Purists dislike the W650 as a pretentious clone. I think the purists are narrow-minded and shortsighted.
I am frequently asked why I didn't simply purchase a restored classic. Or better yet, one to rebuild myself. I reply that while I love the old bikes, I lack the tools, skills, patience and dedication required to maintain a vintage motorcycle in riding trim. I don't want the challenge of finding parts, and mechanics. I want the style with convenience. I ride from late February to mid-December most years, skirting the Canadian winters. I want a dependable, hardy vehicle that is as close to maintenance-free as possible.
I see the W650 as a reasonably good Bonneville replica. It looks like one, it rides like one, it handles like one, and even sounds like one. It doesn't matter to me if it isn't one - it comes close enough for my needs and tastes. I don't pretend it is a Bonnie, either. It is attractive and elegant, and generates lots of curbside conversation. It's easy to ride and gives me pleasure. Besides, the W series has a respectable history of its own; decades long in development and production. The W650 carries on that heritage with the same charm as its Japanese ancestors and British cousins.
On the other hand, I get people coming up to me beaming with joy that the style and looks have been brought back. Doesn't matter to them if it's Kawasaki or someone else. The W brings back their memories. They delight in the revival of the twin style. Conversations start easily about a lifetime with British bikes.
Kawasaki has had the W out for two years now. Meanwhile, diehard Triumph fans waited for John Bloor's new Triumph to release its rumoured 800cc vertical twin named the Bonneville, air and oil-cooled. The Bonnie will be Triumph's new bike for a new millennium, on sale in 2001. But it can't be argued that Triumph had to play catch up with the Japanese. They've been there before, but come out on top with superior product. It remains to be seen if the Bonnie will be better and sell more than the W.
But does it really matter? Triumph fans will hold out, while riders like myself have enjoyed the pleasures of the W650 for at least a year. Maybe the trend to retro bikes will see whole lineups of classics for sale from several manufacturers in a few years. Or maybe there just aren't enough buyers to match up with all the models. Maybe new buyers want bikes that look more like race winners than something you'd see in an Elvis movie. Then they can pretend they're winning the TT - instead of pretending they're toodling around town with Ann Margaret on the back.
Is there really a market for these bikes? A viable market, not just a small niche for crusty old riders who turn curmudgeonly eyes towards today's modern mounts. While it's hard to deny retro is gaining in a lot of fronts - fashion and music in particular - it remains a question whether a significant number of riders will pay the price for the look. Even if the bike is more sophisticated than appearances suggest, it can't compare to today's 600cc sportbikes - the bikes that appeal to more younger riders. The W650 is the motorcycle of their parents, of boomers who rediscover riding after the kids have grown up, who want to relive their youth without the trouble. At the 2000 Ride For Sight, I was posted on front gate security, which included getting demo rides in and out. Every time a Kawasaki demo ride came back, I asked the W rider in that group what he/she thought of it. Every one of them gave a positive response. That signifies something good. In fact, the W was booked solid all day Friday and Saturday for demos, with people lining up to hope for a no-show.
Regardless of who the manufacturer is, the number of potential owners is still a small cadre of dedicated riders, not a large market. The price of the W650 is not excessive, but it will certainly make riders think about their options. After all, for $9,000 Canadian ($6,500 US), you can pick up two restored British bikes - Triumph Bonnevilles - or one superb restoration and still have lots of money left to buy the requisite spares bike. And for the same amount of money, there are several well-regarded current motorcycles with better performance from almost every manufacturer. But if you asked me: did I get my money's worth? I'd say yes. Unconditionally yes. The W650 gives me more smiles per mile than any other bike I've ridden of late. I'd buy it all over again.
Other retro bikes have not fared terribly well in the motorcycle world, in terms of sales, although they have carved their own market space. The Enfield (now Royal Enfield) Bullet is still merely a curiosity after a decade of exports. The Ural/Dnepr has a tiny following. Kawasaki's recent 1,100cc 70s-retro was as sluggish on the showroom floors as it was fast on the street. The Kawasaki Drifter, the stunning Indian tribute, has a similarly small following (although it is considerably better looking and less expensive than the 'new' Indian). Their fans are dedicated and vocal, but you can't measure any of them as significant successes if you count units sold and compare them with other models. Perhaps that's part of the appeal - these aren't simply 'one-of-the-pack' bikes like so many others. They are for discriminating riders.
