Bikes Under 1000cc - Baby Bagger Beatdown!

Five Under-1000cc Bikes Show Us What They're Made Of

Road Trip!
First it was sky-high gas prices, then a faltering economy, but smaller displacement bikes are all the rage these days. In a nutshell: they're lighter, cheaper, and easier to ride. The perfect machines for new riders, small riders (girls, this means you too), and experienced riders feeling the crunch. On the bagger side of the equation, the baby boomers started the shift to touring bikes a couple years back and now baggermania is in full swing, with more and more people young and old looking to get a little more usable space, comfort, and range with their motorcycling experience, at the expense of a little weight. Even around-town riders can benefit from a good touring setup.

So we decided to marry the two categories and get the best of both worlds. We went looking for bikes under 1000cc, under $10,000 (well under in most cases), and suitable for riders new and old, large and small, but most of all bikes that could throw down a 400-mile day without so much as a backward glance. For 2009, there are four bikes that easily slot into this category: Kawasaki's Vulcan 900 Classic LT, Star's V-Star (650) Silverado and V-Star 950 Tourer, and Suzuki's Boulevard C50T. We secured Star's brand-new for '09 V-Star 950 (leaving the smaller 650 out) and the Vulcan 900, but couldn't get a C50T as there wasn't one in the Suzuki fleet (see sidebar).

Lambs To The Slaughter
Curious what they would say, we sent feelers out to the other manufacturers of bikes in this class to see if they would do up their similar models in touring duds and send them along for the ride. After all, aren't all of these bikes just accessorized versions of the stock model? (Well, maybe not, see the other sidebar.) The response was overwhelming. Honda stepped up with a baggerized version of their Shadow Aero 750, while Harley-Davidson and Triumph did likewise with their Sportster 883 Low and America models respectively. Dressed up in the latest touring duds from their respective factories, they were ready to pound the miles.

The bikes are a diverse bunch in some ways, and similar in others. The Star and Kawasaki are virtual twins in many ways and early on some of our testers had trouble distinguishing between the two. It's pretty obvious what bike Star was aiming for when they designed the V-Star 950. They both feature a classic cruiser look, wide bars, and floorboards. The Star has an air-cooled engine while the Vulcan is liquid-cooled, but they both make very similar power. The Aero and Sportster, while differing widely in stance and execution, both mostly cater to an entry-level, short-stature segment. The Triumph America is a bit of an odd duck with the Bonneville platform transformed for cruiser duty, it's bit like the Sportster at its root, but with a high-revving air-cooled parallel twin (all the others are slow-revving v-twins) it stood out from the others.

Surfin SuperSlab
All dressed up and no place to go, we looked to the east to the Coachella Valley home to Palm Springs and about a million golf courses. This issue was produced in November and December, so the low desert was looking pretty good just then. Just in case the weather cooperated (here in our Mediterranean climate we get all of our precipitation in the cooler times of the year), some of the best mountain roads anywhere are directly adjacent to this area as well, and as luck would have it, it did. Our route took us through gridlocked LA traffic, through the San Jacinto Mountains, out around the surreal Salton Sea, and back through different mountains and the same LA traffic. We got a good mix of superslab, twisties and two-lane country roads and were able to throw down enough miles to get a feel for the bikes over time.

From the first gas stop along the interstate the bikes began to show their colors. The bargain bikes of the test, the Aero and 883L were having comfort issues from the start. Ergonomics on the Aero are made for decidedly small people, our one smaller (5'4") tester said it fit him just right, low to the ground and all the controls where they should be, though the seat was decidedly hard. With forward foot controls and a short reach to the bar, it fit all but the tallest in only slightly cramped fashion. The suspension, with a bit of a load (but no passenger) was fine for most sections of superslab, being very soft, long-travel and mostly undamped, it would swim in Cadillac-like fashion. A big shock-bottoming hit would launch a rider right out of the saddle though.

The Harley had comfort issues as well. The very-compact cockpit was a nice fit for a shorter rider, and decidedly small for a larger one. It's the only bike in the test with mid-mounted controls, which turned out to be a good thing, as the lowered suspension of the `L was harsh all of the time and bottomed-out readily; getting up out of the saddle is a good first line of defense against spine compression. The bike is so low-slung that it scrapes its bottom on speed bumps, and forget about loading it up on a truck. The seat that was fitted to our tester (the Sundowner Bucket, necessary, as the Sportster has only a solo seat stock) would have been comfortable if it didn't slope forward from the wide, comfortable rear to the skinny part up front, causing all riders to have to constantly push on the pegs to get to the sweet spot, or just deal with the discomfort. With all these concessions to shorter folk, you'd think they'd be in heaven. actually, shorter folks have to twist to avoid touching the hot rear rocker cover at a stop with feet down, plus there's that whole no-suspension thing.

