2006 Light-Middleweight Cruiser Comparison

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

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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


2006 Suzuki Boulevard M50






2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900






2006 Honda 750 Shadow ACE






2007 Harley Davidson Sportster 883 Custom






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!

View all Photos PHOTOS & VIDEOS

Honda GM5V8162
Honda GM5V8162
Kawasaki GM5V8168
Kawasaki GM5V8168
Kawasaki GM5V8193
Kawasaki GM5V8193
Harley GM5V8285
Harley GM5V8285
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