Battle Royal: USA Vs. Japan on the Highways of America

Yamaha's Royal Star takes its styling cues from the classic American cruiser look that Harley-Davidson pioneered; the resemblance is purely intentional, and Yamaha's execution tastefully finished. With acres of chrome, rumbling exhaust note, leather saddlebags, deep-drawn fenders and fat profile tires, the 'Star attracted attention anywhere we rode it.

The Road King, on the other hand, has less panache than the Royal Star, and seemed downright plain when parked next to it.

Both bikes come equipped with removable saddlebags that offer about the same storage capacity, but it's the 'Star's leather Tour Classic bags that win out for styling and ease of use. The hinged lid on each saddlebag can be easily unbuckled and opened with one hand, something we found difficult to do with the 'King's clumsy lids.

Worlds Apart, Yet Similar to the Eye: The engine bay is an area where these two bikes differ completely. Where the Road King uses Harley's venerable 80 cubic-inch, air-cooled pushrod Evolution V-twin, Yamaha placed their modern water-cooled, twin-overhead-cam, four-valve 1294cc V-four in the Royal Star. In an odd twist, the Harley is equipped with the latest in electronic port fuel injection while the Yamaha makes do with old-fashioned 28mm carburetors. Note the Yamaha's bolt-on cooling fins.

Although both transmit power through 5-speed gearboxes utilizing heel-toe shifters, the Royal Star spins the rear wheel via shaft drive, while the 'King uses Harley's tried-and-true belt-drive system. On the road it's the 'King that performs, its torquey V-twin consistently out-pulling the Yamaha in impromptu roll-ons. The 'Star seems to suffer from under-carburetion and its own heft, feeling flat and under-powered. With its larger fuel tank and 45 - 50 miles-per-gallon economy, the Harley will also travel much farther then the Yamaha between fuel stops.

 Around town, the Royal Star's soft springing and damping give it the edge during boulevard cruising and urban commuting. The Harley's stiffer air-suspension dishes out a harsh ride at low speeds over concrete expansion joints and city street potholes. Out on the open road, though, it's a different story. If the tour involves hilly, curve-country riding with packed saddlebags and passenger, the Road King's superior suspension, ground clearance and power make it the choice. The Yamaha's single rear shock just doesn't deliver enough travel to cope with anything above a relaxed cruiser pace, and its limited ground clearance has you grinding the steel skid plates under the floorboards at very modest lean angles. Encounter a bump mid-corner, and the 'Star will bottom heavily. The Harley can be leaned further than the Yamaha before touching down; unfortunately, when it does make contact with the ground, it's not something forgiving, like floorboards, but unyielding objects like the lower frame rails.

Yet few cruiser owners will ever corner this hard (we hope). The Royal Star's long wheelbase makes for plenty of legroom, and the bar-seat-floorboard relationship forms a cozy riding posture.

The Road King suffered a little in this area from handlebars that were too wide with not enough pullback, causing discomfort in the rider's back after even short stints in the saddle. The Tour Classic edition of the Royal Star comes equipped with a passenger backrest, something our pillion testers longed for when riding on the Road King's smallish passenger pad. The Yamaha's large windshield extends above the rider's head and offers good wind protection at cruising speeds around town, but air spilling over the screen on the highway buffets an average height rider's helmet. The Harley's shorter windscreen offers better vision and less turbulence for a more comfortable ride on the freeway. Both bikes are equipped with large, easily readable (while wearing a half-face helmet) tank-mounted speedometers and digital LCD odo/trip meters. The Harley adds a small fuel gage mounted in a left-side dummy fuel cap. Switchgear on all Harleys is vastly improved this year, and we found the individual, self-cancelling turn signal switches on the 'King especially convenient.


The Harley, at right, uses self-cancelling turn signals, a useful feature. Yamaha's polished controls and bar ends are one small example of their superior attention to detail.

One point kept coming up -- where one bike suffered a weakness, the other found its strength. As alike as they seem, their manners reveal that these are motorcycles with different missions. Yamaha's Royal Star Tour Classic is the ruler of the concrete jungle, most comfortable cruising the boulevards. But out on the open highway, Harley-Davidson's Road King wears the crown, and wins the battle.

Manufacturer: Harley-Davidson
Model: 1996 FLHR Road King
Price: $14035
Engine: ohv, 2-valve, V-Twin
Bore x stroke: 88.8 x 108.0
Displacement: 1340cc
Carburetion: 40mm Keihin CV
Transmission: 5-speed
Wheelbase: 62.68 in.
Seat height: 28.20 in.
Fuel capacity: 5.0 gal.
Claimed dry weight: 692 lbs.

