Photography by Kevin Wing...
Nineteen thirty-nine was a good year for motorcycles. Indian Motocycles ruled the roost with big twins that sprouted beautifully overgrown fenders and acres of floorboards. And these didn't ooze much chrome at all, similar to the bike here. You know where Kawasaki found those impossibly full-figured curves and why this 800 had to have floorboards. And the angled, cantilevered seat looks like it must have been fashioned in some distant sprung-saddled past. But if you turn the key, the twin jugs grunt to life instantly with the prod of a button, not a leap on a kickstart lever, and with nary a belch. And if you yank on the front brake lever, a squeal from the tire tells you that you have a disc brake to contend with now. Though this imposter might look like a crotchety old Indian, it undeniably feels like a modern Kawasaki.
You can trace the Drifter's style to the Indians of the late 1930s and early 1940s--you know, the Indians everyone thinks of when they think "Indian." Tapping into that nostalgic nerve seemed sure to make a big splash in the cruiser pond; Kawasaki accomplished that when it unleashed the ultra-retro styled 1500 Drifter in 1999. For the end of the 20th century, Kawasaki has seen fit to wade into the increasingly popular cruiser middleweight class, with an additional model--the midsized Vulcan 800 Drifter. And the ripples are beginning again....
The Drifter brings a disc...
The Drifter brings a disc rear brake to Kawasaki's 800s. Standing-room-only space considerations in the back prompted this sly, upside down suspended brake caliper. It keeps things lean and in place, without compromising the low hardtail look.
Though we haven't seen it on these shores before, the 800 Drifter's been cruising European cobblestones for more than a year. Kawasaki apparently felt the Euros would be much more appreciative of a smaller-displacement model right out of the crate. We have no complaints, because it looks like that year was put to good use in refining the Stateside version--we're glad Kawasaki gave us smarmy Yanks a second chance.
Kawasaki's stab at a smaller stylistic exercise is well-executed, and not surprisingly, well-priced. At $7299, it's not the budget bike for its class, but then that's probably the point. Like the bigger Drifter, the 800 flaunts luxurious pre-war styling with full, sweeping fenders and a blacked-out finish on the fork, jugs and much of the metalwork. And while both have V-twin engines with similar liquid-cooling systems, the similarities mostly end there.
For one thing, the 800's more attractive. The rear end, for instance, is better served with the design of the 800's triangulated, single-shock swingarm, which more effectively conceals the rear shock for a hardtail sleight-of-hand. The 1500's twin shocks and taller seat interrupt the unique curves of the Drifter concept. The 800's underlying design embraces the overall design more concisely.
The Vulcan 800 Drifter also shares a similar double cradle frame with its Vulcan 800 and 800 Classic stablemates, but lest you think the Drifter is a pile of exquisite bodywork on the back of a Classic, know that it's also a significantly modified skeleton. For example, the frame is lengthened in the steering head for 31.5 degrees of rake and 6.2 inches of trail, and the downtubes are substantially beefed up for more structural strength. The result is a stable, solid ride with responsive steering and sure tracking. The Drifter's shoes are the same as the Classic's; 16-inch wheels, each with 48 shiny spokes arrayed within chromed steel rims, and shod with Bridgestone rubber.
The single-carb intake system,...
The single-carb intake system, rather than fuel injection, is one significant difference 'twixt the 800 Drifter and its 1500 sibling. This bike's choke control is very accessible, though.
The bike isn't intimidating, either. The cantilevered dual seat is a user-friendly 28.9 inches off the ground, and if you're vertically challenged like I am, you'll cackle when you see your feet planted on terra firma. The seat is initially comfortable, though it tends to close in on your butt on longer hauls. A popular complaint among testers was that the saddle didn't extend deeply enough and the stepped back portion of the seat didn't allow one ample room to slide back. The seat was the single factor that kept taller riders from having much fun with this pretty middleweight for very long. Passengers will appreciate a grab rail curving along the back of the saddle, however. This steel bar also has a black finish, subtly adding yet another prewar styling touch.
