Guy walks into a bar. He’s unsure about what to drink, and frankly doesn’t much care. It’s been a rotten day, and his sole desire is to get nicely loaded and then sit back, relax and enjoy the buzz.
Faced with a wall of glistening bottles, our friend settles on a fine Kentucky bourbon. It goes down smooth and strong, that familiar whiskey burn leaving him bold and slightly rowdy. Curious, he tells the barkeep he’s decided to change it up. A dry gin martini with a whisper of vermouth has him feeling very British – refined and quite proper.
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Sensing an adventure, he eats the gin-soaked olive, pushes the empty martini glass at the bartender and orders a large bottle of hot sake. He pours the contents of the ceramic bottle into the little matching cup and takes a slug of the hot Japanese rice wine. He exhales heatedly then slaps the bar and calls for an espresso with a snifter of Sambuca back. His environs are now blurry, so he focuses on the coffee beans floating on the surface of the thick, clear anise-flavored Italian liqueur. He slams the drink home.
Right about the time our blotto hero’s face hits the sidewalk, he comes to a realization.
“It doesn’t matter which one I drink,” he says aloud as he clambers to his feet. “They’re all delicious, and they all get me drunk!”
The World Awaits
Like the libations in the introductory anecdote, each of the cruisers in our 2013 World Cruiser Shootout hails from a different part of the world. They’ve been built to capture a slice of the lucrative cruiser market, but each has its own distinct personality borne from the lands from which they came.
They’re the same but different, varying in terms of performance and comfort to styling and value. And like our boozehound discovered, each is a blast to ride and provides the performance and comfort cruiser riders desire. How these bikes deliver those thrills and amenities is what gives them their character.
We ran all these cruisers up the MO flagpole, and got salutes from every corner of the LA basin, for a multitude of reasons. The distinct characteristics of the bikes in this shootout make it difficult to clearly choose a winner, as one cruiser rider will value certain categories more than another.
We’ll refer to the categories in the Motorcycle.com Scorecard as our template, starting at the bottom and working our way up. We’ll tout the pros, diss the cons and highlight most everything in between, and leave the decision up to you.
It’s not even close: Harley’s badass bobber is the coolest ride here. There are faster, more powerful, more technologically advanced and more comfortable bikes in this shootout, but it’s the Fat Bob that conveys the most street cred. And despite its purposeful lack of creature comforts and rider amenities, offers a grin-inducing ride thanks to its aggressive riding position, signature rumble and deceptively quick handling.
“The Fat Bob is the most attractive bike of the bunch,” Editor in Chief Kevin Duke says. “Its proportions and detail touches give it star power.”
The Roadliner is big, heavy and comfortable, a classic cruiser that makes up in power what it lacks in cool – although there are those who will surely argue that its Art Deco flavor is cool. Presentation is a matter of taste. But with the largest engine in this comparison, the Star is a kick to cruise on and to throttle up.
The Thunderbird is also long and heavy, but sports more contemporary styling, including that distinctive and responsive parallel-Twin, dual-sided upswept pipes and the widest rear and narrowest front tire in this test. Ask, and the Triumph delivers with a keen eagerness that makes it an unabashed joy to be aboard. (It should be noted that while 2014 Triumphs weren’t yet available at press time, we’ve been assured the only change to the Thunderbird would be in its available colors.)
The new Guzzi California performs well in these categories in no small part due its novel and distinctive engine layout, but more so because it’s a fully formed cruising machine. There’s a reason it won our 2013 Cruiser of the Year. Its use of modern technology will no doubt have engineers of other cruiser manufacturers scrambling to implement traction control and ride modes. But the best part about this cruiser is it uses these functions so intuitively they don’t detract from the joy of riding it.
With trend-setting styling, superb paint jobs and fastidious attention to detail, Harley-Davidson usually sets the benchmark when it comes to cruiser fit and finish. The Fat Bob receives a Dark Custom makeover for 2014, getting a blacked-out treatment and a slash-cut tail section with LED taillights. But you can read all about that in our recent review.
