By Chuck Hawks

Illustration courtesy of Kawasaki

As I wrote in my article Good First Bikes, the Kawasaki W650 is a different kind of retro bike, a standard easy to mistake at first glance for a late 1960's Triumph Bonneville. Kawasaki claims that the W650 was inspired by their own W1 twin of 1967 (itself a knockoff of the BSA A10, a pre-unit construction 650), but anyone who has seen a W1 knows the W650 looks nothing like that, and very much like the vastly more popular Bonneville.

The gas tank shape, tank badges, rubber kneepads, rubber fork gaiters, cases, mufflers, seat, fenders, headlight, and paint job are all clearly influenced by late 1960's Triumph design. This is not bad thing, as the T120 Triumph Bonneville 650's are widely regarded as some of the most beautiful motorcycles ever built. The W650 styling is a success, as it garnered positive comments from observers everywhere that it went.

It is hard not to compare the W650 to the vintage British motorcycles it resembles, as well as the contemporary Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster and new Triumph Bonneville 800, which are its natural rivals. (See my article 2001 Comparison: Bonneville, Sportster, W-650.)

My 2000 model test bike's gas tank came with two tone "Galaxy Silver" and "Luminous Blue" paint, set off by gold pin striping. The quality of the paint job was very good. The frame, front forks, side covers, chain guard, rear hub, and rear shock covers were all painted black. The seat is black vinyl with white piping. The engine/transmission cases, various smaller engine bits, and wheel rims are polished alloy. The pipes and mufflers, fenders, headlight, turn signals, and sundry small pieces are chromed. The overall look is very appealing.

Like a classic Triumph 650, an air-cooled vertical twin in which both pistons rise and fall together powers the W650. However, this Kawasaki twin is counterbalanced to control vibration, has a single overhead cam driven by a hypoid gear with an offset bevel drive shaft, four valves per cylinder, and displaces 676cc. Bore and stroke is 72x83mm. Twin Keihin 34mm CV carburetors deliver the fuel/air mixture to the engine, and the ignition is electronic. The slick shifting five-speed transmission has positive stops at first and fifth gears. Fifth feels like an overdrive gear, and keeps the RPM down when cruising on the interstate. Final drive is by chain. According to a Cycle World magazine test, this engine produces 44.7 hp at 7,050 rpm and 37.5 ft. lbs. of torque at 5,100 rpm at the rear wheel.

Performance figures from the same Cycle World test revealed a 1/4 mile time of 14.33 seconds at 92.54 mpm, and a 0-60 time of 5.6 seconds. The bike's top speed was 101 mph, and it averaged 41 miles per gallon of fuel.

The W 650's double cradle frame has a square backbone, unlike the classic T120 Bonneville that had a single downtube frame built of round tubing. The engine is rubber mounted in this frame to keep vibration away from the rider. The steel swingarm is conventional in design.

The suspension components seem to have been chosen more on the basis of price than performance. The same could not be said about the T120 Bonneville in its heyday. Of course, suspension standards are much higher now. Front fork rake is 27 degrees, and trail is 4.1 inches. The 39mm telescopic forks have 5.1 inches of travel. The front forks of the W650 offer no adjustment, and dive excessively under hard braking. Progressive front fork springs would probably cure this. The twin rear shocks are adjustable for spring preload only, and have 4.1 inches of travel.

The attractive laced wheels feature neat lightweight alloy rims. The stock tires are Bridgestones, apparently designed to resemble classic Dunlop K-70's. The front is a ribbed 100/90x19, and the rear is a 130/80x18. I didn't have any trouble with them but if I owned this bike, when tire replacement time rolled around, I would shop for higher performance rubber, available from from Dunlop or Metzler.

The hydraulic front brake is a single 300mm disc with a twin piston caliper; the rear wheel has to make do with a mechanical drum brake. This combination provides predictable stopping power, but a second front disc would be a worthwhile improvement.

Standard instruments include both a speedometer and tachometer, mounted in front of the handlebars where they are easily seen. The LCD odometer is built into the face of the speedometer, and also offers trip meter and clock functions. I found the clock to be a particularly useful feature. The tach houses an array of idiot lights for neutral, high beam, oil pressure, and turn signals. The fork lock is conveniently combined with the ignition switch, which is located at the top of the triple clamp.

The four gallon gas tank has comfortable kneepads and a flat, locking, gas cap. From the side it looks like a classic Triumph gas tank, but from the riding position it is much wider. One of the most attractive features of the classic Bonneville 650 was its svelte 2.5 gallon tank, a fact that seems to have been overlooked by Kawasaki. An unsightly pressed steel seam runs completely around the lower edge of the tank. Nevertheless, overall it is a good looking gas tank

The ersatz Triumph-like chrome tank badges are fastened with an adhesive, and can be removed without damaging the paint job, as can all the other Kawasaki badges and decals on the bike. Since I feel that the tank badges detract from the lines of the tank, I would remove them if this were my personal bike. In the past I have found that a hair dryer works well for this.

