2020 Honda CB500X vs. Kawasaki Versys-X 300

Modified mini adventure bikes compared.

There’s something to be said about a simple machine making you focus on what’s important. We found ourselves less concerned with what ride mode we were in (the only one) and more immersed in the landscape.Spenser Robert

The world of modern adventure-touring motorcycles is expanding. What started decades ago as an odd mash-up of street and off-road capability has grown into a category that overshadows almost every other—and of course the expansion has been in more ways than one. Flagship ADV machines are positively massive, so much so that referring to a BMW R 1200 GS or Yamaha Super Ténéré as a small moon is basically just an overused joke. It’s no real surprise that along with the success of these flagship bikes has come an endless stream of satire and complaints that they’re simply too big, too complicated, and too expensive.

As dazzled as we are by the ultra-lux ADVs, there’s no doubt the upper crust of motorcycling has become an extreme. So for every one of you who has penned an angry letter or rolled your eyes at a 1,200cc “dirt bike” with electronic everything and a $16,000 price tag, there are these two machines before you: the Honda CB500X and Kawasaki Versys-X 300. They are simple, small, and can be had for less than $7,000. To get a feel for this awesomely accessible end of the adventure class we took these two machines for a long loop around Southern California. We tackled fast-flowing freeways, choppy back roads, city streets, and single-track trails to see how these two competitors have defined their segment.

Honda CB500X and Kawasaki Versys 300
A glorious sight to behold, two adventure machines at sunrise. Theoretically the Honda’s cast wheels hold it back off road, but we didn’t think it mattered at the speeds we were riding.Spenser Robert

First Thing’s First: Do They Have Enough Power?

When 850cc is rapidly becoming the norm in the “middleweight” ADV class, you may be wondering whether the Versys’ 296cc engine or the CB500X’s 471cc mill are going to be adequate for your globe-trotting adventures. Rest assured both engines will propel you down the highway or along a ridgetop trail, but know that they’ll do it with drastically different demeanors.

The Versys-X 300 uses the same engine that graced the Ninja 300, and its sportbike heritage is evidenced by the 12,750-rpm redline. Power is linear but not particularly abundant, which may help explain why Kawasaki geared the bike so low. The Versys will sling you down the highway at 75 mph, but its crankshaft will be turning a dizzying 9,000 rpm and you’ll be praying for a seventh gear. Dial it back to 60 mph and the bike feels less frenzied, gets better gas mileage (mid-50s versus mid-40s at 75 mph), and leaves you with a bit more roll-on power to use for passing.

Versys-X dash
It’s hard to see because of the dust, but the Versys-X is in sixth gear. Going 27 miles an hour. Top speed is close to 90 mph at around 11,500 rpm.Spenser Robert

If the Kawasaki’s engine is a frantic terrier, the Honda’s engine is a relaxed labrador. The 500X’s extra 175cc offers more acceleration and a higher top speed, but it’s the engine’s loping character that’s most appreciated. It’s happy to lug along in the dirt with plenty of low-end torque or trot along the highway at a few thousand rpm, all the while netting at least 50 mpg. If you intend to stack miles on your mini ADV, the Honda is a more suitable touring partner. And if it sounds like we’re throwing Kawasaki under the bus for not using the newer, 399cc Ninja 400 engine in the Versys-X, you would be right. But keep in mind that the Ninja 400 uses different chassis architecture so it’s not as simple for Kawasaki to upgrade the wee Versys as we would like to think.

Besides having entirely different characters, the biggest difference between these two engines is the feedback you get from the clutch lever. Kawasaki’s quest to lighten lever pull may have gone too far here, as it’s genuinely difficult to feel the engagement point of the clutch. That’s not a huge problem on the street, but off road, where clutch finesse is crucial, the Kawi’s weightless lever becomes oddly distracting and difficult to use.

twisty roads
On twisty roads, the Versys offers up quicker steering, likely due to its narrower tires. The CB is shod with a 160-series tire as stock, but our testbike had a chunky 170-series Bridgestone knobby.Spenser Robert

I’m Worried I Won’t Fit.

