2006 Light-Middleweight Cruiser Comparison
HD 883 Custom :: Honda Shadow 750 Aero :: Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic :: Suzuki Boulevard M50
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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.