Classic Tourer Comparo
Roadstar Silverado :: Victory V92TC :: Nomad 1500 :: Road King :: R 1200CL
Sean: I have surprisingly little to say about the Harley. It's just a great bike. The Road King has that certain something that the BMW and Kawasaki lack. It feels like it has been distilled down to its purest form. The "motorcycle" message comes through loud and clear, without being bothersome. When jumping onto the Harley from the other bikes it feels more "sporty" even though its performance is mid-pack on all counts. It is supremely comfortable on the freeway, sounds great, performs well and generally impressed the hell out of me. What's not to like? The front brakes still suck in that very Harley way and the mufflers pipes developed ugly yellow stains from over-heating. That's all folks.
EBass: The Road King comes in a close second to the Yamaha in my book. It has that solid Harley feel, pretty darn good braking that comes on slow but firms up with a squeeze, decent acceleration, and handling that did better in the twisties than I would have expected. The tranny was simply excellent. It never missed a shift, delivering a satisfying "thunk" when snapping into gear, and found neutral in one try every time. The H-D sounds like only an H-D sounds when gunning it, yet quiets down to tolerable levels at cruising speed. Engine vibration is enough to let you feel the power, but well isolated from the bars and floorboards. I don't like the two-hand operation of the hardbags but they were plenty adequate in terms of carrying capacity. The ergos pull me a little too far forward and the knee angle is a bit too ninety-degree for me. I was actually more comfortable with my feet on the rear floorboards or even resting atop the case saver. This is solved easily enough, with a different set of bars and/or some forward controls though. Aesthetically, The RK is a really nice looking bike in a pure retro way as opposed to the nouveau-ness of the metrics, or over-the-topness of the Victory. Cherry red paint, shining chrome, case savers fore and aft, and that enormous head lamp all contribute to the RK's visual appeal. On my recent road trip it garnered numerous compliments and even stirred the hormones of at least a few young ladies. The H-D delivers big-time in the charisma department and it's a joy to ride. If your wallet can take the punishment, I highly recommend it.
Fonzie: An American classic road tourer, the one bike everyone expects to see on the grill with the others. Nothing new you wouldn't already know about the Harley - the '04 model Road King being nearly the same as the 03... but owning an old Sporty myself and having never ridden a big twin, there are a few things I could tell you. First, I was surprised by the ease of removal of the windscreen - the one and only true "convertible" bike in the bunch. Needs not one tool nor are there any locking wing nuts or anything of the like - one pull forward and the screen is ready to stash in the hotel room, garage or wherever.
This is a very comfortable seat -- and an overall thinner feel when jumping from the Road Star to the Road King. Maybe the best seat of the five. Perhaps not a choice seat for the Iron Butt runners out there - but not one of the saddles here had the rear-end pelvis-tilting push that an aftermarket saddle can offer. The Kawasaki's seat comes close, but not quite. With three immediate and comfortable stock ride positions, I was quite happy when it came to be my turn to ride the RK. When it comes time to park the big Harley, everything isn't so rosy. The stock kickstand only extends to 90 degrees from the frame, until you lean the bike over onto it. This can lead to the bike rolling foreward and retracting the stand- not a good thing. Once the bike is leaning on its side, the stand locks in the down position and all is safe-. The tricky part is getting it to that position.
Rami: The Harley-Davidson Road King is a great all around bike. It handles unbelievably well in the corners for its size, and is ultra comfortable for the long haul. The engine has a nice rough idle that smoothes out nicely once underway while the tranny clunks into each gear smoothly and correctly each time. The headlamps were the brightest of the bunch, which really made nighttime riding a pleasure, but the stock seat and handlebars need to be the first items replaced when customizing. Truly my favorite of the bunch, but I kept asking myself, is the Road King worth 4K more than the Road Star? And after riding both, my answer is: No.
Gabe: Writing about a Harley-Davidson motorcycle sends you into a land rife with clichés, and we've all read 'em a million times, right? I was going to write an analogy about the new Coke/old Coke fracas, then I thought about naugahyde v. leather, then natural DD's v. implants, and then I got really distracted and had to take a break.
So let's abandon the clichés and analogies and just say that the Harley is the nicest bike here, Okay? It's hard to quantify and that's a cliché in itself, right? But it's expensive: expensive feeling, looking, and just plain expensive. Is that good or bad? Well, this is my favorite bike of the five, so I guess it's good. Expensive things are expensive for a reason, with the exception of Charo. Prices are high for items in high demand. People demand things they like and think are nice. Beef stew, cheap; chateaubriand expensive. A 250 Rebel will go all the places the Harley will, but you don't feel like it's luxurious. Luxury is good; people like good; that makes it pricey.
