Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited; Kawasaki Vulcan Voyager; Star Royal Star Venture; and Victory Vision Tour - The Lap of Luxury

Four Full-Boat Tourers Sail to Sturgis

Shoot Out!
• Harley-Davidson Electra Glide Ultra Limited
• Kawasaki Vulcan Voyager
• Star Royal Star Venture
• Victory Vision Tour

It was that time of year: with hectares of blue skies beckoning over every horizon and 13 hours of sunlight per day, it's no wonder our noggins are filled with grandiose visions of two wheels thrumming across a vast blacktop. Normally we don't need an excuse to dream up road trips, but with the wealth of touring hardware coming online for 2010, it'd be criminal if we didn't get rolling, tout de suite. Staycation be darned-it was time to saddle up.

This being our annual go-for-broke touring shootout, nothing less than a quintessential road trip would do, and a suitably epic scheme was hatched: five riders on five bikes across five states to the holiest of biker Meccas-Sturgis.

Weeklong jaunts can be demanding, so we mulled over motorcycles built for distance and comfort, preferably with bells and whistles included. In our 'hood, that means luxury tourers. High style with maximum cush and are ready to roll right out of the box, thanks to vast fairings and amenities like audio systems, cruise control and hard luggage.

With full-dress luxury touring cruisers, it pretty much comes down to four choices: any Harley Electra Glide (we chose the new Ultra Limited), Kawasaki's new Vulcan 1700 Voyager, Star's long-running Royal Star Venture and Victory's swoopy sophomore, the Vision Tour.

Of course, we field squawks from Gold Wing fans all the time, arguing that the Honda belonged there too. We beg to differ; its unique engine, controls and riding position punt the 'Wing into its own category. But enough 'Wing Nuts threatened to assemble outside our editorial compound that we opted to bring along the smooth six-shooter. Unfortunately, it never finished the tour, meeting its demise on a Colorado back road.

The Mega-Ultra-Super-Limited Upgrade
Harley's biggest sellers are their touring bikes, so it's only natural Milwaukee would add a new ship to the fleet. The Ultra Limited is a welcome step up from the Ultra Classic Electra Glide, because underneath the familiar exterior lies a Twin Cam 103 power plant said to produce 10% more torque than the Twin Cam 96. Along with a six-speed Cruise Drive transmission, Harley's newest dresser also benefits from the redesigned Touring chassis introduced in 2009.

The conveniences that made the Ultra Classic so popular are retained on the Ultra Limited, including electronic cruise control and vented lowers as well as hard saddlebags and the Tour Pak trunk. And let's not forget the fork-mounted Bat Wing fairing. But the Limited also ups the ante with an 80-watt Advanced Audio System by Harman/Kardon, a CB radio/intercom, Brembo triple-disc brakes with ABS (optional on the mere Ultra), heated grips, and the Harley-Davidson Smart Security System, all standard. The Premium Tour-Pak gets a luggage rack and liners, and stashes a 12-volt/15 amp power supply inside, solidifying the Limited's premium status.

For $24,699 the Limited offers all this factory-installed original equipment at a $3700 premium over the Ultra Classic Electra Glide.

The Full Dress Metric Twin
Kawasaki hasn't had a serious dresser in years, so it's little wonder the firm made a big deal of introducing the first metric V-Twin full dress touring machine, the Voyager. It's based on Kawasaki's new heavyweight cruiser platform, the Vulcan 1700.

All the new Vulcans are powered by a liquid-cooled, 52-degree V-twin engine that displaces 1,700cc through a bore and stroke of 102.0 x 104.0mm. The Voyager borrows engine characteristics from the Vulcan 2000, but uses an overhead camshaft rather than pushrods. Power is pushed through a six-speed transmission with belt final drive. Dual front discs with four-piston calipers and a single rear disc with a two-piston caliper provide the "whoa" power. Our bike had optional anti-lock brakes, linked in both directions.

Put the Voyager next to the E-Glide and it's clear from whence Kawasaki drew inspiration, though there's a modern flair to the Voyager. The flagship Vulcan wears a large frame-mounted fairing along with touring bits like adjustable lowers, hard saddlebags and a passenger seat backed by a trunk with backrest. Cruise control and a six-speed overdrive transmission reinforce its long distance intent.

The 2009 Kawasaki Vulcan Voyager 1700 can be had for $16,799; ABS boosts the price to $17,899.

Venture A Thought
Add the Royal Star Venture to the list of bikes rather Electra Glide-esque from the front. That's where the similarities end, though-this puppy is powered by a 1294cc V-four engine that shares DNA with the mighty first-gen V-Max mill, though its most closely-related to the 90's Royal Stars, including the current-model Tour Deluxe.

Today's Royal Star Venture is powered by that same V-four, with bore and stroke figures of 79.0 x 66.0mm, a hot-rodesque 10.0:1 compression ratio and four valves per cylinder. Four 32mm carburetors feed the beast, and a counterbalancer soothes the shakes. A five-speed transmission transfers power to a shaft final drive. The only changes in the last few years are a "pillowy" seat in 2001, and for '09 a 6 CD changer is standard (sucking up needed space in the left saddlebag), though it's the only one to still have a cassette deck.