I would also remove the word "Kawasaki" from the back of the dual seat (contact cleaner or something similar will work here). On the other hand, I thought the gold "W650" decals on the black side covers (which form the air box for the twin carbs) restrained and appropriate, and I would leave them in place. My purpose would not be to conceal the fact that this bike is a W650, but rather to clean up details I regard as unsightly. The cheap looking front and rear side reflectors are equally easy to remove, and their absence would also help to clean up the appearance of the bike.

A W650 weighs 434 pounds dry, quite a bit more than a T120 Bonneville's 386 pounds. Wet weight is about 460 pounds. Wheelbase is 57.1 inches, and ground clearance is 4.9 inches. The W650's seat height is 31.5 inches, but the bike is narrow, which helps the rider's feet reach the ground.

Nice features include the attractive chrome fenders, the flexible turn signal stalks (designed to reduce the chance of damage in a tip over), chrome passenger grab handles, a center stand (in addition to a kick stand), kick as well as electric starting, and the big chrome headlight.

Not so nice features include the lack of self-canceling turn signals, the ugly black painted rear hub, the dim dash lights that are hard to see in bright sunlight (a common complaint with many motorcycles), the ineffective horn, and the ungainly combined tail light, rear turn signal, and license plate bracket. Perhaps the aftermarket could supply something to replace the latter.

Kawasaki offers very little in the way of accessories for the W650 as of this writing. I hope they take steps to improve the situation, but for now adapting "multi-fit" parts from aftermarket suppliers is about the only recourse. There is a Yahoo W650 Registry on the web to assist W650 fans find accessories and information. The URL is:

Riding the W-650 revealed no surprises. It started immediately when I pressed the starter button. I have kick started all the real Britbikes I ever want to, so I eschewed the kickstarter, but the dealer (Cycle Sport of Eugene, OR) assured me that it will start with one kick.

Despite its British appearance, this Kawasaki feels like a typical Japanese motorcycle. The engine is smooth and the transmission shifts easily and precisely, a definite improvement over vintage British bikes. The exhaust note is very restrained; I would drill out the baffles or invest in a set of freer flowing mufflers if I owned a W650. The brakes are adequate for the bike's performance. The mirrors are functional at speed and offer a decent rear view. They are a pleasant departure from the inferior mirrors on vintage British bikes.

Another departure is the excellent halogen headlight, which offers a low beam suitable for riding in town and a high beam bright enough for lonely country roads at night. The lighting on classic British bikes was atrocious.

The seating position is basically pretty upright, although the flat seat lets the rider move around to change position, and makes it easy to lay on the tank for brief high speed runs. There is a slight rise and a hard spot in the middle of the seat exactly where I wanted to plant my butt. (I am 5' 10" tall, with fairly long arms.) I understand that Kawasaki has improved the seat on 2001 models. The wide handlebar has a standard bend and conventional Japanese switches and controls. I didn't ride the W650 with a passenger, but I judge that one could, at least for short jaunts. Longer trips would probably find the seat too cramped for comfort.

Engine performance is good, if not overwhelming. The red line is at 7500, although the tach reads to 9000 RPM. Torque seemed best, and the engine seemed happiest, in the middle of the RPM range. My test bike was not completely broken-in, so I did not wind the engine all the way out. In any case, the motor's power characteristics are such that I felt no need to do so. It is definitely more fun to twist the right grip of a T120 Bonneville.

The W650 revealed no handling vices, unlike many older Japanese twins. However, it did not give me the confidence a 1969 Bonneville used to inspire. It will probably go through corners about as fast, but somehow it didn't feel as eager to me. Other reviewers have expressed similar opinions about the 2000 model W650, so for 2001 Kawasaki subtly adjusted the rake and trail of the front end for improved feel.

One of the nice things about classic style standard motorcycles is that small changes to incorporate minor improvements are all that is required to keep the bike current. We can anticipate the W650 remaining essentially the same for many years. Change for the sake of change, with its negative impact on resale value, is unlikely.

I see the W650 as an excellent city and commuter bike that is also more than adequate for Sunday rides out of town or the occasional weekend trip. It looks great and offers good overall performance. Like other standard motorcycles, it can serve multiple purposes. It feels more refined than vintage British 650's, but lacks the mechanical presence and "fun factor" of these machines. It also lacks the vibration that plagues a vintage Britbike.

The W650 offers neat styling and modern reliability, without oil leaks. It is likely to hold its value well. I regard it as one of the best all-around medium displacement motorcycles on the market today. It is not a particularly cheap motorcycle, nor does it have a lot of trick features. But it is smooth and enjoyable to ride. It is hard to imagine anyone not liking it.

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Copyright 2000, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.