The first good thing about the Hog is how it looks. From 50 feet away or five, it's unmistakable as the icon of motorcycling. No other company has kept such visual continuity in its products over the years. It looks like a motorcycle is supposed to look to most folks in the public. People just like Harleys. No matter where you park or where you're riding, people stuck in their cars gaze longingly at you on your ride, or come up to you when you're parked and ask you questions or tell you about the bike they once had. With its tank-mounted console, classically styled hard bags, big chrome crash bars and police-style windscreen it has all the correct styling cues, tastefully done. Just add Elvis. It has a polished, well-made look that makes you feel guilty when it's dirty.
"Functionally, the Road King is a pretty good motorcycle, too."
The EFI works great -- it fires up with distinctive Harley sound effects and sends the big motor into a lumpy, bouncy idle. It's alarming at first to watch the motor throb up and down in its rubber mounting like an epileptic. It's ready to ride almost instantly with no bucking or spitting, and crazily is smoother than any other bike in the test as you rev it! The Kawi and Yamaha engineered shake into their motors, and then Harley designed a smooth motor, making the Japanese bikes and the Polaris seem unrefined by comparison. It's like when you change your order at the last minute to keep your little sister from copying you at the Denny's.
The touring accoutrements are nice on this bike. I especially liked the windscreen, which simply pops off with a forward shove. You could toss it aside with a manly gesture at a stoplight, if you're so inclined. It goes back on almost as easily and is a really nice design. The bags aren't so impressive, although they look great. They require an annoying two-part operation to open and are easy to close incorrectly, causing you to spill the ladies underwear from the Silverado all over the I-5's number two lane.
"Speaking of stopping, a good shove on the immense, Buick-like rear brake pedal produces impressive, smoky slides from the old-tech rear Dunlop."
The gearbox is nice, but still a little clunky. But when your giant, manly boots stomp down on the oversized shifter pedals, you want a lot of throw in the gearbox, you want to hear that satisfying "clunk" and "chunk" as you roll off the rumble-stick and prepare for another burst of stout and hearty acceleration. Sure, they could design an ultra-slick schnickity-snick gear box like Herr Beemer, but where's the fun in that? It's like paying a guy to work the slide on your shotgun for you, when we all know that making that bad-ass "shick-shick" sound is the best part.
Unfortunately the same approach is given to the brakes. I know why cruiser brake levers are so thick and wide -- so you don't break them in half during a panic stop! You need to grab that thing with all four of your manly, hairy-knuckled digits and give it a squeeze like it's the shriveled nut-sack of Uday Hussein, otherwise you'll shoot through the crosswalk into the intersection. That's my big complaint for the Harley -- let's give it some good brakes, huh? We may be stout and hearty warriors of the American Highway, but we're not so stout and hearty that a speeding beer truck couldn't squish us flat because we can't stop in time.
Speaking of stopping, a good shove on the immense, Buick-like rear brake pedal produces impressive, smoky slides from the old-tech rear Dunlop. The front slides too if you can muster up the massive squeeze required to lock the front brake. It's just another reminder that the stout and hearty shouldn't ride too quickly.
Ergonomically, the Harley sets the standard here. The nicely finished saddle is comfy -- firm, supportive -- but tends to make you slouch a bit. However, the back pad is a nice touch that gives you a little lower back support. But like all the bikes in this test (and every other cruiser I've sat on), the gynecological seating position makes your tuchis sore after a while. The bars are at a perfect height and angle, and the floorboards are predictably low and forward. It's fun to stick your toe off the side and scrape it in the corners, the couch potato's (potato-potato) equivalent of dragging knee on the racetrack. Do cruiser boots come with replaceable toe sliders? They should. The Road King didn't drag board as easily as the Kawi or the Yamaha, but it was right behind them. Like the other bikes, it makes you slow down and revel in your own manly riding skills.
You also revel in the fact that the Harley has some of the best-sorted suspension, and realize that Harley-Davidson has been racing big bikes and making touring rigs since Ike was liked. So they know how to make supple, yet sporty and durable suspension. It works well, staying composed at all speeds, on all kinds of pavement.
The Harley feels light, too. It's much lighter than the other bikes, even though it's about the same weight. The free-revving, smooth engine, great suspension and quick steering make the Road King feel sporty! Did I just write that? Somebody please come and knock some sense into me!
So that's why I awarded the Harley Road King the coveted Gabe Ets-Hokin prize for best cruiser in the test. It's a solid, well built motorcycle that epitomizes a cruising tourer. It has an expensive look and feel that the other bikes strive for.
If you're already going to shell out big bucks for a bike like this, an extra $4000 shouldn't be a big deal, especially when you factor in resale value. For a rider who wants to treat themselves to something nice it's clear they should get the real thing, especially if it works this well. Like a Rolex or an old Cuisinart, the Harley has a solid, well-made feeling that gives the rider a satisfying feel every time he parks his numb tushie on its saddle. And isn't that what it's all about? Thanks Harley. At last I get it.
