Low displacement, lightweight and price conscious motorcycles have been popping up all over the industry the past handful of years. Kawasaki, for its part, has had something with entry-level appeal in its arsenal for decades thanks to the Ninja 250. That machine grew up to become the Ninja 300 in 2013, and it has carried the torch forward ever since. But sportbike-styled motorcycles aren’t for everyone, and with the current enthusiasm for adventure bikes an unoccupied space became glaringly apparent. Why not create an entry-level, adventure-styled motorcycle? That’s just what Kawasaki did with it’s new Versys-X 300.
The Versys-X 300 gets its stripes from two different sections of Kawasaki’s line up. The first is the Versys name, which represents Kawasaki’s sport-ish adventure touring line, comprised until this year of a selection between the middleweight 650 and the 1000. The second is the engine, which is essentially the same as that found in the Ninja 300. It’s spoked 19-inch front and 17-inch wheels give it a more off-road capable bent than either of its Versys or Ninja forebears, hinting at an association with the long-popular dual-purpose KLR650. But Kawasaki assured us that the Versys-X 300 is adventure bike through and through, not to be confused with a true dual-sport machine like its venerable middle-weight Single. It’s primary home will be on pavement.
Engine, Transmission and Brakes
The 296cc liquid-cooled, DOHC, eight-valve Parallel Twin isn’t going to raise the hairs on the back of your neck when you twist the throttle. It’s a mellow engine. However, it’s also an incredibly friendly engine in terms of performance and character.
Torque and power delivery, in my precise seat-of-the-pants assessment, are even and smooth. What you get early in the rev range closely corresponds to what you get as you approach the 13,000 rpm redline. There’s more on tap up from 7000 rpm upward, but it’s not dramatic enough to feel like you’re missing much on the way up to that mark. Like its Ninja 300 cousin, the Versys-X 300 is happiest when revved out, and it emits an exhaust wail more in keeping with a sportbike at that range than an adventurer.
A balancer in the smallest Versys makes for an engine almost completely devoid of vibration too, at all points in the powerband. While rambling around southern Utah during our two day evaluation ride, we spent fair chunks of time on 80 mph highways and there was hardly any bad vibes coming though the tank, seat, bars or pegs. It made for a very comfortable ride. Plus, the Versys-X 300 was completely happy to hold steady at around 80 to 85 mph, with close to 3500 rpm to spare in sixth gear. When you’re riding at 65mph, the tach reads just under 8000 rpm.
An updated airbox contributes to better low-end torque, as do the new header pipes. These two elements comprise the primary differences between the mill in the Ninja 300 and the Versys-X 300. And while I appreciate the artistic bend of the pipes forward the engine, if I were to own one of these Versys motorcycles the first thing I’d do is fit a skid plate on there to protect my investment.
Dual throttle valves control airflow into the chambers while fine atomizing injectors provide precise amounts of petrol. The fuel injection system was faultless at all elevations (we ranged from 4000 feet above sea level to more than 9000 feet at points) and the throttle response is similarly dialed. This is a completely approachable powerplant and you can be as delicate or ham-fisted as you want with the right grip and the bike will respond with patience and predictability.
Some downsides to the engine emerged when we took a brief detour off road, but really only for riders that want to get squirrely in the dirt. Power is meted out in such a mellow, uniform way that even if you quickly roll the throttle to the stop you’ll be hard-pressed to break traction. The new Bosch 10M ABS system quells slides also, and no matter how much I tried to buck the system it would reliably kick in the moment the rear wheel began to lock. ABS can’t be switched off on the Versys-X 300, either, but there is a non-ABS version available for purchase for $300 less.
On the plus side, however, the ABS system works as advertised. The engine character may not allow for shenanigans but it does chug up a fire road strewn with lose gravel and plenty of unevenness without relenting.
The braking package as a whole includes Nissin calipers pinching 290mm front and 220mm rear Nissin petal discs. Both units brought the bike to a stop, but the front brake in particular could benefit from a bit more feel. There’s not much indication of the initial point of friction with the plate and a healthy squeeze brings a wooden feel. That being said, it’s a single disc set-up on a budget-conscious bike and it did the job.
Kawasaki includes its assist and slipper clutch on the new machine, a feature found on most all of the brand’s entry to mid-sized machines. This is a boon to new riders that have yet to refine their skill on downshifts; the slipper function keeps the rear wheel planted while jamming down through the gearbox.
The assist is most noticeable on the Versys-X 300, since it contributes to a light clutch pull. And boy is it light. It would take more effort to staple two pieces of paper together than to engage the clutch on the Versys-X. The downfall in the set-up is engagement comes very late in the throw and is almost on, off. Feathering the clutch forced me to hover in the space of a very small window of engagement. Some clutch cable adjustment should help alleviate the issue, but Kawasaki reps said it can’t be resolved entirely.
Chassis, Handling and Ergonomics
Kawasaki developed a new frame for the Versys-X, a single steel tube unit without a separate subframe. It uses the engine as a stressed member and is made to be as slim, rigid and simple as possible.
The package is suspended by a non-adjustable Showa 41mm fork and KYB, bottom-link Uni-Trak gas charged shock with adjustable preload. Kawasaki reinforced some elements of both units, the area around the rear shock mount and the lower portion of the fork tubes. You get 5.1 inches travel at the front and 5.8 inches at the back.
