Kawasaki W650 Road Test And Review

Kawasaki's retro vertical twin recreates the British bikes of the 1960s, without the pain. From the October 2000 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser. By Art Friedman

In the summer of 1965, I felt pretty smug making the Sunset Boulevard run on my Honda 305cc Super Hawk. The hot Japanese two-strokes hadn't arrived in force yet, and you could shrug off Harley-Davidson's iron as overpriced, underpowered, overweight and unreliable. The big strong 750 Brit bikes--Enfields, Matchlesses and Nortons--were pretty rare on the West Coast, and they, like BSA's 650s, seemed as likely to shake themselves apart as to embarrass the Japanese middleweights. The Triumph Bonneville was another matter. We Honda riders could claim technical superiority, but the Triumph twins had better handling, were faster and much prettier.

When I heard that Kawasaki was introducing a new 650 parallel twin, I assumed the company was resurrecting its original W-series bikes (which in America were called the W1 and W2 Commanders), lightly massaged versions of a BSA pushrod twin. Those bikes, which came to the U.S. in the late 1960s, were the first "big" bikes imported in noticeable numbers from Japan. Even though the Ws were not much better than the Beezers they copied, the line had a surprisingly long production life, lasting through the 1970s in some markets.

Riding Retro

However, when the new W bike actually materialized, I was surprised to see that the machine it mimicked was a mid-1960s Triumph, not a BSA or Kawasaki 650 twin. I was also surprised at how effective an imitation it was. Kawasaki has certainly tapped into the public's interest in retro vehicles. The Drifters address our nostalgia for one era, and the W650 rediscovers an era that is probably closer to the hearts of today's motorcyclists. Though the new Triumph is reportedly recreating the Bonneville, Kawasaki has beaten it to the punch and set the standard for what the Triumph will have to achieve to compete successfully.

I was prepared to let the W650 pass without comment in this magazine because I didn't feel it fit the cruiser category. However, readers, who apparently see anything retro as having a cruiseresque appeal, didn't agree, and we received many queries about when we planned to test one. Eventually, I decided I really would rather switch than fight, and we asked Kawasaki for a W650 to sample.

Without actually copying a single piece exactly, the W650 so successfully mimics the T120R that our testers were frequently approached by people who had been fooled. One soul was so convinced that our W650 was an older bike he would not accept our answer that it was a 2000 model. On the other side of the coin, some of those who recognized it as a replica thought it was smaller than the Triumphs of a quarter-century ago. Not so. At 57.1 inches, the W650's wheelbase is actually 1.6 inches longer than the old Bonneville's and its claimed dry weight is almost 50 pounds higher (though the 1969 Bonneville we compared it to didn't have the W650s electric starter, larger battery, turn signals or many other features). Motorcycles have become steadily bigger, although we tend to assume that the bikes we remember as big and impressive were as big as the ones we ride today. It is often a surprise to sit on one and discover how small they actually were.

Kawasaki has done an impressive job of packaging modern technology in a classic manner. From the left, the air-cooled 676cc engine looks much like the Triumph 649cc twin. The shapes of the cases and the proportion of the cylinders are similar. But when you walk around to the bike's right side, the shaft that runs up to drive the single overhead camshaft via bevel gears tells you you're not in England anymore and that this is not a pushrod bike. Each cylinder has four valves, and the engine makes less mechanical noise than the original Triumphs, which reduces the engine's mechanical presence.

Sounds Right

Thanks to a 360-degree crankshaft design (where the pistons move up and down together, alternating power strokes), the W has much the same smooth, muscular-sounding exhaust cadence as the T120. However, a counterbalancer snuffs out the vertical twin's considerable vibration. Unlike the original Triumph, you can't tell if this bike is idling by just looking at the front end to see if it is shaking. There are other modern touches too, starting with mainstays such as wet-sump lubrication and working up to late-breaking news like a digital capacitor-discharge ignition system with a throttle sensor and a clean-air system that reduces exhaust emissions. Instead of the dreaded Amal carbs on the Bonneville--each with its own air cleaner--the 34mm CV carbs on the W650 share a common large airbox, which improves power and reduces intake noise.

With this kind of technology, it should come as no surprise that the W650 makes great power. Indeed, it has one of the nicest powerbands in memory. The bike will pull smoothly from below 1500 rpm, and you can ride around all day short-shifting and keeping the engine under 3000 rpm and still be impressed with its power and acceleration. But there is plenty more available when you decide to rev the engine harder. More rpm amplifies power almost all the way to the 7700-rpm redline with no surges or flat spots.

The engine is a little cold-blooded, however, and we wished it had the Triumph's pretty polished choke control on the handlebar instead of a plunger on the left side of the carbs. The clutch engages progressively with a light pull, and the five-speed gearbox shifts lightly and smoothly.

Looks Right

A centerpiece of the styling concept is the 4.0-gallon fuel tank. Though at first it seems to be a dead ringer for an old Triumph item, the shape is actually different. The rubber knee pads are much thicker, and modern manufacturing techniques have enabled Kawasaki to dispense with the ugly seam that ran along the top of Triumph tanks. The tank has a locking gas cap too, and the elaborate badge carries the name of its actual maker.