On the other side of the aisle, the America was beyond roomy. In fact, even six-footers had a bit of a reach to the shift and brake levers. The bike comes stock with footpegs and the floorboards on this example were an executive decision on Triumph's part. We're guessing it was for comfort, but they shouldn't have bothered. The floorboards are fairly flimsy feeling (as are the shifter and brake lever) and ours weren't even mounted up evenly, with one taller than the other. They placed the feet high, too flat, and too far forward to be comfortable. As an added bonus, the kickstand was really hard to reach underneath them. On the upside, the seat to bar relationship was good for most, with a nice neutral bar. And the seat was the best in the test; supportive and plush, good for as long as a tank of gas would take us.

Not surprisingly, the near-twin machines from Star and Kawasaki were pretty similar. Both fit small riders with a slight stretch, and large riders in compact and comfortable fashion. Both seats form a neutral bucket deep in the bike, the Star dropping you a little deeper with its seat slightly more comfortable. Wide bars greet the pilot of both bikes, with the Star's a little wider and the Vulcan's a little more neutral.

Back out on the open highway, we noticed a couple of the bikes had interesting gearing choices. Both the Honda Shadow Aero as well as the Kawasaki Vulcan geared out early, both screaming at high rpm starting around 70. Both would go faster (in the Aero's case not much faster), but the vibration begins to get intrusive. The Sportster and America seemed geared about right, while the V-Star's fifth gear was like an overdrive. The Sportster has very well-spaced gearing for its very vibratey (but rubber-mounted) motor which shook pretty much all the time. The Triumph was the smoothest bike in the test, its parallel twin was less torquey, but churned out power across a wide range and also revved-out well. Needless to say, top gear was just about perfect, purring away the miles. The Star has a very smooth engine for the most part, so it's a bit of a surprise that at fast highway speeds there is a bit of intrusive vibration at the floorboards.

In 60-80 top-gear roll-ons, the short-geared, torquey Honda and Kawasaki were the doggiest, being out of their effective powerband at highway speeds. The higher strung Harley matched its powerband for highway riding perfectly, while the Triumph was actually not revving high enough in top gear and needed a kick down a cog to really move. The V-Star smashed them all on the open road though, with its super-tall top gear matched perfectly to its lazy bottom-heavy engine, getting to 80 a full half second quicker than the nearest competition.

While the Honda gave up a bit to the larger machines in horsepower and road manners, it had no apologies for its windshield. It was full without being too tall, and kept the wind off nicely with zero buffeting, thanks to a nice compound curve. Plus, all of our riders could see over the top of it. If you like big shields that you have to look through, the Kawasaki's shield was king, but most of us resented the over-coverage. The other three were on the small side. Of those, the Star was the best with a short, wide shield that offered good protection without too much height and just a bit of bufetting. The Triumph's shield was not particularly protective, while the Harley-Davidson's shield buffeted like mad to round out a fairly miserable highway existence.

Luckily, the misery (on the 883) doesn't last long. With a mere 3.3 gallon tank, the fuel light comes on before the rest of them, but it also stays on for a long time, as we pushed it past 120 miles once without incident. The Aero had the most inconsistent mileage of the bunch, but as it's the only carbureted bike in the test that's to be expected. The shortest it went before hitting reserve was 80 miles, but there were other times it hadn't gone on the second circuit after 120. There is an asterisk by the Shadow's mileage however, as it both read miles and showed its speed very optimistically, to the tune of about 10%. The Vulcan/V-Star twins were a match in the range department as well, each capable of just shy of 200 miles; the Kawasaki's larger tank making up for its lower mileage. The mile-eating champion was Triumph's America combining 40 mpg efficiency with a whopping 5.1 gallon tank, we never even saw the fuel light when touring with this bunch. When tested with the others it seems that its range may have been even better as its analog speedo and tach was slightly pessimistic.

