Big Twin Rumble

Big Twin Rumble: Comparing the Big Twins from Harley-Davidson, Kawasaki, and Suzuki

A big twin comparison from the Cruiser archives

We considered it a well-deserved three-day vacation for our left feet. After grueling daily-duty running lesser cruisers up and down through the gears in city traffic, we hit the road on the biggest production V-twins available. This would be a strictly shifting-optional expedition. We'd select top gear on our mega-twins and simply chug along until the fuel warning lights winked on or the next Tastee-Freez appeared on the horizon.

Just three manufacturers have entries in the mega-twins class. Though you can opt to load each of them down with all sorts of aftermarket and OEM highway gear like saddlebags and windshields, we took 'em straight and undiluted, just as they roll out of the factory. Harley-Davidson created the segment, or at least was the first of the present manufacturers to capitalize on it, and offers a long roster of 1340cc twins. We chose the representative of each manufacturers' full-cruiser family. The Dyna Low Rider represented the modern, rubber-mounted Dyna line, and the retro Springer Softail—a pricier and more stylish take on big-inch motoring—carried the colors for the Softail family.

Kawasaki offers three variations of the 1500 Vulcan, and we chose two: the basic Vulcan 1500, and the pleasingly plump 1500 Classic that debuted in '96. Suzuki provided the elemental-looking 1400 Intruder. It made for a diverse mix of machinery; our route up California's Owens River Valley would provide an equally diverse selection of roads.

Owens Valley
The diverse group of big twins we took on the diverse roads of the Owens Valley.Kevin Wing

L.A.'s Drinking Fountain
When L.A. wants a drink of water, it dips its cup into California's Owens River Valley. Or more accurately, it diverts the water that flows off the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains before it has a chance to accumulate in the once-giant lakes of the area. L.A.'s half-century-plus habit of borrowing the region's water has changed the landscape to be sure, but it has barely detracted from the area's dramatic vistas. Or its appeal as great riding country.

Our fall venture northward out of Los Angeles began with a morning rendezvous in Mojave, about two-hours north of Shakytown. Besides being the home of the world-circling Voyager airplane, this day Mojave also earned the distinction of adding another point to Jamie Elvidge’s driving record, courtesy of a City Limits speed trap. The rest of us made it into town relatively unscathed, notwithstanding colorful descriptions of seat-induced aches and pains from some quarters.

Such grumbling accompanied us throughout our three-day trip, and actually turned the limited cruising range of some of the machines into a virtue by providing a chance for some much-needed gluteal blood circulation every 120 miles or so. Were we to regularly roll up big mileage on any of these machines, we’d highly recommend the addition of a windscreen. It’s the most cost-effective single comfort modification you can make to most cruisers. Relieved of the wind blast, we have found that a high handlebar works just fine, and even a marginal seat feels better.

Dyna Low Rider
The clear tail-ender in terms of tail-end comfort was the almost comically bad Dyna Low Rider torture rack.Kevin Wing

On the desolate roads that angle across the high desert north toward Lone Pine, we began to rank this fearsome fivesome in terms of comfort. Most editorial hineys gravitated (not a pretty sight, by the way) toward the Vulcan Classic's well-shaped saddle. The Springer Softail's perch came in a close second, offering good support and enough squirming room to stay comfortable as the miles rolled up. Kawasaki's Vulcan 1500 (a.k.a. the "old Vulcan") had its supporters, too, and most could make peace with the Intruder's saddle. The clear tail-ender in terms of tail-end comfort was the almost comically bad Dyna Low Rider torture rack. Thinly padded, crowned and canted rearward, it perpetually slides you uncomfortably aft into the separate, stepped passenger section. On this bike we would replace the seat before adding a windshield.

Springer Softail
The Springer Softail's perch came in a close second on the comfort scale, offering good support and enough squirming room to stay comfortable as the miles rolled up.Kevin Wing

General suspension harshness compounds the Low Rider’s cruel and unusual seat, particularly over broken pavement. Though not harsh, the Vulcan 1500 had the most noticeable bound and float over bumps, and it had the only significant shaft effect among the Japanese iron with changes in power setting. Both the Classic and Springer have fine highway rides, though the Springer’s front end bottoms noticeably if hard braking is mixed with substantial bumps.

