Soft-road runabout
THE GOOD
  • Spry and nimble handling
  • Excellent versatility
  • Solid little engine
THE BAD
  • Not cheap
  • High-strung at highway speeds
  • Suspension too stiff for proper soft-roads

Small adventure bikes are intent on invading Canadian soil this year, with the 2017 Kawasaki Versys-X 300 one of the front runners in the race to market.

The diminutive soft-roader exists for the small-bike enthusiast who is also a sport-touring/soft-road wanderer. Those who like the idea of a nimble and easy-to-ride rig for city commuting, but who also want to go look at colourful rocks and pretty trees on the weekends. Preferably with some gravelly roads for added challenge and bonus fun times.

A soggy bottom does not a happy Jacob make.  

At $6,399 MSRP the little Versys-X is a relatively affordable entry point to Kawasaki’s Versys family, which includes this 300, a 650 and a 1,000cc offering.

To help get you where you’re going, a 39 hp/20 lb-ft 300cc parallel twin engine, shared with the Kawasaki Ninja 300, is mounted in the backbone frame. The little 300 is high-strung at highway speeds thanks in part to a larger rear sprocket used in this iteration. That larger rear sprocket helps transmit the power to the ground on loose surfaces, helping throttle steer the bike when conditions are less than ideal. 

In addition to the taller sprocket, the engine has a good amount of usable torque and shuttles the little Kawasaki up to speed quicker than you might expect. Sure this is a small bike – but it’s no baby.

An Assist and Slipper clutch uses two cams, one to make the clutch lighter and easier to use when pulling the lever, and the other to open the clutch and prevent compression lock-up on downshifts. The clutch is innovative but I found the assistance too much, making the clutch lever feel vague and making the clutch bite point too much of a mystery. In addition, on the tester I had, the bite point was a long way out from the handlebar, making it difficult to consistently launch the Versys-X. That second gripe could be fixed with an adjustment to the lever.

The 19-inch front and 17-inch rear spoked wheels offer some ruggedness off-road and the Versys-X boasts a respectable 148 mm of rear travel and 130 mm of travel from the 40 mm forks up front. The suspension is compliant and comfortable on paved roads and gives good communication on muddy and gravelly roads. But be warned: Big bumps and dips will be too much for the Versys-X’s suspension which is tuned to pavement-ready stiffness levels. Be prepared to use some body English to maintain composure when you hit the whoops and ruts on your favourite logging road. Ground clearance is a healthy 180 mm.

The 815 mm seat height fit me well, and taller riders can opt for an optional seat that is 25 mm taller. The stock seat is wide and supportive but riding in rain I discovered that water pools heavily in the back of the seat, right where my backside wants to be. A soggy bottom does not a happy Jacob make.

Nimble and light to wield, the Kawasaki is a good option for city commuters too, scything through traffic with consummate ease. Despite being a generally tall bike I found the Versys comfortable at low speeds, and in stop-and-go traffic was able to keep the thing upright without having to paddle my feet. It is decently balanced for what it is.  

The 175 kg Versys responds well to peg pressure for steering, and it’s worth noting that those pegs are well padded with rubber – this helps with on-road comfort and isolates the rider from buzzing and vibration. There are some who will swap those out for an aggressively toothed off-road peg for better grip but the rubberized peg is a better fit for this bike’s mission.

There’s a round blanker in the instrument panel where the optional DC power output can go, and Kawasaki offers a host of options to turn the Versys into a road-trip warrior. Things like hand guards, the panniers, an engine guard, LED auxiliary lighting and even an optional centre stand.

Our tester’s panniers were missing from the bike when we picked it up, but they improve the visual impact of the bike substantially, as well as turning it into a proper road-trip ready rig.

Kawasaki is direct in their sales materials here, explaining clearly that the Versys-X is a soft-roader, not an off-roader. The all-purpose rubber should make that clear enough too. Essentially, the Versys-X is a road bike with some handy soft-road capability built in.

It’s a bike for those of you who love the beaten track, but enjoy the occasional dalliance with the murkier side roads that run alongside it.  

Specifications

Engine Displacement 300 cc   Model Tested 2017 Kawasaki Versys-X 300
Engine Cylinders 2   Base Price $6,399
Peak Horsepower 39 hp   A/C Tax N/A
Peak Torque 20 lb-ft   Destination Fee TBD
Fuel Economy N/A   Price as Tested $6,399
Cargo Space N/A  
Optional Equipment
None