The $8K Motorcycle Class - Shoot Out!

High Fashion At A Low Cost

• Harley-Davidson 883 Iron
• Moto Guzzi V7 Classic
• Star V-Star 950
• Triumph Bonneville

There was a time when stylish, inexpensive cruisers were analogous with leprechauns, honest politicians, and my hairline; a nice fiction meant to amuse people, but they didn't really exist. Cutting big corners on style, these were machines meant to ape the look of full-sized machines. But volatile gas prices and an influx of new and reentry riders who don't buy into the notion that bigger is always better means demand for inexpensive bikes has skyrocketed over the last few years, driving motorcycle makers to infuse this growing market segment with more aesthetic options for less money.

A significant portion of the entry-level cruiser market used to be dominated by repurposed standards cranked out to meet a burgeoning niche. In the old days, bikes of this stature might have been introduced at a meet-and-greet at the corporate office or a quick ride following a dealer meeting. Now, manufacturers are actually marketing bikes in this range with a newfound seriousness, as evidenced by the rollouts of these four machines all introduced in (or reintroduced) in 2009.

Star took the press out to Northern Georgia to sample the V-Star 950 on a extensive trip through the mountains, while Harley-Davidson introduced the 883 Iron at an art gallery in Santa Monica last February, complete with cocktails and canapés. Triumph's New Orleans debut of a re-vamped Bonneville at the Four Seasons followed a similar route. Moto Guzzi simply delivered a V7 Classic to our parking lot, but the fact that this was the first sub-$10k offering from the high-end brand was evidence enough that the category had arrived.

These bikes are not only styled to the nines (with engineering to match) they also represent a wide cross-section of types. Each one speaks to a different part of the fun-loving rider in all of us.

Who's Got the Look?
When high-dollar "choppermania" was in full swing, lots of people wanted the street cred that comes with owning one, but not many had the fat wallet to back it up. Harley-Davidson's answer has been its Dark Custom series, and that look is trickling down to the sub-900cc level. The 883 Iron is a chopped, angry Sportster for the neophyte hooligan, or for those just not wanting anything more than a minimalist experience. It's the Nightster with a smaller motor (and pricetag), but it actually does the blacked-out thing even better. The Iron is a no-frills machine with shortened fenders, drag handlebars, a solo seat, and side-mount license plate frame. The fork lowers, motor, transmission, oil tank, wheels, and belt guard are all flat black, while vintage rubber, gaiters round out the look. It's also only available in two flat color options: Midnight Black and XX Silver.

At the opposite end of our stylistic gamut is Star's V Star 950. Star characterizes it as a scaled-down Roadliner and, in fact, it looks every inch the low, musclebound cruiser. Long fenders, floorboards, wide handlebars, and an arched 4.4-gallon gas tank are all part of the package. Star kept the back end clean by utilizing a hidden rear monoshock, and added detailed touches like a color-matched headlight, painted and contrast-machined cast rims, a clean tank-mounted multifunction gauge, and a throaty 2-into-1 exhaust. Unlike similarly-sized competition form Honda and Kawasaki, there are no Classic and Custom versions of the V Star 950; instead it splits the difference with an innovative and original design incorporating elements of both styles (we call it athletically fat).

Our other two participants are geared toward the sporting standards of yesteryear. While you could argue they're not strictly cruisers, around here we're partial to bikes with a classic look and more metal than plastic. After all, before anyone considered the word 'cruiser,' these bikes went head-to-head with the American bikes of the day.

The new V7 Classic isn't reminiscent of just one of its ancestors, but a group of them. In bringing back an old friend, Moto Guzzi took styling cues from a few of the V7's predecessors. Liberal use of chrome was a direct nod to the V7 special, while the voluptuous fuel tank recalls the Sport. Side panels house stowage compartments just like you'd find on the original V7. Guzzi also utilized `70s-esque tank and panel graphics. The end result is a vintage machine that resembles all of its ancestors and none of them at the same time. There is no mistaking this 45-degree V-twin for one from Milwaukee, as the vee straddles the centerline, thrusting its cylinders out to the sides. It's interesting that the Guzzi sports the only shaft drive in the class.

