First Ride: 2019 Kawasaki W800

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.

If you owned this absolutely exquisite 1966 Kawasaski W1, would you let Bert ride it? No, neither would we.

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.

The 2019 Kawasaki W800 Street – more of the same, but with an extra gear, an electric start and a left-hand shift. And decent brakes.

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.

Right off the W1 and onto the W800 Street, the 2019 bike felt quick for Bert. But only that first time.

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 2019 Kawasaki W800 Cafe – more expensive, and the only bike the Americans will be able to buy.

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.

Those red bits are the Street, overlaid onto the Cafe to help show the difference in ergonomics between the two.

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.

The W800’s new frame is considerably stiffer. The tubes illustrated in green are all thickened and strengthened.

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.

Bert cranks the W800 up to speed on a curving Japanese road near Nagano. He’s probably not going all that quick, though he thinks he is.

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.

There’s more engineering in there than you might think.

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.

A little bit quicker now, but not much, and Bert’s getting into the spirit of the ride.

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.

Paused for a while before heading back, there’s no denying the good looks of the W800 Cafe.

15 thoughts on “First Ride: 2019 Kawasaki W800”

  1. It appears Royal Enfield can market a decent bike at 60% of the cost of the W800? Before I could justify buying the Kawasaki, that would have to be explained.

    1. More like 80-85% of the cost.
      The Royal Enfield is also of much lower quality for fit, finish and more importantly: materials.
      Wheels are paper thin, controls are cheap plastic, sub frames are weak, engine and transmission not even close to Kawasaki in design or build.
      Do you own either? I’ve owned both (RE now sold) and can say the W800 is excellent quality and a cracking nice bike to ride.
      The RE is much lower quality but a decent enough bike to ride – I had serious concerns about reliability and that is why it was sold.

          1. To put it in perspective – I rode over 4000 km’s offroad in Baja this past March on the RE Himalayan – sold it a week after I returned.
            I’m not just offering empty opinions – “I put my money where my mouth is”, as they say.

            1. Viking – fair enough, I have not laid eyes on either the new twins or the Himalayan.
              I was hoping for better, the older singles were indeed crude at best.

      1. I’ve always been a big fan of the W’s. I had a W650 briefly about 5 years ago, (I didn’t sell it because I wanted to), and the deep burgundy, with cream 2-tone paint and polished and chrome engine and exhaust were beautiful. When I saw the new 800 at the Toronto Motorcycle Show, it just didn’t seem as pretty with the flat paint and blacked out engine. Still a nice bike but to me, the Royal Enfield 650 looked nicer. I thought the quality of it, particularly the paint, was very acceptable. But I obviously don’t have ownership experience. What didn’t you like about the Himalayan?

  2. I certainly remember wallowing in corners on my ’70s-era bikes. I also certainly remember doing everything I could to get rid of it: fork springs, different fork oil, steering dampers, progressive shocks, etc. I simply cannot see anything endearing about slaloming my way through a corner despite the slither appearing to be harmless.

    Different strokes, indeed.

    1. I’m not sure if there was something amiss with the author’s bike, the suspension setup, or perhaps low tire pressure?
      I’ve been riding around eastern Ontario this spring on my new W800 Cafe and simply didn’t recognize the same bike through the description in this article.
      Twin shocks are certainly appropriate for the retro design, and they do have their characteristics – but the description in this article simply does not match my own experience.
      It’s a brilliant motorcycle to ride, balance is spot on, turn in is neutral, easy and confident.
      Ergos are a bit long for reach, a bit cramped for crouch; both fixed with inexpensive bar risers and an exchange to Ninja style pegs – a gain of an inch or so for both points and a world of difference for riding comfort.
      A two hour ride and a quick stop for petrol will see you on your way for another 2 hour jaunt in comfort and, if you get this motorcycle at all, in style.

      1. There was no one bike assigned to me. I randomly rode any of the 10 test bikes shared by the media (5 C, 5 S) over two days in a wide variety of conditions. All were prepared by Kawasaki Japan and all behaved the same way.

  3. From the inturdnet,
    easy to adjust valves,slide rocker arm replace shims… no need to remove cam
    no cam chain,no cam chain tensioner issues (lots of aftermarket manual tensioners 4 sale)
    I wonder if this system cant be applied to higher performance engines(no money to made)

    1. Bevel drive was used in (among others) Ducati singles and twins during the late 1960s and 70s. Its expensive to manufacture – chains, belts and internal gears do a better job, especially for higher rpm applications.

  4. Beautiful bike but another 800cc + bike for the Canadian market? I guess affluent Babyboomers are the only people who are buying traditional looking motorcycles? Bikes like this are out of reach for many because of the insurance group and obviously the price of these models. It would be nice to see some smaller mid-priced trad bikes.

  5. My now deceased best friend of many yeras bought one of those old W-1 650 Kawasakis. His had a single carb. I got to ride that thing a few times. This was around 1970 or so. I had an old mid sixties BSA 500 twin with twin Amal Monoblock carbs. My BSA had a nice mid range and high end, but I LOVED the power characteristics of that old W-1. Stump pulling torque and a beautiful low end to mid range.

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