It seems everyone has a monster in their closet. Honda's release of the 1800 VTX was the first light of a new day for the metric cruiser world -- one ruled by beasts and measured by off-the-rack aggression. Yamaha's introduction of the svelte Warrior further upped the ante; taking our minds off the well-hung Honda -- even making it seem a little single-minded in its bigger-than-you intent. The world had been expecting comparable pieces of cake from the other manufacturers, perhaps even a larger slice of V-twin. Instead, the other makers have simply cut from the herd. Bigger isn't better. Better is better. Even Harley-Davidson has departed from the engorgement-as-turn-on factor to focus on the real meaning of performance. (Which, by the way, is balance.)
Kawasaki's entry in the new class of trimmed-down big-twin performance cruisers is the Mean Streak. We'd heard hints that this revitalized Vulcan would move like a cutting horse -- rip off the line, stop on a dime and turn like it had a place to go. We weren't holding our collective breath. Over the last 15 years we have ridden the entire succession of Vulcan 1500s, and while we've grown especially fond of the current generation Classic FI and Nomad, it has been more for the workmanship, comfort and beauty of the bikes than any gland-pinching performance. The Vulcans are a refined lot -- well-mannered in every way. We found it hard to imagine one that was mean (even though the pipes look a little evil).
We like the size and arch...
We like the size and arch of the fenders and the pouting taillight. The passenger seat, although attractive, isn't worthy of anybody's butt. The dual shocks are air-adjustable, a feature we find desirable for fine-tuning the bike's set-up.
Our curiosity was piqued when we learned that the introduction of this bike would take in the kind of twisty roads that sportbike riders eat for breakfast. Our destination was Julian, California, nestled near the Cleveland National Forest above San Diego. Traditionally, press rides on new-release cruisers are controlled affairs -- mostly straight roads with a random sweeper. The canned thought is cruisers shine brightest when they are grunting from stoplight to stoplight...even better if you can find a nice place to park and eat while looking at the bike. Of course, to really find out how a bike works you need to ride it up, down and sideways. So as soon as the gate opens we take 'em up into the hills anyway. The fact that Kawasaki was leading us straight to the proving grounds gave us a clue as to the Mean Streak's intent...and the manufacturer's confidence.
Some of the Mean Streak's performance enhancements are evident at first sight. Kawasaki has opted for a more modern inverted cartridge-type fork, radial tires and high-performance triple discs adapted from its race-oriented ZX-9 sportbike. The Mean Streak lines, which follow the sexy arch of a cheetah, are a major departure from Vulcanimity, as is the tach (it's about time!) and cast aluminum wheels. The package is a bit lighter (637 pounds over the Classic FI's dry weight of 659 pounds) but not as fluffed as we'd hoped. Certainly the Mean Streak is less hefty than Honda's stalwart VTX (705 pounds), but seriously chunky pitted against Yamaha's Warrior (596 pounds).
The tank-top ignition and...
The tank-top ignition and indicator light housing is a serious departure from Vulcanimity. You can pocket the key once the Harley-like switch is turned to the on position.
The bike's 50-degree liquid-cooled V-twin engine is immediately recognizable, and from the outside, looks identical to its Vulcan predecessors. Internally, the motor has been lightly reworked with one goal in mind -- more air/fuel mix moving through. High-performance intake and exhaust valves are larger in diameter and new camshafts have been utilized for increased lift and duration of transfer. Larger throttle bodies (40mm over 36mm) supply the engine with the extra air requested by the new camshafts and larger valves. That nasty looking exhaust system features large diameter head pipes to encourage quicker release of spent fuel too. The Mean Streak is of course fuel injected, and aggressive mapping of the system may be the key factor in the engine's additional output, a claimed 10 percent increase in horsepower over the Classic FI.
New clutch friction plates prevent off-the-stop lurching (we never felt like this was a problem with the Vulcan line), and ironically, the Streak's refreshed fuel injection actually encourages an abrupt off-idle response, and requires a very smooth hand. A new close-ratio transmission is geared lower to enhance acceleration. Lastly, the Mean Streak's chassis has been lengthened by 1.5 inches over the standard Vulcan 1500's, evidently to encourage better handling. The fork has been offset to provide 5.6 inches of trail while the rake holds steady at 32 degrees.
So, does this rehash of the Vulcan package make the Mean Streak a viable competitor in the new performance cruiser class? With Honda's VTX and Yamaha's much-lusted over Warrior in the arena, Kawasaki is bound to be asking itself the same question.
We were immediately in favor of the styling, which The Motor Corporation proudly describes as a two-wheeled interpretation of the modern four-wheel street-rod craze. Kawasaki design engineers studied the return to hot-rod styling trend found in cars like Chrysler's Prowler and PT Cruiser, Porsche's Boxster and Ford's Thunderbird. To bring the point home, several of these cars served as chase vehicles on our ride into the mountains.
It wears drag-style bars,...
It wears drag-style bars, naturally. All cables and hoses are neatly arranged.
