By Chuck Hawks
Let me say at the outset that this comparison review is not intended to pick an overall "winner." All three of these motorcycle models are already winners, and I do not need to pump up circulation. This comparison is intended to clarify some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of these three motorcycles.
For a more complete survey of the features and technical specifications of the three motorcycles discussed in this comparison, please see the individual Motorcycle Reviews of the Bonneville, Sportster, and W650. There are links to all three reviews at the end of this article.
It seems natural to compare the new Triumph Bonneville and Kawasaki W650 (a Bonneville look-alike) to each other, and to the Harley-Davidson Sportster. The Sportster was the Bonneville's traditional American-made competition. In fact, the Sportster was originally designed to stem the British motorcycle invasion of the 1950's.
Anyone considering the purchase of a Bonneville, Sportster, or W650 would be wise to take a close look at the other two contenders. All three are modern motorcycles of similar performance in the same general price class, and all three should appeal to the buyer who wants a traditional standard motorcycle.
For price comparison purposes, the 2001 Bonneville has a Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price in the U.S. of $6,999. The 2001 W650 has a MSRP of $6,599. The 2001 XLH 883 Sportster has a MSRP of $5,595. In reality, due to high demand, Harley-Davidson dealers still often add from $700-$1,000 additional dealer mark-up to the Sportster's MSRP, although the Motor Company is trying to get dealers to sell at the MSRP.
The new Bonneville is not a clone or copy of its famous namesake, but rather a modern motorcycle designed to fill the void created by the demise of its illustrious predecessor. This is much the same approach taken by Kawasaki in the design of its W650, which Kawasaki claims was inspired by their old W1 vertical twin of 1967 (itself a BSA copy). However, the W650 is styled to look like a T120 Bonneville, not a W1. Both are powered by a traditional British style, unit construction, vertical twin engine with the pistons rising and falling together (timed at 360 degrees).
In some respects, the W650 is more like the old T120 Bonneville than is the new Bonneville. The W650 comes with gaiters on its front forks, rubber kneepads on its tank, a tachometer, a kickstarter, and an exhaust system similar to the original, with a smooth bend to the pipes and fairly compact mufflers. It is supplied with a tool kit and a centerstand. These are all T120 attributes shared by the W650, but they are not found on the new Bonneville. Except for a tidy exhaust system, they are not found on the XLH 883 Sportster, either. (The more expensive XLH 1200 Sportster does come with a tach.) In addition, the W650 has a digital clock (which I always find very handy), and a neat locking gas cap. The W650 comes with the most standard features of the three bikes.
On the other hand, the new Bonneville is, in many ways, more technically advanced than the W650. The new Bonnie has DOHC (instead of SOHC) valve actuation, an over-square (rather than a traditional long-stroke) motor, a hydraulic rear disc brake (instead of a cable operated drum), an oil cooler, and better tires.
The Sportster, on the other hand, is not a modern recreation of a discontinued classic motorcycle. It is a classic; the longest continuously produced motorcycle model in the world. The Sportster has never lost touch with its roots. It looked right in 1958, and it still looks right today. It is an entirely modern motorcycle, but visually and conceptually it has never departed from the successful theme that debuted in 1958 as the XLCH Sportster, the world's first super bike. Even the name is a classic, like Mustang and (dare I mention it) Bonneville. The heart of any Sportster is its 45-degree Evolution V-twin motor. This is a unit construction, OHV design, with hydraulic self-adjusting valve actuation that never needs attention. The entire motorcycle is built around this engine. The Enthusiast magazine put it this way, "The motor is still king, with the chassis, suspension, fuel tank and seat wrapped around it with an integrated deference to this legendary beating heart." All Sportsters have halogen headlights, electronic ignition, and self-canceling turn signals, among other modern features. The Sportster is the best selling model in its class by a wide margin.
