Big V-twins have captured America's heart. We have long loved big cruisers with the style and sound of a thundering twin down in the engine room. The best-selling streetbike in America for the last two years has been Harley's Fat Boy, which sold in excess of 12,000 examples in 1998. Kawasaki's Vulcan 1500 Classic is its best seller. Suzuki's most popular cruiser is its bigger big twin, the Intruder 1500 LC, displacing the still-popular Intruder 1400 which lost only a few hundred sales in '98 with the 1500's arrival.
With big twins experiencing this kind of success, you can see why Polaris' Victory motorcycle brand entered the market with a big V-twin, the 1507cc V92C. Excelsior-Henderson is doing the same with its 1386cc Super X. It also explains Harley's decision to make the huge investment needed to create a new and bigger V-twin, the 1450cc Twin Cam 88, despite the ongoing runaway success of its 1340cc Evolution V-twin. And it's almost a surprise that Yamaha waited until 1999 to introduce its new 1600cc V-twin in the Road Star.
The last time (February '97) we compared big V-twins (those displacing more than 1300cc), we could only find five bikes from three brands. This time we had 10 model families from five manufacturers and there was an additional manufacturer, Excelsior-Henderson, who chose not to participate.
Harley and Kawasaki each served up three bikes. We asked for one from each of Harley's three pure-cruiser families. The best-selling FLSTF Fat Boy represented the Evolution-powered Softail series. We asked for the first new model powered by the new Twin Cam (a.k.a. Fathead) engine, the FXDX Dyna Super Glide Sport. And since Harley is making a special run of Evo-powered FXRs this year, we asked for one of them -- an FXR2.
Kawasaki's Vulcan 1500 Classic was our testers' choice after our last big-twin roundup. It is back. We also brought back the Vulcan 88, the original Kawasaki 1500. And by riding it back from Kawasaki's introduction in Florida, we were able to get the brand-new, fuel-injected, ultraretro-style Drifter to the West Coast in time to join the fun.
Suzuki's powerful Intruder 1400 was around for our 1997 big twins adventure, but it has been improved with a fifth speed. And of course, it brought along its new-for-'98 family member, the 1500.
Victory and Yamaha offer one big-twin, straight-cruiser model each -- the V92C and the Road Star, respectively. Although new, both impressed us very positively during testing for recent issues.
If turning heads when you appear on the boulevard on Saturday night is important, two bikes stand out here. Harley's FXR2 looks like a well-done custom with its full complement of matched billet items and pretty color. Kawasaki's Drifter always attracted attention with its unique retro styling, although the subdued burgundy color and the obvious stick-on nature of the pinstriping on the ABS fenders took some of the edge off. The Road Star consistently received compliments for appearance too, as did the Vulcan Classic. The bright blue of the Victory and the new red and white of the 1500 LC drew more positive attention than the versions of those bikes we have tested previously. However, we still heard criticism on the details of both bikes. You either love or hate the style of the FXDX, particularly the heavy use of black and wrinkle finish. The Intruder 1400 also either worked for you or looked dated. Most felt the Vulcan 1500A looked badly out of style; our testers gave it low marks in the looks department. We were surprised at what a lukewarm reception the Fat Boy received, considering its popularity with buyers. Maybe it's just too familiar to attract much attention, or maybe with the Suzuki 1500 lurking nearby, it suddenly looks kind of svelte.
We spent a few days riding the 10 big twins together up California's Route 1, and in the process we were able to compare their comfort levels. Comfort is a highly personal thing. Different bikes fit different builds. Riders have different reactions to vibration, prefer different riding positions or like certain handlebar shapes.
We were therefore surprised so many riders rated the Yamaha tops for comfort and most others rated it in the top three. A great saddle, thoroughly tamed vibration, suspension that absorbs most road shocks, and a riding position that suited most riders made the Road Star a favorite on extended rides.
The riding position of the Classic got the most praise. Many riders said the bike seemed to have been laid out for them. The Victory, Yamaha and Drifter were close behind for most riders. The Victory in particular seemed to suit a wide range of riders and it garnered high comfort ratings from both short and tall riders.
Riders and passengers judged the Drifter's saddle the most comfortable. Although it feels overly soft at first, the staffer who rode the Drifter to the West Coast from Florida said it never got hard. The wide saddle of the big Intruder also seduced some riders and was rated second best by passengers, while other pilots rated the Classic or Yamaha seat as the very best.
Passengers liked the Drifter's large grab rail, which offered a more secure hold than anything on the other bikes. The backrests of the Vulcan 88 and the Intruder 1400 -- and to a lesser extent the FXR2 -- also added to passenger security.
Most riders rated the Fat Boy, FXR2 and Intruder 1400 at the bottom of the comfort spectrum. The Fat Boy generated the most vibration and offered nothing special in terms of position and saddle density to compensate. The FXR2 saddle was narrow and thin and got uncomfortable on long rides. Except for shorter riders, the Intruder 1400 fell out of favor on long rides because of its narrow saddle and narrow pulled-back bar. Although the Vulcan 88 seems to offer similar ergonomics, most riders said it was substantially more comfortable than the Intruder 1400. A few riders also complained about the FXDX riding position, which puts the main footpegs rearward and higher than the other bikes. However, a few riders listed this as an asset of the bike.
Although tall riders found the stretched-out riding position of the big Intruder quite agreeable, shorter riders felt it was simply too big, even if they liked the saddle. The wide handlebar and distant footrests made the bike awkward and uncomfortable for them. Our smallest rider had a similar remark about the Road Star.
Except for the Fat Boy, vibration was not an issue on these bikes. Whether it was stopped by rubber mounting (FXDX and FXR2), by engine design (the Suzukis and Yamaha) or by counterbalancers (the Kawasakis and Victory), vibration rarely showed up. Where it did arrive, changing engine speed a few hundred rpm dissipated the buzz. The Intruder 1400, at about 2860 rpm, is spinning about 300 to 600 rpm faster than the others at 60 mph. This makes it feel a bit busier than the others on the open road.