2006 Light-Middleweight Cruiser Comparison

HD 883 Custom :: Honda Shadow 750 Aero :: Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic :: Suzuki Boulevard M50

story by MO Staff, Photograph by Fonzie, Created Nov. 28, 2006
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Bigger is better, right? When you're talking cruisers, you bet it is. In the last ten years, we've seen enormous growth not only in the size of the US cruiser market, but also the size of the cruisers themselves. Where an 1100cc machine was considered big in 1995, it's now dwarfed by 800-pound, 1800, 2000 and even 2300cc behemoths. And don't get us started on the two-wheeled muscle car that is the Boss Hoss.

Even the "middleweight" category is getting bigger, not unlike the very consumers they are being sold to. Those of you who suffered through Gabe's V-Star 1300 introduction report may have been as scandalized as he was to find that a bike with a 1.3-liter engine -- the same size as a Geo Metro or Mazda Miata -- is a "middleweight" cruiser, according to Yamaha. Logically, then, the Kawasaki Vulcan 1400, the Suzuki M90 (which is 1,474cc) and Honda's VTX1300 are all middleweights as well. These are machines with heft.

Fry me to the moon...

What's also big on them is price. To get big-cruiser power and feel from a heavy middleweight, be prepared to cramp your fingers writing five-figured (or close to it) checks. For entry-level and other economy-minded folks, that price of admission can be daunting. How to get onto a bike bigger and more comfortable than an entry-level machine without taking out a second mortgage?

Fortunately, the Japanese factories feel your pain and want your business, with a selection of light-middleweight cruisers offered at prices less than half of what they charge for their flagship (or do we call them "heavy heavyweight"?) machines. We got on the MO OEM hotline phone -- with its power to instantly summon, genie-like, whatever motorcycle we'd like to test* -- and had Honda, Kawasaki and Suzuki send over their light-middleweight offerings like rare sweetmeats at an imperial banquet.

Honda's emissary is their venerable 750 Shadow Aero. The Suzuki is the cryptically-named M50, and Kawasaki is represented by a newcomer, the Vulcan 900 Classic. Harley sent over a Sportster 883 Custom because The Maven likes them and if the 883 isn't a light middleweight, nothing is. How do they measure up?

Harley Honda Kawasaki Suzuki
 

The Contest

To test a motorcycle, you should use it as its prospective customer will use it. For a light-middleweight cruiser, that means plenty of commuting, short freeway hops, moderately-paced jaunts on country roads and boulevard profiling. Since we are but three MOrons and we had four bikes, we placed a call to Will "Will" Tate, an old friend of MO who has helped with a few tests and knows cruisers, as he's also Victory's fleet manager (and there's no conflict here... Victory doesn't compete in this price segment). We mapped out a few hundred miles of twisty blacktop around the El Lay area, spent some time commuting on the bikes, strapped them to the dyno, and then started testing. After we'd ridden and worked out the cramps and backaches caused by sitting on our tailbones with little suspension travel or rebound damping for two days, we tallied our votes and tabulated the results.

Meet the Testers


Will Tate,
Guest Tester

Age: Many, many moons.
Height: Greater than Great Bear seeking honey.
Inseam: higher than the sapling in the spring.
Favorite Fried Food: Arby's Jalapeno Bites® with Bronco Berry Sauce®

Will Tate has been a prominent figure in the life of MO, running the fleet center for some of our favorite brands of motorcycles and being incredibly patient and flexible. He's also an enthusiastic cruiser and sportbike rider, with the amazing ability to somehow turn back time and ride on the racetrack like a 14-year old.

Gabe Ets-Hokin,
Senior Editor

Age: 37
Height: Not Much
Inseam: 30"
Favorite Fried Food: tempura-battered copy of Heidigger's Being and Time with Best Foods mayonnaise

As Gabe's sense of free will and identity are mulched by the grinding MO work environment and his weight continues to increase due to his diminishing self-esteem, he finds it more difficult to enjoy riding sportbikes. That means the comfy seating and enforced mellowness of cruiser riding is increasingly attractive to The Hairy One, prompting him to investigate making MO all-cruiser and moving to Phoenix.

Pete Brissette, Managing Editor

Age: 36
Height: 5'8"
Inseam: 30"
Favorite Fried Food: Two-way tie: Jalapeno poppers or cheese sticks

If you think you've put a lot of hours in on a motorcycle, multiply that by infinity and add 30 miles, and you'll be close to the miles Pete's packed in on two wheels. Former motorcycle messenger, current teamster-in-waiting and expecting a baby next year, Pete adds his flowering talent as scribe and motorcycle tester to discern what is the best bike in the test. Plus he gets us lunch.

