Repurposing the Ninja 300 powerplant into a competent adventure-type bike proves to be a resounding success
Story by Jamie Elvidge
Photos by: Kevin Wing
Eating dirt is underrated, especially in the case of adventure riding. The fact my teeth are very well coated in red dust today simply means I can’t stop grinning. I’m riding full throttle up a rocky dirt road in ridiculously beautiful Utah with a pack of mates – certainly cause for glee – but what’s really behind the grin is the fact I’m having this much fun on a 300 cc adventure bike. What a great surprise.
Kawasaki has hit many marks with its all-new small-scale adventure bike, beginning with stature. It doesn’t feel like a small motorcycle, though it does feel extremely light and maneuverable. And it’s this combination of lightweight agility and upright roominess that sets a perfect stage for riders of any ability to utilize and enjoy the bike’s remarkable performance features.
The first Versys launched by Kawasaki was the 650, back in 2007. I was there for that introduction and remember the bike being positioned as a kind of multi-tool: a flexible platform for commuting, sport riding and light touring. The category of ADV, along with its swashbuckling fan base, was yet to ignite. Since its inception, the Versys line has added a 1,000 cc model and has evolved to offer improved engine characteristics, suspension and amenities such as ABS, though neither the 650 cc nor 1,000 cc version has been pitched directly to the ever-eager adventure crowd.
No One-Trick Pony
Kawasaki’s tag line for the 300 is “Any Road, Any Time,” and while the marketing department doesn’t go as far as to say the little chain-driven Versys is purposed for off-road use, it wouldn’t be a stretch. The 19-inch front and 17-inch rear spoked wheels and tubed tires alone tell the intention. It might not be the “Street Legal Dirt bike” Honda has brought to the entry-level ADV party in its CRF250L and new CRF250L Rally when it comes to roosting, but the Kawasaki does work quite well off pavement and will happily play Tonto to a larger ADV bike, no problem.
The Versys-X 300’s suspension is well balanced, with a 41 mm telescopic fork offering 130 mm of travel up front, and a Bottom-Link Uni-Trak gas-charged shock with adjustable preload and 147 mm of travel out back, just enough for some mild off-road antics. I’ve only had the fork bottom once during our dusty, fast-paced romp along some fairly rocky fire roads. Adding luggage and certainly adding a passenger might hasten some hits, but all in all, the Versys is a totally viable option for the type of on/off-road touring most would do with a much heavier, more traditional adventure bike, and way – way – easier to ride.
It’s also a featherweight champ in the full range of street settings, from urban commuting to canyon carving to legitimate long-distance touring. The liquid-cooled, eight-valve parallel-twin engine borrowed from the ultra-sporty Ninja 300 has been tuned to deliver strong low- and mid-range torque, which results in smooth, predictable power delivery at low speeds. And that power band is vast, spooling nicely just above idle and stretching taut all the way to a 12,000 rpm redline. Gear ratios encourage mid-range shifting, so achieving freeway speeds is surprisingly relaxed business. And when I say freeway speeds, I mean proactive speeds, not necessarily posted limits. Reaching and maintaining 125 km/h is quick and silky smooth, with the nicely balanced twin spinning comfortably right around 8,000 rpm.
Speeding for Research
At one point – strictly for the sake of research – I had my test unit flying across the high desert landscape at 164 km/h for a sustained period with the tach quivering against redline, and still the ride was remarkably smooth. The engine emits a manic hum and a high-frequency shiver can be felt…