On entry-level bikes, it’s not uncommon to find yourself jouncing around on a marshmallowy set-up but the Versys-X is not like that at all. If anything, the suspension set-up is a bit on the stiff side. It communicates the imperfections in the road precisely and performs admirably off-road. Better than I’d have expected. Hit a large edge of a boulder jutting up out of the ground or a large pothole and the tires compress without fuss and quickly rebound contact with the ground.
The bike holds a line steady through turns on the asphalt too. Its 385.9 pound curb weight is just a little over two pounds more than the Ninja 300, and as such the Versys-X tips into corners on a whim. The wide handlebar give plenty of leverage; there’s no sensation of top-heaviness whatsoever. A rider can keep this thing tapped in the upper ranges of top gear and tackle a mountain road at speeds that could cost him his license.
One of the most memorable parts of the ride came late on the second day when we charged Highway 14 just outside Cedar City, Utah, a road that winds with miles of satisfying sweepers and a collection of tight 25 mph turns through some of the most beautiful landscape imaginable. The Versys-X handled it all and then some.
And handling is sharp even with the disparate tire sizes. This led me to think that, while clearly appealing to entry level riders for its lightness and mellow power delivery and price tag, there are characteristics to this bike that experienced riders will also appreciate— handling definitely being one of those areas.
The seating position is like most any adventure bike – upright, wide bars, natural mid-set foot pegs. At 6ft tall I was quite comfortable on the bike, and the tall windscreen (non-adjustable) kept wind from all but the top of my helmet. Kawasaki had its ERGO-FIT extended reach accessory seat available to try too, which I did, but you’d have to be taller than me to want it full time. That extra inch over the stock 32.1-inch seat height was enough for me to notice the wind buffeting more and generally made for an unpleasant time.
I would also kindly ask that someone, anyone, make use of softer foam in the seats for this bike. This is one of the biggest knocks I have to give the Versys-X 300 – the seat felt like sitting on a wooden plank. The bike as a whole is amenable to standing and that feature allowed some relief when we were going for extended periods, but for a motorcycle that has real long-distance touring chops the seat has got to go. The accessory ERGO-FIT seat is just as uncomfortable also.
That being said, the perch is narrow and it’s easy to flat foot at a stop for a rider of my size. Nothing apart from my backside hurt after two long days of riding.
Styling and Etcetera
The Versys-X 300 was deliberately styled to resemble a larger adventuring bike, with what Kawasaki calls “large volume bodywork.” And it does the trick. You can tell this isn’t one of those motorcycles at the upper end of the adventure displacement and pricing spectrum but it feels like a full, adult-sized motorcycle.
The tank indentations and bolt-less fuel filler cap are elegant touches, and the lines between plastic and metal parts align seamlessly. Kawasaki took its time with the styling on the Versys-X 300 and it shows.
The front cowl and fairing design are intended to direct air in through the Kawasaki Heat Management set-up, which is a radiator fan cover behind the radiator made to direct hot air down and away from the rider. Temperatures didn’t get all that warm during our ride so I can’t say whether this was effective or not, but at no point did I feel any residual heat from mechanical parts on the bike while riding.
There are rear grab bars and a carrier platform included standard. We didn’t do any night riding, so I can’t comment on the effectiveness of the single-bulb halogen headlamp.
All the bike’s information is displayed on an analog/digital combination instrument panel that’s akin to what you’d find on numerous other Kawasaki models. The warning light cluster is to the left, followed by the analog tach. The right side is dedicated to a digital display that has a gear position indicator, fuel gauge, speedometer, temperature information and mileage information. According to our readout, the Versys-X got in the range of 40 to 50 miles per gallon depending on how aggressive I was with the throttle, which would yield somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 miles per 4.5 gallon tank.
Kawasaki had accessory foresight when designing the Versys-X 300, too. I’ve already touched on the ERGO-FIT seat, which is a direct swap for the stock seat, but other items are already available. The frame was designed to fit an engine guard as a quick bolt on piece, there’s handguards, a ready-made spot for a DC power outlet, 17-liter hard saddlebags, a model-specific center stand, 30-liter top case and LED auxiliary lights that integrate onto the engine guard. In the latter case, all the modification one would need to do is install a relay kit for plug-and play convenience.
And that’s not touching what may soon be to come from the aftermarket.
Kawasaki has a very potent entry-level machine in the Versys-X 300. With ABS, as-tested, it rings in at $5699. For the non-ABS version you’ll spend $5399.
What makes this bike stand out, particularly against the Ninja 300 and other similarly styled machines of the class, is the fact that I can imagine a rider wanting to live with the Versys-X for a while. If you don’t miss the power output of a larger machine, this bike will provide an awful lot of enjoyment. It’s surprisingly capable on a dirt or gravel road in stock trim for most. The ride at highway speeds is comfortable and vibration-free, the transmission is smooth, the braking package uninspiring but competent. It’s a fun bike in the curves too so has the chops to tackle mountain roads, freeway stretches and trips off the beaten path.
Plus, it currently sits in an almost singular position. Sportbikes or small cruisers have long dominated the entry-level market for road-going riders. An adventure bike makes a lot of sense though. It’s upright, it’s practical, has a variety of capabilities in terms of travel or carrying capacity. The Versys-X 300 is a fantastic realization of this potential. It’s approachable and forgiving but also nimble and has the ability to get after it in the right hands.