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Common Tread

2019 Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+ review: The 5,403-mile road to RevZilla

Jun 21, 2019

Some things you don't learn about a motorcycle until many miles or even years down the road.

Unfortunately, we usually write a first ride review of a new motorcycle based on a group ride of motorcycle media organized by the manufacturer, and those rides generally seem to be getting shorter, not longer. We can't do more than a superficial analysis based on one day of 130 miles of riding.

When Kawasaki introduced its significantly revised Versys 1000 SE LT+, it went against that current trend and gave us two days of riding through Arizona, totaling nearly 400 miles despite the required stops for photos and lunch. Even better, they let me keep one of the bikes for long-term testing.

All told, in the last 35 days I've ridden the Versys 5,403 miles, from sea level to 10,000 feet, from 25 degrees to 84 degrees, from hairpins snaking through the red rocks of Arizona to the lettered county roads of Wisconsin and the urban streets of Kansas City. And we're not done with it, because then I dropped it off in Philadelphia for further testing by Spurgeon and Lemmy, both of whom have more time on some of the Versys' competitors than I do. Who knows, we may even get Andy on something that has nearly double the displacement of the lightweights he normally favors.

traveling on the Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+
Some things you only learn about a motorcycle after spending some time and miles together. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Since my time with the Versys felt like one nearly non-stop tour, I decided to tell you about it that way. Here's what I learned on the road.

Tony Sedona and the road to Flagstaff

For 2019, Kawasaki moved the Versys upscale, giving it the full array of electronic rider aids and features, many of them handed down directly from the supercharged H2 SE SX sport-tourer: an IMU with lean-sensitive ABS and traction control, electronic suspension adjustment, cruise control, a quickshifter, cornering lights, a TFT dash and the ability to tune it all via your smartphone using Kawasaki's Rideology app. Kawasaki also added $5,000 to the price. I spent a lot of words on those new features in my first ride piece, so rather than repeat myself, I'll ask you to take a look at that article if you want more details.

As Lemmy always says, the motor is the only part of a motorcycle important enough to be in the name, so despite all the electronics, the 1,043 cc inline four still sets the tone for the Versys. It's essentially the same as in the previous Versys, with just a few minor changes. That's a good thing, in my book. From the start of our press launch ride in Scottsdale, Arizona, to the end the next day in Flagstaff, the big four just pulled smoothly at all rev ranges, even at power-sapping altitudes. Peak torque comes in at 7,500 rpm and that definitely feels like the strong spot on the analog tach that accompanies the fancy TFT display, but what I love about Kawasaki's non-Ninja fours is how they break the stereotype of a four-cylinder sport engine. You don't have to rev to 11,000 rpm to find the powerband. In fact, you can't. Redline is 10,000 rpm and you can roll on at 3,000 rpm and get satisfying results.

TFT display
The TFT display can be switched between two different displays and from a white background to a dark background. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Just as important, the fueling is nearly perfect on the Versys. After I posted my first ride article, one reader commented on how he'd been turned off to motorcycling by the frustrating experience of owning an expensive bike with a snatchy throttle. I sympathize. Surging, lurching and having to concentrate on being inhumanly smooth to try to avoid that jolt as you juuuuust barely crack open the throttle is a fun-sapping experience. Fortunately, Kawasaki got it right with this engine and, nearly as important, throttle response doesn't change when you switch ride modes, as happens on some bikes, which become twitchy in a "sport" setting. On the Kawasaki, modes affect power level, but not throttle response, so the latter is always the same and it's good.

Two days of trying to keep up with my motorcycle media colleagues and listening to their bad jokes during the tech presentations was as much fun as ever (read into that what you will). The 1927 Hassayampa Inn in Prescott was a neat old hotel and even the smallest plate I could order at the Mexican restaurant where we stopped for lunch in Sedona was a feast. But it was time to have the Versys to myself for days and miles to really get to know it.

