1100cc And 1200cc V-Twin Motorcycles: Magic in the Middle

Four tandem V-twins prove there is such a thing as a happy medium: Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 Custom, Honda Shadow Aero, Honda Shadow Sabre and Yamaha V-Star 1100 Classic. From the June 2000 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine.

Someone recently told us that the 1100 cruiser class was dead. Well, after spending a few weeks with a representative sample of the 1100 and 1200cc tandem V-twins, we can tell you that this segment of the market is still kicking. The arrivals of two new contenders have enlivened the class this year.

After renewing our acquaintances with some of these bikes -- and meeting others for the first time -- we are puzzled by the way some riders shun the 1100s. Though 1100s and 1200s are considered "big" bikes in most other segments of the motorcycle market, among cruisers they are regarded as middleweights because the cruiser segment is topped by bikes displacing in excess of 1500cc. However, the difference in displacement is much bigger than the performance gap. In fact, all of these "middleweights" will give the big twins a run for their money, and in some match-ups, the 1100s will flat out smoke the 1500s. What you get when you pay the extra money for a big twin is prestige, and perhaps a bit more room. In most cases, the smaller bikes offer finish comparable to their bigger counterparts.

To experience the current state-of-the-art among semi-big tandem V-twins, we rounded up samples of each current engine family. Harley's Sportster 1200 trio was ably represented by the Custom. Honda has two 1100cc Shadow models with the vibration-canceling dual-crankpin engine, and we selected the newer Sabre model instead of the popular Spirit. With the A.C.E. discontinued, Honda's only single-crankpin Shadow 1100 is the Aero, so it was included. The newest addition to Yamaha's cruiser line, the Classic, was the designated hitter for the company's pair of V-Star 1100s.

Originally we had considered including the BMW R1200C and the Moto Guzzi Jackal, but both those bikes stray from the mainstream of American cruiserdom. Though their engines are twins, neither one is a conventional tandem V. For those who are interested, both the Jackal and the new Euro version of the Beemer were included in last issue's sport-cruiser test.

You might think that four bikes with such similar specifications would play virtually the same role, but these four bikes have distinctive personalities and strengths. Picking one requires you to determine what exactly you need from a motorcycle as much as selecting a superior machine.

Consider the contenders for the middleweight crown.

The motorcycle primeval **

Starting at $8795, the Custom is the priciest of Harley-Davidson's 1200 Sportsters but falls in the middle of this group's price range. Sportsters use an engine design introduced in the early 1980s. These 45-degree V-twin engines breathe through a single 40mm carb, operate two valves per cylinder with pushrods and fiddle-free hydraulic lifters, and use triple-row chain primaries and belt final drives. The single-crankpin design has no counterbalancer. The 1203cc engine differs from the 883cc version primarily in bore size.

We chose the Custom as the most cruiser-esque of the 1200 Sportsters. Variations from the standard Sportster 1200 start up front with a 21-inch (instead of 18) wire-spoke (instead of cast) wheel. The larger wheel makes the Custom approximately an inch longer and increases rake almost a half of a degree. The Custom moves its speedometer rear of the handlebar on a special chrome mount. It has a low-rise 27.6-inch wide bar mounted on 5.0-inch risers. The Custom still has the same 3.3-gallon fuel tank as other Sporty models. Shorter shocks and a different saddle put the Custom's seat 1.3 inches lower than the standard model's 28.9-inch arrangement.

The basic price is for a black bike but escalates by $180 if you go for pearl colors (blue, orange, purple, silver or red) or $420 if you want a two-tone paint job (blue/silver, orange/silver, red/black or our test bike's black/yellow) with another $120 added for California emissions equipment.

The word that comes to mind to describe the Sportster's ride is solid. The suspension is firmer than any of the other three 1100s -- which translates into a tauter, more controlled ride, steadier cornering, less pitching during braking, and more impact from square-edged bumps. The engine is solidly mounted in the chassis. As a result, this bike vibrates more than any of the 1100s. Depending on your personal vibration sensors and the vibration level of the Sportster you ride, vibration could be the 1200C's greatest comfort shortcoming, although the pretty saddle -- which is relatively narrow and hard-edged -- also begins to wear on the rider within 30 miles or so. But don't complain too much; it's worse for the passenger. The riding position offers a fairly standard posture with your feet about as far forward as the other bikes we tested here. Most found it acceptable, but one rider felt awkward on the Custom.

