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Common Tread

2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+ first ride review

May 20, 2019

For 2019, the Kawasaki Versys 1000 has moved to a more exclusive neighborhood in Sport-Touring City.

Kawasaki doesn't like to talk about the direct competition to its new models, so I will, because I think it encapsulates the changes to the biggest Versys. Where the previous Versys 1000 LT was neighbors and rivals with the Yamaha Tracer GT — both capable, quick sport-touring mounts with upright ergonomics that covered all the basics but lacked some of the latest flashy tech — the new Versys 1000 SE LT+ has moved in next door to the BMW S 1000 XR and the Ducati Multistrada 1260 S. The rent's higher, but the electronics are much nicer.

While the bones of the Versys, the engine and frame, are little changed, Kawasaki brought its best electronic rider aids to the new model. More than once, the Kawasaki team noted that the Versys 1000 SE LT+ was the first to get this or that electronic feature after the high-tech, big-bucks H2 SX SE.

2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+
2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+. Photo by Kevin Wing.

What's new on the Versys 1000 SE LT+

In a way, it started with cruise control, something Kawasaki knew the Versys needed.

"To go with cruise control, a lot of changes had to be made to the bike," said Kawasaki Public Relations Supervisor Brad Puetz. "That opened up other possibilities and when you've got that tech, it seems to make sense to go ahead and add it. We really didn't have anything in our lineup in that space."

That's how the Versys 1000 SE LT+ ended up with an array of new, high-tech features, most notably electronic suspension control and an inertial measurement unit to add cornering inputs to the anti-lock brakes and traction control. Since it's a Kawasaki, expect a lot of acronyms starting with "K."

The Bosch IMU works with Kawasaki Traction Control (KTRC) and the Kawasaki Intelligent anti-lock Brake System (KIBS) to create the Kawasaki Corner Management Function (KCMF). KCMF means that the traction control and braking systems are now considering inputs from the IMU about chassis movements such as acceleration, deceleration, lean angle and more, as well as inputs from wheel speed sensors, throttle position, brake pressure, etc. This means you're less likely to lose traction in a corner under braking or acceleration, for example.

Kawasaki panniers
The Versys comes with the same tried and tested 28-liter panniers found on other Kawasaki models. My size medium Shoei RF1200 fits inside. Photo by Kevin Wing.

KTRC can be set to three different levels or turned off. The first two levels allow different amounts of wheel slip and the third allows none. The system not only considers how much wheel slip is occurring, but also what the rider is doing. So, for example, KTRC will intervene more to reduce slip if the rider is off the throttle than if the rider is on the throttle.

"You want the rider to get off the bike and say, 'It did exactly what I wanted. When I wanted more and was on the gas, it gave me more'," said Kawasaki Two Wheel Product Manager Croft Long.

Kawasaki Versys without panniers
With the panniers removed, the mounts are not noticeable. Kawasaki photo.

The most important new electronic feature, however, is the Kawasaki Electronic Controlled Suspension (KECS), which puts the Versys in competition with the European models. In both the Showa 43 mm cartridge fork and the Showa BFRC Lite rear shock, a solenoid valve adjusts damping on the fly to provide an optimal ride. Because there is no intermediary circuit between the sensor and the valve (i.e., direct actuation), Kawasaki says the system responds faster than others, reacting in just one millisecond.

The base settings for the suspension are determined by the riding mode chosen. The four modes are Sport, Road, Rain and Rider, the last of which is meant to be customized. The modes also set the level of KTRC intervention and either full power or 75 percent power. Sport has the firmest suspension settings and Rain is softest. Beyond those base settings, KECS adjusts damping based on input from the stroke sensor in the suspension and also from the IMU. If the stroke sensor detects a sudden input, it can react in that millisecond and change the damping to minimize the shock and try to keep the tire planted.

KECS also makes as easy as it could be to adjust rear preload. Three settings for rider, rider and luggage or rider and passenger can be selected on the dash. Front preload can be adjusted manually.

Speaking of the dash, it's new, too. An analog, dial tachometer on the left is paired with a color TFT screen that can be set to two configurations. I'd call one "sport" and one "touring." The first features bar graphs for lean angle and brake pressure while the other is a cleaner layout. Either one can be adjusted to a black or white background.

Versys left hand grip
Cruise control and many of the menu functions are controlled via the left hand grip. Photo by Kevin Wing.

But, you don't have to control the settings on all these new electronic rider aids by flipping the switches and pushing the buttons on the handgrips. There's an easier way. Download Kawasaki's Rideology app and you can change riding modes, customize your Rider mode and make other adjustments with your smartphone. Rideology can also record the data from your rides, so if you want you can go back and review your route, check to see what your maximum lean angle was back in that twisty section or your speed on the straight, etc. I'm going to need more time with the app to fully understand it and use its capabilities, but I'm already convinced it's worth having because I find it a lot easier to adjust settings on the phone screen than remembering how to navigate menus using the handgrip buttons.