Babes In Golfland
Rollin' around the streets of the touristville that is the Coachella Valley we got a little more insight into our babies. The two bargain bikes were far more suited to life in the city. The pullback bars, while tiring at a long stretch offered good leverage, and combined with their lithe steering and low center of gravity both the Sportster and Shadow worked pretty good. They both had transmission issues though, the Honda is squishy-soft, while the Harley goes clunk and has a heavy clutch with an inconsistent disengagement. The Aero's brakes were good in the stop-and-go, with the front brake strong enough to make up for the only drum rear in the test. The 883's brakes were a weak spot, slowing the bike, but having very wooden feel at the levers. The rear was more effective than the front, which, for a beginning rider, is not a good thing. Also, the 883's levers themselves are set close to the bars for smaller riders, but some of us big monkeys had trouble getting our armored gloves in and out from behind them. The Vulcan's brakes are a concern as well with a good initial bite that goes soft , so in a panic stop a firm hand is required. The America has adjustable levers, which is a nice way to adapt to different riders, and good, solid braking, as does the V-Star 950 which is equipped with the only floating brake rotor in the test.

The Triumph is probably the bike least suited to city life. With a top-heavy rev-happy powerband, a relatively top-heavy center of gravity, and hard to reach foot controls, the America in constant danger of a parking lot tumble with our less experienced riders. The shorter-geared bikes (Honda and Kawasaki) had an advantage around town, but the torquey Star had no problems keeping up, it just never got out of third gear.

Before we knew it, we were trading the bright lights, silver hair and golf of Coachella for the desolation of the eastern Salton Sea. Here long, slow stretches of road frequently caught behind trucks with nowhere to pass brought the best of us in touch with their inner demons. A trick most touring riders will do to uncramp their legs and change which muscles are getting the brunt of their weight is to switch to the back pegs for a bit. Unfortunately, on the Star, Kawasaki, and Honda it requires a bit of contortion to reach the rear pegs, so it's a brief respite at best. The Triumph had the best rear perches, down low and back for a real change-up from the stock position, while the Harley's were just inches in back of it's midmounts for a very minor change of venue, if easy to reach.

The CA 111 might be a boring road with a bunch of testosterone-fuelled menfolk raring to get past cars, but add a passenger and Bluetooth headset, and suddenly you've got enterainment. Perhaps not surprisingly, as much as we'll complain about the rider accommodations on these rides, the passenger set-ups were pretty solid. With low pegs and a wide seat, the Triumph passenger had little to complain of. The V-Star and Vulcan have nice roomy rear seats, but slightly high footrests. The Sportster perch is actually quite nice, though a passenger with big feet might run into about that suspension travel. On that same note the Honda doesn't really have the suspension to deal with the added load. Sure you could crank on the preload, but the damping just isn't there.

Run To The Hills
Whether you're into riding on mountain and canyon roads or not, you find out a lot about a bike by going around corners. For that we headed west from Salton Sea into North San Diego County. It was here that we discovered the one chink in the V-Star's domination of this test: really low lean-angle clearance. Like many of the bikes in the Star line it drags boards at the first sign of a curve. Thankfully, it's such a solid-handling machine that the chassis doesn't get upset even a little bit. Star thoughtfully put replaceable steel sliders on the ends of the boards to keep from rubbing through anything expensive.

Most of the other bikes aren,'t far behind in dragging parts. Honda, Harley and Kawasaki are also pretty easy to grind on. The Vulcan has skid plates like the Star and also doesn't get upset with a little dragging. The Sportster 883 drags it's peg feelers about the same time that its dragging its kickstand (left) or pipes (right). While the kickstand is like a warning that you,'re about to ping off of something hard like the frame, the pipes aren't the most pleasant thing to touch down, sometimes messing with your line through the corner. The Honda just drags its pegs and your feet, but it's least stable of the bunch leaned over, especially at speed. On any kind of mountain road, the Aero's bars shimmy in the hand while leaned over. It never does anything worse than the shake, and the more experienced riders just rode around it. While it's a good bike for a smallish beginner to get some time on, we can't help but think that this would sap their confidence while trying to get to the next level. Combined with sub par power in this class, most riders were swiftly left behind when riding the Shadow; brakes are good though.

The Sportster was a nice ride in the hills, lithe tight handling holds the road well, just look out for potholes! Some riders complained that with the tiny peanut tank, you cant squeeze anything with your knees when leaned over. Power from the 883cc motor is perfectly tuned for riding in the twisties with a predictable, flat torque curve. The Vulcan is a nice ride on a curvy road. While its transmission is short for the open road, it's perfectly spaced for backroads, laying down the Vulcan's torque. The light-steering machine is very little work to ride and never does anything weird. Both Harley and Kawasaki have brakes that don't offer a lot of feel, so a firm tug on the fronts is needed from both, and they fade under heavy use.

