Monday, November 7, 2011

Kawasaki W650 / W800 Long-Term Review

There are many good reviews of the Kawasaki W650 and rather than repeat what they say, or give technical information, I want to describe why I find this bike so wonderful to own. Much of what I have to say should apply to the W800 too.

I am editing this review in September 2014, and at this later time I have owned my 2004 Kawasaki W650 for three years. I bought it used as a grey import from Japan with 23,000km on the clock, and it now has 75,000km. I am in my late 30s and for most of my adult life I have commuted daily through Melbourne, and toured the countryside on the weekends, on a motorcycle. Hence I've owned a good number of bikes and am prepared to criticise the short-comings of any of them. But of the W650 I have, essentially, nothing negative to say!  This can be said of no other motorcycle that I have owned.

At the time of purchase I was decided between the W and a Triumph Bonneville, Harley Sportster or Royal Enfield. The W won based on looks, feel and mechanical reputation. To list some of its virtues from an owner's perspective, it has:

  • Classic beauty 
  • Great engine character - it really pulses between 3000 and 4000rpm 
  • Reliability, with excellent engineering and build-quality 
  • A degree of mechanical simplicity
  • Real ease of maintenance 
  • Parts are relatively cheap and readily available (often universal)
  • It is very stable on the highway and great for long distances
  • Yet it is light and flickable  
  • It is good on dirt roads
  • Pillions report that it is very comfortable – their seat is generous

I demand a lot of my motorcycling. It is said that to ride with others is good for the heart and to ride alone is good for the soul. Motorcycling refreshes my heart and soul. An important part of such motorcycling is the bike itself. Professional bike reviewers are often sports riders at heart and write from that perspective. They focus on power and speed. Motorcycling is a very aesthetic experience for me. A bike's distinctive character and looks, the visceral experience that it provides, the imaginative associations it invites, and the way it opens up the landscape to my senses, all get to the heart of why I ride.



In another post I review my old SR500. It was a wonderful bike. However I have to admit that it was not quite comfortable on the highway, which is a problem given that I enjoy riding long distances. Cue the W650, which brings to the ride all the aesthetic qualities that I so prized in the SR – sometimes to a greater degree - while being very relaxed and capable on the highway.



What is so charming about the W650 is what it evokes of other motorcycles, as well as what it has of its own.

For me the W650 evokes the motorcycles of the middle of the twentieth century.  Wrapped in my waxed-cotton jacket and gauntlets, winding through green fields in winter, I feel like I am in a scene from Heartbeat.  But there is something deeper, too.  Riding is, for me, about being in, and moving through, places as an act of appreciating not only what is before my eyes but also what my imagination hints at.  Think of how that tumbledown farmhouse made you feel that time on an empty road.  These imaginings have a human-centred, historical sensibility – I like to ‘feel’ the presence of people who once made their lives in this place and who imprinted something of themselves on the landscape. To ride a motorcycle that evokes the machines of past years is to be more readily drawn into this imaginative sense of past things, to more readily connect with this implicit aspect of the places through which I ride. The W650 does this to a degree that few modern motorcycles do. You only have to look at it to see what I mean. Of course it would be best to ride an original machine from that era, but as a mechanical simpleton I could never afford to keep such a machine on the road (i.e. fund the mechanic) while doing the miles I do.



The W650 has its own historical precedence. In the 1960s Kawasaki manufactured the W1, a 650 twin which looked like a BSA – it started out as a licensed 500cc BSA copy but evolved in Kawasaki’s hands into a mechanically superior machine by the time it became 650cc.  You can see one in the centre here (this is an old Australian photo):



Kawasaki pretends that their modern W650 is a remake of that, but we all know it looks more like a 1960s Triumph Bonneville. This makes sense: if you were to design a bike to evoke the great British twins, would you not take inspiration from the model which many consider to be the most beautiful and exciting?  

The W650 is clearly a retrospective motorcycle, a tribute, an evocation. I think it achieves this aim better than its obvious competitor, the new Bonneville. To me the new Bonnie looks like a 1970s UJM. Plus its engine feels too smooth for my liking.  And it is unnecessarily complex to service the shims.  Some people get angry about the W, about others preferring it over the new Bonneville (I had one fellow, a local, email me physical threats because of the comments I just made). And this is interesting. Their attachment to the Bonnie is to a British bike. However the Australian Bonnevilles are made in Thailand. But what is most curious about their criticism is the way in which it misses the point, for me at least. For me, what I love about British bikes, alongside their cultural accretions, is their beauty. Retro, derivative, whatever, they have beauty in their own right. Here is a subjective opinion with which some will disagree – I am expressing my taste - but it seems that vehicles between the 1930s and 1960s had a strong emphasis on aesthetics, and that from the 1970s onwards this has seemed to matter less to designers.  I think that the phenomenon of retro vehicles is driven by people's desire for beauty.  For art deco, for mirror chrome, for circles and fins.  And so what I appreciate in the W is not just the fact that it reminds me of a 1960s British bike – although that is an important part of its attraction – but equally that it is beautiful in its own right.  



