NAGANO, Japan—Some bikes, you have to “get” or you’ll miss the point entirely. Both the Street ($9,999) and Cafe ($11,499) versions of Kawasaki’s new W800 belong to that group. They exist to tell a very specific and authentic story about Kawasaki’s heritage, which is a mission that may not resonate with the average rider. But that’s okay. Motorcycling is only better because of these precious few bikes that dare be different.
The W800s are different because they aren’t your typical retros, but rather, they’re true retros. That means that instead of going to great lengths to combine classic styling with modern handling — which is what most riders look for and what most manufacturers sell — they offer both a retro look and a retro feel.
To put this in perspective, Kawasaki did the unimaginable and risked letting me throw a leg over a flawless 1966 W1, snatched from the manufacturer’s own collection, for a quick ride. The W1 is the direct ancestor of the W800. It was Kawasaki’s first big-displacement motorcycle and the largest of any Japanese model at the time; it also launched the brand’s quest to always offer the biggest or fastest product of its class.
The W1 is slightly smaller than the W800 Street, but otherwise remarkably similar. Its 360-degree, 624 cc, air-cooled, kick start, right shift, four-speed vertical twin didn’t sound exactly like the W800’s because of what seemed like open pipes, but it was close. I stepped off the W1 and immediately rode away on the Street and was struck with a number of similarities.
What’s the same?
The W800 engine shares the same architecture but adds a beveled-gear camshaft drive. Is this the only machine in motorcycling to do so today? It also has a fifth speed, electric start and left-hand shift, and it felt very good by comparison. The thumping of the pistons is of the same nature, but much better controlled on the W800 where it feels more like a pleasant pulse than just vibration. The sound of the stock pea-shooter exhausts is obviously more muffled, but still familiar.
The first time I pulled away on the W800, right after stepping off the W1, its modest 51 hp felt quick. That was the only time it felt quick, though. But the brakes felt like actual brakes (with standard ABS) and the clutch (with assist and slipper functions) felt modern. What stood out most, however, was how obvious and direct the family tie is between these two machines, separated by 53 years.
I was particularly impressed at how modern and sophisticated the W800 felt, as much from a general mechanical point of view as ergonomically, while staying true to the original bike. Proportions of modern bikes have changed considerably and the way you sit on them just isn’t the same as on very old motorcycles, but getting off the W1 and onto the W800 Street made it obvious that this new bike is an exception.
Is it comfortable?
The first few moments on the Street actually felt kind of strange exactly for that reason: the triangle position of seat to pegs to handlebar isn’t a common one at all. At first, I thought I was sitting on a Bonneville-type modern classic, but holding onto a cruiser-like pull-back handlebar that made me sit straight up, somewhat awkwardly. After the W1 ride, I understood the W800 is simply being ergonomically true to its ancestor. It didn’t feel so awkward after that, and as our two-day test progressed, I even began looking forward to riding the more comfortable Street than the sportier Cafe.
The U.S. market, by the way, is only selling the Cafe and not the Street. Their loss.
The Cafe is essentially a Street with a clubman-style handlebar, a bikini fairing, a slightly different seat and a few different finishing touches, and yet it feels like a completely different motorcycle. The light, bicycle-like steering of the Street is replaced by a heavier, more rider-involved feel, and the sail-like sensation brought by the Street’s in-the-wind ergos is no more. The Cafe actually offers decent wind protection, but what mostly sets it apart is the rider’s period-correct sporty posture. It felt like the Cafe had rear-set pegs, but in fact, the pegs on both variants are identical and bolted in the exact same position. The Cafe really does feel that different.
It’s also clearly the less comfortable of the pair, partly because of its slightly narrower seat and partly because of its forward-slanted riding position. Still, we aren’t talking superbike ergos here; weight on the hands is moderate on the Cafe, not at all extreme.
That classic ride
Had it only concentrated on period-correct ergonomics, style and engine feel, Kawasaki would already have a very credible pair of retros on its hands with the new W800s. But the manufacturer went one step farther. The W800 has a certain level of instability built-in. [Wha? – Ed.] Not tank-slapping instability, not dangerous in any way whatsoever instability, but rather what I’d call cute instability. Other riders didn’t exactly appreciate this aspect of the bike, but on the contrary, I found it was one of its most endearing and most interesting.
Hmm. Reading that back, maybe I should be clearer on that point. [Good idea. –Ed.]
Kawasaki never refers to “instability” regarding the W800, that’s my word. However, the press material talks extensively about the W800 being “designed to both look and feel like a classic machine from the ’60s,” about it “offering the vintage ride feel of a true classic machine” and about it having “characteristics carefully cultivated to recall the bikes of yesteryear.” Basically, Kawasaki wanted the handling itself to also have some sort of family tie with the original W1.
As far as I can tell, this was achieved by having the W800 roll on bias-ply instead of radial tires. The all-new, classic double-cradle frame itself is substantially stiffened compared to the previous generation W650/800, and the fork tubes are also beefier at 41 mm. Kawasaki could have given the W800’s rolling chassis very high rigidity if it had wanted to —let’s not forget this is the company with the 325 horsepower, 400 km/h plus H2R— but in this case, it played around with rigidity to achieve the very specific goal of a ride feel reminiscent of a 1960s motorcycle.
On the road, in most situations, both W800s feel pretty normal: they’re precise and easy to maneuver, despite being no lightweights at about 220 kg wet. But push the pace a bit on a twisty road and the softly and comfortably calibrated suspension starts to feel a tad overwhelmed, while feedback becomes blurry and pegs touch down relatively early. From the rider’s point of view, the feeling is that of pushing a machine near or over its limits at speeds where most current bikes feel like they’re asleep.
It isn’t unpleasant at all. I actually really liked feeling I was going fast and pushing the bike hard … while the speedo was reading anywhere from 40 km/h to 80 km/h. Easier on the licence, I thought! Move the needle higher, say between 130 km/h and the top speed of around 180 km/h, and both the Street and Cafe start to wallow gently from side to side. Again, this makes the rider feel like speeds are much higher than they really are.
The first time I felt the W800 move around on the highway, I started laughing in my helmet. I knew exactly what that feeling was; I hadn’t experienced it since the last early-’80s bikes I’d ridden hard, a number of years ago. On current motorcycles, whatever the class, that behaviour has long disappeared. I actually looked forward to the W800 wallowing and tried to get the speed up whenever conditions permitted it, and every single time I cracked a smile.
We’re not talking about anything dangerous here, but about a type of behavior common on vintage bikes, which is the entire point of this pair of W800s.
Not for everyone
Still, it was obvious other test riders didn’t feel as I did. Some mentioned being spooked by what they considered instability.
I’m not trying to defend the W800 here, but perhaps they didn’t have the background to understand why this bike behaves this way. They got part of the W800, like the engine, the ergos and the styling, but not this one. Would radial tires “fix” it? Maybe. But in my opinion, that would be a disgrace, taking away from the W800’s charm and character. There’s a ton of perfectly stable bikes on the market and a whole bunch of them with retro styling, if that’s what you’re looking for.
The W800s, as I said in the beginning, have a more authentic approach to this retro thing and in my view, that authenticity should be celebrated, not “fixed.” If people want to fix the W800, respectfully, they’re just not understanding what it’s about. They should move along and simply buy something else. They should leave it to those who appreciate experiencing the feel of a vintage motorcycle in a package that’s as reliable as anything else sold today. They should leave the W800 to those who get it. There are plenty of us still around.