Comparo: Triumph Bonneville vs. Kawasaki W650

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Words: Rob Harris   Photos: Rob Harris/Wilfred Gaube

It’s been almost two years since we first rode Kawasaki’s retro twin, the W650. Although the 2001 model looks unchanged, Kawasaki have listened to some of the complaints about an otherwise very usable machine and tweaked a few widgets here and there.

For starters, the frame’s been altered a tad to increase the steering angle and trail for more stability. There’s also a set of slightly louder pipes as standard, the seat’s been reshaped and the unfeasibly large tank pads have thankfully been cut back down to the realm of the feasible.

SPOT THE DIFFERENCES

But changes according to a press release and actually getting the thing dirty are two very different things. It was obvious, we needed a W650 to retest. We also wanted to be able to compare it directly to the Bonnie, so, in order to conduct a proper back to back, another Bonneville was required for the day (yes I’d just ridden one for 2000km around the UK, but there’s nothing quite like jumping off one and straight on t’other to get a real feel for the differences).

Of the two retro twins, the W650 was the first out the gate by a year and retailed for a grand less, but was missing that main ingredient – the name on the tank. Triumph waited till this year to launch their retro twin, which has an additional 114cc of engine capacity, more advanced double overhead cam design (although they kept with the conventional camchain over Kawi’s fancy schmancy shaft jobbie) and not just the name on the tank, but the one on the sidepannels too – Bonneville.

The test W650 was supplied by Kawasaki, the Bonnie by Sergeant Bob Paterson – cop, motorcyclist and, most important of all, CMGer (thanks Bob). Funnily enough, the ride turned out to be a rather wet and .. muddy affair, thanks to a combination of mother nature and my now questionable route planning skills. Hey, you’d be surprised at how fast you can actually go on a wet dirt road. Sorry for leaving you with the ‘orrible cleanup job Sergeant Patterson!

The Bonnie!

Initially I’d assumed that there would be little diversity between the two bikes. After all, they’re both retro styled air cooled twins, with a 360 degree crank engine layout, balancer shafts and a sit-up-and-beg riding position. And they were also both going for the same look, feel and, presumably, market. However, doing that jumping off one and straight to the other was quite an eye opener.

For starters, there’s a very different feel between the two bikes, even before the ignition is turned on. The Kawi is more compact, lighter, higher up and well … classic. This carried through on the ride as well. Although both motors are balanced to cut down vibes, the Kawi lets some of them get through to the rider. Not in an annoying way, but you know you’re on a twin. The Triumph on the other hand feels smoother than a baby’s arse after a session with Mr. Sheen (the cleaning product, not the pervert – although I have often suspected). Granted it does develop some in the higher rpm range, but the net result is that ironically, the Kawi feels more “shagadelically British” than the Triumph (in that classic 60’s sense of the word).

It all seems arse about face initially, but when you ride them both you start to realise that they are about as similar as apples and a plastic banana. The Bonnie has a certain luxurious and grandiose feel to it. Although it’s only 8 Kg heavier, it feels a class higher than the Kawi, defined by the additional, and lower down, torque (44ft lbs @ 3,500rpm vs 40ftlb @ 5,500 rpm) and the extra 11bhp.

It’s solid and taught in the corners, thanks to its significantly longer wheelbase, compared to the softly sprung Kawi, which in contrast has a nippier, snappier character – wanting to be revved like a masochist craves a beating, and encouraging the rider to push it a bit more than they may usually would, or actually want to.

This may sound like a bad thing, but it’s not, it’s just …. err, different. It excels when it comes to sliding in and out of town traffic (and the tall seat height helps to see ahead somewhat) and is very capable on the highway too.

The most significant 2001 change to the “W” (pronounced dubya, as in “what the @*!& is George “W” doing now?”) is the louder stock pipes. I’m not sure how Kawi got these through the strangulation of noise regs, but it’s quite roarty and pleasant. Not loud-loud, but definitely … yes, roarty. It does beg the question of why they didn’t do this from the get go and then the next question is why the hell didn’t Triumph do something similar with the Bonnie (which sounds like a dead cat, gagged and hog-tied, in a heavy burlap sack at the bottom of a lake)?

