900cc comparison: Kawasaki Vulcan 900 vs. Suzuki C50 vs. Triumph America

Middleweight Doesn't Mean Middle of The Road

900cc Middleweight Classics

The 800-900cc middleweight class of classic-styled bikes can be pretty much narrowed down to these three machines; The Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic, the Suzuki Boulevard C50 and the Triumph America.

In the recent landscape of big-bore, Super Size Me powerplants, we’ve all been conditioned to believe that there’s no replacement for displacement. Maybe that used to be the case in the go-go aughts, but these days, downsizing seems downright trendy for a good chunk of the population, whether for aesthetic or financial reasons. And that makes the generally unheralded middleweight cruiser class somewhat compelling again. Which is good for everybody, as you’re not compromising much performance with these midi-weights, plus you get to save some greenbacks to boot.

But one of the issues with doing an overview is getting a handle on the parameters of this sticky class; the term "middleweight" covers such a wide range of displacements (750 to 1,300cc is the general consensus) that we can't even compare many of the bikes directly. Last time we did this test, we tackled the smaller 750–800cc bikes, but here, we're going for the beefier cruisers—ones with upward of 800cc. These mid-middleweights are handily comprised of the Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic, the Suzuki Boulevard C50, and the Triumph America. Our test of the similarly-sized, but bobber-style Harley Iron 883 and Star Bolt can be found here

Our testing grounds included environments that would be familiar for these machines: through city streets, a few freeway stints, but mostly the kind of laid-back cruising routes that are big on scenery and small on traffic. These are pretty basic rigs, without the advantage of weather protection or cargo space, so our runs were kept to about 100 miles per and at a casual pace. If you’re looking to travel longer distances or two-up, all three bikes are also available in touring trim, with windshields, saddlebags, and backrests.

Size-Wise

Although they’re priced within $400 of one another, each of the three rivals claims a different rung on the displacement ladder. The 100cc spread in engine size goes from 805cc on the Suzuki Boulevard to 903cc for the Kawasaki Vulcan, with the 865cc Triumph America staking the middle ground. All are fuel injected and run on regular unleaded, but the Triumph rolls with an air-cooled parallel twin in this group of liquid-cooled V-twins. They are stylistically united by a common profile, with classic lines and traditional cues like spoke wheels and deep fenders throughout, which is probably why none of these models have changed appreciably in five years.

Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic

Introduced in 2006, the Vulcan 900 is the big boy of the trio and is available in three flavors: the Classic ($7,999), the more aggressive Custom ($8,499), and the touring-oriented Classic LT ($8,999), all of which run with a 903cc, liquid-cooled, SOHC V-twin, rubber-mounted in a double cradle steel frame with a belt final drive. Combine that midsize engine with a tight ergonomic package and a dropped seat height, and you get a machine without the intimidation of bigger twins yet one that still manages to convey a big-bike feel. The Classic’s retro curb appeal comes courtesy of black paint covering the engine, frame, fork, seat, and headlight nacelle, contrasted with chrome on the slash-cut pipes, handlebar, and other trim pieces. Spoke wheels and fat whitewall tires complete the look. Although the Kawasaki and Suzuki weigh within 10 pounds of each other and have wheelbases less than an inch apart, the Kawasaki seems much bigger overall.

Suzuki Boulevard C50

In the other corner is Suzuki’s Boulevard C50. It’s offered as the black-only base model ($8,399) tested here, the B.O.S.S. edition ($8,899), which drips black paint over the major components and powertrain, and as the touring variant C50T ($9,599), which brings a windshield, saddlebags, backrest, and two-tone paint. All trim levels reflect traditional styling, with shrouded fork legs, deep fenders, and big headlight buckets, though the B.O.S.S. version runs cast wheels. The Boulevard C50 and M50 are powered by the same 805cc (49.1ci), liquid-cooled, OHC, 45-degree V-twin motor fed through a fuel-injection system; the arrangement employs an offset dual-pin crankshaft to reduce engine vibration. You’ll notice a shaft drive on the C50 too, which is pretty unusual in this price-sensitive class. Alas, the C50’s fenders, side covers, and air covers are plastic, not metal (which saves weight as well as money), so there you go.

2013 Triumph America

Triumph’s America started life as the firm’s Bonneville model, but juiced up with a beefier, cruiser-style saddle, forward controls and a lazier rake angle. More recent changes brought the handlebar rearward, lowered the seat, and reshaped the tank. Stuffed in the tubular steel cradle frame, the compact parallel twin engine displays more open air underneath the tank than a V-twin. That same powerplant as well as some design cues are shared with the Speedmaster, though the America hews toward a more classic style, with full fenders, covered fork legs, and lots of chrome, as opposed to the Speedmaster’s leaner, blacked-out vibe. Unlike the other two bikes in the test, the America rolls on cast wheels and has a chain final drive. You can choose from the standard model ($8,299) or the new touring biased America LT ($9,499).