The Fat Bob boasts a strong 90% score in our Appearance/Fit-and-Finish category, but this was not a surprise. What’s eye-opening is that neither of our chic European contestants offered the biggest challenge in the Appearance category. Rather, it was the elegant Japanese entry that gave the Fat Bob a run for its considerable money.
The copious chrome and throwback styling flourishes are the Roadliner S’s main draw. The shrouded chrome headlight nacelle resembles a hood ornament on a 1940s automobile; and deeply valanced fenders complete the retro-deco guise.
“This bike is sharp,” Associate Editor Troy Siahaan admits. “The chrome accents combined with the gothic font of the gauges gives the bike a really elegant, sophisticated look.”
Ever the cruiser skeptic, Siahaan laments that the Star’s fuel tank is precariously perched; a soft shake is all it takes to rock the ‘liner’s 4.5-gallon gas can from side to side. But aside from a couple of Star self-contradictory “Yamaha” placards, that was the only real fault we could find with this motorcycle in this category. From its rubber-mounted handlebar to its separately adjustable heel/toe shifter to its spring-mounted rubber floorboard pads, the Roadliner S displays a fit and finish not usually associated with a Japanese cruiser.
The California 1400 Custom looks like no other cruiser on the market, owing much of its distinction to its statuesque figure. The longitudinal V-twin’s shoulders protrude from under each side of the fuel tank and make the bike appear brawnier than it is, and the bike’s side covers provide hips – the kind of rear end that makes a fat-tired cruiser’s look, well, fat.
But fit and finish is often a quirk with new models, and the California is no exception. The exhaust heat shield on our test bike rattled annoyingly, an issue Guzzi says will be addressed in the near future. Also, the cruise control indicator light blinks green on the speedo gauge face when the unit is turned on but not engaged, an attribute Tom called “annoying, especially when the turn indicator is actuated and now there’s two blinking green lights on the dash.”
The Thunderbird is efficiently British and runs crisply. Its dual-sided upswept pipes are hot, and the long chrome fork with its low-mounted solo headlight look more chopper-inspired and classically cruiser-ish than any of the other front ends on display here.
Considering it’s the least expensive bike here by a thousand bucks, the Triumph Thunderbird ranks fine in the fit and finish section. But the bike’s not without some curious foibles. Its handgrips are molded of an unfortunate hard plastic rather than the supple foam compounds found on most cruisers. Also, the switchgear at the hand controls is ungainly; for example, plenty of space is wasted on the left one by a toggle switch that comes standard, even if the accessory light bar it’s labeled to operate does not.
To our eyes, this ‘Bird is due for a makeover. Because it’s been relatively untouched since its 2009 introduction, and considering the successful implementation of high-tech features on other new Triumph models, we wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a revamped Thunderbird on the near horizon.
Cruisers are designed for comfort – every other attribute is just another topping on the motorcycling sundae.
All three of our more standard cruisers here have comfortable rider triangles, and the Guzzi and Star benefit from floorboards that allow a significant amount of leg movement. The Fat Bob is more comfortable than it would appear, but a long reach to both the drag bar and forward foot controls demote it in this category.
The Thunderbird got praise for its long handlebar, and the Star for its wide, cushy seat (“for big American asses,” skinny Canadian Duke claims), but the new Guzzi California beat the plush Roadliner S by half a point, due mainly to the smoothness from its rubber-mounted engine.
While the Roadliner would make a cozier long-distance machine, its weight and heft make it relatively unwieldy to manipulate around town. The California, meanwhile, has enough all-around comfort to make it the choice for those who use their cruiser for more than just trips to the coffee shop. It’s also the only bike here able to boast reach-adjustable levers for both hands.
What does a cruiser rider need to know? If you believe the Fat Bob, not much – it offers an LCD clock, two tripmeters and a GPI, but there’s not much else here to entertain the info-happy. And, like all but the Guzzi, a Harley rider has to glance away from the road to view the tank-tip instrumentation.