So how does it ride, this motorcycle which is both an evocation of an era and a wonderful machine in its own right?

The W650 has two different personalities. For the bike to evoke a mid-century motorcycle it must have vibration, pulsation. ‘Silky-smooth’ and ‘sewing-machine-like’ do not describe those old bikes. Kawasaki did a wonderful job of offering both vibration from its long-stroke engine, as well as smoothness. The smoothness is of two kinds in relation to the pulses. First, the engine pulses are themselves smooth, as opposed to biting or harsh. They are very present, at the centre of the riding experience, which gives the bike a lot of character, but they have a ‘rounded’ quality that makes them pleasant. There is not that hard edge that makes you tense up. And so the engine feels relaxed even as it’s thumping you up to speed. That is the first kind of smoothness present in the W. Second, those engine pulses are mostly dominant within a certain rpm-range, and otherwise the engine is smooth in the sense of being without those vibrations. On cue at 3000rpm the pulses start, they hit their climax at 3,500rpm, then immediately beyond 4000rpm they smooth out and the engine takes on a more calm purr. What this means is that you can choose to ride in thumper-mode by remaining mostly in that rev-range, or smooth mode by riding below (as I do in the city) or above it (as I do on the highway). The other side of this story happens above 5000rpm. The W takes on a new character yet again – the fire-breathing twin. It is a lot of fun up there, a place for adrenalin on tight roads while overtaking cars.

I will add a comment which was submitted to an earlier incarnation of this review – thank you to Dave:

I have the 800; the only difference between the two engine is a slight increase in the bore and the fuel injection. The 800 has more torque at lower rpms - essentially flat from 2000rpm to 7000rpm redline and maxing at 2500rpm rather than 5250 like the 650. The power is around 48hp @ 7000 compared to 50hp @ 7000 for the 650. The bike feels very much like a late 60's Royal Enfield Interceptor as far as the engine 'feel' goes, albeit smoother. When new they do feel a bit dismal due to the almost silent mufflers, but after about 10,000km they really loosen up and a slight change to the baffles makes quite a bit of difference to the feel, as I've found riding my modified bike and unmodified ones. Wrenchmonkees in Denmark reckon they dynoed 90Nm @ 3500 at the rear wheel with nothing more than pod filters and different exhausts so it may be true.
They are a lovely bike though. One of my main rides is a 1953 AJS 500 and the feel of the two is quite similar oddly enough. The big AJS/Matchless singles are quite smooth cruising up to about 90kmh and with the same sort of pulsing.As mentioned though, over 4000rpm the Kawasakis get very smooth and right on the old 360 degree twin powerband. They really 'hammer' - no other word for it - above 5000 rpm and are a lot of fun playing boy racers in the twisties. Lovely sound with the baffles done too.”

At an indicated 100kph the bike sits on 3,500rpm in fifth gear. The W by comparison feels utterly, unbelievably, beautifully relaxed at 100kph in both fourth and fifth gear. Thanks to its lavish, even spread of torque which begins just above 2000rpm, the W feels ‘in the zone’ in any gear at any rpm. There is little need to change gear through the corners or when over-taking: I just open up the throttle and it pulls away. I don’t even know what horespower the W is meant to produce, and neither do I care – such specifications are all over the web, but horespower has nothing to do with what is wonderful about this bike.  




With over 50,000km under my belt on this bike I have never had to visit a mechanic. I do all my own servicing on the footpath and it is very simple. Even changing the shims is simple. Kawasaki have designed the bike with servicing in mind. The W has, quite simply, given me no trouble whatsoever. Well, at 75,000km I have two small cracks in the rear fender. And the clutch sometimes (very rarely) slips when dropped quickly at the lights on a cold engine. Tyres are cheap sizes - about $350 for a pair here in Australia. The chain however is an odd size which precludes buying a good one on sale. These bike have a reputation for doing very high kilometers – in the hundreds of thousands – without trouble, and I hope to ride mine until the engine wears out and rebuild it.

I am very, very happy with my W650. So much so that I would face a real dilemma if mine needed replacing. For I would love to try owning another motorcycle on my bucket list, but having owned one I am so happy with this model, and feel so confident about its reliability, that I suspect I will ride Ws for years to come.



If you enjoyed this blog, please check out my other one, here.

