A little back ground here: Harley-Davidson is in the enviable position of selling more bikes than they can make, thus, at the dealer level, customers have to wait for a year or more for their preferred bike.
Making a bad situation worse, dealers typically "price gouge," consumers, often charging thousands of dollars over suggested retail. Honda is hoping to cash in on this in two ways. First, they're hoping that a few of the more impatient, and cost-conscious customers, will turn to Honda showrooms for their slow-ride fix.
Second, in an attempt to lure Harley-haters into the booming cruiser market, Honda has attempted to make the coolest cruiser that doesn't bear the H-D name. It seems to be working, as Honda also is having a hard time filling orders for this American-made cruiser.
That's right, American made. From the steel for the frame and gas tank, to the fasteners used to hold the bike together. Right down to the paint. In all, there are more than a hundred suppliers from all over the United States that supply the ingredients delivered to the Honda of American Manufacturing (affectionately known as 'HAM') plant in Marysville, Ohio, to make the new Shadow. But the styling and sound come straight out of Milwaukee.
To get that cruiser 'look,' Honda outfitted the ACE with dual staggered shotgun pipes, chromed of course, a big wide gas tank, wide pull-back handlebars, spoked wheels with valanced fenders, chromed shock covers, a single chromed speedometer, a long chrome side stand, and generally follow the 'if it don't roll, chrome it' principle.
"Blip the throttle and the bike literally jumps to life."
But for Honda to take a piece of the Harley pie, they needed to build a bike that did more than just look like a Hog. It had to have that feel. To accomplish this they took the 45 degree liquid-cooled four-valve V-twin from the standard Shadow, and gave it a single, shared crankpin, emulating Harley's way of getting that uneven, rumbling exhaust note.
And it worked. At an idle, the new Shadow sounds almost indistinguishable from a stock-pipe equipped Hog -- it even sounds better since Honda water-cooled the ACE, there is less gear noise offending the EPA's noise meter, so they got to make the exhaust note significantly louder than any stock Harley. (Since the EPA's restrictions are based on the bike's total noise emissions, a noisier motor requires a quieter exhaust system to be legal.)
Watching the bike idle is a visceral experience: The motor, with its blacked-out fins (that hide the water cooling) and chromed valve covers literally shakes in its boots as the rubber motor mounts do their best to absorb the motion. The shaking finds its way to the handle bars, also rubber mounted, through the bar's long, triple clamp mounted risers, which have the look and feel of billet aluminum. Blip the throttle and the bike literally jumps to life.
Throw a leg over the bike and settle into the wide, contoured seat, and you're sitting in -- not on -- the ACE. The forward-mounted foot controls aren't so far forward as to be awkward or uncomfortable, even for some of our vertically-challenged testers, and the wide droopy bars come back to meet the rider's hands. The controls are typical Japanese high-quality units -- both the clutch and throttle operate with a light touch, and the turn signals are push-to-cancel. The mirrors are good for more than just checking your hair -- the widely spaced, rectangular units provide an excellent, mostly vibration-free view of what's coming up from behind.
Despite all the H-D inspired pieces, there is no mistaking the fact that this is a Honda. Fit and finish is top quality though nobody, including Honda, can do chrome as well as Harley. Honda did a remarkable job of hiding the radiator between the front down-tubes; if you don't know it's there, you won't notice it.
"We were impressed with how neutral feeling the big bike is - meaning the ACE can track around a corner without running wide as the throttle is fed in, or requiring constant steering input to stay on line."
The pillion pad is removable to create a solo saddle, and the five-speed transmission is faultless. The shifter is a heel-and-toe type, though the rear half was a touch too high for easy reach. The most annoying part about the heel-activated shifter was accidentally knocking the transmission out of first gear while putting a foot down at a stop light. Another H-D styling touch that could have been left off was the removable gas cap.
Where this bike is long on style, it's fairly short on performance. With all the rumbling going on, the motor gives the impression that it packs a powerful punch, but drag strip testing -- and seat of the pants feel -- tell the true story. We got our ACE to putt down the quarter mile in under 15 seconds, though only just, at 14.75 seconds, mustering up enough steam to reach a calm and cool 88.24 miles per hour. Soft clutch springs didn't help track times, but were appreciated on the street where, because of the bike's relatively anemic motor, shifting is the order of the day.
Unlike the Harleys which have gobs of torque down low, and can tractor around in any gear all day long -- just don't expect more revs to equal more power -- Honda's mill has a broader power range and allows the motor to rev freely without shaking itself apart, yet lacks any great amount of power. The lack of a tachometer isn't a handicap because the motor stops pulling well before the rev-limiter kicks in.
The front suspension does a good job of soaking up pavement irregularities, and won't bottom out under hard braking, aided in part by a front brake that doesn't seem to have the power to lock the front wheel on smooth pavement.
A smooth application of both front and rear brakes stops the bike just fine, but we'd like to see a more powerful front brake. The rear suspension works well out on the boulevard just doesn't have the travel, spring rate, or damping necessary to make the ACE a comfortable long-distance freeway cruiser. Increasing rear spring preload -- the only suspension adjustment on the bike -- improves the ride substantially, though it exacerbates the under-damped feeling.
"The front suspension does a good job of soaking up pavement irregularities."
When the road turns twisty, put the Honda in cruise mode and enjoy the scenery. Try to go too fast and the so-so suspension and brakes will quickly become over-taxed. The bike has good cornering clearance for a cruiser, and the tires never felt over-worked, even while digging trenches with the footpeg feelers. An ultra-long wheelbase contributes to steering that feels rather heavy, but we were impressed with how neutral feeling the big bike is -- meaning the ACE can track around a corner without running wide as the throttle is fed in, or requiring constant steering input to stay on line.
When we first saw the ACE, we thought it was going to be a poorly done copy of a Harley-Davidson, worthy of our collective contempt. But it turned out that the bike stands on its own merits: It is a good-looking, well-mannered bike that even manages to impress a few of the hard-core, pull-your-teeth-out-with-pliers Harley crowd.
Model: 1995 Honda VT1100C2 Engine: 1099cc SOHC 45 deg. liquid cooled V-twin Transmission: 5 speed Final Drive: Shaft Seat Height: 28.7 inches Wheelbase: 65.0 inches Fuel Capacity: 4.2 US Gallons Dry Weight: 573.2 lbs Price as tested: 9499 US Dollars
1. Mike Franklin, Road Test Editor - I'm not big on cruisers -- I prefer bikes that are more capable than I am. But this bike may make me reconsider the benefits of going slow. It has style, beauty -- at least in the black and white color scheme of our test bike -- and character. I'd like to give it more, but lack of horsepower and mediocre brake and suspension performance limit my rating to three (out of a possible five) stars. ***
2. Brent Plummer, Editor - I categorically disagree with everything Road Test Editor Franklin says -- he's a "sportbike weenie," and when not at a racetrack, I'm a "slow poke" cruiser kinda guy. So you'd think I'd give the ACE a better rating than Mike's mediocre three stars. But I won't. Because when I look at the ACE all I see is a Harley-Davidson ripoff. So shame on you, Honda -- go find your own identity and don't try and cash in on the hard work H-D has done over the past 90 years. For me, nothing can replace the cruising experience of actually owning a Hog, so they're worth the wait. However, the ACE's saving grace is that if you really hate Harley-Davidsons, this is a torquey, reliable bike that is comfortable and looks cool, thus fully satisfying the four criteria by which cruisers are judged. Summing this all up, I too give the ACE three stars, but in closing I must say this to the ACE: Poser! Clone! I sneer in your general direction! ***