Photography by Kevin Wing...
V-Rod vs. VTX1800 vs. Valkyrie vs. Magna vs. Mean Streak vs. Warrior vs. V-Max
Use the term "performance cruiser" in a room full of motorcyclists, and somebody will tell you it's an oxymoron. True, if you use 180-mph sportbikes as a yardstick, our musclebikes come up a bit short on the performance end of the equation. But you'll also find cruiser aficionados who will tell you that if it performs, by (their) definition, a motorcycle can't be a cruiser. That characterization describes cruisers as motorcycles meant merely for lazy trolling, the way God intended motorcycles to be ridden. You might also detect an undercurrent of annoyance that you're riding a bike that's faster than theirs.
Even if they cloak themselves in a mantle of distain for undignified displays of acceleration, somewhere deep inside every motorcyclist is a speed freak, waiting to break free and grab a big handful of throttle. They might not like to admit it, but we all believe that you simply can't be too rich or too fast. That applies to cruisers as much as any other vehicle. You can wax poetic about style, comfort, sound, and chrome all you like, but no one will say no to a slightly harder kick in the ass when you pull the trigger. Of course, if you disagree there are some pretty cool-looking scooters out there.
So a performance cruiser melds the couth and cool of a cruiser with a lot more punch. That combination puts substance behind the bad-bike attitude adopted by some custom builders but rarely backed up by real punch when the light turns green. Riders of 600cc sportbikes hunt these guys for breakfast. Though performance cruisers have been around almost from the moment the Japanese manufacturers discovered the attraction of American styling (remember the V65 Magna?), the last year has seen a new generation of power cruiser in the form of the muscle twins--Honda's VTX, Harley's V-Rod, Kawasaki's Mean Streak and Yamaha's Warrior. Each has taken a different approach to blending hard-hitting power in cruiser ergos and style.
Honda adopted the old American adage that there is no substitute for cubic inches with its 1800cc monster. In a seeming role reversal, Harley went with a V-twin of modest displacement but made horsepower with rpm and efficiency, then wrapped it in a lightweight, high-tech style with a dragracing emphasis. Kawasaki simply hot-rodded its Vulcan 1500, upgraded some components, and styled it with a performance attitude. Yamaha also hopped-up its existing big twin, but then it infused the rolling stock with some sportbike spirit in the form of an aluminum frame and sportbike suspension and brakes. Then it gave its creation a sleek, ready-to-rumble look.
But these new-breed twins aren't the only cruisers with the souls of hot rods. The traditional way to pump more power out of a motorcycle has been to put more cylinders into it. Three multi-cylinder musclebikes have been leading cruising's hit parade since this magazine was founded in 1996. That year Honda raised more than a few eyebrows when it wedged a nicely tweaked version of the 1500cc inline six from its Gold Wing touring bike into a cruiser platform to make the Valkyrie, one of the most distinctive motorcycles on the road today. Not that Honda was without a performance cruiser even then. It had introduced the first V4-powered Magna cruiser 20 years ago, and the current version of that model is now in its 10th year (an eternity for Honda). But the 750 Magna remains one of the most potent cruisers on the road. And then there is the Yamaha V-Max, which like the Valkyrie is powered by a souped-up version of an engine originally built for a touring bike, now discontinued. Since it first started wrinkling asphalt in 1985, its 1200cc V4 has set the standard for cruiser power and performance, and its somewhat overwrought styling is a statement of rolling probable cause.
Naturally, we wanted to round up all seven of these bad boys and settle who was the nastiest of them all. (No scooter owners on our staff.) These bikes epitomize the performance cruiser, making a visual statement as well as black stripe when leaving. You could make a case that other bikes, the Suzuki 1400 Intruder for example, have the acceleration to play in this club. But none of the bikes are presented as musclebikes and none have the potential to be a contender for the cruiser performance crown.
This wasn't going to be the usual Motorcycle Cruiser comparison test. We were going to focus on which bikes kick butt and which just kick back. Acceleration and speed were the big dogs here, though we were interested to a lesser degree in related aspects of performance such as brakes, suspension control and handling. Some of the stuff that we make an issue of during more civilized comparisons no longer mattered. Passenger comfort? Passengers just slow a bike down. Chrome quality? Not an issue. Fuel economy? Didn't even measure it. If you need to know about those sorts of things, read a previous test. Along the way there we'd get some lessons about efficiency versus displacement, styling versus control and the effects of weight on performance.Here is how they finished, starting from the back of the pack.