Once in the saddle, the drag-style handlebar (which rests on an extremely swept-back riser) and tank-mounted warning-light pod unique to the Mean Streak, remind us that this is a completely new flavor of Vulcan. We don't think the new LED housing is as pretty as the original, and unlike the other version, the refelctions from the chrome on this one will blind you when the late afternoon sun is at your back. The electronic speedo and tach are located above the multi-reflector headlight, and it's an unfortunate glitch that the tripmeter reset is difficult to reach while you're riding. We like the adjustable brake and clutch levers and the self-canceling turn signals. There's also that key right in front of you atop the tank, which threw everybody off. You actually can remove the key from the ignition lock once it's unlocked (Harley-style) and the bike will run all day. Once you turn the ignition off, however, the key is required to unlock it again. (If you have a habit of misplacing keys, ignore this feature.) Hit the starter and the bad-looking straight-set pipes burble sedately in that familiar 50-degree V-twin cadence. There is a little more notable aggression in the tone, but certainly, the pipes are all about visual bark.
The sound is nice -- deep...
The sound is nice -- deep and profound, but not enough to wake the neighbors. We like the thin pipes compared to the rotund pipage of Honda's VTX and Yamaha's Warrior. The system isn't as simple as it appears though, with a large expansion chamber and some unseen twists.
Around town the Meanie behaves, the added power is noticeable, steering feels light (partly due to the width and position of the bar) and the brakes are extremely efficient. We trolled along comfortably from stoplight to stoplight for almost an hour before hitting the twisties, and once the road opened up and the corners closed in, the Mean Streak was put to work. While ground clearance isn't great for a bike intended for this type of riding (it's better than the other Vulcans and VTX, but not the new Harley), the pegs submit nicely to scraping. Hard parts will contact the road once you use up available peg travel and lever the bike in an unfortunate way. Loading the air-adjustable rear shocks and tightening the rebound damping will give you more clearance, but also will induce a harsher ride. In keeping with the common laws of gravity, heavier riders had more complaints about both clearance and rear suspension stiffness.
The inverted fork works superbly, managing aggressive steering input and vigorous use of the powerful dual discs with just the right amount of tension. The new aggressive radials carried on 17-inch wheels complement the setup. Running the bike fast through tight corners was a load of fun, and except for the trailing sparks, you could almost forget you were on a cruiser. After the two-day romp in the mountains aboard the Mean Streak, one tester flew directly to The Hoot and mounted a VTX for several days of equally challenging riding in the Smoky Mountains. This proved most interesting. While the VTX certainly eats the Mean Streak alive when it comes to eye-opening torque and high-end power, it was clearly more of a handful in the tight stuff. The VTX felt very weighty, over-damped and definitely lacked the braking prowess of the new Kawasaki. Both bikes suffer from over-sensitive throttle response in the lower gears and enough drive lash to warrant retraining your throttle hand.
We think any bike, and especially...
We think any bike, and especially one with performance pretentions should have a tach.
The Streak's clutch and transmission functioned smoothly in all situations, and we're pleased the reinvented driveline didn't do away with Kawasaki's splendid neutral finder. The bike was pleasant to ride, although not as comfortable as the Vulcan Classic or Big Drifter, and certainly doesn't offer the plush and neutral accommodations of the Nomad. The biggest complaint was footpeg placement, which seems to be too far forward for some. The rear brake and shifter controls are definitely set too high and rearward for comfortable use, but they can be adjusted so you can cover them without constantly cocking your ankle.
The Mean Streak's added horsepower is certainly appreciated, although it seems to come at the cost of some low-end grunt. One of the more sportbike-oriented journalists on our press tour asked us if cruisers are always "this fast." We said absolutely not, and for no good reason. It's about time we got a little muscle for our money, huh?
This beauty is an example...
This beauty is an example of customizing for immediate gratification. All the chrome goodies (approximately $2000 worth) on this Mean Streak are already available from Kawasaki's Fire & Steel line at your dealer or through www.BuyKawasaki.com. The pipes are from Vance & Hines, and the flashy skin is the result of a quickie wet sand and affordable custom graphic application by Damon's Motorcycles. Kawasaki believes most owners find a doable project like this more appealing than an extravagant fantasy bike.
And so the world turns...and is blessed with a new breed of motorcycle. We were all expecting Honda's VTX, and certainly there had been rumors about Harley's Porsche-design, liquid-cooled contender. Both of these bikes represent serious competition for the Mean Streak, even though they hit quite different nerves for potential buyers. We have to wonder, though, if the Mean Streak's designers had any clue to the coming of Yamaha's Warrior.
Kawasaki's newest does represent change, and certainly Mean Streak buyers will come home with a highly functional cruiser -- one that performs better than any other stock Vulcan on the market today. However, we would still opt for the Classic FI as an everyday bike, or the Nomad if we wanted to travel. Why? In its stock form, the Mean Streak doesn't hold a candle to the potential we see in the Warrior, it's not as innovative as the new Harley and it shrivels a bit next to the VTX and the excitement factor which comes with that enormous motor.
The Mean Streak features a...
The Mean Streak features a multi-reflector headlight.