Other long-haul amenities include a four-speaker stereo system as well as CB radio and intercom, electronic cruise control, and plenty of lockable storage. The six-gallon fuel tank provides reasonable range and there's air-assisted suspension front and rear. At $18,690, the Venture makes a solid case for V-four touring.

Double Vision
When the Vision first debuted a few years ago, it was clear Victory did its research; the cruiser demographic is getting older, and aging bikers tend to embrace convenience, especially when touring. Equipped with a 106 cubic-inch engine (1731cc) and six-speed transmission, the Vision Tour also sports amenities like a power windshield, electronic reverse and cleverly disguised bumpers that protect the bike.

The Vision's swept lines may look abstract, but one thing is for sure: this ain't a wannabe Harley. The exposed 106-inch motor has a long stroke for more torque, and is fired through the 45mm throttle bodies of a fuel injection system. It breathes through an air box built into an aluminum frame and the engine serves as a stressed chassis member. A hydraulic clutch makes shifts easier, while a belt provides final drive.

Our test unit was the Premium model, well-appointed with options like an electrical reverse gear, extra billet and chrome, heated grips and seats, highway pegs, lower air deflectors, a trunk rack, premium audio and a GPS. It rings in at $24,009.

Scorched And Chilled
Once we hit the road, the bikes' personalities emerged quickly, particularly when it came to weather protection and ergonomics -- categories we considered essential on our trip.

Settling into the Vision's 26.5 inch seat, all our riders instantly felt at home, with controls falling easily to hand and roomy, adjustable floorboards allowing maximum range of position.

The Victory's frame-mounted fairing has an impressive wingspan, and it offers the best weather protection here along with easy-to-read instrumentation. We encountered multiple storms, and everyone praised the electrically adjustable windshield, which goes to full protection with the push of a button (with some buffeting at highway speeds). Two adjustable winglets on either side of the fairing (smaller upper units are standard; lowers are optional), proved helpful at redirecting airflow, but three of four didn't make it to the end of the trip, breaking or falling off by riders' hamhanded-ness or forces of nature.

Once you're ensconced in the cockpit, the Vision's switches are a breeze, most within easy reach atop the console or near the left grip. Audio quality was decent around town, but like on all these machines, drowned out at freeway speeds. Ours also came with an iPod dock. Mirrors built into the fairing direct wind away from pilots' hands, but their adjustability is limited, which resulted only in close-up views of our gloves-rather than of the road.

Climb aboard the Voyager and you feel smaller, probably because the windshield is taller (and not adjustable), and you sit more 'on' the Kawasaki. Supporting that shield is a batwing-ish fairing, though it's frame-mounted. The tall screen along with that fairing reflects some engine noise, but it also affords good protection from the elements.

Kawasaki's muscle car styling works best with the large headlight which is flanked by 35-watt driving lights. The cockpit's retro-modern vibe, on the other hand, just doesn't seem as integrated, though it holds plenty of function. The fuel, speedo, tach and coolant dials are analog while a high tech LCD crashes the party in the center of it all, with gear position, tripmeters, and fuel consumption displays. Plastic frames and housings don't exactly scream "high end", either.

The Voyager isn't short on creature comforts, coming equipped with cruise control and a 40-watt audio system with a three band radio (AM/FM/weather) that can be fitted with an XM tuner or CB radio.

Additional plug-ins allow for an iPod, intercom and/or rear speakers, but they're available only as upgrades. The left grip directs audio, while the right handles cruise control, though some of us found the button placement crowded and somewhat confusing.

Near the floorboards are adjustable fairing lowers that pivot for airflow, but the fussy setup led several riders to dub this bike, "the Heater." Kawasaki's configuration didn't manage flow as effectively as Harley's, with the vents producing either static heat or oven blasts through desert (though they deflected cold air well). There's more cockpit room on the Voyager however, and riders universally praised the low, comfy seat, ample floorboards and roomy ergos (one complained about the saddle shape).

Although the Venture's seat height isn't the tallest (it's second), it's wide across the middle and getting this bike off the side stand fully loaded was a handful, especially for shorter riders. There's room to spare from the cushy seat to the floorboards, and the tiller-like bar is comparatively low and distant, which meant taller riders were more likely to appreciate the breezy riding position.

A smallish fairing houses the Star's attractive retro dashboard, even though the Venture shows its age here; with no tachometer, trip meters provide the only readout. It's the only bike without supplemental wind deflectors, and even the tallest rider could barely see over the tall windshield, though it's second to the Kawasaki on that count.

As for touring amenities, it's a Flashback to the 90's. We found a cassette player in the dash, but thankfully there's an easy-to-use auxiliary plug right next to it (MP3 players can be hooked in). The lowers offer no airflow adjustability and can't be moved, and the fairing offers just so-so weather protection (if it rained, you'd get pretty wet).

