For decades other motorcycle manufacturers have glommed onto the cruiser theme. Some brands unabashedly produce models that look as much like a Harley as possible – Harley clones – without getting into legal hot water, while others just strafe the notion of a cruiser simply by creating a machine with the general look and feel of a cruiser: a neutral if not relaxed riding position and some chrome in just the right amount.
When we contemplated the fact that Harley has inspired so many other brands to interpret the cruiser form, we thought we’d conduct a cruiser comparison review that’s something of an experiment.
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Using a Harley-Davidson as the standard, we selected a sampling of brands from around the globe where motorcycle manufacturing has a solid history. We picked models that embody not only the spirit of motorcycles coming out those regions of the world, but also what we think these manufacturers envision as a cruiser.
The World of Cruisers
USA: Harley has basically dictated the paradigm for cruiser motorcycles, and the Super Glide Custom brings the authentic Big Twin H-D experience to consumers for just $13,000.
Italy: An Italian cruiser is unique, whether talking about the wild-ass Diavel or the anachronistic Moto Guzzi Black Eagle tested here. Engines are smaller, chassis are shorter, and seat heights are taller. Italy likes the idea of appealing to the huge American cruiser market but is unwilling to ape the paradigm established by Harley.
UK: Triumph mimics the traditional cruiser layout while throwing a curveball with a parallel-Twin engine configuration unique in the cruiser world. American designer Tim Prentice adopted design cues that make the Thunderbird palatable to North American tastes.
Japan: Like the rest of the motorcycle world, Japan has deeply jumped into the cruiser market, formerly only as pale imitations of Harley's ethos. We originally considered YamaStar's Road Star and Kawi's Vulcan 1700 as likely choices for this shootout, but when those were unavailable, we settled on Honda's Sabre. Honda recognized it needed a firmer connection to the American cruising idiom, so it employed USA-bred designers to create the Fury Chopper and the pro-street-themed Sabre follow-up. Although still not air-cooled and lacking real steel fenders, the Sabre is a clean new riff on the pro-street design that's proven popular in the custom-bike world.
The might of the Thunderbird’s 1597cc parallel-Twin is revealed in its best-in-the-group dyno run of 73.1 hp at 4800 rpm. While the T-Bird’s displacement is scarcely more than the Super Glide Custom’s 1584cc, the Triumph’s engine architecture (including overhead cams and the benefit of liquid cooling) gives it the ability to make considerably more power than the Harley’s air-cooled V-Twin with pushrod actuated valves that managed 64.5 hp at 5000 rpm.
Although the Harley’s TC96 is dominated by the Triumph powerplant, it handily out-grunts the rest of the motors in this group, churning out the grunting flavor that millions have grown to love over the decades. Compared to the Sabre’s 1312cc liquid-cooled, 52-degree V-Twin, well, there is no comparison. The Honda never really feels underpowered, but its power output is simply less than its bigger-cube competition.
With just 1064cc to work with, the California Black Eagle’s quirky, air-cooled, longitudinally mounted V-Twin did well to produce 69.9 hp at 6800 rpm – a scant 3 peak ponies behind the burly T-Bird. But the real story of the Guzzi’s power is that it makes its best power long after the others have hit their stride. The other three cruisers hit peak power long before the California Black Eagle gets into the meat of its powerband.
This rev-happy power in the Guzzi is uncharacteristic for a cruiser and might appeal more to riders with a sporting itch, but the poor ol’ Goose is handily outgunned by the other three in the lower rpm range. Even after the Triumph hits peak power it continues to make more steam than the Guzzi for approximately 1200 rpm. Not until approximately 4600 rpm does the Black Eagle slowly edge away from the liquid-cooled Honda that saw a modest 54 hp at 4200 rpm.
Perhaps more critical to a cruiser rider is twisting force, the amount of grunt a cruiser provides. In this respect, the Italian bird flies low on the torque map, once again showing how different its engine is from the typical cruiser Twin.
Where the typical cruiser builds torque from the word go, the Guzzi suffers a steady decrease in torque starting as early as 2800 rpm, and doesn’t show signs of recovery until nearly 2000 rpm later. Peak torque advantage for the Japanese, American and Brit bikes is measured in the tens of foot-pounds more than the Guzzi’s 59.7 ft-lbs at 5200 rpm.
