. When you get to a trail and it warns you about impending doom, you won’t care because you’re on a bike that’s easy to ride and easy to pick up if things go sideways (or upside down, I guess) – and that confidence is priceless for someone that wants to try dual-sport riding. It’s obvious on paper that the Versys-X is a better street bike than the Honda CRF250L Rally, but I was stunned by how capable the Versys-X was off-road when I was riding alongside Charles on his Honda. With the extra power (the Rally manages just 24.4 horses compared to the Kawi’s 34.6), I could leave the Honda behind in most terrain if I wanted to and the suspension and tires would keep up. The only spot where I was at the mercy of the CRF250L was on descents. His bike did not have the optional ABS, so he could lock up the rear and use that to slow down as necessary.

The ABS is one of two serious problems that need to be addressed if you want to go off-roading on a regular basis.
1. There’s no true skid plate, just a plastic piece of decoration. This isn’t just on my loaner – Kawasaki does not offer one. The only real protection they offer as an accessory is a $215 “engine guard” which is what I would consider to be more of a crash guard. It wouldn’t hurt to have this on your bike, but the bottom of this bike is exposed.

The LED lights are accessories, too. Photo from Kawasaki.

From what I can tell, the only aftermarket company that’s figured out a solution so far is T-Rex Racing. I’d consider this a mandatory purchase so that you don’t have a rock come up and take out your exhaust (or worse). On such a well thought-out machine, this is a frustrating oversight.

I understand that this is built to a price, but this is just silly. Upgrade this immediately.

2. You can’t disable ABS. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. But when you’re going down a hill and the surface is loose, this is a tremendous pain in the ass. Or a pain in the face, if you crash because your brakes don’t stop you. You can (and should) pull a fuse if you’re going to be spending time in the dirt, but Kawasaki really should have made this a switch so you can temporarily disable it as needed.

Not pictured is Charles, who was way ahead of me on his CRF250L Rally. Earlier portions of the trail were much steeper and I was often reduced to crawling speeds because if I went any faster the ABS would kick in on braking and the bike wouldn’t really stop.

CONCLUSION

This bike is much better than it has any right to be. Some days you’ll want more power or more ground clearance, but every once in a while I feel the same way even when I’m on a BMW R1200GS. Slap a skid pan and knobbies on the Versys-X and for 90% of riders it can do everything that a R1200GS, Tiger 1200, Multistrada, V-Strom 1000, or Super Tenere can – except this costs less than half of all of them. Would I buy one myself? No – I’m a speed freak and I want more power. But many of you have reached out to me over the years (especially in response to my BMW G310R review saying that you’re looking to downsize and the Kawasaki Versys-X makes way too much sense to ignore.

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