Alfonse "Fonzie" Palaima, Executive Editor

Age: 37
Height: 5'10"
Inseam: 33"
Favorite Fried Food: Tums (saves the waiting)

A secretly-funded government experiment involving Banquet-brand frozen meals and a trained harbor seal in the early 1970s resulted in Fonzie, our hard-charging, hard-riding, hard-headed and magnificently grumpy executive scribe, bottle washer, clock-cleaner and wagon-fixer. He loves Harley-Davidsons but sometimes has an odd way of showing it, not that there is anything wrong with unconventional expressions of love.

 

Tied for Third: 2007 Harley Davidson Sportster 883 Custom
$7,795 ($8,545 as tested)

The Sad Story of Little Richard

Sun, Fun and a Sportster.How can this be? How can the original cruiser, a bike that's been around almost as long as the National Basketball Association, lose to three upstarts? Have we been eating paint chips again?
If only it were that simple. We all liked the Sportster a lot, but like all of you, we have a lot of choices. Let's look closer at the Sporty.

Its heart is the venerable air-cooled, 883cc pushrod-actuated made-in-USA V-twin. For 2007 it boasts fuel injection, and we were quite taken with how smooth-running and torquey it was. "It feels old but works great" said Will Tate, and we could swear that's what Mrs. Tate said, but we digress. Gabe agreed; "I wasn't expecting the least-expensive Harley-Davidson engine to work so well." It starts and runs smoothly, and while it isn't the powerhouse of the group it's not the slowest, either, able to hold its own on the freeway or twisty roads without too much annoying vibration, thanks to the rubber engine mounts that the Motor Company has been using since 2004. The gearbox is good as well, "surprisingly smooth", according to Pete, "with just enough `thunk' and `thud' to let the rider know it's in gear."

The chassis isn't exactly ground-breaking, but it represents a huge leap forward for Sportster-kind. In 2004, the motor was rubber-mounted, the frame was made heavier, and although the Sportster now weighed in a 564 pounds dry (claimed), it was now much smoother, better-handling, and more pleasant to ride. The rubber mounts allow the rider to rev the engine and really enjoy it, and the traditional look of the Sporty remains; twin shocks, small tank (although it has been enlarged to 4.5 gallons) and small, hooded headlamp.

You can see the muffler almost scraping here...That the styling is spot-on for the Sporty should be no surprise. "The styling has improved since it got its new tank shape a few years back" said Will, and Gabe liked the styling as well; "Harley's designers achieve the classic look effortlessly while the other bikes seem a little affected". We think Gabe might be affected as well, but that's another issue. One issue we should mention is the mirrors; Pete noted that the stems are very short, leaving the mirrors too close to the rider's knuckles, which bump into them when reaching for the levers. However, they do offer a wide, vibration-free view to the rear at freeway speeds.

Comfort is a mixed bag. The seat is low and the reach to the bars is rational. The seat is low enough that Al told Gabe it made him look taller, which prompted Gabe to award the Harley 50 brownie points. However, Gabe found that seat "horrible"; hard and lacking room to move around on. There's also a powerful wind blast at freeway speeds, although the tall gearing (at least in this company, although it's short compared to the 1200 Sportster) means it also feels the "least busy" on the freeway, according to Gabe.

The handling was not bad, although it was limited by a few things. It steers easily and "surprisingly" holds its line the best at high speeds, according to Will, and it has the most cornering clearance here. Unfortunately, that's not saying much in this company, and when the Sporty does touch down, it's the all-too-solidly-mounted exhaust pipes, which Will says can be "downright scary" when they drag. Aside from that, Pete found the "chassis provides good stability for virtually all situations", and Gabe is "still impressed by the new Sportster's chassis."

However, we all wished the suspension were a little more plush, especially the rear. Pete described being in a "world of hurt", Will said Harley had "no excuse" for the short-travel, harsh-over-bumps rear suspension, and Gabe just called it "harsh." Filling in the details, Pete also criticized the front end, describing its "jackhammer-like" qualities over freeway expansion joints, with either too much rebound or not enough compression damping. "When the road becomes rough or uneven...the bike basically comes off the ground." On smooth roads, at a moderate pace, the ride is OK, although you could probably say the same thing about a skateboard on smooth pavement.