The size of these bikes is a topic where we’ve received lots of skepticism from big ’n’ tall riders, and this is another area where you can breathe easy. Like most ADVs these two bantamweights offer truly versatile and agreeable ergonomics. Both bikes have upright riding positions that are terrific for commuting or riding all day, and they each offer plenty of weather protection. A nod to Honda for making the CB500X’s windshield adjustable, which helped aerodynamics for our testers over 6 feet tall. The small accessory hand guards work well too, as long as you remember that wind is just about all they’ll be blocking.

Don’t fret the size of the ride. Whether you’re 5-foot-5 to 6-foot-5 you’re likely to find a nice, comfortable place to take a ride on either one of these bikes, and they’ll each get 200 miles on one tank of gas.Spenser Robert

The Honda has a noticeably softer seat, with a taller crown, which might feel good at first but in the end isn’t as wide or supportive as the Kawasaki’s. The handlebar feels a touch wider on the Honda, and rests a little closer to your lap. That would normally make the CB500X’s riding position feel more upright than Versys-X, but oddly the footpegs are a shade farther back. Overall, the Kawasaki’s ultra-neutral riding position was preferred, and the seat turned out to be more comfortable for our testers than some ADVs that sell for triple the price. Don’t take this as a damning review of the Honda’s ergos, we were just extra impressed with the little Kawi.

Which One Is Better In The Dirt?

These bikes’ off-road credentials are pretty basic, but their spec sheets cover the important stuff: Larger 19-inch front wheels roll over bumps better and suspension stroke is longer to cope with rough terrain. Wide handlebars offer leverage, while a few accessories and modifications (see caption) further the abilities of these bikes to keep exploring once the pavement ends. After all, isn’t that what riding an ADV bike is all about?

Honda CB500X
You meet the most aggressive people on a Honda. Errr, wait, that’s not right. It’s better off as a polite commuter, but if you ask the CB500X to get rowdy, it will.Spenser Robert

As soon as we ventured off road the Honda’s extra 50-or-so pounds were made apparent by the added effort it takes to maneuver the bike around bushes and ruts. Also evident is its firmer suspension, which is much less likely to bottom, and its stronger engine, which is content to chug along at a couple-thousand rpm. The tapered handlebar that rests so comfortably above your knees while seated on the freeway is a little too pulled back to be ideal while standing on the pegs off road, but rolling the bar forward in the handlebar clamps is a stopgap fix.

bike comparison
The Honda came with Bridgestone Adventurecross AX41 rubber, while the Kawasaki was shod with Shinko 804/805 Big Block knobbies. This wasn’t a tire test, but we much preferred the Shinkos—better on pavement and plenty rugged for the dirt.Spenser Robert

Meanwhile, the Kawasaki’s handlebar and footpegs are in the perfect position to post, and the bike feels nimble and accurate while picking along a single-track trail. The Versys 300’s low gearing helps adapt the engine for off-road work, but there’s no getting away from its lack of torque and the insane revs that accompany anything faster than a walking pace. On top of that, the super-light clutch makes it feel like you’re wearing two pairs of gloves when it comes to feeling the engagement point. Soft suspension aside, the Kawi’s only real drawback in the dirt is its powertrain, which probably wouldn’t seem so awkward if the Honda’s engine wasn’t so appropriate.

Kawasaki Versys 300
A little air under your wheels is always exciting! The smaller size of the CB500X and Versys-X 300 encourage you to get a little frisky while exploring off road.Spenser Robert

What Features Are There?