Here in the U.S. the buyer can choose from three similar Sportster models that are normally sold around or below the price points of the Bonneville and W650. These are the Standard XLH 883, the lowered XLH 883 Hugger, and the XL 883C Custom (lowered with forward controls). Even including additional dealer mark-up, these three models can be had for around the price of a Bonneville or W650. Based on the Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price, even the standard XLH 1200 Sportster, which has a MSRP of $7,895, is not beyond reach for many prospective customers. In this review, I will be using the standard XLH 883, the least expensive Sportster, for comparison purposes, although most comments also apply to the other 883cc Sportsters. Because it represents so much more motorcycle for what seems like a reasonable increase in price, and because the 1200's are the performance leaders in the Sportster line, I will also occasionally include comments about the standard XLH 1200.
What follows is a point by point comparison of the contenders. First, an examination of the bikes visually and aesthetically; then, a comparison of functional features. Last, I will give my impression of their relative performance.
Visual and aesthetic comparison
All three have well finished and fully exposed air-cooled motors. No ugly unfinished engines hiding behind plastic bodywork here. All three motors feature a careful blend of polished alloy, black paint, and chrome plated parts. While all three engines are clearly meant to be admired, the Sportster's "Vee" twin is more imposing than are the vertical twins of the Bonneville and W650.
The paint and chrome finish of all three bikes is quite good. The W650 and Bonneville come with two-tone paint jobs, and Harley-Davidson offers the prospective 883 Sportster owner a choice between standard or pearl paint finishes in several colors. The 1200 Sportster buyer can choose between two-tone or single color schemes in standard or pearl finishes. There is also an extensive list of custom colors (at additional cost).
The Bonneville comes with colored tank and fenders. The side covers, frame, forks, and chain guard are black, and there is plenty of chrome on wheels, engine cases, headlight, handlebar, mirrors, rear shocks, taillight, and various small bits and pieces. The balance between colored paint, black paint, and chrome is nearly perfect on the Bonneville.
The basic XLH 883 (and XLH 1200) Sportster comes with similar painted areas (colored and black) and plenty of chrome and polished alloy parts. Unlike the other two, whose front forks wear a black finish, the Sportster has good-looking silver alloy front forks. But a few areas seem to have been overlooked. A chrome battery cover and chrome fork stem cover are among the first accessories most Sportster owners purchase. Harley's giant accessory catalog, of course, offers chrome parts and accessories of every sort for the Sportster. Harley owners seem to take particular pride in individualizing their bikes, and you almost never see two identical Sportsters.
Kawasaki chose to chrome the W650's fenders rather than paint them the same color as the gas tank. This was the pattern used by BSA on their famous 650 Lightning. Otherwise the finishes chosen are similar to the Triumph Bonneville. But Kawasaki chose black paint, rather than polished alloy, as the finish for the W650's rear hub, which looks cheap to me. Unfortunately, I know of no inexpensive way to correct this. I would also have preferred chrome (rather than black) covers for the W650's rear shocks.
All three of these motorcycles have attractive gas tanks which are among the most shapely you will see on any 2001 motorcycle. However, the W650's gas tank has an unsightly pressed steel flange around the lower edge of the gas tank. On the plus side, this four-gallon gas tank features comfortable kneepads and a flat, locking, gas cap. The Bonneville's gas tank also has an unsightly flange, just like the W650. But from the rider's position, the Bonneville's 4.3-gallon tank is longer and narrower than the Kawasaki's tank, and a little more attractive. Kneepads are an accessory available from Triumph dealers for those who prefer them. The Sportster's gas tank eliminates the unsightly flange that detracts from the appearance of both of the other tanks. H-D's 3.3 gallon Sportster tank is the slimmest and most attractive of the trio; it is probably the trimmest and best looking gas tank in all of motorcycling. Naturally, it offers less range, but Sportsters (especially 883's) get surprisingly good gas mileage, so the actual difference in range is not great.
