Bang for the Buck: Cheap Cruiser Motorcycles

Check Out These Cost-Effective Cruisers

If money were no object, we'd all be riding the exact motorcycles we wanted and they'd be set up precisely the way we wished. Oh, and we'd ride more because we wouldn't have to work.

But money is an object for most of us. Often, it isn't a matter of buying what we want, but rather of buying what we can afford. We typically compare bikes by displacement, engine type, or some other physical characteristic. This time we thought we'd compare them by price range (based on prices after the first round of 2003 models were released in July). We recognize that for many buyers, price is the determining factor. Most of us do have budgets, and when buying a new bike we have to live within them. Fortunately, this is not always a matter of settling, unless you simply want the prestige that a higher price tag brings. If you look around, you can find cheap cruiser motorcycles that perform and travel as well as or better than the model you had your eye on.

With that in mind, we carved the current crop of new cruisers into six price categories and asked our testers to name their favorites and near-favorites in each range. We based the categories and our selections on suggested prices, though we were mindful of the fact that there is room to deal on many of these bikes and that some bikes, notably certain Harley models, fetch a premium in some areas. To our surprise, the top choice in each bracket was virtually unanimous. Even second place had very strong support. (Some of our third places, however, took a bit of discussion to decide.) In other words, our top picks all received strong recommendations.

It was tempting to try this same sort of listing with used bikes. But used cruiser prices vary sharply by region. A bike that is popular and fetches a relatively high price in one region may have fallen out of favor in another area and sell for considerably less. This makes it hard to set price brackets the way we can with new bikes.

Note that the voting was done by testers--people who have ridden all these machines. As a result, our choices, as always, tend to weight how the bikes work more than how they appear. We have found that at the end of a long ride, a comfortable, competent motorcycle somehow looks even better than it did when it was all clean and shiny in the garage that morning.

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UNDER $5000

You can still find performance on a tight budget

Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTD $4699
Strong performance, modest price. In the lower-priced strata of the market, where displacement tends to be modest, performance becomes an issue. You need to have some power if you are going to ride on the highway, and the acceleration and speed of some small bikes can leave you underwhelmed. That's not the case with Kawasaki's Vulcan 500 LTD vertical twin, which can run circles around many 800s and any other current sub-650cc cruiser, thanks to its powerful liquid-cooled, double-overhead-camshaft, eight-valve engine. The mill is basically half of the 1000cc Ninja sportbike engine from the 1980s. As with other small bikes, you must be willing to rev it to harness all the available power, but its six-speed gearbox makes that easy. If you're willing to let it rev and massage the gear-shift lever, you will find that the 500 is happy to make brisk passes at highway speeds, zip away from other vehicles when the light turns green, or deliver a shot of acceleration when traffic demands it. The power is bigger than the price.
,br>The little Vulcan does not necessarily make a great first impression. In fact, a few years ago, we had three new riders fresh from Motorcycle Safety Foundation rider training. When we handed out the keys to a selection of small bikes, none of them paid much attention to the Vulcan 500. They all wanted to ride the Honda VLX, preferring its looks and imagining more power from its additional displacement. But after a few weeks of riding all the bikes regularly, it was the 500 LTD's key they were fighting for. The Kawasaki was not only much more powerful than the VLX, it was more comfortable, more nimble, and more fun to ride.

The bike also has a good reputation for longevity, and it shares the engine with the 500 Ninja, which means that parts are readily available. These factors, plus the fact that it has been around for many years with little change and is continuing production into 2003, also mean that the Vulcan 500 is a good choice for a rider shopping for an inexpensive used cruiser.

The pickings in the under-$5000 class have gotten pretty thin, and we think there is a big gap between the Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTD and other bikes with suggested prices in this range. However, for those who lack a Kawasaki dealer in the neighborhood or can't quite mesh with the Vulcan 500's style, there are additional choices.

Honda VLX $4999-$5299
If you just have to have a V-twin, Honda's 600cc VLX is the most twin you can buy for under five Gs. Most people also rate it as the best-looking bike in this price range, and it has the best aftermarket support, with a variety of accessories to improve looks and extend function. Though it works harder than the 500 LTD, the VLX has adequate power for highway use.