The brakes also reward a moderate pace. Will noted "numb feel" from the single disc, and although Pete conceded the brakes "offer enough stopping power, considering how most people will use the bike", when pushed the brakes "fade substantially and their limits are quickly found". Gabe noted a "wooden feel and high effort" as well. Would it be a good idea to have powerful, dual-disc brakes on a skinny front tire?
Perhaps it wasn't fair to pick the most-expensive Custom for this test, but we wanted something with a little more flavor than the bare-bones 883. The look, sound and classy heritage are all here in spades, and that counts for a lot. However, in functional terms, the 883 Custom couldn't compete with the more practical bikes here. We'd recommend looking at the basic 883 or the 883R for a nicely-priced, good-functioning Harley.

Page 2Tied for Third: 2007 Honda Shadow 750 Aero
$6,799

Nice Guys Finish Last (or tie for third, in this case)

 Wasn't there a Ford ad with a scratchy-sounding recording of Henry Ford saying something to the tune of "Offer a solid, well-made product at a decent price and the consumer will buy it"? Well, luckily the old vegetarian never had to sell middleweight cruisers, because he would have gone crazy trying to please the testers at MO.

The Honda is a high-quality product that offers a lot to a new or re-entry buyer. For just $6,799, a buyer gets shaft drive, spoke wheels, a peppy three-valve liquid-cooled motor and classic cruiser looks complete with valenced fenders and plenty of chrome. Most importantly, there's "Honda" on the gas tank, which is a guarantee of reliability, seamless engineering and decent resale value. So what's the problem?

Digging into the Aero reveals a 745cc, 52-degree V-twin that has appeared in various Shadow models since the 1980s. It uses a single 34mm CV-type carburetor, which may explain why this is the least-powerful bike in the test by about 20 percent -- a big deal when nobody is hitting the half-century mark. There is that reliable shaft drive, and the chassis, while being a stone-simple tube-steel affair, at least sports preload-adjustable rear shocks and not-too-flimsy 41mm front stanchions. It's also relatively feathery at 519 pounds dry (claimed) -- the lightest bike in the test. A single 296mm disc with a two-piston caliper and a 180mm drum handle braking chores. There's a seat, a speedometer with the bare instrumentation and dummy lights, and not much else.

Elvis would have loved this bike. Well, at least Elvis Costello.If light and simple is all you want, end your search with the Honda. Swing a leg over, or just gently step over it; at 25.9 inches, this seat is perfect for the short-of-leg. We all liked those ergonomics; the long bars fall easily to hand (although Will thought they might be too wide for smaller riders), the seat is cushy, (Pete found it too soft, and Will thought it was too hard, so it must be perfect) and the overall feel is one of compact manageability. After locating the ignition key and pulling the choke knob out, the motor fires easily and after a minute or two of warm-up (remember waiting for engines to warm up?) settles into a quiet idle.

New for 2007: a tiny man in your air cleaner. The transmission and clutch offer an easy, user-friendly experience. Gabe said the clutch felt so light that he thought the cable was broken, and the gearbox is similarly endowed with a light, smooth feel. However, Pete noted the gear ratios were "too tall for the limited power" of the soft engine, and the bike's meager power delivery combined with autobahn gear ratios made this the slowest bike of the test.

But power delivery is still adequate, if not stunning. It's enough to get you going and keep you ahead of other road users, and it offers the "best exhaust note of the bunch; nice and throaty without being aftermarket-annoying" in Pete's opinion. It manages this with a minimum of shaft-jacking or driveline lash, according to Will. However, we all found it to be a pretty buzzy little beast, especially when pushing toward the top of the rev range, which is necessary when accelerating to freeway speeds or chasing the faster bikes out of turns.

The freeway ride is also adequate, helped by a soft suspension and seat that soaks up bumps and expansion joints. The big bars of course put you square in the wind blast, and at LA-traffic speeds the buzzy motor makes the ride feel slightly frantic. It lacks the substantial feel of the other bikes on the superslab, although smaller riders might find it acceptable. Pete complained the speedometer was not as "conveniently placed" as the other bikes, and that the round mirrors sacrificed a full view to the rear in the name of style.

Pete enjoying some freedom until the baby arrives. Although Will found it was "not a sport bike", on twisty roads, the Aero is actually fun to toss around and a competent performer within limits. The main limit is the smallest bank angle of the test, with the rapidly-disappearing (Fonzie said they were "mostly gone" after 50 miles of twisties) footpeg feelers touching down during some surprisingly mild cornering. Gabe found it "seriously limited" to the point of possibly being hazardous, as frame parts touch down soon after that dreaded scraping sound begins. However, those giant beach-cruiser bars and light weight make it easy steering and "confidence inspiring", according to Gabe -- at least until your heels and pegs start to drag. The springs and damping are soft and cause some wallowing and pogo-ing, according to Pete, but if it weren't for the clearance issue, this could have been the handling favorite of the test.

