2016 Kawasaki Versys 1000 LT
The Sport-Naked Goes Sport-Commuter
Sadly, the entire Versys line is new to this guy. I've been severely distracted by the advent of dirt bikes that can both carry luggage and push the ton at the same time...off the pavement. It’s been out for some time, but I’ve been lost in my own world, so direct comparisons are my weakness at the moment. However, this might also be the perfect time for me to find out about it.
In 2008, the Versys 650 started Kawasaki's trend of upright standards with sportbike-inspired performance. Basically, fast bikes that are both comfortable and can carry more gear than a bottle of water and your registration paperwork under the saddle. The line gained a larger sibling in 2012, carrying the same 1043cc inline-four you see here today—but only in Europe. It took a few years of whinging to get it to US shores in 2015, and here we stand today with the 2016 Versys 1000 LT. While the 650 comes in two trims, the 1000 only comes in the one ‘light tour’ edition.
Falling squarely between the Sport and Touring bikes offered on the maker's website, the Versys serves to fill a well-priced niche between less-than-comfortable sporting bikes like the Z1000 for touring and the Concours 14, a fifteen thousand dollar (and up) supersport tourer. This bike may be serving a small demographic, but perhaps one that needed to be addressed during these economic times. But can the 1000 deliver what a rider wants from the 1400 at nearly $3,000 less?
It’s Friday night, and I’m charging through the San Fernando Valley (more commonly known—and hated—as "The Valley" in Los Angeles), charging through rush hour traffic on a relatively big BMW R1200GS with freshly mounted and recently tested Michelin Anakee Wilds. Traction and traffic both weigh heavily on my mind. Home is my destination tonight, but a stop at RideApart HQ brings me a change of machinery and a whole different experience.
For the next week, I would ride the Kawasaki Versys 1000 LT (virtually unchanged from the 2015 model) and so I stopped to swap bikes. The post-swap journey was rather humorous, if not exactly exciting.
Swinging a leg over the saddle (at 33.1-inches) and picking the bike off the side stand, I nearly toss the relatively light bike to the ground. I’ve grown used to humping the GS upright in the last few weeks, pulling a top-heavy beast off its sidestand. Jim Downs and I laugh at the differences, then I spark the liquid-cooled inline four alive and make my way towards the freeway. I continued to laugh inside my helmet. Beyond the weight difference between these two bikes (the LT is roughly 550 pounds wet), there are a few operational differences between the Japanese bike and the Bavarian that made for few embarrassing moments (if I cared that much to consider the cagers I’m whizzing pass).
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Navigating my way through the city, left-right, left-right, the bike is making more sound than it should. And it’s not the chain drive. That’s purely my fault, however, as the 2012 BMW is of the generation with individual turn signals (a la Harley-Davidson). And while attempting to weave my way through the lanes and interactions, I’m continually rousting the horn and the starter switches instead of the blinkers...oops. Beep-grind, beep-grind, I quickly realize I need to update my brain. I’m riding in the future again!
Minutes later, while keeping a keen eye on the full face helmet-capable saddlebags in the mirror, I’m now buzzing along to my usual vibrations. This time that feeling comes with a heavy wind in my face, and nearly a performance award from the city police, as I realize I’m ripping through rush hour traffic at over 90 miles per hour. Oops again. Good thing it’s late and time to rest. I need to come at this bike with a fresh mind and ride it right, tomorrow shall be that day!
Being a short loan, and already Saturday, I packed up some gear and set off immediately for a weekend get-away — a light tour for the LT. But as only a motorcycle photographer does, even a single overnight ride includes two full saddlebags and a waterproof duffle strapped across the pillion pad, which is better for testing the suspension I suppose. Loaded and rolling north, I make my way from LA to Ojai, up and over the passes on Route 33 to 166 where I turn west. I circle back to LA again along some newly explored roads as well as some old favorites. Two days, 400 miles and a handful of notes in my head.
While preparing to camp that night, I had intended to charge my personal electronic devices from the motorcycle. Unfortunately, come sunlight, I realize that the pair of port-sized contours built into the dash are NOT in fact 12V ports. Strike one for a "touring" mount, even one of light duty intent. Everybody needs to charge something these days — cell phones or GPS units, at a minimum. Luckily, I have a solar panel in my bags, and no, I’m not joking. I’ve got a kitchen sink too!
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The first eighty miles were alive and raised my heart rate in the best of ways. The smooth and powerful liter-class engine pushed me along at any speed I wanted, and always had more to give. Short-shifting my way around the city, it’s a quick trip through the feather-light adjustable levers (both clutch and brake) to 6th gear. Thanks to the width of the torque band, I could tip-toe my way around slow traffic as well as rip along at top speed all in the same gear. It’s quite easy to forget what gear you might be in, and without an indicator on the dash, you just have to guess.
On the highway, the LT enjoys cruising along at 80, with its own heart rate calmly hovering around 5,000 rpm on the analog needle — nearly 1/3 its total range. The Versys redlines at 10,000-rpm and is reserved for the more exciting roads.