Eyeballs On

A quick walk-around of the middleweights revealed three types of final drives: a belt for the Vulcan, a shaft for the C50, and a good old-fashioned chain for the America. The traditional styling of the trio garnered an overall thumbs-up from most testers, with some riders commenting that the C50 seems more finished in some ways, until you reached the distinctly parts bin rear taillight. The Suzuki is decidedly low-key in its nostalgic cues, with elongated fenders and spoke wheels, while the America feels less certain of which period it’s trying to emulate, with its choppier fenders, higher profile, and asymmetrical control pods. But the Triumph's muscular 12-spoke cast wheels did make an impression (and allows it to use tubeless tires).

The vast majority of our riding crew preferred the Vulcan’s retro whitewalls and spoke-wheel aesthetics. Everyone who rode it was smitten by its more unified and detailed appearance, which not only outshined the C50 and America but even some of the bigger Kawasaki cruisers we’ve ridden. But upon closer inspection, you can easily pick out some of the price-point concessions in this class. The Japanese machines manage a reasonable balance between noticeable cosmetic touches—like stylishly stout upper triple clamps and handlebar risers—and cost-saving components like single brake discs and twin piston calipers, whereas the Triumph opted to cheap out on the switchgear and instrument housing.

After You

Swinging onto the Vulcan Classic means encountering beach cruiser-style handlebars and a super-low, sub-27-inch seat height that means almost everybody can go flat-footed at a stop. Complementing this setup is the most comfortable saddle in the bunch, a thickly padded one-piece unit that forces the rider closer to the tank but which still makes for a pretty decent fit if you’re shorter than 5-foot-8. The Kawi’s wide handlebar brings high-placed grips that come close to the rider, and our taller testers sometimes complained of being locked into one position.

Conversely, Suzuki did a nice job of building a bike to fit all sizes. The bike fit our two taller testers as well as the resident 5-foot-6 shrimp, with just enough room to stretch out. With a broad, firm seat and standard floorboards, the layout allows for a nice range of positioning options, and even the stumpy riders had no problems reaching the ground. Couple that with a low, moderately wide handlebar, and you get a somewhat upright seating position, with less slouch.

The America last got revisions in 2011, all ergonomic in nature. The handlebars were pulled back closer and are 5.5 inches narrower; the foot controls have likewise been moved in tighter and Triumph also dropped the seat height to 27.1 inches, making it easier to get feet on the ground at a stop. The single-piece saddle was also new for 2011, and new wheels came last year. The Triumph’s riding position splits the difference, fitting most folks, big or small, without complaint.

From your perch on any of these machines, you’ll have a clear view of the road, with easily read large analog speedometers coupled with small odometer/tripmeter LCD displays and warning lights. The Kawasaki and Suzuki also have fuel gauges built into the tank-mounted consoles, and the Suzuki adds a gear position indicator. The America sticks its speedometer gauge (with LCD odometer/tripmeter window) separately up on the handlebar, with the various indicator lights housed in an oddly shaped tank-mounted pod. Unfortunately, the setup's smallish numbers proved difficult to read at speed. Still, the Triumph’s hand controls are four-way adjustable: a nice bonus on a cruiser at this price point, even if the plastic control housings are chintzy. However, most testers weren’t keen on the America’s ignition placement—under the rider’s left leg— which made it difficult to locate.

**And They're Off **

Fuel injection on all three bikes means start-up is instant, with easy idling for the most part (the America still utilizes a plunger-style choke). The Kawasaki’s liquid-cooled, oversquare, overhead cam V-twin is agile and revs fairly quickly in response to rider input. The twin-body Keihin FI system works well, and the 903cc, 55-degree engine’s single-pin crankshaft delivers a classic rumble, with a gear-driven counterbalancer keeping vibes at bay. Crank the throttle wide open and feel 58.2 pound-feet of torque come on at 3,500 rpm—there’s plenty of grunt to tap here, and the motor doesn’t seem like it’s even working until 80 mph. What’s more, the Vulcan rewards you with a throaty exhaust note, with its rhythm and deep sound quickly making our “Favorites” list.

2012 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic action

The Suzuki’s 800cc powerplant has always been a stout performer in our tests, but here it’s a little bit out of its class, with the smallest displacement of the bunch. Still, the super light clutch allows you to get under way easily, and the C50’s got accessible power everywhere, revs out nicely, and really doesn’t care when you shift. Tight gear ratios meant you could rev the bike out excessively at freeway speeds, but the most (un)noticeable issue is the not-really-there exhaust note, which makes the gear noise all the more apparent. But the power comes on incredibly smooth, thanks to its offset dual-pin crankshaft arrangement, with minimal lash from the shaft. In fact, all three bikes are uncannily smooth up to around 80 mph or thereabouts; beyond that, you start to feel a little buzz through the bars and floorboards.