Taller riders be damned--my 5-foot-7-inch mass, in fact, settled nicely onto the floorboards (placed just where you want them if you're five-foot-seven) from the seat, and rider ergonomics were generally comfortable. The handlebar width was a relaxed 33 inches wide, and the low rise of the bar allowed for an easy grip without stretching, with good access to all controls and steering inputs. The steering, in fact, is much better than I expected, and better than the bigger Drifter. Though initiating a turn required a bit of muscle, the bike tracked solidly after that, and responded obediently in the turns.
All that bodywork actually handled pretty well in the tight stuff, and the bike seemed quite happy at speed. It was when we really started pushing the lean angle that things got noisy. When you crank the bike over into a turn, the grinding sound you hear is a floorboard scratching asphalt. Since the Drifter is the only one of Kawasaki's 800s to carry floorboards--and it carries them low--chances are you will get to hear that sound. (As one tester pointed out, the "floorboards are literally the lowest point of this bike".) I liked the floorboards, especially on longer rides, and didn't feel they interfered too much with the feel of this ride. They will, however, make you think twice about carving tight arcs on curving roads with the smaller Drifter. That is unfortunate, because the rest of the bike seems quite amenable to such tomfoolery.
A look under the seat reveals a powerful, uncluttered 805cc V-twin--the same single-overhead-cammed heart that beats in the Vulcan 800 and 800 Classic, tuned a bit softer--with cylinders painted a rough-cast black. The 55-degree V-twin is arranged like a still life in the engine bay, with the air cleaner cover acting as a chrome bull's-eye, and the blacked-out cylinders, fins and all, retreating into the background. The heads are polished metal, and under those shiny covers are four valves per cylinder, gulping big breaths of air for better power and torque.
Starting this motorcycle is a simple proposition. Simply drop your left arm behind the rear cylinder and it will find the ignition switch all by itself. The choke knob is above the switch, and though you might have to search for it, you will need it--this Drifter is carbureted and fairly cold-blooded. Early morning starts require some warm-up to get it into full song, but once it gets going, the going's very good; power delivery from the 805cc mill is righteous and smooth.
Taller riders wished for more...
Taller riders wished for more room to slide rearward on the saddle. The black passenger grab rail is a nice nostalgic touch.
The bike starts humming nicely at as you approach the rev limit, and progresses linearly up to that point. A pleasant, articulated exhaust cadence emanates from the graceful 2-into-1 fishtail muffler, and a gear-driven engine balancer and rubber front engine mount smooth out any shakiness inherent in a single-crankpin V-twin. While you can tell the engine is rumbling beneath you, vibration never intrudes. Though the Drifter has a larger radiator than its 800 brethren, (a feature you'll appreciate on spirited summer runs) judicious use of black paint keeps it relatively hidden in its cozy location between the lower frame tubes.
The 800 Drifter looks muscular, and certainly has the low-end torque to back it up. Power is crisp and efficient throughout the rpm range--the throttle response from the lone 36mm Keihin carb is quick and is delivered smoothly, thanks to an accelerator pump. And while the midrange seems a touch lean, it's nothing a heavy hand won't cure. I even felt the 800 was quicker and revved better than the 1500 at times. If you think you have to whack the throttle with more authority than the injected 1500 Drifter, that just makes you feel like you're going faster on the 800!
Shifting proved to be smooth and positive, with a light pull and progressive clutch engagement. We found little evidence of lash, and the bike executed every shift flawlessly. The Drifter is geared perfectly for urban acceleration off traffic lights, and the gearing is tall enough to give you enough oomph for highway passes. And if you can't get neutral on this motorcycle, you shouldn't be riding--Kawasaki's exclusive neutral finder feature automatically dumps you into neutral from first gear, every time you shift up at a stop.
The fishtail-type muffler...
The fishtail-type muffler design is another nostalic cue.