The Sportster is the only bike in this foursome without a handlebar-mounted choke control, and like the other bikes, it is slightly cold-blooded. You can reach down to the left side of the engine and push the choke knob in after half a mile or so. Once fully warm, the engine delivers impressive power in town and on the highway. Few big twins can outrun it.

First gear is taller than the other 1100s, which meshes perfectly with its additional flywheel and very linear clutch engagement. The Custom pulls away more smoothly and aggressively than the other 1100s. A new second-gear ratio has smoothed the transition from first to third gears this year. Lash is absent, and the belt final drive eliminates the jacking that comes with the shafts. The Sportster shifts positively, and finding neutral was usually pretty certain. With fuel prices skyrocketing as this is being written, the good fuel mileage of the Sportster 1200 would seem like a plus, but this bike is offset by the fact that it is the only one of the three that requires premium fuel. The smallish tank means that its range is not remarkable either.

The Harley's strong engine and steady handling make a great basis for a city bike, but its around-town manners are marred by the strong vibration, which frequently renders the mirror images useless, and the two-button turn-signal arrangement -- which becomes clumsy with heavy gloves. The short and unpredictable timing of the self-canceling turn-signal system further frustrated us, as the signals frequently seemed to turn off before we wished or expected. The speedometer's position is just about as far from where you want to look as a tank-top speedo.

Though the four-piston brake calipers bolted to Harleys this year have impressed us previously, we were less enthusiastic about them on this bike. We also think that the large reach to the front brake lever will impede control for riders with small mitts -- the kind of people who are most likely to be attracted to Harley's smaller, lower models, such as the 1200C. Nonetheless, braking was acceptable, in part because the firm suspension reduced dive under braking.

Overall, the Sportster is the least refined of this quartet. The engine performs well with fewer quibbles than some of the newer designs, but it is long in the tooth and shakes the hardest. However, that raw, unrefined character may be an attraction for some buyers. With excellent power, a tight drivetrain, the most solid handling, and a huge range of accessories and modifications, there are plenty of reasons to like Harley's big Sportster.

**High-Points: **Strong, easily controlled acceleration from a stop, distinctive appearance, exceptional aftermarket support, solid handling.
**Low Points: **Strong vibration, firm saddle and suspension.
**First Change: **More comfortable saddle for long rides.

Nostalgia is better than it used to be

The most expensive bike here, Honda's $9699 Aero, distinguishes itself with a uniquely long, low, nostalgic style that speaks of forgotten elegance. It is the upscale variation of the now-defunct Shadow American Classic Edition, which stunned motorcycling more than half a decade ago with its retro engineering. Prior to the A.C.E., Honda's V-twin cruisers had upheld the company's reputation for advanced technology, using offset dual crankpins to stifle the natural vibration of its 45-degree V-twin. But, in response to customer requests for V-twins that sounded and felt like traditional V-twins, the A.C.E. -- and now the Aero -- reverted to a single-crankpin design. The engine proved extremely popular, even if it raised cries that Honda was copying Harley.

But the single-crankpin Honda 1100 V-twins weren't exactly technological fossils. They were liquid-cooled, used hydraulic valve adjusters and boasted self-adjusting cam chains. Furthermore, each cylinder breathed through its own 36mm carb and three overhead-cam-operated valves (two intake, one exhaust) and ignited the compressed mixture with two spark plugs. The engine is tuned to deliver more torque than its twin-crankpin Shadow stablemates, the Sabre and Spirit -- although it shares their five transmission speeds and shaft final drive.

When it debuted in 1998, the Aero created some shock waves of its own, mostly because of its styling. Using many cues taken from luxury cars of the 1930s, Honda drew a long, low motorcycle that evoked the lost elegance of that era. Full fenders highlighted with flowing chrome trim wrap deeply around fat whitewall tires. Covered 41mm forks and shocks contribute to the courtly appearance. Honda's first factory-fitted floorboards add to the luxurious flavor of the Aero. Perhaps its most striking feature, however, is its long 2-into-1 exhaust system, which terminates in an understated fishtail. The stylists managed to pull it all together. The eye-stoppers, notably the unpolished housing for the shaft drive and the not-quite-full-enough heat shields on the pipes, are minor. The standard color is black, but the two-tone treatments -- black/red, black/yellow, or our test bike's black/beige -- add an elegant feel to the bike and $300 to the price.