Though the LT’s power peak falls short of the Z1000 or the sportier-tuned Ninja 1000 siblings, it's that state of tune that affords such manageable, touring-friendly low-end torque — down where a load bike wants it. If you’re looking for top-speed touring, you might be better served by the Concours.
Despite the Versys’ key intent as a comfortable and sporty commuter — with the legs of a touring rig —sometimes we just want to rip around the canyons with a drooling smile, like on any given weekend. And, incidentally, that’s exactly what I did. Luckily, it was already late in the day on Saturday, and I found nothing but empty roads to shred on my way over the hill. The standard ABS kept me correct on a few occasions, but the 3-position KTRAC (traction control; plus off) took a little more effort to put to the test. The Bridgestone tires put in a valiant effort and made me work to break their grip of the pavement. Sans any rainfall, I had to whack open the throttle on the dirty shoulder of the road in order to see that light flicker on the dash.
Regardless of the road grade, the 43mm Kayaba fork (5.9 inches travel) and rear shock (same travel as front) are adjustable for rebound damping and spring preload (plus a handy remote adjuster) and eat up just about everything thrown at it. Such comfort comes at a price, however. And until you fine tune the suspension to your own weight and carry loads, you’ll be taking some deep dives in the corner on your more spirited rides, or perfecting your trail-braking techniques.
At those speeds, and in a late spring’s evening chill, one might be tempted to dip down from the upright riding position and hide behind the tool-free adjustable windscreen for the last few miles (or hours). But you’ll need to wait for the fuel stop or make your own pit stop to adjust it manually. Surely, there’s an engineering benefit to the way the adjustments work — being on the outside of the screen — but it doesn’t make sense for operator use. While it can be done at a full stop from the saddle, it’s better to have one of the pit crew undo the locking knobs and raise or lower the screen those few inches (sternum to chin height). Taller riders like Jim found that lowering the shield a "little bit” relieved the buffeting he was finding on his first ride. I, however, found no problem with it in any position, but I’m 5 to 6 inches shorten than that man.
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When the road takes a turn, or a black cat takes a dive into the road, you’ll be happy to have a pair of 4-piston calipers biting down on a pair of 310mm petal rotors up front. Just remember the facts: Your major stopping power comes from the front. As there’s a huge difference between the single-pot single disc rear braking set up in the rear and the more-powerful front end set up, you might never even notice the rear brake at speed. The combination is more noticeable in slow speed, first gear kind of riding.
Making a Long Story Short
Having done my part to seek new roads, and new civilizations, in the back country between central California’s wine country and La-La Land, it was time to head home, which meant facing a slog. The sun had set on a glorious Sunday ride and I was still 150 miles out. As I zipped shut the last open vent at the highway’s edge, I was soon to find more disappointment than just the end of all the fun.
I clicked into top gear and pegged for the ladder (and latter) portion of the ride (the fun stuff being the chutes), and this is when I finally realized there’s no cruise control on the LT. Hmmmm...and when the marine fog began to set in close to home, I longed for a heated grip switch (along with the grips, thank you) and a more comfortable saddle. Luckily, I had dual sport-style hard guards to block the wind. The tilted, race-bred saddle design wasn’t a bother at all for the first 300 miles, but after sitting on it for two straight hours, I began to feel the edges of the narrowest part...slide back and throttle on! For the real road warriors out there, you have the Concours 14 in the catalog for a $2,500 premium.
All told, the LT is consistent if nothing else, either hammering the throttle or feathering it, city miles or highway, the MPG remained nearly constant at 42 mpg, sipping from a 5.5 gallon tank for a range easily over 200 miles. I never ran it fully dry in the week I rode it...but came close.
Back at home, and making that slog back and forth to the office over the next week, I found the LT's light and docile demeanor pleasing to both me and the traffic around me. Lane sharing was a breeze without the 28-liter (each) saddlebags mounted. Although they’re handy for carrying stuff and storing your helmet, and easily removable with the same key you use for the ignition. The bags cannot be run unlocked, by the way. An accessory 47-liter top case might serve the California workers a little more appropriately.
Compared to the rest of the middleweight sport-tourer market, the LT parallels the Yamaha FJ-09 in so many ways, yet they have their differences. As a smaller, 847cc incline-triple with less curb weight, a gear position indicator and the option for heated grips, the FJ also comes at a higher price and doesn’t include the luggage. The Suzuki V-Strom 1000 makes for an even closer match in price, engine size (yet a v-twin) and nearly every other spec, but falls short on horsepower.
Some want to compare the LT to the Aprilia Caponord (a 1200cc bike) or the Ducati Multistrada (another 1200), but if money is no object to you, the BMW S1000XR is closer by style, size and design. However, it costs far more than the LT and carries more technology in its dashboard than does the Kawasaki in the entire bike. Frankly, it’s a comparison between apples and steaks. If you have the means, by all means go for the European offerings, but many others buy what they can afford — or close too it. The Versys is priced right for the market, and comes at the right time.
The LT is loaded with amenities (color-matched luggage, center stand, adjustable windscreen and ride modes) and has an MSRP of $12,999. It’s available in the divisive, brand-aware candy lime green and the sleek and sexy metallic spark black.