Flagstaff, 5:40 a.m., 25 degrees

My body never shifted off Eastern time in the two days in Arizona, but since I had a long trip ahead of me, waking up at a ridiculous hour was actually convenient. By 5:40 a.m., the bike was packed in the hotel parking lot on the edge of Flagstaff and I was ready to start east as the horizon was brightening. One problem. The Versys' display read 25 degrees, up here at 6,900 feet. Frost decorated the seat. It was going to be a chilly dawn ride — perfect for testing some of the Versys' other new features.

frost on the Versys
No heated seat here. The Versys was frosty as I set out from Flagstaff, Arizona, just before sunrise. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Kawasaki made the fairing and manually adjustable windscreen both larger for 2019. In the morning cold, I was grateful for the extra coverage and I had the windscreen as high as it would go. Actually, in the two-day press ride, I'd discovered that I couldn't find a perfect position for the windscreen. Normally, I'd ride with it in the lowest position to get clean airflow over my helmet, but with my five-feet, 11-inch height, the lowest position had the wind hitting my helmet at eye level. The highest position put me almost in the calm bubble behind the screen. Almost, but not quite. If I were two inches shorter it would have been perfect.Neither end of the adjustment range worked perfectly for me, so if the bike were mine, I'd be interested in aftermarket alternatives. Riders of different heights and airflow preferences may have very different opinions.

Kawasaki Versys 1000 panniers
The panniers will hold my size medium Shoei helmet. Photo by Kevin Wing.

In addition to the larger fairing and windscreen, the Versys comes stock with plastic handguards and heated grips. With most heated grips, I rarely use the highest setting because they're too warm. With these, I used the highest setting most often and with temperatures in the 20s, I wished for a bit more heat. Fortunately, the handguards provide generous coverage, which helped. By the time I was rolling past Winslow, with old Jackson Browne tunes inevitably running through my head, it was warm enough I didn't care any more. One of the best parts of the day was just ahead.

Red rocks and rolling

It was graduation day at the local high school in Chinle, Arizona, and I had a chance to test the Versys' low-speed handling as I worked my way through the traffic and crowds of cheerful pedestrians flowing into the morning ceremony. Along with the precise fueling, the Kawasaki's slipper and assist clutch helps with such maneuvers. Clutch pull is incredibly light (something made very obvious to me when I got home and switched from the liter-size Versys to my old, eighth-liter Suzuki GN125 and couldn't believe how much heavier the clutch pull was on the older, smaller bike). At parking-lot speeds, the nearly 600-pound weight and tall stance of the Versys shows, but once underway the handling is excellent, as I'm about to be reminded.

Canyon de Chelly
A view from the rim of Canyon de Chelly. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Rolling out of Chinle, I soon arrived at Canyon de Chelly National Monument. I'd been to the Grand Canyon, but never Arizona's second most famous canyon. During the two-day press ride, we'd made a stop at the Montezuma Castle National Monument to see the amazing cliff dwellings there. Similar dwellings could be spotted in the walls of Canyon de Chelly and I imagined people spending their entire lives, many centuries ago, in this gorgeous spot, looking out their front doors to see soaring hawks at eye level. I wondered if they assumed the entire world was so beautiful and dramatic, never knowing how good they had it.

After gassing up in the crossroads of Lukachukai, I had the road to myself as it suddenly transitioned from arrow-straight after crossing the valley and began winding in a delightfully unpredictable fashion as it ascended the ridge ahead. Smooth pavement snaked between red rocks the size of small apartment buildings. The Versys also got a quickshifter for 2019, which seems like a non-essential feature to me, but it felt most appropriate and worked best when I picked up the pace, as I did when the curves started coming faster.

the road east of Lukachukai
Our Versys gets around: the red rocks of northeastern Arizona. The road got good right after this curve. Photo by Lance Oliver.

The Versys comes with four ride modes — Sport, Road, Rain and a customizable Rider setting — and clearly this is Sport territory. Sport and Road both provide full power while Rain mode provides 75 percent power. Sport and Road modes differ in the suspension and traction control settings. The Kawasaki Electronic Controlled Suspension (KECS) is perhaps the biggest of the many changes to the 2019 Versys. Sport sets the suspension at the firmest of the three settings, Road in the middle and Rain at the softest setting. There are also three levels of traction control (KTRC), with Sport set at 1, which allows more wheel slip for most aggressive riding, Road at 2 and Rain at 3, which does not allow any wheel slip. In the Rider mode, you can choose any level of KTRC (including off) and KECS settings you want.

