900CC Middleweight Cruiser Comparison
Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Low Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom
July 09, 2010
By Billy Bartels
Photography by Adam Campbell
This is a weird time for cruisers. The two hot commodities right now are baggers and mid-displacement bikes, and we've been doing lots of bagger tests lately, but it's not like we can do it every issue. So we went casting about in the middle class.
To narrow it down, we went looking for bikes we haven't tested in awhile and came up with Kawasaki's Vulcan 900 Custom. To go with that, we went looking for other skinnies...skinny front tire bikes, that is. We were hoping to get Suzuki's revamped Boulevard M50 as "the new kid," but Suzuki's 2010 bikes never materialized on this side of the Pacific. A scheduling conflict also prevented us from snagging Triumph's 865cc Speedmaster (though we included info on it at the end of this article for reference). After that, we realized that the Vulcan Custom was in a class of one, unless you drop down in dollars and displacement to Honda's Spirit. So, we di d what any drunk frat pledge would do at 2A.M...we lowered our standards. Chubby was okay, just so long as we didn't stray into obese "Classic" territory.
Our other two contestants are Star's V Star 950 and Harley-Davidson's Sportster 883 Low. The last time we saw her, the Sporty was getting hammered in our "Baby Bagger Comparison" (April '09), so we were hoping this time (with the lack of 200+ pound riders and luggage) she'd fare better. The winner of that test was none other than the V Star 950 Touring, but here, it appears in street guise. Star calls the 950 a New Classic with low-profile tires and slightly abbreviated fenders, and it splits the difference between a true classic and a muscle cruiser like the Sportster or the absent M50.
Despite not swinging the same sort of lead as a true "Classic", the 950 is still the heaviest in this test, although onwly by a pound or two. She is definitely more chunky than fat, with sleek lines and a low, stretched look. Like other, less-svelte classics, the V Star 950 has floorboards (complete with heel-toe shifter) and wide beach bars. The Star also brings a very finished look, with a painted headlight shell that matches the sheet metal (yes, it's actual metal), and contrasting black/polished wheels. There are a few warts though, with clutter near the foot controls and a kickstand mount that looks like an afterthought.
Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Low
Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custo...
Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom
Star V Star 950
Long a mainstay of the cruiser landscape, the "custom" style bike is now a rarity in the midsize arena, even while new models (Raider, Wide Glide) come out in larger displacements. So the Vulcan 900 is well-positioned to score anyone who lusts for this style of bike at the middleweight level. The most anorexic of these skinny bikes (sporting a super-narrow 80/90-21 tire up front), the Vulcan sports a stylish chrome front wheel to show it off. The shape it cuts isn't as unique or well-finished as the Star's (or the Sportster's), but it plays the role well with a radiator tucked in between beefy frame rails and a simple drag bar controlling the sparse front end. Out back it swings a big 180-section rear tire under an arched fender that seems to float a little high... but at least it's got suspension travel.
The Sportster 883 Low is well-suited to its name. Unlike the Vulcan, which has a gap of air between the rear fender and tire, the 883 almost hides the rim beneath the fender. It sits so low, you need to watch your speed on bumps and driveways, or risk bouncing the frame off the ground. Sitting squarely between the other two in terms of skinny, it sports a traditional mid-sized 19-inch front tire, though it's chunkier than either of the other two bikes. The Sportster's lines are immediately recognizable, from the triangular tank immortalized on so many old-school custom choppers, down to the spare bodywork, giving the impression of a beefy powertrain barely surrounded by wheels and a place to sit. That place to sit can only carry one, unless you add a rear seat and pegs.
The Sportster was considered a sportbike back in the 50s, stripped down to just the essentials, but with the passage of years has morphed into a Standard, then a Cruiser, and now an entry-level machine, (regardless of its suitability for these tasks). As an entry-level (and lowest common denominator) bike, it has an extremely compact riding triangle with slightly forward mid-mount pegs, pullback bars and a very low seat height. The seat is hard, but well-shaped and supportive. Tall (or even medium-sized) riders will probably want to swap the bars out right away. Paradoxically, our shorter-legged riders didn't like the footpeg location, as they were in the way of reaching for the ground.
