Green Bikes and Mormons: Riding the Kawasaki Versys-X 300 in Utah
A First Ride Review of Kawasaki’s Answer to the Mini Adventure Bike
The thermometer read somewhere in the 30s (Fahrenheit), but I already knew it was freezing out - evident from the sheets of ice forming under the sprinkler system in the hotel lawn. Frost did its damnedest to invade my adventure suit, and still, I was excited. Utah is known for its magical landscapes, though not enough attention is given to the more southern regions, which is exactly where Kawasaki planned to lead us through on its brand new Versys-X 300 Adventure Bike.
The topography here is rich with diversity – tall peaks, pines, high deserts as well as low, both containing rock formations which appear to be the brainchild of Dr. Seuss.
If only to visit the forests and ride the twisty roads and breathe the fresh air, I would’ve endured almost anything. One might suspect the Experiential experts at Kawasaki concocted a fool-proof route to distract us often jaded "industry" guests from a questionable product... Luckily, that's not the case.
Though the ride from Green River to Cedar City was in fact marvelous – snaking streets, startling vistas, quaint towns and endless amenities – the bike’s overall performance and unsuspecting balance, despite its weight, nearly overshadowed my great impression of Utah.
A mini adventure bike, huh? Immediately, I was skeptical. My partner Justin and I had been looking for a fitting two-wheeled world traveler for me ever since I first put tires to dirt. And until recently, I was quite satisfied with my trusty Yamaha XT225. But as I grow as a rider and my sights reach far further than what's in my horizon, I'm in need of something a little... more.
This year has been flooded with every iteration of entry-level motorbike from Honda's pair of Rebels to BMW's baby GS. As well as the reintroduction of Ducati's "Monsterino" with the air-cooled 797. So, what is it that Kawasaki thinks it has to offer with its new Candy Lime Green (or Metallic Graphite Metal Gray) Versys-X 300?
This bike does not fit into existing categories, says Team Green: "It’s a small-displacement street adventure bike that can be outfitted for touring."
But at 385.9 lbs, on paper the curb-weight doesn't seem so “small.” Even now, I’m intimidated by taking a nearly 400lbs bike off the pavement. Regardless of the Little Bike label, the seat height still towers at 32.1 inches, with only an option to increase cushion. This may not sound like much – many would chuckle at such an outrageous statement – but when your inseam is a cool 27 inches it makes a difference. Hell, you don't even need to be short to desire a saddle that offers as much advantage in the leverage department as possible. Whether we want to admit it or not, it's just easier to touch the ground with both your feet.
I was apprehensive about accepting the invitation to attend the Versys-X launch. Rumor had it there would be dirt, weather, tight mountain highways and long days. This is an ADV bike after all, right? And though the aforementioned descriptors usually elicit joy and excitement in me, handling all of these elements with a bike presumably outside of my reach seemed an embarrassment – if not much, much worse – in the making. To test it properly, I'd actually have to accelerate fast, brake hard, lean, then lean some more, slide, and U-turn over and over (and over). But really, the movement, even on dirt, didn’t concern me quite as much as merely the starting and the stopping.
I just didn't want to be the undeserving a-hole who took up space at an event when I wasn't even sure I could pick up the bike off its kickstand. But Chris, RideApart’s wise director, assured me that Kawasaki needed someone like me – n00b-ish, young [enough], petite, determined – to really put its pride and joy to the test. Plus, he offered to send me a cookie for each time I dropped the bike. Thanks, Chris...
But here's the thing: if you were to only look at the surface – geeking out to stats and specs, comparing and contrasting details about the bike that really don't matter once you've mounted the machine – you might never give a motorcycle like the Versys-X 300 a chance. And this would be the mistake you'll never know you made. Because where the bike lacks in bark, it makes up for with plenty of bite.
Kawasaki took the tried and true engine from its Ninja 300, remapped it and affixed the load as a stressed member to a simple, highly rigid, sub-less frame. Good engineering referred to as “Kawasaki Heat Management Technology” has redirected much of the engine’s emitted heat downward and away from our delicate skin, keeping us and the piston-powered mechanical bits cooler. Overall, Team Green did an incredible job of making a 300cc machine look like a big-bore beast.
From a distance and up-close ‘n personal: Any additional accouterments only add to the $5,399-labelled ($5,699 for ABS) value. Their bags aren't my favorite, but I'm loyal to a few luggage brands at this point. The plug and play power outlet won't energize a full electric suit, but if you're not planning to ride into the cold night glowing like TRON, then you can at least charge your phone. The crash bars, skid plate and LED light bar are intentionally turn-key, and considering what a hoot this bike is off-road, you'll appreciate the extra armor and visual aid.