Will the W650 or a new-millennium Bonnie break the barrier and become a generally popular bike for the general riding public? Unlikely, although I believe both will garner a share of the market unto themselves - a segment of people who don't want to race, don't want the Harley and Harley-clone cruiser and are unwilling to invest in high-end touring machines. The W has a rare place as an all-round, inexpensive street bike - not a performance vehicle, but rather one with its wheels in the practical end of things.
Although the retro trend seems to grow daily in our lives, and we're awash in cultural nostalgia (often served up through advertising pap and sanitized through TV commercials), I don't see the retro motorcycle fad becoming as widespread. It's really an elitist passion, possibly a short-lived fashion, too - except for the few of us who still recall the Sixties in their (and our) glory. When retro becomes commonplace, then these machines lose their magic. I'd have to search for another exotic motorcycle to suit my tastes. Right now, the W is a protest bike, a stand against the commonplace, against the popular trends signified by big Harley look-alike cruisers. And I like that. I'm an iconoclast at heart.
I also worry that the North American arms of Kawasaki will not - or cannot - market these bikes successfully or effectively. If they fail to create a market niche, they will likely drop the model, stranding and isolating we few owners. I have little faith in the ability of advertising and marketing departments to actually come to grips with the needs of the real world. There's far too much attention paid in the motorcycle industry to bigger, faster, louder and more powerful attributes. Smaller, easily-ridden and enjoyable bikes are often ignored by the marketing squids who think everyone wants either a 200 hp sport bike or another chip-off-the-old-Harley. A lot of us just like to ride without the hype or the extremes, to simply enjoy two wheels without having to encompass serious attitude or lifestyle challenges.
In the meantime, I will enjoy riding my beautiful W650 and revel in all the attention it garners, and the smiles it generates every mile I ride it. I haven't enjoyed a bike this much for a long time. I intend to keep it quite a while.
New for 2001: Kawasaki has made several modifications to the W650 for 2001. Some are cosmetic and minor - like adjusting the angle of the instrument package and providing a pleated seat. Most important: the front wheel hub has been enlarged for more stable handling at high speed. And the angle of the front fork has been slightly changed. Visually, it's difficult to see any difference. There are now numerous providers of after-market parts and upgrades for the W, from pipes to seat racks, gas tanks to brakes. At the Toronto bike show (IMSS, January 2001), the W650 was unfortunately stuck off to the side of Kawasaki Canada's booth, rather than given any significant exposure - almost as if Kawasaki was embarrassed to have it on the same floor as their sport bikes.
UPDATE on Triumph: January, 2001: Triumph's new Bonneville has been shown to the media and several loaned out for test rides. A full review of the bike, with a comprehensive history of its development, was printed in the November 2000 issue of Motor Cyclist and more recently in Canadian Biker and Cycle Canada. The new Bonnie was also shown at the fall motorcycle show in Germany and given prominent display at the International Motorcycle Supershow in Toronto where I saw it in January, 2001. The bike is a handsome tribute to the Bonneville of old, although as a personal comment, I believe the W is better looking and more authentic in several styling elements (many accessories will be available, including knee pads). However, it is certainly a retro-style motorcycle in design. Reviews report the bike handles well, accelerates smoothly and performs beautifully.
The new Bonnie does not have a kickstart, but it does have dual carbs with throttle position sensors (similar to the W's KTRIC system). The rear brake is a disc, rather than the W's drum. The instrument cluster is consolidated into a smaller, one-piece package more reminiscent of a sport bike (no tachometer!). The 800cc engine produces around 61 hp and final drive is chain. Reviewer comments are positive, and the bike is said to be "seriously fun to ride." New Bonnies are expected to be on dealer floors sometime in spring 2001. At the same time, Kawasaki USA committed to bringing in the W650 for 2001 and showed off the new model at the IMSS, so there are two retro Bonnie-style bikes competing for the market.
This spring I had a test ride on the Bonnie, and was impressed by its peppy engine and easy handling. It doesn't look as retro as the W, but it's a fine bike and a welcome addition to the line, and certainly carries the traditional Triumph banner. It has a better seat and suspension, too. In late 2001, Triumph announced the release of the chopper-style Bonneville America and in 2002 the T100, a Bonnie with a tachometer (shades of the W!). For 2003, Triumph launched the Speedmaster, a sportier version of the America model.
Note for 2003: The W is still in production, but seems to have been dropped from the models being imported into Canada and the USA by Kawasaki.
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