First Ride Review – 2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+

In Japan, Reviews, Touring by AbhiLeave a Comment

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Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+. That’s a lot of characters, but this is a lot of bike. It’s also a lot of money – last year the Versys 1000 cost $12,999. The 2019 model is already at your local Kawasaki dealership, and they’ll want $17,999 before you can take one home. The obvious question is…why?


Photos by Kevin Wing


It’s all about protons, neutrons, and electrons. 2019 has brought a suite of electronic goodies into the Kawasaki world via the H2 SX SE, and the Versys gets to benefit from those R&D costs. The big news is two-fold: the inclusion of a Bosch 5-way inertial measurement unit (IMU) and an in-house ride-by-wire system that Kawasaki calls electronic throttle valves (ETV). In conjunction, those two features open up a whole new world for Team Green’s engineers. They’ve responded with a slew of acronyms, so let’s see what each one means:

KCMF – Kawasaki Cornering Management Function: this is designed to help you stay on your desired line through a given corner by managing KTRC (Kawasaki TRaction Control) and KIBS (Kawasaki Intelligent antilock Brake System).

The traction control has three levels (in addition to the OFF setting) – the higher the number, the more intrusive the system. Level 3 is best saved for torrential downpours, and while Kawasaki says that Level 1 will “allow a degree of slip” it will still interfere on pristine pavement when I go wide open from a stop. Speaking of stopping, the self-described “Intelligent” braking system earns its name from pressure sensors in the front brake calipers. This means that it can better modulate partial pressure instead of going full on/off with each ABS pulse, which translates to less feedback at the lever and better stopping distances on the road.

The Kawasaki-branded 4-piston calipers bite down on 310mm petal-style discs. ABS can not be turned off.

One of the most expensive updates is KECS (Kawasaki Electronic Control Suspension). In other words, damping supplied by the 43mm USD forks and Balance Free Rear Cushion Lite piggyback reservoir shock (both made by Showa) is now active. Here’s Kawasaki’s video explanation if you’re not familiar with the concept:

The takeaway here is that the IMU and fuel injection ECU send data to a KECS-specific ECU every 10 milliseconds, and they complement sensors in the suspension that determine stroke speed and compression data every millisecond! So if you hit a bump or shift your weight in a curve, the forks and shock can automatically stiffen to maximize tire contact and comfort. KECS also allows the rider to change between preload settings while moving, as long as the throttle is closed. Options include Rider, Rider and Luggage, or Rider and Passenger.

Kawasaki tapped Showa to build the electronically-controlled suspension.

One last K-acronym for you: KQS (Kawasaki Quick Shifter). But the tech doesn’t stop there – Kawasaki also includes heated grips, cornering lights, and a vibrant TFT LCD screen that perfectly complements an analog tachometer. The screen has two display modes – in the Versys they’re just called 1 and 2 but the display priorities could also be considered Road/Tour and Sport (move the slider below to see the difference). Road emphasizes the speedometer and supplemental data such as trip meters, fuel consumption, and even a lean angle sensor that tells you your maximum lean achieved in the past – I find that highly addictive. Sport instead emphasizes real-time readouts for throttle and brake percentages, as well as a G-meter with no labels.

I know that’s a lot of time spent discussing acronyms, but to me the electronic upgrades are by far the biggest news about the Versys 1000 SE LT+. So how are they in the real world?

The big things (traction control, electronic suspension, intelligent ABS) all work exceedingly well, and they can reduce stress if you like to ride aggressively. Braking hard in a corner is a freakish thing for me to test – I may never get used to it – but the Versys handles it reassuringly and I’d be ecstatic to have the tech if an animal jumped into the middle of a turn. It’s tough to feel the electronic suspension at work as it operates so quickly, but I have no complaints about the ride quality and the differences in damping between rain, road, and sport modes are obvious. The ride modes as a general concept work well, though it’s easier for me to show you this image than to break down the differences in writing. Note that there’s no difference in power delivery between Sport and Road, which is usually not the case. Manufacturers typically make Sport mode more immediate, which gives you a hint about the touring emphasis of this model. L for Low Power in Rain Mode equates to approximately 75% of full engine output.

Oddly, it’s some of the smaller features that feel less thought out. How does a $18,000 bike not have self-canceling turn signals? Or take the heated grips, for example. There are three settings, and each one works just fine. But while other bikes tell you the current setting of the heat on the dash, the only indication for the Versys heated grips is the button you press to change settings. When you press it, the button flashes yellow – the number of times it flashes corresponds to the level of heat (1-3, 3 is the hottest). But that requires you to look at the button, and not at the road. The indication cycles three times, but if you miss the flashes, you’re out of luck as the light then changes to a constant green to let you know that the heat is on – you just don’t know which heat setting is selected.