Carl Parker, of ADV Moto, and I were the last journos to land at the hotel. And to my surprise, I was the only member of this bike’s target audience present in the lobby – and apparently throughout the event. Men of varying heights and weights observed me, the short lil’ lady, attempt to activate the sensor on the automatic doors at the front of the hotel. I jumped up and down waving my free arm. Nothing. But eventually I made it inside (or outside) with only that experience as stark reminder of my disadvantages to keep my nerves at bay.
The next day, I sailed past breakfast and out to the lineup of bikes awaiting us in the parking lot to rip off the proverbial Band-Aid and see just how painful my ride was about to be.
That seat I was worried about, though rock-hard, was so slender at the front it gave me the necessary centimeters to manage the back brake while the other lower appendage propped me upright. I've ridden many bikes in a comparable stance, but what really impressed me was the stunningly well-balanced weight distribution. A minor amount of my energy lifted me and bike off the kickstand, ready to ride. Shifting my bottom cheeks to either side of the saddle, I carefully swayed and tipped the Versys-X 300 side to side, testing the threshold of my ability to handle the bike during slow maneuvers and coming to inelegant halts. One drawback: I found my pant leg had an affinity for catching the footpegs. Which, with a top-heavier vessel, could’ve led to an abrupt introduction to the ground (But at least you would have earned a cookie –CC).
These few moments alone with the bike squashed my fears and grew my confidence for the coming expedition. My first impression of the Versys-X 300 (ABS) was first-rate, and I hadn't even fired it up.
Wide-open interstates connected the more interesting passages, regularly wicking speeds past 75 mph. I often noted we were cruising in unison at 80+ mph. The rubber on the pegs kept buzzing at bay, and the velocity which would have been obvious on many comparable motorbikes seemed almost modest. It handled the pace gracefully. Impressive yet again. When we hit the curves, a faith in myself and in the machine grew immeasurably. I swayed and danced and held my place in line with a group of some of the best riders in the industry.
“Where’d you learn to ride?” asked Karl Edmonson, Kawasaki’s Quality Assurance Manager.
I stammered a little, laughing inside a bit, as I responded that my lessons have mostly been on the job, so to speak.
“Well, you ride well. You pick good lines.”
My ego swelled. My chest puffed out as I silently considered this surprising bit of kudos. Clearly, all those hours spent watching MotoGP has finally paid off! Though, the reality is: I don’t consistently "pick good lines." I’m glad my skills are steadily and noticeably improving, but it would be a lie to say that the approachability, ergonomics and performance of the Versys-X 300 didn't play a role in this more majestic of my motorcycling moments. But hell, I’d happily let the bike take full credit if I could soar the tarmac like that every time.
The black top wasn’t the challenge I’d long been waiting for, though. Kawi was kind enough to lead us down the dirt road our first day. We all wondered how the little "adventure bike" would fair when the path became rougher. Or whether the ABS would screw with rear braking at turns.
In straight lines, increasing or decreasing elevation, the 300 floated over minor obstacles, around bends, and just ate up the hard-packed, rock-embedded sand. Kawasaki doesn’t outright say the bike is dual-purposed (which I’m guessing is because it wants to cover its butt if someone tries to take the 300 down some single-track) but the reality is, even with street tires, the Verys-X 300 ABS handled much of the easy to easy-moderate terrain it came across.
On or off road, I could have ridden for hours on the 300. It’s so smooth, simple and responsive on the dirt that I could see myself going deep into the unknown and getting very, very lost. The super soft clutch lever felt like trying to grasp a cloud; I mean that in the best way possible. To start, the faint grip felt like a toy, but its purpose soon became apparent when I realized no threat of arm pump would affect my performance. Initially, the throw on the clutch made finding the bite point a slight challenge for some – especially for for me. My short fingers would reach their last knuckle before movement took place and this made finite details, like slow-skills clutch control, difficult. However, with a minor adjustment to the lever on Day 2 clutch control became seamless.
Almost 10 years ago, Kawasaki introduced the world to the first in the Versys series, the Versys 650, earning a great deal of praise in the process. Whether a rider was just learning the craft or had a wide range of experience, the bike seemed obviously designed for him or her. The goal of the Versys series, be it in 1000, 650, or now 300 form, seems to be rider/machine synchronicity: harmony in all the typical functions you’d find on a bike – throttle response, maneuverability, braking, power delivery – and just enough tech to make the bike modern and not enough to make it complicated.
If my judgement of a moto were based solely on the rapture it provoked and assertiveness is instilled in me, then the Versys-X 300 ABS would receive an A++. It makes me feel like a better rider than I am, and subsequently, I became a better rider for it. Is this the next best thing that’s happened to Adventure riding? Is it truly unique? Will it welcome new enthusiasts and change the way we explore the world? Because opinion is as subjective as the experience itself, I say go for a test-ride. Push the limits, break some rules and savor the emotions it sets free. Then decide for yourself.
