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Common Tread

Versys: Flagship?

Sep 20, 2019

When Lance turned over the keys to the Versys, he casually mentioned that it’s Team Green’s new flagship.

That made me scratch my head, so I emailed our Kawi factory rep about the positioning of the motorcycle, and he wrote back, “The updated Versys 1000 is the flagship, yes sir!“ That’s an interesting take. I mean, that just wasn’t the word I thought I would hear.

Quick, what’s Samsung’s flagship cell phone? The Galaxy, right? Regardless of the version, it’s always their phone with the biggest screen, the fastest processor, the most storage, the best camera. It is a mirroring of what a literal flagship actually is — the first, largest, most heavily armed, or best known vessel, according to Wikipedia. Or maybe it’s the vessel with all, rather than one, of those attributes.

But that’s not the new Versys.

In years gone by, flagship motorcycles were pretty easy to identify. They were big, fast, heavy, and luxurious. Honda’s Gold Wing comes to mind. So does a Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic. BMW still cranks out the K 1600 GTL.

The Versys does not have the highest price tag, the most power, the lightest (or heaviest) weight (depending on which side of that equation you see as favorable). After a few thousand miles in the saddle, it is, so far as I can tell, a jack of all trades and master of none.

Shaft closeup
Shaft drive is a pretty premium feature. Maybe the Concours is the flagship? Kawasaki photo.

Maybe things in motorcycling are moving to the middle, rather than the extremes. Is my understanding of a flagship outmoded? I mean, in order to gauge the bike, I have to compare it to something, but what? As Lance pointed out in his review, there’s competition on the sales floor from other green bikes, and also a few from other manufacturers.

Super charged
Hmm. You sure don't see that every day. Kawasaki photo.

What about the Ninja H2 SX SE+? With a price tag of $25k and a supercharger, I could easily see myself thinking that was the top dog. It’s got a full suite of electronic gizmos (rider modes, quick shifter, electronic suspension and a whole host of other rider aids), self-healing paint, and a set of Brembo-branded calipers on the front. Confusingly, on Kaw’s website right now, this motorcycle lives under their street/track section, and a sub-section from there files it under “Hypersport.” Be that as it may... it comes with bags.

What about the Concours? Though technically it’s a “Concours 14” by moniker, most buyers are likely to remember the model name than the displacement, probably because of the 33 straight model years a bike with that name has been selling. Concours has the largest displacement of the green sport-touring machines, with variable valve timing. It boasts a shaft drive, keyless ignition, rider-variable front-to-rear brake force selection on the linked brakes, and an electric windshield.

Fairing lowers. I mean, on a full tourer, I do sort of expect to see fairing lowers. Kawasaki photo.

And, I mean, the name is concours, for the love of Pete. So classy. 

The next competitor is also a Kawasaki: the Ninja 1000. At $12,199, the price does not scream “flagship” to me, but it has quite a few gizmos on it. Kawi’s site calls out the fact that this motorcycle uses their “most advanced rider aid electronics” — very similar, if not the same, as many of those found on the Versys 1000 SE LT+. And that same copy emphasizes the two-up touring capability specifically, and then the spec page says the bike is “The ultimate sport-tourer.” 

Ninja 1000 2-up
So the "ultimate sport tourer" is not the flagship? Kawasaki photo.

The Versys 1000 SE LT+ I’ve been riding for the past 5,000 miles is very much smack dab in the middle of these motorcycles. V1KSELT+ (let’s make that a thing) is packing electronic suspension, self-healing paint, and full LED lights. There’s cruise control! Standard heated grips! It’s got a TFT dash.

Cornering lamps
Oh, and adaptive cornering lamps on the Versys, too? You fancy! Kawasaki photo.

At 567 pounds, it falls between the Ninja 1000 (516 pounds) and the H2 SX SE+ (577). The Concours 14 (690) is the heaviest. If we believe Kawasaki Europe’s horsepower figures to be similar or the same, since they’re unreleased in America, the Z1000 SX (equivalent to our Ninja 1000) has 140 horsepower. The H2 SX SE+ and the Concours both pack 197 ponies, and the Versys is equipped with just 118 horsepower.

But it has no Brembos, just unbranded calipers. And it doesn’t have a power windshield, just a manually adjusted one with two knobs like some sort of commoner would use. (In the interest of being objective, I far prefer this. Who the hell wants one more motor to break? How often are you adjusting your shield?!) There’s no shaft drive. (That would probably send the weight into the stratosphere).