On paper, the California Black Eagle’s engine looks out of its league, but as we so often say ’round these parts of the web, a motorcycle is more than its dyno results. Let’s see how the Moto Guzzi, as well as the Triumph and Honda, stack up to the cruiser standard-bearing Harley-Davidson.
2012 Harley-Davidson Super Glide Custom $12,999 ($15,039 as tested)
If there’s one quality that best defines many big-bore Harleys, it’s the rumbling and shuddering of the Harley V-Twin. Harley-Davidson is masterful at drawing attention to its powerplants, both in appearance and feel. Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you’ll always know you’re aboard a Big Twin Harley.
“Its familiar TC96 engine is a likeable power unit, providing flawless throttle response and the flavor of low-end grunt that made The Motor Company famous,” remarks Kevin. The rubber-mounted engine design allows the Twin to shake the bike, especially at idle, giving credence to its nickname: paint shaker.
Troy was generally satisfied with the TC96’s performance once the Super Glide was past idle and rolling down the road. But Tom discovered the vibration resurfaces at different points in the rev range, causing him to tailor his riding to suit the engine. “At various freeway speeds I found myself selecting a gear based on the least amount of vibration and not necessarily the appropriate gear for passing power, etc., which is my normal consideration,” states Tom.
The SGC’s 26.5-inch seat height – the lowest of the group by 0.4-inch – lends greatly to the bike’s appeal for a broad variety of riders. Unfortunately this lowest-of-the-low trait comes at the cost of short travel for the dual shocks. “Even my minimal weight caused the shocks to bottom over larger bumps,” says Kevin. When the road surface is smooth, so is the SGC’s ride. But traverse a steep-angled bump, expansion joint, etc., or a sizeable divot in the street, and the basic suspension reveals its weakness of limited travel and delivers harsh response.
“On a road with any semblance of twisty bits, the wrap-around bars provide pretty good leverage,” notes Troy.
Despite the low suspension, the Harley is a compliant handler in most settings. Sadly, though, any further handling prowess is held back by ungenerous lean angle. So minimal is clearance when leaned for a right-hander, a hose clamp that’s part of the lower exhaust’s heat shield gets ground to bits in less than a day. Even the underside of the lower exhaust muffler started to show signs of touch down. Clearance on the left side is marginally better.
With its low footpegs, you might presume the Glide has ample legroom. Guess again. Tom justly complains about the Harley’s tight seat-to-peg relation when he points out that the H-D has a much lower seat height than the Guzzi.
“On both bikes your knees are level with, or above, the fuel tank creating a kind of scrunched seating position, especially for taller riders,” says T-Rod. He also recognizes that the Guzzi’s floorboard-to-seat relation is also tight, but at least the Italian bike has the advantage of exceptional lean angle because the Goose’s ‘boards are much higher than the Harley’s pegs.
Our Super Glide Custom was equipped with the optional Security Package ($1195) which includes Harley’s ABS. In our recent review of the Super Glide we gave Harley a pat on the back for making anti-locks available on many of its models. But as sufficiently as the ABS performs, it cannot compensate for the brakes’ low sensitivity and need for more effort at the lever compared to the other three cruisers in this four-way battle.
In our solo review of the SGC we heaped praise on the appearance of Harley’s new, optional chrome alloy tubeless spoke wheels but also pointed out the choice of tire-balancing wheel weights. “I find it odd,” remarks Troy, “that the attractive chrome wire wheels are visually tarnished with ugly wheel weights.”
Wheel weights aside, Kevin found redemption elsewhere for the Super G’s appearance.
“Its black engine cases and transmission are highlighted brightly by several beautifully chromed covers. If you had to choose one of the engines to display in your living room, this would be it.” He also appreciates the Harley’s overall quality and finish, saying the “extra-cost paint option looks wonderful in sunlight, as its metallic elements sparkle through the rich, blue paint.”
This Harley isn’t fault-free, but there is much to admire in this cruiser from the most iconic maker of cruisers the world over.