21 comments:

  1. Matt, thank you for this well rounded review. You make me even more curious. I had to go on youtube and actually found out what noise the W800 is making. I believe that Kawasaki did a good thing getting this retro bike out on the road. Next time I am in Europe I will go check it out. Meanwhile I wish you continued happiness on your new two wheels. Keep the rubberside down.

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  2. Nice review. Helpful.

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  3. Your review is one of the main reasons I want this bike. I loved it the moment I set eyes on it..

    I am 21 and have little riding experience, though my father had a fair few bikes when I was growing up, I never drove them but I fell in love with them...

    I have one main issue...from what I see in columns and forums, I am worried about learning on a 650, despite its lower band power...

    I live in the UK in london and want to use it to tour, hence why I don't think the sr400 will be enough...


    All in all, I was wondering if you thought it was suitable for a new rider? I'm not necessarily bothered about speed, but I want it to be comfortable at a cruising speed (60-70mph) as I worry if I buy the sr400 I will be limited by the power and end up looking for the w650 again..

    Your thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

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    1. Thank you for your comments. The W is a great touring bike and very comfortable at those speeds. On the issue of learning, one reason my riding life has been accident-free has to do, I think, with starting on quite small bikes and gradually working my way up. It's easier to get yourself into trouble on a bigger bike (bigger not only in power but physical size too, though that leads to harmless car park spills more than anything). It is also worth considering that if you are more likely to drop/crash your learner's bike, then it is worth buying a cheap and lower-powered thing to ride for a year or so, while waiting till you have more experience before spending good money on something nice. That said, 650s of low power are learner-legal here in Australia and many people consider them suitable for learning, so the common wisdom as enshrined in law supports your getting the W. Also, I have come to think that because life is short it is worth having all those precious early riding memories on a bike that you love and which is memorable. If you keep your head about you then you should have no problems. The longer I own this bike the more I love it. Let me know how you go.
      -Matt

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  4. Hi. What a great review, and one that captures both the spirit of riding and the essence of motorcycles themselves (at least for me). I too have owned an SR500, as well as older - original - Triumphs, BMWs and Harleys. Now I am considering either a W650 or a W800. I rode one of the 800's a while back, but was underwhelmed by the engine which felt too smooth to have character. I'm told they have a balancing shaft, while the 650 doesn't. Do you know whether there is any real difference in the feel/character between the two engines - apart from the greater torque of the 800?

    Many thanks.

    Jon

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    1. Thanks Jon. I haven't heard of that difference between the 650 and 800, and unfortunately I haven't ridden the 800. I struggled for a while in my choice between the W and a Sportster precisely because I feared the W would be too smooth for my liking (I like a pulsating, shaking bike). So given the bikes you've listed it might be too smooth for your tastes. Mind you, I'm surprised at the difference that a good set of pipes can make - an aural difference somehow becomes a visceral difference - so that might help (the stock 800 whisper almost sounds like an electric bike!). The W650/800 Yahoo group should have some people who have experienced both and can better answer the question. Please let me know if you verify whether it has a balancing shaft, it will confirm my sense that I should stick with my bike long-term and just rebuild it as needed, a bit like one does with a lovable, simple SR.

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  5. Hi. What a great review, and one that captures both the spirit of riding and the essence of motorcycles themselves (at least for me). I too have owned an SR500, as well as older - original - Triumphs, BMWs and Harleys. Now I am considering either a W650 or a W800. I rode one of the 800's a while back, but was underwhelmed by the engine which felt too smooth to have character. I'm told they have a balancing shaft, while the 650 doesn't. Do you know whether there is any real difference in the feel/character between the two engines - apart from the greater torque of the 800?

    Many thanks.

    Jon

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  6. Hi Matt. Thanks for your fast reply. I like a bit of a shake myself - hence the appeal of Harleys. I really enjoy riding Harleys as bikes, but the brand and all the macho rubbish that goes with it these days is pretty embarrassing. Anyway, for now I am going for a change. You might be interested in the following review of the 800, which (a) seems to say that both bikes have a balancing shaft, and (b) mentions several ways in which the 800 improves upon the 650. If I get one I'll send you some feedback. Cheers. Jon

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  7. I have the 800; the only difference between the two engine is a slight increase in the bore and the fuel injection. The 800 has more torque at lower rpms - essentially flat from 2000rpm to 7000rpm redline and maxing at 2500rpm rather than 5250 like the 650. The power is around 48hp @ 7000 compared to 50hp @ 7000 for the 650. The bike feels very much like a late 60's Royal Enfield Interceptor as far as the engine 'feel' goes, albeit smoother. When new they do feel a bit dismal due to the almost silent mufflers, but after about 10,000km they really loosen up and a slight change to the baffles makes quite a bit of difference to the feel, as I've found riding my modified bike and unmodified ones. Wrenchmonkees in Denmark reckon they dynoed 90Nm @ 3500 at the rear wheel with nothing more than pod filters and different exhausts so it may be true.

