Photography by James Bro...
Mining the past is big money these days, and products from Chrysler's PT Cruiser to Levi's bell-bottom jeans are geared toward serving Baby Boomers an updated slice of their fondest memories. Motorcycle manufacturers are no exception. Triumph Motorcycles, Ltd. and Kawasaki Motors Corp. are the latest concerns to join the fray with bespoked updates of their not-so-distant pasts.
Both manufacturers have churned out new bikes based on the retro-style of the same era -- the late 1960s, specifically the British vertical twins that dominated the streets in those days. That both motorcycles hew so closely to the forms of their predecessors is a testament to the R&D teams of each manufacturer. But these twin-cylindere motorbikes, parallel though they may be, weren't exactly separated at birth -- each has a personality all its own.
That's no pushrod--just the...
That's no pushrod--just the W650's classically styled cam drive shaft housing.
We were idling the Kawasaki at a stoplight when a hirsute gent of suspicious means approached us, grunting, "I'll be a sumbitch...that's a Kawi?! That mother looks just like my old 650 Triumph...down to the tank!" He shuffled by with a wobbly thumbs up.
That kind of reaction followed us everywhere we went whilst astride the W650, even in the seen-it-all attitude of the Los Angeles basin. And while Kawasaki's market studies for the 650 probably didn't include our hairy alcoholic pal, they surely determined that boomers who had seen it all were primed for remembrances.
Kawasaki beat Triumph at its own game when it released the W650 last year, prior to the 2001 launch of the new Bonneville. But Kawasaki is no stranger to the retro game, as witnessed by its release of the pre-war styled Drifter a couple of years back.
Kawasaki is also no stranger to the British-style vertical twin. The design of the W650 faintly recalls the lines of Kawasaki's W1 and W2 parallel twins from the late '60s, but that's really nothing to crow about; those models were never considered belles of the ball. The W designation and its 40-something horsepower is one of the few aspects this 650 carries over from its forebears -- it's really a recreation of the Triumph T120 idiom, even more than the current Triumph is.
The W650 is pleasant enough around town and its twin cylinder air-cooled 676cc powerplant churns out a fair amount of midrange power, due partly to a long-stroke 360-degree crank that has both pistons rising and falling together. The modern four-valve cylinder heads offer better breathing for admirable torque, and the single overhead cam layout is simple and lightweight. Don't look for a pushrod though -- a neat design twist locates a vertical tube containing the cam drive outside the right cylinder for an exotic look.
A pair of 34mm CV carbs deliver the goods efficiently, and the engine's broad powerband pulls from 1500 rpm on up, with a party-pooping flat spot just off idle to spoil your grins. You'll have to venture into higher revs for real motivation, and there'll be plenty wringing of hands and throttles on the W650 to squeeze out a response. This means plenty of trips to the gearbox, but that's no worry for the smooth-shifting five-speed tranny. Kawasaki's Positive Neutral Finder feature usually scores big points, but we found it getting in the way of rhythmic upshifts this time.
Four gallons of regular unleaded gets us 140 miles away from the editorial ivory tower, and the rubber-mounted engine keeps obtrusive shaking under control, although we felt an annoying buzz past 6000 rpm -- right where the Kawasaki starts making good power. Never mind -- the eagerness of the W650 to eat up corners in any gear makes engaging in lower revs enjoyable. The front end steers so lightly you feel almost like you're on a bicycle, and the W650's traditional double cradle frame will keep you rigid throughout.
The W650 gets a wider bar...
The W650 gets a wider bar than the Bonneville and a most welcome and aesthetically appropriate tachometer.
The agility of the W650 compelled us to pitch it into corners with a vengeance, but the 39mm telescopic front fork gets a touch too flexy and the rear shocks a touch too soft at speed, even with new rebound and compression damping rates for 2001. Still, we'd call the W650 almost flickable if our sport riding brethren were out of earshot.
Even with balancers and rubber mounts, the W650 makes no bones about its buzziness -- this is an elemental motorcycle through and through. And the brake backs up that confession. Squeeze the dual piston 300mm front disc, and it'll fade quickly under intense duress. When you venture out on a highway, things can get tremulous in a hurry. Passing maneuvers or uphill lunges have you twisting the throttle fiercely, but then, high speed blasting is not what the W650's about.
The Kawasaki actually emits a meaty exhaust cadence from the pipes, whereas you'll be holding a paper cup to the Trumpet's faithfully recast peashooters to hear any discernible warble. Although the W650's seat is only one inch higher than the Triumph's, the difference feels like a foot. That's OK, because the Kawasaki's wide bar rises up to locate your arms at a comfy angle. With the footpegs straight under your feet, it all adds up to the ergonomic style of Bolt and Upright. This is great for street riding, but out on the highway, you'll find yourself surfing wind currents -- the same wide bar has you hung out in the drafts like yesterday's laundry.
Nostalgia's flame burns brightest, and the rubber-gaitered fork stanchions of the W650 carry that torch forward without the oil pools of the past. Were it not for the Kawasaki badge on the W650 tank, you'd think this twin was of British descent. Insiders at Kawasaki even confided that seat logo lettering is easily dissolved with a swipe of solvent. And the tank badges pry off! It's almost as if the maker wants to encourage the creation of nameless retro twins just to confound drunks at stoplights...and the rest of us, too.
New for 2001 is a half-degree increase in the steering angle, plus a larger axle and new front hub, intended to improve handling. Another welcome upgrade is a redesigned seat with more comfortable padding and retro white piping around the edges. The paint job is two-tone and top-notch, with the only choice being proper dark green and tan.
We do wish the W650 wasn't so cold-blooded, as early morning starts usually required an intimate relationship with the choke lever. But look, Ma -- there's a real-live kickstarter. While you might shrug this bit off as gimmicky, you can't deny the rush of swinging down on the metal arm and hearing the engine crackle to life. The dual analog instrument faces recall gauges of the '60s, but the W650 sneaks in some modern amenities -- the tripmeter, odometer and clock are tucked into the speedo as a handy LCD display. Throw in a tach and groovy centerstand and you really start to appreciate the little things that $6499 will net you. There's even an integrated ignition/fork lock. And yes, an electric start, too.