However, the Bob’s instruments ranked slightly better than Triumph’s Thunderbird, which features a tank-mounted speedometer with the usual assortment of LCD readouts. But the dial features a dense line of compact numerals in a tiny font, making them nearly impossible to discern at a glance. The Thunderbird, though, is hardly the first cruiser guilty of this faux pas.
Star’s cruisers and tourers are renowned for the blue-lit, gothic-numbered speedo dials mounted to their tanks. Big, beautiful and simple to discern, it exhibits the austere elegance of a really, really really big high-end wristwatch – a style that suits the S to a T.
But fine form is no match for exceptional function. Unlike the other cruisers on trial here, the gaugery on the California is perched near a rider’s line of sight atop the handlebar, with a digital speedo ringed by an analog tach. The Cali also stands out for its breadth of display functions, including instant and average fuel economy, ambient temps, average trip speed and a GPI. It’s easily the top-rated instrument cluster of our test.
It’s in this category where the Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom begins to put some serious distance between itself and the competition. Other manufacturers shouldn’t hate it because it’s beautiful; they should hate it because it pushes the boundaries of what a cruiser should be. And because it’s beautiful.
Our man Roderick went through the details of the California’s technological breakthroughs – standard-issue Ride Modes, Traction Control, along with cruise control and ABS – in his original review of the bikes a few months back, and there’s no need to rehash all that info here. With this bike, Moto Guzzi has proved that technology previously considered expensive, exclusive and/or unworkable in the cruiser segment no longer needs to be either a pricey option or an unfeasible pipe dream.
Until the California came along, Traction Control and switchable Rider Modes were found only on sportbikes and expensive adventure-tourers. The California 1400 Custom (and its Touring brother) became the first cruising bikes to offer these functions, thanks mostly to its ride-by-wire throttle.
Less than 10 years ago, cruise control was limited to mechanical devices like throttle locks and plastic doohickeys like Throttle Rockers. Today, thanks to the proliferation of ride-by-wire technology, electronic cruise control is proliferating. Expect to see it adopted more regularly as new engines with R-b-W throttles are introduced.
Out of 40 possible points in the Technologies category, the California netted an easy 39. No other bike even reached 30. ABS is standard on the Triumph, and it’s a $795 option on the Harley. The fancy Star Roadliner’s EFI is all it can boast in this category.
Suspension and Brakes
We mentioned the Fat Bob’s surprisingly deft handling thanks to its relatively short wheelbase. But there’s no sugar-coating the bobber’s inferior suspension and braking performances. It received the lowest scores in both categories.
What is surprising is that none of these cruisers scored exceedingly well in Suspension. The Guzzi scored top honors with an 84% rating, with Star’s big Roadliner S receiving a runner-up 80% score. The Triumph’s insufficient rebound damping held it down in third place, while the Harley’s short-travel rear suspension killed its chances of scoring anywhere but last, as you might expect from a bike with “bob” in its name. It has just 2.13 inches of rear travel, less than half of the Star and Guzzi.
In regard to brakes, it was the Guzzi’s ABS-equipped Brembo binders that topped our scorecard for their strong power and solid feedback. The Star’s drilled, one-piece front brake calipers helped it earn a runner-up performance. The Triumph kept up, although being among the heaviest bike of the bunch, Roderick notes they left him wanting.
“The brakes aren’t quite up to the task of sufficiently slowing the heavyweight T-Bird when ridden aggressively,” he says.
But it’s the Bob’s brakes that were scored lowest by our testers. “The H-D has the worst brakes of the bunch by far,” Siahaan claims. “You’re forced to use the rear brake, whereas with the [other bikes] I could get away with only using the front brakes.”
The Moto Guzzi was also the clear overall winner in the Handling department, with both Duke and T-Rod anointing it an excellent score of 9.5s. “Its steering is very responsive, despite its lengthy wheelbase,” Duke says.