2011 Moto Guzzi California Black Eagle $13,490
“Although out-calibered in displacement, the Cali’s revvy V-Twin feels quite spritely,” says Kevin’s notepad. “From a stop, its tall first gear requires some clutch slippage at the end of its lever travel, but its relatively lofty powerband (limited to 7250 rpm) makes it very usable in city traffic. However, the response from the relatively primitive fuel-injection system sometimes lags due to what feels like a lean condition, and this is the only bike with a manual fuel-enrichener, which is needed during cold starts.”
Additionally, the Guzzi has a weight advantage that helps mask its low-end power deficit. With a claimed ready-to-ride curb weight of 590 pounds the Goose is a whopping 156 pounds lighter than the hefty Triumph.
“The big-digit torque figures bursting from the T-Bird’s 1597cc vertical-Twin is head-jerking good fun, but at 746 pounds full of fluids I simply tired of holding the beast up at stoplights,” says Tom. Although he acknowledges the Goose’s softish power delivery in his recent review of the Black Eagle Tom says he prefers the Italian bike’s lighter, more maneuverable mannerisms to outright big power.
Normally enraptured by high-horsepower screamers, Racer Boy Troy also sees the charm in the Guzzi’s engine. “Despite having the smallest engine, and an air-cooled one at that, the Guzzi actually didn’t leave me wanting more in the power department,” quips Troy. “It pulled with gusto and has a unique exhaust note that would sound even better with an aftermarket exhaust fitted.”
Kevin’s seasoned eye points out the Guzzi offers the broadest, roomiest saddle with ample rider accommodations. However, when it comes to ergos, the good news ends at the plush seat. Floorboards on a cruiser often make a nice upgrade from footpegs, but the Black Eagle’s boards are placed high, which is great for creating useful cornering clearance but detrimental to seat-to-floorboard relation.
Tom, the tallest of us, found the ‘boards high placement, in combination with the handlebar position, an impediment to smoothly maneuvering the Goose in tight spaces, as he discovered his knees getting caught between the large 5.0-gallon fuel tank and handlebar. Interestingly, with our shorter inseams, Troy and I had similar issues. “The floorboards are so high that my knees would often get in the way of my hands,” laments Troy. “That wouldn’t be a big deal except for the fact that my hands are tasked with steering the bike.”
Continuing the Guzzi’s odd ergo layout is a shifter with almost no room to wedge a boot under. “Why I can’t I get my left toe under the shifter, even with a little size-8 boot,” Kevin questions indignantly. The work-around for this ergo foible is to use the rear part of the heel/toe shifter.
The brake pedal is no more accommodating, requiring the rider to rest his or her heel on a knob at the back of the brake pedal arm, rather than the floorboard, to achieve manageable modulation of the rear brake. On the subject of brakes, stopping force and sensitivity from the Guzzi’s dual Brembos up front is decent, but not one of us cared for how aggressively the front brake was applied via the linked system when braking solely with the rear. We found applying the front brake first the most effective – and reassuring – method for slowing quickly, and for keeping our blood pressure from spiking.
Finish quality on the various chrome surfaces seems lost to 1971, when the original California was first introduced. Various bolts were showing early signs of rust, and some chrome surfaces are substandard compared to the finish on modern motorcycles. And, as we noted in our earlier review of the Guzzi, “the sloppy welds on the passenger grab rail are unpleasant.” We also didn’t like the Eagle’s ultra-long sidestand that is extremely awkward to deploy, with retracting equally as annoying, as it’s accompanied by a loud clang as two springs slam it to its stops.
But crappy chrome and stupid-long sidestands be damned if all you’re interested in is a cruiser with handling that’s far superior to the other three.
The California Black Eagle exposes its Italian roots by including damping adjusters on its fork, quickly settable by a dial at the top of each fork leg, compression on the left and rebound on the right. Each shock also provides for rebound damping via a shock-top-mounted dial, and preload is of the ramp-adjuster style. Further aiding ride quality and excellent chassis manners on this best handling bike of the bunch is an adjustable Italian-made TT Suspension steering damper. The Guzzi is the only cruiser here to go to such lengths with suspension.
“The Moto Guzzi California Black Eagle is an anomaly among cruisers. Besides its iconic tractor engine, the nonconformist Guzzi is the only ‘cruiser’ that handles like a normal motorcycle,” says Tom. “You’ll run out of rubber before you run out of cornering clearance.”