So what have we got? It's a well-designed bike that hits its intended target "dead-on", according to Will. It's low, easy-to-ride and has bland yet pleasing big-bike styling. Those who demand comfort, reliability, ease-of-use and value over performance, size or flashy style could do much worse in the first-bike department. However, there are plenty of other bikes that are similarly reliable and easy-to-use. They aren't Hondas, but it's hard to buy a bad motorcycle these days, even in the low-budget price ranges.

Second Place: 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic
$7,349 (2007 MSRP)

Big is the New Little
"I'm a pretty big guy."

If you've sold motorcycles, you've heard that a lot from customers. There are a lot of larger people considering a first or re-entry motorcycle, and are you going to seriously try to sell a 300-pound guy a 300-pound Rebel 250? He would have to go to the proctologist to get the teeny machine removed from his ass-crack.

...are you going to seriously try to sell a 300-pound guy a 300-pound Rebel 250?

Kawasaki realized there wasn't a lot available for the buyer looking for a motorcycle that was modestly priced, not too powerful, yet still had big-cruiser roominess and heft. The result is the new-for-2006 Vulcan 900 Classic.

At the heart is a liquid-cooled 903cc SOHC powerplant sporting four valves per cylinder and modern fuel injection. That motor uses a clean, quiet belt drive to get power to the pavement, and an automatic fast-idle circuit and sub-throttle valve ensure smooth and perfect carburetion. It's good for producing the most impressive figures on the MO Dynojet in this test: 47.31hp and 53.39 foot-pounds of torque. A five-speed gearbox rounds out the mechanicals.

That big-looking V-twin is housed in a standard-issue tube-steel chassis, with 64.8 inches between the tires. The swingarm is a nice truss-style steel piece that is bolted to a preload-adjustable rear shock with 4.1 inches of travel. The back wheel is a spoked unit with a fat 180/70-15 tire. In front is a 41mm, non-adjustable fork with 5.9 inches of travel that locates the front 130/90-16 tire mounted on a spoked rim. Braking is handled by two-piston calipers on either end, with a single 272mm disc in front and a 242mm disc to help you skid more dramatically. A jumbo-sized 5.3 gallon fuel tank with an integrated speedo should keep you going for a while. It all weighs in at a claimed 557 pounds dry.

Light heavy middleweight? Heavy middle lightweight? Ultra-light heavyweight?The first impression this bike makes in this company is of size. It looks big and long and low, with fat tires and lots of chrome. Pete thought Team Green did a "very good job of crafting a classic look", and Will liked the "good-looking retro style." Gabe thought it was very fetching, especially at the price point, but he says the same thing when he looks in the mirror while shaving. Build quality is also very good, although Pete noted a rough-looking casting next to the exhaust hangers even while appreciating the swank chrome belt cover. The bike has balanced styling that looks distinctive but not too flashy, although it's "nothing new" in the words of Will, who has been certified as having seen it all.

It's balanced and nice to ride, as well. It feels like the heaviest bike here, but it's still easy to lift upright, and thumbing it to life is just as easy; no choke or rough idling. In fact, Gabe thought it was the "smoothest, nicest motor" in the test, with near-perfect fuel injection especially at low RPM. The clutch and gearbox operation were described as "easy" and "good" when they were noted, which is high praise for two components that should be noticed very little; when they are, it's almost always for something bad. Driveline lash did rear its ugly head a bit; Will noted some slackness at low-RPM parking lot speeds.

Ergonomics are similarly sweet. There's enough room that Gabe thought this would be the "best two-up bike", and we all liked the roomy comfort of the wide bars, big seat and long floorboards. However, Pete found the seat "too soft", and Will thought that the comfort was "good for these bikes but still poor for long rides" due to that cruiser riding position. Overall, this bike is probably the Komfort King of the group, and the LT version with bags and windscreen should make a decent light tourer.

