2005 Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Nomad - First Ride

The Latest Version Of Kawasaki's Bagger Has Some Big Wheel Tracks To Fill. Can It Do It?

First Ride 2005
Humming along at a bit over 75 mph as the rain began coming down in earnest, I realized this was turning out pretty good. Well, maybe not the weather, but the motorcycle.

Kawasaki had offered up a preview ride on what is virtually an all-new version of its Nomad. Being the Motorcycle Cruiser staffer most familiar with the Nomads and one of the greatest fans of previous Nomads, I was happy to be assigned the job. But I approached it with some misgivings. A few of Kawasaki's recent products have left us scratching our heads a bit. It's no secret that we were not exactly bowled over by Kawasaki's flagship Vulcan 2000 when it was introduced last year. We were also disappointed when Kawasaki rolled out the Vulcan 1600 Classic to replace the 1500 Classic. We were such huge fans of the Vulcan 1500 Classic to the point that it almost became the magazine's pet motorcycle. But despite some improvements, we felt the 1600's package wasn't as satisfying as the 1500's. (Fortunately, the best of the 1500 Classics, the 1500 FI, remains in the line as a low-cost alternative to the 1600, which gives that story a happy ending.) However, if the switch from 1500 (actually 1470cc) to 1600 (actually 1552cc) brought the same sorts of changes in the Nomad that it brought in the Classic, the net result could be a step back.

Walking around the Nomad 1600, the family resemblance to the 1500 is unmistakable, and some of the pieces, such as convenient side-opening saddlebags, appear virtually the same as their counterparts from the 1500. Some changes, like the longer, stiffer, double-backbone-tube frame, are hard to spot. Of course, many of the fresh parts are obvious, like the restyled fuel tank, which has swoopier lines and holds 5.3 gallons (a 0.3-gallon increase). Slightly reworked instruments nest in the tank's top, and the cluster also includes the ignition lock, which allows you to remove the key once it's turned on. The windshield has a new shape, tapering from its widest point in front of the handlebar as it goes up. It still offers a couple of inches of vertical adjustment, and there is a new large, somewhat ostentatious badge on the front of the windshield bracket (matched by one on the rear of the backrest). There is now a standard engine guard, a big, deeply padded passenger backrest and chrome-bottomed passenger floorboards. The backrest in particular makes it much more attractive to comfort-seeking passengers.

However, I was thinking more about the front seat as I threw my leg over it. Settling in, the saddle feels less roomy and accommodating than the 1500's, but I wouldn't really know until I sat on it for a few hours. I turned on the much more convenient ignition switch and put the key in my pocket. The engine rumbled to life immediately, and the heel-toe shifter slipped smoothly into first. A shock absorber in the drivetrain sort of soaks up the initial jolt as the clutch is engaged and then springs back slightly, which made my first few starts a little uneven as I adapted.

Kawasaki says it changed the fork offset to make steering lighter at low speeds. However, I never thought the 1500 felt heavy while maneuvering at a crawl. You can tell this bike is carrying slightly more weight-about 30 pounds more than the 1500-and I think the backrest is mostly to blame. What I noticed most was that the bike felt more planted when leaned over, especially in long, slightly uneven corners. The suspension feels much better controlled, with less oscillating over bumps or when cornering loads are abruptly fed into the chassis. The dual rear shocks provide adjustment for air pressure and rebound damping. Riding solo on twisty roads, I used the second or third damping setting, but on the freeway the ride was smoothest-and as compliant as the 1500's excellent suspension-on the softest first setting. However, in rolling dips and bumps, the superior damping made the ride more stable than the 1500's. Cornering clearance is equal to or slightly better than the 1500's.

There isn't a huge difference in power from the last Nomad. It seemed just noticeably stronger off idle, but the difference is small enough that I could have been imagining it. I also thought there might be more flywheel effect. Kawasaki uses bigger rubber mounts to better absorb vibration, but the 1500 was already glassy smooth where it mattered thanks to its rubber mounts and the dual counterbalancers shared by this engine. Overall, the drivetrain feels very much like the 1500's, which is to say smooth, responsive and powerful enough to do the job as effectively and as strongly as some similar bikes.

Revising the windshield's shape seems to have eliminated much of the old one's buffeting, which annoyed some riders. The optics near the top of the shield are also better than most others. It was set at the top of its adjustment for my ride, and I could still see the road over it if I sat up straight. The aerodynamic protection includes a pair of lower wings below the windshield. Although I could feel some wind flowing past my legs, I was impressed that they stayed dry when it started to rain.

The handlebar-seat-floorboard arrangement is almost as comfortable as the 1500's. I wanted a bit more room on the seat to slide rearward. There also isn't room to move forward because the seat narrows. Overall, the saddle is significantly less comfortable than the excellent saddle on the 1500 Nomad, and a definite step backward unless you are considerably shorter than my 5-foot-10. Apparently, Kawasaki tests its bikes with shorter riders who are narrower in the beam than I. My first call if I was getting a 1600 Nomad would be to Mustang Motorcycle Seats, which has traditionally sorted out Kawasaki saddles better than anyone.

The other significant disappointments are some of the details, such as the large and ugly wad of wires routed prominently on the right-side front downtube. The lack of attention to some possible eyesores clashes with the pretty lines of the fuel tank and other big components.

The transition from Nomad 1500 to 1600 has brought a more refined chassis with better passenger accommodations and an improved windshield. The 1600's additional fuel capacity would be welcome, but the styling upgrades are significantly diluted by the fumbled details. The price hasn't changed despite the added equipment. It's still $12,999. Would I upgrade to the 1600 if I owned and loved a Nomad 1500? Probably not, unless I rode a lot with a passenger or was bothered by buffeting over the windshield. I would want to be sure a comfortable seat was available for the 1600, because I don't think this one is adequate for real traveling duty.

Will the Nomad remain the king of the baggers? That's a question we will take up in our next issue.

2005 Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Nomad

Designation: VN1500-G1/L
Suggested base price: $12,999
Standard colors: Black, blue/silver
Extra-cost colors: None
Standard warranty: 24 months, unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 6000 miles
Engine type: Liquid-cooled 50-degree tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: SOHC, two intake valves, two exhaust valves, operated byhydraulic adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1552cc, 102 x 95mm
Compression ratio: 9.0:1
Carburetion: EFI, two 36mm throttle bodies
Minimum fuel grade: 87 octane
Transmission: Wet, multiplate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Shaft
Dry weight: 772 lbs
Wheelbase: 66.5 in.
Rake/trail: 32 deg. / 7.2 in.Wheels: Cast aluminum
Front tire: 150/80-16, tubeless radial
Rear tire: 170/70-16, tubeless radial
Front brake: two, single-action, twin-piston calipers, 11.8 in. discs
Rear brake: Single-action caliper, 11.8 in. disc
Front suspension: 43mm stanchions, 5.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: Dual dampers, 3.9 in. travel, adjustable for air pressure,rebound damping
Fuel capacity: 5.3 gal.
Handlebar width: 32.5 in.
Seat height: 28.4 in