Royal Enfield Continental GT 650 versus Kawasaki W800 Cafe

Battle between two modern retro-twins

Royal Enfield Continental GT 650 and Kawasaki W800 Cafe
One looks to the past, the other, to the future.Jeff Allen

It wouldn't be out of the question to think that the Kawasaki W800 Café would trounce the Royal Enfield Continental GT 650 in a head-to-head retro-bike comparison. The manufacturing giant from Kobe has, after all, built rockets, helicopters, bullet trains, and some of the fastest motorcycles the world has ever seen. But, underestimating the Indian marque with a storied British name would be a mistake. These twins not only come from two different countries but also have differing goals and philosophies—despite being so closely matched in character, construction, and specifications. The Continental GT 650 is a machine meant to grow Royal Enfield's business in the United States, whereas the Kawasaki is a niche-targeted exercise in nostalgia.

We contemplated this opposed pair of parallel twins parked inside our open-plan office and pondered which example might better represent what a retro cafe racer should be like. Could a 648cc, $6,249 machine manufactured in India compete with a $9,799, 773cc Japanese-built twin, even if the latter was purposely crafted with low-tech design? We geared up and headed south to San Diego, California in search of sunshine and answers.

Both bikes channel British cool from the swingingest era of parallel-twin dominance, and do well to mask the EFI and other modern elements that make the bikes work so well. It would be forgivable to mistake either for a true classic, and more than once a bystander shouted, “What year is that thing?”

And both have actual English history—one very much so, and one just slightly so. In 1901 Royal Enfield manufactured its first 239cc motorcycle. 1970 saw the end of production in England, but the Royal Enfield name carried on, after a 1955 licensing agreement with Madras Motors to build the 350cc Bullet kept new units rolling off the line. Madras merged with commercial vehicle manufacturer Eicher Group in 1994, putting serious money and effort behind the brand. The Continental GT 650 and INT650 models are the first twins from the brand since 1970, and are aimed squarely at expanding Royal Enfield’s market in the United States.

Kawasaki W800 Café
Kawasaki’s W800 Café is a homage to the 1966 W1 and gets many 1960’s details right, even the handling.Jeff Allen

Kawasaki’s British connection is less direct. In 1964, Kawasaki absorbed Meguro Motorcycles, which happened to have a 1953 license to produce a 500cc copy of the BSA A-7 engine, dubbed the K Stamina. In 1966, Kawasaki produced the 624cc W1 based on the K Stamina and that BSA A-7 design. In 1999, the W650 was introduced as a homage to that model, but with a bevel-driven tower shaft OHC for even more retro coolness. It was sold in the United States only in 2000–01, and production for other markets ceased in 2007. The W800, based on the 650, debuted in 2011, but not for the United States. Finally, in 2019, the W800 returned stateside, with its Café name and styling.

Powering the W800 Café is an air-cooled, 360-degree-crank parallel-twin with four valves per cylinder, driven by that oh-so-cool bevel-driven camshaft. This is a decidedly vintage and definitely period-correct move, considering that most parallel twins are running a 270-degree crankshaft, because it sounds more like a V-twin. On the Cycle World dyno, the Kawasaki lumped out 46.2 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 44.1 pound-feet of torque at 4,500 rpm. This is enough to push the W through the quarter-mile in 13.84 seconds at 95.27 mph. Spicy for the late ’60s, but not so much for today. But if outright speed is your game, you’re reading the wrong comparison test.

Continental GT 650
Royal Enfield’s future in the United States is carried on the shoulders of the Continental GT 650.Jeff Allen

The Continental GT 650 combusts down the road thanks to a single-overhead-cam air- and oil-cooled parallel-twin with a 270-degree crank that produces 44.4 hp at 6,800 rpm with 38.3 pound-feet of torque at 5,100 rpm. Output is competitive with the W800 despite the GT’s 125cc displacement deficit. But thanks to the Royal Enfield’s 30-pounds-lighter weight, drag-strip performance of 13.89 seconds at 96.49 mph was nearly identical.