We have no doubt this bike will have a substantial following, and probably for the same reason the entire stable of Vulcans remains so popular. Kawasaki cruisers offer a kind of elegance that most other bikes lack, and it's that attention to detail and refinement which keeps them in favor. They also remain consistently affordable, and it's worth noting that the Mean Streak is the most economically minded monster out of the closet this year at $10,999.
As it's been said for the last decade and a half, the Vulcans are a well-mannered lot, and the Mean Streak doesn't sully the reputation. In the end, perhaps it doesn't always pay to be nasty. Even in this new world, nice may be good enough.
High Points: More juice, improved handling, hot look.
Low Points: Not enough juice, still heavy, ugly tank cluster.
First Change: Performance hop-up.
Friedman: Which of the muscletwins you're drawn to could hinge on a lot of factors, but for my money, the Mean Streak is too little, too late. Kawasaki seemed to have identified this concept by 1997, and I expected a production bike for 1999. If that had happened, Kawasaki could have owned this market. Instead, Kawasaki waited until its offering has been eclipsed by three enticing competitors.
These dual 11.5-inch discs...
These dual 11.5-inch discs borrow triple-piston calipers from Kawasaki's ZX-9R sportbike. The inverted fork is also a sporty affair, and the stability it offers during hard cornering and heavy braking is a huge plus.
So what do you want from a muscletwin? Styling? Although the Kawasaki looks better to my eye than the Honda VTX, I think the Harley and especially the Yamaha are prettier. Outright power? Well, the Honda seems significantly stronger and its extra 330cc also give it bragging rights. The real shocker is that the "little" Harley may be the quickest of all. (What's the world coming to when an 1130cc Harley can smoke a 1470cc Kawasaki? I used to beat Harley 1200s with my Kawasaki 350) Want a daily rider? The Meanie, with its ultra-smooth engine, reasonable saddle, great brakes, easy handling and friendly manners may be the best choice. I prefer its around-town handling to the V-Rod and VTX. But we still haven't ridden the Yamaha. The Mean Streak does come in with the friendliest price at $11k, a grand less than the Yamaha and $6000 less than the Harley.
I don't think the Meanie will be a regrettable choice when the chips have all landed. Each of the muscletwins I have ridden so far seems to have a nagging flaw or two.
Brakes are all good on this...
Brakes are all good on this bike. Stopping times supplied by the triple disc system are stunning, giving you deserved control in emergency situations.
Elvidge: I am completely infatuated with the whole "new class" of cruisers blistering onto the scene. However, I find it hard to compare the lot straight out, as some people are inclined to. The new Harley, for example, doesn't even qualify for our Big Twin comparison. To me, it's more of a sign of things to come -- a hyper cruiser class that already has the Japanese makers sketching out competition. So, that leaves the Mean Streak to be compared to the Honda VTX and Yamaha Warrior.
I rode the VTX and Streak back-to-back in similar situations and found both had decidedly different virtues. The Kawasaki won't beat the monster twin in any power play, but it feels more civilized, and does go around corners better than the longer, heavier Honda. Stops much better too. I like the VTX look from a distance, but the rawness of the up-close details leaves me cold. Kawasaki cruisers shine when it comes to fit and finish. And this is my favorite Vulcan yet. Now, the Warrior is going to be a big player (we have to drink extra water around here to compensate for the constant drooling). It's got the look and on-paper specs to make both these bikes look dated. We'll wait and see.
2002 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Mean Streak
ENGINE & DRIVETRAIN
Type: Liquid-cooled, 50-degree tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: SOHC, 2 intake valves, 2 exhaust valves, operated by hydraulic adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1470cc, 102 x 90mm
Compression ratio: 9.0:1
Carburetion: Digital Fuel Injection
Lubrication: Wet sump, 3.7 qt.
Minimum fuel grade: 92 octane
Transmission: Wet, multiplate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Shaft
2003 Mean Streak. For 2004,...
2003 Mean Streak. For 2004, it became a 1600.
Wet weight: 695 lb.
GVWR: 1102 lb.
Wheelbase: 67.1 in.
Overall length: 94.9 in
Rake/ trail: 32 degrees / 5.7 in.
Front tire: 130/70R17 Dunlop 220F STG
Rear tire: 170/60R17 Dunlop 220 STG
Front brake: 2 discs, single-action, triple-piston calipers
Rear brake: 1 disc, dual-piston caliper
Front suspension: 43mm inverted fork, 5.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: Dual dampers, 3.4 in. travel, adjustable for air pressure, rebound damping
Fuel capacity: 4.5 gal.
Handlebar width: 30.5 in.
Inseam equivalent: 33.0 in.
Seat height: 27.6 in.
ELECTRICAL & INSTRUMENTATION
Charging output: 588 watts
Battery: 12v, 14AH
Instruments: Speedometer, tachometer, odometer, clock, tripmeter, fuel gauge; warning lights for high beam, turn signals, neutral, coolant temperature, oil pressure
Fuel mileage: 29 to 40 mpg, 34.5 mpg average
Average range: 155 miles
Rpm at 60 mph, top gear: 3900
200 yard, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 74.6 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 13.90 sec., 94.2 mph