Tom praised the big Star’s agility, aided by ample leverage from its wide handlebars. I found the Triumph and Star – the heaviest bikes with the longest, widest handlebars in our test – lacking here, more comfortable on straight shots and relaxed cruises than in aggressive cornering and quick redirections. I gave the fervent Fat Bob, with its shorter handlebar and manageable wheelbase, as good a score as the nimble California.
In one of the most hotly debated contests in this shootout, we went round and round in this category. In typical cruiser-guy fashion, I prefer a transmission that offers feedback, letting its rider know either tactilely and/or audibly when it’s shifted. Confounding my colleagues, I anointed my highest marks to the Fat Bob’s 6-speed, even while plainly admitting its neutral position was occasionally unapproachable, especially when hot.
My performance-oriented cohorts disagreed (some vehemently!), offering their best scores to transmissions that supply smooth and quiet shifts. “The Triumph’s ‘box has shorter throws, more accurate engagement, can be shifted without the clutch and has a neutral position that’s easy to find,” Duke argues, and he’s right on all those counts. Up and down the shift cycle, the T-Bird acquiesces quietly and effectively.
The Guzzi’s gearbox shifted like a champ too, but its overmatched clutch left its riders scratching their helmets. While its 1380cc is the largest V-Twin Moto Guzzi – indeed, Europe – has ever produced, its clutch lever pull is markedly stiff. More critical, we smelled the unmistakable odor of burning clutch plates after the kind of back-and-forth wind sprints a photo shoot occasionally necessitates.
“The Guzzi’s one weak link – literally – is its clutch,” Duke notes. “A disconcerting clutch smell erupted after just two brisk-but-not-super-aggressive launches.” We hope to see a more robust clutch for the California in its next update.
Ah, the Roadliner, you lovable lug. You’re huge, your engine is massive and powerful, your drivetrain is solid and your comfort beyond compare. So what’s up, big guy? For a rig that rides like such a dream on the highway, how come you haven’t yet been outfitted with a sixth gear?
“I keep hunting for a phantom sixth gear that isn’t there,” Siahaan says, echoing the concerns of the group. What’s here works flawlessly, it should be noted, and we love the heel/toe shifter and its independent adjustment alternative.
In the end, this category was very close. All the gearboxes had positive attributes, and some had negatives. Ultimately, the Thunderbird purred its way to a win.
This category ended up much the same as the last – with me as the lone advocate for the American V-Twin! It figures. As a cruiser guy, it was clear to me that despite coming in dead last on the dyno chart, the rumble and feel of the Twin Cam 103 in this comparo gave me the most visceral rush, and I put a lot of stock in that sensation when ranking it versus these other cruisers.
While I was surprised that my colleagues gave the stripped-down Fat Bob’s motor such low marks versus its competition, they were shocked I graded the Harley as highly as I did. Their scores claim that the Fat Bob is clearly deficient in this comparison.
Is performance also a matter of perspective? Let’s look at the numbers.
Of course Star’s 48-degree 1854cc monster is more powerful, and it squeaked out a narrow victory in this category. With the biggest engine here, the Star offers the most horsepower at the lowest revs – 81.8 hp at 4400. And its 103.5 ft.-lb. is 12.4 more than its nearest competitor. That would be the 91.1 provided by Triumph’s parallel-Twin, which pumps out 69.4 ponies at its 4800-rpm peak.
But the biggest numbers don’t tell the whole story. Follow the yellow line and you’ll see how the Guzzi travels up from the bottom and keeps going when the others fall off, reaching up the dial a full third further than the competition. By the time it falters at 78.9 hp, long after all the other horses have returned to their respective barns, it’s marshaled just three fewer ponies than the massive Star – at a revvy 6600 rpm. Having the least-displacement motor here by more than 200cc, its torque numbers are relatively small, but its max output of just 72.7 ft.-lb. arrives at an amazingly low 2200 rpm, assuring strong responsiveness.
