Kawasaki W800 Road Test

Why do a road test of a stock standard motorcycle on a blog which specialises in featuring mainly old school style custom motorcycles and restored classics? Why bother testing a motorcycle which was launched in South Africa almost a year ago; with several print articles appearing in the major magazines? There are several reasons which we feel we must share so that you may possibly better understand Marnitz, myself and Retro Write Up; which in turn will highlight why we feel the success of the beautifully made Kawasaki W800 is important in the South African marketplace

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The main reason for us asking KMSA, the importers of the W800, to allow us to test this Kawasaki is because of another 1960’s British styled parallel twin motorcycle model. This motorcycle is the Yamaha XS650. I bet you thought I was going to say Bonneville! Please be patient, the Bonnie will still have its turn to speak later in this article. Although the Yamaha XS650 was available internationally from 1968, It was only available locally in SA in the latter part of the 1970s, until its discontinuation in its original form in 1979. The importance of the XS650 in this context is its underwhelming success in our market. A power hungry South African motorcycling fraternity did not see the understated, classic quality and appeal of the XS650. Thirty five years later and the X650 is one of the most sought after motorcycles by international custom builders and restorers. Whilst standing looking at the gorgeous black and chrome, all steel finishes of the W800 on the Kawasaki display at the annual AMID Motorcycle Show, I got a sense of déjà vu. Is history repeating itself? After ten months of availability, Marnitz and I were ogling the first actual living and breathing example of a W800 we had ever seen. When we recently tested the newly launched and most welcome Royal Enfield Continental GT cafe racer, we honestly had no expectations, having avoided reading any international tests. With the W800, we had great expectations. Both of us had enjoyed the looks of the previous, almost identical looking W650 and I had even considered importing one from Australia, but costs were prohibitive. We had hoped that KMSA would import the upgraded W800 after its launch and we were highly excited to hear that the legend had at last been made available at the beginning of the year. Standing there, looking at a bike that I had never ridden but knowing that I would eventually own, I realised that we owed it to the W800 to use our blog to awaken awareness and arouse interest in this motorcycle before it became another unobtainable future classic like the XS650. We needed to ride it!

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The second reason for testing the W800 is you, our faithful reader, who embraces the simpler, more tangible, customs and classics that we feature on our blog. Chris Hunter, founder of the renowned Bike exif web site and editor of the new “the Ride” coffee table quality book of modern customs (order a copy today), states the following in his introduction to the book. ” Motorcycling has hit the reset button and that’s good news. The focus is back on the holy trinity of engine, frame and wheels – and providing a raw and exhilerating experience for the rider.” If you are nodding your head in agreement as you read these words, then you need to know more about the W800 and possibly own one. You need to ride it!

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The final reason is that Marnitz and I, without seeming arrogant, feel that our opinion, regarding motorcycles of this type, is worth sharing. Marnitz does many thousands of kilometers annually on his beloved Bonneville and is probably Triumph’s most successful, unofficial, unpaid marketer. Off hand, I can think of at least three happy Bonneville owners that bought their motorcycles based on his enthusiasm. One of those Bonnevilles features in our photos. Thanks Hein! Luckily you did not have to paint it black for the photo shoot!  I ride my torque heavy Harley almost daily, but I have an upbringing filled with the sound of Brit singles and twins. I have also been fortunate enough to have ridden many of the Japanese motorcycles from the 1970s and 1980s. Because we both get our kicks at below 180km/h, does not mean that we ride slowly. It only means that we prefer riding older technology motorcycles inappropriately fast, rather than high tech superbikes at 50% of their capability. Although we had great expectations from the W800, we knew that it was not going to be a World Super Bike championship winning ZX10, which for us is a good thing.

I will leave my customary model history lesson until later and move on to telling you about the motorcycle. I fetched the brand new W800 from KMSA head Office in Marlboro and we were given a week of riding to do our assessment. We would like to thank Chris and Kibble for allowing us to ride their motorcycle and it is important to note that at no point did KMSA make any demands as to what we wrote about the motorcycle. They were obviously as confident about the W800 as we were expectant.