However, you have to be ready to settle for some significant shortcomings compared to the Kawasaki. Most riders say the VLX is substantially less comfortable for them. Having only four speeds is also a shortcoming on a small-displacement motorcycle, placing big gaps between gears without sufficient power to fully bridge them.

There are two different VLX models, the plain VLX and the Deluxe with colors besides black and some additional chrome. We hear that the Deluxe outsells the plain model, but we think a buyer would be wiser to save the extra $300 for accessories to better dress and personalize the bike.

Suzuki GZ250 $2999
If your budget is stretched simply buying a new bike, you might want to consider some of the $3000-range 250s. Not for a large rider, the little 250s are nonetheless legal on interstate highways and capable of keeping up with 65-mph traffic. They are also attractive for the frugal fuel economy and easy upkeep. The single-cylinder Suzuki has an edge in those areas. Its single-cylinder engine has just two valves to adjust and seems to get slightly better mileage (in excess of 50 mpg for most riders) than the Honda and Yamaha 250cc twins.

Most riders will regard 250s as simply too small, even though many of today's older riders started out on smaller and less powerful bikes. The Suzuki is a bit roomier than other 250s too.

$5000 TO $7500

Full-size motorcycles, strong performance, lightweight prices

Honda Magna $7499
Kawasaki Vulcan 800 Drifter $7499
Triumph Bonneville $7299
Yamaha V-Star Silverado $6899
Kawasaki Vulcan 800 Classic $6799
Harley Sportster 883 Custom $6795-$7095
Harley Sportster XL883R $6695-$6815
Suzuki Intruder Volusia $6599
Suzuki Intruder 800 $6399
Harley Sportster 883 Hugger $6155-$6775
Kawasaki Vulcan 750 $6099
Honda Shadow A.C.E. 750 Deluxe $5999-$6399
Honda Shadow Spirit 750 $5999-$6199
Kawasaki Vulcan 800 $5999
Suzuki Marauder $5999
Yamaha V-Star Classic $5899-$5999
Harley XL883 Sportster 883 $5695-$6315
Yamaha V-Star Custom $5599-$5699

If you take a step up from the under-$5000 bracket, you'll find a class of motorcycles that are full-sized or nearly so, often with styling and performance comparable to that of big bikes. Except for a little torque and the bragging rights that go with more than a liter of displacement, you don't give up much.

You don't even have to go to the top of the price range to acquire our favorite bike here. It should come as no surprise to anyone who read our 800-class comparison that Suzuki Volusia is our top pick in this grouping. Suzuki's 805cc liquid-cooled, eight-valve V-twin provides solid, smooth performance. Though it's geared taller than the Intruder 800 and therefore doesn't accelerate quite as hard, the Volusia nevertheless provides plenty of power and a more relaxed cadence on the highway. The Volusia's physical size--its wheelbase is almost four inches longer than the Intruder 800's--lends it the roominess, presence and comfort of a bigger cruiser. We also give it high marks for offering the handling, braking and appearance of a more expensive bike. In fact, we think the 2002 and 2003 paint schemes have made it look even classier. Its styling is the currently favored wide, classic style, which makes it ideal for long rides both because of its comfort and its 4.5-gallon fuel capacity.

Finally, with an engine based on the same Intruder middleweight that has been around for over 15 years and shaft final drive (a major maintenance-reducer), the Volusia should also be trouble-free, easy to maintain and inexpensive to repair.

The selection of bikes in this modest price range has become increasingly diverse and appealing. They range from the stark Harley Sportster to the feature-laden Kawasaki 750 Vulcan to Triumph's unique Bonneville. There are a couple of stand-outs, however.

