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.
The 1500's old school big-inch grunt provides an engaging way to burn up a Saturday afternoon's worth of meandering two-lane as long as you remember you're dealing with 700 pounds of motorcycle. It takes a concerted effort from the fore and aft disc brakes to stop the Good Ship Vulcan from speed. Too much speed or too many bumps induces enough wallowing and gnashing of floorboards to clench Mr. Sphincter and relax Mr. Throttle Hand.
Weighing in just under 600 pounds, the Shadow maneuvers with considerably less muscle. Its engine throbs less than the 1500, but not everybody will think that's a good thing. While the Honda's venerable offset, dual-crankpin arrangement tricks a shaky 45-degree V-twin into thinking it's a perfectly smooth 90-degree design, power pulses blur into such a nondescript meringue beyond 50 miles per hour, making it tough to say how many cylinders are down there.
Honda's cooperative, sensibly muscular 1099cc twin teams up with good brakes, abundant cornering clearance and an equally obliging chassis to make carving corners fun. You can't fault the Shadow in any practical sense. It builds revs more quickly and motors down the road just as well as the Vulcan. Add bags and a windshield and you could ride the Shadow from L.A. to Orlando with no worries. Smooth? Yes. Comfortable? Practical? Functional? Yes, yes and yes. Inspirational? Hardly.
Meanwhile, nobody would accuse the Suzuki of being too practical. The Marauder's rude-boy visual persona writes a check its hard parts can't cash. The Intruder-derived 805cc, 45-degree twin uses a dual-pin crank to stave off the shakes. Then again, despite smaller cylinders, the Suzuki is not as smooth as the Honda or Kawasakis. Low-rev power is convincing enough. Despite being allegedly stronger than the 800 Intruder down low, the Marauder engine shakes more and signs off sooner in the rev band, canceling what should be two of its best qualities. Handling should be a third strong point, but it isn't. Heavy steering and a potentially dangerous lack of clearance in left-hand corners (credit an appallingly shoddy footpeg/kickstand mount) throws plumes of sparks and a wet blanket over any potential back road chicanery.
This dyno sheet tells only...
This dyno sheet tells only part of the story of how large and small displacement bikes make their power. The Vulcan 1500 FI gets its bottom end grunt from the big slugs in the cylinder, but those pistons also limit maximum engine speed. The 500, on the other hand, has to be revved to make power. Compare the 500's 5250 rpm peak torque with that of the 2750 peak of the 1500. Keep the little Vulcan's rpm above 5000 rpm for maximum scoot. The Classic works just fine at any speed above 2000 rpm. If the 1500's making so much torque down low, why does the 500 whip it off the line? With smaller pistons, the engine can rev quicker to get into the meat of the power band--and there's the 250 pounds of excess weight the 1500 carries.
Despite the nine out of 10 service-station attendants who were sure the V-Star twin packed more, a handful of throttle proves there are only 40 cubic-inches in there. Opening the throttle in fourth gear at 40 miles per hour or so triggers a few seconds of Lilliputian V-twin thunder, but little in the way of acceleration. Compliant suspension and solid brakes make casual curvy road pursuits enjoyableas long as you're in no particular hurry.
Although it's hardly the Yamaha's strong suit, performance is adequate for a solo, 150-pound rider up to around 70 miles per hour. Still, your eyes can get really big passing trucks two-up. Beyond that, vibration gets nasty enough to numb your feet, despite its nifty new-for-2001 floorboards. In this case, style is no substitute for sizeexcept maybe rpm.
In the Vulcan 500's case, a revvy, twin-cam parallel twin passes for much more in the acceleration department. If the twin pillars of frugality and practicality outweigh low-rev, V-twin emotional fulfillment in your book, the smallest Vulcan wins any small-bore war. The 500's ability to run off and hide from bikes three times its size on Jalama Beach Road provides the overachieving little twin with some measure of recompense.
Headed toward dinner and a warm bed on a mercifully open stretch of the Ventura Freeway, the big bikes reestablish order. Two-up or solo, the big Vulcan's power, legroom and plush suspension make it the king of the four lane. Its five-gallon fuel tank lasts approximately 215 miles on the freeway; enough for extended interstate cruising with a windshield and bags. Though it's slightly less plush and feels less powerful, the Honda was much more accommodating and confidence-inspiring to our smaller riders. Averaging upward of 51 miles per gallon on the freeway, a careful throttle hand can wring 210 miles from the Shadow's 4.2-gallon fuel supply, although our tallest rider couldn't sit out a stretch like that comfortably. Suspension compliance is excellent, vibration is not an issue at legal speeds and there's plenty of power for passing.
