Photography By David Dewhurst...
Photography By David Dewhurst & Fran Kuhn
Thanks to the media and the multitude of electronic means of communicating, we can now know what's going on anywhere on the planet in every field. Usually, this access to information is a good thing, a cause for celebration even. However, sometimes knowledge can be frustrating. For example, we reported on Yamaha's new V-twin cruiser motorcycle in the April '97 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser, but we also had to report that this cool, new middleweight would only be available to the European market, not the U.S.
Now, almost a year later, we're happy to report that the cruiser, which we were denied a chance to even test last year, will be arriving in American Yamaha dealerships about a month before this article hits the newsstands. Perhaps the wait was worth the frustration since the bike arrives with a new name -- V-Star instead of the dubious Drag Star -- and two models to choose from. We're beginning to see that delayed gratification can be a good thing!
The littlest Star borrowed...
The littlest Star borrowed the bolt-on fin idea from the Royal Star. When the engine made the leap to 650cc, the crankcase covers received a snazzy makeover. Too bad the pollution controls sit out in the open.
Yamaha took a unique approach to designing the V-Star. The company's customer surveys showed that the major reasons for purchasing a middleweight cruiser were styling, rider comfort, handling, reliability, and value. Each of these requirements were directly addressed in the design process. Yamaha's stylists didn't have to look any further than the Royal Star's exemplary looks, fit, and finish. And the V-Star received generous applications of style from the Royal Star's palette. Rider comfort issues were addressed by giving the V-Star a full-sized riding position for people on the six-foot side of the spectrum, while not raising the bar so high as to eliminate the shorter inseamed folks. Handling comes from the V-Star's good suspension, competent brakes, and likable engine. Basing the V-Star on the proven 10-year-old Virago 535 insures the requisite reliability.
In the middleweight cruiser class, the final -- and possibly most important -- consideration for a manufacturer to surmount is price. Buyers want their mid-sized cruiser to be inexpensive, but not cheap, requiring a delicate balancing act on the part of the manufacturer to provide the customer with a high perceived value while not overly influencing the purchaser's bottom line. An under-600cc machine probably begins to meet price resistance at about $6000, where the lower-end 750-class machines start. The V-Star illustrates the positive results of finding the best balance amongst a bevy of competing priorities.
Belying the economy price...
Belying the economy price tag, brushed stainless steel fork-covers snuggle up next to the metal fenders. The 16-inch wheel and fat tire complete the beefy motif. The 11.7-inch disc provides plenty of stopping power.
When the time came for us to finally see the V-Star in the flesh, we were impressed. The V-Star press photos we'd received hadn't prepared us for the large size of the bike. With an overall length of 96.5 inches, the V-Star is longer than all but one of the bikes featured in our August '97 800 Class Comparison. The V-Star even has a 0.4-inch longer wheelbase (64 in.) than the class winner, the Honda A.C.E. 750. Imagine a 650 that's longer than a Harley Road King. But bigger doesn't always mean better, so we sidled up for a closer look. The attention to detail on the V-Star is exemplary, especially considering the bike's sub-$6000 price tag. The only immediately noticeable stylist's gaffe is the black, plastic-covered pollution controls hanging out in the open on the left side of the engine.
While incorporating the same chassis, the two V-Star models look quite different from each other. Both carry their size well, giving a balanced appearance -- though one tester said he thought the back of the bike looked a tad heavy and wondered if a larger-diameter wheel with a lower-profile tire would lighten the rear's appearance. The V-Star Classic carries the fat look currently in vogue. The 41mm-fork stanchions live under brushed stainless steel covers. A full, valanced, wide, wrap-around, American road-bike traditional metal -- yes, metal -- fender covers a three-inch-wide spoked 16-inch-diameter wheel and its 130/90 Dunlop 67S tube-type tire.