Like Moto Guzzi, Triumph stepped back into the 1960s and 70s to make a classicized, mid-sized standard. The two bikes are of a similar basic style (down to the almost identical taillights) but the Brits brought their own touches to the Bonneville. The bodywork and megaphone exhaust is exactly what you'd expect in homage to Triumph's past, while faux-carb throttle bodies are used to disguise the fuel injectors. Triumph even added a choke to complete the illusion. This retro is not all faux, though; the appearance of a chain final drive seems downright archaic, while a mechanical speedometer is almost unheard of these days. Though mostly a reworking of the prior Bonneville, the changes in the new Bonnie are significant. Lighter cast 17-inch wheels with radial tires make for a world of handling difference, serving as a mostly invisible nod to the present. The entry-level Bonneville we tested doesn't have the chrome doodads and tachometer of the SE version or the laced wheels and kneepads of the T100; it's just a stripped-down, classic road machine-and proud of it.

Now Work It
None of us hated the ergonomics on any of these contestants; after all, they're mid-sized bikes for mid-sized riders. The Iron sports mid-mount controls, but, true to its chopper roots, has a dropped seat and drag bars (plus it's the only one of these bikes that doesn't have an ugly tank seam). It's on the tight side for a big guy and about perfect for shorter riders. The drag bars are on the wide side, so they offer some leverage on the front end. The price of the dropped "cool guy" stance is very low ground clearance, and just over an inch-and-a-half of travel at the rear wheel. Still, that's infinitely more than a rigid chopper, and it's damn near as cool. The point is, the Iron is definitely not a touring bike.

Beyond the suspension issues, the Iron is a fun little barhopper. Throttle response was crisp, thanks to its svelte 563 lb. wet weight and fuel injection. The 883cc Evolution motor makes decent power off the line but isn't as strong at the top, and the transmission, though clunky, is precise. Thanks to the rubber-mounted engine, freeway cruising was fairly smooth even up to extra-legal speeds-just watch out for potholes. Stopping power comes courtesy of a 2-piston caliper up front and a single-piston unit at the rear, both mated to 11.5-inch rotors. Brake feel wasn't great at either end with the front needing a firm pull (while the rear was too sensitive), but they got the job done without fading even when abused.

If a plush, laid-back ride is more your flavor, there's the V Star 950. Between the floorboards and wide handlebars, you got a roomy feel sitting on this bike, and it fit riders south of 5'4" all the way up to over 6-feet tall. Star bills this cruiser as narrow and sporty but that wasn't the case in this bunch. While it may be sleek for a classically-styled cruiser, it's still exactly that. The V Star was the heaviest bike in the test, but did a good job of carrying its weight with a low center of gravity well-distributed front-to-rear.

Twist the V-Star's throttle and it responds immediately. At 942ccs, it has the largest mill of this lot, and it shows. Its sound is deep and it makes good power all through its considerable powerband. Shifting from one gear to the next was a smooth affair, and gear ratios are perfectly matched to the engine, with wide spacing complementing the torquey nature of the engine for vibe-free cruising at highway speeds.

Compared to the other spry testees, this cruiser felt heavy, though not heavy-handed. Handling was sharp, and the V Star felt stable at full lean, which came sooner than anyone wanted. The floorboards touched down fairly quickly-sooner than even the Iron. Like the Iron, the V Star sits low but that's because both bikes have almost the same seat height (26.3 inches for the Iron, 26.5 inches for the Star). However, the V Star's suspension has almost double the travel of the Iron (5.6 inches in front, 4.3 inches at the rear), making for a plush ride over road lumps. That same plushness can bite you though, as the Star swam a bit in bumpy corners.

While the Iron and V Star sit low to the pavement, the V7 and Bonneville are just the opposite. Because they're styled on classic racing motorcycles. The two taller machines didn't have the same limitations with lean angle, and the upright stance also meant a higher vantage point for reading traffic patterns. Aside from similar origins, though, the two bikes are night-and-day variants on the standard style.

The Iron keeps it simple with a solo seat for a perch, while both Guzzi and Triumph slide a one-piece vintage-style bench saddle under your keister. Star's two-piece unit is the most comfortable of the lot.

Most testers felt the Moto Guzzi had ergonomic issues. The relationship from seat to peg to bar felt odd, with taller riders commenting that their knees reached near their hands, and shorter riders not loving the taller seat. The transverse-mounted V-twin is unsettling at first as it torques the bike to the right at a stop, and the starter sounds like it belongs in an old Chevy. The motor is torquey, however-it's all bottom end, snapping fairly quick acceleration right off the bottom and running out of steam on top. We found ourselves looking for an extra gear as the bike crawled past 65mph. Around town and on tight roads it wasn't a problem, but on California's banzai-style freeways it was.

Shifting was a similar adventure, with a mushy feel at the V7's lever combined with a long throw. Missed shifts were fairly common. Braking felt positive at the front with a 320mm 4-piston Brembo, but just adequate out back with a single-piston caliper actuated by a hard-to-reach foot lever. Suspension was soft in front and firm in back making for excessive dive under braking. The Guzzi's quirks might not have been quite so glaring if it hadn't been for a similar bike staring us in the face.

