Photography by Fran Kuhn....
Photography by Fran Kuhn.
To really get to know a touring motorcycle, ride it from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Daytona Beach, FL
3/8/98 3:30 P.M.
Scott Russell just walked away with Daytona 200 win number five. Jamie and I are almost walking away from Daytona Beach. The traffic on I-95 north is so bloody thick I doubt we'll see better than second gear in the next 60 miles. According to my calculations, we've got 2700 miles to go. I'll just lug the engine in first gear and hope the traffic doesn't come to a complete stop, because then I'll have to put my foot down. I've been talking to bikers and looking at bikes for a week. Now I want to ride.
We've known for a year that Kawasaki was building a tourer based on the Vulcan 1500 Classic. We just didn't know how different the new bike would be from its sibling, a bike we've consistently rated as our favorite big twin cruiser. When the first photos of the Nomad were released, it seemed that the essence of the Classic had been retained but augmented with the addition of the windshield and hard bags. After Friedman spent a day in a pre-production Nomad's saddle (the red bike shown here and in the black-and-white photos), we knew that Kawasaki had gone the distance to build a special motorcycle. We decided to go the distance to test it.
We regard the Nomad's side-opening...
We regard the Nomad's side-opening bags as perhaps the prettiest in motorcycling.
Although the Vulcan Classic is a capable mount, Kawasaki's R&D department rolled up its collective sleeves to create a purposeful traveling cruiser. The Nomad, while resembling the Classic in many ways, occupies a different subcategory. Consider the Vulcan Classic and the Nomad as siblings, each blessed with different strengths which will lead them to embark on different careers.
Designed to carry a rider and a passenger with gear over vast stretches of pavement, the Nomad's fashionable, functional, fat look goes deeper than the surface. Using the Classic frame as a starting point, the Nomad chassis incorporates 0.4-inch-diameter tubing (up to 1.7 inches) throughout much of the frame. The diameter of the steering head is larger, and gussets strengthen this highly stressed point even further. The goal was to reduce frame flex, giving a more stable ride. Moving the steering head 2.2 inches forward also aids stability when combined with the new triple-clamp offset. The offset nets a whopping 7.4 inches of trail (a 2.6 inch increase) that, when combined with the unchanged 32-degree rake and a wheelbase that stretches 0.2 inches longer (to 65.6 inches), gives the Nomad stability of tectonic proportions.
The counterbalanced engine...
The counterbalanced engine is exceptionally smooth. The later fuel-injected models offered slightly more power, but also require premium fuel.
Reaching down from the new triple clamp, a pair of 41mm stanchions bracket an all-new, cast-aluminum wheel. The increased stiffness afforded by the wheels will be welcome if rough road conditions are encountered while carrying a full load of cargo. Also, as we've often stated, cast wheels allow the fitment of tubeless tires, which resist sudden, catastrophic deflation. In addition, tubeless tires can often be patched well enough to limp to the nearest bike shop, thereby avoiding an extended wait for help in East Nowhere. Both the 3.0 x 16-inch front and the 3.5 x 16-inch rear wheels wear identically sized Bridgestone 150/80-16 radials, adding to the bike's beefcake look. The H-rated tires are more than capable of supporting the weight the Nomad will end up carrying for long distances. Long tread life will be a benefit to all Nomad riders, but particularly so for riders in wetter climes, where a deep tread is essential to the rain-worthiness of the bike.
3/8/98 7:05 P.M.
We watch the light show for almost 30 minutes before pulling over to don rain gear. Overhead, the sky flashes gray, purple, and an ominous brown, as the lightning dances from cloud to cloud. Thunder grumbles with a menace surpassing all the unbaffled pipes we've endured for the past week. Jamie and I laugh at the absurdity of standing in our headlights to struggle into our gear. The wind rises as we ride into the storm we've heard about on the news for the last two days. After a few tentative drops the sky unloads, rain streaking curved arcs in our headlights, as if changing course to give us the full brunt of its force. Soon we're riding through sections of two-inch-deep standing water on Interstate 10 -- the scene occasionally frozen in relief by nearby lightning strikes. Sanity, in the form of a motel, prevails 45 miles later.
The floorboards are positioned...
The floorboards are positioned farther back than on the similar Vulcan 1500 Classic.