Moving rearward, the engine wears a liberal coating of chrome on the valve cover covers, the air cleaner, and all covers on the bottom end. The Classic's two-piece seat is wide, flat, and has a curved, supportive aft end of the rider's bucket similar to several aftermarket seats. The pillion is also thick and comfortable. Rounding out the Classic is a spoked 15 x 3.5-inch rear wheel shod with a 170/80 tubed Dunlop 77S. Color choices are black or red and burgundy.
The V-Star 650 Custom rolls in on a 19-inch spoked front wheel and 100/90 tire. The metal fender is suitably petite to highlight the sporty look and to coincide with the bike's naked 41mm stanchions. The seat also slims down in thickness, which most likely accounts for the way low 25.6-inch claimed seat height (the lowest on any cruiser in production and 2.4 inches lower than the Classic's 28-inch height). The Custom's engine receives a semi-gloss black finish on all bottom-end covers, and the shaft drive cover (the left rear cover) has a different shape than the Classic's primary-drive-cover emulator. Bringing up the rear of the Custom is a bobbed fender over a wheel and tire of the same proportions as the Classic. Color options for the Custom are black or blue and silver. The Custom's suspension offers the only functional difference with the Classic. Tuned for more "sporty" handling, the Custom received tauter suspension rates.
The right side of the engine...
The right side of the engine shows off the V-Star's shine. The plastic air-cleaner cover actually does cover the air filter. The side panel and the chrome swingarm pivot cover (behind the pipes) are also plastic.
The centerpiece of any motorcycle is its engine. The V-Star's engine traces its roots to the air cooled, 70-degree V-twin Virago 535. The 535cc engine's bore increased 5mm and the stroke increased 4mm for a new bore and stroke of 81 x 63mm, bumping the V-Star's displacement to 649cc. The V-Star retains the 535's two-valve cylinder-head design and compression ratio of 9.0:1. However, each cylinder's single overhead cam cuts a new profile, and the Mikuni carburetors' throats shrank from 34mm to 28mm, for better response off the line at the expense of some power up at higher rpm. Exhaust gasses exit via a two-into-two staggered dual system with a cross-over tube. The bottom end of the 535 received a major stylistic makeover and some strengthening, but remained relatively unchanged functionally.
Reliability, which was already excellent on the 535, should be enhanced by the 50 percent increase in oil-pump capacity. A beefier clutch with seven friction plates transfers power from the engine to a five-speed gearbox with ratios unchanged in the transition to V-Stardom. Like the 535 but unlike most cruisers in the middleweight (up to 700cc) class, the V-Star sends the power to the pavement via a shaft. The bare shaft looks unconventional, but the extra rigidity of the cover isn't needed with a hard-tail-look swingarm assembly.
Enough boring statistics. Unlocking the handlebar and turning on the ignition is accomplished with one key, in one lock, located on the right side of the steering head. After pulling out the "choke" knob located under the left rear corner of the tank, the engine fires easily when cold and runs smoothly without the enrichening circuit after only a minute. The first impression one gets from snicking the transmission into gear comes from the clutch. The low-effort clutch may surprise a rider switching from a bike with a stiffly sprung lever (like the Harley Sportster Sport tested in this issue). Crawling along in commute-time traffic was a non-forearm pumping experience. The pressure was so light that we even found ourselves occasionally not bothering to put the bike in neutral at stoplights. Testers felt clutch engagement was just a bit abrupt, but in such a minimal way that the problem was mastered in just a short ride. Otherwise, we were happy with the transmission's performance.
This is the 2004 model in...
This is the 2004 model in the two-tone paint option. The V-Star was our 1998 "Cruiser of the Year."
Pulling away from an intersection highlights the strengths of the V-Star's engine. Rolling on the throttle in low gears produces power and a pleasant brruuuuup from the exhaust system that won't be mistaken for a 1500, but dwarfs the embarrassing exhaust notes we've suffered through on some sub-liter cruisers like the Honda 750 Shadow. By the time we shifted to second, all the four-wheeled traffic was falling behind, and by third we had finished them off. Around-town speeds are within reach of third gear. Only when merging into the 70-plus-mph traffic that haunts L.A.'s freeways did the Star feel short on power. At high engine speeds, power falls off abruptly, a by-product of the 28mm carburetors, making shifting at peak power an important part of gathering momentum quickly. In all other situations, the torquey motor was happy being short-shifted in around-town cruise-mode.
