2010 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Classic vs. 2010 Triumph Thunderbird

A flight of two fancies


With some choices in life—especially non-essential issues—it seems the heart always has a voice on the matter. Desire and the strong urge for instant gratification often bully our impartial, logical side, leaving us perplexed and frazzled when we would otherwise make a snap but prudent decision.

A scenario plays out in our head: “Should I go with affordable and sensible, or shiny and expensive?”

On the matter of looking for a new motorcycle, well, that’s when the heart adds its passionate complexity.

To get a sense of what some manufacturers other than Harley-Davidson think the American consumer wants in his or her cruiser, we looked to Kawasaki’s Vulcan 1700 Classic and Triumph’s Thunderbird.

Two cruisers for the American market. And neither is American-made. Funny, no?

Our choice of Japanese and British mounts resulted in similarly priced and unexpectedly well-matched scoots, yet we found this duo differ enough in their interpretation of a cruiser to make for an interesting pairing.

Vulcan 1700 Classic – $12,999

The Vulcan’s style appears heavily inspired by Harley-Davidson’s Softail Fat Boy—save for the V17’s exposed twin shocks.

Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Classic. For 2010 the V17 will come in a blue and black two-tone color scheme.

Yet with the Kawi you get a bigger engine and the benefit of liquid cooling, saving $3000 in the process when choosing the Vulcan over a Fat Boy. However, you could potentially save the $3Gs by considering Harley’s Dyna Super Glide Custom that matches the Kawi’s $12,999 tag. But the ‘Glide’s styling is considerably different, and the Vulcan and Fat Boy are closer in claimed curb weight than are the Vulcan and ‘Glide.

Although the Vulcan’s rear suspension provides slightly less travel than does the Triumph, the Kawasaki’s shocks are more sophisticated and better damped than the Thunderbird’s dual-coil overs that only offer ramp-style preload adjustment.

Kawasaki’s entrant in this two-way battle better fits the traditional cruiser mold. It seems best suited for casually bopping down the boulevard on Saturday night, or drifting leisurely and laidback for long stretches on the interstate.

For the rider who’s got an eye for value but wants the traditional H-D look, the Vulcan 17 is an easy path to near Harley-ness.

The Vulcan’s plusher overall than the T-Bird. Roomy floorboards accompanied by a heel-toe shifter, thick seat foam, a tall sweptback handlebar and forgiving suspension welcome lots of easygoing miles. But that’s not to imply the Vulcan can’t hang when the going gets twisty.

Steering is neutral with moderate effort required for initial turn in. And despite what seems like a shallower lean angle when compared to the T-Bird, the Vulcan’s chassis doesn’t protest with excessive wallow and wobble if you dig the outer edges of the floorboards into the asphalt.

The Vulcan is an able handler, but its plump 16-inch front tire contributes to sometimes-ponderous steering response at low speeds.

However, like a woman suffering tight-fitting shoes for fashion’s sake, the Vulcan’s chubby front tire (130/90 x 16) hinders ultimate agility at parking lot paces.

“The newest Vulc’s handling is better than average by cruiser standards, but clumsy steering response below 5 mph is a bit of let down for what is otherwise a good-handling cruiser,” Kevin Duke remarked.

"...like a woman suffering tight-fitting shoes for fashion’s sake, the Vulcan’s chubby front tire hinders ultimate agility at parking lot paces."

One advantage the Vulcan 17 can claim is better springy bits out back. Although both bikes use twin coil-over shocks, the Vulcan provides easily accessed 4-way rebound adjustment at the top of the shock body, and preload adjusted with air pressure. The ‘Bird also uses twin coil-overs, but only provides for spring preload via the more traditional ramp-style adjuster.

Neither bike accommodates for adjustments to front suspension.

More to know about the Vulcan
Ups
• Big brake pedal
• Self-canceling signals (on the ‘Bird, too!)
• Flange-less tank
• Roomier passenger accommodations
• Machined cooling fins
• Good, vibe-free view from mirrors (same with Thunderbird)
Down-ish
• Positive Neutral Finder helps but can hinder finding neutral while in motion
• Only one color choice
• Styling can seem “busy”
• Taller seat (28.3” vs. 27.5” on T-Bird)
• Primary-drive housing bumps rider's right leg when at a stop
• V-Twin configuration a little run-of-the-mill

2010 Triumph Thunderbird in Aluminum Silver/Jet Black two-tone color scheme.

ThunderbirdSingle Color $12,499 / Two-tone Color $12,799 or ABS Single Color $13,299 / ABS Two-tone Color $13,599

Climb aboard the T-Bird, fire it up, and roll into the throttle as aggressively as you dare, and you’ll soon realize the Trumpet performs with as much sportiness as you thought it might.

Despite using a Parallel-Twin configuration (a layout prone to buzziness), vibes from the 1597cc mill are mitigated considerably, and there’s lots of thrust on tap as the Thunderbird accelerates eagerly and revs quickly for a big-bore bike.

Much to our surprise, after seeing dyno results, the ‘Bird’s only slightly more powerful, yet it felt significantly more potent than the Vulcan.

Each machine made peak torque at 3000 rpm, with the Triumph’s 90.5 ft-lbs just edging out the Vulcan’s 86.3 ft-lbs reading. Noteworthy is that the Trumpet maintains its minor torque advantage across the rev range, from just below peak reading until roughly 5500 rpm where both machines start running out of steam. The gap in horsepower is similarly narrow with the Triumph’s nearly 69 ponies just besting the Kawasaki by less than 3 horsepower.

