Buying A Used Motorcycle: 1998-2004 Kawasaki Vulcan VN800a

Need more used bike options? Perhaps a 1998-2004 Kawasaki Vulcan should be added to your shopping list

1998-2004 Kawasaki Vulcan VN800a
1998-2004 Kawasaki Vulcan VN800aCruiser

We’re targeting street-oriented rigs in this installment, so the parameters have changed drastically from the travelers we focused on initially. My commuting reality consists of a 20-mile slog through one of the country’s busiest metropolises—Los Angeles. That means six lanes of soccer-mom-driven SUVs and lurching semis followed by a dozen hairy miles on gridlocked streets surrounded by drivers wielding more cell phones than actual liability insurance.

It's no wonder that when I began my quest for a used motorcycle commuter, words like "nimbleness," "lightweight" and "narrow profile" kept floating to the top of my must-have list. I further whittled down the contenders by insisting on a 4-gallon gas tank and neutral ergonomics and found myself coming back to the same two machines: Kawasaki's bulletproof Vulcan 800a and Triumph's 900cc Legend. Either choice meant I wouldn't be coaxing more than 500 pounds of iron around overheated Hyundais or have to pry more than $3500 out of the ol' wallet (I'm a cheapskate—just ask my wife).

After that, I’ll admit, I caved to baser instincts. You should like what you’re looking at when you’re not riding it, and for some reason the chopperish Vulcan floats my boat. It also didn’t help that the Legend only stayed in Triumph’s lineup for a couple of years, which wouldn’t make my hunt for aftermarket bits very easy. And the fact that the Vulcan’s a great value—an easy-to-handle workhorse with a reliable service record and hefty aftermarket support—sealed the deal. So long, Triumph.

I knew the Vulcan's 805cc, liquid-cooled V-twin produced enough poop for everything from side-street blasts to top-gear freeway cruising (though the redline kicks in rather early). And some riders report that 50 mpg is not out of the question.

The single rear adjustable shock won’t win many converts, though, primarily because the underseat placement makes it a bear to get at, and the single-disc front brake is on the mushy side. For moderate cruising, the stock suspension will do the job, though choppier roads will probably convince me to upgrade.

While I have no beef with its close cousin, the Vulcan 800 Classic, I was always a bit keener on the 800a's riding position—sit up straight and comfy—though without a shield, that stance will occasionally give you the parachute-in-the-wind effect. The seat is nicely padded, and as a street bike the Vulcan moves well and steers lightly, making short work of urban maneuvers in the concrete jungle (that 21-inch front wheel can be a handful at parking-lot speeds, though). You won't hear too many folks tell you the thing's a powerhouse, but the 800a is good fun to ride.

The other side of my brain likes the numbers it cranks out—with that 4-gallon tank and efficient engine, you can wring close to 200 miles from a tank of gas. The 800a is smooth and powerful enough for traveling, too, though the seat’s a butt burner on long hauls.

If I were scouring the classified ads, I’d skip the newest ’04–’05 listings, simply because the bike is essentially unchanged from the late 1990s original (save for some cosmetic upgrades).

But if I did manage to land a mint stocker, there are some issues that’d need to be addressed. As mentioned earlier, the single front disc brake is merely adequate, a situation only worsened by the silly rear drum setup; a pad upgrade and stainless cables here might help the situation. A re-jet would also be in order, and an aftermarket air filter would appeal to me—I remember the stock bikes we tested years ago running lean out of the box. I’ve heard of other riders getting good results with Mustang or Sargent aftermarket replacement saddles, and I’d also fit an adjustable, removable passenger backrest for extra luggage and comfort options and perhaps a small screen up front to keep the urban grit at bay.

At the low end, I’d expect to pay about $2000 for a 1999 Vulcan 800a in average condition, a bit more for a newer one and about $3300 for a prime 2001 model with low miles. You won’t be winning any drag races on the Vulcan 800a, but if you have a sweet spot for all-around performance and low maintenance costs, the bike is tough to beat.