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Midsize Urbane Adventurers - Honda NC700X vs. Kawasaki Versys 650 ABS vs. Suzuki V-St
Sure everybody wants the Open-class bike, the most power, the most expensive, the one with all the electronic stuff, just like everybody wants the trophy mate with the big cylinders. Then after youíve lived with them for a few years, the maintenance, the narcissism, the psychic wear and tear of constantly stoking the beastís ego and keeping up with the Joneses can get to be a drag.
There you are on yet another Tom Roderick-style Caribbean cruise, smoke pouring from the VISA card as you spring for more lobster and MoŽt et Chandon while trying hard to maintain that boyish witty veneer. When you finally break free to the shipís rail to sneak a desperately needed Marlboro Light, you spot a gray old couple in a rented rowboat with a box of cheap chardonnay and a White Castle bag, laughing deliriously and apparently having a much better time than you are.
These three motorcycles are nothing like that at all, really, but it was a fun coping exercise for me. Sorry. Letís get on with the road test.
The Kawasaki Versys 650 has long been on our short list of favorite bikes, and for 2015 itís received a thorough makeover, with svelte new bodywork including a height-adjustable windscreen, a new 5.5-gallon fuel tank and a roomier new ergonomic triangle. Power-wise, a little ECU retuning, a new exhaust and a bump in compression ratio to 10.8:1 are claimed to produce a little more high-rpm power. While the 649cc parallel-Twin is churning out all that nutrient-rich juice, the new Versys also gets a pair of rubber front engine mounts to go with the rear one it got in 2010, and the handlebars are now rubber-mounted as well. Our boy Sean wrote about all of it in his excellent First Ride last December.
And in this corner, in the blue trunks and wearing a surprised expression that appears to have absorbed many a punch, weighing in at exactly 20 pounds more and producing eight more horsepower, the Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS.
This one was last overhauled by Suzuki for the 2012 model year, when it received firmer suspension and a bunch of new engine pieces designed to reduce friction and boost its fuel efficiency by 10%. Happily, its 645cc 90-degree Twin makes substantially more power than the other two bikes here.
Rock not included.
Least like the other two but not at all in a bad way, the Honda NC700X arrived as a brand-new model for 2012, with an all-new long-stroke parallel-Twin that seems to focus more on maximum efficiency than high performance. The NCís available with Hondaís automatic DCT transmission (in a package that also gets ABS brakes for only $600 more), but for this comparison we opted for the manual 6-speed gearbox, which keeps the NCís weight down to less than the V-Stromís, and undercuts both bikes in price by a substantial chunk.
That would be suave, courteous and refined in manner Ė particularly in a big-city setting Ė which is of critical importance in our little Southern California corner of the world. To get to where the fun begins, youíre always going to have to soldier through where the work takes place. Which is also perversely fun on the right bike.
V-Strom 650 owners are a loyal bunch, and past tests of it on MO and elsewhere never fail to praise the bike for its great seat, smooth compliant ride and good weather protection. Itís a bike that excels when youíre riding it and donít have to look at it (though its dash remains the Wal-Martiest of the bunch). But this year, the worm has turned: With the Versysí new, bigger fairing and windscreen, its newfound legroom and its new buzz-kill rubber engine mounts, itís the Kawasaki that emerges on top of the ScoreCard in the Ergonomics/ Comfort category.
Parallel universe: Note the Versysí new rubber engine mounts (just northwest of the coolant hose), also new one-piece exhaust and the easy-to-get-to shock preload adjuster knob just above the spring.
Itís all relative: The V-Stromís 90-degree Twin used to feel so smooth rumbling there beneath you, but ridden alongside the Versysí new rubber-mounting system and the Hondaís low-revving long-stroke Twin, suddenly this V-Strom feels a bit busy at 80 miles per and 6500 rpm. The Versys is turning about the same rpm, but its vibes are now completely absent from grips, pegs and seat, and with fresh earplugs inside a nice Shoei, its cockpit is the quietest. With its 15mm lower/20mm forward new footpegs, everybody liked the Versys ergos the best even though its cushy seat is a bit narrower than the V-Stromís.