Riding at interstate speeds points out the only chinks in the Classic's almost unflappable nature. Thanks to the V-Star's counterbalancer, vibration remains almost nonexistent from around town speeds to 75 mph, where the grips start to tingle and the pegs tremble noticeably. At 85 mph and above, the vibration builds with a vengeance, blurring the mirrors. Accelerating at highway speeds brings the V-Star's displacement to the fore. The quarter-mile (0.67 sec and 5.4 mph slower than the 535) and 69.0 mph terminal speed at the end of the 200-yard, 50-mph roll-on (1.8 mph faster than the 535) are figures we'd expect from the 650cc engine the Star carries, not the 1000cc or so it appears to contain. Downshifting to fourth helps speed the Star past traffic when necessary.
We found the riding position comfortable at all speeds. The pegs' not-too-far-forward positioning keeps tall riders from feeling cramped and short folks from feeling over-extended. The rear brake pedal is in the perfect position for covering it without taking a foot off the peg. Similarly, shifting gears required minimal movement of the foot from the peg. The rubber-mounted bar places the grips a comfortable reach from an upright riding position. The rubber mounts succeed in keeping the tinglies at bay without creating the imprecise steering feel we found annoying in the rubber-mounted bar on the Honda A.C.E. Tourer.
The cupped rider's seat received...
The cupped rider's seat received positive reviews, as did the pillion. We wonder why Yamaha chose chromed brackets to mount the passenger's strap to the black fender rails. A quick fix is only seconds away.
Despite the V-Star's low seat height, we felt we were sitting above or on the bike rather than down in it, and although the bar is fairly wide, we never felt spread out in the breeze -- even at elevated speeds. Yamaha Accessories' short windshield will be a good-looking addition but not an essential one. Even for the notoriously fidgety staff of Motorcycle Cruiser, the seat was quite comfortable for the first half of the 140-mile trip to reserve. After the halfway point, we found it necessary to shift positions periodically to replenish the blood supply to our glutes, which we attribute more to human flaw rather than the seat.
The V-Star's suspension plays a large role in the ability of the rider to sit for the two-and-a-half-hour trip to the next gas stop. Both the front and rear suspenders offer plush initial travel over highway expansion joints. Botts dots and rumble strips don't provide the distraction they would on poorly suspended bikes. Only the largest, sharp-edged bumps upset the chassis and telegraphed the jolt to our pain sensors, but obstacles of that size can be minimized simply by lifting your butt off the seat as you encounter them. We did feel, however, that the front-end compression damping was a bit soft and then rebounds too quickly. Adjusting the rear shock's preload requires that both the pillion and the seat be removed, which might keep all but sticklers from adjusting preload for varying load sizes.
The brakes also adjust for changes in load and braking intensities -- just squeeze harder on the wide, comfortable, semi-adjustable lever. The single 11.7-inch front disc provides linear two-fingered braking power courtesy of a dual-piston caliper. Ham-fisted, abrupt braking will lock the front wheel, but the fat tire howls in protest before skidding. The rod-operated rear drum, one of the few obviously budget-oriented components on the V-Star, does its duty without any muss or fuss. Braking in rainy conditions provided no surprises, even in quick stops. The V-Star does not stand up if the brakes are applied while cornering.
Shaft effect doesn't rear its ugly head -- or the bike -- in corners either. This stable behavior, when combined with the competent suspension and no hint of wobble in fast corners, will lead many a cruiser to wend down winding roads at an elevated pace. Ultimately, the pegs will touch down, putting a damper on the shenanigans. But be forewarned, depending on foot placement on the peg, the rider's heel may touch first, and this can pull the rider's foot off the peg.