In 1965, Kawasaki recognized an opportunity for real motorcycles here in North America – not cutesie Beach Boys Hondas, but ones that could reach and manage highway speeds – and introduced the 500cc W1.
The new 2019 Kawasaki W800 Street and W800 Café are meant to celebrate the brand’s important, early models with an honest tribute to what people loved about those now-classic machines, for better, and for worse. By riding the new bikes back-to-back with a splendid ’66 W1, Bertrand recently reported that the riding experience is pretty much spot-on for the classic.
Great, but what’s it like to live with, day-to-day? That’s what I found out on a new Café model.
How is it to ride?
By modern sport-bike standards, the new W800 is reasonably kind to the human physiology (even this more aggressive Café model). There’s no body contortion placing a rider’s heels under the armpits, and head between the knees, as there might be a on super-sport, but there is a lot of pressure on the rider’s wrists thanks to Clubman-style bars that are inches lower and farther forward. A seat that’s slightly higher than the Street’s doesn’t help, either.
After an hour or so of highway riding on the Café, I had grown tired of the position and wished I was riding the more relaxed Street model. For the rest of the week, I puttered around, mostly in-town, commuting and running errands on the W800 Café, and found it much more agreeable for those short jaunts.
The 773 cc parallel twin puts out barely more than 50 horsepower and a little under 50 lbs.-ft. of torque, but it’s enough to move swiftly from stoplight to stoplight, and grumbles along at reasonable highway speeds. Being a twin, there’s plenty of low-end grunt, so keeping the revs to a modest level is part of its character.
There’s just something about an old-style, air-cooled twin that both looks and sounds classic. I found the twin pea-shooter pipes quiet, but the raspy note gave it plenty of character, making the sound one of my favourite experiences of riding the W800 around town.
Thankfully, Kawasaki neglected to keep the fuelling authentic to classic bikes. Instead of finnicky carburation, this new W800 is fuel injected, and the throttle response is great. There’s even a light-feeling slipper clutch to keep overzealous downshifts in check. The shift feel through the five-speed gearbox seemed a bit fuzzy, especially since I’ve grown accustomed to Kawasaki’s usual crisp shifts, or even the definitive thunks of the Triumph twins.
What about when you push it?
Despite the W800 Café’s sporty-ish riding position, it’s not a bike I had much fun riding fast on the back roads. On freshly-paved asphalt, the Café willfully leans into turns and its modest mass and size mean it’s reasonably nimble. But bumps and pavement faults reminded me just how seriously Kawasaki took its mission to make this an authentic classic-bike riding experience. The tires – skinny bias-ply, tubed ones – squirmed all over the place. The squishy tire movements are exaggerated through the old-school suspension, and quickly make the handlebars move around significantly enough to raise a rider’s heartrate.
I live near a large lift bridge with a driving surface that’s made of criss-cross metal. Most bikes give a slight wiggle as they go over the uneven surface, but the W800 was all over the place. It had me wondering if trolls residing beneath the bridge were fighting to pull the bike over the edge.
On the highway, the small fairing offers little protection from the wind, and the buffeting off large trucks at speed can send the rider and bike into shimmies and shudders.
The 41 mm front fork and twin shock rear suspension set ups are quite soft, which is nice for ride quality, but also translated into sloppy, bouncy handling. Grabbing a glove-full of the single-disc front brake can make the Café feel squirrelly too, but at least the stopping power is decent and ABS-assisted.
Style falls a bit short
When the W1 came out half a century ago, Kawasaki wisely looked to the gas tank as the styling centrepiece for the machine, painting it a gorgeous candy red with a sizeable chrome accent panel and badge. The W1 was a sensational-looking machine, but while classic in its proportions, the W800 pales in beauty or visual impact. The “W” and Kawasaki script on the tank look like simple decals (though they’re painted on), and even the Metallic Magnesium Gray colour is rather bland for a bike that’s designed to grab attention. The matte finish of the Street model is even more subdued.
The bevel gear cam drive is chromed-up nicely, throwing back to the old W1 (and BSA) days, but aside from that flourish – and a pair of lovely silver gauges – there’s little styling to really make passers-by stop and ogle, the way they did when I rode a similar Triumph T100 SE a few years ago. Or, for that matter, the number of eyeballs and kudos Kawasaki’s gorgeous Z900RS grabbed when I rode around on it last year – and that bike was a lot nicer to ride.
Is it worth the money?
The W800 Café, at $11,495, is $1,500 more than the W800 Street, but well-matched against a Moto-Guzzi V7 III Racer and Triumph Street Cup. A Royal Enfield Continental 650 GT is significantly cheaper, but perhaps not as well-built at the Kawi. AutoTRADER.ca also has several very interesting real vintage bikes listed, ranging from classic BSAs, Nortons and BMWs, to more common, vintage Hondas, all of which are priced thousands less than this new bike.
This makes me wonder who will find this bike really appealing. Sure, there’ll be some die-hard Kawi fans who want to relive their W1 experiences from decades ago and they’ll snatch up the first batch of these, but for those wanting a classic-style bike to show off, a Triumph Street Cup is a nicer riding machine (if perhaps a bit more modern-feeling), and a Moto Guzzi V7 III has a lot more personality (without the diabolical tires). A Royal Enfield Continental 650 GT is similarly true to history, but cheaper.
Those looking for a real classic riding feel with the added bonus of excellent build quality and reliability will find the W800 appealing, I suppose, but then, tinkering and keeping a classic bike running is part of the appeal and fodder for sidewalk humble-bragging, isn’t it?
I’m glad Kawasaki is celebrating its past, and the W1’s significance in the brand’s history deserves recognition. It’s a legitimate homage to the classic bike and the classic bike riding experience, but I’d be happier riding a retro-style bike that looks great and just happens to handle well in day-to-day riding, too.