Church of MO: 1998 Yamaha V-Star 650

John Burns
by John Burns

Render unto Miller what is Miller’s, and to MO what is MO’s. Yea, though that recently retired roadracing Long Beachian was much more at home on a sportbike, in those days we got him to review a Yamaha V-Star 650 – a bike that’s also only recently retired. Why not? There is nothing new under the sun, what goes around comes around; twenty years later, Miller wrote one of the most epic MO features in recent memory.

1998 Yamaha V-Star 650 Classic

LOS ANGELES, June, 1998 — Over the past couple years, I’ve been invited to action model just about every conceivable Japanese cruiser on the market. Now I have been given an opportunity to ride Yamaha’s new 650 V-Star Classic.

If you were to visit any of your local motorcycle dealers today and browse through a few of the brochures, chances are the rider you’ll be looking at most often is this funny-looking, cruiser wanna-be guy — me. From a Kawasaki Vulcan to a Honda Aero, I’ve ridden them all. Who would have thought a professional roadracer would also have some fairly good knowledge of street cruisers as well? I’m happy to say that I’ve been fortunate.

This is not Mark Miller. This is another funny looking, cruiserwanna-be guy

How did the new V-Star stack up to the competition? In my opinion, many of the cruisers on the market are very similar in design, performance and appearance. So, to make this review just a little more interesting, I’m going to compare this Yamaha motorcycle to the Yamaha motorcycle I’m currently racing around the country in the AMA Formula Extreme Series: the YZF1000-R1.Huh?

True, these bikes come from different ends of the spectrum regarding what they were designed to do, but I think there is still very much that can be learned by putting these two bikes up against each other in a bit of a mock shoot-out.

When I arrived in my pick-up to load the bike and take it home, I figured I would throw the V-Star into the back and haul it home. It’s just a little 650cc cruiser, right? Wrong. This bike is a full-sized, honest-to-goodness street machine with big tires, a wide tank and beautiful, heavy chrome pieces everywhere. Definitely not a little 250 Rebel here.Luckily, I brought my girlfriend, Tammi, along for the ride and I said something like this: “I think I’m just going to ride this thing home after all. Would you mind driving the truck back by yourself? I would hate to throw my back out or something trying to load it right before the next race.” Little did she know I just wanted to mount this cool, sparkling motorcycle right away, not to mention be able to split lanes all the way home instead of sit in L.A.’s rush-hour traffic.

Needless to say, if this had been a 390-pound R1, I could have easily thrown it with practically one hand into the back of the truck. Still, do you think I wouldn’t have ridden the R1 home as well? Poor Tammi.I fired up the V-Star and took off. The first thing I noticed when slicing through traffic were the very wide handlebars. They felt wider than ones on other cruisers I had ridden recently. I had to be really careful not to slap too many car mirrors on my jaunt home; you never know if one of the cars you hit belongs to someone that happens to live just down the street from you.

On the other hand, the R1 is skinny enough that you would have to be a pretty lame rider to actually hit a car mirror while splitting lanes, not that it would matter much, since the driver would not be able to make out the blur that just flew by.

Once the traffic opened up a bit, I was able to cruise at a higher speed and feel what this bike would be like to ride across the country. The seat was very comfortable, and even the placement of the foot pegs, shifters, and brake controls were all in a perfect location. Later, when I had Tammi riding pillion, she had no complaints, even going as far as saying that it was a joy to be on the rear of the V-Star.Put Tammi — or, for that matter, your girlfriend — on the back of the R1 and it’s a different story. Don’t stop for sandwiches if you don’t want to hear the whining. Tammi was not a happy camper on the back of that token slab of foam, especially when her knees are practically higher than her ears. In another setting, this is not an altogether undesirable position, but for a day of carving a canyon road on your shiny R1 sportbike, I think Tammi would normally opt to remain back at the ranch.