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The W800 is a true retro classic. Kawasaki have gone to great lengths to not only make this motorcycle look like a 1960’s model, but have avoided using cheaper plastic moulds when replicating the cosmetic parts. The chromed front mudguard and side covers are all metal. The petrol tank is a work of art. The 2013 model comes in an ebony and silver combination which, combined with all the chrome and polished detail, including an awesome tank badge, create a glistening gem of a motorcycle. Anyone who cares to sit and study the W800 from front to rear, will see that no short cuts have been taken in the materials or finishes of this motorcycle. From its cut glass headlamp lens, to the chromed flip-up petrol filler cap, to the stylish tail light on the period correct chromed steel rear mudguard; this is not a cheap motorcycle to produce. We are great fans of Australian customisers, Deus Ex Machina, who use W650 and W800s extensively as the donor bikes for their creations.  Marnitz, who modified his own Bonneville into a cafe racer, agrees with me that we would not have the heart to chop or change such an expensively finished motorcycle.

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The rolling chassis is where Kawasaki really turn up the retro heat. The only item that gives the W800 away as a modern motorcycle is the beautifully machined and essential 300mm front disc brake which provides more than adequate stopping power for the type of riding the motorcycle will be used. Everything else looks like it would in a 1960’s sales catologue. We really like the 18 inch diameter rear wheel, which is probably one of the main elements which make this Japanese made motorcycle look more British than its British counterpart. The Dunlop 130/80 R18 Roadmaster tyre handled well enough for my requirements and has the correct looking tread pattern for this type of motorcycle. The front wheel is 19 inches in diameter and has a matching Dunlop Roadmaster 100/90 R19 front tyre. The rims are made from aluminium and the nipples and spokes are treated with something called a Cosmer NC finish which enables dirt to simply be wiped off. A contentious issue for many of the scribes and critics is the use of a highly polished 160mm rear drum brake. Nobody can deny that it lightens up the rear end look and obviously makes the W800 even more true to its 1960’s roots. The question is if Kawasaki, in their quest to produce the ultimate classic motorcycle, have sacrificed safety for looks. It obviously depends on your riding style. Crappy rear disc brakes on every Harley I have ever ridden, which do nothing  when you push them initially and then lock up the back wheel, means that I very seldom in dry, good conditions use the rear brake. Marnitz also said he could not recall using the rear brake, so being aware of this issue, I made a point of using the rear brake on its own and in combination with the front brake on my return trip to KMSA. A rear disc brake will probably have more immediate bite and be more effective in locking up the back wheel but I still believe the drum brake to be adequate enough in combination with the effective front disc. The jury will always be out on this important point.

The best word to describe the W800’s ride quality is plush. The polished 39mm front forks have enough travel and stiffness to absorb most of what it has to deal with, even a corrugated section of tarred road north of Pretoria which surprised me at 130km/h was no problem. I personally would probably use a slightly thicker fork oil to sacrifice a little comfort for less diving under hard braking. This again does not reflect on the motorcycle, only on my riding style. The rear suspension is an exposed spring, 5 way preload adjustable twin shock system. At no stage did the double cradle frame give any hint of flexing. Marnitz and I agreed that this is an extremely comfortable motorcycle to ride. The sculpted seat looks and feels very comfortable. However we both felt that after riding for more than an hour, the narrowness of the seat could be felt. No pain, it was just less comfortable than we expected. The handlebar’s risers bring the handlebars back closer to the rider, which means the W800 feels smaller than it actually is. We found the handling to be light and accurate at all speeds and we felt completely at home in the saddle within a few kilometers of riding.

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And then there is the engine! It is an absolute work of art. The overall finishes are up to show standard. The chrome covers on the right hand side of the engine house the shaft and bevel gear drive of the sohc 4 valve heads. I would leave these covers on even if they housed nothing! The slightly less attractive left hand side of the engine is highlighted with the most stunning drive sprocket cover I have ever seen on any motorcycle. Its practical purpose is to reduce mechanical noise, but who cares. It is simply beautiful. The whole engine is polished or chromed. It is no wonder these engines are being used in world class customs.

Before we discuss on road performance, there are a few issues to discuss. One of these issues is the hp rating. Kawasaki Japan quote a very conservative 48hp on their website whilst other regions make no mention of a figure at all. Although the maximum torque figure of  60Nm at a very low 2500 rpm is totally believable,  the hp rating, upon riding the W800, seems incorrect, unless the Japanese market model is restricted. Some unofficial sources, like road tests quote a more plausible 70hp but Kawasaki need to release the correct figures for a fair comparison to be made with the Bonneville’s 67hp. The W800 has a relatively long stroke motor with a 360 degree crank and a heavy flywheel. I can only imagine the deep throaty sound it would make if you could actually hear the engine. This silence is my only real criticism of the W800. We understand the restrictions emission controls place on manufacturers, but come on Kawasaki, how can you build a brilliant 1960’s retro classic which sounds like a sewing machine – an unplugged sewing machine? I know a set of aftermarket trumpets will work their magic, but a little more exhaust note will sell more bikes and save many prospective owners the cost of having to replace the exhausts and retuning their motorcycles. If I was a dealer, these exhausts would not make it onto the showroom floor!