The Bonneville has a traditional "cycle" type front fender. It is a tidy and attractive shape that closely matches the curve of the front tire, with two struts that run over the top of the fender securing it to the front forks, in traditional British fashion. The W650 has a similar "cycle" type front fender with struts running along the sides of the fender connecting it to the front fork. The Sportster has just about the slickest front fender in motorcycling, a "cycle" type with no struts at all. All three are good looking, but the Sportster's is the cleanest design.
The W650's ungainly taillight/turn signal unit is the least attractive of the three, and a major visual distraction. The large, black painted, sheet metal bracket to which the taillight and turn signals are mounted stick out of the W650's rear fender like an afterthought (which it probably was). The taillight/turn signal assembly on the new Bonneville is not as ugly as the Kawasaki's. The Bonnie has a more compact chrome taillight and turn signal unit, not as well integrated as the 1969 Bonneville's taillight, but not a disaster, either. The Sportster's taillight is mounted directly to the rear fender without a separate bracket, and is by far the neatest and best looking of the three. The turn signals are mounted on stalks attached to the chrome fender brackets, a much tidier solution than the all-in-one bracket assemblies used on the other two bikes.
The new Bonneville loses style points because of its exhaust system, which has a kink in the header pipes and oversize mufflers. The sound of the stock Triumph is so subdued as to nearly be absent. The mechanical sound from the engine itself is louder than the sound from the pipes. Triumph does offer alternative mufflers that sound more authoritative (but look the same), and (when combined with a carburetor jet kit) gives an increase of 8-10 horsepower. I suspect that most Bonneville owners will spring for these improvements. The people at Kawasaki did better, visually and to an extent aurally, on their W650; its header pipes have an elegant sweep to compact and attractive British style mufflers. The sound, although slightly deeper, is also too subdued. Kawasaki does not offer any less restrictive mufflers for the W650, a serious oversight. Harley stylists endowed the Sportster with good-looking shorty dual exhausts. This exhaust system, although quiet, sounds best. Harley offers excellent Screaming Eagle (SE) slip-on replacement mufflers for the Sportster, which increase both sound and performance (when coupled with the available SE low restriction air filter and a re-jetted carburetor). Almost all Sportsters on the street are running the Screaming Eagle mufflers, air cleaner and jet kit, good for a claimed 5-10 additional horsepower.
The footpegs are located in the traditional intermediate position that puts the rider's feet beneath his thighs, almost as if he were sitting normally in a chair. This location does not force the rider to assume an unnatural or contorted posture, as do the forward controls on many cruisers or the rearset footpegs on most sport bikes. The standard riding position on these three bikes is a good compromise between comfort and performance. Which of the three bikes is most comfortable will depend on the individual rider.
The seats on all three bikes deserve a certain amount of criticism. The XLH 883 Sportster comes with an attractive solo saddle that is one of the least comfortable seats around. Change it before you leave the dealership. Fortunately, this is easy, as Harley's extensive accessory catalog offers several alternatives, both solo and dual. The XLH 1200 comes with a more comfortable dual stepped seat, possibly the most comfortable stock seat on any of the bikes tested. I prefer H-D's accessory touring seat, which is comfortable for both rider and passenger and fits all Sportster models. The W650 and the Bonneville have similar, flat, dual seats that strongly resemble the seat on the old 650 Bonneville. Unfortunately, the W650 seat has a slight step right where my bottom wanted to be. As I write this, Kawasaki offers only the Corbin Gunfighter as an alternative seat. On the positive side, the flat shape of both of these seats allows the rider to change position on long rides. The Bonneville's flat dual seat is a little thin and hard, but overall better than the Kawasaki's seat. Triumph offers alternative seats for the new Bonneville.