The Nomad was built to handle more than just the interstate drone. The additional frame stiffness and cast wheels are connected by a sturdy suspension. The front suspension delivers a supple yet firm ride, exhibiting less dive under braking than its sibling. The air-adjustable rear shocks are 0.4-inch longer than those on the Classic, with all of the additional length incorporated into the longer stroke of the shocks. Although Kawasaki recommends that the air pressure in the shocks be set at zero, it can be increased to a maximum of 43 psi. Think of the air chamber as a combination of a spring preload adjustment and a variable spring rate adjuster. The higher the air pressure in the shock, the stiffer the initial rate and the more resistance there is to compression. The Nomad's shocks also offer four-position rebound damping adjustability. When riding solo, even with a fairly heavy load, we found zero pounds of pressure to be ideal. If two large-size humans were added to the cargo load, a few extra psi would be in order. To adjust the air pressure, simply remove the cover of the standard-size nipple and attach a hand pump (since compressed air can over-pressurize the shocks and ruin them). The firm, number four rebound damping setting felt about right in all riding situations we encountered.
On the road, we enjoyed the fruits of Kawasaki's labor. Expansion joints slip by almost unnoticed. Riding on Botts dots lane markers illustrates how well the suspension behaves. Some bikes physically jar the rider, but the Nomad simply lets the rider know that the dots are there. Square-edged jolts are mostly suppressed before they reach the rider. With suspension this compliant, we wondered how well the Nomad would behave on a twisty road. In a nutshell, the Nomad likes to corner. The stable steering geometry and the competent suspension keep the bike tracking on line with almost no fuss, unless large bumps are encountered mid-corner. Even then, the Nomad only expresses its displeasure at dealing with such bumps once lean angles and speeds that are decidedly un-cruiserish are reached. The high-speed wallow evident in the Classic never made an appearance on the Nomad. Since we were expecting stability, the nimbleness of the Nomad surprised most testers on their first rides. The ultra-stable steering geometry numbers made us expect the bike to require a bit of muscle to turn into a corner quickly. Not so. In fact, the bike's light steering belies its 775 pounds -- from highway speeds right down to a walking pace.
Ocean Springs, MS
3/9/98 11:40 A.M.
Fffinally ssstarting to wwwarm up. The sun broke out of the clouds about an hour ago. Incredible headwinds! A mini-van got blown across two lanes in front of me a while back. The Nomad just hunkers down and keeps going -- the fuel gauge drops a lot quicker, though. A guy driving a beat-up van with a leaking, 40s-era Harley in the back looked at the Nomad and said, "For a bike that ain't a Harley, that looks pretty good." His girlfriend had almost as many tattoos as the van had stickers. Both were faded to a uniform level of illegibility.
Didn't even put my feet down in Alabama.
Passengers liked the riding...
Passengers liked the riding position and the saddle, but most would like a backrest added for security.
Hauling the Nomad to a stop is an easy task, thanks to the 11-inch dual front discs and 12.5-inch rear. Panic stops require only two fingers to control the two-piston calipers. New, wider-blade handlebar levers improve comfort while braking. The 57 percent rear weight bias means that the big rear disc plays an important role in maximum braking. Add a passenger, or fill the bags, and the single-piston rear brake becomes essential to effective stops. The Nomad doesn't try to stand up while braking in a turn.
A 1470cc engine, little different from the Classic's new five-speed, generates the speed the Nomad's brakes scrub off so effectively. Air still draws through a single 40mm Keihin CV carburetor (with the new carb heater and K-TRIC throttle positioning sensor) via the freer-breathing airbox. Two hydraulically adjusted intake and exhaust valves still control the flow through each cylinder's bore and stroke, 102 and 90mm respectively. The exact same five-speed transmission puts the power to the ground. The Nomad's engine received 25 percent more flywheel effect for smooth power delivery. The alternator now generates 42 amps (a 68 percent increase) to power accessories. The oil level sight glass still requires two people (a holder and a looker) to perform a job that should only take one. Kawasaki has told us that next year the problem will be remedied. (Since the Nomad is a '99 model, does that mean well have to wait until 2000?) [Editor's note: In 2003, we are still waiting.] Finally, the exhaust system was redesigned to make room for the bags. Even though the bags block the rider's view of the pipes, we like the new exhaust note.
Despite the additional 81 pounds, the engine has to carry around, we never found ourselves wanting for power. On the highway going up hill with a full load and a headwind? Be sure to downshift before trying to pass that truck. Engine vibration doesn't really enter the picture until 85 mph. More cruiser-like speeds are silky smooth. Around town, the Nomad pulls away from all cars (except fast ones piloted by pimply-faced kids) without breathing hard. The five-speed gearbox really helps in urban mode.
3/10/98 2:47 P.M.