The leftmost button controls the heated grips. Cruise control is on the right.

The electronic cruise control is also slightly dimwitted. Let’s say I’m at 70 miles per hour and I turn cruise control on. It does a good job holding steady no matter the angle of the pavement, but the +/- buttons to manually adjust the speed are so slow that they’re borderline useless. An option, if I want to bump my speed up to 75, is to accelerate while cruise is still on. There seems to be a +/- 3 mph threshold before the system notices something is up: once I hit 73 or so, the cruise indicator light on the dash lights up with a “70” next to it in green to tell me what speed it wanted to be at. If I then hit 75 and hit the Set speed button again, the system knows that I want to cruise at 75. But it slows down as if I had completely chopped the throttle and cruise was off. Once it falls below the 3 mph threshold, the indicator on the display then lights up with a “75”, and the motor slowly accelerates up to the proper number. It’s nitpicky, but I’ve never had this issue with another bike – it’s much easier to just turn the system off, accelerate or decelerate to your new desired speed, and then turn the system back on. For what it’s worth, this is basically the same cruise control system that’s in the H2 SX SE, and I had no problems with it when I took the H2 across the country and back.

Well, I actually had one problem, and it also applies to the Versys – the cruise control can not be set above 85 miles per hour. Yes, I know that’s above the speed limit. Yes, I’m sure it was implemented by someone in the legal department. No, I don’t care. The Versys is incredibly comfortable cruising above 85 if you so desire, and while I would understand capping the cruise at 100 (which is what a Gold Wing and many other bikes do), I think 85 is just too low.

Lastly, the quickshifter isn’t perfect. Typically, they work best on upshifts when you’re heavy on the throttle. The quickshifter sends a signal to the ECU to cut ignition, and that facilitates an easier gear change. My feeling is that the ignition cut is a hair too long on the Versys. The engine doesn’t come back on quick enough to prevent the rocking sensation from slightly decelerating to getting back on the power. I never missed a shift with it, but I couldn’t find a set of circumstances to guarantee it would operate smoothly. I would replicate the same throttle position while shifting between the same gears – sometimes it’d be flawless and sometimes it’d be unsettled. I still haven’t figured it out. When you’re not using the quickshifter, the motion of the shift lever sometimes feels mushier than it should.

When you’re stopped in first, a neutral finder makes it incredibly easy to get into N without going too far and selecting second. In fact, it just about prevents you from going into second gear!

One of Kawasaki’s niftiest tricks is what they call “Highly Durable Paint”. The simple explanation is that they utilize multiple paint layers of varying hardness that can rebound after a scratch takes out some of the top layer. If you want more details on how it works, Dennis Chung over at Motorcycle.com has an excellent walkthrough. On the first day of the event, a Kawasaki representative took a wire brush to a plate that had self-healing paint on top and regular paint on the bottom.

The “self-healing” is activated by heat. This was after approximately 24 hours.

From a riding standpoint, my experience with the Versys was very much a tale of two trips. During the launch event, we spent lots of time riding somewhat aggressively and enjoying the curves of Northern Arizona’s National Forests. I was surprised by how well the Versys handles for a big bike – the curb weight is 566.7 pounds but that doesn’t include the hand guards and saddlebags, which Kawasaki says you have to add approximately 20 pounds for. It really doesn’t feel like you’re throwing around nearly 600 pounds of bike, though. Something about the geometry yields one of the lightest initial turn-ins I’ve ever encountered – initiating countersteer is a snap. The electronic suspension keeps you planted in a turn, and the 17″ wheels, upright ergonomics, and wide handlebars make it easy to rinse and repeat. But the motor felt like a bit of a dog. Kawasaki USA does not officially list power figures for this bike, but in Europe they say it makes 118.3 brake hp @ 9,000rpm and 75 lb-ft of torque @ 7,500rpm.

The only change to the motor this year is the use of 10-hole injectors (down from 12).

The Versys did not feel like it had ~120 horsepower on tap, but it wasn’t until the official press event was over that I realized why. I’ve mentioned this before in my Royal Enfield Himalayan review, but diminished oxygen levels at elevation can have a dramatic impact on an engine’s output. At 6,909 feet in Flagstaff, the 1,043cc motor was losing nearly 25 horsepower! I admit that I let this initially cloud my judgment, and if I had flown back home I probably would have considered the motor to be quite gutless.

