2000-2001 Kawasaki W650: Brit Done Better?

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The Ural Solo sT is a modern bike with classic style and a two-year unlimited mileage warranty.
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Was the Kawasaki W650 a better Bonneville tribute bike than Triumph's?
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The Triumph Bonneville T100 has the bloodline, but it doesn't have the lean lines of the original Bonneville.

Kawasaki W650
Claimed power: 50hp @ 7,000rpm 
Top speed: 110mph 
Engine: 676cc air-cooled SOHC 8-valve parallel twin 
Weight: 429lb (dry) 
Price then/now: $6,499 (2000)/$3,500-$6,500 

Two years before John Bloor’s re-born Triumph company finally launched its own Bonneville tribute bike in 2001, Kawasaki introduced the retro-Brit W650. Yet in an interesting twist, while Hinckley had the bloodline, many feel that Big Green’s memory machine aped the original Brit twin much more closely. 

Kawi claimed the 2000 W650 (introduced in late 1999) was intended to recall its own W1 twin of the late 1960s (itself derived from a BSA A7) rather than the Bonnie. Yet the similarities between those two were slight, owing largely to the difference between the W650’s overhead cam engine and the W1’s pushrod mill, which looked as if it had been lifted straight out of a BSA. With the W650, Kawasaki locked in the retro look so perfectly even Triumph fans often need a double-take to distinguish one from a period Meriden bike — down to the Smith’s-look-alike instruments, the Triumph-esque gas tank and badges, cigar-shaped mufflers, drum rear brake, knee pads and rubber fork gaiters. 

With its long-stroke, air-cooled, 360-degree crank 650cc engine (actually 676cc), the Kawi also echoes the Bonneville’s engine spec — although with a bevel-drive overhead cam actuating eight valves instead of Triumph’s four pushrod-actuated valves. There are also five cogs in the W650’s tranny, not four. (The Bonnie finally got five gears in 1972.) With modern electrics, including a push-button starter (a kickstart is also provided), dual 34mm Keihin CV carbs, electronic ignition, engine-balance shaft and rubber mounts, disc front brake, etc., Kawasaki created a classically-styled motorcycle with none of the quirks of Triumph’s classic road burner. And ugly gas tank seam notwithstanding, the Kawi’s fit, finish and level of equipment (including nice little touches like an LCD odometer/clock and handy neutral finder, for example) also beat the period Bonnie. 

So what’s not to like? With barely more power than the 1970 T120R (a claimed 50 horsepower versus the period Bonnie’s 46) and lugging an extra 40 pounds around, the W650 is no tarmac-ripper. Period testers complained of suspension wallows at the front (it was stiffened from 2001-on); the stock fitment Bridgestone Accolade tires track pavement grooves like a trolley; and the single front disc was prone to fade under aggressive use. But that’s about it, according to contemporary reports. 

Riding the W650 also reveals a split personality. A nice, even, 360-crank pitter-patter idle gives way to a gentle burble from the pipes as you pull away. Progress is stately rather than spirited in the middle rev range, though the wide bars and narrow tires help the handling feel nimble. But spinning the engine to its limit at 7,000rpm the exhaust note becomes a roar; the Kawi then reveals how it could maybe take its Sixties progenitor on the strip — but only just! Cycle World recorded a standing-start quarter mile of 14.2 seconds for the W650 versus 14.24 seconds for a 1971 T120R as measured by the same magazine back in 1971.  

To improve the W650’s uninspired handling, the U.K. Owners website (without question the most active site on the model) recommends fitting lower handlebars to shift the rider’s weight forward while using stiffer front springs and heavier fork oil. Replacing the period-style Accolades with more modern Bridgestone BT45 rubber also helps clean things up. Lean-running problems can be cured by turning the idle mixture screws farther out and shimming carburetor needles higher to richen mixture. Popping in the exhaust on the overrun can mean too much air entering the exhaust via the cold-air injection emission control system. We don’t recommend tampering with emission equipment, but blanking off the cold air system apparently cures the problem. Outside of that, they’re generally regarded as having bank vault levels of reliability. 