The first bike on the trailer was the Mean Streak. From the beginning, Kawasaki's muscle twin was obviously in over its head with this crowd. Though we like the motorcycle (as the big twins comparison in our April issue will confirm), its musclebike status is more a matter of marketing than motor. It simply lacks the power to play in this league.
Kawasaki actually tweaked the chassis and the styling more than the engine when it drew the Mean Streak from the Vulcan 1500 Classic and didn't even boost the displacement. Year in and year out, the Vulcan 1500 Classic has always been one of our favorite big twins, but it has always finished near the back of the pack in performance contests with its peers.
With that kind of heritage and little real hot-rodding, Kawasaki's performance cruiser entry never really looked like a contender during Musclebike Madness Month. Sure enough, the Mean Streak was the only bike of the seven that couldn't run in the 12s or break 100 mph at the dragstrip. In fact, at 13.76 seconds through the quarter, it didn't even get close to the under-13-second/over-100-mph run that defines a superbike. Yes, the Meanie did manage to pull away from the Magna in top-gear roll-ons, but with almost twice the displacement, it should have some sort of power advantage over the 750.
It got better marks in other performance areas, though without power to exploit them, braking and handling are kind of empty issues. All riders gave the dual three-piston-caliper front brake, which has the biggest discs here, high marks and some listed them as their best of the bunch. Suspension performance and steering ease and precision were also scored highly, though cornering clearance is not remarkable. But none of that, nor its good ergonomics, ultra-smooth shaft-drive power train, compliant ride, easy-to-interpret tach and speedo, or other nice parts, helped lift the Mean Streak out of the cellar. Nice guys finish last in this game if they haven't got power.
We know several knowledgeable riders who have bought Mean Streaks and love them, but none will tell you that it is a fast bike. It may be powerful for a Vulcan, but in this crowd, the Mean Streak is just a pretender.
Yamaha created its muscle twin by cranking up the volume on its traditional cruiser engine from the Road Star, then mating it to perhaps the most advanced chassis in cruiserdom. The lightweight alloy frame rides on suspension components lifted from Yamaha's cutting-edge R1 sportbike.
Framed by that sort of technology, the air-cooled, OHV narrow-angle V-twin seems incongruous, and in fact the engine sort of lets the team down. Despite a number of power-enhancing changes and more displacement from the mild-mannered Road Star motor, it's still basically a pretty tame powerplant, though the pulse beating through that huge muffler can sounds potent enough to give V-twin enthusiasts chills.
Even though it's pumping 1670cc, the Warrior's pushrod V-twin is no powerhouse. It has less poundage to push around than some of the other bikes here, but it still lacks enough thrust get it moving very fast. It barely broke 100 mph and 13 seconds at the dragstrip, and even the Honda Magna, with less than half the displacement, squirted ahead of it in this classic American test of performance. The Warrior managed to collect a few power points with its fifth-best top-gear acceleration performance.
With all that sophisticated hardware in the chassis, one would expect it to be a top contender in chassis performance. Sure enough, the brakes wield the power that the engine is missing, and the chassis is rigid with a well controlled ride. But our ardor for the chassis suddenly cools when we lean it over in a corner. No one here can make it track precisely around a corner or even get it to carve a smooth arc. Constant inputs are required to keep it going the direction you want, a failing we attribute to the tire profiles, which seem to be on slightly different arcs when leaned over. The fact that cornering clearance is modest almost becomes a non-issue because of these odd steering manners in bends. Finally, the very foot-forward riding position and the shape of the handlebar make the bike awkward when we try to ride it fast.
In the end, the Yamaha's primary strength may be its curb appeal. If it's better to look fast than to be fast, the Warrior is a winner. Without even exploiting the techie draw of the alloy frame, Yamaha's styling team managed to make the bike an undiluted statement of aggression. And that deep, solid exhaust beat provides audible confirmation that this street fighter is ready for battle. Just be sure to pick your fights carefully.