World renowned road tester and journalist Adam ‘Chad’ Child was in Japan last week to test Kawasaki’s W800, a bike that should have been the base for many more customs than we’ve seen over the last few years. After news that the W model was to be phased out in 2017 with a ‘Final Edition’ it was a pleasant surprise to see this debunked thanks to two ‘new’ versions being exhibited on the Kawasaki stand at the NEC show last autumn. But are they any good? Chad rode the original W back to back with the 2019 models to find out.
I travelled to Japan to ride Kawasaki’s new heritage range, which can trace its roots back to the W1 650 of 1965 – a bike that sounds as good as it looks. The all-new W800 is relaunched with two variants to choose from: the laidback Street and the racier Café.
Kawasaki have kept it simple, as a retro bike should be. The 773cc twin remains air-cooled and retains its unique bevel gear-driven cam, which Kawasaki admit was chosen for cosmetic reason only. They could have opted for water-cooling and even conventional chain driven cams, which would have resulted in more efficiency and power, but instead opted for nostalgia over raw performance. The engine has been upgraded with new pistons but remains similar to the older unit with a quoted, A2-compliant 47bhp at 6000rpm.
The steel double-cradle chassis is all new, with thicker tubes to improve stiffness, while the non-adjustable forks have also increased in diameter, up from 39mm to 41mm. The previous model’s rear drum brake has been superseded by a more modern ventilated disc setup, and the front single disc increases in diameter from 300mm to 320mm. Arguably the most significant change though is the move from a 19″ front wheel to a faster steering 18-incher, which now matches the rear.
For 2019 the two variants to choose from are the £8399 Street or the slightly pricier £9099 Café. They have identical engines, performance, chassis and brakes. The Street is easily recognisable with its swept, tracker style bars, wide retro seat, chrome spoked wheels and details such as a black-only bevel cover, while the Café comes with drop bars, black wheels and engine, plus side tank-pads, a chrome bevel cover and, most obviously, a front cowl. As both bikes are built from the same platform and parts are interchangeable, the seats fit both models for example. The list of accessories is a little disappointing, rear racks available for both models, chrome accessories and an engine guard, but that’s about it.
The parallel twin, with its long-stroke 360-degree crankshaft, fires up with a rewarding burble. In with the one-finger-light clutch (with a new back-torque limiter), a neat click into first gear and our Japanese adventure commences. Kawasaki’s new W800 is natural and easy to ride, its flat torque curve and precise fuelling allowing you to smoothly change gear at any rpm, and simply short-shift to the national speed limit.
With only 47bhp, the W800 could hardly be described as speedy. It’s slow revving and almost lethargic but perfectly matches the bike’s hassle-free feel. Simply cogging back one gear will result in enough punch – peak torque is at 4800rpm – to take care of brisk overtakes safely. The parallel twin’s output was more than enough for 90% of the ride, and the bike managed an indicated 100mph without too much fuss. In fact, its clout from 70-80mph was livelier than I expected from a A2 licence-legal bike.
You can throw the Street around with relative ease, ideal in town. The wide bars prevent you from darting for small gaps, but otherwise it’s at home in traffic. When you get carried away, even when the pegs start to deck-out, the handling remains natural – and it doesn’t feel like you’re at the boundaries of the W800’s handling. The new suspension is softly sprung but has good control and damping and handles road imperfections without jolts or jarring.
The Café feels like a very different bike. The seat is taller, by 20mm, and firmer, but it is still easy to get two feet securely onto the road as it’s much narrower towards the fuel tank, which has increased in capacity by 1 litre. The Café’s racer bars force you to sit further forward with more weight on wrists. It’s not as natural as the Street and a tad uncompromising around town. It’s not agony like some Café Racers, in fact not bad at all.
On the open road the Café feels livelier. The aggressive, almost racy riding position encourages you to ride a little faster and hold the revs a little longer, egged on by the captivating exhaust note. Once into the mountain region of Kirigamine I preferred the racy Café.
But the Café style does come with concessions. The narrower bars slow the steering as you simply don’t have the leverage to toss it into a corner. At high speed it doesn’t feel as stable as the Street and, with more bodyweight over the front, the forks don’t feel as plush either, though this may also be due to the increased speed. Despite moving the rider’s weight forward Kawasaki didn’t alter the suspension setup between the Café and the Street, and I’d prefer the pegs to be further back too. It would be cool to play around with the styling and stance, get the pegs further back, and add race pipes to unleash some extra power.
The front cowl is a throwback to the traditional café racer culture, but is more for show than any real wind protection. I favour the looks of the Café over the Street, and prefer the feel of the sportier bike, too, but after two days and over 300km of relatively steady Japanese riding, I enjoyed the Street overall.
If you’re looking for a middleweight retro that’s easy to ride, the market is overflowing with attractive choices. Moto Guzzi’s A2 licence-compliant V7 is the noticeable rivalry. You could even throw in Harley’s air-cooled 883, Triumph’s water-cooled and more powerful Street Twin or Enfield’s new 650 Interceptor. And this is where the Kawasaki staggers a little. At £8030 for the Street and just over £9000 for the Café, the W800 it’s on par with a wide selection of machines, but Enfield’s Interceptor is considerably cheaper.
In Kawasaki’s defence, you can see where the money has been spent. The bevel gear-driven cam engine, with its wide cooling fins, is lovely looking and has textbook fuelling. The exhaust has a charismatic tone, the detailing is lovely, and there’s a feeling of true quality throughout that arguably validates its premium price.
The new W800 Street, which can trace its DNA back to the original W1 from over half a century ago retains soul and character which is usually missed by a Japanese manufacturer. Bikes in this class shouldn’t be evaluated on performance or handling – it’s how they make you feel that counts, this is where the Kawasaki scores highly. Don’t go chasing the revs and performance, instead relax, turn off your phone, forget about social media, and life’s worries and enjoy the uncomplicatedness that the W800 delivers – Chad
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