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Motorcycles are for riding and so how does the W800 perform? Marnitz road it 60km to work one early morning and could not wait to phone and tell me what I had already experienced for 300km. He loved the way the W800 performed. The W800 is quick off the mark when required but, with all that low down torque, you can also hit 5th gear at 80km/h if you are not in a hurry. At just over 4000 rpm, you are doing an indicated 120 km/h. Redline is 7500 rpm. Did I mention the instrumentation? The easy to read traditional individual speedo and rev counter are classic looking but have all the modern features and idiot lights you could ever need. We did not want to overstress the new engine but both Marnitz and my wife Lara saw 160 km/h on the speedo, with a bit more left in reserve. The power delivery is so smooth and  so silent that the W800 is deceptively quick, yet always relaxing to ride. It reminds me of the way an original 1969 Triumph Bonneville delivers its performance.The overall fuel consumption was under 5l/100km, a very respectable figure. Whilst I was running her in, my consumption figure for 270km was 4,2l/100km. Kawasaki obviously have the fuel injection system sorted.These engines have a reputation for being bullet proof and easy to maintain. The service interval is 12000km.

So why, if this W800 is so good, are we not seeing more of them on our roads? We see three main reasons. The first reason is that it lacks history and heritage in South Africa. The original W1 models were launched towards the end of 1965. They were basically a warts and all copy of an early 1960’s BSA A7 500CC twin. Although almost  outdated when it was launched and never reaching the anticipated popularity outside Japan, the W series ran until 1973. The W models’ history is unknown to South African motorcyclists. In 1999 the W650 was launched, two years before the new Bonneville. Although similar looking to the original W1, the W650 was completely new and had the new bevel gear driven cam. This model also never reached our shores. In 2008 emission control eventually caught up with the carb fed W650 and they were discontinued. In 2011 the universe friendly W800 was launched and we have had it available to us for about a year. The problem locally is that, even if we ignore the original heritage of the early W models, the W650, which had developed its own heritage and history since 1999 internationally, never was available in SA. This means that to most SA motorcyclists, the W800 is a completely unknown, new motorcycle with a W badge on the tank. The only way you can tell that this is a Kawasaki product is by the name printed across the back of the saddle. This leads us to our second reason for the lack of sales, the Triumph Bonneville.

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I recall that the new Triumph Bonnevilles also sat on the showroom floors after their launch in 2001. Our memories are short and we forget that this now popular model faced a lot of resistance locally because it was not a “real” Bonneville. The criticism was well founded. The original Triumph had gone bust in 1983. This new Bonneville was a complete pretender. It looked vaguely like a Bonneville and had a Triumph badge. What it did have in its favour was that even without any real heritage, it was a damn fine motorcycle which eventually has earned the respect and sales it deserves. This is a major problem for the W800, which is at least as good and in some areas better than the Bonnie. If the W650 had paved the way in 1999 in SA, we are sure that the Bonnie and the W800 would both be selling in larger volumes now. Remember, both motorcycles are imported by the same distributor, KMSA.

The third reason is price. The W800, with all its classy finishes and steel was never going to be cheap. At R110 000,00 it was considerably more pricey than a Bonneville T100. Presently KMSA are selling the last of their 2013 model W800s for R96000, which is a price we will never see again. Next year the prices, based on our weakening currency, will be over R120 000,00. The T100 Bonnie’s price is increasing to R105 000,00.

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Our intended goal with this feature is to see more W800s on our roads, not less Bonnevilles. So who would buy a W800? I would. The power delivery is less revvy than the Bonneville and with the right pipes, it will sound fantastic. I also like the uniqueness of the W800, for the moment any way and I don’t mind having to explain to every second person what sort of motorcycle a W is! Marnitz loves the W800 and would enjoy having a standard one of his own, but not at the cost of losing his cafe racer Bonnie. If you are in the market for a retro British styled bike, you have to consider the Japanese version in your decision making process. Perhaps the last word should go, as it often does, to my wife Lara, who has owned several motorcycles, including a Honda CBR600R and a Harley Nightster. She says, according to her needs, it is the best motorcycle that she has ever had the pleasure of riding and that she will buy one. Organise a test ride with Kawasaki. Let the good times roll!