Triumph's new Bonneville, on the other hand, is a great all-around mid-sized motorcycle, combining nostalgic style with modern tech in all the right places. Its air-cooled 865cc parallel twin ran smooth and strong; throttle response was crisp and easy to control. As the only parallel twin in the test, its engine character stood out, smooth and linear to the others' somewhat lumpy gaits. The other machines also concentrated their torque at the bottom end, while the Bonneville came on in the midrange and pulled strong to the top. It was so strong on top that one of our testers had trouble keeping it at legal speeds. Shifting was extremely light and accurate, and in a class of bikes with good fuel economy, it was the mpg king.

Part of the Bonneville redesign included new, lightweight cast alloy wheels for improved agility and low-speed handling, and they worked as advertised; this is one of the most agile bikes we've tested. In fact, some riders may be put off by how easily it falls into a corner,. Its 310mm front and 225mm rear disc brakes sport 2-piston calipers and provide ample stopping power. Add to that its low center of gravity and adjustable rear shocks, and the Bonnie was a joy on curvy roads, inspiring confidence with every flick of the bike.

There were a couple of aspects of it that lost points, though. It blew a fork seal at about 1200 miles (which is why you see two different colored Bonnies in the photos), but even before that, the front end felt slightly mushy. Other criticisms were extremely minor: the foot pegs rub against your calf when you put your foot on the ground, and you need an act of Congress to adjust the mirrors.

That's a Wrap If you're looking for a balance between cool and inexpensive, it's out there, so why compromise? These motorcycles cover pretty wide ground in the looks department: bare bones bobber, pro street cruiser, or modern race replica.

Two of the bikes stood out as machines we'd have no qualms suggesting to any rider. Our test crew was nearly unanimous in loving the Triumph. Its light weight, great power, and vintage styling turn riders into kids on Christmas. The package gets even better when you look at the price tag; it's the most affordable of the four. If you're looking for a Cadillac on two wheels (minus the cost), the V-Star is probably for you. It feels plush and handles well, despite the low-slung floorboards. With its forward-looking custom styling and full-size layout you get instant respect from riders on larger machines.

While the Harley-Davidson and Moto Guzzi might not be as functionally exceptional as the other two, they're also the ones that got the most looks and started the most conversations at bike hangouts. The Iron plays the angry chopper role pretty well, and while most of us would change the suspension ASAP, all of us liked the look. It's also almost twenty pounds lighter than other Sportsters which gives it more pep than you'd expect from an 883 motor. The V7 wasn't perfect, but hopefully Moto Guzzi will refine the package in the coming years. It certainly got a lot of attention wherever it went, especially from seasoned riding vets who remembered its origins. Unfortunately, it was also the most expensive pony in this stable.

All of these scoots prove you can have high style new metal for low bucks. Given the current economic maelstrom, there's never been a better reason to ride.