Yamaha V-Star 650s $5599-$6899
We have been fans of the slickly styled V-Stars since they were introduced. Yamaha's 650cc V-twins were the original affordable middleweights with big-bike style. When you roll in solid comfort and shaft final drive, any one of the V-Stars is an impressive value. You can have your V-Star in three flavors. The Classic, with its deep fenders, is our favorite. Wrapped in traditional beamy American lines, the Classic looks more elegant and cushy than a $5899 (add $100 for colors other than black) cruiser should be. Good brakes and responsive handling round out its appeal. The only shortcoming is power that is just slightly lacking on the highway. Not that it won't keep up, it just wheezes a bit if you ask it to pass a truck on an uphill. Add leather saddlebags and a windshield and you have the Silverado version, for an additional $1000. If you prefer leaner lines, the V-Star Custom, with its chopped fenders and skinnier front wheel, delivers for $300 less than the Classic.

Honda Magna $7499
If you want hard-hitting performance, impressive comfort and clean styling but aren't ready to pay big bucks to get it, Honda's V4-powered Magna is the bargain bullet for you. Last issue it held its own against bigger bikes in our performance-cruiser comparison, and a few years back it emerged on top in our sport-cruiser showdown. After more than a decade in production, the Magna has demonstrated solid reliability too. While we'd like to see Honda freshen it slightly, we nonetheless regard the Magna as one of the great cruisers, especially at this price.

$7500 TO $10,000

Middle of the road in every area except performance

Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic $9999
Suzuki Intruder 1500 LC $9999
Yamaha V-Star 1100 Silverado $9399
Harley Sportster 1200 Custom $9155-$9795
Honda Shadow Aero $8999-$9299
Honda VTX1300S $8999-$9299
Triumph Thunderbird $8999
Moto Guzzi California Stone $8790
Harley Sportster 1200 Sport $8695-$8995
Moto Guzzi California Jackal $8495
Suzuki Intruder 1400 $8349
Honda Shadow Sabre $8199-$8399
**Yamaha V-Star 1100 Classic $8199-$8499 **
Honda Shadow Spirit $7999
Triumph Bonneville America $7999
Harley Sportster 1200 $7995-$8855
Yamaha V-Star 1100 Custom $7899-$7999

Since the first issue of this magazine, we have been fans of Kawasaki's big American-styled V-twin. Comfortable, handsome, well-behaved and uncannily smooth, the Vulcan 1500 Classic has always been a cruiser that we enjoy climbing on and pointing toward some distant destination. Even though its price is right at the upper limit of this category, the choice was unanimous.

The 1500 Classic has grown with us, offering improvements and technical changes on a regular basis while spawning a series of spin-off models. Kawasaki even added a fuel-injected model of the 1500 Classic, which has pushed the price over the $10,000 ceiling of this category, but the carbureted version remains in the line and has a suggested price at the very top of this range.

Though it's slower than most big twins and its fuel mileage is unimpressive, the big Vulcan Classic has always been among our favorite big cruisers. It won our first big-twin comparison almost six years ago and has ranked among the top finishers whenever we have pitted it against other big twins. Great throttle response, a unique combination of V-twin rumble, just a suggestion of shake and open-road smoothness give the engine a special appeal, while nicely sorted suspension, a seamless shaft-drive powertrain, a riding position that seems to almost perfectly suit everyone who sits on it, and clean lines distinguish the rest of the Vulcan Classic. Heading into its seventh year of production, the 1500 Classic is supported by a huge number of aftermarket modifications and accessories, so it's easy to personalize. Its long production run, bolstered by a continuing series of upgrades, has allowed the Vulcan 1500 to live up to its name and become a true Classic.

Within this price bracket you can get almost anything a cruiser enthusiast can hope for in a twin, from Triumph's 800 to Suzuki's massive 1500, with stops in between at 1100, 1200, 1300 and 1400cc. There are vertical twins and V-twins configured in a variety of V angles and mounted with their cylinders in tandem or poking out from the sides of the bike. With so many possibilities, making a choice may be daunting...until you ride them.

Yamaha V-Star 1100s $7899-$9399
As in the next price bracket down, Yamaha's bigger V-Stars, this time displacing 1063cc, are built around the same satisfying engine and chassis combination with three variations. The Custom, styled in a somewhat chopperesque manner, with a tall, narrow front wheel and a brief fender topping it, offers 1100cc of power at a budget price, barely above the floor of this range. If you prefer the bulkier traditional American look, for $300 more the 1100 Classic offers covered fork tubes, a bigger headlight, a wider tire skirted with a deeper fender, and a broader saddle. If you want wind protection and luggage, there is also a Silverado version here for another $1400. All offer strong performance, good looks, extended comfort, responsive handling and reassuring brakes at prices that undercut the competition.