The seat height is moderate on all three bikes. Because all three are lean machines, it is comparatively easy to reach the ground from any of them, and average size riders will be able to reach the ground with both feet when stopped. The W650 has the highest seat, at 31.5 inches. The Bonneville's seat is an inch lower, at 30.5 inches. The XLH Sportster is the easiest of all to straddle, with a seat height of only 28 inches. Because they are lowered, the 883 Hugger and 883 Custom have even lower seat heights (27.1 and 27.6 inches respectively). Riders with short legs, take note. On the other hand, riders with long legs will find that the standard Sportsters have fairly high footpegs that cause the rider's legs to be a little more cramped than on the other two bikes. (This criticism does not apply to the 883 Custom, with its forward controls.)
The final drive of both the Bonneville and the W650 is by a traditional chain, the worst alternative for a modern street bike. All Sportsters come with a far superior belt final drive, which is clean and much less maintenance intensive.
The Sportster has self-canceling turn signals, a safety feature that all motorcycles should incorporate. Unfortunately, the Bonneville and W650 both lack this simple but important feature. All three bikes have satisfactory hand controls and switches, but the logical H-D control layout on the Sportster is best.
There is no excuse for not providing a motorcycle with a tachometer, yet both the Bonneville and the 883 Sportster lack this basic instrument. Triumph doesn't even offer a tach as on option for the new Bonneville. Harley does offer a choice of full size and compact tachometers as accessories for the 883. Kawasaki had the good judgment to make a decent tach standard equipment on the W650, as did Harley on the XLH 1200 Sportster.
The Sportster's mirrors are satisfactory, but subject to engine vibration, which blurs the image. The mirrors on the Bonneville and W650 are large and clear, even at speed.
The new Bonneville comes with laced wheels and chrome plated steel rims. Better are the aluminum alloy rims supplied with the W650's laced wheels, which are lighter than steel rims (thus reducing unsprung weight). The standard XLH Sportsters (both 883 and 1200) are the only bikes here that provide cast wheels as standard equipment, with the option of laced wheels. Cast wheels are stronger, more rigid, handle better, and allow the use of tubeless tires.
The W650 comes with Bridgestone tube-type "retro" appearing tires. These seem to be the lowest performance tires of the three. The Sportster comes with tubeless Dunlop sport touring bias-ply tires, which are the most resistant to punctures and blowouts. They are the safest of the stock tires supplied. The Bonneville comes with tube-type Bridgestone sport touring radial tires. In terms of performance, the Bonneville's radial tires are best.
The 883 Sportster is the heaviest of the three mid-displacement bikes, with a wet weight of 524 pounds. The Bonneville weighs 499 pounds wet. The W650 is the lightest of the three, at 475 pounds wet. This represents a 49-pound spread from heaviest to lightest. However, the Sportster, while heaviest, also has the biggest engine, at 883cc. The middleweight Bonneville has the middle size engine, at 790cc. The W650 is lightest, but also has the smallest engine, at 676cc. If you divide the wet weight by the displacement of the motor, the W650 comes out the loser, with .7026 lb./cc. The Bonneville is second, with .6316 lb./cc. And the 883 Sportster wins this comparison with .5934 lb./cc of engine displacement. The 1200 Sportster weighs 526 pounds wet, and its much larger engine gives it a superior weight to displacement ratio of only .4383 lb./cc.
Kawasaki's W650 engine produced a maximum of 44.8 rear wheel horsepower at 6,750 rpm, and 34.4 ft. lbs. of torque at 5,250 rpm in a Motorcyclist magazine dyno test. Rider magazine credited the W650 with 47.3 horsepower at the rear wheel. Note that all dynamometers vary slightly and cannot be exactly compared.
Triumph claims 61 horsepower at 7,400 rpm and 44 ft. lbs. of torque at the crankshaft for the new Bonneville engine. They estimate an additional 8-10 horsepower using their low restriction mufflers and carburetor jet kit (also presumably measured at the crankshaft). The stock Bonnie engine actually produced 55 rear wheel horsepower at 7,350 rpm, and 40.7 ft. lbs. of torque in Rider magazine's dyno test.
