It's easy to understand why Suzuki's Boulevard C50 outsold all other metric cruisers last year. The 750 to 900cc cruiser category has hit a sweet spot for many motorcycle buyers. The bikes in this displacement range are big enough to be taken seriously, even for long-distance travel. And they strike an appealing balance of size, style, comfort and price. Virtually every major motorcycle manufacturer has one (we won't step into the debate about whether the Star V-Star 650 fits in this class) and sees strong sales.
The Boulevard C50 (formerly the 800 Volusia), however, outshines the rest of this fairly large class. Although its $6799 base price puts it right in the middle of the pack, the C50 pulls to the front in comparisons of roominess, comfort, features and performance. Its fuel-injected 805cc 45-degree V-twin engine makes better power than most of the bikes in this displacement range, with its Boulevard S50 stablemate (formerly the Intruder 800) being the notable exception. Superior suspension, features like floorboards, and the general look, feel and manners of a bigger motorcycle have made the C50 the standout 800 V-twin, as evidenced by its (and the C50T's-the same bike with windshield, leather saddlebags, whitewall tires, and passenger backrest) best-seller status among metric cruisers.
Considering the sales numbers in this market, Suzuki's competitors in the 800 class weren't likely to stand by and let it simply grab all the marbles. Not surprisingly, Kawasaki, which has had as many as four 750 and 800cc V-twin cruisers in its line, rose to the challenge. Having learned from the successful Volusia/C50 formula, Kawasaki decided to up the ante. If a large, strong 800 V-twin sold well, wouldn't a 900 be even better? So this spring, it rolled out the Vulcan 900 Classic powered by an all-new 903cc 55-degree V-twin.
Like the Boulevard C50, the Vulcan 900 Classic comes in two versions, a naked cruiser and one dressed with a windshield, leather saddlebags and a passenger backrest for those who want to make the most of the bikes' traveling abilities. Riding the Vulcan 900 Classic LT (the tourer model) from Florida to the West Coast confirmed that it's long-legged enough to be a satisfying touring ride. When it came time for the Kawasaki to challenge Suzuki for the class crown, however, we thought it should be with straight-ahead cruisers, the C50 and the Vulcan 900 Classic.
In some ways, the playing field between the standard cruiser versions of the Vulcan 900 Classic and the Boulevard C50 appears to be quite even. Both favor the classic style, with sweeping curves, a fuller profile and a roomier, more comfortable layout. Both use hidden single-shock rear suspensions. Both have liquid-cooled single-overhead-camshaft V-twins with four valves per cylinder and fuel injection. Both use the traditional balancing scheme for its brand-the Vulcan has a single crankpin and uses counterbalancers and rubber engine mounts to snuff vibration; the Boulevard uses offset crankpins to prevent the shakes. And both have five speeds in the transmission, but eschew dirty, noisy chains. The Suzuki has a shaft final drive, while the Kawasaki brings a belt, which we slightly prefer.
Of course, there are quantifiable differences. The Kawasaki offers the attraction of an additional 98cc of displacement, which gives it a slight power advantage. The Vulcan also gives the impression of being bigger and is a few pounds heavier, but the Boulevard has a slightly longer wheelbase (65.2 inches versus 64.8 for the Kawasaki). The Kawasaki's saddle sits more than a half-inch lower than the Suzuki's and is also narrower, making it handier for shorter legs. With a 5.3-gallon fuel capacity, the 900 carries over a gallon more than the C50, giving it a meaningful advantage on roads where the gas stations are far and few. But the Boulevard C50 has a $500 price advantage, at $6799, compared with the Vulcan 900's $7299.
A unanimous verdict gives the Vulcan higher marks for aesthetics. Everyone we polled preferred its cleaner, more unified and better detailed appearance, which not only outshines the C50 but also other Kawasaki cruisers and certainly sets new standards in this price-conscious category. Although it's actually an inch or so shorter than the C50, the Vulcan 900 appears longer due to its lower profile. With fat tires in fashion, you get more rear rubber from the Kawasaki. Its 180mm rear tire is wider even than most Harley counterparts as well as the Suzuki's 170-section tire.