    They are a lovely bike though. One of my main rides is a 1953 AJS 500 and the feel of the two is quite similar oddly enough. The big AJS/Matchless singles are quite smooth cruising up to about 90kmh and with the same sort of pulsing.As mentioned though, over 4000rpm the Kawasakis get very smooth and right on the old 360 degree twin powerband. They really 'hammer' - no other word for it - above 5000 rpm and are a lot of fun playing boy racers in the twisties. Lovely sound with the baffles done too.


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  8. (Both bikes do have a balancer by the way.)

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  9. Curious question.

    You mention in the second paragraph of this article that it was rewritten in March 2014.

    Is that the one currently posted here, or is it somewhere else to be found?

    Thanks - BTW - this is a beautiful article.

    M

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    1. Thank you M.
      Yes, this is the 2014 edited version.

      Delete
  10. One thing this bike does is promote discussion and polarise people opinions!! Excellent then it gets itself noticed.
    I have a W800 and absolutely love it. It's "soft" and forgiving ride and the gentle thrumm of the engine make me smile every time. I'm not sure if it is a hark-back to my early biking days and the thought that back then I'd have gone mad to own a bike like this; or if it's the return to a simpler form of biking, away from warp speeds, knee-down, complex engines and low mpgs.
    You have to put some effort into riding and getting the best out of it - but you get reward from the experience, a sort of smug satisfaction from riding it well - it doesn't laugh at your less than "ten tenths" riding skills.
    I'm lucky enough to have another bike as well, (FZ1 Fazer) and whilst I enjoy riding that - I enjoy riding the "W" equally, if not a bit more.
    If you want a faster bike - buy a faster bike!!
    Johno

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  11. Does anyone know the weight limit on this beauty? I very sadly just blew the head gasket on my 76 Honda CB400F SS and I'm hoping the W650 has a higher weight limit? At least 350 lbs? thx

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  12. Great review, I purchased a 2000 650 last year and am really enjoying the bike, the bike of my youth and now the present, at 66 I can't over what a great feeling it gives me every time |I ride it or for that matter even just am around it..started with Triumphs in the 60's ,then early Japanese ...this is the best, just a marvellous machine.

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  13. Loved your review on the W. I have had my '99 W650 since 2008 when I saw it and fell in love, and if I couldn't ride it I would hang it on my wall as I think it is beautiful in both design and engineering , I copped some flak from those who rode bigger, flashier, sportier and noisier bikes, and from people who insist that it is just a 'fake' Triumph Bonneville. I just smile, because I know what I know, just like other 'W' owners. You have expressed the feelings I have for my bike and 'the ride' in every line you have written. It seems that everyone who rides talks about their 'next' bike, and I never have, because every time I ride those country roads whether they are straight and true or punctuated by a few nice twisties, the sun shines a little brighter, the air tastes a little sweeter, the heart is a little lighter, and everything is right with the world. Interestingly, those who are real bike lovers and not just enthusiasts are impressed by the 'W' and many older riders have expressed their admiration for the design and the bike. For me it isn't about arriving, it's all about the journey and those memories that keep you smiling and hanging out for that next ride.

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  14. I own a 2000 w650 and love it. I couldn't review it better. nails the feel and joy of riding this bike to the bone. Love it's looks and more ti's feel. i'm 48 jear now and don't wan't a bike without soul and feel like a sewingmachine through the butter. Ít has to be allive like my beloved w650.

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  15. Thanks Matt for a very Zen article (referring to the great book 'Zen and the art of Motorcycle Maintenance'). I am now going to sell my wonderful 1993 VFR750F and buy a W800. Seriously. I need a bike I can maintain, a bike I don't have to give to the technicians for a service. So it's goodbye to bulletproof perfection, and hello to the rest of my riding life. Adelaide Biker.

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    1. I'm sure you won't regret it - it's a wonderful bike!

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  16. Seems like I'm a bit late to be a part of the W family... Bought mine @ Aug 2015... the smiles it brings me is in direct proportional to the miles it stacks up... Definitely will own this bike forever...

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  17. Can you comment on the difference between the W650 and the Enfield (old and new) for two-up riding with a pillion, and longer distance (a few hours) riding? I am really torn between the desire for an old iron barrel bullet, the on-paper ideal of the W, and the fact that my wife likes to come along on a ride occasionally....

    Thanks so much for your very to-the-heart review. A motorcycle is far more honestly evaluated by "feel" than by hp or torque numbers, or 0-60 times.

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