The one-piece dual seat employs white piping, a styling element popular in the 1960s. Though its shape and flat top permit you to slide back or forward to find a position that suits your frame, sitting in the middle will probably put you on the hardest part of the saddle. This was the biggest comfort concern for most of our testers and would prevent us from choosing the W650 for an extended ride. Also, shorter-legged folks may be concerned because the saddle rests 31.5 inches above the road, though the relatively light weight nature of this bike makes the height a non-issue for riders with inseams of 30 inches or more. The riding position is definitely conventional standard-style, placing your feet beneath you and your torso upright or leaned slightly into the wind.

The basic chassis follows the pattern of the bikes the W650 emulates. The frame is a familiar double-cradle pattern with a beefy square backbone concealed under the tank. Suspension compliance is good, with 5.1 inches of suspension travel from the rubber-gaiter-covered front fork and an inch less available from the dual rear shocks. The front end is one of the most convincing elements of the styling package, though the chrome headlight is actually plastic.

The Triumphs of the era that the W650 recalls had drum brakes on both ends, but this Kawasaki uses a single 300mm disc up front for more power and fade-resistance. The rear brake has the slightly mushy feel of a single-cam drum brake because that's what it is. Bridgestone has even created tires for the W650 that look similar to the tires of the 1960s, with a rib-style pattern up front. However, unlike those old tires, these didn't make the bike shimmy frantically in rain grooves cut into the road.

Feels Right

Despite the extra weight of the W compared to a T120, handling overall was similar to what we recall from Brit bikes of the 1960s. It steers lightly, tracks steadily through corners, smooth or bumpy, and doesn't stand up under braking. Cornering clearance seems considerable if you are used to cruisers, but it is also similar to those vertical twins of memory. However, this bike offers better traction and even slightly improved suspension control. Like those old vertical twins, the W650 is extremely handy at low speeds too.

The overall lines of the W650 certainly catch the style of a mid-1960s Triumph Bonneville. The exhaust system follows the lines of Kawasaki's Commander mufflers more closely than the teardrop-shaped Bonneville pipes (and Cobra has upswept scrambler-style pipes if you want to imitate the style of the TR6C Trophy). However, some of the details diverge sharply. The black plastic chain guard is not as pleasing as the polished metal piece on the older Triumphs. We also wish that the rear brake had been polished rather than painted black, though we suspect that such changes would have raised the price well beyond the current $6499.

The taillight is reminiscent of the shape of the Triumph item but bigger and more visible. Turn signals were not fitted to most bikes in the 1960s, but are required now. The W650's items are small and understated (and might help clean up some cruisers). The dual instrument faces are similar to gauges of the 1960s and are even set at a similar angle--just a few degrees off horizontal. The LCD odometer/tripmeter/clock is a jarring, if useful, break from tradition.

Time Trolling

But the details don't intrude much into the overall W650 experience. One Friday evening this summer, I climbed on the W650 and rode up to Sunset Boulevard, which I traced from the ocean to Sunset Strip and back, passing icons of the 1960s such as Deadman's Curve (now reconfigured) and the Whiskey A Go-Go. The ride didn't exactly recapture my youth, but it recalled some of its memorable moments. And the bike I was riding was actually much better than those 650 twins of a third of a century ago. There wasn't significant vibration when I grabbed a handful and let the tach needle brush the redline to get around that Porsche in a tricky curve, and I didn't feel a single twitch rushing through the curve where an old friend, Jim Kingsley, put his twin on somebody's front lawn one night. Nor did I worry that vibration and Lucasitis might leave me suddenly stopped in the dark when the electrics went south. I don't particularly need to recreate that part of the 1960s Britbike experience.

Kawasaki's W650 gives us the best of then and now--nostalgia without the hassles of actually having to put up with an old bike and its foibles. If the British bikes of the 1960s and 1970s had been this good, there might still be an England.

Art Friedman receives email at ArtoftheMotorcycle@hotmail.com, even if it comes from England.


Suggested base price: $6499

Engine type: Air-cooled SOHC, 8-valve vertical twin

Displacement, bore x stroke: 676cc, 72 x 83mm

Transmission: 5 speeds, wet clutch

Final drive: Chain

Rake/trail: 26.5 degrees/ 4.1 in.

Front tire: 100/90x19 Bridgestone tube-type

Rear tire: 130/80x18 Bridgestone tube-type

Front suspension: 39mm stanchions, 5.1 in. travel

Rear suspension: Dual dampers, 4.1 in travel, adjustments for preload

Seat height: 31.5 in.

Wheelbase: 57.1 in.

Fuel capacity: 4.0 gal.

Wet weight: 473 lb.

Fuel mileage: 43.4 mpg avg.

Photography by Fran Kuhn
That kickstarter is functional as well as cosmetic, but the electric starter is handier.
In the 1960s, gauges weren't tilted toward the rider, a subtlety the W650 captures. Of course, those old gauges didn't have LCD odometers, either, though we do like the clock that feature offers.
The vertical tube houses a driveshaft for the cam, though it still manages to look retro.
Though it mimics the old Triumph tanks, the W650's 4.0-gallon vessel is actually shaped mucg differently (less tapered at the rear) and details like the knee pads and cap are different.
Though the shape of the mufflers suggests a Brit bike, it actually looks more like the items on Kawasaki's own 1960s vertical twin. At circa 2500 rpm, it sounds just like an old Bonneville.
In addition to their nostalgic style, the rubber gaiters on the fork legs prevent the stanchions from getting dinged and creating leaks. That two-piston caliper provides good braking power and control.
Though the taillight might look right for the period, the turn signals are not older than 1980s.