2011 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero | UPDATED

The Bagger Wars Heat Up

When Kawasaki chose to do a press launch for its new Vulcan bagger in a semi-rural enclave north of Houston, Texas, it's entirely possible the location was chosen for its proximity to a population of Stetson-topped ranch hands-you know, for background scenery. After all, 'vaquero' means cowboy in Spanish.

The Sam Houston National Forest, alas-where we'd be doing most of our cruising-didn't offer many opportunities for cow tipping, though there was no shortage of barbeque shacks clustered along the side of many of the roads we negotiated. But none of that seemed to matter-during the Vaquero's press launch in Montgomery, Texas, Kawasaki reps didn't even touch upon the cowboy thing; they just chanted some mantra about how this bike was the "ultimate solo cruiser, with unmatched style, power and comfort."

Nothing about cowboys on steel horses, nothing about how important it was for Team Green to be angling into the lucrative custom bagger segment. In fact, they framed the Vaquero as more of a stepping stone between its cruisers-the Vulcan Classic, for example-and touring bikes-say, the Voyager. So much for tapping into romantic stereotypes...

But the Vaquero, apparently, is designed to have a singular appeal too. It's clear that Kawasaki intends to post it up against the Harley Road Glide, Victory Cross Country and Star Stratoliner Deluxe. Why wouldn't they? After all, when Harley-Davidson says the Street Glide is its top-selling model, you hop to it.

A Vulcan Cowboy?
There's little doubt about the Vaquero's influences. Basic cues from the Road/Street Glide nexus can be discerned almost anywhere you look, from the chopped wind deflector and swoopy frame-mounted fairing, to the sleek, one-piece saddle. Still, Kawasaki manages to imbue the newest Vulcan with enough of its own style that it won't readily be mistaken for a Harley.

The fairing has its own sweep and flow, with hot-rod-style muscularity that's a big part of the design ethic. Details like integrated louvers in the fairing give form to the bike's muscle-car design pretensions (even if it is all just cosmetics), and a unique chin fairing takes up residence down below. If we were to pick styling nits, we'd point out the wholly undersized running lights cowering beneath the otherwise sizeable headlight and beefy 45mm fork (same as on the Voyager). Otherwise, the overall lines work well, all the way to the sculpted hardbags paralleling the tail section, with a single exhaust on either side underlining the bag bottoms.

But that's just the wrapper. At the heart of Kawasaki's latest big-bore cruiser is the 1700cc liquid-cooled, SOHC, four-valve, 52-degree V-twin it shares with its Vulcan Classic, Nomad and Voyager stablemates. Unlike the others, the Vaquero mill gets a textured blackout treatment, though it's still carried in a steel-tube cradle-type frame.

The Vaquero gets a couple of tweaks in the powertrain to set it apart from the other 1700s as well. These include a new first-gear ratio said to reduce noise when shifting to first (from neutral), and reworked third and fourth gear cogs to smooth shifting action and reduce gearbox clatter. A new second piston ring is also added for durability, and the lower primary chain guide is eliminated to lessen weight.

Like the Vulcan Classic, the Vaquero rolls with a non-damper type clutch, which Kawasaki says gives the rider more 'engine feel.' Kawasaki admits that sensing that engine is likely to depend on the rider and his type of riding; I certainly didn't feel a marked difference in smoothness between the Vaquero and its stablemates-or many of its competitors, for that matter. The V-twin feels pretty smooth at all speeds, except perhaps at some of the taller gears (and even then it's a muted effect). That said, there's enough vibe and rumble from the Vaquero's dual-counterbalanced engine to remind you that you're atop an 800 lb. cruiser.

Also new is the reshaped intake manifold, which is said to increase flow volume for a more linear throttle response and improved idle; it's an update that will make its way to all 1700cc Vulcans. The Vaquero also gets a new exhaust muffler with tapered tips which Kawasaki says will reduce decibel levels at cruising speeds. Those intake and exhaust changes also mean new settings for the ECU, so all Vulcan 1700s will get an updated control center for 2011.

The final change is in the Vaquero's final drive belt-the carbon fiber unit is now 2mm narrower, for better tracking between the belt's pulleys.

Saddle Up
Hoist a leg over the sleek, 28.7 inch-tall saddle, and you'll experience what Kawasaki calls an "expanded rider triangle." The Vaquero's floorboards are more forward, like the Nomad's, and its all-new, one-piece seat is also set up to accept an optional rider backrest and quick-release passenger backrest.

If the Vaquero's seat is slightly taller than the rest of the competition, at least there's 3.1 inches of rear travel to be had from its dual shocks, which offer air-adjustable preload and four-way rebound damping. Getting to the air valves for the shocks is as easy as removing the saddle, and you can tweak the pressure between 0-40 psi. Kawi says the stock setting for a 150-lb. rider with no luggage is 0.0 psi, but for our ride, bikes were set to 15 psi. That setting, along with the Vaquero's ample seat foam, gave me a downright plush ride that was just about perfect for my 150-lb. physique.