1st gen Versys
If Lance or I ever expressed interest in purchasing a motorcycle, it's a good bet it was inexpensive and probably wholly unpopular with... well, pretty much everyone else. We both liked the outgoing Versys. Photo by Scott Sorenson.

Versys 1.0 never seemed to catch on in the U.S.A. It was a very budget-conscious sport-tourer. In many ways, it was closer to the original Concours than the Concours 14, I think. Upon its refresh, the Connie was brought way uptown — to the point that what was then their budget bagger morphed into Kawasaki’s flagship (old definition) and likely influenced the fate of the Versys.

Due to that, I’d venture that of all the names of its internal competition, “Versys” is the one that might carry the least cachet, given that just last model year, the non-SE LT+ version, which had very similar mechanical underpinnings (but very few of the amenities), carried an MSRP that was a full $5,000 lower. I’d presume prestige is important to the person buying a flagship, and trying to convince people that a very similar-looking bike is suddenly a luxury item is likely a bit of a challenge. I mean, wasn’t that why Acura, Lexus, and Infiniti came into existence?

Kawasaki appears to be aiming at a few Euro competitors. Photo by Nik Wogen.

So how did this become the flagship? I’ve talked this over with Lance and Zito and some others. Lance says he thinks what Kawasaki is doing is using the term “flagship” to refer to the model they expect to sell best in that category. (If I was forced to pigeonhole this, it’s a hypertourer, I guess.) Lance says this is going to be a hot seller in Europe, and I agree. Its closest competition, the BMW S 1000 XR and Ducati Multistrada, are being developed right there, in fact.

The Versys is cheaper than those bikes, if they’re spec’d similarly. Is that the positioning, the economy-luxury option? Go Green, save green? The hypertourers acknowledge that no, the pilot will not be riding thousands of off-road miles in faraway continents and thus do not need knobby tires, 8.7-gallon fuel tank, or an Overland Expo sticker for the requisite aluminum panniers, nor do they need an engine of massive capacity or power.

Does “flagship” mean something else now?

When comparing the Kawi to the European competition, an uncomfortable fact quickly emerges: The S 1000 XR and Multistrada S are arguably not the flagships of their respective manufacturers. Is that changing?

The Versys is cheaper than the external competition, but also a bit less capable. And I think it's safe to say that the competitors are not considered flagship machines. Photo by Lemmy.

I think a flagship motorcycle may now be the most pragmatic motorcycle that’s also relatively luxurious. To wit, examine the GSA I was just poking fun at. The K 1300 GTL may be an Airstream on two wheels, but for many riders, it’s simply too much motorcycle, and thus, not the one to have. I had a ton of fun on the last GS we had; I’d probably select it over the K bike even if my cost was exactly the same on both machines. BMW is certainly selling more GSs than K bikes. Maybe that’s the flagship; I think that’s at very least a defensible argument.

Radio removal reflected in reduced remittance. Harley-Davidson photo.

Is that what a flagship motorcycle is in 2019? I mean, the latest iteration of the aforementioned Gold Wing has reduced carrying capacity. Harley introduced an Electra Glide Standard earlier this year, a feature-light faired tourer with a less intimidating hang tag. And doesn’t Harley move more Street Glides than Ultras?

Let’s face it: Motorcycles are expensive. To own one today in America is increasingly becoming a luxury. Fewer and fewer riders have less and less cash to burn on a motorcycle, it seems. Those who do are liable to demand increased bang for their bucks and would likely prefer something that is hugely capable, rather than hugely aspirational. That rider, savvy and well heeled enough to be considered elite, may well be the new upper crust rider the manufacturers wish to woo. Perhaps Kawasaki is on to something. Perhaps “conspicuous consumption” is out, and “conspicuous common sense” is in.

Versys studio
Brag-worthy? Debatable. Useful? Well, it has been for me. I'm riding the snot out of this motorcycle. If I amortized the cost of this over the mileage I'm riding, this price is not outlandish in the least. Kawasaki photo.

Thus far in my testing, I have found this Versys to be every bit the motorcycle a far larger machine might be, and maybe a bit more. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I can do without so much bulk (me or the bike, really), and this scooter has a lot more spring in its step than most straight touring machines, and yet it’s still tolerant of a lot more of my ultra-agro riding.

I think the Versys is actually the same as it ever was — a ton of bike for the money. It’s no longer inexpensive, but compared to the competition, it does still represent a pretty good value for the person what wants this particular (and particularly eclectic) blend of characteristics.

In light of what the cognoscenti are looking for, maybe then it’s fitting that this was the model chosen to become Kawasaki’s Vaunted One.