Manufacturer: Yamaha
Model: Royal Star Tour Classic
Price: $15,399.00
Engine: DOHC, water-cooled V4
Bore x Stroke: N/A
Displacement: 1294cc
Carburetion: Four 28mm downdraft carburetors 
Transmission: 5-speed, shaft drive Wheelbase: 66.7 in. Seat height: 28.5 in. Fuel capacity: 4.8 gallons Claimed dry weight: 725 lbs.


Andy Saunders, Editor

After a thousand miles in the saddle, I came to appreciate the Royal Star. As I get older (and it seems I got much older in the saddle of the 'Star, with all the things that happened to me -- but I digress) as I get older I can appreciate the pleasures of the slow, rumbling cruiser. Well, some days. Other days the spell wears off after five minutes, and hooliganism sets in. Then I start looking for a corner to scrape the floorboards around. Life is particularly pleasurable on the 'Star, because you can adjust the mirrors just far enough down to see the sparks when you grind the floorboards, which are made of aluminum but which have cute little steel inserts just for this trick. Don't try that on the Harley, you'll find solid steel frame rails don't give the same quality of sparks, or the same quality of mercy.

Brent Plummer, Editor-in-Chief

I disagree with everything here. First, both fat highway rollers are too bulky for around-town. What the heck is a medium-length tourer? Harley didn't create the American Cruiser style, they're just the only American motorcycle company with the luck to still be in business. So I don't think that Yamaha ripped off any cues from Harley. Indeed, kudos to Yamaha for taking the time and expense of designing their own machine. And a beautiful motorcycle it is. (Have you seen the Honda ACE or new Kawasaki 1500 Vulcan Classic? Total Harley rip-offs.) Unfortunately, the Star suffers from far too many new-model flaws for my tastes: First, the lack of ground clearance is horrid, the bike grinds in the parking lot. Next, the motor is wimpy. Pathetic, in fact. The V-Max motor is such an awesome mill, I can't understand why they choked the Royal Star's power down so much. And wind spills over the top of the shield and pounds me on my head, instant headache. What else? Umm, bad mileage. Editor Saunders turned in some sub-30 mpg stints in the saddle. The motor is buzzy at speed and vibrates my feet off the angled floorboards, stressing my groin muscles. And it cost about $1300 more than the Road King!

Now don't get all in a fuss and think I'm going to spin a wonderful tale about the Road King. It's a good bike, certainly better than the Royal Star, but nothing I'd plunk down a fistful of dollars on. Harley's new fuel injection is wonderful -- the V-Twin fires right up every time, sans lean surges and other nasty habits modern emissions controlled bikes are prone to. It might even be the best-carbureting fuel injected bike I've ever ridden, although the 80-incher is no powerhouse. There are currently no aftermarket EPROM chips available for the fuel injection system, so power gains are hard to come by. If you can't remap the fuel injection, that awful loud pipe and free-flowing air filter you bolt on will be mostly useless. A nice touch,the windshield detaches without tools. But the steering head angle is too steep, which makes for nice, long, squirrely wobbles at 75 mph and beyond. For that reason alone (I refuse to put a steering damper on a Harley!), I wouldn't take the King to Sturgis and back. Conversely, it's too big and blocky for around-town traffic, and there's not a chance in hell I'd ever spend 14 grand on a medium-length tourer.

I say skip the 'Star and the 'King, get a Virago 1100 or H-D Sportster 1200 Custom, pocket the six or seven grand price difference, quit your job for a month, pick up your partner at work, and go cruise around America.

Tom Fortune, Managing Editor

What it comes down to here is a matter of riding style. Neither bike does any one thing outstandingly well. For a Friday night cruise to dinner down the boulevard, or a relaxing day tour with the significant other, the 'Star Tour Classic gets the nod. Its attractive styling and plush accommodations for both rider and passenger make it my preferred mount for this type of ride. But if I'm going, say, to Las Vegas for the weekend, I'll take the Harley. The 'King's superior power and road-going manners make for a more friendly and fun place to while away the miles. First, though, I'd have to fix the comfort zone by visiting Harley's accessories department and picking up a passenger backrest, along with choosing handlebars with less width and more pullback. Then the 'King would rule.

Get in your Inbox