We can’t use the word unique enough to describe this black sheep cruiser. If you want to blend quaint retro originality dipped in quirkiness and topped off with genuine riding performance, the Moto Guzzi California Black Eagle is an ideal candidate.
2011 Honda Sabre $11,899
Other than the kinda-weird Guzzi, Honda’s Sabre is another standout in this crowd. With a 70-inch wheelbase, relaxed 33.0-degree rake angle and skinny 21-inch front wheel, the Sabre is the most chopperish cruiser here.
Visually, the Thunderbird and Harley strike a similar stance, if even remotely. But the Honda’s lines create the appearance of a pro-street muscle bike. Viewed from a distance the Sabre fools the untrained eye into thinking this motorcycle is a pricey custom fab-up from the shop of some wild-eyed, tortured-artist bike builder. The Sabre, however, has a secret or two behind its swanky look.
We discovered during the Sabre’s introduction in early 2010 that Honda utilizes plastic material for things like the fenders and various engine covers. The pieces have excellent finish quality; sometimes even the professionals are fooled. However, while this choice of materials likely results cost savings for Honda, as well a genuine reduction in weight if the same pieces were made of steel or aluminum, the use of plastic saps the perception of authenticity from the Sabre.
“A turnkey custom-style, pro-street motorcycle with Honda dependability for less money than any bike in this competition makes the Sabre an attractive option,” Tom astutely notes. “The drawback is a very plasticized look, like an industrial-sized toy purchased from the 99¢ Store.”
If you aren’t a hardcore biker committed to some do-or-die ethos, and can live with some plasticy bits, the Sabre’s flashy appearance has redeeming value.
For instance, the unencumbered view across the bike’s lustrous and stylish headlight garnered a Best Headlight award from Kevin. Additionally, the lines of the Sabre’s fuel tank are unique and beautiful, although its pressed seam is unsightly. But even ever-optimistic Kev found the color-matched frame for 2011 a skosh on the bold side.
“Our Sabre’s blue paint color is an eyeball magnet, but the blue-ness is a little overbearing since it’s matched by more blue on its artfully curved frame rails.”
The Sabre’s 1312cc liquid-cooled, 52-degree V-Twin doesn’t produce pavement-shredding power, but it’s plenty potent enough to get the 659-pound Honda quickly up to speed, feeling nearly as powerful as the Harley Super Glide Custom in certain circumstances. Perhaps more important to some, the Honda Twin on loan from the Fury definitely sounds the part.
“The Sabre’s exhaust system sounds appropriately burly, emitting a baritone bark that could fool many into thinking it’s a Harley,” says Kevin. The exhaust note is particularly noticeably while riding the Sabre, but its thunder is less audible to passersby. Kudos to Honda engineers for giving the Sabre a tough-sounding rumble while also keeping the EPA happy.
A skinny front tire/wheel up front is integral to the Sabre’s styling, but this combo, along with a basic, nonadjustable fork, doesn’t inspire spirited rides in the canyons. Troy found at times that larger ruts or groves would suck in the front-end, but with a “quick tug” on the bar he easily corrected the Sabre’s course.
The aforementioned stretched wheelbase and laidback rake angle are key contributors to the Sabre’s less-than-snappy steering response. But as Tom observes, “The front wheel doesn’t flop into corners,” which is a common handling flaw for many long and low cruisers. Lean angle, i.e. cornering clearance, isn’t as stingy as the Harley, but certainly nothing like the canyon-carving Moto Guzzi.
We didn’t expect much from the Sabre’s dual-piston caliper and single rotor up front, and the Honda didn’t make liars out of us. The brake lever provides a wooden feel joined by modest stopping power.
For 2012 Honda has made optional ABS available for the Sabre, adding $1000 to this year’s base price of $12,250. While ABS won’t necessarily improve the Sabre’s braking performance, it does add an element of safety that few cruisers at this price point can boast.
The Sabre’s look is long, low and lean, which might turn off some prospective buyers for fear that the stretched appearance is matched by a stretched rider layout. Thankfully this isn’t the case. A 26.9-inch seat height is just a hair taller than the Harley, and Kevin discovered the Sabre’s rider triangle was preferable to the other scoots’ layout.
