When kawasaki decided togo retro, they produced a machine which aimed to please everyone but polarised opinion. frank West worth decided to try one for size
When Kawasaki decided to go retro, they produced a machine which aimed to please everyone but polarised opinion. Frank Westworth decided to try one for size
Were I an advert copywriter, which happily I am not,
I might describe Kawasaki'sw650 as sweet, neat and fleet of foot. You can see why I'm not an ad copywriter!
But in fact that silly set of words sums up the bike pretty well, because it is all of those things , as I discovered for myself, only a few decades after everyone else on the planet had ridden one and made up their own minds. No need to rush things, I feel. Wewere progressing swiftly enough along a Herefordshire 8 road, light traffic, clear views, with endless changes of direction and elevation a great road for trying out an unfamiliar machine. Except...except that the Kawasaki felt instantly familiar. So much so that I wondered for a while whether my memory was at fault and that I have in fact ridden one maybe more than one before. And I may indeed have ridden another; if so it left no impression at all. Which is not unique , but is certainly unusual. And unusual is what the W650 should be. It should be memorable , not least because their owners certainly seem to like them, and owners are
➤ never wrong are we?
A delicious left hand bend was approaching, quite quickly, the road following after the bend rewards the familiar rider by dropping away sharply and then cranking briskly right. There's also a sudden and brief speed limit and a lot of holes in the adjacent hedges. I know the road well, and know the routine. This is a twin , a 5 speeder, so it's down to third, hard on both brakes, then feather the front, ease off them both and power out smoothly, let it rev up in third, then shut it all off again for the right hand of the S bend. This is truly entertaining when it works, which it does, but I find myself largely unentertained, surprisingly ...
Kawasaki'sw650 appears to be an oddly contentious machine in several ways, and whenever new 'retro' models are produced folk instantly jump in with mysterious comparisons to it. Most recently, oddly enough, when Royal Enfield sprang their 650 twins onto a completely suspecting public. 'Is it as good as a W650?'was a chorus I heard and read with tedious frequency. That is in fact one of the reasons I decided to borrow one of the Japanese 650 twins to see whether Icould find out what all the fuss isabout. So far, on this occasion at least, so little fuss.the machine is as entirely competent as anything similar from Japan Inc., but it's unremarkable .
Which is not, of course, always a bad thing.
Listed as it was from 1999 until 2006, and latterly reincarnated as a WBOO,IT was inevitable that this earlier retro twin should be compared to the most well known retro twins of them all;triumph's early modern Bonnevilles. I'm no great fan of those, either, so I've learned little from the on line debates I've read. The Kawasaki looks better. Its styling is more like an old Brit twin than the early Sonnies, which always appeared oddly ill proportioned to me, as well as being fairly unremarkable to ride unlike the early Hinckley triples, which could be totally involving on the road and were ram packed
with character and charm.
It's maybe curious that although Kawasaki built excellent air cooled twins back in the allegedly classicyears,notably the Z750, their first retro resembles ayamaha,at least to my uncultured eye. I've ridden a few of those, and they 're good to ride, although and this may be the key to my general underwhelmedment (I made up that word) with the W650 I genuinely preferred both BSA'SA65 and Triumph's T120 to the technically far superior Yamaha. At least, I preferred their engines, and maybe the styling of the export BSA. Meanwhile, onward we sailed.
Riding a bike, a comfortable riding position, controls placed in familiar positions , and with everything work ing as it should as here is never an unpleasant experience. Well, OK, it can be, but there was nothing unpleasant about the Kawasaki.it felt completely competent. I found a straight bit of road, across a flatland with visibility for miles, almost no traffic and certainly no hidden cameras,and wound it through the gears. I had the owner's permission , the eng ine was running well and well warmed through, in caseyou wondered. What happened? It went faste r.
The engine is rigidly mounted to the frame and runs a 360° crank, but the smooth running is due to an effective balance shaft, sitt ing in front of the crank itself, as is the modern way. In the Kawasaki the balancer is certainly effective and would it be impolite to suggest that it's almost too effective?
Evenwhen caning the beast there's little mechanical accompaniment, little sign of effort or stress.and there's precious little exhaust rasp, also. Which is a tribute to effective silencer design, but it all feels very unexciting, somehow.
The riding position is excellent, perfect for chucking the bike at the corners, which it handles with agility, composure and a decent level of precision , with suspension at both ends working well together little pitching, even when braking hard into a corner. Hard braking is a relative thing , of course.this machine is not one to scareits rider with a shrieking tyre adding musical accompaniment to the stopping experience .