Kawasaki Rideology app
You can also use the Rideology app to change settings and record data about your rides. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The other new acronym on the Versys is KQS, for Kawasaki Quick Shifter, which allows both upshifts and downshifts without the clutch. Heated grips and plastic handguards are standard, as are the panniers.

Kawasaki cornering lights
I'm a fan of the cornering lights. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Two other features handed down from the H2 SX SE: Kawasaki's highly durable paint that Andy wrote about before and the LED cornering lights. On the Versys, the cornering lights come on at 10, 20 and 30 degrees of lean angle.

Finally, in addition to all those features, there's the electronic cruise control that many touring riders demand and was the addition that started the Versys down this path. And look: no throttle cables. An "accelerator position sensor" is built into the handgrip so only wires , not cables, protrude.

Yeah, that's a lot of new stuff. So how does it work?

2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+ in Arizona
Riding the new Versys in Arizona. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Riding the Versys 1000 SE LT+

While many press introduction rides are getting shorter, Kawasaki scheduled nearly 400 miles of riding over two days in Arizona, from Scottsdale to Flagstaff, via Prescott and Sedona, on all varieties of paved roads, to let us have enough time to get acquainted with the new Versys. Better yet, they let me keep one for a long-term loan, so the next morning I was on the road at dawn, heading east across country. I plan to put a few thousand miles on the bike and then drop it off at ZLA HQ for Spurgeon and Andy to try (and, of course, Lemmy, just as soon as he's fit and cleared for test riding).

2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+ seat
The Versys seat gives room to move around. Photo by Kevin Wing.

With the frame, engine and seat the same, the Versys 1000 rider still sits bolt upright, feet positioned where it's easy to stand on the rubber footpegs. With the seat at 33.1 inches, I can just barely get both feet flat on the ground with my 32-inch inseam. The seat is broad and flat and offers room to move around. The day I left Flagstaff, I spent about 14 hours on and off the bike, and the stock Versys seat is better than most.

Clutch pull is surprisingly light, due to the cable-operated slipper and assist clutch. The 1,043 cc inline four fires with the same hum as the previous model. The only changes to the engine are the electronic throttle valves, fuel-injection settings and revised injectors. The nature of the inline four is the same: The Versys 1000 is fast, but it doesn't feel fast. It doesn't give you that grunty lunge off idle that some twins do, nor does it shove you in the back with a high-rpm surge of power like a liter-class sport bike. It just smoothly and steadily builds power all the way up to almost the 10,000 rpm redline. Some won't like it and may even call it bland, or lacking in character. But as someone who just did a 700-mile day on this bike, I was quite pleased that it lacked what some call "character." Given the positioning of revised Versys, smooth competence fits far better than snorting, hooliganesque antics.

One exception to the "smooth" part, however: At 6,000 rpm, I felt a serious buzz come through the seat. Other testers said they felt it in the hand grips and foot pegs, too, but I didn't. The engine is smooth both above and below that speed and you're unlikely to need to spend a long time at that rpm. The gearing is relaxed and sixth gear at 5,000 rpm gives you 80 mph.

2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+ in Arizona
The Versys 1000 is a fast motorcycle, but the nature of the power makes it feel less powerful than it is. Photo by Kevin Wing.

So what about the most important update, the electronic suspension?

When I reviewed the previous-generation Versys 1000, I noted that the Versys provided a smooth ride on the freeway but the suspension felt a bit soft once I got into the curvy mountain roads. Of course I could have stopped and pulled out the tool kit and adjusted the suspension once I got to that stretch of smooth, winding pavement and wanted to increase the pace. But who really stops several times during a ride to adjust the suspension?

With KECS, the suspension adjusts for you, many times per second. You can also adjust the base settings yourself by switching, for example, from Road to Sport once you reach the twisties. You can change modes if the throttle is closed and cruise control is off. I did this as we moved from the freeway portion of the group ride into the photo shoot in the curves. Now, you really can adjust suspension settings several times per ride.

Actually, you could just leave the bike in Sport and be quite happy. The base settings for Sport provided a firm ride but never felt harsh, maybe because the KECS is sensing the impending jolts and adjusting damping to compensate. As I started my ride home and I encountered some winter-ravaged pavement high in the mountains of New Mexico, I left the mode setting in Road and it soaked up the bumps even better. I briefly tried the Rain mode, which softens up the suspension even more and reduces power to the low, or 75 percent, level, but found the suspension a bit too squishy for dry pavement. Of course you also have the option of coming up with your own personalized settings and saving them in the Rider mode.

Bottom line, the electronic suspension works. It makes it easy to make adjustments in seconds, whether because conditions have changed or because you've added a passenger or luggage. Handling has been one of the strong points of the Versys line and the 1000 SE LT+ is the best handling Versys yet.

Brakes were appropriate for sport-touring duty: Plenty of power up front, though maybe a bit of initial grabbiness. The rear brake is not that strong, but then it doesn't need to be. Cornering ABS is there to back you up at both ends.

The KQS, like other quickshifters, works better in the higher gears and when you're riding aggressively, which is when you use it, anyway. Between the light clutch pull and the ability to ride for miles without needing to use the clutch to shift gears, Versys riders should never complain of a tired left hand.