That sense of elegance is heightened when you drop into the saddle. The cockpit offers the roominess of a much larger bike, with its steering head well out in front and the 33.0-inch-wide handlebar turning back about 15.0 inches tiller-style to meet you. The shell for the 7.0-inch-diameter headlamp stretches forward, heightening the Aero's impression of length. It also houses the speedometer in a position where it's easy to acquire visually without moving your eyes too far from the road. The warning lights and the reset button for the LCD tripmeter reside in the top triple clamp.

Thumb the handlebar-mounted choke lever and the starter button, and the engine rouses readily,

**High Points **Elegant, nostalgic style; roomy; understated, ear-pleasing sound.
**Low Points: **Slightly rubbery steering feel, unimpressive front brake.
**First Change: **Teardrop mirrors to match styling.

A street rod for the masses

Honda's new Sabre traces its roots to the first Shadow 1100 of 1985. That machine combined the style of a traditional V-twin cruiser with technological improvements such as liquid cooling, three valves per cylinder (two intakes), two spark plugs per cylinder, hydraulic followers that automatically adjust valve lash, shaft drive, and a staggered crankpin arrangement that fooled the 45-degree V-twin into vibrating like a 90-degree V-twin, which is to say very little. That engine design has been passed down to successive Honda 1099cc V-twins including the Spirit, currently $7999, one of Honda's best sellers.

However, faced with stiff competitions from all quarters in the cruiser market with no big twin ready, Honda needed an attention-seeking missile for its 2000 cruiser line. That bike is the Sabre, a street-rod version of the Spirit, priced at $8199.

How do you inject the middle-of-the-road Spirit cruiser with the look of a street rod? Honda wanted a long, low look, but a new chassis was not in the plan. Instead, the 110/90-19 front tire was replaced with a fatter, shorter 120/90-18 on a new near-disc cast wheel. The 41mm fork was shortened, dropping travel from 6.3 inches to 4.7 inches. Chrome covers over the stanchions fatten the bike's appearance. A lower-profile saddle, removal of the passenger backrest and a lower handlebar, drop the top line of the bike. The seat is 1.5 inches lower than the Spirit's. Fuller fenders impart greater length as does a longer, 7.0-inch headlight. The result is a low, aggressive-looking motorcycle.

Though the street-rod hype suggests a breathed-on motor, the Sabre engine is exactly the same as the Spirit's from the dual 36mm carbs to the staggered dual pipes. However, Honda did employ one hot-rodder's trick to improve acceleration: it lowered the overall gearing. This means that at any given road speed in any given gear, the engine is turning more rpm and therefore making more horsepower. This also makes the Sabre engine busier than the Spirit's on the open road, but the smooth dual-crankpin design means there is not a comfort penalty for this mechanical sleight-of-hand.

The two-crankpin engine out-accelerated the single-crankpin design of the Aero even before the gearing trickery, so it's no surprise that the Sabre pulls strongly. Though the bike lacks the low-end power of the Aero, once the engine builds revs, it quickly leaves the Aero. The drive train lacks the slop we complained about in the Aero, so there is immediacy in the response to throttle. A little play in the drivetrain does provoke lurching in lower gears if you are ham-fisted, but a bigger annoyance is the difficulty in making a smooth first-to-second shift. It's not the actual shift, but the lurch when you engage second gear. The only sure way of avoiding this seems to make the shift slowly and deliberately, but who wants to do that on a street rod? Shifting is otherwise quiet and positive.

The Sabre's smooth manners and quick-accelerating nature make it a pleasure in town. You can easily break away from traffic. The controls are conveniently positioned and the mirrors' images are recognizable at most speeds. However, no one responded to its mating call. The bland beat of the exhaust erodes the aural-cool factor.

Despite its uninspired sound, the twin-pin crankshaft makes the Sabre the smoothest bike here, which you will appreciate on a long ride. Low and comfortably shaped, the saddle makes a great first impression, but the padding is thin and firm, which chips away at its charm in time. Passengers get even less padding. Street rods aren't supposed to be plush. Though the suspension is firm, it's rarely an issue unless you are traveling choppy roads. We like the riding stance, which positions you for great control, with respectable no crowding. The low bar tilts you forward slightly, ideal for high speeds.

