Kawasaki W650 and Triumph Bonneville

Two new ways to bring back your Bonnie

Turning old memories into new motorcycles is tough enough on its own. But reanimating Triumph's venerable Bonneville--the epitome of cool to an entire generation--is only slightly easier than, say, cloning Marilyn Monroe. Even if you could, gentlemen these days prefer a different sort of blonde.

Remembrance is kind, but even the most delusional Anglophile knows a genetically exact copy of a 1966 T120/R could never live up to its own legend. The thing that thundered past like a Saturn-V rocket with pushrods when you were 18 years old becomes an obstinate and flimsy little brute with no starter button when you're 43. The late '60s Bonneville still has the same kind of lean, focused outline as a .44 Magnum, Winchester Model-94, a P-51 Mustang...or Ms. Monroe. Filling in the details that make up a modern motorcycle takes some artistic license. But how much? Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Triumph Motorcycles Ltd. have two paradoxically different answers: the W650 and the brand-new Bonneville.

Kawasaki W650

For those bent on getting all Smithsonian about it, the W650 does have its own genealogy, a short strand of DNA from Kawasaki's first Bonneville impressionist: the '66 W1. Created prior to the discovery of styling in Japan, the forgettable, 624cc imitation of a preunit British 650 made 47 horsepower at 6500 rpm--measured at the copywriter's brainstem--and set you back $912 in the days when a new Bonneville went for $1309 (or approximately $7200 in 2001 dollars).

Thankfully, the W650 introduced to American roads last year took its visual cues from the right places. One look tells you the '01 W650 wants to be a '69 Bonneville even more than Triumph's new translation. From its chrome fenders, real rubber fork gaiters and faux-Smiths gauges to the alloy rims and peashooter mufflers that let a 360-degree vertical twin (a.k.a. both pistons rising and falling together) sound like one, the W650 is the more-convincing Elvis impersonator. There's even an honest-to-Ed-Turner kickstarter. Nearby, the cam-drive tower and bevel-gear case inject weird chunks of Ducati 350 Sebring into the mix. Beyond that, nobody really has to know about the W650's modern conveniences such as the eight valves, LCD odometer and clock hiding in the speedo face, bungee hooks, centerstand, or seat and integral steering lock. Turn the key, cue the choke and wonder why only Kawasaki has a handy neutral finder.

One romp on the kickstarter usually lights the air-cooled fire. Meanwhile, all of Starbucks basks in your Marlon Brandoness. Public Humiliation Avoidance Tip Number One: Kickstarting only works in neutral, and hands off the clutch. A polite British edge on the exhaust note lets everybody know you're not kidding while the cold-blooded twin warms up. Anyone over six-feet tall will wish for a little more room between the wheelbarrowesque flattrack bar and the stepped, tuck-and-roll seat. The W650 puts a '66 T120/R-spec 31.5 inches between your butt and Mother Tarmac--one inch more than the new Bonnie.

Considering the W650 makes less than half the horsepower of a current 600 sportbike and weighs 70-something pounds more, the Kawasaki pulls hard enough to get your attention up around 7000 rpm. OK, so it's not what we'd call fast. Take comfort in the fact that 90 mph at the end of a 14.2-second quarter would beat a '60s Bonneville, but just. True to the original plot, Kawasaki's 40-inch twin has an admirably flat torque spread to fall back on, peaking at 37.7 foot-pounds at 4250 rpm. Even amid the silliness of L.A.'s vehicular excess, the Kawasaki draws more "Is that what I think it is?" double takes than the typical V-twin-powered Sunset-Strip hot rod. And thanks to its wide bar and skinny tires, the Kawasaki steers more like an oversized Schwinn beach cruiser than a 472-pound (wet) motorcycle. That agility is all the more surprising considering the unsportsmanlike wheelbase and steering geometry. An archetypal '66 Bonnie is still almost two inches shorter axle-to-axle.

The W650 holds an even four gallons of unleaded, enough for approximately 140 miles of uninterrupted freeway travel. (Although the Editorial Cheeks were never good for more than 100. Maybe it's just us.) Indicating 80 mph on its new/old speedo, the single balance-shaft and rubber-mounted engine keep life fairly placid, but it can be bloody drafty. That wide bar deploys the leather-jacketed human torso like an America's-Cup spinnaker, turning a stiff headwind into a succession of unsolicited steering inputs. Add the ribbed Bridgestone front tire's fondness for rain grooves, and simply going straight becomes harder than it should be. Cornering at a sporty clip, however, is almost too easy. The wide bar, skinny tires and soft suspension make steering so light it borders on numb. Some grinding begins before sportbike aficionados expect it, but this Kawasaki proves retro needn't be a polite way to say watermelon truck. The phenomenon currently known as "brisk acceleration" occurs only from 5000 to 7000 rpm, and requires frequent trips to the gearbox. Wicked up thusly on a twisty road, the steel-tube chassis, soft suspension and a fade-prone front brake amount to a reasonable degree of grinding and wallowing. Despite stiffer springs and new damping entrails in the 39mm fork for '01, the W650 is much happier at an easy trot.