They also opted to give the seat some shape as opposed to the previous plank-like style. I didn’t like this as I’m just too lanky for this idea. Plank-like allows me to slide back and stretch out. The new seat forces me into one spot and leaves me a bit too cramped, especially for the longer hauls.

WHICH ONE THEN?

If I had to choose between the two, I’d opt for the Triumph. Initially it feels too staid, but if you take the initiative to push it a tad, it responds eagerly and quickly becomes fun, putting a smile on your face and urging you to explore its capabilities. The motor also has the edge, with a more tractor like pull and well spaced box.

However, the W650 doesn’t quite suit its gearing and leaves you prodding for a 6th more often than not. Otherwise, it’s its own motorcycle and should appeal to a different rider than the Bonnie. Unfortunately for Kawasaki, I think that rider would be more convinced if there was a greater price difference between the two. At $8,999 it’s already a tad steep (Suzuki’s excellent SV650 is only $8,299) and the real Bonnie is only a grand more at $9,995. Maybe $7,999 would hit the spot, but then I’m not a marketing guy, thank god.

WHAT DO YOU (OR DON’T YOU) GET FOR THE $$$$?

When I was planning out this piece, I ended up drawing up a table of distinct differences between the two bikes. Anyway, it proved to be quite interesting so I thought “Self, why not post this table at the end of the article for the fine CMG readership”. Self replied “Sure, that would be great, and by the way, kill ’em. Kill ’em all” – uh oh, time for some more medication …..

Component/
Characteristic
W650
Bonneville
Engine SOHC, 676 cc, Shaft cam drive. DOHC, 790 cc, Chain cam drive.
Vibration Some. Smooth, especially low down.
Kick-starter Yes, I have one! (although you’ll probably never use it) What? It’s 2001 you know.
Economy 21 km/l 18 km/l
Tachometer Tachs ooot for the lads! Hey, who needs a tach?
Fenders Chromed. Painted.
Gas Cap Just put in yer key, turn and pivot up and open. No key, just turn and turn and turn. Press hard, use vice grips, open eventually.
Seat Short asses need not apply. Long asses shall not move about. Firm but pleasantly usable.
Handlebars As wide as the day is long, and a weird size to boot. Let’s keep it standardish folks.
Choke Easy access on the bars baby. It’s easier to find Waldo.
Exhaust Roarty and classic (no kink) lines. That dead cat thing although you can buy a “off road” set for a mere $600 (fantastic according to Mr. Tate, comes with carb jets too).
Suspension Bit soft. Firm and fruity.
Centrestand Hey, we’re retro. Why not? Because I can charge you another $322.50, that’s why.
Passenger Make sure you like ’em, you’re going to be snug. Not bad but you’re gonna need the sissy bar option (and another $427.50, kerching).

Some more pics ….

Above: Triumph clock
Below: W650 clocks
Above: Bonnie tank pad accessories
Below: Bonnie optional sissy bar

Thanks to Bob Patterson for the ride on his Bonnie, Kawasaki for the W650 loaner, Triumph for the Bonnie loaner in England and Tony’s Cycle in Kingston, Ontario for the Triumph accessories information.

Bike

Triumph Bonneville Kawasaki W650

MSL

$9,995.00 $8,999.00

Displacement

790 cc 676 cc

Engine type

Inline dohc twin, air/oil cooled, DOHC in-line twin, air-cooled, SOHC

Carburetion

Twin, with throttle position sensor and electric heaters Two carburettors

Final drive

5 speed, chain drive 5 Speed, chain drive

Tires, front

100/90 R 19 100/90-H19

Tires, rear

130/80 R 17 130/80-H18

Brakes, front

Single 310 mm disc with two-piston calipers Single 300 mm semi-floating disc, two- piston caliper

Brakes, rear

Single 255 mm disc with two-piston caliper Drum

Seat height

775 mm (30.5″) 800 mm (31.5 in)

Wheelbase

1,493 mm (58.8″) 1,450 mm (57.1″)

Dry weight

205 Kg (451 lbs) (claimed) 197 Kg (434 lbs) (claimed)

Canadian colours

Red/Silver, Green/Silver Red/Black, Green/White

 

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