Review: Kawasaki W800 (2011-2016)

Ask your average motorcycle enthusiast to name the best-looking retro bike and one bike will invariably come to mind – the Triumph Bonneville. Now while that’s a fine answer (and a fine bike), but there’s an Asian underdog hiding under the radar. Enter the Kawasaki W800.

An undeniably breathtaking bike, it oozes the charm of the 60s and is arguably more authentic than its British rival. With better spec for the price than a Bonnie, it offers an easy-to-ride steed that will pique the interest of even non-biking folk.

I’ve asked owners, past and present, of W800s for their honest opinion of the bike. Here’s what they had to say:

 

What it does well:

It goes without saying that it looks great. “It brings a huge smile to my face and others’ as well. It also ticks nicely after a ride” is the opinion of Kris Vandenberghe.

Warwick Carter, 47 and a fairly new owner says: “While I like the old look, you can’t beat the reliability of electronic ignition and fuel injection”. It also scores well for authenticity, rear drum brake and twin rear shocks completing the “look”.

The engine and handling are matched to the type of bike, and it will cope with 80-90mph cruising no problem, with enough thump to overtake briskly when you need to. Go beyond that (or 5000rpm) and it’ll run out of “go”, but on a naked retro, you’d be clinging on to the handlebars anyway. Rather, take your time and let passers-by catch a glimpse of your pride and joy instead – that’s what this bike is all about.

 

What it’s not so good at:

Back to the engine and handling, they’re not on a par with a Bonneville. Jaap Binnerts, who has a W800 in Spain, says “with sharp, hairpin curves the bike feels ‘uncertain’ and sometimes the rear wheel’ make a ‘step aside'”. However, other owners say the performance is “just right” for the type of bike it is. Carter adds “Handling seems ok. I’m not pushing it to the ragged edge, but it feels like there are some improvements to be made there eventually”.

With just 47hp coming from a 773cc engine, it’s a relaxed ride and not something to be pushed to the limits – take it easy and the single disc front and rear drum brake will stop you in good time. Similarly, it’s not the type of bike to cope well with two-up touring, but it handles solo distance riding as well as its competitors.

Christopher Downing confirms this. “I wish it had a wee bit more power to reduce gear changes. The suspension is way too soft for a fat bugger like me at 17 stone – I really wouldn’t like to take a pillion.”

You’ll also have to put up with no fuel gauge, ABS, or any tech that you can speak of – but then that would ruin the illusion that this is a genuine old bike. The only real thing giving it away as a modern bike is the small LCD screen on the speedo and the number plate!

 

Modifications:

You can add a screen to take some of the windblast off. Jerome James, from Australia, recommends a Piranha Dart screen. There are other more substantial screens available – make your choice between style and practicality, really.

Some owners complain the exhaust is on the quiet side, and opt for an aftermarket version to add a throatier burble – this boosts it’s “Hey, look at me!” credentials.

You can also add panniers and top box to boost its touring credentials.

Some owners replace the seat for a comfier option, and add mirror extenders to get a better view of behind.

 

Conclusion:

Despite the shortcomings of the bike, one thing that the majority of owners seemed to agree on was that it’s a “keeper”. It’s so pretty that you can forgive its misgivings – a reliable old friend that always does its best, if you will. If you’re after a performance bike, look elsewhere. However, if you’re looking in the direction of a modern retro, chances are that you’re not expecting lightspeed performance, but are much more interested in taking in the scenery, pootling along to your local bike cafe on some scenic backroads, and enjoying some bike banter over a coffee. John Smith sums it up quite, nicely “Good : Rides like a 60s bike. Bad: Rides like a 60s bike.” Enjoy its shortcomings in performance as part of the nostalgia package, safe in the knowledge you’re not going to breakdown.