This time, the NC tied the V-Strom for second-most comfy. Even Terrible Tom Roderick, who normally has nothing but harsh words for the unassuming Honda, admits itís a superior city bike: ďRider ergonomics of the NC are the epitome of a neutral seating position. Thereís also plenty of legroom for taller folk, and a soft yet supportive seat upon which to sit. Itís a motorcycle you can truly, comfortably sit atop all day, not feeling worse for the wear when you dismount. When kept within the confines of each bikeís intended purpose, the NC700X is by far the best urban motorcycle of these three Ė perfect for the motorcyclist living in San Francisco without a car.Ē
Brilliant. The locking boot will contain a helmet or a 12-pack; 3.7 gallons of gas goes under the seat (and makes the NC feel light and controllable), which is enough for 200-plus mile range given the NCís awesome 60-plus mpg.
Iím going to have to ďamenĒ him on that. Any sort of adventure involves carrying things, and if you want to do that on either the Versys or the V-Strom, youíll be ponying up an extra $700 for the Versys LT, or over $10K for the V-Strom Adventure or the new V-Strom XT. The base NC700X Honda comes with storage right where the gas tank used to be, no extra charge. It doesnít hold as much as two saddlebags, but it also doesnít make the bike any wider, which can be a big deal if you live someplace as cheek-by-jowl as San Francisco. The NCís marsupial appendage is more convenient than selective memory when youíre running for office.
Nothing could be much simpler than loosening those two knobs to slide the Versysí windscreen up and down a few inches. Both hand levers are adjustable.
Okay, so these are more practical motorcycles than most, but just because youíre mature doesnít mean you shouldnít still be fun to ride Ö wait Ö The conventional wisdom says the V-Stromís 19-inch front wheel and Bridgestone Trail Wing tires are going to make it most ďoff-roadĒ worthy and most adventurous, for riders who want to recreate Long Way Round or whatever, but theyíre still cast wheels instead of spoked ones (the new V-Strom 650 XT ABS gets wire-spoked wheels, panniers and crash bars for $10,399), and now that Continental makes TKC-80s in 17-inch sizes too, the V-Stromís 19-in. front isnít such an advantage. Throw in that the Versys weighs 20 pounds less than the V-Strom, and thereís really no reason why you couldnít go just as many ill-advised places on it. Or the NC for that matter, which also weighs 2 pounds less than the Suzuki, carries its weight really low, and has an even stonkier motor.
As for the MO crew, we have no time for Patagonia; Azusa is more our typical adventure, and for unravelling our favorite two-lanes up in the San Gabriels, the new Versys again carries the day. The V-Strom makes more power and torque, but all three of us liked the Versysí engine better anyway, and the Versys blows the V-Strom out of the water in the Handling portion on the official MO ScoreCard Ė also Suspension and Brakes. Whatís going on really is that the Versysí chassis is so buttoned-down and communicative, it encourages you to twist the throttle earlier and longer Ė and the tighter the road, the easier it is for whoeverís on the Versys to open a gap.
In fact the V-Strom peaks with 8 whole hp more than the Versys (and 15 more than the NC), but its plusher suspension and skinnier front tire donít give it quite the confidence on pavement; off it, the roles are reversed. Tom says: ďThe larger front hoop of the `Strom (coupled with a wheelbase longer than the other two) makes for a comparably slower steering bike when being measured for its sportiness. This disadvantage on the street turns into an asset as soon as you leave the pavement. For riders who prefer stability over agility, the Strom is the bike of choice among this trio.Ē
The NC signs off early, but itís doing good work at only 2500 rpm. None of these bikes are horsepower monsters, but all of them seem to have all you need about 99% of the time in the non-virtual adult world.
Trizzle agrees, saying, ďwhile Burnsie and Roderick were romping through the hills on the Honda and Kawi, I was having a tough time on the Strom trying to keep up, that large and skinny front tire not providing much confidence on pavement. However, if you want a bike thatíll tear up the twisties, what are you doing looking at the Strom, anyway?Ē
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