The Yamaha's 649cc twin comes up short on passing power, and its too-soft seat earned underwhelming reviews. Still, the overachieving little twin can put upward of 170 miles between gas stops (unless it's packing a passenger in the wake of four bigger bikes). Suspension compliance is surpassingly good on the freeway, and the riding position stayed comfy up through our 6-foot tester. Still, bigger people will prefer a bigger bike.
Unhappily, the Marauder was nobody's choice for extended highway work. With its difficult-to-adjust shocks set one click from full-soft, suspension was comfortable enough. However, narrow bars and too-high pegs relative to the too-hard seat induce perpetual fidgeting from the first on-ramp. The pegs were far enough away for our 5-foot individual to make keeping her boots planted on the pegs a losing proposition. Nobody, while riding the Marauder, complained when its 3.4-gallon fuel tankthe smallest of the groupenforced stops every 140 miles.
Buzzing along happily like the little brother who always insists on hounding the big kids, the Vulcan 500 proved a willing superslab companion. If you're under 5-feet-8-inches and can do without the V-twin shuffle playing down below, the six-speed gearbox drops revs and vibes to a level below what you'd find on the V-Star or Marauder. The stepped seat proved more comfortable than either of those bikes.
Factor the whole V-twin style issue out of the deal and few bikes deliver a bigger bang-to-buck ratio than the 500 Vulcan. On the downside, there's the care and feeding of a potentially messy drive chain to contend with, and the eight valves to adjust in that Ninja 500-derived engine. Still, if (relatively) cheap, efficient, stone-reliable basic transportation is more important than inspiring vehicular lust at Chuy's Taco Hut on a Saturday afternoon, and the size of your monthly payment matters most, nothing in this group beats the Vulcan 500.
If style matters, but your personal dimensions and/or bank balances come up short of true bigness, the V-Star is a compromise that gives up little but power and acceleration. The Yamaha passes for twice its size from 30 feet away. Up close, amenities such as comfy rider floorboards and a heel/toe shifter (new for 2001), self-canceling turn signals and shaft drive belie the Star's price tag. If you're under 6-feet tall and prefer V-twin style and balance, the V-Star is tough to beat.
On paper, the Marauder should be as tough as it looks. That tastefully belligerent '70s drag bike styling was actually starting to grow on us for awhile. Its $5949 sticker price buys a lot of motorcycle. Unfortunately, for our money anyway, the Marauder is a bike with too many unresolved issues in a market full of well-adjusted alternatives. You needn't leave the Suzuki showroom to find one, however; the 800 Intruder is streets ahead of the Marauder for only $350 more.
Moving up the Richter scale, if you dig '80s styling, Honda's Shadow Spirit has more do-it-all practicality than just about any cruiser on the road. It's strong, anvil-reliable and easy to own, thanks to niceties such as shaft drive and self-adjusting valves. That seamless competence enforces a character that, for some of us, borders on bland. If you're not one of 'em, and prefer basic black (as opposed to our $8299, two-tone rig) it'd be hard to find more motorcycle in anybody's showroom for $7999.
But with the roads ridden, notes noted, arguments argued and the bikes sitting there making those snap-crackle-and-pop cooling-off noises with another perfect Pacific Ocean sunset in the background (hey, there has to be some sort of payoff for dealing with this traffic!), the results are in. For those with the cash and the inseam to deal themselves in, size does matter. Bigger is better. Cubic inches count. You get the picture.
Back before Harley met Davidson and Fred met Barney, nothing beat The Big Stick, if you could swing it. Heading into a dizzyingly bullish 2001 cruiser market, that truth remains. Nothing here beats the Vulcan's 88 cubic inches. And the $10,799 you'll lay down for a 2001 1500 FI (identical to our 2000 model save paint and an easier-access fork lock) buys more than 85 foot-pounds of torque at 2500 rpm.
The bigger twin's admission price buys more good stuff than you'll find on downsized cruisers. From nifty chrome collars that adjust shock preload without tools to an LED odometer/tripmeter/clock in the tank top instrument array, a brilliant reflector-type headlight, hydraulic valve-lash adjusters and adjustable handlebar levers, Vulcan 1500 FI amenities are the best of this bunch.
Beyond that, this little exercise tells us the place size matters most is in the size of a buyer's guide that gets bigger every year. There are more new bikes out there in our slice of the market than anywhere else. Even if the big Vulcan doesn't fit your budget or inseam, something out there will. If there's better news than that, we haven't heard it yet.
As a 51-year-old, 5'10", 150-pound rider I currently own and ride a 1997 Yamaha 535 Virago, which by most standards barely qualifies as a middleweight. Shaft drive, combined with the simplicity of a proven and reliable V-twin air-cooled engine, good handling (for a cruiser), a 3.6 gallon fuel capacity, 400-pound dry weight on a 60-inch wheelbase and 28-inch seat height is a pretty good package. It will cruise comfortably at 70 mph, get close to 50 mpg, out-accelerate the Honda Shadow 600 and both Yamaha V-Star 650s and isn't more than a second behind some 1500s.