Both the Kawasaki and the Star were more adapted to a wider range of riders. The pegs of the Vulcan were a bit of a reach for shorter riders, but only just, while the Star's boards fit everybody well. The most-loved handlebars were the 900's drag bars, with enough pullback for all to be comfortable with, while the wide bars of the 950 got mixed reviews: some thought they turned the rider into a perfect parachute to catch the wind with, while another didn't like the grip angle. The V Star's seat was acclaimed as the best of the bunch, though there were few complaints about the Vulcan's perch ( just one from a rider who thought it pushed on his tailbone a bit).
In case we hadn't made it clear by now, comfort on the Harley-Davidson is practically non-existent. Even our 125-pound tester repeatedly bottomed out the shocks, getting kicked out of the seat on big bumps. Riding this bike means scanning the ground for even small obstacles, and (using the mid-mounted foot controls) getting your butt out of the seat prior to the hit. Or just riding slower. Of course, on the rough, fast freeways of our Southern California testing range, slower isn't always an option.
In fairness though, all three bikes had issues at the 70-80 mph speeds that are the norm here. None of them have much top-end punch to accelerate past 70mph. Other than the whole comfort thing, the H-D was competent at freeway speeds, with just enough motor and gearing to happily hum along above the speed limit. The V Star was the best of the three at accelerated velocities with the most available power in top gear, and the most comfortable ride (though by no means perfect) on our rough, fast roads. The boards buzz a bit, and it bounces around a little on our concrete slabs, but it's nothing unforgivable.
The Vulcan's suspension suffered from an overabundance of compression damping at high speeds, which would make it bounce all over the place at speed. Compounding this problem was a transmission that seems like it was designed to cruise in top gear at about 65 mph. If that's as fast as you ever go, it'll be just fine, but if you like to push the limit, having it scream at normal freeway velocities (apparently past its powerband), is just not any fun at high speeds. We all looked for an extra gear when we got up to cruising speeds, but as first gear is rather short and the bike has enough torque to start in second, it seems like all it needs is a 1/2 gear ratio bump (see sidebar).
The Vulcan motor itself, a 50-degree liquid-cooled V-twin, feels strong, delivering solid torque through the midrange, then tapering off at the top end. Powered by the widely-spread 60-degree air-cooled V-twin common to the V Star models, the 950 is perfectly matched to its torquey motor, delivering a wide spread of power from bottom to top. It's very accommodating with gear selection, willing to be lugged or revved, delivering smooth, potent power either way. The H-D's powerband is very bottom-heavy, with a nice low-end hit, which, coupled with its lower weight and short wheelbase, makes it the only bike here capable of a wheelie. It tapers at the top, but is matched to its transmission well.
Back roads were the venue that all the bikes were best at, and we made sure to spend most of our testing on smooth two-laners. While all did well in the hinterlands, we split our picks among what worked best. Our semi-rookie rider liked the Vulcan most, citing the way it tipped eagerly into corners and powered out the other side, while the more experienced riders were skeptical of the skinny tire holding its own on sometimes-dirty roads. The choice of the veteran riders was the V Star. With near-telepathic neutral handling, it went right where it was aimed, was the easiest to correct mid-corner, and easily swung u-turns, thought short-armed riders might run out of tuning radius with the wide bars. The Kawasaki tended to fall into corners more, so while it was eager, it also felt less accurate.
The Sportster is nimble on back roads, with its very low center of gravity, light weight, shorter wheelbase and more aggressive steering geometry. It has little ground clearance, but it doesn't need as much either, carving a tight circle with less lean than the others. However, when it touches down, it grinds hard parts pretty easily. The worst thing on the V Star was its limited cornering clearance. With the longest wheelbase in the test, it needs more lean, yet drags very quickly. Thankfully, it's just hitting the boards (which are equipped with replaceable "draggers") for a bit before board mounts and frame touch down next. The Vulcan would touch down too, but you really had to be trying.