“I think I like the Sabre’s riding position best, with its slight forward lean toward the low bars,” says Kev, going on to highlight how the “nicely scooped seat sits close to the ground, allowing even the shortest legs to flat-foot at a stop.”
If a style-centric cruiser at a budget price with proven reliability is what you’re after, the Honda Sabre nicely blends all those criteria.
2011 Triumph Thunderbird ABS $13,499
Triumph’s Thunderbird is a refreshing cruiser mold-breaker. The Thunderbird is a big, burly, powerful, Yankeefied British cruiser, earning our Best Cruiser award in 2009.
On the one hand, Triumph strove to endow the T-Bird with definitive cruiser styling. American designer Tim Prentice was tapped to infuse the ‘Bird with a look that’s distinctly American. On the other hand, the Thunderbird’s voluminous vertical-Twin is utterly atypical for a cruiser, yet it effortlessly delivers what most American cruiser consumers desire: plenty of power and stump-pulling torque.
“Wow. What an engine,” enthuses young master Troy, a succinct assessment echoed by us all.
“It only takes one twist of the throttle to realize the T-Bird’s motor is the most muscular of this group,” exclaims Kevin. “Twisting out gobs of power from just above idle and throughout its relatively long rev range, the Triumph’s engine trumps them all.”
We admired the parallel-Twin’s smoothness, and we noted that the engine architecture creates a feel all its own. “The Brit Twin thrums out its own kind of pulsing you can feel through the bars,” Kev notes.
The English engine’s layout offers more than just mindless, oh so glorious power. “The parallel-Twin allows the cockpit to be compact,” observes one-time cruiser connoisseur Troy. “I’m a fan of the layout because it allows the reach to the bars and pegs to feel natural to me, unlike on any of the other bikes here.”
The Tri’s ergos strike an ideal balance in this crowd between the requisite laidback, feet-and-fists-forward position while remaining manageable for most statures. However, the moderate clamshell riding position may become tedious over extended periods for some riders. A 27.5-inch seat height is tolerable, but one ergonomic caveat is how the broad saddle splays legs of the inseam-challenged while at a stop.
“The T-Bird’s badass presence is aided by what is easily the widest rear meat of the bunch,” notes Kevin. “Turn-in response isn’t hindered like on some fatter-tired cruisers, but road irregularities do affect its steering relative to the Honda, Moto Guzzi and Harley.”
While the Triumph clearly possesses the thrust to outshine the others here, its cornering prowess is held back by limited lean angle only slightly more forgiving than the Super Glide Custom. Additionally, the Triumph’s heaviest curb weight (67 lbs to 156 lbs heavier than the others) only serves as a liability.
“The Thunderbird’s weight can easily overwhelm the bike’s suspension, creating more anxiety than necessary when you get into a tight corner a little faster than expected,” warns Tom.
The T-Bird matches the Guzzi with twin calipers and discs up front, but the Triumph is by far the leader when it comes to which bike offers the most performance from its brake package. Braided steel brake lines enhance plentiful stopping power and sensitivity at the lever. Our T-Bird’s braking system was augmented by optional ABS.
“The Triumph’s tank-top instrumentation is more complete than the others,” says Kevin. “Its small but handy tach, digital clock and a miles-to-empty function are all toggle-able from a switch on the right bar.” Like the Sabre, the Triumph treats its pilot to a clear view over a large headlight nacelle with a mirror-like chrome finish that reflects billowing clouds overhead.
Each bike in this collection has some signature style cues. The objective to craft an American-inspired appearance may have left the Thunderbird without the Honda’s attention-grabbing color scheme and shapes, or the decidedly polarizing profile of the Black Eagle. Nevertheless, things like the ‘Bird’s aftermarket-looking “swoop-style aluminum wheels and their side-exit valve stems” are a styling coup in Kevin’s book.
The Triumph Thunderbird is a lot of motorcycle, but it also offers a lot to like.
“The T-Bird strikes a chord with me,” Troy says unabashedly. “I like the way it looks, the way it goes, the way it handles, the way it stops. I like everything about this bike.”
