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
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!