On U.S. Interstate 5, the posted 65 mph speed limit is merely a suggestion—following the letter of the law makes you a potential speed bump for distracted freeway commuters, aggressive soccer moms, and impatient express-delivery drivers. Keeping up with traffic often means speeds closer to 80 mph. Willing engines meant neither machine needed much prodding to cruise at these velocities, though only one chassis was up to the highway-speed challenge.

Both bikes use tube-type tires with a classic design, but Kawasaki elected to use bias-ply Dunlop K300 GP tires. On one hand, Kawasaki deserves credit for attention to retro details, but the bias-ply tires go a step too far. At least on the freeway, where they follow rain grooves and splits, inducing a wobble at 65 mph and above—when the shimmy seems magnified by the twin-shock-equipped steel-loop frame. As speeds increase, frequency and amplitude grow to a point that they become worrisome. Not dangerous, just concerning. In contrast, the Continental GT had no issues.

W800 Café and Continental GT 650
Both the W800 Café and Continental GT 650 faithfully replicate the classic lines and character of proper café racers, and look just as good parked as they do on the road.Jeff Allen

At speed, impromptu fifth-gear roll-ons have the Royal Enfield pulling ahead every time. Despite their nearly identical performance on the dragstrip, the small-displacement 650 feels livelier and has more on tap, not only on the freeway but also around town. Cracking from stoplight to stoplight, the W800 just doesn’t spring away with the same vigor as the Continental GT; throttle response and clutch feel are less crisp and the extra 30 pounds is noticeable. The underdog Enfield takes the win in the city with more spunk and character.

Heading away from the ocean and into the mountains, we expected the W800 Café to come into its own on winding roads, challenging the Royal Enfield as the pace quickened. Once again the Royal Enfield out-performed the Kawasaki. The same issue of tube-type, bias-ply tires and spindly frame has the W800 Café moving much more under the rider. Any sort of bump upsets the chassis, inducing a wiggle that makes it hard to maintain a consistent pace and cornering line.

W800 Cafe engine
Punctuating the right side of the W800 Café’s 773cc engine is the bevel-driven tower shaft—a functional.Jeff Allen

The tighter the turn, the happier the Continental GT is. Its radial Pirellis and stiffer spring rates and damping support aggressive cornering. Directional changes are low effort, and only bigger heaves in the road knock the bike off line, because the shorter-stroke of the Gabriel-brand fork and shocks would bottom. Every so often, you’d be reminded of where your spine is. Is this what the TT felt like in the mid-’60s? We’d like to think so.

One detail that isn’t reminiscent of the ’60s are disc brakes with ABS. Both the Café and GT are equipped with stoppers that work well. Specs are nearly identical with 320 mm single rotors and twin-piston calipers at the front for each, and a 240 mm and 270 mm rotor with a single piston caliper are the rear for the Kawasaki and Royal Enfield, respectively. At our performance-testing facility, the Continental GT stopped quicker from 60 mph with a distance of 150 feet, but the Café is more communicative. The Royal Enfield’s front lever has a wooden feel during hard braking.

Continental GT 650 engine
The Continental GT 650’s engine has 125 fewer cubic centimeters but puts out very similar power numbers.Jeff Allen

The Continental GT is surprisingly skinny, considering the wide-looking air-cooling fins and swooping twin pipes that exit the engine at 11 and 1 o’clock. The seat is narrow as it runs into the equally narrow 3.3-gallon fuel tank. Although the clip-on bars look sporty, reach and height pull you just slightly forward, not a full tuck. So, above the hips, the GT is roomy. But below, it is less so. After an hour, the accessory single seat fitted to our test unit felt like a thinly-padded piece of lumber, and the seat-to-footpeg area was cramped for even the shorter riders in our testing group.

Kawasaki has a superior seating position
Of the two, Kawasaki has a superior seating position with a thick seat and less cramped ergonomics.Jeff Allen

In contrast, the Kawasaki feels plush and roomy, luxurious even. The seat is deeply padded and comfortable and has a more reasonable altitude from the footpegs. A one-piece clubman handlebar drops your torso farther forward than on the Continental GT and can be a stretch for shorter riders—but even so, it’s an all-day comfortable position. After a long day, we gravitated to the Kawasaki as the aches and pains set in, despite there being more engine vibration through the bars.