We didn’t carry passengers on our Sierra Nevada jaunt, but short stints of city riding before and after the trip indicated that none but the Vulcan Classic are fit for extended two-up duty. In the name of style, the rest of the seats tend to share an uncomfortably narrow, precarious feel that limits a passenger’s long-range happiness. Small backrests on the Suzuki and Vulcan 1500 partially compensate by adding a measure of security for nervous back-seaters.

The Vulcan Classic was our ergonomic favorite. The low, wide handlebar lets you lean comfortably into the wind as required, and the big floorboards (the only ones in the test) provide plenty of room for foot movement and are blessed with well-placed controls. The Classic garnered just one ergonomic complaint: In low-speed full-lock maneuvering, it’s quite a reach to the far handgrip, although most of our riders didn’t mind the stretch.

Even though its footpegs are far forward, the Springer Softail garnered good comfort reviews. The uncrowded layout gives you room to move as the miles roll by, and the high handlebar and tall front end give you a measure (possibly imagined) of wind protection. The Softail’s handgrips are positioned too vertically to feel natural, though, and it’s impossible to position the lever assemblies quite right on the handlebar without running into interference with the turn signals. A footpeg phenomenon reared its head too. Between the wind blast and engine vibration, most of our riders noticed their boots slowly and inexorably sliding off the end of the footpegs. A bit more upward cant to the folding pegs would solve the problem.

Despite the mild sensation of doing a continuous pull-up against the wind blast, the old Vulcan worked well and was noticeably roomier than the cramped Intruder and Low Rider, which felt fine at low speed, but less and less accommodating as the velocity increased.

bike ride through the woods
The roads we took provided enough different challenges to give these monsters a chance to show off their pros and cons.Kevin Wing

Pizza Burns and Power Struggles
After a leisurely lunch in Lone Pine, where Jamie Elvidge described her recent self-inflicted, pizza-induced second-degree burns (on an ankle, no less) to an enthralled audience, tour leader Friedman aimed our group up the side of the Sierras on a road that zigzags uphill more than a vertical mile in a few minutes. The climb and the increasing altitude forced all the throttles to their stops, and gave these monster twins a chance to bite off hearty chunks of atmosphere.

The Intruder and Vulcan 1500 make the best and the most power when the work load rises. Both turned in nearly identical performances at the dragstrip and in a top-gear roll-on, and gradually turned the other machines in this group into tiny specs in their rearview mirrors as the road clawed its way upward.

monster VS
The monster Vs provide the perfect combination of sound, visceral thump, and crank-twisting torque.Kevin Wing

The Low Rider proved to be the stronger of our two Harleys, and in this hard climb, both Milwaukee machines took advantage of the closely spaced ratios in their five-speed transmissions. The Vulcan Classic had the road all to itself—at the back of the pack. With a 14.99-second quarter-mile best, it’s more than a second slower than the 13.71-second Suzuki. Its 71.5-mph 200-yard top-gear roll-on from 50 mph is 10.7 mph slower than the Intruder’s arm-stretching 82.2 mph performance. Tuned for bottom-end chugability, the Classic refuses to be hurried. Our riders dutifully noted the Classic’s mild maximum thrust but, with rare exception, didn’t find it particularly annoying. With a view like this, what’s the hurry?

After all, hurrying runs counter to the whole appeal of a big V-twin. With each cylinder displacing more than the entire engine of many bikes, the monster Vs provide the perfect combination of sound, visceral thump and crank-twisting torque. Sound-wise, most of our riders gave the nod to the Kawasakis, with their liquid-cooled cylinders dispensing a muffled bark without extraneous clatter. As for the vibes, this was less of an issue than anticipated. The Springer’s rigid-mounted engine did indeed transmit the biggest buzz through seat, pegs and bars, but we were surprised to discover that the machine’s basically comfortable layout made the shakes altogether bearable. It was still much more comfortable than the smoother-running, rubber-mounted Low Rider with its Seat from Hell. The vibro-fave was clearly the Vulcan Classic. A shaker at boulevard speed, the Classic goes almost Lexus-smooth at cruising speed.

dummy gas cap
The Low Rider’s tach isn’t exactly in your line of sight. The left “gas cap” is actually a dummy with a fuel gauge, which means you only have to remove one cap for fill-ups, unlike the Springer which requires you to remove both fuel caps to top off.Kevin Wing

Any handling questions that weren’t answered on our ascent of the Sierras above Lone Pine were surely dealt with during an epoch coasting race that deposited us in a giggling, slipstreaming, freight train back on the valley floor. The Classic won handling praise, as did the Springer. Both have light, precise steering at moderate velocities (which is fast enough on any of these big twins). The Low Rider is stable, accurate and secure in the corners, and also has the corner on stopping power, with a pair of slightly sudden, but powerful front discs. The rest have single front discs that are adequate but far from dazzling, particularly while descending. The Intruder and Vulcan 1500 get through the turns just fine, too, though the Suzuki’s steering is a bit less linear, and the Kawasaki’s suspension allows a touch more bob and weave than the others.

