Kawasaki Versys

Exciting enough to be fun, sensible enough to be useful. Tim Luckhurst hails the new Versys

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Engine: 649cc liquid-cooled parallel twin
Maximum power: 63bhp @ 8,000rpm
Maximum torque: 61Nm @ 6,800rpm
Brakes: front, dual 300mm petal discs; rear, single 220mm petal disc
Transmission: Six-speed gearbox, chain final drive
Dry weight: 181kg
Tank capacity: 19 litres
Price: About £5,500

Back in 2004, when Ducati promoted the Multistrada 1000 DS as the first in a new generation of motorcycles, my scepticism knew few bounds. A bike that could tour and race while remaining composed on the daily commute seemed too much to hope for; more marketing man's fantasy than mechanical likelihood.

Then I rode it, and the claims about performance paired with practicality began to make sense. It really was fast, versatile and comfortable. The nimble baby Multistrada 620, which I rode in the 2005 Motogiro road race, pleased me even more. But the market said I was wrong. The Multistrada did not sell in anything like the numbers Ducati deserved.

But now, with the launch of the 649cc parallel twin Kawasaki Versys, I suspect the time has come for all-rounders. Designed to be smooth and rapid but not intimidating, this machine has been given rapturous reviews. Kawasaki claims supple handling with ample mid-range power and all-day comfort. At about £5,500, it aims to set new standards for a budget bike with big ambitions. It seems aimed squarely where many British motorcyclists want to be.

The BMW R1200 GS remains this country's top-selling adventure/sports machine, but overall sales in that category declined in 2006. The real growth has occurred in the sport/touring category. Among these most practical of motorcycles, the Suzuki SV650S is the top seller with Honda's CBF1000 in second place and the Triumph Sprint ST in third. I think I detect a trend.

Research by the Motorcycle Industry Association shows that, while commuting to work and beating congestion matter a great deal to British motorcyclists, 84 per cent of us also like to use our bikes for holidays and short breaks. The desired blend of practical and recreational is not best met by technology designed to cross Kazakhstan on goat tracks.

It does not take vast experience to know that off-road tyres and suspensions are second-best on tarmac. Such specialised kit is expensive, and its weight in town traffic makes it a compromise too far for all but the most determined adventurer. Handling a bike on mud, sand and gravel can be fun, but only a tiny minority of real-world holiday itineraries stray far off the public road network.

Awareness of this reality - coupled with very high prices for top-range adventure/sports machines - has had a predictable impact. All the top selling bikes in the sports/touring category are dedicated to road use only, but each is equally at home on motorway and country lane, suburban strip and urban freeway.

At 63bhp, the Versys is also aimed at riders who understand that 150bhp superbikes have scant practical value in a nation plastered with speed cameras. I suspect this group includes a lot of women licence-holders, of whom there are now 525,000 in the UK. Industry statistics reveal that 59 per cent of female riders use their bikes to go on holiday tours. The funky little Kawasaki's screen and relaxed, upright seating position suggest it will be ideal for this. Matching luggage is available. So - for £400 - is ABS. I cannot recommend it too highly.

There are 1.5 million active motorcyclists in the UK, and 3.5 million licence-holders. Most of us can afford only one machine. In the past 12 months, fresh mid-range products including the Honda NT 650 Deauville and BMW F800 series have emerged to offer modestly budgeted all-in-one packages. The Kawasaki Versys is a slim, muscular, modern-looking arrival at the party.

It has ample pillion capacity, can cover more than 200 miles on a tank and sports a unique mushroom-shaped headlight arrangement that you either like or not. I think it's distinctive. This is not a beginner's bike; it can cruise at 95mph and has the agility to impress hardened racers. It means to be both sensible enough to be useful and exciting enough to be fun.

There are those who associate Kawasaki with lurid machines dedicated to speed alone and, perhaps for that reason, eager crowds gathered round the SV650 at the Intermot in Frankfurt. It certainly has comparable competition from Italy, Germany and the UK, although the SV650 is nearly a thousand pounds cheaper than most. But, for renewed faith that a budget motorcycle can aspire to be all things to all riders, Kawasaki deserves credit.

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