The fenders, of course, are what people notice first, and they draw the most comments. The strong, rigid plastic pieces cover much of the traditional spoked wheels, and the front fender wraps and conceals the front brake caliper and much of the disc. The rear end, though, is where all the fuss is focussed. As we mentioned earlier, the 800 Drifter one-ups the 1500 in the booty department, thanks to a triangulated swingarm and flawlessly hidden suspension. The fender mounts to the swingarm for a low-profile look. On the 800, however, the single shock blends with the wrap-around rear fender for a sleek, clean hardtail look, allowing the 800 to wear the retro bit more gracefully than the 1500's clunky dual dampers. That single shock is also preload adjustable--and the preload collar is now on the bottom of the shock for convenience. Kawasaki's suspension uses a cam-type spring preload adjuster, so you can easily dial in your setting. We rarely found any need to recalibrate, as bumps were absorbed admirably, and road-holding ability was on track. The Drifter claims to use stiffer springs than in its two 800s cousins, in both the front fork and the rear shock; while we never compared the bikes head to head, the Drifter's stability was impressive.
Kawasaki employs chain drive on its 800s to keep cost down and the rear end skinny. The rear brake caliper hangs from the swingarm for the latter reason. This bit of trickery allowed the new rear brake disc to be hidden beneath the fender while the caliper does its work unobtrusively. And the twin-piston rear disc holds its own. Chances are you won't need it much, since the front twin-piston disc provides considerable stopping power.
As with the bigger Drifter, the 800 incorporates cool pre-war styling cues that made the big Drifter a head-turner. A deep black headlight shell with a chromed rim, blacked out fork covers, turn signal stalks, handlebar, triple clamp, cylinders and rear fender rails are just some of the items that stand out. See, chrome didn't really start dripping all over motorcycles until recently. But the Drifter is not just form and no function. Self-canceling turn signals allow you to push a single switch for ease of operation. A new multi-plane headlight looks impressive and provides a brighter, more directed beam. A locking gas cap adorns the tank top, and the blacked out instrument cluster adds a nostalgic touch, especially since it still uses entirely analog instrumentation. A document compartment under the left side cover provides a perfect glove box for your registration or other important papers.
The smallest Drifter comes in two colors, mind you: a metallic beige and a sky blue. The sky blue better captures the feel of older Indians (it was a stock color for the '41 Scout), but it left me feeling like I was on a Martha Stewart custom--read: dainty. I'll gladly take the "disco metal hue," as one tester called it. The bulbous gas tank holds a reasonable 4.0 gallons, like its 800 and 800 Classic cousins, for good range between gas stops. Subtle pinstriping (which is stuck, not painted, on to the bodywork) emphasizes the bike's exaggerated curves and carries out the lines well. A graceful, well-fashioned 2-into-1 fat fishtail muffler, created especially for the Drifter, outdoes Indian's old toothpick design on the early Chiefs. It provides a solid throb and adds a nice horizontal emphasis to the bike's length.
In the end, the mini-Drifter proves to be a fine all-around bike, well turned out and a more than competent performer. The bike goes fast, brakes well and handles wonderfully. We even think it's fairly priced. Ideally, we'd probably change the seat on it (a solo seat would not only be more comfortable, but also it'd look much sharper and closer to form of prewar bikes). And we're not too crazy about the chain drive, because it adds to maintenance and mess. But we understand the cost and design considerations Kawasaki was under. No matter--looking the way it does, we suspect the 800 Drifter will be enlisted for many tours of boulevard duty. Which is okay too--if you got it, why not flaunt it? And the 800 has much more attractive lines to flaunt than the bigger version. When you factor in its more responsive handling, you know why we'll take the 800 Drifter over the 1500 on most days. Bigger ain't always better.
The blue color you see on...
The blue color you see on this Drifter was an original stock color on circa-1940s Indian Scouts. We would've liked to have the wire-spoke wheels blacked out as they were in the 1930s.
Suggested base price: $7,299
Engine type: Liquid-cooled, 55-degree V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke: 805cc, 88 x 66mm
Transmission: Wet, multiplate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Chain, 2.35:1
Rake/trail: 31.5 degrees/ 6.2 in.
Front tire: 130 90/16 Bridgestone
Rear tire: 140 90/16 Bridgestone
Front suspension: 41mm stanchions, 5.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: 1 damper, 4.1 in. travel, adjustable for preload
Seat height: 28.9 in.
Wheelbase: 63.6 in.
Fuel capacity: 4.0 gal., (0.8 gal. reserve)
Wet weight: 599 lb
Fuel mileage: 33 to 44 mpg, 40 mpg avg.
Quarter-mile acceleration: 14.91 sec., 86.5 mph