Insidebikes’ road tester Adam ‘Chad’ Child travelled to Japan to test Kawasaki’s new heritage range, which can trace its routes back to the W1 650 of 1965. But does it sound and ride as good as it looks?
The now obsolete ‘old’ W800 was in desperate need of an upgrade, especially as it didn’t conform to the latest Euro 4 emissions regulations. For 2019 Kawasaki have delivered an all-new W800 with two variants to choose from: the laidback Street and the racier Café.
So what’s new?
Kawasaki haven’t been tempted to chase horsepower or overcomplicate a proven recipe. They’ve have kept it simple, as a good 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. Internally the engine has been upgraded with new pistons but remains similar to the older unit with a quoted, A2-compliant, 47bhp at 6000rpm. Kawasaki could have opted for water-cooling and even conventional chain driven cams, which would have resulted in more power, but instead have kept it simple, authentic and true to the 1960s originals.
The chassis has been renovated to improve steering response and give the W800 a sportier edge. 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 older bike’s rear drum brake has been exchanged with a more modern disc, and the front 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 also matches the rear.
For 2019 there are two variants to choose from, the £8399 W800 Street or the pricier, £9099, W800 Café. Both share the same basic platform and have identical engines, performance, chassis and brakes. The Street is easily recognisable with its laidback bars, wide retro seat, chrome spoked wheels and details such as a black-only bevel cover, while the Café comes with drop bars, blackout out wheels and engine, plus side tankpads, a chrome bevel cover and, most obviously, a small bikini fairing.
On the go
The parallel twin, with its long-stoke 360-degree crankshaft, fires up with a rewarding burble. With a pull of the one-finger-light clutch (with a new back-torque limiter) and a neat click into first gear, our first experience of the W800s (on the Japanese press launch) 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, even as low as 2000rpm, and simply short-shift to the national speed limit.
With only 47bhp, the W800 could hardly be described as rapid. It’s slow revving and almost lazy 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.
The wide bars on the Street allow you to have some excitement in the bends, and you can throw the Street around with relative ease, ideal in town. 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 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 changed 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 by a full litre. The Café’s racer bars adjust your body position, sitting you further forward with more weight on wrists. It’s not as natural as the Street and a tad uncompromising around town.
On the open road the Café feels more animated. The aggressive, almost racy riding position encourages you to ride a little faster and hold the revs a little longer, egged on by that captivating exhaust. Once into the mountain region of Kirigamine I preferred the racy Café.
But the Café style does come with compromises. 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 body weight over the front, the forks don’t feel as luxurious either. 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.
But in terms of demand and appearance, the Café hits the nail on the head. The front cowl is a throwback to the café racer culture, and is more for show than any real wind protection. I favour the looks of the Café over the Street, and favour the feel of the sportier bike, too, but after two days and over 300km of relatively steady Japanese riding, I enjoyed the Street a bit more.
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 rival. 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 distributed. 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.
I’ve lost count of the number of Japanese retro and cruiser bikes that ride perfectly and look great, but lack charm and personality compared to similar bikes made in Europe or the America. However, the new W800 Street, which can trace its DNA back to the original W1 from 1965, ticks all the boxes
Bikes in this class shouldn’t be evaluated on performance or handling – it’s how they make you feel that counts. Every time I jumped on the new W800 I grinned; even on day three I was still being charmed by the easy-to-ride Kawasaki. 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 the W800 delivers.
Make and model: Kawasaki Street and Café
Price: Street £8399 Café £9099
Engine: 773cc air-cooled parallel-twin SOHC 8v
Power: 47bhp (35kW) @ 6000rpm
Torque: 46.39lb-ft & 62.9Nm @ 4800rpm
Frame: Steel double-cradle
Brakes: Front: single 320mm disc, two-piston caliper. Rear: 270mm disc, two-piston caliper
Transmission: 5 gears, chain final drive
Suspension: Front: 41mm conventional telescopic forks, non-adjustable. Rear: twin shocks with pre-load adjustment
Wheels/tyres: Front: 100/90 x18. Rear: 130/80 x18 (Dunlop K300)
Seat height: Street 770mm, Café 790mm
Fuel capacity: 15 litres
MPG: 55 (est)
Weight: Street 221kg, Café 223kg
Warranty: Two years
Service intervals: 600 miles, then 7600 miles, 15,200 miles, 22,800 miles