Lots of chrome, but not a lot of ground clearance.You might not be so comfortable on twisty roads, however. While all the testers liked the surprisingly light, responsive handling, it's still the "slowest steering and handling of the four" according to Pete. However, Will might warn you to "order an extra set of boards", referring to the way the Vulcan would scrape the floorboard feelers at some surprisingly mild lean angles, ensuring it was always bringing up the rear with the Honda when the road got too technical. Even Al, who is much more likely to enjoy the scenery than engage in horizon-tilting antics, found it easy to first scrape the boards, then (more alarmingly) the solid floorboard mount. Even though Pete noted the brake pedal folds for that last bit of lean angle and the Vulcan had the "most-sorted suspension in the group", it's still not the bike to ride if you're in a hurry and on a two-lane canyon road. The brakes work, but two-piston calipers and a single front disc have limits on a 557-pound bike; Pete thought they had adequate power but lacked sensitivity, and Gabe needed all four fingers and a good shove on the brake pedal to stop quickly.

It sounds like a mixed bag, and it is. We all agreed it scored high for looks, power and comfort, but the ground-clearance issue and heft kept enough doubt in the mix to keep us from giving it first place. It's a nice-looking, great-running machine that shouldn't bore the owner too soon, but didn't overwhelm us with its excellence, either. Still, Kawasaki fans will not be disappointed with what we think is a good, solid bike overall.

The Winner: 2006 Suzuki Boulevard M50
$6,899

Not too Nasty, not too Nice

It's not a Harley, so it doesn't get any heritage points. It's not the newest bike here, nor does it sport the trusted Honda name that is so comforting to new riders. It's a simple, unpretentious bike, yet it garnered first-place votes from all four of our testers. What makes this little power cruiser so likable?

Like it or hate it, the Suzuki's style is unique. The M50 Boulevard was all-new for 2005, although it used some pre-existing parts. Suzuki's product developers started with the motor from the Volusia, a 45-degree, 40 cubic-inch (805cc) liquid-cooled SOHC eight-valve unit with a five-speed gearbox. However, they dropped the compression ratio to 9.4:1 and replaced the CV carbs with fuel injection, complete with Suzuki's automatic fast-idle circuit (AFIS) for easy starting. The shaft drive was retained, as was the 45-degree, dual-pin crankshaft which requires no counterbalancer to make the motor smooth.

The chassis received even more changes. The wheelbase was stretched to 65.2 inches from the C50's (as the Volusia is now called) 61.4, and the forks were beefed up as well, with 41mm inverted units. Rear suspension is a seven-way adjustable (for preload) rear monoshock that works through a linkage. A low-rise, rubber-mounted bar is mounted on a riser over a 4.1-gallon fuel tank, and the wide, flat seat is 27.6 inches off the ground. The swingarm is a truss-type, with a 15-inch cast wheel (and a 170-section tire) bolted to it. The cast front wheel is a 15-incher, and front braking chores are handled by a 300mm disc and two-piston caliper. In back, a 180mm drum brake makes a concession to the bean counters. It all weighs in at a claimed dry weight of 544 pounds, or 101 pounds more than the Boulevard S50. You get that extra weight for just $400 more, or less per pound than what Whole Foods is charging for heirloom tomatoes. This must be why they call them "heirloom"; they're too expensive to eat.

Will Tate is also imbued with a unique sense of style. There's nothing too outrageous in the spec sheet, so let's go for a ride. Our tester's notes are packed with remarks about how stylish the bike is. Pete liked the LED tail lights, blacked-out mag-style wheels and "large, modern headlight", while Will liked the "sporty, aggressive" styling. Gabe dug the M50 when he first tested it and likes it still: "this is the bike to get if you're more of a sport-oriented guy". He even found the "industrial-looking" blacked-out rear wheel and swingarm pleasing to the eye.

The M50 is nice ergonomically. The reach to the flat, low bar is natural for riders of all sizes, the seat is low, flat and affords plenty of room to move around, and the pegs aren't too far forward. The mirrors offer a "good field of view and remain clear" according to Pete, and Will declared the M50 the "most comfortable on the freeway; short day trips would be a lot of fun". Wind blast is strong enough at high speeds to make the rider desire a small windscreen, but we could say that about any naked bike, especially a cruiser.

"Very good handling; it's the sportiest of all the bikes" said Will.

The motor is pretty good, if not earth-shattering. Despite its lack of a counterbalancer, Pete found it "very smooth and quiet, with very little vibration", and Gabe was amazed by how smooth it was when he found out there was no balancing system other than good intentions and the dual-pin crank. That is diminished at 80mph, when the motor has to use the power it makes at the top of the tachometer (ours revved to 7,500rpm before peaking), in which case it feels busy and buzzy: "it needs one more gear" complained the normally-stoic Fonzie. However, where it counts to us MOrons -- on a twisty road or blatting along the boulevard -- the motor is flexible and feels relatively powerful, certainly up to most tasks its prospective audience might ask of it. According to Will, the power is "very good", and the M50 made horsepower similar to the 100cc-bigger Vulcan, even if it lagged -- a lot -- in the torque department.