Honda Shadow Aero $8999-$9299
Combining its strong 1099cc twin-crankpin V-twin and the cleanest retro styling around, Honda's Aero is also a great bike for someone who plans to ride. We have flogged it across the continent, enjoyed it on wriggling roads, and soaked up admiring looks as we cruised the city streets. Unlike bikes that ask you to give up something in exchange for retro styling, the Aero actually improves on other Honda 1100 V-twins. Though it now uses the same strong, vibration-canceling engine configuration as Honda's other 1100s, the Aero has an inch or two more between the axles than the other Shadow 1100s, making it roomier and giving a longer, lower profile that helps make it what we believe is the classiest-looking 1100 around. It looks good and works well, yielding a high bang-to-buck ratio.

$10,000 TO $12,500

More cash certainly buys a more refined motorcycle

Honda VTX1800C $12,499-$12,999

Yamaha Road Star Silverado $12,399-$13,299
Yamaha Road Star Warrior $11,999
Moto Guzzi California EV $11,990
Harley FXD Dyna Super Glide $11,895-$12,745
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Drifter $11,799
Yamaha Road Star Midnight Star $11,799
Yamaha Road Star $10,999-$11,899
Kawasaki Mean Streak $10,999
Moto Guzzi California Special Sport $10,990
Moto Guzzi California Special $10,950
Yamaha V-Max $10,899
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic FI $10,599

This was the closest category in this contest. In the initial discussions about this price bracket, all our testers said, "Either the Classic FI or the Road Star." However, when they were asked to choose between the two, the Kawasaki got the nod from everyone. Perhaps the half-a-grand price advantage it holds over the Yamaha helped, or the fact that the Classic FI is the least expensive bike in this bracket. (A shrewd negotiator could almost certainly drive the price down into the sub-$10,000 range.) But this is a cruiser that has always bewitched us too.

The FI is an extension of the carbureted 1500 Classic, featuring not only fuel injection for that ultra-smooth engine but other power-enhancing changes as well. However, the retooling also brought a stiffer chassis and a cosmetic facelift, involving details like a larger, seamless fuel tank, a new saddle, revised instruments and more. The sum of the improvements more than justifies the $500 price increase on the carbureted Classic.

However, we start by endorsing the FI for all the things that have enamored us of the basic 1500 Classic. The 1470cc liquid-cooled counterbalanced V-twin continues to provide uncanny smoothness with just a hint of the pulsing V-twin in its fuel-injected form, but it's a bit stronger. The slightly more spacious ergonomics continue to welcome a wide range of riders, and the stouter chassis feels just as responsive and manageable though a bit more stable in high-speed corners. In short, the Vulcan 1500 Classic FI is simply more of a good thing.

Though there are plenty of solid choices in this price range, including some hot new V-twins, we think the best cruisers--and best buys--in the bracket are among the more traditional, established models, which also happen to fall at the lower end of the price spectrum.

Yamaha Road Star $10,999-$11,899
The Road Star is a mighty close contender to Kawasaki's 1500 Classic, even in the minds of our function-minded testers. That may seem surprising considering the Road Star is deliberately low-tech. Its air-cooled, single-carb, pushrod 1602cc V-twin should be unimpressive by comparison, but the additional 132cc of displacement and a surprising absence of vibration make it quite satisfying. In fact, it gets better fuel mileage and range than the Kawasaki, which you can put to good use because its roomy ergonomics and a comfy saddle invite long rides. It also offers respectable brakes and responsive, predictable handling (though cornering clearance is limited).

Like the V-Stars, the basic Road Star can be had in a variety of configurations and prices. Paint options can add $900, and there is the Midnight Star version. Finally, for $1400 over the basic price, you can dress it up with a windshield and leather saddlebags as the Silverado.