1st Place * Yamaha Road Star Silverado
Sean: This was a tough pick. I guess what tips the scales in the Yamaha's favor, is its overall ability to fit into any role, from Tourer to Bar Hopper. The low-revving, carbureted, 1670cc, air-cooled, pushrod motor, is cold blooded, stalls when cold, backfires occasionally and generally acts like a "classic" even though it was designed a scant three years ago. You might think these things would hurt its score, but on the contrary, I think that added bit of character is exactly what the Road Star needed to broaden its repertoire. It's a beautifully finished bike, with tastefully contrasting colors, a beautiful and intricate speedometer, well finished bracketry and an overall excellent sense of proportion. It runs as well or better than the FI bikes once warmed and has enough low-rpm torque to stretch your arms and scoot away from traffic with alacrity. It also has the smoothest and most precise gearbox in the group. Steering is extremely light and makes it feel sporty in the same way that the Harley does, while being considerably more nimble. Despite limited ground clearance, the Silverado is easily the most maneuverable bike of the bunch. You might say "Wait a minute the Harley is just as good." and you'd be correct. Which one would you rather ride, the Harley, or the Silverado with an extra $4,000 in your pockets?
EBass: The Silverado is my winner by a nose over the H-D. The suspension, acceleration and braking were just brilliant. The seat and bars gave the bike a low center of gravity and firm leverage that made me feel confident in the canyons. The floorboards were placed further forward than the other bikes tested which was more to my ergonomic liking. The tranny was silky smooth and extremely forgiving when downshifting. Well-tuned vocal chords gave the Silverado an assertive rumble without being annoying at cruising speeds. I thought the nautical-styled nacelle was a unique touch that blended surprisingly well with the western theme of the paint, seats, and bags. Yamaha executed the overall design with great fit and finish. They delivered a terrific looking bike that comes off the showroom floor in custom attire that manages to be both attention-getting and tasteful at the same time. If I were king, I would give the passenger a set of floorboards rather than pegs and myself a seat with some back support, but I'm admittedly quibbling. The Silverado is very charismatic for a metric and delivers the goods on just about every level. I give it the nod out of this bunch.
Fonzie: The Yamaha is probably the most understated bike in my book - although a strong favorite according to the other testers on our two day tour of the Southern California coast from La Jolla cove to the good old Rock Store in Malibu. Tight suspension gave more punch off the light - but not so tight as to loosen any fillings... it is a cruiser after all. Having one foot position turned me off however - the passenger pegs were too high to comfortably use as a solo riding alternative to the floorboards or engine guard. But I still say it's the least cramped riding space of the five. Full leg stretch and still within the throws of shift and brake levers.
The windscreen was the lowest of the bunch - tip of my nose high - and in that pinch of immediately needed road clarity, sitting up and looking over was the way to go; the other bikes were opposite with the exception of the uniquely shaped "swooping neckline" of the BMW's windscreen design.
The Silverado has a boatload of nice features, including the biggest/trickest brake pedal of them all, with a spring-loaded upward hinge to prevent accidental hookups when you needed your foot off the board and on the brakes. Its slightly drooped bar ends create that natural hand position necessary for a comfy ride, without losing your grip to gravity and vibration, it matches both the Kawasaki and the Harley in this respect. The Yamaha also has a good, positive kickstand, unlike the Harley, which is an accidental tip-over waiting to happen.
The Road Star sure has the prettiest... I mean classiest dashboard. With gold and silver needles and thin lines creating a speedo that seems more visually fitting to the beautiful Kawasaki Nomad. The soft bags are reachable from riding position for those that either forget or are constantly paranoid that they might have forgotten to fully latch them.
Rami: This bike seemed to be set up for me from the factory. Aside from being a fantastic bike, I enjoyed riding this one the most because of the handlebar and floorboard locations. It is comfortable for the long haul, but the seat does need to be replaced, which is a shame because they did such a nice job with the two-tone design. The brakes are fantastic, the engine is powerful and the tranny shifts smoothly letting you know you are in gear with a clunk. Could use a little more ground clearance though, which is the only reason I rated it #2 to the Road King. The finish on the bike is top notch and a great example is shown with the mirrors that keep images clear even when traveling at high speed.
Gabe: Well, the Japanese managed to do it. After copying Harleys for 25 years, they've made a bike that's more Harley-like than an actual Harley. And that's a good thing.
I really like the styling of this bike. It's long, low, relaxed and drips with chrome, yet it has plenty of rough, industrial shapes around the engine bay to remind you that it's a big-inch cruiser. I love the billet-like engine cover and the jumbo pushrod tubes.