2013 Suzuki Boulevard C50 action

Alfonse Palaima

As the only air-cooled, chain-driven bike of the bunch, you might think the Triumph wouldn’t be able to hang —but you’d be wrong. Whack the throttle, and the revvier parallel twin (with 270-degree firing order) slings the America past the others in roll-on tests with a crisp throttle response and a claimed 53 foot-pounds of torque coming at 3,300 rpm. The thing pulls well into the rev range, making its max 60 bhp (claimed) at a lofty 6,800 rpm. Delivery is smooth and even throughout, with the powerband having no flat spots, but it isn’t particularly wide (unlike a lumpy V-twin). On the superslab, you can roll on adequately, but more impressive is just how smooth this engine is, and how evenly it distributes its power. The trade-off is that there’s not much of an exhaust tone to rave about.

2013 Triumph America action

The three gearboxes transmit power smoothly and efficiently, with all the contenders bringing five-speed transmissions and cable-actuated clutches with good, reliable action. We found that shortshifting the America was the best way to hit the heart of the powerband, but otherwise the transmission matches the smooth character of the engine. And while the Suzuki gearbox brings a more positive engagement, you could also hear more noise. Additionally we felt there was limited room between the floorboard and toe shifter on the Kawasaki (which has a heel-toe shifter). We didn’t feel too much vibration on any of the bikes until we hit the freeway (and north of 70 mph). At that point, all feel like they’re pushing a bit, and we could feel some vibes start to creep in.

Balance and Braking

You’ll find a conventional fork with 41mm stanchions on all three rigs, while both the Vulcan and C50 go with a hardtail look out back, with hidden single rear shocks. The America exposes its twin shocks for easy accessibility, and you can crank up the preload if you want to improve ride quality. Suspension for both Kawasaki and Suzuki felt generally well damped, with similar setups. With its ultrawide beach bars, steering inputs are a breeze on the Vulcan, and the big tires and long wheelbase keep this ship steady in turns. Some testers felt the C50 was the most firmly sprung, but the Suzuki could handle different-sized riders better. It too brings a long wheelbase (longest here) and proves rock-solid when changing direction, though some testers commented that it would drop into turns abruptly. The Kawasaki’s floorboards would drag soonest in this bunch, with the Suzuki a close second. We found that cracking the C50’s throttle a little earlier in the turn gains you a couple degrees of cornering clearance thanks to shaft jacking at the rear end.

With the least amount of suspension travel (both front and back), the America felt the firmest of the three, especially on the freeway, though dialing preload out back did bring a slight improvement. That said, the America easily has the best lean angle of the three bikes here and feels lighter than its claimed 550-pound curb weight. The steering is lighter than on the other two bikes and the Triumph turns in a bit more quickly, though it carries its CG higher. It’s easier to track and hold the line you picked however.

Braking action was right in line with expectations here, with the three bikes running single-disc front brakes with two-piston calipers. The Kawasaki and Triumph use disc brakes for the rear, and the Suzuki uses a drum. Four fingers on the lever and good pressure on the rear pedal are required to get decent braking power out of the two Japanese cruisers, though most riders felt the America had better feel and engagement both front and rear. No matter which one you’re riding, be prepared to bring extra pressure to the rear wheel.

Out on the open road, the Kawi’s instant torque, low vibration, and smooth ride made it the best long hauler of the bunch. The passenger pad provided decent comfort, though everybody agreed Suzuki’s oversize rear pillion was far plusher. The Vulcan’s largest-in-class 5.3-gallon fuel capacity was universally admired, with the America’s 5.1-gallon unit a close second. At just 4.1 gallons, the Suzuki’s fuel capacity didn’t impress anybody, making range a paltry 170 miles. Good thing it has a fuel gauge.

The Kawasaki Vulcan's instrument cluster resides in a tank-mounted console.

Alfonse Palaima

Suzuki's C50 also brings a classic-style instrument pod on the tank.

The Triumph America's main instrument gauges are set in a separate dial atop the handlebar.

The Choice is Yours

These bikes provide basic transport and good style, with V-twin engines, relaxed riding positions, and low seat heights. As middleweights, they aren’t too big, too powerful, or too expensive. They’re all fairly close in terms of engine performance (relative to displacement), shifting, suspension compliance, and braking power, and prices are relatively comparable. It seems that in the end, however, everybody preferred the Vulcan Classic. The Kawasaki is the looker of the bunch, and with its larger displacement, it makes the most ponies and torque. It’s also the most comfortable and ups the finery and details.

The Suzuki Boulevard C50 is stylish, runs smoothly, has a satisfying exhaust note, good handling, and includes extras like a fuel gauge. But now it’s the highest-priced bike here with the smallest displacement, and can’t quite be considered the best bang for your buck anymore.

And if you’re looking for a substantial, well-composed machine that’s outside the classic V-twin box and can give you a good dose of quickness, none of these other models can touch the Triumph.

Folks in the middle (of size or experience) will have a tough choice to make, but we can guarantee that neither of these fun, accessible machines will do you wrong.

- MC