The Vulcan 900 Custom is well-suited for a place like Austin. Kawasaki aimed to deliver a big bike, custom attitude at a mid-sized, bargain price. To show us how they did it, they flew me and my developing taste for expensive Scotch to the Texas capital to ride their latest addition to their cruiser family.
Those of you who follow such things might know that Big K introduced a similar model, the Vulcan 900 and 900 LT in early 2006. So why is Kawasaki making such a big deal out of a model that is mechanically very similar, while footing the bill for a platoon of journalists who can eat like elephants and drink like dehydrated fish?
At the tech briefing deep in the bowels of the swanky Stephen Austin hotel, Kawasaki product manager Croft Long tried to explain. Kawasaki has a long history of custom-styled cruisers -- you may remember the KZ1000LTD of 1977, and more recently, the 1985 Vulcan 700 showed off brash custom looks in a reliable, liquid-cooled package.
However, in more recent years, other brands have been getting a bigger slice of the lucrative cruiser-market pie. Although the cruiser market overall has remained relatively flat, the metric cruisers in the 650-1100cc categories are showing very strong growth, and potential customers told Kawasaki they wanted to see some new models in that range. The Vulcan 800, although a fine bike, needed some updating to grab a share of what was a small gap in the market -- most models were either smaller than 800cc or bigger than 1000. What consumers wanted was a big bike that had quality, styling and performance at a little-bike price.
Big was the theme of the remainder of the tech briefing. "It looks like a big bike and it feels like a big bike" said Long, and he proceeded to break down how and why Kawasaki's cruiser engineers do the exact opposite of their sportbike engineers. Their goal is to make a middleweight feel like a heavyweight.
"The cylinder head is a modern liquid-cooled, SOHC four-valve design with a slightly spicy compression ratio of 9.5:1."
They started with the motor. The stroke remained the same at 88mm, but the bore gets stretched to 74.2mm, for a displacement of 903cc. The cylinder head is a modern liquid-cooled, SOHC four-valve design with a slightly spicy compression ratio of 9.5:1. Those heads and cylinders are treated to deep fins and sculpted covers to make the motor look big and muscular, with a crafted "power valley" on one side to add visual interest. These highlights are accented by deep-chrome engine outer cases and black powder-coated inner cases.
Kawasaki has tastefully appointed this Vulcan.The enlargement and enhancement program goes beyond looks. To achieve that big-bike thumping, a single-pin crankshaft and a heavier flywheel are used. The carbs were also thrown out to make way for modern 34mm throttle-bodied fuel injection spraying mixture into a curved intake tract "shaped for maximum torque".
There's also a sub throttle valve to smooth low-rpm response. A fast-idle system means quick starts in cold weather. We tested a Vulcan 900 Classic on the MO Dynojet Dyno and saw 47hp and a class-crushing 53.4 foot-pounds of torque, so the improvements are more than cosmetic, all while meeting Euro3 and other emissions standards.
Much can be learned looking in a friend's medicine cabinet, but I always check out their liquor cabinet first. You can learn a lot about a person by the kind of whiskey he or she has on hand. And if a corporation is a legal person -- so-called because they are given a body or "corpus" under the law -- you can tell a lot about a company by the type of liquor they serve their guests.
So as a new service to our beloved MO readership, I have decided, for the good of humanity, to talk about the Scotch served at the tech presentations at press introductions.
There's always a little hospitality suite set up to prepare us for the sometimes-grueling press briefs, stocked with a selection of prepared crustaceans, fried delectables and liquid brain food. Of course, selection depends on the caterers at the venue, but somebody makes the selection for what kind of Scotch will be served, right? Otherwise, the caterer will want to serve some gut-burning dreck with a built-in pourer and plastic bottle (MacTartan's Pride!) and mark it up, possibly blinding or crippling guests.
"Kawasaki is indeed a class act."
Anyway, at this event, along with some very tasty Texas-style appetizers like the vast mound of mini-chimichangas (former MOron Sean Alexander must have had some say in those) there was the bar set in the corner. I asked the nice young lady what the Scotch was; "Glenlivet" was the answer.
Well, it could be worse, even if neither of the Glens ever really made much of an impression on me. I always regarded them as a bit pedestrian, as you can pronounce their names without gargling and buy them at Safeway. But at least it wasn't, in the words of our President, "the Evil Dewar's." Why not give it another try? Two fingers with a splash of water, and why are bartenders sometimes surprised when Scotch is ordered correctly?
I must say I was very pleasantly surprised. Being more of an Islay guy, I was expecting a mild, less-interesting Highland flavor and was instead treated to a very rich, smooth and warm taste. It was refined and not too sweet. Compared to the harsh blast of Bushmill's I had later that evening it was ambrosial.
So Kawasaki is indeed a class act, at least judging by their liquor cabinet. Glenlivet is a great choice for a small event like this one. The Vulcan 900 Custom is the finest bike of the year, at least judging by beverage selection.
Like many foreigners who spend too much time in the land of milk, honey and all-you-can-eat popcorn shrimp, the chassis has also gained weight and size. In addition to giving the rider a "big bike" experience, the increased dimensions also improve high-speed stability, resulting in a "solid and planted feel", according to Croft.
The chassis is a steel-cradle job that places 64.8 inches between contact patches. Rake is a degree less than the old Vulcan 800 at 33 degrees, and trail has been upped 1.3 inches to achieve that desired greater stability. Along the way, seat height was dropped to 27 inches. A truss-style rear swingarm is attached to a hidden monoshock with seven spring-preload positions working through a generous 4.1 inches of travel. A belt drive now gets power to the back wheel; "our research showed it was important for driveability and style", said Croft. The rear brake is now a two-piston caliper and 10.6 inch disc, and the cast wheel uses a tubeless tire with a fashionably fat 180-section 15-inch tire.