Not surprisingly, the Fat Bob brings up the rear, making 66.6 hp at 5100 rpm with a respectable 88.3 ft.-lbs. of torque at 2800 rpm – surprisingly, the highest engine speed where torque peaks in this test. The Fat Bob’s Vee is the weakest Twin here, trading jabs with Triumph’s parallel at low revs until it gets left in the dust past 3500 rpm.
Best Cruiser in the World?
So, which cruiser is the best from this sampling from across the globe? According to our ScoreCard, the clear winner of our World Cruiser Shootout is the Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom.
The Italian cruiser scored well up and down the list of categories, and across the board of judges, garnering a well-rounded 85.5% overall rating. The Japanese entry nabbed a surprising second place with an 82.6% score, thanks mostly to its elegant style and strong powerplant. The worthy British contestant wasn’t far behind at 80.8%, while the scrappy American rode its trendy curb appeal to a virtual tie for third place, with a 78.8% score.
World Cruiser Shootout Scorecard
|Category||Harley-Davidson Fat Bob||Triumph Thunderbird||Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom||Star Roadliner S|
We were confident to name Guzzi’s California our Cruiser of the Year for 2013 several weeks ago based on our early impressions. After placing it in context with these other admirable and established cruisers, we’re pleased to see our fervor for it was spot-on. The California is a phenomenal machine, a veritable game-changer in the segment, and anyone looking to purchase a new high-end cruiser should visit a Moto Guzzi dealer to see it for themselves.
That said, what if you don’t like the Cali or don’t have a Guzzi dealer nearby? All of these cruisers are fine machines, but each had its own set of pros and cons: The Roadliner is a great performer, but its distinctive style and massive size might not appeal to all riders. The Thunderbird is British and certainly the least-expensive bike here, but its style doesn’t reach the heights of its rivals presented here. The Fat Bob is a polarizing figure and will appeal mostly to the many Harley loyalists who require the bar-and-shield logo on their cruiser.
But you’re not buying a safe gift to please someone else – you’re buying a cruiser for you, so you should buy something you will love to ride, something you will love to be seen on, something you will love to show off. Use this comparison test for reference, but we realize you’ll probably simply choose the one that pulls your heartstrings tightest.
Okay, so now you’re the drunk at the bar. You’ve scanned the shelves, you’ve smacked your lips, you’ve searched high and low for the right libation to quench your insatiable thirst. What’ll you have? Hey, I’m just the bartender; that choice is up to you.
World Cruiser Specs
|2014 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob||2014 Moto Guzzi California 1400 Custom||2014 Star Roadliner S||2013 Triumph Thunderbird|
|Engine||1688cc V-Twin||1380cc V-Twin||1854cc V-Twin||1597cc parallel-Twin|
|Torque/HP||88.3 @ 3000/66.6||72.7 @ 2400/78.9||103.5 @ 2200/81.8||91.1 @ 2100/69.4|
|Wet Weight||706 lbs||701 lbs||750 lbs||746 lbs|
|Front Suspension||49mm fork; 5″ travel||46mm fork; 4.7″ travel||46mm fork; 5.1″ travel||47mm fork; 4.7″ travel|
|Rear Suspension||Dual shocks, 2.13″ travel||Adjustable dual shocks, 4.3″ travel||Single shock; 4.3″ travel||Adjustable dual shocks, 3.7″ travel|
|Brakes||4-piston front, 2-piston floating rear||Brembos; dual 320mm 4-piston front; 282mm 2-piston rear||Dual 298mm front; 320mm rear||Nissin; Dual 3120mm front; single 310 rear|
|ABS||$795 option||Standard||N/A||Standard in North America, optional rest of world|
|Tires||F 130/90-16; R 180/70-16||F 130/70-18; R 200/60-16||F 130/70-18; R 190/60-17||F 120/70-19; R 200/50 R17|
|Fuel Capacity||5.0 gal||5.4 gal||4.5 gal||5.8 gal|
|Observed Fuel Economy||41.7 mpg||35.3 mpg||36.0 mpg||34.8 mpg|
|Electronics||None||Cruise control, rider modes, and traction control standard||None||None|