Yamaha V-Max $10,899
If your idea of "bang" is a forceful kick in the ass, then the hard-hitting V-Max is the epitome of bang for the buck. As the performance-cruiser comparison in our last issue reiterated, there simply isn't a stronger cruiser-style motorcycle than Yamaha's mighty V4. Even though it's entering its 19th year of production with relatively minor changes, Mighty Max still sets the pace, even as many manufacturers have revisited the performance-cruiser genre with bigger, lighter and more modern musclebikes. This renewed interest in cruiser performance has led many to hope that Yamaha will finally modernize its kick-ass V4 with a lighter, more modern chassis, upgraded suspension and brakes, and a more contemporary look--as long as it doesn't give away any of that thrilling V-Boost-ed power.

$12,500 TO $15,000

Big money, big bikes, big performance

Victory V92TC $14,999-$15,699
Harley FXSTB/I Night Train $14,950-$15,890
Victory V92C Deluxe $14,899-$15,499
Harley Dyna Glide T-Sport $14,895-$15,425
Harley Dyna Low Rider $14,795-$15,990
BMW R1200C $14,590
Harley Electra Glide Standard $13,995-$14,580
Harley Dyna Super Glide Sport $13,895-$14,745
Honda Valkyrie $13,099-$13,299
Honda VTX1800R/S $12,999-$13,299
Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Nomad FI $12,999
Harley FXST Softail Standard $12,995-$13,935
Victory V92C $12,995-$13,095

HONDA VALKYRIE $13,099-$13,299
If we'd made the top price bracket $12,500 and above, the Valkyrie still would have ridden off with the honors. Honda stepped far outside the box when it drew up a cruiser using the mighty, massive six-cylinder Gold Wing engine. And if it created a bike that will never attract buyers who lack the daring or imagination to do anything other than fall in line in the V-twin parade, that big engine also presents the best power characteristics in cruising. Nowhere else can you find an engine that will tick along at near-walking speeds in top gear and pull away smoothly when the throttle is snapped open. And it still accelerates with all the authority of six cylinders when the issue is sheer speed.

You might have expected that huge engine to force handling compromises, but Honda worked some special magic with the Valkyrie. Although the bike's massive appearance can be daunting, from the moment it starts to roll, its size and mass just seem to melt away. The fact is that the Valkyrie handles more nimbly, leans more deeply into corners, feels more controlled at speed, and generally is easier to manage than most of those lighter, narrower V-twins in this category. In fact, outstanding handling is one of the reasons the Valkyrie is so popular around here.

With its size and Gold Wing heritage, you'd also expect the Valkyrie to be comfortable on the long haul, and Honda's six-cylinder cruiser delivers in spades. Its smooth engine combines with plush, roomy ergonomics, great suspension and remarkable reliability to make a true luxury cruiser. Whether the mission is dueling with traffic, unwinding a kinky road, trolling the boulevard, or laying down hundreds of miles on the open road, the Valkyrie comes through with singular style, comfort, performance and competence.

Harley-Davidson Dyna Glide T-Sport $14,895-$15,425
Flexibility is the defining quality of Harley's T-Sport. It can be cruiser, tourer, or back-road charger. Harley took the Super Glide Sport with its adjustable suspension, responsive steering geometry and powerful brakes and added an adjustable windshield and expandable, detachable soft saddlebags. This arrangement allows you to configure the T-Sport for whatever sort of adventure you have in mind. The Dyna chassis rubber-mounts the strong 1450cc Twin Cam engine to sift out much of its vibration, and the riding position is moderate, in the interest of long-distance comfort. The suspension and brakes provide confidence on curvy roads, and the blacked-out engine and exhaust give an appearance that is as unique as the bike itself.

Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Nomad FI $12,999
Kawasaki's Nomad is another one of our perennial favorites, and our affection for this touring-oriented cruiser has increased as Kawasaki has upgraded it with both minor improvements like additional fuel capacity and major changes like fuel-injection with more power. It is a variation of the Vulcan 1500 Classic platform, and as such it brings with it that bike's ultra-smooth, responsive 1470cc V-twin, responsive handling and rider-friendly ergonomics. Kawasaki beefed up the chassis and added the prettiest hard bags in cruising (which are also very functional) along with a wide, adjustable windshield. Although, like the Classic, it isn't a powerhouse and fuel mileage is unimpressive, the Nomad provides exceptional comfort and great control, making it a consistent favorite when we need to lay down some miles.