The Vaquero's front suspension travel, at 5.5 inches, is also healthy, and a rather plump-looking 130/90 x 16 Bridgestone front radial makes the most of it. It's a good match for the 170/70 x 16 rear tire, and even though this Vulcan's claimed curb weight is 836 lbs. (a touch more than the Nomad), I found the Vaquero offered surprisingly neutral handling, with light steering effort at the bar. The engine feels better sorted than its kinfolk too, though perhaps that's just a placebo effect-after all, we'd just listened to a bunch of Kawasaki reps talk about engine improvements. Still, the tranny felt less truckish, if a bit overgeared.

The Vaquero's lean angle was forgiving as well-although we didn't encounter any radical bends in our 150 mile test ride, there were a couple of twisties that the Vaquero breezed through with nary a board scrape. Standard calipers gripping 300mm discs handled the braking duties just fine, even though ABS isn't an option-yet, anyway.

Because of serious buffeting issues on previous casual bagger rides, I found myself dreading the highway sections; that chopped wind 'deflector'-its shape chosen, says Kawasaki, "to optimize styling,"-looked none too reassuring. Instead, I found the large fairing and that 6-inch piece of plastic actually did a decent job in pushing the wind off my chest without much buffeting in the process (though taller riders may beg to differ). When I switched to a taller accessory shield after lunch, I could tuck underneath it just a bit, and experience almost dead calm. I'm guessing much of this had to do with Kawasaki's funky chin fairing, which seemed to diminish the dirty air from below quite a bit. Riders can also choose from one of five optional screens (6.5 inches through 18 inches tall) to tame pesky gusts if they're so inclined.

When looking down, the Vaquero's dash may look familiar to Voyager riders. With its new backlighting colors, there's plenty of visual stimulation going on, yet it's easy to view the displayed info. Perhaps as a nod to the Vaquero's musclebike aspirations, there's even an analog tach included.

But it's a bagger, so let's talk about cargo space. Kawasaki designed a sculpted pair of side-opening hard bags to occupy the rear flanks of the Vaquero, adding to its good looks as well as providing a place to stash some of the BBQ brisket we encountered at our lunch stop. Unfortunately, looks aren't everything; each of the 9.6-gallon-capacity saddlebags is down about half a gallon of space compared to the Voyager and Nomad's top-loading bags. Nevertheless, the Vaquero's bags click shut with a reassuringly solid-feeling chrome handle and require a key (same as the ignition) to open and close. But the bags are fixed, rather than easily removed with a fitting like Harley's and Victory's, and it makes getting to the rear shock's rebound damping adjuster somewhat difficult. You'll need small, nimble fingers to squeeze behind the saddlebags.

The Vaquero comes pretty well-equipped with amenities, including a full audio system with AM/FM/WX, and is XM ready. It pumps out sonic quality as good as on the Harley Street Glide, and we found the speakers to be more than up to the task of keeping our tunes sounding clear up to at least 50mph. iPod functionality is well-executed too, with player information appearing on the dash to let you know who is crooning at the moment. The left glove compartment is wired to accept Kawasaki's accessory iPod adapter kit, which includes a protective foam sleeve for your iPod. The sleeve is molded in the shape of the compartment so you can snug it in there securely. There are also options for CB and GPS units, all with nicely thought- out mounting points and connection hardware.

The sound system has volume/mode and track/station selector switches on the left grip, along with a built-in CB function switch. Standard cruise control buttons are located on the right -side grip, and cruise can be triggered when in 3rd gear or any speed between 30 - 85 mph.

We also played the role of a passenger for about 20 minutes, having a Kawasaki rep take us for a ride on a fully accessorized Vaquero-one with an accessory seat, backrest and rack. The accommodations were roomy and plush, and the construction of every component felt sturdy, solid, and clean. With a strong accessory list-35 add-ons are available right now, with more to drop soon-Kawasaki was wise to let the accessory team be involved with the Vaquero from the beginning.

Although the Vaquero's 1700cc engine isn't as big as the Victory's, our seat of the pants dyno says it's not heinously deficient. And the Vulcan's handling, engine performance and comfort are pretty comparable with the Victory's, along with a level of amenities that pretty much matches the Cross Country. The only real gray area is luggage volume. But the Vaquero counters with an impressive (and rare) standard three-year warranty.

It seems like the bagger battle has only just begun. And the comfortable, stylish Vaquero is well positioned for the fight.

2011 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero
MSRP: $14,699
[MSRP was incorrectly listed in the magazine]
MSRP: $16,499
Colors: Black, Red
Warranty: 36 months
Type: Liquid-cooled, 52- degree v-twin
Displacement; bore x stroke: 1700cc; 102 x 104mm
Valve train: SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
Compression: 9.5:1
Fuel system: EFI; dual 45mm throttle bodies
Transmission: 6-speed; wet, multiplate clutch
Final Drive: Carbon-reinforced belt

Overall length: 98.8 in.
Wheelbase: 65.6 in.
Wet weight: 835.7 lbs.
Seat height: 28.7 in.
Rake/trail: 30 deg./7.0 in.
Front tire: 130/90-16
Rear tire: 170/70-16
Front brake: Dual 300mm discs, dual 2-piston calipers
Rear brake: 300mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Front suspension: 45mm hydraulic fork; s5.5 in. travel
Rear Suspension: Dual dampers, 4-way rebound damping; 3.1 in. travel
Fuel capacity: 5.3 gal.