We seem to be falling into a rut. Or perhaps we are creating one with Kawasaki's Vulcan 1500s...on Interstate 10. You see, Kawasaki likes to ship its new cruisers to Florida for press introductions around Daytona Bike Week. This tradition started with the Nomad in '97, and Kawasaki did it again with the Drifter in '99. This year it followed the pattern with the new fuel-injected version of the Classic. Each time the manufacturer does this, somebody on Motorcycle Cruiser's staff wants to ride the new bike back to California. Brasfield went west on the Nomad. Elvidge did it on the Drifter and this year it was Cherney's turn to see how fast he could traverse the Christopher Columbus Transcontinental Highway (I-10) from end to end.
Even though we did nothing to the bike beyond adding a Fire and Steel passenger backrest to strap his gear to, Cherney and the Classic FI made the 2650-mile run in just under three-and-a-half days, come hail and high water. Both were still going strong when they reached the Pacific Ocean.
To make matters interesting, we had a stunt couple perform some wheelies and burnouts on the bike in Florida before handing it over to Cherney. We figured that watching the bike take that kind of abuse would cause Cherney just enough concern to keep him awake during that last 1200-mile day. We might even discover some weak spot.
_Notes from the road: I'm finally away from Daytona. Responsive power and great looks make this bike a great traffic fighter and profiler. I had at least five people ask me, "Is that is one of those new Harleys?" Illiteracy must be a bigger problem in Florida than elsewhere in the country because Kawasaki doesn't keep the bike's origins a secret. Tank badges and decals announce "Kawasaki" and "Vulcan" quite prominently. But lots of people notice it and like it.
It's good to be on the open road though. Now we will find out how different this bike really is._
We have been riding a series of Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classics and its variations, the Nomad, Drifter and Nomad FI, since the first issue of this magazine was being assembled (Spring 1996). This has given us an opportunity to experience the steady evolution of the Classic. Introduced in 1996 as a four-speed, successive generations have steadily improved, as innovations such as carburetor warmers, five-speeds, and other upgrades were introduced on those derivative models and incorporated into the mainstay model of the 1500 series, the Classic.
Although this latest version of the Classic (designated the FI for its fuel injection) may seem like just another upgrade incorporating some of the newest features brought to market on some of the companion models, the Vulcan 1500 Classic FI is actually the point model. It not only uses most of the latest features of Kawasaki's other models, but also brings some new goodies of its own to the party. The bike is much more than a spruced-up version of the carbureted Classic. While the basic engine is the same, most of its components are improved. The good news is that many of the items already in Kawasaki's extensive accessory catalog (and others) will bolt on.
Starting right at the heart of the matter, this bike has a new frame. The new chassis is more rigid thanks to larger-diameter main tubes and a beefier steering head with larger bearings. Following the pattern of the newer Vulcan 1500s, the steering head was moved forward and, although its angle remains at 32 degrees, fork offset was decreased to give a whopping 6.4 inches of trail -- similar to the Nomad. Despite this imposing-sounding figure, steering stays light and manageable, while stability at all speeds improves.
The frame is a combination of Nomad and Drifter sections. The front fork legs are spaced farther apart, like the Drifter's, but they retain damper-rod type internals, not the cartridge dampers of the Nomad FI. The chrome 16-inch wheels are also the same sizes and wire-spoke style of the original Classic. In back, the injected Classic gets air-adjustable dual shocks with adjustable damping. Just turn the top cover of the shock to select one of five rebound-damping settings.
You can't tell by looking, but there are significant changes in the engine. Of course, this bike has fuel injection, but the Mitsubishi system is a generation more advanced than any Kawasaki cruiser injection that has come before, thanks to a 16-bit electronic control unit (ECU). Sensors monitor coolant temperature, the temperature of the air coming into the engine, ambient air pressure, induction air pressure, engine speed, and throttle position to adjust mixture.
