Cape Town – Kawasaki’s take on the current trend for lightweight adventure bikes is, on the face of it, a bit off-beat. Literally.
It’s neither a slogging single nor a torquey V-twin - it’s a high-revving 296cc parallel twin with electronic fuel-injection, dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, borrowed from the hotshot 300 Ninja sports-bike and tuned in this application for 29kW at a screaming 11 500 revs.
Even peak torque only chimes in at five figures, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that this bike would be useless on gravel. And you’d be wrong.
Yes, it stalls easily, but no more so than the sportster it’s derived from. Yes, cruising on the tar at the legal limit with a buzzy 9500rpm on the rev-counter feels totally different from how we perceive the genre. But plonking along a bumpy gravel road at a conservative 40km/h the little twin is doing no more than 3200rpm, with enough torque to unload the front end for an obstacle available just a downshift and a handful of throttle away.
And if you have to slip the clutch and balance the bike on the levers for a nasty pebble-climb, it’s worth remembering that we all had to do that, back in the days of small capacity two-stroke dirt-bikes - and this Kawasaki’s clutch, built to stand up to multiple hard launches in the Stoplight Grand Prix, seems well up to the job.
Just as the BMW G310 GS is bigger all round than its street-orientated 310 R sibling, the Versys-X 300 is a much more substantial machine than its petite progenitor, with a tall, narrow full fairing and screen, angular and fragmented in the current fashion but effective nevertheless.
Panel fit and finish are superb, although some the fasteners on the test bike were beginning to show signs of weathering after only a couple of thousand kilometres. Note that the (very practical) crash bars on the test bike were aftermarket fittings, as was the (plastic) base for the aftermarket top box that we unhooked and left at home for the duration of the test.
Once you get used to the high-revving engine, the Versys-X makes a superb commuter. It’s tall and the seating position is upright but, weighing in at only 184kg ready to go, it’s quick-steering and unexpectedly agile, cutting through the gridlock like a motard.
Freeway cruising, however, reveals the downside of that buzzy motor - a persistent high-frequency vibration that’s felt mostly through the grips and, weirdly, through the indicator switch. When you indicate to change lanes at 120km/h, it feels like an electric shock, and it will startle you every time.
The saddle feels hard and unyielding when first you throw a leg over it, but spreads the pressure evenly so that longer rides are more comfortable than you’d expect. The supple suspension meant that even our bumpy test section didn’t throw the Versys-X off its stride, although it did show a tendency to mild head-shaking on fast downhill corners, which kept our average through the ride and handling section down to 118km/h - still not bad for a lightweight dual-purpose machine.
It was better behaved on the Six-Kay Straight, screaming up to an indicated 153km/h, right on the power peak at 11 300rpm, demonstrating again Japan Inc’s expertise at getting the gearing of its motorcycles spot on, less than halfway down the run, with no more than a slightly floaty feeling on the front end to let you know that you were a little outside this bike’s comfort zone.
GPS tracking later revealed its true top speed as 145km/h, for a speedometer error of 5.5 percent, while fuel-consumption over a week of commuting and one longer ride for performance testing averaged out a very creditable 3.85 litres per 100km.
It’s easy to describe the R74 995 Versys-X 300 as a bike that succeeds in spite of itself, but there’s more to it than that. Kawasaki has built dual-purpose machines with high-revving parallel twin engines before, and they proved just as durable as competitors’ thumpers, while returning impressive fuel-consumption figures, as does this one.
Versys, says the maker, is an acronym for Versatile System; look past your preconceptions and this one will show you just how versatile it is.