In contrast, the Kawasaki feels plush and roomy, luxurious even.

That sort of luxury feeling extends to fit and finish, which is definitely superior on the W800. Paint and chrome are deeper, the switchgear is nicer, and the LED headlight is a nice touch. The Royal Enfield is good, just not quite as nice as the W800. But the real question is whether the W800 is better to the tune of $3,500? Not a chance; the Continental GT 650 is a screaming value, especially when you factor in a three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty complete with roadside assistance.

After thorough testing from mountains to the sea and the freeways in between, the real story that presented itself was where the two bikes intersect in terms of performance, looks, and value—and company journey, so to speak.

Clubman bars
Clubman bars tucked behind a silver bikini fairing are nostalgic while an LED headlight and fuel injection brings the W into the modern age.Jeff Allen

Kawasaki has created a motorcycle faithful to retro details while folding in modern tech, but very much a reverse journey for a company that also has the technical aptitude to produce a supercharged sport-tourer and world-championship-winning superbike. The W800 is a throwback done to the nines, perhaps even a step too far with too-retro handling.

Royal Enfield and Kawasaki
The Royal Enfield and Kawasaki come together in a particular genre that places them as rivals, but the relevance of the two models within each company couldn’t be more different.Jeff Allen

Royal Enfield, meanwhile, is using the Continental GT 650 as a path to its future, particularly in the United States. It is very retro, but also forward-looking compared with the company’s mostly 350 and 500cc single-cylinder history, and a huge leap in terms of quality, feel, and performance. If motorcycles with competitive quality and bargain prices is Royal Enfield’s future, then that future is bright indeed.

2019Kawasaki W800 Café 2019 Royal Enfield Continental GT 650
Engine Type air-cooled, four-stroke Parallel twin air-/ oil-cooled, four-stroke parallel twin
Displacement 773cc 648cc
Bore X Stroke 77.0 x 83.0mm 78.0 x 67.8mm
Compression Ratio 8.4:1 9.5:1
Valvetrain SOHC, 4 valves/ cylinder SOHC, 4 valves/ cylinder
Induction (2) 34mm throttle bodies (2) 34mm throttle bodies
Final Drive 5-speed/chain 6-speed/chain
Front Suspension 41mm telescopic fork; 5.1-in travel 41mm telescopic fork; 4.5-in travel
Rear Suspension Twin shocks w/ adjustable preload; 4.2-in. travel Twin shocks w/ adjustable preload; 3.5-in. travel
Front Tire Dunlop K300 GP 100/90-18 Pirelli Phantom Sportscomp 100/90-18
Rear Tire Dunlop K300 GP 130/80-18 Pirelli Phantom Sportscomp 130/70-18
Rake / Trail 26º/ 3.7 in. 24º/ 4.1 in.
Wheelbase 57.7 in. 55.1 in.
Seat Height 31.3 in 31.2 in.
Fuel Capacity 4.0 gal. 3.3 gal.
Dry Weight 465.8 lb. 440.2 lb.
Horsepower 46.2 hp @ 6,200 rpm 44.4 hp @ 6,800 rpm
Torque 44.1 lb.-ft. 4,500 rpm 38.3 lb.-ft. 5,100 rpm
Fuel Consumption 38.5 mpg 47.4 mpg
Quarter Mile 13.84 sec. @ 95.27 mph 13.89 sec. @ 96.46 mph
0-30 2.11 sec. 1.87 sec.
0-60 5.19 sec. 5.53 sec.
0-100 16.81 sec. 15.85 sec.
Top-Gear Roll on 40-60 5.03 sec. 4.47 sec.
Top-Gear Roll on 60-80 5.95 sec. 4.63 sec.
Braking 30-0 38.65 ft. 38.1 ft.
Braking 60-0 156.06 ft. 150.65 ft.
Price $9,799 $6,249

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