If the Honda pilot always got left in the dust, the Triumph rider always did the running first. Combining a sportbike-like powerband, loads of ground clearance and solid brakes, the Triumph was deceptively and smoothly fast in the mountains. The slightly tippy feel in town, transformed when cranked over at speed. The Triumph simply destroys corners, leaning over readily and carving them easily.

Despite its appetite for destroying its own foot perches, the Star is actually pretty solid in the twisties. While not a quick handling as either the Kawasaki or Triumph, it is extremely stable and easy to guide around corners. So stable that the boards can be used as feelers to gauge lean-angle. It was the machine, along with the Kawasaki, that riders of all skill levels liked and trusted.

The Proper Beatdown
Before we knew it, our days in the dez were drawing to a close. We took one last long look at the bikes, while we were swapping our luggage up to trade bikes one last time for the ride back to LA.

The 883 Low, despite adding rubber engine mounting a few years back, is roughly the same design it started life with back in the 1950's. Which at the time was a sportbike; a superbike even, as given to racing as to doing anything else. Now, with the switch to lowered suspension on all Sportster models, it's truly become that which its supporters had denied for years: a girl's bike, best suited to those under 120 lbs. The exhaust note is pretty girly as well. Styling and details are hit and miss, but it's a solidly built machine, without a lot of plastic (yea, we're looking at you Honda). The accessories chosen for it mostly didn't help, the shield buffeted, while the seat was a flat-out bad design. Thankfully, the saddlebags were large, well designed and fit tight to the bike. Due to competing complaints between it and the Honda Shadow Aero, it barely ended up in last place.

The other bargain-priced machine ended up sharing the hind tit. Honda's Aero pleased the one shorter rider we brought along, as it was the one bike that seemed to be built for him. He was just bummed that so many of the details got skimped on for price. With more power, better suspension, and a good seat, he'd have picked it #1. As it was, the ergonomics on the Star and Kawasaki were good enough to vault them over this fine, but flawed, machine. The bar shake when cornering hard was a big downer for some testers, which caused them to drop it to the bottom in their rankings. Details were predictably cheap on the Shadow (can you say "plastic"), but overall design was solid and attractive, and the pipes had a nice rumble to them. The touring equipment was the best designed of the add-on bikes with good-sized, solidly-mounted bags and a killer windshield.

It probably shouldn't have been a surprise that the converted cruisers were at a disadvantage to the "real tourers" in this test, but this one had the smallest gap to the Star and Vulcan. The Triumph, with its fusion of old-school brit styling with 21st century cruiser retroness, was an odd duck in this test, but one that riders and passersby would stop to stare at. As far as overall design went, the America was duking it out with the Star for first place, but in the details it wins, hands down. Everything looks like it got the designers touch. The best detail? Dual EFI throttle bodies designed to look like carburetors. The exhaust down both sides of the bike got a lot of looks as well. The engine was the smoothest in the test, and also the highest revving, maybe not the best for a cruiser but on the backroads nobody cared. The touring add-ons were pretty weak, the small bags were impossible to overstuff with non-functioning buckles, the windshield wasn't very protective, and boards were plain bad. None of the testers lost sight of that, or the fact that this bike starts life naked at almost the same price as the fully-rigged tourers.

The Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic LT has owned this category for a couple years now, and only barely gives up the crown now. While the shiny new Star has a more cutting edge design, the Vulcan still has gobs of smooth chrome. The Star brings better gas mileage, while the Vulcan has a bigger tank. The 900 sinks on some of the little details. The gauge has only a single tripmeter, while all the rest (even the very un-tour-worthy) have two. It has smallish faux leather bags to the V-Star's locking hardbags. And while some might prefer that giant screen, most of us were groovin' on the compact and effective Star unit. The gearing, which might work fine on the non-touring 900 Classic, isn't suited to life on the road.

The folks at Star as much as admitted they took careful aim at the Vulcan 900 when designing the V-Star 950, and it worked. It does everything that groundbreaking machine does at least as well, and excels at all of its weak points. As a testament to the basic similarities of the machines, some of our testers would get confused which they were riding and when. The sporty design, a blend of the classic cruiser, with something a little meaner just works for it. Unlike some machines that get hard bags stapled to their hindquarters, this one looks like it was made for it. And the sound out of those pipes... if you change them, you're an asshole.