The real trick of KECS, however, is that it adjusts on the fly, changing the damping in the 43 mm Showa cartridge fork and the Showa BFRC Lite rear shock instantaneously, based on speed and suspension action. A solenoid valve reacts in a millisecond to adjust the damping if, for example, sudden movement in the suspension suggests a sharp bump.

Kawasaki KECS
Electronics and a solenoid make the suspension adjustments. Kawasaki has a K acronym for all its features, so its electronic suspension is called KECS. Photo by Kevin Wing.

How does it work? For a nearly 600-pound sport-tourer that is comfortable enough to cross time zones, the Versys handles very well. The road over the ridge east of Lukachukai switches from sweepers to hairpins to esses in an unpredictable series as I rise and fall before entering the valley near the New Mexico border. The Sport setting feels firm but never harsh. The Versys line has been known for nimble handling but the SE LT+ with the electronic suspension is the best handling Versys yet.

Hours later, I'm climbing to the highest elevations of my trip in Carson National Forest in New Mexico. Up here around 10,000 feet, there are still no leaves on the trees in mid-May, snow covers about half the ground and temperatures linger near freezing, even in the afternoon. The road is riddled with cracks and heaves from harsh winters. Switching to Road mode (modes can be changed any time, as long as the throttle is closed) softens up the suspension enough to soak up the ripples and bumps better, but the bike never wallows. I feel like I can still make quick progress, which is a good thing in the middle of a 647.5-mile day of almost all two-lane riding.

The previous Versys, in its stock suspension settings, felt similar to Road mode on the new model, but with the old bike I would have had to stop alongside the road and get out the tool kit to create my own Sport settings. With KECS, I can do it on the fly, as many times per ride as desired.

KECS just plain works. My frugal side can't help but wonder about the durability and longevity of these systems, but they do work.

Taos to Raton: The little things

Stopping for gas and a late afternoon shot of coffee in Taos, I appreciate some of the little features on the Versys. The 33.1-inch seat height means I have to be careful not to scrape the panniers with my boots when dismounting, but one thing that makes life easier is the center stand, which comes stock. Putting the bike on the center stand at the gas station is surprisingly easy for a bike this size. It actually takes slightly more effort to get the Versys off the stand than on it.

helmet lock
I love the convenience of the key-operated helmet lock. I don't love the fact it's tucked deep between the pannier, frame and passenger foot peg. My Bully helmet lock extender solved that problem. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Down the street, I park around the corner from the coffee shop and use the key-operated helmet lock to secure my helmet. My size medium Shoei also fits in the pannier, but of course they're full. I'm old enough to remember when even modestly priced bikes had a center stand and a key-operated helmet lock. Thanks, Kawasaki.

And mirrors. How often do we complain about such a simple thing as mirrors? The ones on the Versys provide a great view of what's behind you, not an impressionistic, vibrating rendering of your elbows.

Leaving Taos, daylight is dimming and I'm riding more country two-lane, wondering about wildlife. Along with the fancy electronics, the Versys has another feature handed down from the H2 SX SE: the LED cornering lights, three on each side. They light up sequentially at 10, 20 and 30 degrees of lean angle. I'm taking it fairly easy, so the cornering lights aren't a big factor. Then I finally reach I-25 as darkness has fully fallen. Turning onto the onramp to the interstate, I instantly become a convert to cornering lights. You know how trucks kick dirt and gravel onto these ramps as they cut the corner? As I bank left, the lights in the fairing perfectly illuminate that potentially dirty, gravel-strewn pavement that would otherwise be in darkness. I wasn't sure if I'd like them, but I now consider these lights a feature that could mean the difference between a low-speed lowside and a non-event.

Kawasaki Versys 1000 SE LT+ cornering lights
I have been converted to the advantages of cornering lights. Not because I'm strafing corners at high speed in the dark, but because of the way they help even in low-speed urban maneuvers. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Moments later, I park at my motel in Raton, New Mexico. It's been nearly 14 hours and 647.5 miles since I left Flagstaff and I'm so tired I'm even happy to be bedding down in a town named for a rodent. Tomorrow will be longer yet, in terms of miles. But this was the kind of day I couldn't have pulled off on many motorcycles.