Under heavier loads, the throttle-position reading is the primary factor used to set mixture. At lighter loads, such as when riding down a level highway at steady speed, intake pressure is the primary consideration. The ECU is programmed for the Classic and optimized for cruising as opposed to the touring duty of the new Nomad FI. It has a plug that allows technicians to diagnose problems. Instead of the original Classic's 40mm carb, this bike draws breath through a pair of 38mm throttle bodies. Each throttle body has four injector nozzles, two of which point at the intake valve.
Other changes have been made possible with the fuel injection. Cam timing for the four valves per cylinder is a bit more aggressive. Compression ratio has been boosted from the carbureted Classic's 8.6:1 to 9.0:1 with the fuel-injected bike. Though displacement remains at 1470cc, new pistons squeeze the mixture a bit harder. The compression increase means that the engine now requires 90-octane fuel -- which means premium in most places. As on the carb-sucker, each cylinder's four valves are driven by an overhead cam, which is in turn operated by a chain from the crankshaft. Automatic tensioners keep these chains adjusted and hydraulic adjusters keep the valve lash in spec.
_Notes from the road: I am happy to report that the FI is just as smooth as the other Vulcan 1500s -- silk-smooth. The exhaust note says "Big Twin," leaving no doubt, but it could be a little beefier._
Down in the crankcases, gear-driven counterbalancers effectively snuff the vibration that should shake out of such a large single-crankpin engine. Any tremors that do escape are stopped by rubber engine mounts, which leave an almost-eerie smoothness. The single-crankpin design keeps that big-twin rumble intact, however. A higher-output alternator provides the additional capacity needed to support the injector's electronics.
_Notes from the road: Took a quick side trip today and went to the Alamo. I touched the wall, felt a bit of history, and was back on the road. Speaking of history, this thing breaks with Vulcan Classic tradition -- the power is here, at last. Power is linear, smooth and pulls a bit better at high rpm. The bike takes a little while to reach the meat of the powerband off a traffic light. Once you get going, though, it is easy to get up to a buck and change, and the bike seems quite content staying there. I have yet to feel a burp or hiccup from this thing at any speed or gear._
Several of the engine changes point toward more power. The added intake capacity of the injector body probably contributes the most. In any event, the Classic FI accelerates considerably quicker than the classic Classic. Throttle response and power delivery are smooth and predictable and there is little gear play in the drive line. The additional compression may contribute a bit more power just off idle, but the difference is most apparent when you are heavily into the throttle. The best quarter-mile run we have recorded with a single-carb 1500 was 14.67 seconds at 89 mph; this bike notched a 00.00-second, 00.0-mph best.
_Notes from the road: Fuel injection makes those early-morning starts a snap. The enlarged fuel tank extends the range of this bike by another 30 to 40 miles. I never did reach the suggested 170-mile range before filling up, though -- probably because the low-fuel light comes on with approximately 1.2 gallons in the tank instead of the specified .7 gallons. It's tough going another 45 or 50 miles with that yellow light staring at you. I averaged around 145 miles between fuel stops, which was better than the old bike's 125._
Simplified starting and improved fuel mileage were two other benefits we hoped the fuel-injected bike would offer. The easy starting materialized, but the FI's 42.8-mpg average is about the same as that of our last carbureted Classic. Since the FI requires premium fuel, this is a loss in terms of miles per dollar. However, the new 5.0-gallon fuel tank offers an additional .8 gallon of capacity to extend the range significantly. There is no reserve system, so you must be mindful of the low-fuel light. We found nothing to complain about in the drive train. It shifts smoothly and lightly, and the heel-toe shifter means you won't scuff your boot. The clutch is light and controllable. Shaft drive is even more reliable than a belt, though it adds more weight and sucks up more power.
_Notes from the road: This baby is more than up to the task of hauling across the country. Can I say "great butt pad" over and over again? The seat still feels comfortable -- even after 1800 miles._
After more than 2600 miles in three-and-a-half days, our man's only comfort complaint was he couldn't find a completely comfortable place to put his feet. The relocated floorboards were too far forward for his semi-short legs, and dropping into a touring tuck and putting his feet on the passenger pegs put them up too high. Still, it didn't keep him from managing 1200 miles from western Texas to Los Angeles on his final day. The 33-inch-wide handlebar suited him well despite the bike's lack of a windshield. And the Classic's remarkable smoothness meant there was no vibration to fatigue him. The saddle has been revised this year, and our rider completed his journey raving about its comfort. Other riders also rated it a noticeable improvement on the saddle of the standard Classic -- which we already like.