I wasn't paying attention to how much the wind had picked up -- and how fast I was going -- until I needed to switch to reserve at 86 miles. Texas is a big place. Produced a bunch of stomach acid in the last 37.1 miles. Spent the last 15 hunched behind the windshield with my feet tucked back on the passenger floorboards, trying to be really small -- and light. As I pumped 4.23 gallons into a 4.2-gallon tank, an old guy with a custom Harley in the back of his pick-up approached me: "That's a nice paint job. It stock? You know, I've got over $30,000 in my Harley -- over seven of that in paint." Paint must be expensive in Texas. On the way to the Interstate, I smelled barbecue from a little shack next to a gravel yard. Thick slices of beef, homemade sauce, and a roll. Life is good.
This bike featured Cobra's...
This bike featured Cobra's initial accessory offering for the Nomad.
If Kawasaki wanted the chassis to handle the loads encountered on touring duty, the cockpit was designed solely to maximize rider comfort. The Nomad's seat may be the best long-distance stock seat ever bolted to a cruiser. None of the testers had a complaint about the shape or density of the foam. Only during the last 400 miles of the cross-country blast was our associate editor's hiney noticeably tender -- after three days of all-day, non-stop riding. Kawasaki moved the floorboards rearward 2.6 inches, putting the rider's feet more directly below, which eases the strain on the lower back. While we did find the new floorboard position more comfortable on long rides, the new position made the brake pedal slightly more difficult to cover when riding around town. The floorboard placement also cost the Nomad a bit of ground clearance when compared with the Classic. Still, the Nomad touches down cleanly when the metal initially meets the pavement. But beware, the floorboards' support hardware will drag -- possibly levering a wheel off the ground -- if the warning of scraping metal isn't heeded. Passengers also receive the floorboard treatment. Bolt-on the optional backrest, and passengers will enjoy all-day rides as much as the rider.
Our obnly significant complaint...
Our obnly significant complaint about the Nomad has been the buffeting around your helmet, created by the windshield.
The windshield drew the only consistent complaints about the Nomad. Although the windshield adjusts over two inches of travel -- which should be enough to allow the majority of riders to see over it -- the cockpit suffered from buffeting at elevated speeds. Since our 5-foot-11 transcontinental editor encountered consistent headwinds throughout his trip, he reported that moving the windshield to its highest position worked best for him. He admits he wasn't riding slow (usually about five mph above the 70- to 75-mph speed limit) but even when there was no headwind, his helmet was consistently jostled. Since buffeting wasn't a problem on the pre-production Nomad Friedman rode, we wonder if the difference in turbulence was due to the beading the pre-production bike wore around the edge of its windshield.
On the positive side, the Nomad never misbehaved in the wind, which sometimes gusted as high as 35 to 45 mph. No matter what quadrant the wind originated from, the Nomad tracked true; although gas mileage did suffer in headwinds. The trip low of 23.1 mpg (the trip best of 38.1 mpg was recorded in windless Arizona) occurred while fighting headlong into a consistent 30-mph blow. The windshield lowers delivered a pronounced increase in weather protection compared with bikes sporting a windshield only. On cold mornings, riders can effectively move their legs out of the wind by placing them as close as possible to the engine. Riders who want to ride sans windshield and bracketry, during around-town, hot-weather cruising need only remove eight bolts.
Cast wheels, tubeless tires,...
Cast wheels, tubeless tires, dual discs, a stiffer chassis, and revised steering geometry all contributed to the Nomad's success as a tourer.
As on most of the Nomad, the fit and finish of the windshield are exceptional. The straps on the front and back of the windshield have a mirror-finish. Only when looking closely at the brackets mounted to the stanchions can roughly chromed metal be found. Almost all the bolts visible from the saddle are either chromed or covered with a chrome cap. The polished master cylinders contribute to the shine. The controls, with their wide, adjustable levers, offer good looks and a quality feel as well. The self-canceling turn signals even garnered positive comments from the tester most ardently opposed to such frivolities. Pressing the horn button produces a surprisingly loud noise (finally!) -- enough to startle one tester the first time he had a reason to honk. The paint quality is exceptional, with only a hint of orange peel in a few places. Kawasaki's choices for the two-tone schemes elicited compliments at almost every gas stop.
3/11/98 3:40 P.M.
The temperature was 28 degrees when I left El Paso this morning. Now I'm so hot I stopped, desperate with dehydration. Drank a 20-ounce Gatorade and a half-liter of water, and I'm still thirsty. Started collecting my first insect samples on the windshield after I emerged from behind the cold front. I guess I've got El Nino to thank for the bumper crop of flowers bursting red, orange, and yellow across the desert. Almost rode off the highway while admiring the view. I've never seen a greener spring in the Sonora Desert.