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10 Responses to Kawasaki W800 Road Test

  1. Drew 01/05/2014 at 5:57 pm #

    I finally got around to reading this review. Thank you for taking the time to write it. You make the W800 sound like an absolute dream to ride. I would love to have the chance to give one a spin myself. I’m with you, though; I don’t think I would have the hear to modify it. Cheers!

  2. Steve Kirk 03/14/2014 at 11:46 pm #

    Thank you guys, I have been deliberating for ages about one of these as it is a real departure from anything else I have owned. But every time I go look at one the finish quality and lines blow me away.

    I needed a review by someone looking at it from the right perspective. Job Done.

  3. John Arter 08/19/2014 at 2:24 pm #

    Bought a W800 about 8 months ago. A truly delightful unit, enough grunt for what it is but I found it too blinged up for my liking. Chrome mudguards plus cam bevel cover etc now resprayed titanium silver-a close match to the motor, chainguard & headlight earmounts now black, fitted smaller matt black flashers and fitted stainless steel slightly upswept Norton Dunstall style cans . It now looks much better, sounds great too. The old peashooter cans weighed nearly 9 kgs-good riddance. I feel the top end plus acceleration is much improved. This is a fun bike-can really reccommend it.This is probably the best parallel twin never built by Britain. Other bike is a 69 Bonneville T120.

  4. Anthony S Webb 05/25/2015 at 11:33 pm #

    I live in the UK and have owned my W800 for just over one year. I have ridden 9.5k miles on it (I think this is about 15k kilometers). I should like to stress the main point of your article about this motorcycle – it is the perfect motorcycle for my style of riding. And that is the point – when choosing a bike, you have to consider your style of riding, not what you think is the best. The second point I think you made excellently is the description of what motorcycling is. I am the rider on my motorcycle (Josephine, she be called). The motorcycle doesn’t lead me. I do not ride on a prayer that the manufacturer will hopefully bail me out because I am riding to a fraction of the bike’s capability, but in excess of my own. Josephine does what I want. And she does it beautifully. Some criticisms – 1. in the UK, the price is going up. 2. The tank is too small – forget consumption figures and riding style, I have to fill up after 120 miles. But I have taken the bike to the South of France and back. 3. It seems to burn some oil (not a lot, but I check oil every ride, just in case). And now some positives (because I think those were all the negatives I have) – she is beautiful, one of the most beautiful on the road. She gathers attention like moths to a, um, moth gathering thing. I have earned a free meal and a flight in a private aircraft just from people coming up and talking about the bike. She rides like she looks. The noise of the pipes is no issue for me, for I am older than six and don’t get excited by noise mummy. She keeps up with sports bikes ridden by average riders. Use an Arai rebel (or other helmet designed for naked bikes – not open face) and there is no real neck pain issue at 80 mph (although I don’t think I’d want to go any faster). I really believe that this motorcycle will survive all of them, and me too. I see a W1 1967 is now going for £17k in the UK. In 48 years time, what will be the value of a w800 ? I will be 98. I hope Josephine will still be in my garage.

  5. Ed Kolber 01/02/2016 at 7:56 am #

    Gents,

    I just moved from the UAE to Bahrain in the Middle East selling my beautiful 2005 Yamaha FJ1300 because frankly speaking, there is nowhere to go in Bahrain requiring a sports touring bike. So I went bike shopping for something more practical and came across the last 2012 model W800 in a local dealership still in the showroom. It’s green and its beautiful. I am 57 years old and owned a Honda CB250 when I was 17 and remembered the thrill of riding such a bike. Just looking at this bike brought so many good memories back.

    I want the bike for buzzing around town and the occasional ‘blast’ out of town. The roads are good here, but flat and straight so I reckon I’ll have to satisfy my craving for leaning and accelerating out of a curve, will have to be satisfied on the clover-leaf intersections on the motorways.

    I paid a deposit for the bike and will take delivery in a month as I am travelling, but was wondering (and worrying) why the bike hadn’t been sold? Was it a failed model, or even dangerous? Your article has answered those questions and made my day, assumng that the 2012 model has all the same qualities as the 2013 model – I really feel like I have lucked out and the bike was simply waiting for me.