_Notes from the road: I was hitting some high speeds on this leg. The big red bike tracks sure and steady -- even in three hours of pouring rain and light hail. The bike would wallow just noticeably if I flicked it into a quick lane change at near triple digits. I wish the brakes were stronger, though. It takes some effort to haul this hawg down from speed._
The frame and rear suspension changes have tightened up and smoothed out the Classic's handling. Yes, you can still scare up a trace of the carb-breather's mild wallow in fast corners, but you have to be going faster or carrying more load. Riding long and fast doesn't tire you because the bike steers so lightly, yet tracks so steadily. Cornering clearance is acceptable but not abundant.
Kawasaki repositioned the rear brake pedal to make it easier to cover. It is plumbed to a more powerful rear brake. Though both the front and rear brakes are progressive, the single disc of the front brake is not as powerful as we would wish in a full-goose stop. Cams with thumb wheels permit easy, instant position adjustments of both handlebar levers to adapt to various riders' hands. Testers with small hands felt this made a big difference in the confidence they felt on the big Vulcan.
_Notes from the road: You get a lot more useful details with this bike than on other bare-bones cruisers. I love that easy-as-pie suspension adjustment. There is a neat little tool kit/registration compartment hidden under the left side panel (which locks). The sight window for the oil is still in an awkward location that forces you to hunch down to look at the case while precariously balancing the bike off its sidestand. Reeeeally cool thing is the instrumentation -- particularly the LCD odometer/tripmeter/clock built into the analog speedo. You can toggle between the three functions with a press of a button._
This bike brings the first electronic speedometer to the Vulcan 1500 line. Besides eliminating the clutter of a speedometer cable, it uses a multi-function LCD window, which though not nostalgic, adds a clock to the features. The fuel gauge is still included in the face of the round tank-top-speedometer. The new arrangement will mean that the aftermarket kits that relocate the ignition switch to atop the tank won't fit without modification.
Besides the features already mentioned, we also liked the bungee hooks set into the bottom of the fender rail, which greatly simplifies strapping parcels onto the seat. You get two helmet hooks, one tucked under each fender rail. Self-canceling signals are new to the Classic, as is the 7.0-inch multi-reflector headlight, which is both stylish and a functional improvement.
_Notes from the road: What a good-looking motorcycle! Draws a crowd everywhere I go. I'm almost getting tired of hearing "shore is a purty bike." One guy asked if my bike was a new Indian -- but he was drunk._
The Classic has always drawn favorable remarks for its looks, but this one seemed to get more than usual. The fuel tank and rearranged steering head are part of it. They make the bike look bigger, longer and lower. Kawasaki eliminated the seams from the tank's lower edge, cleaning up its looks considerably. The front end has been freshened up too. The big multi-reflector headlight -- which is not used on the standard Classic -- has a retro favor, and the new chrome filler plate between the upper fork tubes hides the clutter of cables behind it. Everybody is a stylist, of course, and some of the stylists who saw this new bike were less than enthusiastic about the reconfigured front turn signal arrangement.
_Notes from the road: The Classic FI's strengths are subtle. It's not an earth-shattering bike, but you'd have trouble finding anything wrong with it -- except maybe getting home and having to let someone else ride it._
Subtle is a good description of this bike. It appears very similar to the original best-selling Vulcan 1500 Classic but is almost entirely new. It functions much like the standard Classic, but does virtually everything noticeably better. The only exception is that fuel will cost more. We have always been fans of the 1500 Classic, so it shouldn't come as any surprise that we like this bike a lot. We plan to pit it against some of the other big twins in the near future.
High Points: More power, more range, better looks, greater comfort, better handling.
Low Points: ** More money, needs premium fuel.
