Kawasaki W650 And Triumph Legend TT - Retro-Activity

Kawasaki W650 And Triumph Legend TT: One Recalls History, The Other Refuses To Be Held Captive By It

By Marc Cook, Photography by Kevin Wing

There Are Two constants in motorcycling that we take for granted. One, the British motorcycle industry lived and died on charismatic twins and singles (and, OK, the occasional triple) that stuck to mature technologies to the bitter end. Brit bikes are either attractively iconoclastic or rotting and unreliable old sleds, depending on your point of view and tolerance for warm beer. Two, the Japanese motorcycle industry lives and dies on the incessant march of technology-even if it's sometimes liberated from other places-and would rather turn to making beaded moccasins than appear to be behind the times.

These are fine generalizations, facile and easy to digest, but they run increasingly against the grain. How's that again? Well, consider these two motorcycles as the levers that pry such preconceived notions right off the pavement.

Kawasaki is hot on retro bikes-modern motorcycles designed to look and, sometimes, feel like old ones. Its Eddie Lawson Replica replica, the ZRX1100, is selling like saddlestitch jeans to adolescent girls. And there's no misunderstanding the inspiration for the deep-fendered Drifter cruiser; it, too, is rolling out of showrooms at good speed. Retros are well into fever pitch in Japan, so Kawasaki figured to try them here and is cautiously dribbling some into the States in limited numbers.

Triumph has grasped its own history delicately between finger and thumb, selecting bits that are evocative but not precisely retrospective. Under John Bloor, the company has chosen to look ahead and make much more contemporary pieces. These converging paths lead to the Kawasaki W650 and the Triumph Legend TT: A Japanese bike that's convincingly British in character and performance, and a power cruiser from Hinckley that, for its polish and somewhat-anonymous styling, could well have Far Eastern roots. They share modest prices-$6499 for the W650 and $7699 for the Legend-and an acknowledgement that they won't be volume leaders. Think entry-retro.

Kawasaki W650
First things first. This is a Kawasaki, it says so right on the tank and seat, but it's trying hard, really hard, to be a 1960s Triumph Bonneville. Yes, Kawasaki can honestly say that the W650 traces its roots to the firm's own W1 and W1SA parallel-twins of the late 1960s and early '70s; but those bikes were pretty shameless knockoffs of Brit models of the time. And that's the point.

Kawasaki wants everyone from motorcycle know-nothings to seasoned riders who were there the first time to see the W650 and think Bonneville. The shape of the W650's tank, fenders, seat and engine all evoke-and in some cases closely replicate-the original's. From 20 feet, most nonenthusiasts would mistake the W650 for the real thing. And even those not easily fooled by Kawasaki's clever design (redesign?) staff, the overall impression is one of homage more than a calculated theft of someone else's history. (Could also be that Brit-bike fans are more sanguine about copies than harley nut jobs.)

One ride on the W650 will drag you back, perhaps writhing and groaning, into the netherworld of 1960s moto tech. The bars are wide and graceful, and the bike feels quite small and light for a 650-even though, at 453 pounds wet, it's not exactly in need of eating-disorder counseling. (Do you remember your daddy telling you that a 650 was a big bike?) The hard, strangely shaped saddle (replete with white piping) places you high above the bike, perched as though on a barstool. It's an odd impression for riders used to stumpy, dense sportbikes to teeter atop a thin, tall motorcycle. And it works fine in the city, but at speeds on the far side of 70 mph the W650 quickly becomes tiring to ride thanks to a losing proposition of upper-body strength against aerodynamics.

From this tippy columbarium, you stare down on instruments that, should you have no memory of the actual pieces, may remind you of wiggly needled Smiths clocks. (We eagerly await some hacker successfully programming faux waggle into the electronic gauges.) At the handgrips are switches you've probably not seen since Mach III days-all totally appropriate for the W650. (Can you imagine how awful modern switchgear would appear?)