After an overnight stay in the peaks above Bishop, we headed north for a riding tour of the June Lake Loop followed by a late lunch at Bridgeport. En route, Jamie decided to make a close pass by a highway construction cone as a momentary diversion. The Springer’s pegs proved wider than anticipated, however, and the cone spun her right foot a half turn clockwise. Her twisted right ankle proved to be a perfect complement to her pizza-burned left ankle.

Harley's Springer Fork
Though its primary appeal is visual, Harley’s Springer fork also has the functional attraction of freedom from fork-seal friction. This static friction, or stiction, slows down the response of forks, making the ride a bit rougher.Kevin Wing

For Jamie at least, low-speed handling suddenly took on acute importance. All the machines were easy to maneuver at walking speeds, save for the Intruder. Slightly ragged carburetion off-idle, a grabby clutch and floppy chopper-style steering geometry make it the clumsiest pretty much anywhere there’s likely to be an audience.

Of course, that’s the very same audience that’s the most impressed with the Suzuki’s level of finish once it’s safely on its sidestand. Nothing else in this group has as many pretty pieces as the Intruder, though the overall lines of the Vulcan Classic were most loved by our road crew. The Springer, too, has undeniable character and a genuine quality that others simply can’t simulate. The Low Rider has the ambiance of countless Harley-Davidsons before it, sort of like a Universal Milwaukee Motorcycle.

Upstaged by the Classic, the old-look Vulcan 1500 has its admirers, but they seem to be dwindling. We admired the twins in a variety of light, too, as we parked on a ridge leading to the Virginia Lakes and the setting sun gave way to a rising, then-eclipsed, full moon.

shaft drive
Coupled with its strong power and soft suspension, the shaft drive of the original Vulcan provides plenty of rise and fall with power-setting changes. The chrome cover on the shaft-drive housing is not included on the Classic version.Kevin Wing

We spent our third morning puttering around in the swiftly arriving fall color of Aspendell, 8000 feet up in the Sierras, pretending it was warm, even though it was 38 degrees in the shade and 42 in the morning sun. The long ride back to L.A. would take the rest of the day, and with the exception of the Low Rider (buy Corbin stock), any one of the five looked good for the long ride home.

A favorite had clearly emerged, and for most of us, it was the Vulcan Classic. Beautiful, comfortable and not a bit fast, its easy cadence struck our riders as most appealing. Far more expensive, the Springer Softail has a retro look that’s grounded in real history. The Intruder is hot on its tail, behind only as a matter of personal taste, not execution. The Vulcan 1500 serves as evidence of what Kawasaki accomplished with the Classic. The garden-variety Vulcan has the superior engine by most technical measures of performance, but the bike can’t evoke the positive emotional response of the Classic. Our back marker, the Low Rider, is fine for short jaunts inside the city limits but needs a new seat at minimum if you intend to venture any farther.

Rolling south on Highway 395, we were free to ponder these and other issues. And to wonder if Jamie could make it all the way home feet-up.

Riding Positions:
I have always had affection for the big Suzuki Intruder, and upon hearing the lineup for this test, I assumed it would once again steal my heart. I am ceaselessly seduced by power, and the Intruder offers plenty, and I find its non-Harley styling engaging as well. I knew the Vulcan 1500 well already, and I expected its new Classic cousin to be a shinier version of the same. And the other two, well, they were Harleys.

Surprise. Although I would still consider buying the big Suzuki Intruder for emotional reasons, the Harley Softail Springer and the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic surpassed it in overall performance. If fact, the Classic was in a class by itself. It's comfortable, smooth, stable at all speeds, and although it doesn't have enormous high-end power, it gives great torque. I like the wide styling, too, even the floorboards. The Classic compares to the "other" Vulcan like Cinderella to a stepsister, and the Harley Dyna, well, like the wart on her nose.
—Jamie Elvidge

Kawasaki Vulcan 1500
The Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 had its comfort supporters too.Kevin Wing

Like Alice’s Restaurant, you can get anything you want. Well, almost. The trick is knowing what flavor suits you. Each of these bikes has its own style, and each has something functional to offer. The distinctive Springer gives a smooth ride. The Intruder has the most power. The Vulcan 1500 comes in with big power and good comfort. The Dyna combines the essence of Harley with a good chassis and brakes. Of course, each bike has its downside too.