Braking is solid on all three bikes, though not particularly impressive on any. The Star wins over the other two by a smidgen, but the H-D had the most controllable rear disc, with the other two locking up pretty easily. Clutch action is also unremarkable, with the Vulcan engaging pretty far out, the Sportster engaging too close to the bar, and the 950 somewhere in the middle. Shifting is typically heavy and clunky, but accurate on the H-D, with the Vulcan slightly vague (but helped with its Neutral-Finder feature), and the Star coming out ahead again with a light-shifting, smooth unit.
In fuel economy, the Star edges the others again, getting almost 10% more than the other two, but gets beaten on overall range by the Vulcan, with its larger tank. We're guessing the V Star's taller gearing and torquey motor (allowing for more relaxed rpm at all times) contributed heavily to this.
So if you've been paying attention, it's probably obvious that the Star was our favorite of this bunch-though it wasn't unanimous. We had one tester who absolutely loved the Kawasaki, and there is a lot to love. It's the only true skinny bike between Honda's 750cc Spirit and a slew of bikes on the wrong side of $10,000. That said, it's also the most expensive in this test, by $300 over the V Star. And we're not exactly sure why it's $500 more than it's nearly-identical fat sister, the Classic. The true entry-level H-D Low was a little out of its depth here with these bikes, but we all found things to like about it. The thing that chafed us about it were conscious decisions by Harley-Davidson to make it that way. Tell us again why there isn't a standard 883 model?
So, just like in real life, sometimes the fat girl wins. With a killer price point, drop-dead looks, and comfort and handling to fit a wide range of riders, we have no compunctions about suggesting the V Star 950 to just about anyone. While we would have liked to have put the Speedmaster up against it, Star's strategy of straddling categories while creating a bike unique in its own right pays off with this sweet little model.
The Sportster's gauge may not have been the most stylish but it was the easiest to see at a glance in a full-face helmet. The V-Star's gauge is a very attractive unit that sits at too flat an angle to see without leaning over, regardless of the helmet you wear. The Vulcan splits the difference with a tank-mounted gauge that is actually easy to read with big lettering on the LCD.
||Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 Low
||Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom
||Star V Star 950
||Black (standard), Red, Silver, Blue (+$290)
||Blue, Red, Black (+$300)
||Red (base), White and Black (+$200)
||24 months, unlimited miles
||Air-Cooled 45 degree V-twin
||Liquid-cooled 55 degree V-twin
||Air-cooled, 60 degree V-Twin
|BORE X STROKE
||76.2mm x 96.8mm
||88mm x 74.2mm
||OHV Pushrod, 2 valves per cylinder
||Chain-driven SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
||Chain-driven SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
||EFI, 34mm throttle bodies (2)
||Multiplate wet clutch, 5-speed
||Multiplate wet clutch, 5-speed
||29.6 degrees/4.6 in.
||33 degrees/7.2 in.
||32 degrees/5.7 in.
||13-spoke cast aluminum
||18-spoke cast front, solid rear
||100/90-19 57H D401F Dunlop
||130/70-18 63H Dunlop
||150/80- B16 D401 Dunlop
||170/70-16 75H Dunlop
||292mm disc, 2-piston caliper
||300mm disc, 2-piston caliper
||320mm disc, 2-piston caliper
||260mm disc, single-piston caliper
||270mm disc, 2-piston caliper
||298mm disc, 2-piston caliper
||39mm fork, 3.6 in. travel
||41mm fork, 5.9 in. travel
||41mm fork, 5.3 in. travel
||Dual coil-over shocks, 1.6-in. travel; preload-adjustable
||Monoshock, 4.1 in. travel; preload-adjustable.
||Linkage-style monoshock, 4.3 in. travel
||Analog speedometer, digital odometer, dual tripmeters, clock and low-fuel indicator
||Analog speedometer with digital odometer, tripmeter and clock. low-fuel indicator; analog fuel gauge.
||Analog speedometer, digital odometer, dual tripmeters, low-fuel tripmeter, clock, low-fuel warning indicator.