However, the V-Star did have a couple slight shortfalls when ridden above 65 mph. For starters, its tiny little mirrors start vibrating to the point of becoming useless, and although the chassis is as rock solid as any larger bike I’ve ridden, the 5-speed gearbox wants another gear as the 650cc engine really starts to over-rev. Personally, I would prefer a larger displacement engine on any cruiser I would own, but a slightly smaller rearsprocket on this bike would be a great start, giving it a little more top speed. Nonetheless, for the mere $5,899.00 price tag that Yamaha is asking for this machine, it has plenty enough motor to get you around, even two-up. The added bonus of having a smaller displacement is that fuel economy is very good. I could comfortably go 175-plus miles for the 4.2 gallon fuel capacity, riding the hell out of it every second the engine was on. Not too shabby.The $11,000 R1, on the other hand, can do 120+ mph in only the third of its six gears, so I believe it goes without saying that any freeway cruising speeds would not begin to labor the R1’s power plant. And who cares what the mileage is like on the R1?

The sleek, exposed driveshaft.

. The four-piston front-brake caliper performs with excellence on the V-Star, and the rear drum brake works equally well. One fun thing a cruiser does better than any sportbike is this: You can back these things sideways going into corners, and the chassis will settle in, just like a flat-track bike, giving you tons of feel. My neighbors are going to be very happy when I have to return the V-Star to Yamaha. I keep painting black skid-graffiti marks everywhere I go in the neighborhood. One could almost track my every daily move by just following the skid marks. Sorry, but it’s just too fun.

This is Mark Miller on his funny-looking racebike.

I would be more leary of backing an R1 around street corners if I were any less experienced a rider than I am. The chassis, wheelbase, and steering head angle on an aggressive sportbike like an R1 can make things very twitchy when sliding into a corner, full opposite lock, particularly if you don’t know what to do with the clutch, the downshifts, the engine rpm, the front brake, and finally the rear brake. Plus, every cop within six blocks would probably end up seeing you doing it and, if you have my kind of luck, he’d want to make an example out of you.

Beefy forks for a 650.

The only other nitpick I have against the V-Star is that I don’t care for having to look so far down to get a read on the tank-mounted speedometer. Granted, the speedo is set-up in classic, retro style, giving the front-end a clean look, but I prefer a set-up found a Honda Magna or a Sportster — straight above the headlight and between the bars.The R1’s speedo is an LED apparatus that shows you exactly how fast you are going by displaying the actual number. It’s still connected and operational on both my race bikes. The fastest I’ve measured it (I keep trying to remember to look down at it when I’m on the fastest straights) was 158 mph. I’d be curious to know if it has a topped-out reading, like 190 mph. I’ll let you know.

Overall, the Yamaha 650 V-Star Classic is a well-rounded, affordable, fun bike to ride. It has good ground clearance, a good gear box, comfortable seat, powerful brakes, and a price that won’t require that you get a second mortgage to acquire one like some of the American cruisers. And I’m willing to bet that it will probably continue to run like new well after you’ve overhauled your ‘Made-in-the-USA’ product a couple times.

Sure, it will lose out on the racetrack or canyon road against the YZF-R1, but with the right riders on each bike, they may be closer to each other than you might think. Tammi loved the V-Star so much she even refused to go with me back to Marina del Rey to return the bike. If that isn’t a strong recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Dyno Charts Specifications:
Manufacturer: Yamaha
Model: V-Star Classic
Price: $5,899.00
Engine: air-cooled, SOHC, V-Twin
Bore x stroke: 91 x 63 mm
Displacement: 40 cubic inches
Carburetion: Two BSC 28 mm carburtors
Transmission: Five Speed
Wheelbase: 64 in (1656 mm)
Seat height: 28 in (711 mm)
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gallons (15.9L)
Claimed dry weight: 496 lbs (225 kg)

John Burns
John Burns

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Join the conversation
  • Matt O Matt O on Oct 30, 2018

    Light/middle weight cruisers make a lot of sense

  • TW200 TW200 on Dec 07, 2018

    I've had my 650 since July 2015. I like to think of it as the motorcycling equivalent of a Toyota Camry; not very exciting, but it's reliable daily transportation that just gets the job done.