September 25, 2018
Today's modern motorcycle adventure offerings are getting more complex. The latest open displacement bikes are bristling with sophisticated electronic rider aids, exotic motors with 100+ horse-power, and creature comforts typically found in luxury automobiles. These technological advancements found on many of the manufacturers' flagship models come with a hefty price tag and have made experiencing the freedom of adventure riding financially out of reach for many.
For those budget-conscious riders content to get out and explore the backcountry without electronic enhancements and mega horsepower, there is an alternative. Go rogue and embrace a "back to basics" attitude towards adventure riding. Simplifying things and lowering the costs could enable veterans and new riders alike to get their legitimate adrenaline fix by creating an affordable authentic adventure machine of their own. It is this "less is more" theory that motivated Wheels Afield to take an easily accessible small displacement bike platform designed for mainly on-road use and give it some key modifications to create a legit backcountry adventure mount.
Enter the 2018 Kawasaki Versys-X 300, a lightweight street-focused adventure bike aimed at the rider looking for something easy to handle on rides ranging from short city jaunts to long-distance treks but, alas, ultimately lacking legitimate off-road credentials. We're about to change that.
2018 Kawasaki Versys-X 300 Specs
- Engine: 296cc parallel twin
- Fuel System: DFI with twin 32mm throttle bodies
- Transmission/Drive: 6 speed/chain driven
- Suspension: 5.1 in. front, 5.8 in. rear
- Brakes: Single hydraulic disc front and rear
- Fuel Capacity: 4.5 gallons
- Ground Clearance: 7.1 in.
- Curb Weight (all fluids included): 385.9 lbs.
- MSRP: $5,699 (ABS equipped); $5,399 (Non-ABS equipped)
Best Foot Forward
Evidence of the little Versys's original street character are the brittle cast-aluminum foot pegs. These were never intended for the demands of true off-roading. At the time of the build, no heavy-duty pegs were available, so a set of cast-stainless-steel IMS KLR 650 pegs were machined to match the Versys peg mounts. The strength and additional grip in wet and muddy conditions were greatly appreciated.
A vital element to any adventure machine is the ability to securely carry all of your camping gear and tools/spares. A quick call to Tim Bernard at Happy Trails Motorcycle Products and a set of his ultra-strong, quick-release aluminum panniers and an SU side rack mounting system were on their way. Sturdy panniers are essential add-ons for any serious machine. Waterproof, lockable, and virtually indestructible, they'll ensure all of your gear arrives intact. You can even use one bag as a makeshift center stand for on-the-trail flat tire repairs.
The first order of business was to protect the vulnerable lower end of the engine from rocks and debris. Punching a hole in the cases is a sure way to bring a ride to a screeching, oily halt.
The Versys is a relatively new model, so aftermarket parts were going to be hard to find straight off the shelf. We lucked out. After researching the possible options, the T-Rex Racing aluminum skid plate was given the nod. With the bottom end protected, it was time to mitigate any potential tip-over damage to the plastic upper fairing area. Again, T-Rex Racing had nerf bars in stock. Both products easily bolted into place, requiring no major modifications. Confidence while traversing rocky terrain soared.
Rubber Side Down
The stock rubber had to go. They work well on pavement but were not even close to being acceptable for aggressive dirt work. A set of Shinko E-805 adventure tires were fitted to provide much-needed grip on the loose rock and sand sections we'd be encountering while still retaining civil street manners.
To bolster the cool factor, a Two Brothers Racing slip-on exhaust canister was bolted on. The canister allows the motor to breathe a little easier, and the exhaust note was crisp without being too loud.Ounce of Prevention
Stuff happens. When it does you'll be thankful to have a Warn winch handy. This compact unit is easy to use and generates huge cranking power. This equipment addition can extract your two-wheeled treasure from almost any unintentional trail detours.
After all, it has to look the part. The aluminum panniers were powder coated in metallic grey, and select plastic bodywork pieces were shipped off to Crusader Coating and Arms to be dipped in Realtree Edge camo to give the bike its own distinctive look.
The Kawasaki Versys-X 300's lack of high-end tech features actually becomes part of the charm of this small-bore escape vehicle. While the diminutive 296cc parallel twin power plant puts decent torque to the ground, it's a much different type of acceleration delivery than the typical larger-displacement adventure cycles. Gone are the days of using the low-end torque to light the rear tire up to help square off corners. Instead, this bike rewards momentum and yearns to be ridden in the upper regions of the rpm range. (Think of 8,000 rpm as the new idle.) Ride it like you stole it and you will be rewarded with surprisingly high speeds while the relatively low weight and unexpectedly compliant budget suspension and near-perfect 50/50 weight balance front to rear make it an absolute riot on fire roads.
The bike does have one unintentional rider aid; we dubbed it the "NO-HP traction control system." The motor lacks the horsepower to break the rear tire loose even on gravel roads. It's not ready to compete in the Paris to Dakar race just yet, but the smiles per gallon ratio is up there with bikes three times the price.
Another plus is the impressive miles-per-gallon numbers this little bike puts out. Aggressive riding kept us in the 50+ mpg zone, making the 4.5-gallon tank capable of delivering a fuel range of 200+ miles, critical to any serious long-distance riding. We went over 200 miles on a tank despite a couple of long 80-mph street sections thrown in.
One suggestion: If your riding itinerary has a heavy off-road focus, opt for the non-ABS model. While the ABS-equipped bike's braking system we tested worked flawlessly on pavement, the inability to lock the rear wheel on dirt led to some interesting moments during aggressive corner entry and steep descents. Here's a bonus: The non-ABS unit is $300 cheaper.