Morning in eastern Colorado
Our Versys gets around: Morning in eastern Colorado. Yes, I'm facing the wrong way. I turned around to get a better view of the sun on the mountains. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Wide open spaces and unintentionally scaring a driver in Kansas

Up again before dawn, I'm riding through the empty spaces of eastern Colorado as the morning sun lights up the snow-capped mountains I'm leaving behind. Pronghorn antelope scurry away from the road as I interrupt the Sunday morning silence. In 75 miles I pass five cars.

I keep coming back to the description I used in the first ride article, because I can't come up with a better one: The Versys 1000 SE LT+ is a fast bike that doesn't feel all that fast, because it just makes power across the rev range, with no drama. I cross most of Kansas on U.S. 50, rolling under hundreds of giant windmills. Somewhere out in farm country I pull out to pass a tractor-trailer. In the distance, I see the oncoming car slow and pull onto the shoulder, clearly worried about my approaching headlights. Sorry, anonymous Kansas driver. You had nothing to worry about, but I understand. If just about any car had attempted that pass, it would have been trouble. With the torque-anywhere power of the Versys' four-cylinder, I didn't even downshift from sixth and I was still back in my lane in plenty of time. Should I have downshifted? Probably. Did I have to? No.

Versys in Kansas City
Our Versys gets around: In Kansas City, I parked next to Mark Gardiner's first-generation Ducati Multistrada, arguably the first bike in this niche of high performance street bikes with a bit of ADV style and stature. Photo by Lance Oliver.

After a full day of unpopulated farmland and small towns, I roll into Kansas City in time to meet Common Tread contributor Mark Gardiner for dinner. Mark owns a 2007 Ducati Multistrada 1100S. In my opinion, the first-generation Multistrada invented the niche now occupied by the Versys 1000, the BMW S 1000 XR and KTM 1290 Super Duke R: big, powerful bikes with an upright ADV stance but with 17-inch tires meant purely for on-pavement performance. Local knowledge is a great thing, and Mark pulls off a masterful display. In a short amount of time, we snap photos of the two bikes, I fuel up the Versys and we fuel ourselves at a great neighborhood vegetarian restaurant before getting back on the highway to get out of the city so I won't have to deal with Kansas City traffic in the morning.

It was my longest day on the Versys, at 737.5 miles.

Missouri to Ohio: Seat time

Having done my sightseeing in the early part of the three-day homeward run from Arizona, where everything was new to me, day three was a simple matter of riding home through more familiar territory to Ohio on I-70, which passes less than a mile from my house. During long hours of slabbing it, a motorcyclist's thoughts tend to turn to the seat beneath.

The 2019 Versys seat is unchanged from the previous model. At 33.1 inches in height, I can just barely sort of get both feet flat on the ground if I stretch my 32-inch-inseam legs. Kawasaki offers a lower, narrower optional seat, but it is less than an inch lower and costs $469.95. As for comfort, the stock seat is firm and flat, which are good things, but I'll admit I was squirming at the end of those long days, when "firm" started to feel like "brick." I know some will complain about the forward slope, though it didn't bother me. (Seats are such a subjective thing.) Overall, the Versys seat is better than most.

world's largest rocking chair
Our Versys gets around: Stopping to see the world's largest rocking chair in Casey, Illinois. Photo by Lance Oliver.

After I got home, I took my wife on a 50-mile round-trip ride to dinner and she loved the new Versys just as much as she liked the old one. I think the passenger seat may actually be better than the rider's seat and the electronic suspension only helps smooth the ride. Since I felt the Sport and Road modes covered my solo riding well, I used the customizable Rider mode to set the bike up for leisurely two-up riding, with maximum traction control and a soft suspension setting. Plus, changing the rear preload with the push of a button is really convenient.

After resting up a few days from my three-day, 2,032.1-mile run home, it was time for my next trip on the Versys.

Controlling the cruise on U.S. 30 and other essentials

There's some great curvy-road riding in southeastern Ohio, but that's a long way from U.S. 30 in northwestern Ohio. Up there, 30 is flat, divided four-lane with minimal traffic and a 70 mph speed limit. In other words, it's perfect habitat for cruise control, and that's where I found myself as I rode to Road America to cover the MotoAmerica weekend of races.

