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- Written by Carole Nash Editor
- Created: 19 June 2008
’That’s a nice BSA A10’ will be one of the most common comments any Kawasaki W650 owner will hear.
The black and chrome basic retro machine is almost a carbon copy of the sort of twins once churned out by the British factories back in the 1960s, but underneath the oily rocker style, the W650 is a modern motorcycle.
With a modest 100mph performance, no fairing and budget suspension, the Kawasaki W650 is really a mid sized commuter bike, with that unmistakable Britbike look layered over the top. But when the real Beeza or Trumpet twins can still be snapped up secondhand for around half the cost of this imitation, do you really need the W650?
We rumbled into Brighton in a leather-jacketed convoy. Revving up our 650cc parallel twin engines, two-tone paintwork and chromed exhausts gleaming shining through the dullness of the spring afternoon. Like the rockers who had ridden this way on their Bonnevilles and Dominators in the Sixties, we hit the south coast looking for adventure.
If there had been any scooter riders here, they had obviously known we were coming, and left as fast as their tinny two-stroke hairdryers could take them. There wasn´t a Parka jacket or a mirror-laden Lambretta to be seen; just a girl on a Honda step-thru and a Piaggio in a parking bay. We drove past, resisting the temptation to kick it over.
Well, alright, perhaps I´m exaggerating, but you need a bit of imagination to make the most of the W650.
It´s true that, back in the Sixties days of the mods and rockers, hardly anyone outside Japan had heard of the 650cc W1 and later W2 parallel twins (based on BSA´s A10) with which Kawasaki was beginning its move towards large-capacity bikes. But such details haven´t stopped the Japanese firm, inspired by home-market enthusiasm for all things retro, from returning to its roots with a lookalike 650cc twin.
The W650 drips with nostalgia all the way from its gaitered front forks, via the petrol tank´s rubber knee-pads to its twin shocks and even the white bead around the edge of its seat. At the bike´s heart is an aircooled, 675cc engine that incorporates an unusual bevel cam drive, presumably designed to resemble a pushrod tube, plus a kickstarter that will surely never be needed.
Just as with the Indian Chief-lookalike Drifter V-twins, Kawasaki´s designers have pulled no punches in going for the period look.
Any modern technology is kept well hidden, but the sohc, eight-valve engine is all new and has a few notable features. Drive to the camshaft is by hypoid gear, meaning that the bevel shaft is offset to one side of the gears at its top and bottom, which reduces noise. Although the system is not authentically retro (owing much more to Ducati´s singles than to a typical pushrod-operated parallel twin), and must be more expensive to produce than a camchain, it should prove both accurate and reliable.
The engine has long-stroke dimensions at 72 x 83mm, and uses a 360-degree crankshaft (both pistons rising and falling together), with a single contra-rotating balancer shaft in front of it. Each cylinder´s four valves are operated by rockers, which can easily be slid to one side to allow adjustment using shims. Peak power is 50bhp at 7000rpm, which is 3bhp less than the figure claimed for the W2 over 30 years ago.
The twin-downtube steel frame has a larger rectangular-section main spine, and holds non-adjustable forks and twin shocks designed to look as old-fashioned as possible. There´s a touch of technology in the plastic-coated, corrosion-resistant wheel spokes, but that´s about as high-tech as the chassis gets. Wheel sizes are 19 inch front, 18 rear, with the rear end sticking to a drum brake while the front gets a drilled 300mm disc and twin-piston caliper.
A pair of traditionally black-faced clocks and the chromed headlamp continue the old-style look when you climb aboard a seat which, at 800mm, is tall enough to leave short riders on tiptoe at a standstill.
Unlike an old Smith´s speedo, this one incorporates a digital clock and tripmeter. And unlike a bike of that period, this one started with just a simple press of the button, coming to life with a slight whirring from the cam gear and a mellow, typically parallel-twin note from the traditionally shaped twin silencers. There´s even a device to prevent kick-back if, for some perverse reason, you decide to use the kickstart.
Our plan was to reach Brighton by an authentic route of minor roads rather than motorways, and before long I was cruising southwards in the middle of the pack of five bikes. The Kawa quickly showed that it had roughly the straight-line performance of a typical old twin, albeit with a much more sophisticated and up-to-date feel. Throttle response from the pair of Keihin CV carbs was crisp and light, and the W650 pulled instantly and smoothly from almost any revs.