**First Changes: Relocate the awkward-to-reach ignition switch; peel off cheesy decals on air cleaners and side covers.
Brasfield:** Incremental change is a powerful tool. Of course, the product needs to be strong to begin with, but the Vulcan Classic has always been one of my favorite big twins. And every model year these bikes just keep getting better -- but not in great leaps and bounds, which could alienate riders who bought earlier models. Instead, those clever folks at Kawasaki just take a little nip here, a tuck there, and although the bike looks essentially the same, (as far as most of the aftermarket accessories are concerned) an even better riding experience results from the new and improved motorcycle.
The ride is what all but one of the Classic's changes are directed toward. The fuel injection pumps up the 1500's power a bit. The larger tank means fewer stops during those long rides. (Right, Andy?) The shocks deliver a more comfortable and controlled ride. What's not to like about this upgraded machine?
Oh, I'm glad that the ugly tank bottom seam is a thing of the past -- call it a quality-of-life improvement. The additional $800 will be money well spent.
Former staff editor Brasfield's website is www.EvansBrasfield.com
Friedman: What was missing on the original Classic? Not much. More range for road trips certainly. Perhaps a bit of power. A little extra rigidity might be nice to overcome that slight wallow in fast corners.
The new Classic (is that an oxymoron?) has all that, and more -- including a better saddle, more impressive looks, nicer steering, the convenience of fuel injection, and a clock. All for just $800 more. Kawasaki thinks that most people aren't going to pony up the extra cash to buy this bike. I think people will if they ride both versions of the Classic first....
Cherney: Never mind the plush seat on this Vulcan -- it isn't just another sofa for a low and slow boulevard bike.
What it is, is a disguise for a muscular machine. When I cracked the Classic's throttle at autobahn speeds, the ponies responded, en masse. When I cranked the bike's engine over on cold mornings in the Texas desert, the FI would fire right up, thanks to the injectors. The locals would say things like, "it shore is purty" no matter which one-horse town I happened to be passing through. The newly enlarged tank gave me more range and new confidence along uninhabited back roads. And that seat saved my ass on the 3000-mile blast across the country -- thank you very much.
Having unloaded all that mushy stuff, I've got to admit that while the Classic FI is very nearly perfect, it's hard to get completely head over heels about perfection. A second date might be in order, though.
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic
Suggested base price: $10,799
Standard colors: Red/beige
Standard warranty: 12 mos., unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 8000 miles
ENGINE & DRIVETRAIN
Type: Liquid-cooled 50-degree V-twin
Valve arrangement: SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1470cc, 102 x 90mm
Compression ratio: 9.0 :1
Carburetion: Digital Fuel Injection, two 36mm throats
Lubrication: Wet sump, 3.7 qt
Minimum fuel grade: 90 octane
Transmission: Wet clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Shaft, 2.619:1
Wet weight: 727 lb 55.4% rear wheel
GVWR: 1120 lb.
Overall length: 98.6 in.
Wheelbase: 65.6 in.
Rake/trail: 32 degrees / 6.4 in.
Wheels: Wire-spoke, 16.0 x 3.0 front, 16 x 3.5 rear
Front tire: 130/90-16 Bridgestone Exedra tube-type
Rear tire: 150/80-16 Bridgestone Exedra tube-type
Front brake: Single-action, dual-piston caliper, 11.8-in. disc
Rear brake: Single-action, dual-piston caliper, 10.6-in. disc
Front suspension: 41mm stanchions, 5.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: 2 dampers, 3.4 in.travel, adjustments for air pressure and rebound damping
Fuel capacity: 5.0 gal
Seat height: 27.6 in.
Handlebar width: 33.6 in., 1.0 in. diameter
ELECTRICAL & INSTRUMENTATION
Charging output: 377 watts
Battery: 12v, 18AH
Forward lighting: 7.5-inch 55/60-watt headlight, position lights
Taillight: Single-bulb taillight, license light
Instruments: Speedometer, fuel gauge, LCD odometer/tripmeter/clock, warning lights for high beam, turn signals, neutral, oil pressure, low fuel
Fuel mileage: 39 to 49 mpg, 42.8 avg.
Average range: 210 miles
200 yard, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 71.0 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 14.07 sec., 92.6 mph