These little machines are pretty spartan. You won’t find electronic suspension, cruise control, adjustable seat height, ride modes, TFT displays, or many other nifty doodads that bikes have these days. Speaking of the dash, they take two different approaches, and it’ll be up to you which one you prefer. The Kawasaki uses a big analog tachometer and digital speedometer; both are nice and easy to read, and the gear position indicator is prominent. The other little pieces are sprinkled around—fuel and temp gauge, average/current fuel consumption, plus range, time, trip- and odometer—and easy enough to learn. By 2015 standards the Versys 300 dash is comprehensive, but compared to the Honda dash it’s basic and arguably a little bland. Honda’s CB500X was updated more recently and it shows. The dash is a slightly fancier LCD arrangement that shows all of the same data in a tidier manner and, apart from catching glare in certain angles of bright sunlight, is much more modern.

CB500X dash
Honda did a good job making the dash on the CB500X feel classy, but certain angles of light make it harder to see. Note the bottom hole in the windshield bracket, allowing it to be raised by a little over an inch and a half.Spenser Robert
CB500X right-side
A benefit of being a newer model is that the CB500X has all-LED lighting. The headlight is decent and the blinkers are really sharp.Spenser Robert

Aside from the cockpits, it has more quirks than features that we noticed on each bike. The CB500X appears to use the same kickstand as the CB500F and CBR500R sibling models, but the 19-inch front wheel makes it feel a little short in a sloping parking lot. Kawasaki uses a “positive neutral finder” in the transmission, meaning when you come to a stop in first gear the shifter can be lifted into neutral without any concern of accidentally selecting second gear. It can be a handy feature for new riders, but considering the insanely short gearing on the Versys 300 it can also be annoying for veterans. When it came to strapping luggage to the back of these bikes (a good test for any ADV), both machines did well but the Kawasaki’s rear rack really tickled our fancy; lots of tabs and hooks to attach rope or bungees.

What a handsome motorcycle! The Versys-X is the smallest machine in the three-model Versys family, and we’d wager its off-road capability makes it the most versatile of the bunch.Spenser Robert

Tell Me About The Accessories

Our two testbikes for this test came sprinkled with $1,500 or so in factory accessories (see image), which we figured was a perfect way to decide if and how someone would want to outfit one of these machines. And we learned a lot. For example, it’s annoying that the Kawasaki centerstand is $300, but it’s also the easiest centerstand to operate this side of a 50cc scooter. More to the point, foremost on the list of accessories that you’re most likely to want are saddlebags.

Motorcycle accessories
A breakdown of the accessories we had on our two testbikes. The Honda’s total was about $1,800 while the Kawasaki’s farkles came out to around $1,640.Spenser Robert

Honda’s option is fairly typical: 29-liter, clam-shell hard cases that can be keyed to the ignition and go on and off the bike via latches integrated into the luggage. No full-face helmet storage here, but the bags are a nice shape and the single clasp is wide and sturdy. Sadly, we can’t say the same for the Versys 300’s factory option, which on the surface seems like a nice combination of tidy packaging, waterproofness, and top-loading convenience. In practice they’re horribly flimsy, with cheap-feeling latches and the ammo-can shape basically kept us from putting anything useful in there aside from a tool kit or a pair of gloves. It also takes tools to remove them. For $500 you could get two sets of soft luggage from Ogio, Nelson-Rigg, or Givi. Or spend it all on a nice set of waterproof bags from Kriega, Giant Loop, or SW-Motech to name a few.

Honda accessory panniers
Honda’s accessory panniers are just like the CB500X—small, simple, and pleasing to use without ever feeling cheap. They’re also symmetrical because the 500X’s pipe doesn’t interfere with the right bag, so you get identical storage on both sides.Spenser Robert

Now we’ll take our gripes to Honda. The factory heated grips on the CB500X are an excellent option, but the user interface is maddening. A tap of the button on the left grip turns them on, and a tiny green LED blinks to let you know the juice is flowing. Three blinks means level three, two for level two, and a single blink for level one, which would make sense except that first of all the light is beneath where you have to put your thumb to turn them on. Not to mention when the bike is in motion you have to stare at the grip long enough to count LED blinks to make sure the setting is appropriate. Yes, we could have stopped every time we wanted to adjust the grips, but how about a red LED for hot, yellow for medium, and green for low? It’s a frustrating reality when otherwise the grips are nicely designed and toasty warm. Oh, and they’re 300 bucks.