Thankfully, as you may have seen from my recent Picture Intermission, Kawasaki offered us the ability to ride back to Los Angeles. My first task was to verify how the motor felt closer to sea level. I will say that the output felt closer to the claimed number – with traction control off it’ll bring the front wheel up after 6,000rpm. In fact, a couple of things happen around 6,000 rpm – the whole bike buzzes, and the motor wakes up. That leads to a comical experience when you accelerate hard from a stop: the bike moves forward with a small amount of motivation until around 5,750 rpm, at which point a wave of vibration hits the pegs, seat, and grips so you get all tingly in your feet, hands, and naughty bits…then the forward progress becomes more urgent. There’s a joke in there somewhere.

Taking the long way home from the launch.

So the good news is that the Versys does feel like it puts out nearly 120 horsepower. The bad news is, that number isn’t high enough considering the price jump to a dollar under 18 grand. It worked when the Versys was competing with the Tracer 900 GT (115 horsepower) at $12,999. But now, it’s closer in price to bikes like the BMW S1000XR, Ducati Multistrada 1260, and KTM 1290 Super Adventure S – and those motorcycles make quite a bit more oomph:

Yamaha Tracer GT: 115hp
72%
Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+: 118hp
74%
Ducati Multistrada 1260: 147hp
92%
BMW S1000XR: 160hp
100%
KTM 1290 Super Adventure S: 160hp
100%

With that said, 118 horsepower is plenty – it’s not like you’re racing this thing. And when I finally hit the open road, the Versys started to make perfect sense to me.

Built To Tour

From the dealer floor, this bike is very well-equipped for hours a day in the (comfortable) saddle. The Versys also takes care of the rest of your lower half – the lower fairing design keeps most of the wind and precipitation off your legs, and unlike the last Kawasaki I tested (Ninja 400), the exhaust does not get in the way of your right foot.

Kudos to whoever designed this seat. Both Vy and I find it to be quite comfy.

In addition to the previously-mentioned heated grips and cruise control, the Versys also offers a power outlet, windscreen (taller and wider than last year), a centerstand, and 28L KQR bags made by Givi. What, you thought we were done with acronyms? KQR stands for Kawasaki Quick Release, as the bags use the same key as the ignition and they easily detach when needed.

I like the white accents, but they easily show the inevitable boot scuffs of someone swinging their leg over when getting on the bike. Don’t ask me how I know.

The windshield is nice but I wish it was taller (I say that about every single OEM screen). Even in the tallest position (there’s 40mm of adjustment), the shield just pushes air directly at my helmet and increases wind noise. I suspect the windshield height might be perfect for someone who’s approximately 5’9″. I never had a single issue with buffeting thanks to a central vent in the windshield as well as an intake between the headlights that sends air up into the cockpit.

While the windshield is well-designed, the adjustment mechanism is not. Note the knobs on either side of the windshield mount in the photo above. They keep the screen in place with friction, so you can loosen the knobs slightly, make your adjustment, and re-tighten. If you want to put the shield in the bottom position, gravity will help and you can do all the adjustments with one hand. But if you want to raise the windshield, you’ll need two hands. Kawasaki insists that you only adjust the height when the bike is stopped (though if you can keep a secret, I’ll say that you can adjust it while using cruise control). It’s needlessly complicated, and it stands out when compared to the $5,000-cheaper Yamaha Tracer GT which has a much easier-to-use setup that only requires one hand and can be done while riding.

Overall, I found the Versys to be very comfortable during long stints, which is good because the 5.5 gallon tank offers plenty of range. 6th gear is 23/24 (.958), and as an overdrive it returned approximately 40 mpg when cruising at 85 mph (or 50 mpg at 70 mph). And that seems to be the sweet spot for the Versys – highway cruising with some backroad twisties thrown in for good measure. Want to conquer an Iron Butt Challenge or visit a friend in another state for the weekend? Here’s your ride.

Whether you want to take the quick route or the scenic one, the Versys is a willing dance partner.

And yet, I never found myself thoroughly excited by the Versys. It’s a very competent road bike, but it feels like a 80s movie stereotype of a nerd: super smart while being alone in the corner with no friends. This is not inherently a Bad Thing – I fell in love with motorcycling on a BMW K75C, a bike that many have called boring. But it always started and it gave me 135k miles of trouble-free exploration of the United States and Baja, including some of my favorite trips of all time. I get similar vibes from the Versys. It will run forever, it’s fast enough to have fun with, it’ll take you on amazing journeys, and all the electronic whizbangery will help keep you safe in the process.

The 3-stage cornering lights turn on at 10, 20, and 30 degrees of lean. They’re a little more obvious at night, though…

The most exciting part of the Versys might actually be how it integrates with your phone through what Kawasaki calls the Rideology app, because there’s a lot of potential to do some cool stuff.