BASE PRICE $7,899.00 $8,490.00 $7,890.00 $7,699.00
AS TESTED $7,899.00 $8,490.00 $8,090.00 $7,699.00
**COLORS ** Black denim, brilliant silver denim Moon white Raven, Tommy Blue, Candy Red Jet black, Fusion white
STANDARD WARRANTY 2 yr., unlimited miles 2 yr., limited factory 1 yr., limited factory warranty 2 yr., unlimited mileage
Type Air-cooled Evolution V-twin Air-cooled 90 degree twin Air-cooled V-twin Air-cooled parallel twin, 360 degree firing interval
DISPLACEMENT, BORE X STROKE 883cc, 76.20 x 96.82mm 744, 80 x 74 mm 942cc, 85 x 83mm 865cc, 9 x 68mm
**VALVE TRAIN ** OHV pushrod, 2 valves per cylinder OHC, 2 valves per cylinder SOHC, 2 valves per cylinder DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
**COMPRESSION ** 8.9:1 9.6:1 9.0:1 9.2:1
FUEL SYSTEM EFI, 42mm throttle bodies Weber-Marelli electronic injection, 36mm throttle bodies EFI, 35mm throttle bodies Multi point seguential EFI, 36.5mm throttle bodies
RECOMMENDED FUEL 91 octane 91 octane 91 octane 89 octane
**TRANSMISSION ** 5 speed, 9-plate wet clutch 5 speed dry, clutch 5 speed, multiplate wet clutch 5 speed, multiplate wet clutch
**FINAL DRIVE ** Belt Shaft Belt X-ring chain
OVERALL LENGTH 85.8 in. 86 in. 95.9 in. 83.2 in.
WHEELBASE 60.0 in. 57.0 in. 66.3 in. 58.6 in.
WET WEIGHT 565 lbs. 436.5 lbs. 612 lbs. 440 lbs.
**SEAT HEIGHT ** 26.3 in. 31.7 in. 26.5 in. 29.1 in.
RAKE/TRAIL 29.6 degrees/4.6 in. 27.5 degrees/4.3 in. 32 degrees/5.7 in. 27 degrees/106mm
WHEELS Black, 13-spoke cast aluminum Chrome aluminum, laced 8-spoke cast aluminum 7-spoke cast aluminum
FRONT TIRE 100/90-19 tubeless 100/90 V18 56H tubeless 130/70-18M/C 63H tubed 110/70 17 tubed
**REAR TIRE ** 150/80B16 tubeless 130/80 V17 65H tubeless 170/70-16 M/C 75H tubed 130/80 17 tubed
**FRONT BRAKE ** 11.5 in. expansion disc, dual 2-piston calipers 320mm hydraulic disc, 4-piston caliper 320mm hydraulic disc, 2-piston caliper Single 310mm disc, 2-piston caliper
**REAR BRAKE ** 11.5 in. expansion disc, single 2-piston caliper 260mm hydraulic disc, 2-piston caliper 298mm hydraulic disc, 1-piston caliper Single 255mm disc, 2-piston caliper
**FRONT SUSPENSION ** 39mm fork, 3.62-in. travel Marzocchi hydraulic telescopic fork, 40 mm, 136mm wheel travel Telescopic fork, 41mm telescopic forks
**REAR SUSPENSION ** Dual pre-load adjustable shocks, 1.63-in travel Swinging fork in light alloy cast with two dampers and spring adjustable for preload and rebound, 118mm wheel travel Single shock, 4.3-in travel Chrome spring twin shocks with adjustable preload,
**FUEL CAPACITY ** 3.30 US gal. 4.5 US gal. 4.4 US gal. 4.2 US gal.
**INSTRUMENTS ** Electronic speedometer with odometer, dual trip meter, low fuel and oil pressure lights, engine diagnostics readout, LED indicator lights, hazard warning, self-canceling turn signals; high beam, low battery, and neutral indicator lamps Speedometer, tachometer, fuel warning light, clock, fuel warning light, neutral light, temperature warning light, trip odometer 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 with odometer, tripmeter; indicators for low oil, high beam, turn signal and neutral
**FUEL MILEAGE ** 46.37-52.68 mpg, 49.53 mpg avg. 47.36-49.65 mpg, 48.51 mpg avg. 47.61-51.94 mpg, 49.78 mpg avg. 49.28-52.53 mpg, 50.90 mpg avg.
**AVERAGE RANGE ** 163.44 miles 218.29 miles 219 miles 213.78 miles

More $8000 Fashionistas
The bikes listed here may seem like a disparate group, but they do have one thing in common; they were all new for 2009, which means nothing's changed in 2010. Since we did this test, more makers have stepped up with pocket attitude machines, while one had beaten them all to the punch years ago.

Honda Shadow Phantom
Walking the same dark road as H-D's Iron, the Shadow Phantom is a blacked-out and stripped-down version of Honda's extant Aero. For a $1000 bump over the other Shadows ($7999), this 750cc machine gets fuel injection and a raft of blacked-out parts, complemented by a dull metal finish. A gunslinger-style seat and drag bar complete the look.

Suzuki M50
While Suzuki has never been a company to go to town in the style department, they have at least endowed their smallest M' with a look that apes their larger muscle cruisers. It's roughly the same bike that's been around for years, but with a new set of bodywork. We have yet to sample the revised seat and bar setup.

Kawasaki Vulcan 900
The pioneer of this class opened the doors to full-featured cruisers for under five figures. With Classic and Custom versions, it trod a familiar road, yet managed to stand out from the crowd. With all of these bikes competing for its coveted spot, it'll be interesting to see how long it takes Kawasaki to do a re-do.

Riding Positions

Scott Hodgson
5'11", 195 lbs., 34" inseam

The Triumph Bonneville's, riding position was pretty good for me, and the bar, seat and peg relationship felt natural for a "sit up" style of bike. Engine performance was very smooth and strong; throttle response was crisp and controllable making it very easy to transition from off-throttle to on mid-corner without upsetting the bike. Its transmission action was smooth and precise. Also, finding neutral or first gear was easy. The front suspension felt soft to me as it quickly dove under front braking. The overall feel of the bike is light and nimble and it was very fun to ride.