OVER $15,000

Style's the limit

If you are going to spend a stack of money on a motorcycle, you should get something to show for it. Although some of the Road King's price (the dealer may charge more than the suggested prices listed here) is simply the "Harley tariff," the FLHR is a bike that works well in almost any situation from constipated traffic to fast dashes on curvaceous roads. The Road King offers good comfort and useful traveling amenities without the smothering overkill of a full-dress machine. The windshield can be unclipped in a second when you'd rather not have it, and the hard bags (which we prefer to the leather bags on the more expensive Road King Classic) offer significant waterproof storage to tote your gear on tour or your briefcase to the office. The 'King is a handsome, solid, traditional American big bike with a natural nostalgia that belies its good performance.
The rubber-mounted, air-cooled, 1450cc two-valve-per-cylinder pushrod V-twin pumps out strong power and impressive fuel mileage, which when combined with its 5.0-gallon fuel capacity gives commendable range. Handling is reasonable, responsive and stable, and there is good cornering clearance. Most riders fit the standard ergonomic layout, though it isn't quite as roomy or plush as some of our lower-priced choices. The brakes require a strong pull but offer good control. Great detailing helps justify the high price.

Even in this bucks-up class, we still want bikes that offer superior function for the price. Although we generally think these bikes are overpriced, there are still some that offer more for your money.

Harley-Davidson FXSTD/I Softail Deuce $16,555-$17,840
Whether you want a cruiser that looks good or works well, the Deuce delivers. When we first rode it a few years ago, we were surprised that a bike that looks so custom could be this comfortable and easy to handle. Thanks to the counterbalanced 1450cc engine, it is also smooth and powerful. The ergonomics aren't a strain, and the handling is surprising, making the Deuce fun on a meandering mountain road.

If you have $20,000 just searing a hole in your jeans and plan to spend it on a good-looking cruiser, this is the way to go. While you are at it, get the fuel-injected model.

BMW R1200CST Stiletto $15,100
BMW came at the world of cruisers from a much different direction than any other company and ended up with a motorcycle that is way off-center. The 1200C series flaunts an opposed-twin engine, the unusual Telelever front suspension, a unique frame design and single-shock rear suspension, to mention just the most obvious deviations from the cruiser mainstream. It also offers anti-lock braking. And though all of this stuff confuses the guy who just wants a me-too V-twin, it offers a bike that is not only distinctive but functionally superior in many ways. The 1170cc, eight-valve engine's opposed-twin design keeps its weight low, naturally cancels major reciprocating forces and sets up perfectly to plug into the shaft final drive. That fork design resists flexing and counters dive during braking. The frame and rear suspension offer the kind of minimalist design that fits perfectly with cruiser cleanliness and simplicity. We also think that anti-lock braking can be a life-saver. We wish more manufacturers would offer it. The R1200C is also nimble and accelerates strongly. If you are confident enough to break from the crowd, BMW gives you plenty of reasons to go its way.

Kawasaki Vulcan
Kawasaki VulcanKawasaki
Suzuki Intruder
Suzuki IntruderSuzuki
Yamaha V-Star
Yamaha V-StarYamaha
Honda Magna
Honda MagnaHonda
Kawasaki Vulcan
Kawasaki VulcanKawasaki
Yamaha V-Star
Yamaha V-StarYamaha
Honda Shadow
Honda ShadowHonda
Kawasaki Vulcan
Kawasaki VulcanKawasaki
Yamaha Road Star
Yamaha Road StarYamaha
Yamaha V-Max
Yamaha V-MaxYamaha
Honda Valkyrie
Honda ValkyrieHonda
Harley-Davidson Dyna Glide
Harley-Davidson Dyna GlideHarley-Davidson
Kawasaki Vulcan
Kawasaki VulcanKawasaki
Harley-Davidson Road King
Harley-Davidson Road KingHarley-Davidson
Harley-Davidson Softail
Harley-Davidson SoftailHarley-Davidson
BMW R1200