Though the bike was built for six years, U.S. and Canadian sales were slow and it was dropped from the North American lineup after only two years on the market, with 2001 the last year. It continued to be available in Europe and Japan until even tighter emissions requirements caused Kawasaki to drop the W650 from its range in 2007. Surprisingly, a new W800 with an enlarged, 773cc emission-friendly fuel-injected engine was introduced in 2011, but it’s not available in the U.S. or Canada, and, sadly, the kickstarter has been nixed. 

The W650 offers a safe, sanitized and polished version of the British bike experience with modern reliability and a general lack of drama — a decided plus for many riders. Yet others will tell you it’s missing the raw edge that made — and makes — riding a Bonneville at its limit such an exhilarating experience. It’s Psycho without the shower scene, a Caesar salad with no anchovies, a Bloody Mary sans Worcestershire sauce. Of course, that may be how you like your thrills!  

Retro rivals to the Kawasaki W650 

Triumph Bonneville T100
Claimed power: 61hp @ 7,400rpm (2002), 67hp @ 7,400rpm (2012)
Top speed: 110mph (est.)
Engine: 790cc (now 865cc) air-cooled DOHC; 8-valve parallel-twin
Weight: 506lb (wet)
Price now: $8,599 (2012)

After relaunching Triumph in 1991, John Bloor waited another 10 years to play his trump card. The all-new Triumph Bonneville arrived in Y2K as a 2001 model, followed by the sportier-looking T100 in 2002. For the 2005 model year, the T100 got the 865cc Thruxton engine, which was fitted to all Bonnies from 2007-on. The T100 improved on the original cosmetics with paired instruments, two-tone paint and enhanced bright-work, but otherwise followed the basic Bonnie’s specs.

Ironically, while Triumph logically played up the Bonneville name, in many ways their tribute bike was further from the original than the W650. Aesthetically, it was bigger and bulkier, lacking the lean lines Kawasaki captured so well. Purists also pointed to the “kink” in the exhaust pipes as a stylistic blunder. But in other ways the Bonnie is faithful to the plot; wire wheels, scalloped gas tank, ignition switch left of the headlight and twin carburetors (replaced by fuel injection in 2008). If the W650 is a realist painting, the Bonneville is more of an impressionist.

Some beefs about budget suspension aside, the T100 garners positive reviews from testers as a solid “standard” motorcycle, well-built and easy to ride with lots of cachet and street cred. Reliability not being the older Meriden bike’s best feature, we checked with a local Triumph dealer regarding Bonneville warranty claims. They’d had just one (a blown head gasket) in the last 10 years!

Ural Solo sT
Claimed power: 40hp @ 5,600rpm
Engine: 745cc air-cooled OHV opposed twin
Top speed: 90mph top speed (est.)
Weight: 441lb (dry)
Price now: $7,799 (2012)

Ural has come a long way since 2003 when it first started selling bikes in the U.S., helped a great deal by buying in quality components: Brembo brakes, Marzocchi forks, Sachs shocks, Keihin carbs and Denso electrics head the list. Homemade improvements include wider use of stainless steel and powder coating, needle-roller cam and rocker bearings, more durable transmission joints and gas-flowed cylinder heads. To fight off long-held biases over Russian build quality, Ural also offers a two-year unlimited mileage warranty to allay reliability concerns.

Compared with Ural’s previous solo bike attempt (the unfortunate, chopper-esque Wolf), the Solo is a revelation. Gear selection is easier (the gearbox still doesn’t like to be rushed), there’s more power from the engine, handling is secure and planted while still responsive, the suspension firm yet compliant, and the brakes are excellent. Slow speed maneuverability is especially good, thanks no doubt to those big flywheels.

IMZ-Ural likes to compare the sT with Triumph’s Bonneville and Scrambler, Guzzi’s V-7 Classic and the “new” Royal Enfield Bullet C5. And while the sT is not as slick or well-finished as the much more modern Triumph and Guzzi, it compares well with the Bullet — though Enfield’s new unit construction engine boasts a fifth gear and fuel injection. For the real old school feel, there’s nothing else like it available from a dealer — especially with a warranty! MC

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