Test Ride: Kawasaki 800 Drifter

Words: Ian Chadwick

Appearances are deceptive. The Drifter provokes double takes and second glances. Observers smile when see what they think is a beautifully restored Indian Chief, then doubt corrugates their brows as realisation dawns that it’s an illusion. Few but the cognoscenti ever peg it as a Kawasaki on causal inspection.

Kawi’s designers broke away from the Harley-Davidson-me-too mind set that ensnares most Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, by making the Drifter into an Indian look-alike. Well, sort of. In fact, it looks more like a Harley made over to look like an Indian through cunning use of accessories.

The Drifter is based on Kawi’s popular Vulcan, which is itself a Japanese Harley clone. But the details significantly separate the two models. The Drifter has considerably less chrome, with more refined styling elements, and strong retro touches. It is very easy to confuse the Drifter with its ancestor-in-style, the Indian, at least at first glance – the deeply valanced fenders, the wide handlebars, floorboards with heel-toe shifter, spoked wheels, and a tank-top speedometer contribute to the deception. It is a very beautiful bike.

Liquid cooled motor is overly quiet through exhaust system.

The designers, however, seemed to have a mental block when it came to colour and sound. Aside form the bright “Sunbeam” red of the 800 model, the Drifter colours are uninspired. And the engine makes less noise than a pencil sharpener, hardly noticeable more than a few feet away and desperately in need of improvement to retain its retro feel. Fortunately, both of these failings can be rectified, if you’re willing to invest in the bike.

As far as engineering, however, the Drifter is a modern motorcycle. It uses the Vulcan’s liquid cooled V-twin engine (805 or 1500cc), with some enhancements (the 1500cc version is fuel injected, for example). The final drive for the big model is shaft, but the smaller one uses a chain, giving it more of a traditional look, not to mention a bit more grunt for its size and weight (536 lbs compared to the hefty 1500, at 668 lbs).

800 version seems to be generally preferred over the bigger 1500

The 800 is the only Vulcan using Kawasaki’s K-TRIC throttle position sensing system, but frankly I can’t tell if it really makes a difference to performance. The Drifter isn’t going to win races; it’s adequate, but not exceptional as far as power goes. It offers a calm roll on and modest follow-through. That’s okay; I prefer comfortably cruising the town at slower speeds to give onlookers more opportunity to stare at the bike and try and guess what I’m riding (I craftily removed the Kawasaki decal from the air filter to further cloud their minds).

While it looks ponderous, the 800 Drifter is actually quite nimble and produces an acceptable amount of power and torque for a medium-size cruiser. It certainly isn’t in the league with my (late) Triumph Thunderbird, but in my experience, it has slightly better output than other similarly sized V-Twins, including the Harley Sportster. Other riders have told me they preferred the 800 over the 1500 because it has better top end than the bigger machine. The fenders contribute to the heavy look, but they are light plastic, so add little extra weight. They do, however, seriously reduce road spray, at a cost of additional riding noise.

Wide bars, clocks mounted on tank and a surprising lack of chrome!

It took me a few days to get used to the wide handlebars, but they’re quite comfortable after you learn how they work the front wheel and how to lean with them. In fact, because of the drifter’s column position, the front wheel turns widely like my old BSA, a very retro feel, and easy to manoeuvre in tight parking places.

I don’t like tank-top instruments, because it means taking my eyes off the road, and retro or not, I’d prefer to have a tachometer since the engine is so quiet. At least Kawi provided self- cancelling turn signal, effective mirrors and a good headlight.

The seat is a glaringly obvious design compromise. It’s comfortable, low (29”) and rides well, but looks awkward and out of place. The back end sticks up like a dog in heat, unattached from the back suspension because Kawi made the rear fender ride up and down with the wheel, so it needs room to move. There is a solo seat available, but it doesn’t allow for saddle bags. Kawi has not yet announced any bags that will suit the Drifter with either seat, so I simply threw my old ones over the passenger portion. They ride high and wide from the bike, but there aren’t any other options short of engineering a rack to hold others.

Suspension is typical of cruisers, with a hidden, single seven-position adjustable rear shock (the 1500 has visible dual shocks). The front uses the same 41mm forks on all Vulcans, which are not adjustable. However, I seldom find suspension a significant issue on cruisers, since most of the riding is on paved roads. There is a little engine vibration that translates through the bars and floorboards, but it’s a motorcycle after all, and a V-twin to boot. If I wanted it smooth, I would have got a rocking chair instead.

The disc brakes work as well as necessary, considering this isn’t a bike for racing. Editor ‘arris won’t be able to pull those neat ‘stoppies’ on it (I can try – ‘arris). They stop the bike, don’t require excessive force, and that’s all I need.

The gas tank takes 15 liters (4 gal), which provides average trip length (about 160-180 kms). I would prefer a larger tank, to give me more distance potential, but it’s better than the1500, which only has a 16 liter tank and a hungrier engine.

The Drifter uses the five-speed Vulcan transmission with a heel-toe shifter and “positive neutral finder.” It shifts smoothly, although occasionally tosses in a false neutral. This may just be during the bike’s break-in period. I have come to appreciate the floorboards for their riding comfort, although they reduce the cornering clearance. In a spill, however, they will protect the engine and rider by keeping both above the pavement (take my word on this).

There aren’t a lot of accessories available for the Drifter yet, and the few that are seem only for the 1500 model. There is a light bar, some chrome bits, that sort of thing, but no windshield or hard bags. I installed a stock windshield, but the wide bars make it difficult to mount anything suitable without tinkering. I’ve added the standard ‘bad boy’ bits of off-the-shelf leather, but the bike cries for more. Are you listening, Kawasaki? Drifter owners need more accessories!

Overall, the bike is easy to ride, smooth and functional. As far as engineering goes, it is adequate for the task it serves; a well-established design with no flaws or quirks to mar your riding pleasure. But in the looks department, it’s drop-dead gorgeous, at least in red. It’s guaranteed to bring oohs and ahhs of appreciation, even from many Harley riders who normally sniff at Japanese bikes. With a few well-placed accessories, the bike is a visual delight. The judicious use of a long-shank drill bit to open the muffler a bit will help make it an aural delight, too.

 

Bike

Kawasaki 800 Drifter

MSL

$10,500

Displacement

805 cc

Engine type

V-twin, liquid cooled

Carburetion

1 x CVK 36 mm

Final drive

five speed, chain drive

Tires, front

130/90-16

Tires, rear

140/90-16

Brakes, front

single disc

Brakes, rear

single disc

Seat height

760 mm (29.9″)

Wheelbase

1,615 mm (63.6″)

Dry weight

n/a

Canadian colours

Beige or Blue

3 thoughts on “Test Ride: Kawasaki 800 Drifter”

  1. My 99 800 is fantastic, just over 60,000 on it and still running strong, last year we went as far south west as Mount Rushmore and Billings Mt. From Ontario Canada…..

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