Triumph’s big-lunged Parallel-Twin provides more poke than the Vulcan’s Twin, but not by much!

“With 1700cc of displacement, the newest Vulcan has a wide powerband that chugs away strongly at low revs yet doesn't quickly run out of breath up top,” Kevin said of the Kawi’s cruiser-traditional V-Twin.

We’d like to attribute the Thunderbird’s lighter weight for what seems like a big power gap over the Vulcan, but a 5 lbs difference in claimed curb weight (756 vs. 761 lbs) is hardly a genuine advantage.

It’s the Triumph’s handling that allows, almost begs, the rider to attempt to access all the go power, and therefore generates the sensation the T-Bird is faster.

The ‘Bird’s steering is quicker and more precise than the Vulcan, thanks partially to the use of a 19-inch front wheel that allows a narrower tire (120/70 x 19) than what the Vulcan employs. Also, the Triumph’s ergos are sportier, putting the rider in a more aggressive stance, yet it’s not the least bit uncomfortable. The big Brit cruiser, although a skosh harsher riding than the Vulcan, is good and stable mid-corner.

“No, the Thunderbird isn’t going to chase down any Street Triples, but the cruising Trumpet boasts a willing chassis that allows a rider to throw it onto its peg feelers with confidence,” Kevin remarked.

The Thunderbird’s cable-actuated clutch offers better feel with about the same effort as the Vulcan’s hydraulically operated clutch. But in a nod to cruiser creature comforts, the Kawi’s clutch and brake levers are easily adjusted. The ‘Bird only has reach adjustment for the brake lever, and you need a screwdriver and small wrench to make the tweaks.

The Kawi dash lacks a tachometer, but the dual LCD panels offer a gear position indicator and a fuel/mileage remaining feature amongst other standard information. The ‘Birds slightly simpler dash has only one LCD panel but does have a drop-swooping tach that displays a 6500 RPM redline.

Both bikes are fairly well matched when it comes time to reel ‘em in.

The Vulcan’s dual two-piston sliding-pin calipers have a spongy feel in the first half of lever travel, but ultimately they stop as well and offer slightly better feel than the Thunderbird’s pair of opposed four-pot binders.

Additional ‘Bird observations
We like
• Excellent gearbox
• Clear turn signal lenses
• Custom-looking cast-alum wheels
• Unadulterated view of large chrome headlight nacelle
• Less windblast than Vulcan at freeway speeds
• Tach nicely integrated into the single-instrument console
• Parallel-Twin basically unheard of in big-bore cruisers
So-so stuff
• Seat sculpted but not as plush as Vulcan
• Not as much data in the dash
• Cramped ride for passenger
• Slightly industrial-looking finish on frame
• Separate key needed to lock steering head
• Gas cap not lockable
• Chrome finish seems duller, lower quality

Triumph announced in October of last year the Rocket Roadster as a model that apparently will fill a muscle-bike void the English company thinks it has in its 2010 line-up. But to us, the T-Bird already seems more muscle cruiser than boulevard bopper.

It’ll easily roast the rear tire, and even wheelie a little if you get it just right, for heaven’s sake!

The Thunderbird’s quick-for-a-cruiser handling and revvy engine may appeal more to the sport riding set. The Triumph is also well suited for slow-speed posing but isn’t quite as plush a ride as the Vulcan.

The T-Bird’s more assertive nature will likely make it the better choice for seasoned riders looking to move from the sporting realm to cruiserdom. If that’s you, trust us, you’ll love it!

Not only is the T-Bird fun to ride, you could argue it’s a better value than the Vulcan when considering the modest power advantage and sharper handling.

However, in this arena value is measured by many different standards. Comfort is very much a key tenet of cruising; and the Kawi has coziness in spades so long as you avoid extended 80-mph stints on the Super Slab, lest you get serious arm pump from holding on against windblast.

Cruiser purchases, perhaps more than any other segment, are often driven by subjective reasoning rather than hard numbers—except maybe for the almighty torque output.

The Vulcan’s roomy floorboards and large brake pedal emphasize cozy cruising, while the Thunderbird uses traditional footpegs.

Like we said at the beginning, picking the bike that’s right for you is often a matter of the heart. And for that reason the Vulcan 1700 Classic could easily sway votes, as both bikes are remarkably close in performance.

The classy Kawi has higher luster chrome, a better finish on the frame, comprehensive data from dual LCD panels in the tank-mounted console, a swivel cover over the locking gas cap, over-under slash-cut exhaust, chrome shock body covers, and a more stylish tail section.

Although these items are largely aesthetic, and do nothing to make the Vulcan go faster, turn better or stop harder, to many folks the dressy stuff means as much as superior performance.

The Vulcan may be flashier; however, the T-Bird has a couple aces up its sleeve.

In its single-color scheme, the Triumph offers a $500 savings over the Kawi, and with the Brit there’s also the option of ABS. Pony up for the anti-lock on a single-color T-Bird and you’ll pay a paltry $300 premium over the Vulcan. Impressive!

Two interpretations of a cruiser. For some riders, choosing between them could simply be a matter of taste.

For our sporting natures we’ll take High Tea with a side of ‘Bird. But we understand if you’d prefer to wash down your post-ride meal with some sake.

Related Reading
2009 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700/LT Review
2010 Triumph Thunderbird Review
All Cruiser Reviews on Motorcycle.com
All Things Kawasaki on Motorcycle.com
All Things Triumph on Motorcycle.com

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