But after hundreds of miles of musical saddles, I want to sit in the Vulcan Classic's saddle. Sure it's the slowest, but nobody with a sense of the larger picture buys a V-twin cruiser to brag about how fast it is. Whether I'm riding around town, scooting along a meandering country road, or enjoying the new higher speed limits on an interstate, two-up or solo, I like the way the Classic works, feels and sounds the best. I'm not unhappy when riding any of the bikes here, but I'm happiest on the Kawasaki 1500 Classic.
—Art Friedman

classic radiator
Kawasaki narrowed the depth and width of the Classic’s radiator, and slid it between the front frame tubes, making it virtually disappear when the bike is viewed from the side. Cooling capacity seems unaffected; the electric fan rarely actuates.Kevin Wing

I’m hanging with the Springer as my pick. It embodies the the visceral and visual spirit of a cruiser. The classic Vulcan (as opposed to the Vulcan Classic) would be my mount of choice for cross-country cruisin’ after replacing the limp suspension. It just plain fits, and I love that horsepower!

"Classy" describes the Classic. Fit and finish are exceptional. However, the gas tank splays my legs too much, and the handlebar, which others love, is too much of a reach for me in tight maneuvering. Despite its raw top-end horsepower, the Intruder fell into disfavor with me. Handling is compromised by too much rake, and when you put a passenger on the pillion, handling goes from so-so to evil. The Dyna Low Rider has three sets of pegs, but none were in the right place. That it's so closely akin the Springer is a mystery.
—Ron Ramlow

Intruder's Saddle
Most riders could make peace with the Intruder's saddle as well.Kevin Wing

With the Vulcan Classic, Kawasaki manages to merge a timeless style with modern technology. While the Classic isn’t the fastest and tends to huff at higher altitudes, its engine is the smoothest at speed and offers enough shudder around town to harken a time when machines weren’t so well behaved. Water cooling addresses real-world traffic problems. The suspension is effective (although this would be my first change) even if it does hobbyhorse on expansion joints and wallow occasionally in sweepers. The seat was the best of the group, providing a good platform to rack up miles. Besides allowing you to watch your reflection while you ride during daylight hours, the big headlight provides the best light pattern for night riding. Can you tell I like this bike?

The other bikes all miss the delicate balance of modern versus classic. The Springer’s front end is an eye-catching nod to the past, but riding any distance with the solid-mounted engine takes some of the shine off the bike’s good looks. The Dyna suffers from Harley’s annoyingly non-standard controls (an attempt to move into the 20th century?), ill-placed, gorilla-fisted levers and uninspired seating for a $14,000 motorcycle. The Vulcan 1500’s styling doesn’t reach far enough back to the past and consequently feels as dated as a Wham! hit. Despite its enjoyable engine, the Vulcan 1500 loses points for a pronounced shaft effect and too- soft suspension. The narrow, sporty feel and the attention to detail of the Intruder put it in the running, particularly when cranking on the throttle, but it can’t, by the slightest margin, edge out the Classic in the looks department.

All of these bikes put more than one smile on my face, but when it's time to hit the road, I'll take the Classic.
—Evans Brasfield

Air-Cooled Intruder
The big air-cooled Intruder still needs a radiator, to cool its oil supply. Its powerful 1400 engine seems to run cooler than either of the Harleys and gets by on regular unleaded fuel, unlike the Milwaukee machines, which ping without more octane.Kevin Wing

Two machines in our gang of five really impressed—and surprised—me. The Springer’s ’40s-vintage front end and solidly mounted engine both seemed like strikes against it going in, but it didn’t work out that way on the road. I’m normally the first and loudest complainer about engine vibration, but the Springer’s shakes failed to get on my nerves. And the front end’s plush ride and retro look had me hooked. Of all the bikes here, I’d most like to be seen on the Springer Softail.

I most like to ride the Vulcan Classic, however. Though it's out-of-character for me to pick the slowest machine out of any given group, the Classic works so well in all other respects, it's irresistible.
—Jeff Karr

This article was originally published in the February 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.