Most of these bikes will be purchased as a rational argument to the semi-irrational choise to buy a bike. People will get the bike they can afford or works best. There are two bikes in this bargain bagger test that our testers deemed lust-worthy; actually a bike that a rider would go for, not thinking of another bigger or more premium bike. The Triumph America qualifies, as does the Star V-Star 950. They're both bikes that will move you in more ways than one.

BASE PRICE $6999 $6999 $8799 $8990 $8699
AS REQUESTED $8308 $8383 $10,109
AS TESTED (ACCESS. & COLOR) $8978 $8733 $9090 $10,642
COLORS red (shown), black, pewter, blue black, dark red, two tone (shown/${{{300}}} extra) black/blue, red/titanium, titanium/white (shown) silver (shown, extra), black cherry, raven two-tone blue, black, blue/white (shown)
STANDARD WARRANTY 2-year unlimited miles 1-year unlimited miles 1 year unlimited miles 1-year limited 2-year unlimited miles
TYPE air-cooled, 45-degree V-twin liquid-cooled, 52-degree V-twin liquid-cooled, 55-degree V-twin air-cooled, 60-degree V-twin air-cooled, parallel-twin
DISPLACEMENT BORE X STROKE 883cc 76.2 X 96.77mm 745cc/79 X 76mm 903cc/88 X 74.2mm 942cc/85 X 83mm 865cc/{{{90}}} X 68mm
VALVE TRAIN OHV, 1 intake and 1 exhaust/cylinder SOHC, 2 intake and 1 exhaust/cylinder SOHC, 2 intake and 2 exhaust/cylinder SOHC, 2 intake and 2 exhaust/cylinder DOHC, 2 intake and 2 exhaust/cylinder
COMPRESSION 8.9:1 9.6:1 9.5:1 9:1 9.2:1
FUEL SYSTEM EFI CV carburetor, 34mm EFI, dual Keihin throttle bodies, 34mm EFI, 35mm EFI, dual throttle bodies
PREFERRED FUEL premium 86 or up regular unleaded 87 octane regular 86 or up regular unleaded
TRANSMISSION wet clutch, 5-speeds wet clutch, 5-speeds wet clutch, 5-speeds wet clutch, 5-speeds wet clutch, 5 speeds
FINAL DRIVE belt shaft belt belt chain
OVERALL LENGTH 89.1 in. 98.8 in. 7 in 95.9 in. 95.2 in.
WHEELBASE 60 in. 64.5 in. 64.8 in. 66.3 in. 65.2 in.
WET WEIGHT 611 lbs. * 599 lbs. * 674 lbs. 668 lbs. 618 lbs. *
SEAT HEIGHT 26.3 in. 25.9 in. 26.8in. 26.5 in. 28.3 in.
RAKE/TRAIL 29.6 deg/4.6 in. 34 deg/6.3 in. 32 deg/6.3 in. 32 deg./5.7 in. 33.3 deg./153mm
WHEELS 13-spoke cast aluminum laced steel laced steel 8-spoke cast/painted 12-spoke cast alloy
FRONT TIRE {{{100}}}/90x19 120/90-17 130/90-16 130/70-18 110/90x18
REAR TIRE 150/80B16 160/{{{80}}}-15 180/70-15 170/70-16 170/80x15
FRONT BRAKE 292mm disc; 2 pistons 296mm disc; 2 pistons 272mm disc; 2 pistons 320mm floating disc; 2 pistons 310mm disc; 2 pistons
REAR BRAKE 292mm disc 180mm drum 242mm disc 298mm disc 285mm disc
FRONT SUSPENSION 39mm fork, 5.7in. travel 41mm fork, 4.6in. travel 42mm fork, 5.9 in. travel 41mm fork, 5.3in. travel, 41mm fork, 5.1 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION dual dampers, 3.6 in. travel, preload adjustable dual dampers, 3.5 in. travel, preload adjustable single damper, 4.1in. travel single damper, 4.3in. travel, preload adjustable? dual dampers, 3.8in. travel, preload adjustable
FUEL CAPACITY 3.3gal. 3.7gal. 5.3 gal. 4.4 gal. 5.1 gal.
INSTRUMENTS Analog Speedometer with digital odometer, clock, dual tripmeters, and engine diagnostic readout. Indicators for low fuel, low oil pressure, high beam, turn signals, neutral, and optional security system. analog speedometer with digital odometer dual tripmeters and clock. Indicators for high beam, neutral and oil pressure. Analog speedometer with digital odometer, clock and tripmeter. Indicator lamps for low fuel, neutral, high beam, low oil pressure. analog speedometer with handlebar-actuated LCD digital display with odometer, dual tripmeters, fuel tripmeter, and clock, and featuring adjustable backlight. Indicators for low fuel, low oil, etc. Analog speedometer, odometer and tripmeter.
FUEL MILEAGE 38-48 mpg range, 41 avg. 25-48 mpg range, 42 avg. ** 25-46 mpg range, 36.5 avg. 38-48 mpg range, 44mpg avg. 37-43 mpg range, 40 mpg avg.
AVERAGE RANGE 135 miles 155 miles (indicated) 193 miles 190 miles 204 miles
QUARTER-MILE ACCELERATION 15.94 sec @ 81.58 mph 16.15 sec @ 77.48 mph 15.4 @ 81.2mph 15.09 sec @ 83.77 mph 14.81 sec. @ 86.89 mph
60-80 MPH ACCELERATION 8.31 seconds 10.72 seconds 9.33 seconds 7.75 seconds 8.28 seconds