With its fatter front tire, the Sabre has more weight on its front wheel and slightly more front-wheel trail (6.3 instead of 6.0 inches) than the Spirit. In addition, the Sabre's steering is heavier, notably at low speeds. The Sabre is more precise and stable than its stablemates and the suspension is well controlled. You get fair cornering clearance, but the first thing to touch might be your heels, which can pull your foot off the peg.

The front brake was more powerful than our Sportster's and considerably stronger than our Aero's but not quite as good as the V-Star's. The rear brake requires solid pressure to lock.

Most of the Sabre's bits are pleasing. Honda put safety ahead of style by setting the speedo in front of the handlebar. A street rod deserves a tachometer, however. Our biggest visual complaint is the "billet-style" footpegs, which are rough and cheesy-looking. Some polishing would do much to raise its perceived lack of quality. Red/red or our test bike's black/gray two-tone paint adds $200 to the basic-black price.

The character and performance of the Sabre make it a great urban-assault vehicle. It's smooth and powerful enough for traveling, though the seat will probably cause butt burn on long hauls. The aggressive, original style gives a new life to Honda's proven 1100 engine.

**High Points: **Strong acceleration, great in-town manners.
**Low Points: **Dull-looking footpegs, dull-sounding exhaust note, hard saddle.
**First Change: ** Polish or replace footpegs

Roomy, classic big-bike style at a bargain price

The newest member of Yamaha's Star family illustrates perfectly the attractions of an 1100. At first glance, the V-Star 1100 Classic may be mistaken for Yamaha's bigger V-twin, the 1600cc Road Star. Certainly the finish quality is close -- with features such as shaft drive and triple discs -- the bike is not a stripped-down bargain ride. It's not much slower than the 1600 either. But at $8099, it's $2400 easier on your bank account.

You can trace the V-Star 1100's roots to the Virago 920 of the early 1980s. It later grew to 980cc and became the Virago 1000 and then to 1063cc as the Virago 1100. Last year, Yamaha introduced the V-Star 1100 Custom, which was powered by an air-cooled engine based on the Virago's, but tuned to deliver more power at a lower rpm range and re-skinned to complement the classy looks of the V-Star. The Virago heritage is evident in the engine's 75-degree V, its 1063cc displacement, its overhead-cam operation of two valves per cylinder, and shaft final drive behind five speeds. This year, an additional V-Star, the Classic version tested here, was added, and the Virago 1100 was discontinued.

Both V-Star 1100s share the same engine, frame, a 64.5-inch wheelbase, a fat 170/80-15 rear tire and wire-spoke wheel, single-shock link-type rear suspension, a 4.5-gallon fuel tank crowned by a big speedometer, staggered dual mufflers and many lesser details. But the new-for-2000 Classic has a wider look created by its fatter 130/90-16 front tire (compared to a 110/90-18 on the Custom), covered front fork stanchions, big 7.0-inch headlight, fuller fenders, floorboards instead of the Custom's footpegs, and a wider, deeper saddle, which raises seat height by .9 inch to 27.9 inches off the road.

That plush seating helps to make the V-Star Classic the most comfortable V-twin cruiser in the 1100/1200 class. The saddle is wide enough with enough padding of sufficient density to keep most riders' backsides sitting pretty for a few hours. There is enough room to keep sub-six-footers happy -- though the bike seems small if you just jumped off the Aero. The 75-degree split of the cylinders helps to cancel most vibration despite its single-crankpin design, so the V-Star 1100 Classic's slight buzz at highway speed was not enough to set off our vibration alarms. The suspension is the best compromise (among the bikes we tested) between comfort and control -- though a heavy passenger can overwhelm it even with the single rear shock's preload cranked up all the way. Ridden solo, the V-Star Classic soaks up both small and large bumps well. Passengers get more room and padding than on the Sabre, Sportster or the V-Star Custom, but slightly less than the Aero.