6ft., 190 lbs., 33 in. inseam
In past tests I've made no secret of my heartfelt love for the V Star 950. Either as a touring mount or just as you see it here for a general-purpose bike, we just click. As a big(ish) guy, I appreciate that there's a sub-1000cc sub-$10k bike that fits me. I ride fast, and while some may feel limited by the slight lean angles the bike has, I just see it as a reminder that I'm on a cruiser and that's as fast as I need to go. The gearing, the power and the suspension all work in perfect harmony, and the bike is a joy to ride. So there was no real angst over which one is my pick.
On one hand you have the Kawasaki, which is a more complete motorcycle than the Sportster, and fits me better. But at $1000+ msrp over the 883 Low... I just can't justify the difference. If the Kawi were about $500 cheaper it would be my second place pick, but with its short final gear ratio (sorry, but in my state 65 mph means 85), tippy low-speed handling, and overall finish and styling, it may outperform the Low, but not by much. All the stuff I dislike about the Sportster is fixable, but most of my issues with the Vulcan are near impossible to remedy...and it's the most expensive bike here. In fairness, I found an aftermarket front sprocket kit that fixes the gear ratios for about $200.
I rode a used Sportster recently that a friend was thinking about buying, and I enthusiastically recommended she pick it up. She's 5'6" and it fits her fine, but exactly how small an audience is HD looking at with the Low? Being part Asian, I really appreciate the Factory taking my peeps into account when they design a bike, but to not have a "normal" sized version at all at the entry level is just stupid.
Betsy Nash Gabele
5ft. 5in., 126 lbs., 32 in. inseam
At first I was intimidated by the size of the Star and the Kawasaki. But due to the low seat height and the way their weight is distributed, they were both very easy to handle. The Harley was much smaller in overall size and easy to maneuver as well.
My favorite amongst the three would have to be the Star. It's a Cadillac of comfort and has a beautiful, sleek but tough look. It feels like a very well designed bike, with a nice even flow of power. The only thing I would change would be the seat positioning so my legs would not hit against the airbox, engine covers, and a wind screen for long distance trips. There was lots of wind force above 70-75mph-I really had to hold on to the grips. Also, I would prefer a bit more ground clearance.
Second choice for me would be the Kawasaki; it fit me beautifully but I felt it had performance issues. The gearing seemed off, especially between 4th and 5th. This is not a bad-looking bike, but it's not nearly as eye-catching as the 950, and being the highest-priced of the three is also a deterrent.
The Harley certainly does not lack power, it just seems a bit small for me frame-wise. Although I felt more comfortable splitting lanes with this bike versus the other two, changing the bars would help immensely with handling and comfort and it definitely needs different springs if I am to keep my tailbone out of my throat! The suspension reminds me of riding on an old hardtail. Also, it sits very low to the ground so watch out if you plan on running the canyons.
5 ft. 7in., 160 lbs., 31 in. inseam
The Kawi and Star seem pretty similar. The H-D, however, is a lighter, "sportier" looking and feeling bike. The Sportster's suspension didn't have a lot of travel and constantly bottomed out. And it being low means it drags pieces quite easily too. However, it's light, fun, and I really like the American V-twin sound and feel.
The Star looks and feels bigger, but actually fit me really well. It's a bit of a reach to the handlebars, but only 'cause they're a little wide. I really like low cruisers, but this one was the "drag master", scraping more stuff on the twisties than even the HD did! But it felt like a well-engineered motorcycle, with a solid and smooth transmission, easy engagement and release of the clutch, and one-finger front brake operation. It stopped relatively quickly and manageably. For the price I feel it's a great buy.
The Kawi and I seem to just work well together. To me this bike was the easiest to ride in all conditions. It wasn't the prettiest or coolest-sounding, but was so fun. It did feel a bit tippy and sensitive to the wind but I thought that was a fine tradeoff for fun, quick handling in the corners! I can ride it effortlessly, pop quickly through the gears on the street, and scoot around in traffic. At speed, it didn't feel the least bit wobbly. The skinny front tire can be slippery in wet corners though. The seat is narrow enough for me to feel comfy when stopped, as are the controls.