Riding Position

Billy Bartels
6', 193 Lbs., 33-Inch Inseam

As far as I'm concerned, nothing here can touch the V-Star 950. It fits riders tall and small, has great power, fuel mileage, look great, sounds great, and has the best bags in the test. I've spent some time on the Vulcan 900 and it's a good bike as well, but the Star just took it and fixed all the warts. The Sportster recalls my days of riding a rigid chopper only not nearly as cool or comfortable. As a Sportster owner I know what this bike is capable of, but the bike as it's currently sold is not particularly suited for its mission as Harley's entry-level model. It's just a gutted 50's sportbike.

Triumph's America is easily the best of the non-tourers, especially for lanky folk like me. It's smooth, deceptively fast and ridiculously easy to ride. I like riding cruiser where I mostly don't have to think about when the boards are going to touch. Honda's Aero is a good bike in need of an update. It fits a special niche, now that 750s are an endangered species. Though the power isn't up the standards in this class, it's way better than most 650s, giving smaller riders something to aspire to between the bottom and the top.

Mike Calabro
6'2", 193 Lbs., 34 Inch Inseam

The Harley is way too expensive. It's pretty much unfair to even review the bike since it is obviously made for little girls. No man over 110 pounds should ride this. A scooter might be a better option.

The Honda is the cheapest of the bunch. You get what you pay for. It felt squirrelly at speed and the seat ended up giving me hemorrhoids...

Triumph is nice and wins in the looks department. But I felt it was a bit top heavy and I'm not sure if it's worth paying an extra $1000 just for looks. It feels a bit less torquey compared to the Vulcan and Star. Yet, it feels like a solidly-built bike. It's a tough call between the 3.

You can't go wrong with the Kawi or the V-Star. As a less experienced rider, I felt that both of them are fairly well-matched. Since they are the same price, my top pick would be for the bike that had the larger and harder bags, the V-Star. Hard sidebags and a stock sissybar is the stuff needed to make a good touring bike. But I didn't get to ride enough since all the other testers bogarted her.

The Sidebar Suzuki is by far my favorite. As said before, you get what you pay for. I'd like to compare it to a closely-priced sporty tourer. I really think it is worth the extra money for the Boulevard. I feels like a solid bike with substantial power compaired to the rest. If I had to stay within budget and wanted to save cash I would buy the Star.

Toph Bocchiaro, PHD.
5'9" 153 Lbs., 32 Inch Inseam

The Honda's got a completely anemic motor and mushy suspension, which was not controlled on rough pavement. Basically, no springs and no damping. Next to the other bikes it felt like a Rebel 250. Harley's most affordable bike mostly showed its age. The 883 motor delivers impressive torque and was very fun to ride in the mountains, but the chassis, combined with basically no suspension was sub par. Fun around town too, but nothing you'd want to put any miles on. The Triumph's motor was a bright spot for it, though only 865cc it revved high and delivered the power. Its higher ground clearance let it lean way over in the twisties and not scrape like all the others. The add-on touring pieces were okay, but not like the real touring bikes. That and the price drops it to third for me.

If the V-Star wasn't so good, the Vulcan would have shined in this test. A very nice bike to rack up the miles on. It's got better ground clearance than the Star, and slightly better ergonomics for shorter riders. But the Star beats it on tourworthiness. It's gearing is too short for the freeway; I kept reaching for an extra gear at 80. The huge windscreen provides great protection, but too mch for this relatively light bike, causing it to get pushed around in gusts. The unlockable soft bags were the final touch, with the Star's locking faux-leather plastic bags taking the cake.

