Two bikes take to the California desert and mountains, but only one will prevail.
The 134-foot tall thermometer in Baker, California reads 106 degrees, and the sweat-swamp I’m cocooned in tells me it’s right (that and the road tar snakes are becoming increasingly gooey and my face feels like it’s been shoved into a convection oven). Earlier that morning, we’d rolled out of Santa Ana, headed to Death Valley by way of Joshua Tree. We’re here at the hottest point in the day. We gas up our bikes and I quickly swallow two quarts of water: with two hours of riding before hitting our Furnace Creek lodging, I figured it best to give my body something to baste itself with.
The Kawasaki Versys 650 LT I’m riding is a lithe machine. Noticeably more so than its bigger, 1000cc-powered, brother up ahead, but more on that later. Now in its third generation in just eight years, the Versys family has undergone a complete redesign. Most notably, the new bike has ditched all of its previous ADV styling cues in favor of a more sporting look. Thankfully the redux included losing those polarizing double-stacked headlights — in my eyes they always gave the Versys a confused face — which have been swapped for a superbike-esque, side-by-side arrangement. The new treatment does both bikes better justice. It clarifies intent: the Versys is a road warrior.
The fluids I took on in Baker vaporize before we even hit Death Valley. I lift my left hand off from behind the guards to stretch fingers and it feels like I put it in front of an F-16’s afterburner. I open my visor and my eyeballs boil. But unlike me, the Versys isn’t phased by the conditions. It’s comfortably thrumming along at 85 mph, with only a touch of buzz coming through the controls and its temperature gauge sitting pretty.
At higher speeds, the 650 LT is an easy bike to enjoy.
The 649cc parallel-twin-engine powering the smaller Versys is the very same from the Vulcan S and Ninja 650. It’s a well-balanced, proven power plant with a smooth and linear delivery. The only time it disappoints is precisely at the legal limit — the vibration coming through the bars at 65 mph makes arms tingle in minutes — so when you push a little harder you’re rewarded with comfort. At higher speeds, the 650 LT is an easy bike to enjoy. The upright ergonomics keep weight low in the saddle and the shoulder-width bars feel perfectly placed. Initiating corners is effortless and the bike falls into its own the tighter and more twisty the road gets.
The temperature change between Furnace Creek and our initial climb near Pine Mountain is 50 degrees. I’m relieved, refreshed and instantly sharper in the saddle. We test the strength of throttle stops as much as the road, and some rain, allows. J41 is an amazing collection of contracted asphalt. Climbing, winding, twisting and dropping it gets more technical the deeper into Sequoia you go. Both the Versys 650 LT and 1000 LT are truly in their element here. The pavement is cracked, wet and heaving slightly in places, but the suspension does its job and keeps the rubber in line with intended paths so rider’s eyes can keep scanning ahead.
Before reaching Springville, we jump off the the main road and discover a lost highway. Its labelled as J37 on the map, but it’s barely a road at all. Sure, tarmac exists, but it seems like every corner — and there are a lot of them — has been scraped by a grader, leaving marbles and debris everywhere. They’re also all off-camber — undoubtedly designed to pitch overzealous riders into farmers’ fields. Our pace slows, but nothing changes: a dab of brakes, lean, roll on throttle and smile — lather, rinse, repeat. This alone is the main reason riders, especially newer ones, should make the move to this style of bike: they are infinitely forgiving and incredibly rewarding when pushed hard, either by you or the terrain.
CA Touring Done Right
After riding with the Aether team to beta test the Expedition prototypes through British Columbia, I knew their triple-layer Japanese nylon shells could take a beating. What I didn’t know was whether they would keep me cool while riding through Death Valley and warm when we hit Sequoia. The Expedition Jacket ($895) features two huge chest vents, full-length pit-to-torso zips, forearm vents and a half-body back vent: managing airflow was never an issue. Best of all, the shell itself is both breathable and waterproof which means there’s no need for added layers and bulk.
The Expedition Pants ($595) performed in an equally impressive fashion. Also constructed from a tri-layer nylon, the pants include built in stretch panels to make movements in and out of the saddle easy. They come equipped with D30 armor at the knees and hips and the most ingenious invention in riding gear I’ve experienced yet: crotch vents.
And then, after a day and a half, I make the switch from little brother to the Versys liter-bike variant. There are similarities, but the bigger bike feels more relaxed overall. The bars are wider to help maneuver its added heft, and the seat is softer. Wider 180-series rubber lines the rear wheel, indicating its added grunt. It takes no time on the road before I ask myself why Kawasaki waited so long to bring this bike stateside: it is fantastic. Unlike most familial lines, the engine geometry isn’t shared between both bikes. Instead of a bigger twin, the Versys 1000 LT is powered by the inline-four-cylinder engine that traditionally calls the Z1000 and Ninja 1000 home. It is a smooth mill with an unending stream of torque. It will eat interstates and wash them down with B-roads all day.
Between both bikes there weren’t many negatives.
Twisting through Sequoia’s Giant Forest before the tourist busses invade, the big Versys is a dream. Initially I’m running the bike up and down through its first four gears along the winding route, but eventually I leave it in third and try to enjoy the views. The engine has no problem lugging through tight 15 mph hairpins or winding out along the few straights. Much like on the 650, the ABS braking is unobtrusive and only steps in when needed. I test this out a few times, attempting to back the big bike into an apex, but sensors keep everything civilized and shiny-side-up. The Versys 1000 also features traction control and selectable rider modes and, despite not using a throttle-by-wire setup, the Kawi systems work like a charm.
Between both bikes there weren’t many negatives. The color-matched panniers were finicky and the adjustable windshield mounts weren’t accessible when on the move (one set vibrated loose and I thought I might lose the bolt altogether). The passenger grab handles, which solo riders traditionally use to strap down extra kit, were too stylized to be useful for anything other than hands. But that’s about it.
So the last question is: which bike? The 1000 is arguably a better bike; it has the rider aids, smoother, more powerful engine and more versatile 43mm front suspension set up. But the 650 was more fun. It felt more lively. I preferred that its shorter wheelbase, narrower rear tire, tighter handlebars and overall lighter curb weight gave it some extra “flickability”. It never suffered for speed, and consistently held its own. Great things do come in small packages; in this case, candy-lime-green ones.
Versys 650LT: $8,699Versys 1000LT: $12,799