There’s so much to discuss about Rideology that I plan on writing up a story dedicated to it. For now, here’s the short version: with the proliferation of IMUs, bikes now keep track of all kinds of data – lean angle, throttle position, speed. Why can’t you have access to that as a rider?

I’ve seen apps (like what BMW does on the new R1250GS) that will keep track of your ride via the phone’s GPS. But Kawasaki takes it one step further by including additional information. So when you’re on your favorite bit of twisty road, you can see how hard you opened up the throttle or clamped down on the brake lever, what your gear position was, even how many Gs of acceleration/deceleration you were experiencing. Here’s a quick peek of what it looks like on my phone:

You can also check the current status of your Versys and edit all the options of “Rider” mode by customizing power output, traction control, and suspension settings. Review past rides or change settings to improve future ones! The execution isn’t 100% yet (as a quick example, the display for Gs of acceleration has no decimal point so all you see is a rounded -0 or 0 even though the graph underneath clearly shows a delta), but I’ll expound on that in my upcoming story. Don’t worry, none of the data is sent back to Kawasaki.

The nerd in me thinks this is awesome and I’m excited to see what it leads to next, but the most exciting part of a motorcycle should be riding it, not looking at data about the ride afterwards.

The staid personality also applies to the styling. When you think Kawasaki, you think bold and green. The Versys SE LT+ is only available in a black and white duet. It doesn’t help that whenever I look at the front of this bike, I think of Sam the Eagle from the Muppets:

Styling is subjective, and you may like the way this looks and hate green. Fair enough. Either way, Kawasaki offers up several factory accessories for you to spruce up the Versys. I’d take a close look at the 47L trunk for 2-up duty and some frame sliders, the Versys doesn’t really need anything else. But would I get it over the competition?

I spent way too much time on OEM sites to compare what BMW and Ducati would charge for their equivalents that were similarly equipped (hand guards, quickshifter, centerstand, hard luggage, etc). KTM doesn’t offer an online configurator, so I’ll just say that the 1290 Super Adventure S starts at $18,499 and that’s without pieces like the luggage or heated grips so you can expect it to end up in a similar spot as the other European bikes.

For you cynics that don’t think the electronics are beneficial, I also included the Yamaha Tracer 900GT even though it does not offer the same advanced electronics as the other bikes such as cornering ABS or electronic suspension. Coincidentally, it’s also offered at the same price as the 2018 Versys:

Yamaha Tracer GT: $12,999
61%
Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+: $17,999
85%
BMW S1000XR: $20,978
99%
Ducati Multistrada: $21,157
100%

Including the Tracer is a little unfair – I would probably go that route because a.) I prefer its sportier nature and b.) I’m very cheap. But there’s a strong case to be made for getting a bike that has all the electronic goodies that Kawasaki now includes, and if you use that as your frame of reference, the Versys is a decent deal. Last year, one could argue that the Versys was approximately 80% of a S1000XR at 60% of the price. Now it feels like 90% of the BMW at 85% of the price. It’s still a good return on your dollar, but the Euro bikes are ~40 horsepower more powerful and anywhere between 50-80 pounds lighter – that’s a big difference.

I’m just confused about where the Versys now fits in the marketplace. It makes a lot of sense for riders who realize that you don’t need the extra 40+ horsepower offered by Ducati or BMW to have a life-changing 2-up motorcycle tour. But they’ll probably be the same riders who ask if you also need all this technology at a $5,000 premium, and I think that might be an issue. If you’re willing to spend five grand to get the electronics package, another three thousand to get the increased power and lighter weight of one of the Euro competitors isn’t much of a stretch at all.

As I mentioned above, I fell in love with riding on a K75, and it was because that bike taught me that motorcycling could be about exploration, not just commuting. Every weekend I could just pick a town hours away on the map, plot a twisty route to get there, and discover something new. It conquered multiple Iron Butt Association challenges and gave me memories that I will never forget, even though the bike is long gone. The Versys is perfectly suited for that kind of riding – just by getting in the saddle, you’ll be ready to cover several hundred miles in a day.

But nowadays, I personally want more aggression in a motorcycle than the Versys provides, and because of that I’d look instead at the Tracer or one of the V-Twin Euro options. If you don’t care for that and are simply looking for a mile-muncher with excellent ergos, it’s hard to imagine how you could go wrong with the Versys 1000 SE LT+.

Check out the 2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+!

My Gear

Helmet: Shoei X-Fourteen in Matte Black – $742.99
Suit: Aerostich Roadcrafter R-3 with Extra Forward Lean and Extra Forward Rotated Sleeves – $1,197
Gloves: Velomacchi Speedway – $149
Boots: Aerostich Combat Touring – $387, no longer available.

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