2006 Star Stratoliner Press Introduction

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Fortunately, the brakes work very well when called upon. Braking is a one- or two-finger affair, not the white-knuckle squeeze fest it is on many big cruisers. The `Liner's stoppers are sensitive and offer more feel and power than many other cruiser brakes, including Victory's stout Brembos with stainless braided lines.

You may want to assume the crash position as the `Liner's floorboards grind through apexes, but that grating sound signals the fun part: twisting the fun stick and squirting out of a turn. Third gear, fourth or fifth, it really doesn't matter: the bike pounds forward at almost any RPM as the EXUP valve, dual-spark heads and 12-hole fuel injection seamlessly work together to offer a super-smooth cruising experience. This shot was taken from the perspective of a competitor's bike that had been blown into the weeds.

Smooth in a carburetion way, of course. Dual contra-rotating counterbalancers aside, you really feel this motor. It's like two soft, well-intentioned hammers softly throbbing at your grey matter as you ride. At higher engine speeds my eyeballs jiggled and my vision blurred, but at 3000rpm, a good cruising clip, the bike just rocked me gently. Unlike some other Japanese cruiser powerplants, this motor doesn't feel sanitized for public consumption. It has a nice earthy, thumpy character to it that feels the way a big V-twin should.

After the twisties, we spent 30 miles droning along mostly straight roads with the occasional gentle, high-speed sweeper. During an extended stint of 80-plus-mph cruising, the Strato didn't leave me flailing in the wind. The seating position is as rational as a cruiser will allow, and the seat is very good: wide, supportive and soft enough for several hours of cruising. I didn't notice any intense buffeting from the windscreen, although things get noisy and windy over 80 mph. Passenger accommodations are "not bad", according to one passenger on our ride. The morning's ride came to an end as we reached Old Town Temecula for our lunch stop.

Would Sean look this good on this bike? I think not.After being plied with enough fried food to choke Pavarotti, we headed back to Palm Springs by way of Idylwild, a mountain town almost 6,500 feet above sea level. The road up the mountain is twisty and bumpy with its share of sheer drop-offs -- not a place for a heavy-feeling, slow motorcycle.

The Stratoliner gobbled it up, mile after mile. This Star has a broad, well-placed handlebar that easily guides the bike through the turns, while the motor rewards aggressive riders with a great Wagner-esque symphony from the nicely-detailed chrome exhaust system. Just like when they are riding any other cruiser, Strato-riders need to know their bikes' limits and carefully select cornering lines, but the chassis feels rock-steady at almost any speed, the front suspension soaks up bumps nicely, and it's easy to set a nice pace going through the curves, the floorboards' scratching and the exhaust's growl creating a perfect soundtrack.

The 22-mile ride down the mountain was pleasant behind the `Liner's big windscreen, even in sub-40 degree weather. It was a spirited run punctuated by beautiful vistas of a spectacular sunset, not the terrifying death ride of smoking brakes and wallowing, dragging chassis that I had feared on the way up. All the development and work put in by the engineers and product planners paid off; Star has an excellent-handling product in the Stratoliner.

It's not perfect, though. A bike so big, heavy and powerful is perfect for use as a two-up, cross-country cruiser, but luggage capacity is a little sparse. With just enough space for three baby pot-bellied pigs or a half-helmet, the hard saddlebags just don't hold very much. Unless you change your underwear less often than Sean does, expect to only carry a weekend's worth of gear for you and your companion.

Other weaknesses include a rubbery handlebar and limited ground clearance. If the motor is solid-mounted, than why can't the bar be? The nice, rigid chassis is masked by the slight indistinct feel from the bars, but such long bars must magnify the modest thumping coming from the engine room on this bike, necessitating rubber-mounting. As for ground clearance, cruiser riders want floorboards on this kind of bike, and it's understandable: it's hard to keep your feet on pegs at high speeds in the feet-forward cruiser position.

Sky Captain Gabe and the cruiser of the future...At the end of it all, after a day of riding I was still cruiser-sore, but impressed with a big bike that provided all of the comfort, handling and motor I could expect from this genre. The Stratoliner is available now in three trim levels: the base Stratoliner for $15,180, the Stratoliner Midnight for $15,480, which has glossy Raven paint, a blacked-out engine and other components, and the Stratoliner S for $16,580 with extra chrome parts like the drive belt guard, fork covers, handlebar clamps and polished wheels.

Rather than just being a Roadliner with an accessory package, the Stratoliner is a distinctive, well-thought out touring rig that should handily meet its intended audience's needs. The windscreen, luggage and backrest transform what could be yet another heavy, expensive, overpowered boulevard cruiser into an open-road touring rig that offers handling, comfort, power and flexibility to its well-heeled clientele. Big touring cruisers are an American institution going back almost a century, and the Stratoliner upholds that tradition. Just make sure your traditions include traveling light.

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