The M50 does well around town (although Will complained of driveline lash at low speeds, thanks to that driveshaft), is good on the freeway and it seems to make enough power to keep our testers happy. But what really gave it the edge is its handling prowess. To read our testers' notes, you would think it's a Honda RC211V: "Very good handling; it's the sportiest of all the bikes" said Will. Pete called it "quick steering and responsive", and Gabe thought it was the "most sportbike-like."

How does it do it? It has the easiest, lightest steering, perhaps thanks to careful attention to steering geometry or those wide, flat bars. The bike also feels very light and manageable, and has the best cornering clearance of the bunch, which helps make the rider confident enough to lean the bike over further through the apex of turns.

The suspension helps as well. Pete praised the calibration of the damping and spring rates of the front end, and Will agreed, calling the front end "well damped and compliant". Only Al complained of a "wallow in the twisties", but that could describe the other bikes as well; none of these machines exhibited really stellar characteristics from their rear shocks. To get the low look and lower seat required by cruiser customers, short-travel rear suspension is a necessity, and adding a shaft drive requires a firm spring to avoid too much hopping and bouncing from the back end. That means the back end of the M50 doesn't have the supple, well-calibrated feel of the front, but none of these bikes do, either.

Page 3 The brakes might be a little lacking, but again they are no worse than the competitors. The two-pot, sliding-pin caliper and single disc should feel as wooden and weak as the other bikes in the test, but Will remarked they were "strong and linear." However, we all wished we could see a disc rear; the drum unit is a little lacking, especially considering the M50's somewhat porcine weight. Considering the rear brake provides much of a cruiser's stopping power, springing for a rear disc would be a nice touch, and hopefully we'll see that upgrade someday.

However, this is a bike that needs little else. Although Will wished for a little flyscreen, and it could probably use slightly freer-flowing mufflers to let us hear the motor, the M50 as delivered is a bike that provides all the handling, comfort, performance and value that customers in this segment expect and need. We all liked riding it the most, whether riding on city streets, open freeways, or on a twisty road, and universally selected it as the bike we'd buy with our own money.

 

 Cost of Ownership: Living with the Middleweights
  What's the cost of ownership of these beasts? As far as fuel and tires goes, they should all be about the same; they all use bias-ply tires and get similar fuel economy. As far as insurance goes, cruisers tend to have the lowest claims rates, and although the displacement spread is 153cc, there should be little difference. In any case, insurance companies don't like to tell us what their premiums are, so you should call you agent yourself.

Scheduled maintenance on the Japanese machines is also very similar, as I found out when I picked up the phone and called East Bay Motorsport's very busy service department. There, a service writer kindly took the time to give me a quickly-estimated cost to service these three bikes. Your results could vary, so call your local service department if you want official numbers.

Kawasaki Vulcan 900:
Fuel Economy: No data

The Vulcan needs a 600 mile service, which should run $135 for labor and $36 for parts. After that, Kawasaki calls for servicing at 4,000, 7,500, 12,000, 15,000, 20,000 and 24,000 miles. A valve check is required every 15,000 miles, and plugs are occasionally replaced as well. Parts prices add $36, or $59 if you need plugs. A minor service (like the 600-mile checkup) is $135 in labor, a major service runs $270, and adjusting the valves adds $90 to that. Remember the drive belt is basically maintenance-free and will last 12 blue moons or six coon's ages.

Suzuki Boulevard M50
Fuel Economy: 43.3 mpg

The Boulevard M50 has a similar schedule; services are performed at 600, 4,000, 7,500, 11,000 and 15,000 miles. Spark plugs are inspected or replaced at 4,000 and 7,500 miles and valve clearance inspections should be done every 7,500 miles. Major and minor service prices, as well as parts costs, are roughly the same as the Vulcan. Don't neglect the shaft, unless you want to get the shaft; low maintenance doesn't mean no maintenance.

Honda Shadow
Fuel Economy: 42.6 mpg

Like the other Japanese machines, the Honda needs servicing at the 600, 4000, 7500, 12,000 and 15,000 mile marks. You should have the valves checked at the 7,500-mile mark. See above notes about driveshafts.

