Photography by Kevin Wing...
Bigger is better. From the beginning, no phrase has been stamped as powerfully into the billet of the internal combustion experience. From Big Bang to Big Block to Big Mac to Big Twin, status, strength and the indescribable feel of a perfect trip through the gears on a Saturday night has been measured (largely) in cubic inches.
Peel away that protective layer of political correctness, and the truth stares back at you. Face it. Size matters, although not always in the most conspicuous sense. For many, the size of a checking account or the length of an inseam can outweigh that ache for the biggest twin on the block. What then?
No worries, boys and girls. Thanks to modern technology and the seemingly insatiable demand for neo-retro cruiser chic, the majors are cranking them out in denominations from a quarter-liter to a liter-and-a-half and more. So, are big pistons the keys to boulevard bliss? What's it like to live with small ones?
To answer these and other questions, we rounded up a representative quintet of bikes from 500cc to 1500cc. Then we rounded up riders from 6-feet-3-inches to 5-feet-nothing, and headed northwest up the California coast toward Solvanga beloved ersatz-Dutch tourist trap. Home of faux windmills, calorific pastry, multitudinous Oldsmobuicks wearing Modern Maturity bumper stickers and cranky octogenarians in Sans-a-Belt slacks.
At the top of our five-bike food chain is Kawasaki's new-for-2000 Vulcan 1500 Classic FI, pushing its 727 pounds (wet) with the latest iteration of Kawasaki's highly-regarded counterbalanced, 1470cc, tandem V-twin. Next is Honda's $8299 Shadow Spirit, moved by a judiciously-enhanced, five-speed version of the firm's venerable 1099cc, offset-crankpin V-twin and weighing in at 592 pounds (wet). Moving toward the middleweight arena, the Marauder is a retuned version of Suzuki's familiar Intruder 800 engine with chain final drive in place of the Intruder's shaft, and semi-menacing drag bike looks deposing the Intruder's cleaner lines. More attractive still is the Marauder's $5949 price tag. Although impersonating a bigger twin from a distance, Yamaha's $5899 V-Star Classic pushes its 530 pound (wet) weight with a 649cc, 70 degree V-twin, which sends power through a five-speed gearbox and shaft final drive. Representing the less-is-more faction, Kawasaki's Vulcan 500 Ltd. is the lightest bike here at 477 pounds (wet)the lightest and least expensive at $4699. It's also the only cruiser here with cylinders parked next door to each other instead of the fashionably charismatic V formation.
Shaped by each bike's mix of hard parts and style, individual personalities emerge before the engines are turned over. There's the Vulcan 500's entry-level homage to the days before Japan Inc. cruised to V-twin power. Then, the V-Star: Yamaha's eerily accurate 34-scale interpretation of big-bike style. The Marauder is Suzuki's engagingly chunky midsized budget bad ass. Next is Honda's tribute to '80s chic: The Artist Formerly Known as the Shadow 1100, a.k.a. the Shadow Spirit. At the top is Kawasaki's way of saying size does matter and who cares how they do it in Milwaukee, the Vulcan 1500 FI.
We could go on for hours about the hard parts, but introducing various quantities of the human element is what makes things interesting. For example, if you're 5-feet tall, it's best to discover you can't reach the Marauder's sidestand before everybody else gets on the freeway. And if you're 6-foot-3? Tamping yourself onto the V-Star after taking delivery of a 25-ounce T-bone (medium rare, with cowboy potatoes, a side of broccoli, black beans and a root beer float) invites a gastrointestinal phenomenon known as the round-trip meal ticket, followed by uncontrolled laughter from small children in restaurant parking lots.
Like most modern motorcycles, this group is mostly obliging in the morning. The V-Star and Intruder are a little asthmatic when cold, as is the Marauder, especially next to a fuel-injected Vulcan, which incites its duo of coffee-can sized pistons with all the drama of clicking on the Mr. Coffee. The biggest engine of the group somehow manages to combine all the expediency of modern digital engine management with the soul of a '40s twin: a fusion financed by the big Vulcan's five-figure price tag.
Breakfast in Ventura, California, means running the gauntlet of (barely) moving mayhem called the Greater Los Angeles freeway system, where agility and discretion are key. Less weight beats more power on Interstate 405 North at 8:22 a.m. If you're 5-foot-10 or under, the Vulcan 500 and the V-Star are the easiest to live with. Compact ergonomics on both bikes folded our 6-foot-3-inch tester into Chapter 6 from Yoga 101, while his 5-foot collaborator was most secure. Sub-6-footers will forget the 500 is a small bikeat least until adding a passenger reminds them...
The Yamaha's wide bars can be awkward in tight traffic. Still, the bike's light, accurate slow-speed steering and lowest seat height of the bunch made the V-Star our smallest tester's urban favorite. The Star's relatively crisp carburetion and plush suspension showed up on the positive side of every tester's urban checklist.
Floppy slow-speed steering, a grabby clutch and spastic off-idle carburetion didn't win the Marauder any popularity contests around town. Meanwhile, everyone (from our smallest tester up) lauded the Honda's urban dexterity. Everything from the controls to carburetion to the riding position and an eerie lack of vibrationby V-twin standardsdisplay Honda's typically seamless character. A 592-pound motorcycle that responds this fluently to a 100-pound woman proves Honda did its homework.
Although its 27.6-inch seat is marginally lower than the 500 Vulcan's, the 1500's extra saddle girth can make for high-anxiety urban maneuvering if you're 60 inches tall, spotting it nearly 600 pounds. Even those odds a bit and everyone from our 5-foot-8-inch, 150-pound tester on up opted for the 1500 Vulcan's persuasive engine, massive physical presence and posh ride over the smaller bikes.
Here's the deal: If the feeling of two big pistons shoving you down the road is the target, nothing here matches the big Vulcan because that's exactly what's happening. It displaces more than everything from the V-Star down with one 45-cubic-inch cylinder tied behind its back. A gear-driven balancer squelches the sort of vibration that threatens dental work, letting you feel a sustainable level of big-inch ecstasy and letting you know you're not on, say, a Shadow Spirit.