Each time I test-drive a larger bike, I always ask the same question: What are you really getting for the extra money? Sure you get more horsepower, a longer wheelbase, some added creature comforts and a bigger fuel tank, but all those features are offset by more weight, lower fuel economy, higher insurance costs and rather minor differences in performance and handling. You don't need to push around a 700-pound behemoth to enjoy the essence of the motorcycling experience.
I love my 1999 V-Star 650 and I'm comfortable on it even though I'm 6'2" and 285 pounds. I have 16,000 miles on it already. The 1950s wannabe Harley-Davidson Softail look is very cool, and I think my green/white paint scheme is the prettiest non-custom two-tone I've ever seen. The bike barely breaks 500 pounds, but routinely is mistaken for 1200cc or higher...and it even has a throaty sound. It's easy to manage and has decent power under 80 mph.
However, it does fall miserably short over 80 mph, gets only 40 mpg (I expected more) and the manual says not to exceed 398 pounds. So that means to be within spec, I can really only take small children for rides.
Floyd "Flyboy" Petty
San Francisco, California
I feel so many people get caught up in the bigger-is-better syndrome that they don't see the forest for the trees. I believe that a person can enjoy motorcycling on any size bike. One big reason I chose a Vulcan 750 is ease of maintenance...and it was the best dollar value, even though I could afford an 1100 or 1500.
My wife and I tour regularly on our 750 Magna and always have a wonderful time. Last summer, we took two weeks off and covered just less than 5000 miles! [The Magna] doesn't feel small, and it's definitely not underpowered. I like the look of some of the new, big V-twin-powered cruisers, but not their prices. It seems like you're paying more for status than performance. My Magna goes like hell! Bigger isn't better, but it's always more expensive.
Tim Carrithers: Weighing in on this whole size issue gets easier when you nudge the bathroom scale past 200 pounds. At 6-feet-3-inches and 211 pounds with a 35-inch inseam, small bikes offer more opportunity for public humiliation and chiropractic adjustments. From where I sit, a little V-twin has the same dissonant, oxymoronic ring of big Japanese V-twins a decade ago.
Back in the bad olde days, a metric twin was another way of saying you didn't have enough cash or good taste to own a Harley-Davidson. On a certain xenophobic yardstick, it still is. But for the more open-minded among us, the new fuel-injected Vulcan 1500 has nothing to do with concession. It's just another viable, practical way to scratch your itch for big-inch cool.
Art Friedman: Since we Americans are carefully trained to believe that bigger is truly better, I assume most riders would prefer a bigger-inch motorcycle if it fit them and their wallets. The bigger, pricier cruisers generally offer certain enticements, including a better finish, more room and perhaps more amenities. However, as this group demonstrates, they do not necessarily provide more performance.
So, you want a big bike, but it won't happen because of the lack of depth to your bank account or the length of your inseam, what do you do? Well, what are the key attractions of that big, expensive bike? If it was finish quality and roominess, save four grand and shorten the reach to the ground with the V-Star Classicthe stand-out, classically-styled cruiser under 1000cc. If you seek performance, the Vulcan 500, Virago 535, Magna 750, Intruder 800 and Spirit 1100 serve up plenty for less money and weight. And don't ignore the Intruder 1400, which requires a much smaller chunk of change than bikes of comparable cubes.
The Vulcan 500 or the V-Star both suited me fine for a long haul solo, but were a bit overworked with a passenger. The real issue isn't displacement, however; the bike in the middle of our displacement range, the Marauder, was the least satisfying for me by almost any measure.
One final observation: Even tiny riders probably can learn to handle a large cruiser. The Vulcan FI was larger than any bike Sugi had ridden previously, yet she was quickly comfortable aboard itexcept when she had to make a tight turn in a narrow place. She was more skilled than most riders with two years experience, but you are probably bigger than her.
Jamie Elvidge: Bikes don't need to be big to be fun to ride. They do need to suit your style, your budget and your body. Watching Sugi, however, reminded me that there's a big window for the body fit factor. Confidence and training are definitely more important than any physical measurements. With that said, I believe people smaller in stature actually have an advantage when shopping for a motorcycle. It's the tall folks, or those long in the leg like me (and Tim), who are likely to hit limits on the comfort side of things. A shorter person can compensate with skill, or any number of modifications to a bike. For example, the simple addition of a narrower seat on the Vulcan 1500 would have put Sugi's feet on the ground. I, on the other hand, would have to mount highway pegs on the front fender of the Vulcan 500 to get a good stretch.