    I am paying the equivalent of R163,000 for it which I know is probably over the top for a 2012 model, but I intend keeping this bike for life as it will probably be my last purchase. It has the quality finish to last and enough chrome to turn heads which I don’t do at my age – (a young 57) lol. As a ‘born-again’ biker I have no intention of testing my slowing reflexes on a high powered – hi-tech bike and look forward to a ‘familiar’ ride on a unique machine.

    Do you have any tips for me with regards to what I might be concered about by buying a 3 year old bike out of the showroom? For example, will the age of the tires be something to consider replacing?

    Thank you Kawasaki – and than you guys for your review.

  6. Manwithnoname 02/14/2016 at 12:07 am #

    Great review. I’ve been through almost every motorcycle brand in the last 20 years including Trumpys and have a personal love of Ducatis and Guzzis for that “impossible to describe” feel good factor and the way they just feel “perfect” or “at home” when riding them.

    Anyway I digress. I had my heart set on a V7ii Guzzi and was about the buy. I test rode the new Triumph Street Twin and was highly un-moved by the experience. It was ok, just nothing heart warming.

    Then on the way home one day I dropped into a Kawasaki dealer just to basically stretch my legs and look at bikes…. when I say the Kawasaki W800 SE in black sitting on the showroom floor.

    Good heaven’s it’s a stunning bike. Even sitting on it stationary I can feel it carried it’s weight well, feels light like the Guzzi and not top-heavy like the Bonnie/Street Twins which to me never manage to get rid of this attribute even on the road. Also the seating position it good. Not too low and certainly not high. Just balanced which is what I like in a bike.

    It looks like it will be a close call between the V7 and W800… honestly I can’t make up my mind.

    The Triumphs are all about the badge and frankly I don’t care about that. They are too top heavy, don’t turn well, finish is ok, motor lacks any real character or “specialness” which is mandatory in a bike for me. Too much rose tinted BS for me (sorry guys) and I don’t like being disappointed in a bike.

    As for the W800, I believe it’s an honest, unpretentious engineering masterpiece. Much like some of my other favourites (ZXR750/Ducati748/GuzziV11/SuzukiTU250).

    Sometimes a motorcycle is inexplicably more than the sum of it’s parts… I think the W800 is one of those machines.

    Happy riding brothers!

  7. D Robinson 02/28/2016 at 6:33 am #

    I own one it is quite reliable it is six years old gose well looks great.

  8. Chris 05/21/2016 at 12:20 pm #

    I own a w800 special edition (black with gold wheels and cafe racer cowl) and love it to bits. I use it to commute year round and to take for a ride around the countryside. I do have a Ktm super adventure for hollidays and tours but the kawa really is a stunning allround bike! It is my 30th motorcycle and one of the best. The exhaust is easily derestricted by drilling out the center pipe with a 36mm hole drill. Sounds nice after that. I liked the original sound but is too quiet for commuting, no one hears you coming! I also like the lack of “hipster” fake herritage screaming at you, it doesn’t need it to be great!

  9. nelly 08/19/2016 at 11:58 pm #

    just got hold of a w800 and I love it, its a hoot to ride, comfortable ,quick enough for what I want a bike for,its soooo smooth , the funny thing is ,I don’t seem to get the urge to ride it fast,i regularly find myself just pootling along ,plodding without a care in the world,and never seem to be in a rush riding it anywhere, it will easily get you points on ya licence tho, 70mph but will do the ton

    10 miles to a quid
    100 miles to a tenner
    115 miles till light on
    I just wish it was a tad louder,

  10. Pablo 09/14/2016 at 10:24 pm #

    A jewell of a bike. Very good review, congratulations. I was chasing a W800 for years, since 2011 that it was launched, and finally saw them, a shimpment of 10 bikes reached México, when I saw them under the vulcan section of the Kawa site (I owned a vulcan 500, beautiful bike, sold it with 7k Km, as new) there it was, w800 SE 2014, my favourite color, black, matte and some chrome details, and that orange stripes contrasting the dark beautiful machine. I ran to see them, two units, a couple more around the country, one black and two blue, when I called the seller told me -only one left, yesterday I sold one. What!!!! carve my name on the tank on that last one!!!
    Now, I am so happy, “she” is one of the most beautifull things human being have ever made. A jewell of a bike. I writte this as I make time to pick it up from its first service, new oil and so… still 1k km, still running quiet in order to loose the engine, and it is doing it beautifully.

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