I really enjoyed the V-Star 950. You could easily pack this 950 up and go for an extended tour. Ergonomics were perfect for my 5'9" frame. The windshield was perfectly sized for the bike, blocking wind and rain, while not getting in the way. The low seat height and rake made it a very nimble machine, unfortunately that means the floorboards drag early, but that never upset the chassis, so its forgivable. This is no budget compromise motorcycle- it is a true touring bike, just smaller.

Brad Olshen
5'10", 168 Lbs., 32 Inch Inseam

The Shadow had a nice ride, but had issues with its soft suspension. It's a bike that was made for women. Had decent power, handling and a low center of gravity. Looks good, but could use a little styling.

The Sportster is good around town, but it's not a highway bike. It's got looks and personality, but it too needs some more style and that seat has got to go.

The Triumph has great styling, handles great in the corners, and is a great everyday bike but not as good as the other two (Star and Kawasaki) on long trips. The Kawasaki handles really well, rides smooth and low to the ground, and has nice style. But its small saddlebags were not enough to handle the loads I like to bring. I pick the Star, which does all of the same things the Vulcan, but has the locking saddlebags and even better styling.

Building The Baggers, Baby
Despite what you might have read in this or other magazines, the "light touring" models with accessory bags and shields installed from the manufacturer's catalogs, are not just bolt-on betties. The level of R&D; that goes into an accessory and that which goes into an actual line model varies quite a bit. Making the leap from accessory item to production model necessitates a ton more testing and evaluation, and it shows.

We asked the manufacturers who were supplying non-tourers for this test for a minimum of two-up seating (with sissy bar), a windshield, and saddlebags. What we asked for at minimum and what we got varied a bit. Honda went with the bare minimum, other than adding a piece of chrome trim. However, they did send along a list of other touring equipment for the Aero in case you're looking to upgrade.

Triumph went above and beyond by also installing footboards (they shouldn't have, really), and a luggage rack (which comes with the sissybar). The models with a luggage rack came in handy by giving us a place that was not the rear seat to stow gear.

The Sportster 883 Low was actually at a decided disadvantage compared to the other bikes here, as it didn't even start with a passenger seat or pegs. That said there are cheaper ways to get a passenger on there than switch to a (bad) touring seat, so we dinged them for the footpeg mount, but not the seat.

We divided the parts lists into mandatory items the manufacturers need on their bikes to participate in this test, and optional items that they added of their own accord, or suggested as additional accessories. We list in the specs both the price as tested as well as the minimum to make it a light touring bike.

Sissy Bar and Rack (short) A9738044 $389.99
Roadster Screen Kit A9748030 $429.99
Leather Saddlebags A9528015 $589.99
Total Mandatory: $1409.97
Footboard Kit A9758036 $319.99
Badge A9938032 $12.99
58063-04 $349.95
Sportster Leather Saddlebags 90342-04A $599.95
Chrome Sideplates (for backrest) 53925-04 $84.95
Medium Low Backrest Pad 52626-04 $59.95
Chrome Mini Rail Sissy Bar Upright 51515-02 $63.95
Passenger Footpeg Mount Kit 50203-04 $94.45
Directional Relocation Kit 68474-04A $54.95
Total Mandatory: $1308.65
Sundowner Bucket Seat 51736-07 $269.95
Chrome Sport Luggage Rack 53899-02 $119.95
Custom Windshield 08R80-MEG-100B $449.95
Leather Saddlebags (18 liter, plain) 08L56-MEM-101A $529.95
Saddlebag Mounting Brackets 08L56-MEG-100E $139.95
Chrome Backrest Carrier 08F75-MEG-{{{100}}} $129.95
Chrome Backrest With Pad (Tall) 08F75-MEG-100A $134.95
Total Mandatory: $1384.75
Chrome Backrest Trim (Tall, traditional) 08F75-MCV-130 $49.95
Chrome Backrest Trim (Low, traditional) 08F75-MCV-140 $47.95
Chrome Backrest and Pad (low) 08F75-MEG-100B $114.95
Saddlebag Liner Set (carry bags w/ handles) 08L56-MFE-100C $49.95
Rear Carrier Rack 08L42-MEG-100 $153.95

That's No Baby!
The third true baby bagger put out ready-equipped for touring from the factory is Suzuki's Boulevard C50T. It gives up a bit of displacement to the Vulcan 900 and the Star 950, but it also rocks their world on price. So in a nutshell it would have been nice to have along for the ride, especially as it's a little closer to the junior league that the Honda Shadow Aero occupies. We were first asked by Suzuki if an '08 would have been acceptable (it was), but then that it wasn't available, what else would we take. Just like the other bikes in this test we said either a M50 or a C50 with Genuine Suzuki bags, shield and backrest (or whatever else they decided to tack on) would be just fine. In the end we got a brand spanking new M90 (with touring stuff). Was it manufacturer dyslexia? Was even Suzuki getting confused with their own letter-number combinations?