We set out on this cruiser adventure to see what the motoworld thinks a cruiser is supposed to look, feel, sound and act like, using the mother of all cruisers, a Harley, as our measuring stick. To our delight what we discovered was how much we enjoyed the diversity of cruiser interpretation.
We couldn’t deny the practicality or raw engine power of some of the brands represented in this shootout, but having the original gangsta, the Harley, gave us the feeling like we were tied to undeniable motorcycling history, as well as trend-setting traits and character. For my taste, I can work around its shortcomings of poor lean angle clearance or limited rear suspension travel, but I needn’t do anything to help the Super Glide Custom retain what will likely be a solid resale value.
Kevin and Tom were charmed by the peculiar Moto Guzzi and its days-gone-by design that can still keep pace with today’s machines in this class. And as we read on the previous page, Troy’s performance-driven heart found the Triumph’s modern cruiser platform most appealing. Certainly the Thunderbird suffers a bloated waistline, and its footpegs touch down all too easily. But then again, most large-displacement cruisers contend with these ills.
Faves aside, an objective perspective says the Thunderbird emerges as the motorcycle that best encapsulates what makes up a cruiser while keeping to a minimum negatives stemming from basic cruiser design edicts. The Triumph brings to the table grin-inducing power, a prominent big-bike appearance and chassis performance to back it all up. Finally, it does all of this, including supply ABS, with an MSRP that screams, “Best deal here!”
Tom sums up the big British cruiser in a single but poignant thought: “The T-Bird oozes its own brand of personality equal in significance to any Harley.”
|By the Numbers|
|2011 Moto Guzzi California Black Eagle||2012 Harley-Davidson Super Glide Custom||2011 Honda Sabre||2011 Triumph Thunderbird|
|Engine Type||90-degree air-cooled pushrod V-Twin||45-degree air-cooled pushrod V-Twin||52-degree liquid-cooled SOHC V-Twin||Liquid-cooled, DOHC, parallel-Twin|
|Bore x Stroke||92 x 80mm||95.3 x 111.3mm||89.5 x 104.3mm||103.8 x 94.3mm|
|Frame||Steel tube||Steel tube||Steel tube||Steel tube|
|Front Suspension||45mm fork||49mm fork||41mm fork||47mm fork|
|Rear Suspension||Twin coil over spring shocks w/preload & rebound||Twin coil over spring shocks w/preload||Single hidden shock||Dual Showa coil over spring shocks w/preload|
|Rake, Trail, Wheelbase||29.0°, 4.5 inches, 61.4 inches||29.0°, 4.6 inches, 64.2 inches||33.0°, 4.5 inches, 70.0 inches||32.0°, 5.9 inches, 63.5 inches|
|Front/Rear Wheels||18" chrome spoke/17" chrome spoke||19" chrome spoke/17" chrome spoke||21" cast aluminum/15" cast aluminum||19" cast aluminum/17" cast aluminum|
|Tires||110/90 x 18 Front, 140/70 x 17 Rear||100/90 x 19 Front, 160/70 x 17 Rear||90/90 x 21 Front, 170/80 x 15 Rear||120/70 x 19 Front, 200/50 x 17 Rear|
|Front Brakes||Dual Brembo 4-piston calipers w/320mm disc||Single 4-piston caliper and single disc||Single 2-piston caliper w/336mm disc||Dual 4-piston calipers w/310mm disc|
|Rear Brakes||Single Brembo 2-piston caliper w/282mm disc||Single 2-piston caliper and single dis||Single 1-piston caliper w/296mm disc||Single 2-piston caliper w/310mm disc|
|Seat Height||30.7 inches||26.5 inches||26.9 inches||27.5 inches|
|Curb Weight||590 lbs||679 lbs||659 lbs||746 lbs|
2012 Harley-Davidson Dyna Super Glide Custom Review
2011 Honda Sabre Review
2011 Moto Guzzi California Black Eagle Review
2010 Triumph Thunderbird Review
2010 Honda Sabre Review
2010 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Classic vs. 2010 Triumph Thunderbird
All Things Harley-Davidson on Motorcycle.com
All Things Honda on Motorcycle.com
All Things Moto Guzzi on Motorcycle.com
All Things Triumph on Motorcycle.com
All Things Cruiser on Motorcycle.com