Look behind your right leg and, yes, it's a kickstarter! We seldom used the electric assist and got the 676cc parallel-twin chuffing on the first or second prod every time. At idle, the massively undersquare (72.0 x 83.0mm) air-cooled twin thrums almost silently and barely raises its voice when being thrashed. Despite having four valves per cylinder actuated by a single overhead, bevel-driven cam, the W650's powerplant produces only modest power-44.8 hp at 6750 rpm. At least the 360-degree-crank engine-both pistons rise and fall together-carries its torque well, staying above 35 foot-pounds from 2000 to 6500 rpm. Thanks to 34mm CV carbs fitted with a throttle-position sensor and an accelerator pump, the engine is reasonably responsive, seeming only to work against a lot of flywheel effect.

Good manners, and smooth, too. Kawasaki fitted a gear-driven counterbalancer in front of the crank and, for good measure, mounted the engine in rubber. A few tingles reach the rider through the seat and handgrips, but on the whole the W650 is smooth enough to consider for touring duty. And it's packaged well. The cylinder barrels seem authentic enough in isolation from a real Bonnie, and the triangular right-side main case is fairly convincing. Yes, the spark plugs poking out of the cam cover in front look out of place, as does the bevel drive on the right; we suppose real case-mounted cams and limber pushrods were out of the question.

Kawasaki places this engine into a chassis that could, from certain angles, pass for the genuine item. A collection of steel tubes and box-section pieces connect the front and rear tires through suspension components that feel positively primitive. Softly sprung and lightly damped, both ends of the W650 bounce and chatter and protest anything resembling a large bump. Bridgestone even created retro-look tires-called Accolades in 19-inch front and 18-inch rear-for the bike, and they follow every rain groove and longitudinal pavement scar. Grab a big handful of the single disc front brake and the ribbed tire howls as the fork tubes twist themselves sideways. Together with limited cornering clearance, you've got a retro cruiser that really does not want to be ridden hard.

And yet it really doesn't matter. The W650 is so charming, so eminently likeable that you'll rarely be put off by the bike's dynamic shortcomings. In a way that's hard to describe but easy to notice, the W650 transcends conventional road-test rigors. After a few miles, you begin to relax and take the road at the pace dictated by the bike. With a subdued chuff-chuff in your wake, you ride the W650 like the leader of a parade-slow, straight-up and grinning every mile.

Triumph Legend TT
For the moment, Triumph has no interest in producing a dedication to its own history. The rumored 2001 Bonneville is said to have an emphasis on performance and modern handling while taking up traditional styling cues much more so than the current bikes. This will no doubt prove a successful tack for Triumph.

Even as a remnant of the previous-generation Triumphs, the Legend TT is every bit a modern motorcycle. The inline-triple is descended from the first modular powerplants from Hinckley, fitted with refreshed cosmetics and refined over the years. For 885cc, the triple is not among the most powerful engines-at 67.4 horsepower, it lags most 600s-but look at that torque curve. You've got 50 foot-pounds on tap at 2000 rpm and more than 45 foot-pounds available all the way to 7750 rpm.

On the road, the engine feels just as the dyno suggests: fat with torque and absolutely unstrained. Also a bit dull, particularly if you depend on powerband artifacts to supply your thrills; don't jump onto the TT from one of the 955cc Triumph triples unless you want to be disappointed. But you've got power to jet into traffic or overtake dawdling trucks with contemptuous ease. Field experience also suggests these first-generation Triumph triples are so overbuilt and conservatively tuned, it would take extreme mechanical torture to break one.

In the TT (as in the Adventurer) Triumph fits a five-speed transmission. Our test bike's unit was typically notchy and seems quite low-geared overall, but thanks to a counterbalancer, the engine remains unperturbed at highway speeds and the short gearing provides excellent roll-on performance. (In contrast, the W650 needs a downshift or two to get moving.) Triumph aims the TT at entry (and re-entry) riders so the clutch's progressive action and broad takeup range are welcome. It's priced to entice buyers into the European fold, too: With the exception of the MuZ singles and the Ducati 750 Monster Dark, the TT is the least-expensive hunk of Euro kit you can buy.