Harley-Davidson 883 Custom
Fuel Economy: 43 mpg

As we reported the last time we tested a Sportster, the Harley needs servicing every 2,500 miles, according to Ray at Dudley-Perkins Harley Davidson. At 2,500 miles a Sportster owner can count on paying $175 for parts and labor, at 5,000 miles it's $355, and at 7,500 miles she gets socked for $565. At 10,000 miles the cost goes back to $175. Lucky you!
The thing to remember about the Harley is that it's a simple, easy-to-work-on design with inexpensive parts. Since it has hydraulically-adjusted valve clearance and fuel injection, servicing is mostly a matter of inspecting and tightening bolts, checking and replacing various fluids, and greasing what needs to be greased.


What We Learned

So here we have four approaches to getting a customer classic style at a bargain price. You can see how we voted, but why did we pick the bikes we did?

 

"For Our Money" Table
How the testers would spend their own money.
We scored the bikes 5 pts. for 1st, 3 for 2nd, 2 for 3rd and 1 for 4th.

 

Will "Big Man" Tate

Al "The Al" Palaima

Pete "El Scrape-o" Brissette

Gabe "Can I go home now?" Ets-Hokin

Totals

2006 Suzuki Boulevard M50

1st

1st

1st

1st

20

2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900

3rd

3rd

2nd

2nd

10

2006 Honda 750 Shadow ACE

2nd

4th

3rd

4th

7

2007 Harley Davidson Sportster 883 Custom

4th

2nd

4th

3rd

7

Let's start with the Honda. It's a very nice machine, and well-priced. For somebody desiring a small, light, unintimidating machine with a low seat, this may be the one, especially if they want the peace of mind that having a Honda provides. However, like other market segments, the middleweight cruiser market is changing, and our testers were underwhelmed by the power, chassis and styling. Consumers have a lot of choices when it comes to cruisers, and we all chose something else.

...why it dominated this test is hard to explain...

We put the Harley in this test to see how a more glamorous bike would do in this category, a bike that is a little more flashy than your average budget machine. But the glitz has a price, and we're not just talking about MSRP, which is $1,746 more than the cheapest bike (as tested) and $1,950 more than the base-model 883. A harsh rear end, weird mirrors and numb brakes made actually riding this bike more of a chore than a pleasure, although it was still plenty of fun.

The Vulcan was more like it. It's a very concerted and polished effort by Kawasaki, and it looks it. Even though it's clearly a middleweight, it's just as clearly in a class of its own compared to these other machines. It's bigger, heavier and makes much more torque, although it also costs a lot more money than the Suzuki and Honda. It's also a real looker, praised for styling by almost all of us. However, it's probably the best tourer, and if those pavement-polishing floorboards granted more cornering clearance -- which would allow a Vulcan 900-mounted rider to relax along a curvy road -- it would probably be the bike we wanted.

The loser will be deep-fried and served with an aioli. So we're left with the Boulevard M50, which is a surprise winner. Like many favorite bikes of ours, why it dominated this test is hard to explain; it's a well-designed product that works well out on the road. It handles well, looks convincing enough to please even jaded guys like Will or Al, is comfortable for extended saddle-time, and is pleasantly priced, too. Middleweight cruiser buyers don't need to impress anybody but themselves, but this Suzuki impressed us with its competence, style and performance. As Will

Tate said, "it does not stand out in the group, but overall it is `the one'."
Some motorcycles -- and other consumer products as well -- are better than others not because they are incredible in any one way, or because they look sexy, are an amazing bargain, or come from a certain part of the world. They are just well-engineered, well-thought-out, pleasant-to-use bargains. Like Henry's Model-T, they just have the right mix of features at the right time, and for now -- and there are new machines in this category being introduced frequently -- the M50 seems to be the one.

What I'd buy - -Will Tate, guest tester

This test was great fun for me; I got to go riding for a couple of days and the bikes are so user-friendly that riding at a 50-percent pace would easily test the limits of these bikes; that makes for an easy day's work.

I know these bikes are intended for riders who are either new to the sport or are looking for something at a lower price, yet still have a cool cruiser. That said, I think the Honda would be the best choice for a newbie rider thanks to its overall warm and fuzzy personality. Aside from the beach-cruiser handlebar it just makes riding very easy.

The bottom of my list is the Harley; it just feels like an older machine. It requires more effort to operate and has harsh suspension. I will say that it is very stable, has good ground clearance and -- surprisingly -- has the smoothest motor at freeway speeds. This would be the best bike to get if you are a new rider and must have a Harley Davidson, but that is a sad situation! (Did Victory pay you to say that, Will?-Ed.)