Aside from long-range comfort issues, the smaller Vulcan won me over. After our group ride I went exploring and wound up on a steep, snaking dirt roadlittle more than a goat path, really. And without a second thought I kept going. Would I have continued on the 1500? Probably not. It would have felt like a bus in comparisona big, shiny, expensive bus. But then again, if I'd been on the 1500 at Starbucks that night I probably wouldn't have blushed when the barista asked me what I was riding.
Sugi Wong: As a shorter person (5-feet even, 100 pounds, with a 25-inch inseam) used to riding sportbikes, the cruisers were definitely a unique experience. I'm glad I had the opportunity to ride a large range of them for my first experience.
My favorite overall was the Honda Shadow Spirit 1100, because it seemed the best combination of handling, comfort and power. This bike just worked, and it was an absolute blast to ride. The Yamaha V-Star 650 was a close second because it was good-looking, light in weight and by far the shortest of the bikesbut it could use an improvement in power. The Vulcan 1500 was the most luxurious in terms of comfort, but the sheer weight and reach to the ground made the bike unfeasible for me. The Vulcan 500 was a good bike, but there was nothing extraordinary about it. And then there was the Suzuki Marauder... I'd never met a bike I didn't like, until this one!
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic FI
Suggested base price: $10,799
Wet weight: 727 lb.
GVWR: 1120 lb.
Seat height: 27.6 in.
Inseam equivalent: 34.0 in.
Handlebar width: 32.25 in.
Wheelbase: 65.6 in.
Overall length: 98.6 in.
Rake/trail: 32 degrees / 6.4 in.
Fuel capacity: 5.0 gal.
Fuel mileage: 42.8 mpg
Quarter-mile acceleration: 14.07 sec., 92 mph
Engine type: Liquid-cooled, 50-degree V-twin
Final drive: Shaft
Front suspension: 41mm stanchions, 5.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: 2 dampers, 3.4 in. travel, adjustments for air pressure and rebound damping
Honda Shadow Spirit 1100
Suggested base price: $7999
Wet weight: 592 lb.
GVWR: 957 lb.
Seat height: 28.5 in.
Inseam equivalent: 32.5 in.
Handlebar width: 31.25 in.
Wheelbase: 65 in.
Overall length: 94.5 in.
Rake/trail: 32 degrees / 6.0 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gal.
Fuel mileage: 42.5 mpg
Quarter-mile acceleration: 13.86 sec., 94.1 mph
Engine type: Liquid-cooled, 45-degree V-twin
Final drive: Shaft
Front suspension: 41mm stanchions, 6.3 in. travel
Rear suspension: 2 shocks, 3.9 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Suzuki Marauder 800
Suggested base price: $5999
Wet weight: 482 lb.
GVWR: 945 lb.
Seat height: 27.5 in.
Inseam equivalent: 31.6 in.
Handlebar width: 28.5 in.
Wheelbase: 64.8 in.
Overall length: 95.0 in.
Rake/trail: 35 degrees / 5.7 in.
Fuel capacity: 3.4 gal.
Fuel mileage: 41.8 mpg
Quarter-mile acceleration: 14.14 sec., 87.8 mph
Engine type: Liquid-cooled, 45-degree V-twin
Front suspension: 41mm stanchions, 5.0 in. travel
Rear suspension: 2 dampers, 4.0 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Yamaha V-Star Classic 650
Suggested base price: $5899
Wet weight: 530 lb.
GVWR: 976 lb.
Seat height: 28 in.
Inseam equivalent: 31.5 in.
Handlebar width: 34.7 in.
Wheelbase: 64.8 in.
Overall length: 97.0 in.
Rake/trail: 35 degrees / 5.7 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.3 gal.
Fuel mileage: 40.1 mpg
Quarter-mile acceleration: 15.91 sec., 80.4 mph
Engine type: Air-cooled, 70-degree V-twin
Final drive: Shaft
Front suspension: 41mm stanchions, 5.5 in. travel
Rear suspension: 1 damper, 3.9 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTD
Suggested base price: $4699
Wet weight: 477 lb.
GVWR: 573 lb.
Seat height: 27.6 in.
Inseam equivalent: 31.0 in.
Handlebar width: 28.3 in.
Wheelbase: 62.8 in.
Overall length: 91.3 in.
Rake/trail: 33 degrees / 5.9 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.0 gal.
Fuel mileage: 48.9 mpg
Quarter-mile acceleration: 15.03 sec., 87.5 mph
Engine type: Liquid-cooled parallel twin
Final drive: Chain
Front suspension: 41mm stanchions, 5.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: 2 dampers, 3.8 in. travel, adjustable for preload