My only slight problem, as we headed through the suburbs south-west of London, was that the otherwise slick five-speed gearbox occasionally found its way into neutral when I changed up from first with insufficient pressure on the lever. (At least Kawasaki hadn´t put neutral at the top of the box, as with the old W2.) The five-speed gearbox was otherwise good; the controls and switches typically modern and easy to use.
When the A23 opened out the twin didn´t need much asking to surge to over 90mph, and it was happy to pull from below 50mph in top without a downchange. The W650 cruised at an indicated 80mph with an effortless feel that no old twin could match. There was very little vibration, the clocks didn´t spin in their mountings in period style, mirrors remained useful, and comfort was pretty good provided I didn´t take the unfaired bike much above that speed.
The lack of wind protection didn´t stop me winding the throttle back in time-honoured fashion when the opportunity arose, of course, and the Kawa tonked up to just over 110mph on the clock with a little more to come. Although the W650 probably has no more top-end performance than the average 30-year-old twin, it´s certainly a lot more usable and smooth up near the 7700rpm redline, as well as more reliable. But midrange acceleration was steady rather than explosive, and a sweet-running Bonnie would give the newcomer a hard time in a straight line.
If the new bike´s engine performance was pretty similar to that of an old twin then the same was certainly not true of the handling, which was considerably sharper than the old-fashioned chassis layout would suggest. The wide bars helped the bike feel pleasantly light and flickable at lower speeds, despite its big 19-inch front wheel. At 195kg the twin weighs less than many sports bikes, and although its suspension is quite soft and not exactly state-of-the-art, the Kawa would run rings round the average Sixties twin.
The only slight drawback of the W650´s light steering was that the bike got twitchy at speed, largely due to the forces being fed through those high bars.
Above about 85mph it could easily be provoked into a handlebar-flap that wasn´t dangerous, but might have seemed that way to some of the novice or born-again riders at whom this bike is aimed. Maybe Kawasaki should have added one of those hydraulic steering dampers that became associated with the marque thanks to the wobbly H1 and H2 two-stroke triples in the Seventies...
Hard riding on some of the tight, bumpy roads of mid-Sussex made the W650 feel a bit spongy, too, but generally it kept its cool pretty well. There was enough ground clearance for some fun on roundabouts, and Bridgestone´s Accolade tyres (Dunlop TT100s are an alternative fitment) provided a very acceptable amount of grip, despite the front cover´s old-fashioned ribbed tread design. Even a shower of rain as we approached Brighton in evening rush-hour traffic didn´t cause any dramas.
Brighton itself was a bit of a disappointment, at least for a leather-jacketed gang looking for thrills. The last time I´d ridden this way was on an old Bonneville, a few years ago, along with dozens of other British bikes on a Rockers Reunion run. Then, with the old bikes all lined-up outside the Hungry Years pub on the front, and riders in studded leather and other period gear, it had been easy to imagine we were assembling for a rumble with some mods on the stony beach.
This time round the rain had stopped by the time we reached the town centre, but the grey, threatening sky helped explain the lack of people, let alone scooterists, about as we rode along the sea-front. There were just some kids on roller-blades, a guy jogging and a couple of old men chatting on a bench near the pier. Then some teenage girls arrived, but they were in town for a Boyzone concert, not to listen to Bill Haley on a coffee-bar juke-box.
So ultimately our attempt to bring the Sixties back to Brighton was not a great success, but that can´t be blamed on the W650. Sure, Kawasaki´s new twin can´t match the charisma of a genuine Bonneville or Commando. But it has similar performance, plus better handling and braking. At £4150 (plus about £300 OTR) it´s good value too, as well as infinitely more practical. If you´ve got enough imagination, the W650 does a good job of providing Brit twin style without the hassle of the real thing.
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Engine Air-cooled parallel twin
Claimed power (bhp) -bhp @ -rpm
Compression ratio 8.6:1
Front suspension;39mm telescopic forks
Rear suspension; Twin shocks, adjustments for preload
Front brake; Twin-piston caliper, 300mm disc
Rear brake;160mm drum
Front tyre;100/90 x 19in Bridgestone Accolade
Rear tyre;130/80 x 18in Bridgestone Accolade
Seat height;800mm (31.5in)
Dry weight;195kg (429lb)
Carburation;Twin 34mm Keihin
Top speed - mph
Fuel capacity 15 litres