The V7's riding position was pretty cramped, in particular the seat- to-peg relationship. At 5'11" with a 34" inseam, I felt like my knees were up under my helmet. To make matters worse, the rear brake pedal was positioned too high for my toe to reach with out lifting my foot completely off the peg. Once I got moving and started focusing on the engine performance, I found myself wishing I was back on the Triumph. It pulled strong right off idle with a burst of torque, it revved slowly yet predictably, and stops revving and you have to shift. Going through twisty corners, the V7 really doesn't like to transition through a series of left and right turns.

The V-Star 950's riding position was really comfortable. All the controls were just right for my preferences. The seat felt like I could ride for miles, and engine performance was smooth and strong. It was strong off idle and revved nicely through its wide powerband till the next shift. Mid-corner transitioning from off to on throttle was smooth and offered no disturbance to the chassis. The rear suspension was smooth but a bit soft and loose. I bottomed on a few occasions through very mild dips, and the rear end is a little busy going through rolling bumps in the road. The overall feel of the bike is heavy compared to the other three, but still very fun to ride. I easily of dragged the floor boards on the V-Star, but even that had a mild feel.

The Iron fit me well, the seat was comfortable and the bars/seat/pegs relationship felt natural. Engine performance was OK. The motor delivers smooth power and the chassis stayed settled during mid-corner throttle transitions. The front suspension is soft and plush, however dive control is virtually nonexistent and the front end has little rebound control. This allows the front end to kind of "bob around" during cornering on roads with bumps in them. Rear suspension is very soft and extremely easy to bottom out. There is simply no real suspension travel on this bike. Overall, this bike was fun to ride on smooth roads, but it generally left me wanting more...more power, more rebound damping up front, more suspension travel in the rear.

Mark Masker
5'5", 167 lbs., 28" inseam

The last time I rode a Bonneville was in 2001 and I wasn't impressed by it at the time. It felt small and underpowered. This bike was a wake-up call straight off the line. It had plenty of get up and go, whether you're leaving a stop sign or out on the highway. The suspension was very smooth throughout and while it is a "tall" bike with plenty of ground clearance, my stubby little legs had no problem with it at a stop. It really was a joy to ride.

I also dug the V-Star 950. It makes good power and while I'm not a fan of floorboards, they felt right for this style of motorcycle. I thought it was going to feel really big but it didn't. The bars were a little wide for lane splitting, but that was my only real complaint about this bike.

The Iron was my first experience with a fuel injected Sporty. Its EFI and light weight gave me a very pleasant surprise when I first twisted the throttle. It fit me pretty well and it was fun to ride - provided the road was smooth and you weren't on a freeway. It wouldn't be my first choice on a cross-country jaunt but I liked riding it around town. Like other 883 XL's, it needs a 1200 kit and a pipe to keep you happy long-term. But that's not really an issue if you plan on trading it in for something bigger down the line.

Then there's the V7. I didn't hate this bike but I couldn't see buying one unless you're a Guzzi fan. It wasn't uncomfortable to me but it wasn't nearly as refined as the Triumph. I just couldn't feel the love on this machine.

Billy Bartels
6', 193 lbs., 33" inseam

The Iron is a sweet little bike, well finished, tight and light. It manages to deliver attitude for an insanely low price. But I'm pretty much over bikes with one inch of rear suspension travel. I'm just getting too old for that. It's also ergonomically cramped for me.

The Guzzi V7 Classic is pretty nice as well, but quirky. The starter sounds like something out of a car, and it does that torque thing when you blip the throttle, and though it has the most complete gauge package, the buttons work like they've been sitting in a parts bin for 15 years. The torquey motor and responsive chassis are nice, but out on the highway it struggles to keep up above 60. I think if it weren't for two things I'd have liked it more: it's pricey for what you get, and the Bonneville showed up.

In layout and intent, the Bonneville is very similar to the Guzzi, but in just about every measurable way it's better. It's got razor-sharp handling, a stronger motor (with a better powerband), better ergonomics, and it's $700 less. Heck of a bike, but if you want the ultimate cruiser experience, this ain't it. The Bonny isn't a race bike, but it isn't laid back and relaxed either.

The V Star 950 simply nails this category. It looks like a full sized cruiser but doesn't feel like one. It gets good mileage, the powerband is super-wide and so are the gear ratios, making either relaxed cruising or highway hauling smooth and fun. It fits small and big riders in perfect comfort, and I'd go so far as to say its one of the finest cruisers built today, in any size or price.