Triumph Bonneville

Let your eyes swallow it whole and the Bonneville couldn't be anything else. That's exactly why emeritus members of the Saturday Morning Style Council pick it apart. It's bigger than a '66. The Kawasaki's pipes say T120/R, but the bow-legged mufflers diverging from either side of the Bonneville's box-section swingarm say...well, nothing. There's no tach or centerstand. There are no pukka rubber kneepads on the fleshy tank, and what about that Japanese-looking seam visible underneath? And the thing weighs 499 pounds wet--nearly 100 more than its ancestors.

The verdict? Guilty-as-charged, with mitigating circumstances. Triumph's brain trust knew the Bonneville had to be a solid motorcycle first and an icon maybe fourth or fifth. To whine about the historical accuracy of this or the absence of that misses the point. Which is this: Everything that makes the '01 bike a less-faithful Bonneville makes it a better day-in-and-day-out motorcycle, and one commoners can afford.

The heart and bones are all right there. Triumph's 790cc interpretation of the 360-degree vertical-twin is a genuinely functional interpretation of kith and kin. The 86mm bore makes for a reasonably roomy four-valve head, while a 68mm stroke makes the connecting rod long enough to cut secondary vibration. Driven by a gear on the right side of the four main-bearing crankshaft, dual balancers in the upper half of the horizontally split cases filter out objectionable shaking. That lets the wet-sump lump bolt solidly in its steel-tube frame. A central chain and idler gear drive two cams and eight valves. That makes the head compact enough to let a chrome, oil return line between the cylinders impersonate a pushrod tube. An unobtrusive, 12-row oil-cooler between the front downtubes keeps the beast from overheating. Flopping the five-speed gearbox (essentially a Triumph Triple's six-speeder with the fifth cog missing) moves the clutch to the left side, allowing the final drive and compulsory triangular engine cover to live on the right.

With all those bits in motion, the Bonneville's character favors the present over the past. It just takes awhile. For riders with an abbreviated inseam, the Triumph's seat is an inch closer to the street than the Kawasaki's. Then there's the history quiz called "Finding the Ignition Switch." Pray once for whoever decided to leave it on the left headlight mount, and again for the mastermind who gave the fork lock a key of its own. Fortunately, such irritants are few. The Bonneville does insist its choke knob be fully deployed for at least a minute. Once warm, electronic communication between the carbs and the Triumph's digital- ignition box makes power delivery as good, or better, than anybody's fuel injection. The driveline is just as smooth. A workmanlike clutch and smooth-shifting transmission come as close to perfection as anything in the business. OK, so it sounds to some like a twin-cam blender. Triumph's "off-road" pipes and carb jets should arrive any day now. Besides, everything the Bonneville engine gives up in character it gets back in convenience. A 56.8-horsepower, 790cc mill is underwhelming around a bunch of 100-horse 600s, but write this down: The Bonneville engine peaks at 42.1 foot-pounds of torque at 7000 rpm, but 90 percent of that is on-line at 2750 revs. When top gear is good from 30 mph to the naughty side of 100 mph, you needn't shift much unless you're in a hurry. Consider the missing tachometer a cosmetic hardship--a concession to that magic $6999 price tag--just like the optional centerstand and the pair of 5mm Allen bolts you unscrew to remove the seat, only to discover the tool kit is optional, too. Maybe you should hope the archetypal urbane boor won't notice.

Chuffing faster than 70 mph, he or she will pick up a little tingle through the Bonnie's grips and pegs. The payoff is gobs more passing power. Enough to push the Bonnie from 60 to 80 mph in just less than seven seconds vs. almost eight seconds for the Kawasaki. The Bonneville's 4.3-gallon tank puts fuel stops just a bit farther apart than those on the four-gallon Kawasaki, also. Despite barely enough legroom for a 35-inch inseam, the narrower handlebar (less of a drag in a headwind) and wider seat (less of a pain in the aspiration) make an 800-mile lost weekend sound almost rational. Accurate steering, fluid power and tolerable cornering clearance: For anyone old enough to know Gary Nixon had nothing to do with Watergate, this Bonneville has the juice to put regular Saturday-morning scrapes back on the calendar. Cheesy price-point shocks and a semiflaccid front brake are the only deterrents to twisty-road happiness. Triumph's firmer, 41mm fork conveys more feedback with less flex than the W650 unit. Bridgestone's tube-type BT45 tires stick well enough to carry out the Bonneville's broadband mission, but like the Kawasaki's more chronologically correct Bridgestone Accolades they have tubes inside.

Retro Reckoning

Unlike other instances of Britannia and Japan in pursuit of the same demographic, everybody wins in this story. Clear thinking, modern manufacturing and a corporate credit line really can cast faded memories into something besides a big Vee. And, depending on your priorities, there's more than one way to go about it. Kawasaki isn't betting the farm on the W650, so it can afford to be a more- convincing Bonneville--even if that means it's a less-capable motorcycle. But for the corporation John Bloor raised from the dead in '91, this Bonneville had to be more than some picturesque homage to a fallen empire. It had to work well enough to justify building a new one--which is just what it does.