Although the Virago 1100 was among the quickest V-twin cruisers, the changes made to pump up the power at lower engine speeds, including a single carburetor, have softened its full-bore punch, putting the V-Stars in the middle of the 1100 field in terms of acceleration capability. The V-Star Classic still doesn't come away from a stop under moderate throttle quite as forcefully as the Aero or Sportster, but it is stronger off the bottom than the Sabre. A handlebar-mounted choke control aids starting, and after a few blocks to warm up, the V-Star delivers seamless power from near idle. Throttle response is crisp and there are no drivetrain hiccups. The clutch disengages with a light pull, and the transmission shifts smoothly.

Though its heavyset style might lead you to believe otherwise, the V-Star Classic is easy to manage at most speeds. The Classic's 00-inch wide bar provides plenty of leverage to make steering light and precise. It turns readily and tracks true through corners -- both smooth and bumpy. Cornering clearance is acceptable but not exceptional. You can lean over farther on this V-Star than a Road Star before the floorboards drag, but the other three bikes in this group can lean deeper. With dual discs up front, the V-Star provides the best full-goose stops of any of the four bikes. Nicely controlled suspension and good control of the single rear disc also help. The Yamaha is also the only bike here that provides an adjustment for the reach to the front brake lever.

That 75-degree V angle creates an exhaust cadence that, not surprisingly, sounds like a cross between a Ducati and your basic 45-degree twin. The look is very Road Star-like thanks to similar lines, paint patterns and details like the tank-top speedo and stainless-steel fork covers. Of course, a second look confirms that it's not a Road Star. If the engine doesn't give it away, other details do.

On the left, the presence of the exposed drive shaft instead of the Road Star's belt is a dead giveaway. On the right, the big round air cleaner with its ugly black-plastic backing plate is a sure sign. But there aren't many places where the V-Star has been jabbed with the ugly stick. Color choices are limited, however. The standard shade is basic black; if you want the maroon/ivory scheme of our test unit, it will cost an extra $100.

We suspect that the Classic with its better padded, more affluent style will be more popular in America than the V-Star Custom. A good all-around ride, the Classic outshines the other three contenders on a long ride, a trait due in part to its wide style. It's not the most powerful or best finished of the quartet, but it is perhaps the most versatile and is certainly the best bargain.

High Points: **Very comfortable, Road Star looks on a budget, strong brakes, good suspension.
**Low Points: **Limited cornering clearance, speedometer out of line of sight.
**First Change:
Eliminate ugly black air cleaner backing plate

Decisions, decisions

Before you buy one of these "middleweights," assess your needs carefully. There are no dogs in this quartet -- especially in terms of performance. All of the bikes will pace or pull away from bigger twins. All should hold together well enough to provide reliable daily transportation. But each one has strengths and weaknesses.

So what do you want an 1100 to do? Are you planning to travel? The V-Star 1100 Classic is the best choice in the class, but the Aero can also provide lots of long happy miles. Or do you need a street fighter for the ride to work? Depending on whom you ask, the Sabre and the Sportster are the winners there. Is riding with a passenger a big part of your plans? The Aero is the roomiest. Plan to play on winding roads? We'd pick the Sportster. Are head-turning looks important? The Aero scored highest on all of our style meters and provoked the most apparent envy from casual commentators. It also looks the biggest and most elegant. Plan to customize or hop-up? The Harley has boatloads of options. But you want a custom that isn't another Harley? The V-Stars enjoy the best aftermarket support of the rest.

Since we left some 1100 V-twins out, other possible best-1100 questions are answered by bikes we didn't include. For example, which bike would we pick as the most reliable? That would be the Honda Shadow Spirit, which is smooth and has enough history to have ironed out most bugs. Any of the other Japanese bikes would also be good choices, but the aging design and vibration of the Harley worries us slightly. However, Harley riders in general enjoy the best national dealer base. Want even more sporting flavor? Harley's Sportster 1200 Sport should get your attention. Moto Guzzi's Jackal is also an inspired sporter, though its 1100 V-twin doesn't follow the tandem layout of these bikes. Is saving every purchase dollar important? The other V-Star, the $7899 Custom, has many of the V-Star Classic's attributes for $200 less.

But all of these bikes are bargains if you measure their performance and quality against the ranks of big twins. The 75 percent solution can provide comparable performance and quality with a slight loss of torque and prestige.

The Road Tests section of MotorcycleCruiser.com also has a 2002 comparison test of the motorcycles in this class.