Harley-Davidson claims that a stock 883 Sportster motor produces 57 horsepower and 53 ft. lbs. of torque at the crankshaft. An 883 Sportster typical of those on the street, with SE mufflers, SE air cleaner and carb kit, and mild SE cams, was dyno tested by Hot Rod Bikes magazine and produced 55.2 rear wheel horsepower at 5,500 rpm, and 53.7 ft. lbs. of torque at 4,500 rpm.
For the stock 1200 Sportster motor, H-D claims 66 horsepower and 72 ft. lbs. of torque (at the crankshaft). The stock 1200 Sportster engine produced 57 rear wheel horsepower at 5,250 rpm, and 66.3 ft. lbs. of torque for Motorcyclist magazine. The average 1200 Sportster on the street will produce considerably more power than these numbers indicate, due to the usual performance modifications.
All three bikes have five speed transmissions with well-chosen ratios. The Sportster requires the firmest pull on the clutch lever, and its transmission shifts with a more pronounced "clunk," but it shifts as positively as its competition. The Bonneville and W650 shift very smoothly. Missed shifts should be very rare with any of these bikes. The W650 features Kawasaki's positive neutral finder, which in a nice feature.
In magazine tests, a box-stock 883 Sportster turned in a quarter mile time of 14.2 seconds at 91.2 mph. (Almost all Sportsters on the street have the benefit, at the minimum, of Screaming Eagle mufflers, air cleaner and carb kits, and will be quicker than this.) The W650 ran the quarter mile in 14.05 seconds at 93.24 mph. The Bonneville turned a 1/4 mile time of 13.83 sec. at 95.34 mph, a bit quicker than the other two. In reality, the typical Bonneville and 883 Sportster will both probably out drag the W650 on the street, because they will be running low restriction exhaust systems and carburetor kits. It is a shame that Kawasaki has not made similar bolt-on performance enhancements available for the W650. It will be interesting to see what happens when typical Bonnevilles meet typical 883 Sportsters on the street--shades of 1969!
A box-stock 1200 Sportster turned in a quarter mile time of 13.41 at 95 mph, significantly faster than the smaller displacement bikes, as you might expect. Again, virtually all 1200 Sportsters on the street will be quicker than this due to SE mufflers, air cleaners, and carb kits (at the minimum). If you want to win stoplight grand-prix, there is still no substitute for cubic inches.
The W650's engine will lug around town at low RPMs without complaint, but cannot quite match the high-end power of the Bonnie. The Bonneville's motor is not particularly happy being lugged down, but it seems more willing than the others at the top of the RPM range. Its linear power delivery makes it easy to ride the Bonnie smoothly. The 883 Sportster's motor feels very friendly at low RPMs, adequate at the top of the rpm range, and fiercer than the other two in the midrange. It is nicely balanced for real world riding. The bigger 1200cc Sportster motor is the most tractable of all, as well as the most powerful. It makes passing cars a snap, and the monster torque gets you going right now. For grins on the road it cannot be matched. It is also by far the best choice for riding double. The extra displacement really pays dividends when riding with a friend.
The W650 is not a bad bike for carrying an occasional passenger, but it is the worst of the three. Its relatively short 57-inch wheelbase and smaller displacement engine put it at a disadvantage. The Bonneville has a longer 58.8-inch wheelbase, and a bigger motor with very smooth power delivery. This makes it superior to the W650 for riding double. The 883 Sportster has the lowest center of gravity, the lowest seat height, and the longest wheelbase of the three, at 60.2 inches. These are important considerations when riding double. These factors plus its larger displacement, high torque motor makes it the best of the mid-displacement bikes for carrying an occasional passenger. As alluded to above, for the person who frequently rides double, the 1200 Sportster is well worth the extra investment. It has the long wheelbase and low center of gravity common to all Sportsters, and its big-bore torque monster motor hardly notices the additional weight of a passenger.