Kawasaki ammo-can side cases
The Kawi’s ammo-can side cases get high marks for appearance and their top-loading design, but functionally they’re a disappointment. Lack of storage space and a very flimsy design are our chief complaints.Spenser Robert

The Kawasaki’s auxiliary fog lights are also a bit of a head scratcher. They’re good at low speed and increase visibility to cars, but they’re also huge and fairly expensive. The crashbar for the Versys 300 seems like a good investment if you think you might tip over, and a gaggle of options for LED fog lights that would throw more light and leave more cash in your wallet. Incidentally, the Honda’s crashbar caught our bike against a grass embankment on one occasion and seemed to work well, despite the rear mounts being bolted adjacent to the main engine bolt instead of straight through it. Overall, it’s a thumbs-up to the power outlets, hand guards, crashbars, and centerstands. The Honda luggage also gets a yes vote. Avoid the Versys-X 300 bags, and if you want fog lights or heated grips, just check the aftermarket offerings first.

Which One Should You Buy?

The pricing for these two is pretty simple, if you avoid the accessories. Neither of our machines had ABS, which makes the Kawasaki $5,499 and the Honda $6,699—add $300 to each for the ABS option. If saving $1,200 is important to you or the smaller size really matters, don’t hesitate to buy the Versys. It’s an awesome little machine, capable of almost any adventure, and truly excellent value for less than $6,000. If and when Kawasaki builds a Versys 400, it’s liable to hit a perfect balance of size, price, and performance.

The 19-inch front wheels and flat faces make these two look like proper adventure-touring bikes. Because they are. If you think the Versys’ rear sprocket looks big, you are correct; it is.Spenser Robert

In the end though, it’s hard to not recommend the Honda. In an article about the smaller, less expensive bikes in the ADV category we know it’s hypocritical to crown the heavier, more expensive bike the winner, but it’s simply a better machine for the activities that draw riders toward the class. From long-distance touring to reaching a remote campsite, you’re going to have a more enjoyable time on the CB500X. And it’s still a small, easy-to-manage bike that can be purchased for a reasonable price. With any luck the future in this category is more growth, not with more displacement in the engines but more options and features to recognize small adventure as real adventure.

2019 Kawasaki Versys-X 300 Specifications

PRICE $5,499; $7,137 (as tested)
ENGINE 296cc, DOHC, liquid-cooled parallel twin
FRAME Steel diamond spar
FRONT SUSPENSION 41mm fork; 5.1-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.8-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE 2-piston caliper, 290mm twin discs
REAR BRAKE 2-piston caliper, 220mm disc
RAKE/TRAIL 24.0°/4.3 in.
WHEELBASE 57.1 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.1 in.
CLAIMED WET WEIGHT 386 lb. (w/o accessories)
CONSUMPTION 47.2 mpg avg.
CONTACT kawasaki.com

2019 Honda CB500X Specifications

PRICE $6,690; $8,493 (as tested)
ENGINE 471cc, DOHC, liquid-cooled parallel twin
FRAME Steel semi-double cradle
FRONT SUSPENSION 41mm fork adjustable for spring preload; 5.9-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Shock adjustable for spring preload; 5.9-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE 2-piston caliper, 320mm disc
REAR BRAKE 1-piston caliper, 240mm disc
RAKE/TRAIL 27.5°/4.3 in.
WHEELBASE 56.9 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 32.7 in.
CLAIMED WET WEIGHT 430 lb. (w/o accessories)
CONSUMPTION 52.0 mpg avg.
CONTACT powersports.honda.com