Cruise control has never been a "must-have" feature on a sport-touring bike for me, but it is a deal-breaker for some riders. It was the first thing Kawasaki decided had to be included on the upscale Versys 1000.

Basically, it works fine, but a little short of perfectly. The only shortcoming shows up when you try to increase or reduce your set speed. For example, try to increase your cruise speed from 65 to 67 using the "up" button and the speed will drop about three mph and then slowly rise to the target speed you wanted. Or maybe to some other nearby speed that's almost what you wanted. I found that when I wanted to change my cruise speed it was easier to cancel cruise control (tap either brake, pull the clutch lever or close the throttle) and reset it anew, rather than try to adjust it.

Aside from that complaint, the Versys now has the cruise control many sport-touring riders demand.

Versys at Road America
Our Versys gets around: Road America, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Photo by Lance Oliver.

Another feature some sport-touring riders insist on is a 200-mile range, and with mileage averaging in the low 40s and a 5.5-gallon tank, the Versys delivers there. My longest run between fill-ups was 232 miles through Illinois, when I knew gas was coming up ahead. One of the many options on the TFT display is fuel range, but it counts down until it gets to about 25 miles and then suddenly switches to "---". Wait! What happened to my 25 miles of range? I guess that's Kawasaki's way of scaring you into looking for gas right now!

Of course there are also those in the sport-touring crowd who insist on shaft drive or an electrically adjustable windscreen. The Versys will not win over those riders, though it does offer the center stand to ease chain maintenance and the windscreen can be adjusted in seconds (though you absolutely should stop to do it, as Kawasaki warns on one of its stickers).

In the time I had the Versys, I not only took those two long rides, but used it for my local transportation and a few shorter trips I needed to make. In that time, I put a total of six miles on my own motorcycles. It was time to share. And get a second opinion.

Philadelphia: Final thoughts on handing over the Versys

My last ride on the Versys was the familiar trip to ZLA World HQ in Philadelphia where I handed over the keys to Spurgeon and Lemmy. Maybe Lemmy will have the nerve to get the thing at a serious lean angle and whack open the throttle to see if the IMU and traction control really do save him from himself. It's a testing maneuver I can't seem to bring myself to try after so many years of cultivating saner habits and an attitude of self-preservation.

Lances hands off the keys of the Versys to Lemmy and Spurgeon
The official handoff of the Versys to the boys at HQ. Photo by Andy Greaser.

There are a few things readers always ask that I haven't covered yet. One is heat management. The one constant of my travels was below-average temperatures, so I never saw any real summer weather. The couple of times I was on the Versys in 80-something temperatures and sunshine, with the coolant temperature rising into the 200-plus range as I rode in traffic, I didn't feel any uncomfortable heat coming off the engine. The new fairing shrouds the engine and shields the rider well.

Cost is another issue, and not just the purchase price. The service schedule specifies oil changes at 7,600 miles and valve checks at 15,200 miles. Kawasaki also calls for 90 octane (R+M/2) fuel, which will cost you more than the regular combustible swill. And speaking of the purchase price, it's now exactly on par with the Yamaha FJR1300ES with similar electronic suspension but still significantly less than the European competition, when similarly equipped. The Versys is no longer the budget sport-tourer the previous model was. (That old model will be sold alongside the LT+ in Europe, but not offered in the United States.)

Lance on a Bridge
The only way to really get to know a motorcycle is to spend some time and miles with it. Photo by Kevin Wing.

The Versys came stock with Bridgestone Battlax T31 sport-touring tires, which suit the motorcycle well, and I was pleased to see the rear still had significant life in it after more than 5,000 miles, despite being somewhat flat-spotted from all the highway miles I had to do.

And then there's the question of longevity, which is one that can't be answered even by the 5,403 miles I put on the bike. Electronics don't really wear out, but there are moving parts involved in the electronic suspension.

By moving the Versys upscale in terms of price, features and complexity, Kawasaki has taken the gamble of placing it in a slightly different niche of the sport-touring spectrum. I can tell you from experience the Versys is plenty capable of covering miles. Now we'll see if it can win riders away from its new competition.

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)