In sum, I like them all for different reasons. The H-D, because it's a little bad-ass out of the box. The Star for its overall design, and the Kawi as the most fun and comfortable overall for this test.
Whatever Happened to?
The Speedmaster coulda been a contender
Those of you paying attention might have noticed a particularly well-qualified machine missing from this comparison.
Yep, the Triumph Speedmaster, alas, never did make into the ring with the others (we felt the Speedmaster's riding position and overall vibe was a better fit to the other contenders in this shootout than its similarly-outfitted 900cc sibling, the America). As they say in the business, stuff happens. This stuff, it turns out, was a case of bad scheduling on our part; we were so focussed on locking down the Rocket III Roadster for a First Ride for the issue, that we spaced on ordering up the Speedmaster. By the time we realized our omission, it was too late-deadlines were upon us.
Even though we didn't get the chance to ride the 'Master back to back with the others, we still feel it would have done well in this test. It's comparably equipped, when you consider its 865cc twin powerplant, 18-inch front tire, 5.1 gallon fuel tank, dual front brake discs (the only ones here), and an appealing 550-lb., ready-to-ride-weight-the lightest of the group. What's more, its base price is the second lowest here, with an MSRP of just $7999. Only the Harley is lower-priced (but the Sportster also runs with a measly 3.3 gal. fuel tank). The one knock against it (at least on the spec sheet) is that it runs an X-ring chain for final drive. Check the numbers for yourself.
Type: Air-cooled parallel twin
Displacement, Bore x stroke: 865cc, 90mm x 68mm
Valve train: DOHV, 2 valves per cylinder
Compression ratio: 9.2:1
Fuel System: EFI
Transmission: Multiplate wet clutch, 5-speed
Final drive: X-ring chain
Wheelbase: 65.1 in.
Rake/trail: 33.3 degrees/6 in.
Front suspension: 41mm fork, 5.11 in.travel
Rear suspension: dual spring shocks, 3.7-in. travel; adjustable preload
Front brake: Dual 310mm discs, 2-piston calipers
Rear brake: 285mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Tires: 110/80 R18 (front), 170/80 B15 (rear)
Overall length: 95.2in.
Seat height: 28.3 in.
Fuel capacity: 5.1 US gal.
Wet weight: 550 lbs.
Our testers talked a lot about what could and couldn't be changed on these bikes. We took our biggest complaints about the three machines and attempted to fix them with aftermarket components. Keep in mind that most of these products have never been tested by us, and we're going off past experiences with similar stuff. Also, be aware that any significant changes to a bike that do not use factory authorized parts could void some or all of your warranty.
V Star 950
The best of this bunch is also the hardest to "fix," if fixin's what you want. 'Skinnifying' the 950 would take some doing. We looked high and low and could not find any custom wheels to fit the V Star, never mind ones in different sizes. A custom wheel for another bike could be made to fit with custom spacers, but it likely wouldn't match the rear. We did, however find forward controls - if floorboards are just not your thing. Being the newest bike in this test, it was also the hardest to shop for outside the OEM catalog.
Sportster 883 Low
The Sportster is the biggest project here, so it's good that it's also got the lowest MSRP. Like most Harleys (especially ones that have been around for 50 years) there is a huge aftermarket for it. Shocks can be had for as little as $300; bars are always the cheapest and easiest thing to change on a bike if you keep cable length the same, and forward controls are available from H-D or a slew of other makers. The listings below are for convenience; all can be had in a number of trim levels.
Vulcan 900 Custom
Our big beef with the Vulcan was gearing, and apparently we're not alone. Scootworks makes a pair of overdrive sprockets that theoretically do not need a belt replacement to use. Just swapping either one will give about a 6% decrease in final drive ratio and rpm, while both together combine for 11.6%. Unlike the Star, you can get custom wheels (from several makers) for the 900 Custom, should you want to put a slightly beefier tire up front; plus with a disc rear wheel the need to match isn't as important.
$180.00 VN900 FRONT Overdrive Pulley
$369.99 VN900 REAR Overdrive Pulley (Chrome)