... riding at a 50-percent pace would easily test the limits of these bikes; that makes for an easy day's work.

The Kawasaki was a good bike but just didn't do anything great or bad so I don't really have much to report. It was fun to scrape the floorboards as it has the least cornering clearance of the group.

However, if I was in the market for an entry-level cruiser, of the ones we tested I would pick the Suzuki because it was the most fun to ride in the canyons and was not bad on the longer freeway stretches. The motor was a lot of fun and the gearbox made great use of the limited power available.

Thanks to MO for letting me join in the fun!
-Will Tate, guest tester

 

What I'd buy -Pete Brissette, Managing Editor

It's always nice when you can have your cake...and ride it too. This collection of very capable "budget" -- or middleweights, as the manufacturers would prefer -- cruisers offers something for just about everyone. If not everyone, at least someone who is looking to enter the world of motorcycling aboard a cruiser, or a rider simply looking for a new steed at a price point. You can choose from three trusted Japanese names, and of course good ol' reliable Harley-Davidson.

"What do you mean, `don't get short with me'?" When I consider bikes like these -- that is to say, bikes where price matters -- I try to find the machine that will give me the most performance in addition to the traditional cruiser appeal that is so important to this market.
Things like fuel injection, an LED taillight, functional instrumentation and mirrors that offer a clear view are just a few of the simple, albeit important characteristics to note, especially when considering the frugal audience these bikes are aimed at. Factor in a smooth, almost vibration-free engine, inverted forks, light and quick steering, ergos easy on the body, then wrap it all in a "tough guy" look, and you're sure to have a top contender.

For my own money, the best in this group is the Suzuki M50. I had marked off nearly all of its traits with either a "Good" or "Very Good" ranking. Combine that all-around good performance with a price tag of only two hundred dollars more than the least-expensive ride, and the M50 becomes a bike I would quickly recommend to anyone -- male or female -- looking to buy in this category.

Sure, it's not free of faults. I would most certainly like to see a disc brake on the rear and a saddle with less of a squish factor; but these drawbacks are nearly endemic to the whole of the budget/middleweight market so they don't overshadow the Suzuki's otherwise admirable package.

That said, give me the key to the M50 so I can eat a big piece of cake.

-Pete Brissette, Managing Editor

What I'd buy -Gabe Ets-Hokin, Senior Editor

Some people like cruisers. I mean, they really, really like cruisers. In fact, they like them so much they totally ignore every other category of motorcycle. Because to them, nothing else is really a motorcycle. If it doesn't have thosecrucial design elements -- low saddle, lots of chrome, raked-out forks, V-twin powerplant -- it says the wrong thing about them and makes no sense, like a cowboy riding a horse with a pink Mohawk.

Sadly for these folks, there's a lot of baggage about what a respectable cruiser is, and that means it's tough to get on a credible machine for a budget price. Someone desirous of a smaller, lighter machine will be shunned by the cruiser community. Bigger, flashier, and more expensive is better in this circle, which means the manufacturers traditionally have focused less on the sub-$7,000 price point and more on the five-figured and full-figured mega-cruisers.

That means we have a lack of performance and refinement in this category, and the Shadow is a good example of this. It's heavier than most standard motorcycles but has very low horsepower and acceleration numbers. But that's OK; it's still fast enough to safely ride on the freeway, even at law-breaking speeds, and it has a smooth and easy-to-use motor. It even sounds nice. That's why I think it's a great choice for a re-entry or novice rider.

The Vulcan is a little more substantial, and was the best performer here. However, the lack of cornering clearance and heavy weight made it not-so-fun in the twists, and I would not recommend it to many in its intended audience. However, I think it would be the best long-distance machine in this group
The Sportster custom is a looker, and if you have to have that name on the tank,you will pay a premium for it if you want the custom model. I'd look at the 883R or the standard 883 if I was looking for a bargain, but at this price, I don't think the Custom represents value for what it is.

Were I to make a recommendation for a flexible, fun-to-ride cruiser with good looks and decent performance at a bargain price, I think the M50 would be the way to go. It's comfortable, handles reasonably well, gets up to a good clip quickly enough, and has very nice styling. With a price tag smaller than some blander, more utilitarian machines, I think the Suzuki would be a great way to stand out from the crowd without sacrificing too much economically, if that's your thing.
-Gabe Ets-Hokin, Senior Editor

*You guys really think it's that easy, don't you? Ha, says Gabe. Ha!

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