Let me say this, before you get the wrong impression: the W650 is a good bike to ride . It does what you'd expect a traditional carburated 650 twin to do. It has no actual flaws that I could find . It even looks nice, in an interpretive kind of way, and looks rather more 'classic' than the earlier Hinckley Bonn ies.but... light myfires it did not. It has
➤ none of the exhilaration that a decenttl 20
can deliver. It's more smooth, more unfussy, more ... civilised. Isthat a criticism? Not really, although it reads like one.
Performance is a thing for me. How a bike does what it does decides whether or not I want to get back onto it the minute after I've stepped off. When I returned this machine to its not very nervous owner, Ijust said 'Hmmm .. .'
To which he replied, 'I know what you mean: Faint praise indeed.
So then, what is it? Is it technically interesting? And the answer to that seemingly innocuous question is probably the key to my being underwhelmed while riding it. Running up the right hand side of the engine is a great big shiny chrome tower , rising from a bulge in the crankcase to the cylinder head, where it enters a great big, bulbous and very technical looking structure. It looks remarkable unique, in fact. You probably know already that this assembly houses the bike's major selling point (well, it would be for this rider): the bevel drive to the single overhead camshaft. A bevel drive? Yesindeed. There should hopefully be an illustration nearby which will show you how it's put together.
Bevel drive engines have never been common in the great catalogue of British bike designs. Ducati used them lots before they saw the light and switched to flexible belts to spin their camshafts. Norton and Velocette are probably the best known British manufacturers to have used them, and they used them on high performance singles, not cooking twins, which is what the W650 is. In brief, the system takes the drive from the end of the crankshaft, turns it through a right angle by a pair of bevel gears, which rotate a shaft running up to the cylinder head, where a second set of bevel gears turns the drive back through another right angle, so spinning the camshaft. Chains and belts are a lot easier. Also a lot lessexpensive to build, as they require little precision.
That may have been Kawasaki'sintention: to show off their engineering prowess and wow all those bevel drive fans out there, snatching sales away from riders who would otherwise waste their money buying a cam my Norton or Velo. Doesthis seem likely? Of course not, which is where my bewilderment comes in.
A great feature of the otherwise relatively complicated bevel drive set up is that the valve timing doesn't wander around as it can with ohv engines using long pushrods or with chain driven ohc engines where the chain tension can vary, taking the valve timing with it. This is of course extremely important if you 're stretching your bike to its outer limits on a race track. Lessso if you're
pobbling down to the cafe to share a brew with your buddies.
So I was expecting the engine to be something special. It's not. It feels no more remarkable than, say,a current RE650 twin. Fire breathing it is not.
And oddly enough, it's also a longstroke design, with internal dimensions of 72x83mm, for a swept volume of 675cc, developing a less than heady 49bhp at SOOORPMW. hich is not going to set the world alight, but does in fact reflect almost favourably on my own current Triumph twin, a 2020 900 Street Scrambler,which can pump out a radical 65bhp at 7500rpm but that's a fuel injected, computer mapped short stroke 900cc twin, and it revs like one, which could be a decent reason for fitting a posh bevel drive to the overhead cam .. . except the Triumph drives its cam by a cheap chain. Curious.
The gearbox is as sweet as a chap would expect , and the clutch does what it does in a typically unremarkable way. It'sjust fine, asare the brakes,and the steering and the ride and the handling. This is a considerably competent motorcycle. But there are lots of other , similarly competent machines out there. Why would you choose this one?
Maybe it all boils down to style? If so, I confess to being largely unmoved by that, too. Yes,it looks convincingly 1970s,all twin shocks and chrome. Yes,it runs and rides very well and sounds like a Japanesetwin from the 1970sshould sound . .. but if what you want isajapanesetwin from the 1970s,then there's an obvious answer to your question . It's not like wanting a big Brit twin from the 1970s,only fitted with great brakes,a smooth engine and electric starting, in which case there are modern equivalents with all those features.
Equallycurious isthat Kawasakirecently relaunched their 650 as an 800, but with much the same performance and power output. Which meansthat enough folk are buying
➤ them to makethe exerciseworthwhile.
Not long before riding this Kawasaki,i had the pleasure of an afternoon out and about over the same roads aboard an actual Japanese motorcycle from the 1970s,in that caseayamahatriple. It wasn't a replica or a retro, it was an actual machine from back then. And I much preferred it. It boasted all the gruff charm of a motorcycle with a tale to tell. It was pretending to be nothing . It was what it looked like, and I could easily understand why someone would buy a machine exactly like it. But the W650?
Let's leave it to actual owners to tell us about the experience of owning the bike, should we? Plainly I need to learn, to understand! I must be missing something ... Re