Thankfully, the Triumph doesn't feel cheap. Chrome-steel-spoke rims look just right on this bike and the single front disc brake offers superb feel and power. The paint is deep and shiny. Although a bit plainly styled, the TT comes off as handsome rather than bland, with high-quality materials in evidence. (We're not so impressed with the horn hanging out in space on the left side of the engine.) Part of Triumph's cost-cutting tactics includes simply leaving stuff off the bike-items like the centerstand and adjustable-damping suspension. The stand is an option, one of many from the accessories catalog, but the suspension upgrade would be an expensive proposition.

Next to the W650, the TT feels incredibly well-composed, with reasonably compliant suspension. It is, nonetheless, lightly sprung, so riders with Jamie Whitham fantasies need to be extremely smooth to keep the bike from bobbing and weaving down the road. We'll interject that this is a cruiser, after all, so the fact that the TT is no Daytona is hardly worrisome.

In its cruiser role, the TT makes the right noises and strikes the right pose. Sharing a lowered rear subframe and thinner-but still comfortable-seat with the Adventurer, the TT obtains a 28.5-inch seat height without tour-crippling ergonomics. Footpegs positioned moderately forward and a bar with modest pullback put you in the requisite slouch; at least you're not set saillike into highway-speed wind as on some other cruisers. And if you don't like the bar, don't worry. Triumph has a retrofit kit to put the Thunderbird Sport's short handlebar into the TT's perches. (This is why we love tubular bars.) Shared with the T-bird Sport are the TT's 17-inch wheels and modern-radial tires.

If anything, the Legend TT suffers from a lack of personality. It's too plain to be a flash cruiser, yet not quite up to sport-touring snuff. Perhaps it's closer to being a British standard, the kind of bike longtime riders (and overexposed journalists) love, but one that makes consumers yawn and move down the line in the showroom. Ultimately, the Legend TT fails to fall into the traditional Brit bike role of being either defiantly individual or a huge hunk of junk. We like it better this way.

Cheers & Jeers
KAWASAKI W650
Engine 8 Not powerful but plenty full of character
Drivetrain 8 Fab gearbox and light, sweet clutch
Handling 5 Going back in time, a bit too literally
Braking 6 Good enough around town
Ride 5 You’ll feel every bump, sometimes twice
Ergonomics 7 In-the-wind riding position; otherwise fine
Features 8 Centerstand, kickstart, clock, all wonderful
Refinement 6 More than you’d think, less than you’d hope
Value 8 A cheap bit of British nostalgia
Fun Factor 8 In the city, a real relaxing treat
Verdict: A cunning retro-cruiser that looks and acts the part of old-crock bike; reliable though.

Kawasaki W650

PRICE
MSRP $6499

ENGINE
Type air-cooled, vertical twin
Valve arrangement sohc, 8v
Bore x stroke 72.0 x 83.0mm
Displacement 676cc
Compression ratio 8.6:1
Transmission 5-speed
Final drive chain
CHASSIS
Weight 473 lb. (wet)
449 lb. (tank empty)
Fuel capacity 4.0 gal.
Rake/trail 26.5 deg./4.1 in. (105mm)
Wheelbase 57.1 in. (1450mm)
Seat height 31.5 in. (800mm)
SUSPENSION
Front 39mm fork,
nonadjustable
Rear dual shocks, adjustable
  for spring preload
Tire, front 100/90-19
Bridgestone Acclaim
Tire, rear 130/80-18
Bridgestone Acclaim
PERFORMANCE
Corrected 1/4-mile* 14.19 sec. @ 90.40 mph
0–60 mph 6.04 sec.
Top-gear roll-on,
60–80 mph 9.36 sec.
Fuel mileage  