2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+
The fairing and larger windscreen provide more weather protection, but I had trouble finding an ideal position for the windscreen. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The fairing was revised and enlarged for 2019 and a larger windscreen with a vent was fitted, still manually adjustable using two clamps. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a perfect position for the windscreen. Typically, on bikes like these, I prefer the windscreen in the lowest position, except perhaps during terrible weather. That usually blocks wind pressure from my chest and gives me clean air flow over my helmet. But with the Versys screen in the lowest position, I had some buffeting, as the wind hit my helmet at eye level (I'm about five feet, 11 inches, for reference). I had the best results by putting the windscreen all the way up, which had the wind hitting the top of my head, causing only a slight amount of wind noise. I could slump a bit and be in the calm bubble, but that meant looking at a shimmery world, due to shield optics and vibration, and besides, that negates the advantage of the Versys' upright ergonomics. Kawasaki has several accessories available but not an alternate windscreen. I suspect some riders, depending on thir preferences and height, will turn to the aftermarket.

Overall, after two days of freeway riding in the hot desert valley and climbing the mountain roads toward Flagstaff, plus some sightseeing in Sedona and Jerome, the Versys handled all aspects of the sport-touring mission smoothly and competently. Then the next morning I put the heated grips and cruise control to good use as I set out for home in a chilly dawn, after scraping the frost off the seat. I'll have more details after I've spent more time with the bike, but for now I can say the Versys has made a preliminary case that it can go up against those Euro bikes with their fancy suspenders.

riding the Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+
The Versys 1000 SE LT+ is still fun in the twisties, even though it's comfortable enough to take you long distances to get there. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The competition

Actually, when considering the competition, we have to start with the intramural lineup, as Kawasaki now has four legitimate entries in the sport-touring class: The Versys 1000, the Concours 14, the Ninja 1000 and the H2 SX SE. With the upgrades to the Versys, it's clear Kawasaki is now positioning that bike as the leader of its sport-touring line. Meanwhile, the Ninja 1000, with the same engine and saddlebags as the Versys offers an alternative for the sport bike rider looking for something more comfortable and travel-capable while the H2 is for the big spenders who love the exclusivity of a supercharged bike with bags. Kawasaki keeps making the Concours, which has not been significantly updated for years, because the R&D is long paid for and model has its fans, particularly among those who insist on shaft drive for a touring bike.

"The people who love the Connie will never go away from the Connie," said Puetz. "It's a lot like the KLR650 that way."

Of course the unspoken half is that there's no 2019 KLR650 on the Kawasaki web site. As popular and long-lived as models like the Concours and KLR are, nothing lives forever. Kawasaki has already had four sport-touring bikes in the lineup longer than I expected, and it will be interesting to see how long that continues.

riding the Versys 1000 SE LT+
Cruising through Jerome, Arizona. The Versys 1000 SE LT+ is made for getting out and seeing the world. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The most obvious direct competitor for the old Versys 1000 LT was the Yamaha Tracer GT — both street bikes rolling on 17-inch tires but with a bit of the upright, adventure-bike stance and carrying factory luggage at an affordable price point. With the added electronics, the Versys now competes more directly with the Yamaha FJR1300ES, the version of Yamaha's long-popular sport-tourer with electronic suspension adjustment. The two bikes even have exactly the same price.

But the Kawasaki is also now poised to compete directly with the BMW and Ducati mentioned at the beginning, both of which cost more when similarly equipped, even after the Versys' $5,000 price bump. While Europe will also get a base model Versys 1000 like the 2018, without the new electronics, only the SE LT+ will be imported into the U.S. market.

In other words, Kawasaki USA is putting all its chips on the new SE LT+ as its flagship sport-touring bike. The changes take a motorcycle known for giving you a lot for your money and turn it into a motorcycle that is far more sophisticated, and demands some more of your money in return. It will be interesting to see how the Versys SE LT+ fits in with the new neighbors.

2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+
Price (MSRP) $17,999
Engine Type Liquid-cooled inline four, four valves per cylinder
Displacement 1,043 cc
Bore x stroke 77 mm x 56 mm
Compression ratio 10.3:1
Torque 75.2 foot/pounds @ 7,500 rpm
Transmission Six gears, Kawasaki Quick Shifter (KQS), chain final drive
Front suspension 43 mm inverted fork, electronic adjustment for rebound and compression damping, manual adjustment for spring preload; 5.9 inches of travel
Rear Suspension Single shock, electronic adjustment for rebound and compression damping and preload; 5.9 inches of travel
Front Brake Two 310 mm discs, four-piston calipers, ABS
Rear Brake Single 250 mm disc, single-piston caliper, ABS
Tires front/rear 120/70ZR17; 180/55ZR17
Steering head angle/trail 27 degrees/4.0 inches
Wheelbase 59.8 inches
Seat height 33.1 inches
Tank capacity 5.5 gallons
Curb weight 566.7 pounds (add approximately 20 pounds for saddlebags and handguards)