The traffic is stationary, it’s sweltering, I’m sweating like a glass-blower’s bottom cleavage and there is no end in sight to this congested chaos. And yet I’ve got a silly grin plastered across my face and I’m enjoying myself. Bikes are like that. They can mitigate even the most dire of road conditions to such an extent that you can have fun while all those around you are losing their cool and contemplating heinous acts of road rage. True, there’s a healthy dose of smugness, too, as you carefully but relatively rapidly, dispense with the gridlock and head to your destination. On time. And in a good mood. Recent bike reports in this newspaper have, unintentionally, been about the cream of this year’s motorcycling crop. I’ve been deluged by Ducati’s 1299 Panigale, KTM’s Super Adventure, Kawasaki’s H2, Yamaha’s R1 and many more.
These are bikes that cost upwards of R200 000 and represent the pinnacle of motorcycle development, but they are hardly representative of the breed. So my silly grin is wider than usual because the bike I’m currently riding is one of two similar machines I have on test at the moment, and both are affordable and practical and yet still capable of the type of performance that makes you want to needlessly extend your journey. Kawasaki’s 650 Versys is the model I’m using to dispense with the traffic and, like the Suzuki 650 VStrom I was riding earlier in the day, it is styled like an adventure bike. That means an upright riding position designed around all-day comfort, with decent wind protection and enough performance to make long-distance touring a viable option. Although they are ostensibly middleweight adventure bikes, both are really aimed at tar touring. This is more obvious in the Kawasaki’s case, where the new, more honest focus is reflected in the Versys’s tyre choice. Earlier iterations of the model wore dual-purpose rubber that could deal with some gentle off-roading, but now even that nod to “adventure” has gone, to be replaced with dedicated road tyres. This is a good thing.
Such rubber will offer more grip and better tyre life for what owners have been doing for years anyway — riding on the road. Powering the Versys is a parallel twin 650 that pumps out 51kW, 3kW up on the previous model thanks to new camshafts and exhaust. Combine that with a completely predictable throttle response and you have a sweet motor that will happily chug along all day at low rpm, but will also race around to the redline and a top speed around 200km/h or so whenever you desire. It’s smooth for a twin, too, with additional rubber engine mounts isolating you from just about all vibrations.
It’s the same pleasing, if somewhat surprising, result when you explore what the chassis has to offer. There’s nothing very fancy going on here. The steel frame is old school, and with a wet weight of 216kg it’s not exactly exactly light for a middleweight, but the handling is sorted. Easy turning, nice and stable and the suspension has been revised to provide a truly smooth ride. Distance is no problem either.
With footpads having been lowered and moved forward there’s plenty of room for taller riders, and an adjustable screen means you should be able to get some decent wind protection. These at is comfortable but it’s also quite tall, so shorter riders should check it out before splashing the cash. Suzuki’s 2015 650 VStrom is also an updated middleweight adventure model, but with a V-twin as opposed to the Kawasaki’s in-line version. It generates the same 51kW, but has a slightly different character to the Kawasaki. The Versys feels a bit more willing to rev, whereas the VStrom has a slightly healthier midrange. Comfort is a match for the Kawasaki, too, with the same relatively high seat height, and perhaps an even more roomy riding position. The screen is also adjustable, although unlike the Kawasaki you need to get the tools out, so the chances are you’ll find a setting that works and never touch it again.
Braking is one area that, although more than competent, feels a little less effective than the Kawasaki. The VStrom has a softer initial bite, which means you often end up giving a harder squeeze on the lever than initially anticipated. Looks are obviously a subjective thing, so I will leave it to you to make up your own mind. The Suzuki has been updated and now looks like a member of the same family as its bigger 1 000cc sibling, but I prefer the more modern angles given to the Kawasaki.
Both bikes are competitively priced and well built, and offer more than enough performance for your long-distance holiday trip and the day-to-day demands of commuting. Both also grow on you, rather than smack you between the eyes with a massive initial riding impression. After a week with both I was enjoying and appreciating them more at the end of the week than I had at the beginning. Forced to choose, I think I’d take the Kawasaki, but my fellow Bike Show presenter Harry Fisher would opt for the Suzuki. Both decisions are entirely justifiable.
Kawasaki Versys 650
Engine: 649cc in-line twin
Power: 51kW at 8 500rpm
Torque: 64Nm at 7 000rpm
Fuel Tank: 21 litres
Weight: 216kg (wet)
Price: R85 000
Suzuki VStrom 650
Engine: 645cc V-twin
Power: 51kW at 8 800rpm
Torque: 60Nm at 6 400rpm
Fuel Tank: 20 litres
Weight: 215kg (wet)
Price: R89 000