Given what we know from past tests of the Volusia and C90, coming in the cheapest in this test, it may have done really well and scored a first place vote or two. It's a relatively powerful machine with solid handling and a nice ride.

Not the sort to turn down a bike, we brought the M90(t) along anyhow, we just weren't taking it head-to-head with the others. While we're all for testing cruisers based on price, not displacement, the Boulevard was certainly the bastard child of the bunch. Testers (who all got a chance to ride it) were firmly split on the M, tall from short (or even medium) and aggressive from docile. Suzuki's M-Series cruisers are a blend of their racing heritage with a heavier muscle cruiser attitude. It's stretched out pose is a boon to larger riders, but even a 5'9" tester got tired of it after only a short amount of time. Our assertion in the February issue that it would fit riders of differing sizes turns out to be wrong.

The sporty handling and power was loved by folks not afraid to twist the throttle, and it will respond in kind carving corners predictably and smoothly. It sports roughly 70% more power than the bikes in this test, so it takes some throttle control to keep it happy. More laid back riders didn't like the way it folded (quickly) into turns, or way the shaft drive (backed by lots of torque) would jack the back end around.

The touring gear on the M90 was both smaller and cheaper (price-wise) than the stuff on the other converted bikes we had. The small sportbike-style flipped shield was effective at keeping the wind off of your torso and made no bad turbulence, but wasn't as protective as the others. The tall sissy bar was a nice-looking design which would rotate for some reason, comfort perhaps? The bags, however, were a total joke, good for maybe a jacket liner or lunch if you pack carefully and aren't hungry.

The basic parameters of the test for us was bikes that appeal to new riders, small riders, and experienced riders looking for a deal, and no matter what it had to be able to tour. As it only succeeds in one of those categories, we're thinking despite the huge performance advantage it still would have lost to the two "twins."

That said, at only a little more money than the Triumph, it's worth a look if you fit it's aggressive demographic. Two of our testers (both tall and hard riders) liked it better than all the test, while the others weren't quite as thrilled.

We're planning a $10k cruiser shootout for this year, and the 1200s and 1300s at this pricepoint should be afraid, very afraid. Don't worry killer, you'll get your shot.

2009 Suzuki Boulevard M90
MSRP: $9999 (base)
MSRP $11,104 (as equipped)

Type: liquid-cooled 54 degree V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1462cc, 96.0mm x 101.0mm
Compression Ratio : 9.5:1
Fuel Delivery: Fuel injection
Transmission: 5-speed;multiplate wet clutch
Final Drive : Shaft

Front Suspension: Inverted fork,
Rear Suspension: Single damper, 4.3-in travel, preload adjustable
Front brakes: 290mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Rear Brakes: 275mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Front Tire: 120/70-18
Rear Tire: 200/50-17
Wheels: 5-spoke cast aluminum

Overall length: 94.1 in.
Seat Height: 28.2 in.
Wheelbase: 66.5 in.
Rake/trail: 32.0/145mm
Fuel Capacity: 4.7 gal
Wet Weight: 723 lb (claimed)

Fuel Mileage: 26-40 mpg, 33mpg avg.
Average Range: 155.1 miles
Horsepower (Meas.): 69.4 @ 5000 rpm
Torque (meas.): 85.5 lbs.-ft. @ 2750 rpm
Quarter-Mile Acceleration: N/A

Honda Shadow Aero VT750c
H-D Xl883l Sportster 883 Low
Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic LT
Star V-Star 950 Tourer
Triumph America
H-D Sportster
Honda Aero
Star V-Star 950
The V-Star's large lockable bags got the nod from everyone, while the Triumph and Vulcan bags were a tad small. The Aero's bags were easy to get into, while the Sportster's were the capacity king.
Kawasaki Vulcan
Triumph America
Star V-Star 950
H-D Sportster
Triumph America
Kawasaki Vulcan
Honda Aero
Boulevard M90
Boulevard C50T