**Brasfield: **I can't think of anything more enjoyable than swinging a leg over a bevy of 1100s and racking up a few miles. This comparison has, once again, reminded me what an amiable class of cruisers these bikes are. Even the simple act of commuting put a smile on my face. Still, when I stepped back to consider what I liked about these bikes, two approaches came to mind.

If I were to base my decision on looks alone, I'd have a tough time choosing between the Aero and the V-Star. The fit and finish on both bikes is admirable. I've been smitten with the Aero's headlight since I first laid eyes on it. And anyone who'd swap the Aero's long, pretty pipe with yet another set of staggered duals or drag pipes ought to be shot. The V-Star offers a similar level of detail work, though the visual impression is more of the whole, as opposed to a few standout parts.

If my choice of 1100s were based on riding, the V-Star pops up again but with a different rival. The Sabre is the perfect urban tool in this group of 1100s. With its low gearing, the newest Shadow makes quick work of most traffic. The bike loves to accelerate off the line. Good fun! When riding for longer distances is a consideration, the V-Star outshines the other 11s. A comfy seat combined with good power and suspension can't be beat on a long haul.

So, which would I choose? Since I hadn't cruised outside of the urban environs for several months before this comparison, the bike that works best in the concrete canyons gets my vote -- making the Sabre the pick of the litter.

_Evans Brasfield
When he's not delivering babies, former staff editor Brasfield freelances these days. Visit his website at www.EvansBrasfield.com and ask where the pictures of the baby are._are.

**Friedman: **Let's see. The Sportster is too hard-edged and uncomfortable. I've long since shaken off appeal vibration might once have had, along with other pieces that shook off. I love the look of the Aero, but it feels rather vague when I ride it, and the riding position doesn't quite work for me. The Sabre's acceleration would make it a good daily rider if city streets and back roads were my main fare. I like its profile but not the details. The V-Star makes enough power and has the best long-term comfort under me. I like the look -- though not as much as the Aero -- and its price.

Sounds like I should go shopping at my Yamaha dealer.

**Cherney: **I came into this test thinking riding position and comfort first and foremost. So I'm chucking the Harley Sportster out of contention right off the bat -- its drag bar and forward controls stretch you in weird, uncomfortable ways. It will kill the others off a stoplight though, and that might be enough for some.

The V-Star looks to be the Jennifer Love Hewitt of the bunch -- quite a hottie, really, with all the goods in most of the right places, easy to get along with and a really nice smile. And that would work fine as your transitional girlfrie...er, bike, but I don't know about the long run. Even though it beckons you with a big, honking comfy seat (the bike, not Jen), and nice styling cues, I don't think the thing will ever be a big movie-star.

The Sabre was, well, average. Good brakes, fairly comfortable, geared well for the city and decent looking enough, but no pizzazz. It must be the bike's dishrag personality. I couldn't quite get over the little things, like cheapie rider pegs and humdrum exhaust note. I deserve better.

So, I chose the other Honda, the Aero -- for best all-around performance and frankly, for best style. With strong power down low for the mean streets, beautifully decked out tires with grand old whitewall, and swank two-tone paint and a stylish fishtail muffler, the Aero makes no bones about what party it's dressing up for. The bar is low and the seat is well padded for a comfortable riding position -- plus, the fit and finish is typically top-notch Honda.

Give me a boulevard, give me a passenger and give me an Aero.

Additional motorcycle road tests and comparisons are available at the Road Tests section of MotorcycleCruiser.com.

Photography by Kevin Wing (www.KevinWingPhotography)
We like the warning light arrangement atop the handlebar clamp and the non-locking gas cap -- but not the speedo location.
A belt drive has the efficiency, light weight and low cost of a chain final drive with the cleanliness and quiet of a shaft drive.
The liquid-cooled engine looks pretty and sounds good. We wish the heat shields wrapped farther around the header pipes, though.
We liked the speedo's location and nostalgic white face.
The engine pulls hard but has a flat exhaust note.
Though the Sabre handlebar pulls back almost as much as the Aero's, the former's grip angle is more comfortable at speed.
The Sabre gets new cast wheels and a strong front brake.
The V-Star 1100 engine is based on the Virago 1100 mill.
The V-Star 1100 engine is based on the Virago 1100 mill.
The view from the cockpit is similar to what a Road Star pilot sees.
The V-Star's exposed driveshaft is unique and offers some fun customizing possibilities.