– Wes Yuen: Can it be a lightweight Jack of all trades?
It depends on what you would include with “all.” Can it hold a variety of speeds on the fast freeways and still have enough power left over to dodge semis? I’d say yes. Does it let out your inner hooligan and inspire (maybe a little too much) confidence on simple dirt roads? It did for me, and I’m damn near a kook. But would I take it on the track? No. Try to break land-speed records? Definitely not. Or turn it into a Café Racer? Blasphemy.
– Jeremiah Humphries: Can it cruise on road at 80mph without too much trouble?
I’d say that depends on your size. For me, at a buck-25, it cruises at 80 without issue. Though after 85 mph, you start to notice a little bit of a dip in response. This never hindered my trip. That said, someone with a little bit more meat, especially at high altitudes, or, say, when ascending a windy mountain road, may find it lacks a little. But that can be expected.
– Tim Sattler: Really interested in its off-road capabilities. I'm sure it handles and rides great on road. But can it take the off-road abuse? I own a Versys 650, and it's a tall bike (which I love). Is this also a tall bike?
For someone of my stature – let’s say under 5 feet 4 inches – it is a tall bike. But the average-sized human and taller might consider this to be a little short, especially for off-road use. That said, with the proper dirt accoutrements (skid plate, even crash bars), it handles forest service roads and minor obstacles without a hitch. Even on mostly road tires. I was only able to test the bike on hard packed sand containing a few ruts, changing elevations, a variety of twists, gravel and bedrock. The bike did not disappoint. I figure that as long as you don’t go over anything that’ll turn the bike into a teeter-totter, you should be fine.
– Truly Guzman: Is it a better value than the KLR?
That’s hard to say. The Kawasaki KLR650 has a cult following for good reason. It’s tough as nails, easy to work on, you can find parts anywhere in the world, and it is actually marketed as a dual-purpose bike, whereas the Versys-X 300 is more of an on-road bike with off-road capabilities. It really depends on what you want to do with it, your size, your riding skills, your mechanical knowledge, and your pocket book. I’ve met people who’ve ridden all over the world on bikes as varied as a Honda XR650, a BMW R 1200 GS, KLR650, Yamaha WR250R, Honda CB500X, Triumph Tiger 800, a Victory Octane and a Honda Ruckus to name a few. The machine is not quite as much the key ingredient to an adventure as your personality.
– Andrée L'a Prise: How is it with weight on (luggage) on light off road?
I haven’t ridden the bike loaded, so I can’t give you an insightful answer. But I do know that the weight of the bike itself is carried quite low and keeps it incredibly manageable. I had a marvelous time in some easy to easy-moderate off-road conditions. Even my XT225 dual-sport doesn’t feel as easy to handle at slow speeds (though don’t let that fool you, it’s still nearly 400lbs and will land hard when you do crash). I can only imagine, though, that luggage may bring more pounds to the top, but it’ll also sink your back suspension a little bit, which has its ups and downs. Let’s just say the bike was confidence-inspiring for someone who’s never had access to the adventure bike market because of stature, skill set, and financial situation.
– Michael Wick: Thoughts on it going down the Dalton?
From my understanding, people have ridden Alaska's notorious Dalton Highway with much more inadequate machines than the Versys-X 300 and lived to tell the tale. But that’s really the thing: if you have solid experience riding, use common sense, and you’re alert, most of the time the machine doesn’t matter as much. You may want to replace the seat with something that fits your tush like a glove, but I don’t see why the Versys-X 300 couldn’t be a super fun bike to take to "The Last Frontier."
– Cody Walker: Would it make a decent backwoods adventure tourer?
How backwoods are we sayin’? It’s great for forest service roads – from what I could tell on my very few hours off road with the bike. Personally, I would push it further and harder than the easy stuff. But that’s me. And I know, ahem, some people have the confidence from experience that the 300 will do grunt work. I even think it would be fine on easy to moderate two-track – depending on the rider.
– Mikey Michael: Can it wheelie?
Alas, the trade-off for having such evenly distributed weight on a bike this small has made it a terrible bitch to wheelie. This is not from personal experience, but I do observe pretty hard. And what I observed of other more talented riders was that even the smallest of wheelies was a struggle. But if you have gumption, borrow yourself a Versys-X 300, and valiantly accept the challenge… For all of our sakes.
– David Ganz: Does it work well enough to offset its looks?
My guess here is that to you, the Versys is no beauty queen. And as much as I want to offer statements like, "But have you seen it in the gray?" and, "It looks like a one-man operated spaceship," I’ll defer to the fact that aesthetics are subjective. So, yes. It does work well enough, more so actually. But that, too, is subjective.