When I’m asked for the perfect beginner’s bike, I’m torn, indecisive, elusive even. What do I think is the perfect beginner bike? Or, what do you want to hear me say is the perfect bike? Choosing a first motorcycle is a very slippery slope indeed. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a rookie rider talk him/herself into the latest GSX-R / R6 / CBR 1000 etc. as “the perfect beginner bike”, I’d be a very rich man indeed! The reality is; The quickest way to statistical irrelevance (serious injury) is choosing the wrong bike at the beginning of your motorcycle career, but thankfully the manufacturers have caught on to this and are starting to do something about it.
When I think back…waaaay back to when I first started riding, after I clear away the spilled tears of regret over what I’d do differently (hindsight is 20/20 they say), I consider the options of what was available to a newbie and I smile, those were good ol days. Somewhere between then and now, the two-stroke motorcycle was killed off, the insurance industry stopped supplying personal lubricant and proceeded to bend us over in a grievous manner, beginner bike quality and originality took a serious nosedive and somehow…. motorcycles lost their “cool” factor. That last nail in the potential coffin is what has the manufacturers lying awake at night in terror. Old timers are hanging up their helmets in record numbers these days, and until recently, new riders entering our sport were all but non-existent. As you can imagine, this caused some anxiety in the industry. Then some smarty pants at brand X had an epiphany; perhaps our entry level motorcycles really do suck!
So as previously mentioned, the manufacturers have caught on, and are trying to make motorcycles relevant again. Entry level bikes thankfully don’t look like an afterthought anymore, creative designs, and excellent fit and finish are no longer just reserved for the flagship lines; it’s a full-on renaissance! Now what do I think might be the perfect beginner bike? Still an ambiguous answer but at least there really are some fantastic choices available, here’s my two cents:
- The bike must fit YOU (Not a half-baked illusion that your brother’s, best friend’s, sister’s, baby daddy who’s cool because he rides brand X, says is perfect for you.)
- Ideally that bike should continue to fit you as your skills and confidence grow. No sense buying that sexy little 125cc because it looks cool, if it bores you by the end of summer and makes you want to sell it or worse, forget it at the back of a garage.
So now you’re probably saying, “where is he going with this?”, “I thought this was going to be a motorcycle review”. Well, stop rushing me, it’s coming. This elaborate lead in was setting the scene so to speak. What I’m trying to emphasize is that I really wasn’t expecting to be blown away by these three newbie bikes, but damn…apparently, we’ve come a long way!
The 2017 Kawasaki Ninja 650 ABS, Z650 ABS, and Versys 650 ABS LT, all share the same mechanical heart, a 649cc liquid cooled parallel twin that makes about 70 hp in all three versions. The same motor in all three bikes that are all intended for different riding/motorcycle styles. To say that I was skeptical is an understatement.
First thing that catches my eye with these new bikes, fit and finish. No big gaps, no cheapo plastics bits, switchgear and gauges look and feel premium, these things certainly look the part, good job Kawi this is starting to look promising! Then we get into some of the specs, nothing surprising here until…
it’s the number that gets my attention, 42 pounds (that’s 19 kg for the metric types), That’s how much weight they managed to remove from the Ninja, and that my friends is huge!
The Z650 is new this year but it is also heroically lighter than its spiritual predecessor, the ER-6N. My biggest question now? With the same engine, can Kawasaki really make these bikes different? Hell yes, they can, as it turns out! Even more surprising is with some gearing magic, this engine suits all three bikes beautifully. All 3 have more than adequate power, near perfect fuelling, and strong braking performance even at the limit when the ABS starts to suggest that you take it easy. They have enough power to get you into trouble, enough engineering to get you safely back out, and easy enough for even a newbie to ride.
So how did we test these bikes? Well…we sure weren’t kind to them, we rode em’ hard and put em’ away wet. More importantly our testers covered a wide range of body types. First there’s me, I’m more than slightly overweight and slightly more than average height, Trevor is the “tall skinny” type and Adam is shorter than us and much closer to “average” than he’d like to admit. Surprisingly, we mostly came to the same conclusions.
650 Versys ABS LT
Adam: “Tall, smooth and comfortable. Feels more powerful than it is, lots of room”
Bob: “Bike obviously much larger, makes engine feel more powerful. Comfortable and agile but needs proper setup to take advantage.”
Trevor: “Upright seating, great brakes, nice midrange pull through corners, great mirrors. Suspension needs proper setup”
Ninja 650 ABS
Adam: “Planted, makes good use of power through gearing, front feels a bit vague Compared to the others”
Bob: “Smooth, stable, planted but front end feels bulky. Good power and great intake sound.”
Trevor: “Good riding position and brakes, predictable handling but noticeable vibration in the grips”
Adam: “Narrow and light, flickable handling, gearing makes good use of power and torque but also makes some unwanted vibration. Cramped leg position but good shifting and Brakes.”
Bob: “Little hooligan machine! Gearing is short but makes great torque, tight cockpit, could use wider bars”
Trevor: “Great instrument cluster, super nimble and flickable, great low end and midrange pull. Needs wider bars.”
Three great examples from an industry that seems to have collectively realized that to sell motorcycles, someone had better be paying attention to the new riders. The old timers just aren’t writing the cheques anymore… but the newbies have mobile payment options! Let’s see if we can make this work.
Questions/comments, always welcome