In braking, the W650 feels a little weaker than the new Sportster or Bonneville, which have hydraulic disc brakes on the back wheel as well as the front. The W650 has only a mechanically activated drum in back. All of these bikes have a single disc in front, and all would be improved by the addition of a second front disc. The W650's front disc has a 2 piston caliper, the Bonneville's discs have two piston calipers at both ends, while the Sportsters have four piston calipers on both front and rear discs.
The cornering ability of all three bikes is better than average, maybe not as good as a modern sport bike, but better than almost all cruisers. All three have plenty of lean angle available. The W650 and Bonneville feel somewhat more nimble than the Sportster, which you might expect since the Sportster's wheelbase is 1.4 inches longer than the Bonneville's, and a whopping 3.2 inches longer than the W650's. It takes a little more deliberate counter steer and lean to bend the Sportster into a corner. However, once into a corner the Sportster, like the Bonnie, feels a little more planted than the W650. The Sportster and W650 will probably go through corners about equally fast, but I would rather ride the Sportster fast. The Bonneville seems to be both quick into and planted through corners, a nice combination. It reverses direction easily when negotiating an "S" curve. It is the sharpest handling of the three. The extra power and acceleration of the 1200 Sportster, which handles every bit as good as the 883, would doubtless let it run away from the other bikes in any kind of road race.
The W650, while perfectly adequate, did not feel quite as stable at high speed as the other two motorcycles. The Bonneville feels good at elevated speeds and in high speed sweeping turns, where it tracks true. The Sportster probably has the best static stability of the three, and it also inspires confidence in high-speed sweepers.
The Sportster is the least responsive of the three bikes when executing a sudden evasive swerve (counter-steer) maneuver. Its static stability and long wheelbase work against it here. The Bonneville is pretty good at sudden swerves, but not as good as the shorter wheelbase, quick steering W650.
The low speed maneuverability of all three bikes is very good. The Sportster, although slightly heavier, also has the lowest center of gravity and the lowest seat, which makes it easy to balance. All three are easy to ride in traffic, and no problem to maneuver in parking lots. All three give the rider a feeling of confidence. There is little to choose between the three in this area.
The Bonneville and W650 feel more refined than does the Sportster, but lack the mechanical presence and "fun factor" of that machine. They also lack the vibration that plagues a Sportster somewhere above 60 mph. This vibration at high speed makes the Sportster a far better bike for riding the back roads than for long stretches on the freeway. The W650 is smooth enough to be a competent freeway bike for solo touring, but its seat is not well suited for such use. It would be nice if Kawasaki offered a touring seat; it would significantly expand the usefulness of the W650. Equipped with a more comfortable accessory seat, the Bonneville would probably be the best touring bike, due to its good blend of smoothness, power, and stability.
If you are willing to make a few simple additions and modifications to your new bike, but eschew major changes, and especially if you are an anglophile, consider the Bonneville. It is nice in stock form, and Triumph offers some worthwhile bolt-on accessories. The Bonneville is probably the quickest on winding roads, a good freeway flyer, and the best of the three for longer trips.
If you want to personalize your motorcycle, and look at a stock bike as a good starting point, the Sportster is probably your bike. There is nothing wrong with the stock Sportster, but Harley-Davidson offers an incredible number of Sportster parts and accessories, and the aftermarket offers several times more. Most owners ultimately find their allure irresistible. The Sportster has the most potential as a street racer and is the most fun to ride on city streets, or with a friend; it is a pleasure to ride on country roads, but not as comfortable as the other two at sustained freeway speeds.
In reality, all three of these bikes are very well made and can be expected to more than fulfill the expectations of their owners. I think that they are excellent examples of just how good, and versatile, a traditional standard motorcycle can be. And all three turn heads wherever they go.
Click here to go to the Kawasaki W650 Motorcycle Review.
Click here to go to the Triumph Bonneville Motorcycle Review.
Click here to go to the Harley-Davidson Sportster Motorcycle Review.
Copyright 2001, 2003 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.