Triumph Legend TT

PRICE
MSRP $7699

ENGINE
Type liquid-cooled, inline-three
Valve arrangement dohc, 12v
Bore x stroke 76.8 x 65.0mm
Displacement 885cc
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Transmission 5-speed
Final drive chain
CHASSIS
Weight 522 lb. (wet)
489 lb. (tank empty)
Fuel capacity 4.0 gal.
Rake/trail 27.0 deg./4.2 in. (107mm)
Wheelbase 62.2 in. (1580mm)
Seat height 28.5 in. (724mm)
SUSPENSION
Front 43mm fork,
  nonadjustable
Rear single shock, adjustable
  for spring preload
Tire, front 120/70-17
Bridgestone BT-57
Tire, rear 160/60-17
Bridgestone BT-57
PERFORMANCE
Corrected 1/4-mile* 13.32 sec. @ 96.70 mph
0–60 mph 5.06 sec.
Top-gear roll-on,
60–80 mph 5.87 sec.
Fuel mileage
(low/high/average) 30/37/33
Cruising range  
Cheers & Jeers
TRIUMPH LEGEND TT
Engine 9 Excellent torque and good manners
Drivetrain 7 Notchy gearbox and heavy clutch
Handling 7 Feels modern but limited ground clearance
Braking 9 Very good; becoming a Triumph trait
Ride 7 Softly sprung and adequately damped
Ergonomics 7 Not as strange as a cruiser’s; no standard
Features 6 Cupboard’s bare to pay for the crossing
Refinement 7 Engine hampered by inconsistent carburetion
Value 8 By Euro standards, it’s a steal
Fun Factor 7 Torque of the town, but not a thoroughbred
Verdict: Understated British cruiser puts on no airs but packs solid performance.

Off The Record
McQuide
Age: 30
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 205 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.
Pub grub: warm beer, bangers and mash
Excuse me while I wax nostalgic, but in a previous life, I'm fairly certain I was an English baron, born and bred in the pastoral world of a Merchant-Ivory film: emerald-green fields, winding pebbled roads leading to my 17th-century estate, me in a half-helmet and goggles astride a W650... what? I'm sorry if it offends any of you old-timers, but this little classic-yet-functional Kawasaki really does let you have it both ways-which is exactly why this bike will sell in droves, not just to old folks, but to young, retro-hungry whippersnappers who can't be bothered with dripping carbs or faulty electrics. But isn't that a good thing? In a hyperactive word full of caffeine, dot-coms and Ritalin, a bike like the W650 urges you to slow down (in more ways than one: at 75 mph on a modern six-lane superhighway, the W becomes painfully anachronistic) and, well, smell the decaf. And the Legend TT? Love the snarl of that triple, and there's no cheaper way to buy into a modern Triumph, but the TT's aura just feels a bit bland-something that's perhaps not so forgivable on a Brit bike. So while the Legend's 28.5-inch seat height might be nice for some, I think I'd take my $7700 and go shopping for a used Thunderbird Sport instead.- Greg McQuide

Boehm
Age: 38
Height: 6 ft.
Weight: 225 lb.
Inseam: 32 in.
Pub grub: hard cider, shepherd's pie
Forty-five horsepower vertical twins aren't my idea of the ideal retro-bike (the hugely entertaining ZRX1100 is more like it), but Kawasaki's done a great job of capturing what was great about '60s-era motorcycles-and leaving all the Bad Shite associated with them (Jennings says there was a lot of it!) far, far behind. Which is a good thing. (I hope a certain other overseas manufacturer about to launch a retro-twin is as successful at getting the majority of details right. What? I didn't name names!) The W650 has funky ergos and needs plenty of coaxing to generate much velocity, but as a do-it-all runaround machine-and one that really gets folks talking, enthusiasts and nonriders alike-it's pretty tough to beat. The Legend TT is a fine bike, and an even better entry or re-entry machine, though it lacks the sort of emotional pull Kawasaki's talented engineering corps were able to coax from their bike. (Patience, Triumph fans, patience.)-Mitch Boehm

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