The front end gets some style treatment. A nicely-sized, non-adjustable 41mm fork locates a gorgeous 21-inch front wheel, with a narrow 90mm profile. It's slowed by a 300mm front disc grabbed by a two-piston caliper.
That big front hoop received a lot of attention from Kawasaki's engineers and stylists. They "treated it as sculpture" said Croft; "it's very complicated for a mass-produced bike, which highlights the custom theme." There are no straight lines on the wheel, just gentle, subtle curves, which accent the artful, tasteful shapes (Croft spoke of the "twin valley" theme the designers used throughout the bike) of the fenders, dummy rear fender struts and big 5.3-gallon fuel tank.
Overall, it's clear Kawasaki paid a lot of attention to styling. From the light-looking front end to the way the fuel tank flows into the seat to the fat, heavy-looking rear, the new Vulcan has an actual theme that uses styling elements to relate a visual story to the viewer. Croft promised "a lot more expression of shape...from Kawasaki in the future", machines owners can "look at and enjoy". I'd have to say it's significant that a bike that retails at $7,349 to be so carefully-styled, let alone have other deluxe touches like fuel injection, cast wheels, and a 180-section back tire. Three colors are available; Ebony, Candy Cardinal Red and Candy Plasma Blue.
The next morning we gather outside the hotel in the dry, chilly Hill Country wind to get some riding impressions of the new Vulcan. The first thing you notice with this bike is the styling, but rather than the large, shapely front wheel dominating the bike, the eye is drawn along all the curves and pieces, highlighting the integrated design. The build quality and fit and finish is top-notch, with polished and chromed surfaces everywhere and thick, rich paint that glimmers with metallic highlights.
The motor looks nice with its puffed-up cooling fins, and exposed hoses, wires and plastic clips and covers are kept to a minimum; there's even a black metal cover concealing the rear brake fluid reservoir. Kawasaki has gone to great lengths to make this bike look more like a hand-built custom than a mass-produced machine built to a price point.
Swinging a leg over it is easy, and hoisting it upright reveals a machine with enough gravitas to feel important, but not so heavy you might strain yourself before the ride starts. The drag-style bars provide a perfect (in my opinion) cruiser position, not too low and not too high while offering sufficient leverage to turn this middleweight bike. The pegs are pretty far forward, but it's not an uncomfortable stretch for 30-inch inseam me, and there's enough room on the flat, long seat for longer-legged individuals to stretch out a little.
The ignition is where God intended, under the rider's left thigh, and after a brief 'whirr' from the fuel pump the bike is ready to start. The motor roars to life instantly, even in 40-degree weather with a lumpy, throaty sound from the staggered pipes. The gearbox works smoothly, although the non-adjustable clutch lever might be too far from the bar for those with smaller hands, surprising for a product that should have high appeal among the 15 percent of Kawasaki's customers who sport a pair of X chromosomes.
Riding around Austin's mean streets on the Vulcan is fun and relaxing. The motor is as close to perfectly fueled as anything I've ridden, with a sub-throttle valve making off-idle transitions as smooth as a Managing Editor's bottom. There isn't a whole lot of power in either the midrange or top-end, but there's plenty of torque everywhere and that makes trolling along in a single gear a snap. The shock has enough travel and is well-situated so bumps and chuckholes only torture the lower back if they are big, deep, or taken at a reckelss speed.
"A lot of thought and refinement has gone into this bike before it came to market."
The seat is comfortably and stylishly low, and the steering is as light and well-calibrated as a sportbike's. A lot of thought and refinement has gone into this bike before it came to market.
Out on the open road, the Vulcan shines a little less, but is still useful. Windblast is predictably strong above 70mph, and the mild power numbers mean a downshift is in order to make a pass at modern commute-traffic speeds. However, the long wheelbase and extra weight make for a very stable platform for solid high-speed turns or just kicking back and doing some serious traveling.
Despite the solid-mounted bars, pegs and motor, vibration is limited to a low-frequency thumping, just enough to let you know you're on a motorcycle, although it can get busy at super-legal speeds. The seat is as well-shaped and nicely-padded as any cruiser seat, with plenty of options for moving around and stretching out. Of course the feet-forward, low-ass position will put weight on your tailbone, which grows numb around the time the 5.3-gallon tank is dry.
On a twisty road, the Kawasaki makes a pretty good account of itself. It's light and steers quickly, despite the extra poundage, big front wheel and stubby bars, but doesn't feel twitchy in the least. Ground clearance is much better than expected, due to lack of floorboards and perhaps because of the bigger front hoop, although it still touches down easily if you happen to be following a certain ex-MOron on a Vulcan 1500.
The brakes work better than expected, with good initial bite and feel, although quick stops will require both brakes and a firm, multi-digit grip. The tires are average, with the rear skidding easily under hard braking, but at least you can expect good tire life.
After a long day in the saddle getting pictures, checking out the scenery and digesting several pounds of charred animal flesh from Texas' best barbeque, the Vulcan proved itself to be a good traveling companion as well as being a good-looking ride, even compared to much more expensive cruisers.
If Big K's goal was to dominate the 900-1100cc cruiser category with a stylish, well-made and decent-performing machine that would appeal to a wide spectrum of riders, this Vulcan should live long and prosper.
|Gabe is wearing:|
|Aerostich Darien Trousers |
Shift Racing Primer Jacket
Lee Parks Designs Deer Sports PCI Insulated gloves
Danner Recon Boots
Shoei RF1000 Helmet.