On the plus side, the Venture's deeply padded and tufted saddle is soft to the point of plushness, and most riders found it very comfortable throughout the 4000+ mile trip. Star has endowed the Venture with good ergonomics while maintaining the lines of a cruiser.

Harley's depth of experience with touring rigs meant the Ultra Limited fit practically everyone, with a compact cockpit splaying the rider out in classic E-Glide mode. The Limited improves on the formula with a more supportive seat which, although tall, allows a range of movement. The narrow handlebar and floorboard setup is roomier than the Gold Wing's, but tighter than the rest.

That long-running batwing fairing gets nipped and tucked, though its weather-deflecting ability remains admirable. The spread of dials and gauges forced us to take our eyes off the road to check them, and analog instrumentation feels alien next to the slick Harmon Kardon sound system, but titanium faces with LED backlighting made for easy night viewing. Tucked into a hard plastic dashboard, the 80-watt Advanced Audio System can really boogie (here, Harley opted for a CB radio instead of XM).

A somewhat tall, nonadjustable windshield sprouts from the fairing, but the fairing lowers offer storage and manage heat well; they're also removable (at parking lot speeds, you will still broil).

**H-D's Limited sports a supportive seat that has a nice relief for your (otherwise) aching tailbone. Kawasaki's Voyager has a low, plush saddle that's narrowish across the middle, which made our shorter riders happy. Victory's Vision has a pair of deep, supportive pockets that offer all-day comfort, and lots of room to move. Star's Venture has one of those seats that locks you in a position you can't get out of, luckily that position fit most of us, while its roomy passenger perch had the best handrails. **

Lift Off
Because much of our trip consisted of super slab, high speed cruising capability was crucial. Underway, all the bikes instantly feel lighter than at rest, though some were nimbler than others.

Harley's TC 96 power plant has been ripe for a change; it's reliable, but just not up to the task of powering a bike as big as the Limited. The Twin Cam 103 offers a subtle bump, with smooth if not mind-blowingly powerful performance. It beats the 96 hands down, and the six-speed Cruise Drive offers a tall top gear for quiet highway runs. Shifts are positive with the cable-actuated clutch, and the new helical cut fifth gear is noticeably smoother than previous straight-cut cogs.

Most pilots were happy with the Twin Cam 103's improved passing power, though chugging up steep climbs on a loaded Limited could occasionally tax the engine.

As for the Victory-giddyap! The engine's rumbling strikes a sweet spot between feeling the motor and enduring an annoying yowl. Roll-ons provide instant gratification, and despite a propensity for low-end thrust, this twin isn't afraid to pull throughout the midrange before topping at 5,500 rpm. The engine is well matched to the six-speed tranny, which has a true overdrive gear for comfortable high-speed cruising. Shifts are smooth, and neutral is easy to find.

Despite its muscle car styling, the Kawasaki is no hot rod. The slightly undersquare motor exhibited some shudder and shake, although not obtrusively. The fuel injection and new Electronic Throttle Valve system is very consistent though, with the best engine performance coming in third and fourth gears. When fully loaded on steeper hills, a few riders said they wished the Voyager had more torque down low. The hydraulic clutch was super-smooth for all (it's adjustable), and a six speed tranny offers positive shifts.

It may have the smallest displacement in the group, but Star's touring machine makes the most of its extra cylinders. The V4 hums along with a subdued throb and almost no vibration. It's a slightly underwhelming mill that comes alive when the throttle is whacked. Power comes on higher in the rev range, and when it's time to roll-on, there's enough poop to make downshifting an option. Aggressive riders appreciated the Venture's midrange, and it tackled big hills more easily than the Kawasaki or Harley. Even though the Venture has the smallest engine, it got the lowest gas mileage (thanks to inefficient old-school carburetors), though a 6 gallon tank usually helped keep its range over 200 miles. Most testers agreed the peppy mill was a pleasant surprise-though no match for the Vision.

Between thousands of miles of aggressive riding, we managed to jot down mileage figures. We were wowed by the Victory's 40.2 miles per gallon average, which bested even the Harley, the king of fuel economy in past tests. The Harley's 39.7 mpg was a close second.

The Voyager scored a reading of 34.7 mpg, which, when coupled with the smallest tank, didn't make for a great range between fill-ups. More than one tester complained of an unreliable range readout too, making long stretches of road nerve-wracking, and it was the only one to actually run out of gas on a long Wyoming stretch.

Let's Twist Again
When the route got twisty through the Rockies, the Victory made believers out of everyone. Despite its length, the Vision's handling was excellent, even when fully-laden. Although it looks long, its wheelbase is nearly an inch shorter than the Gold Wing's, the swoopy tailpiece providing the illusory length. Through a variety of low and high-speed turns, the Vision's chassis felt solid and planted. While the front 43mm fork isn't adjustable, the rear monoshock can be stiffened via a valve inside the saddlebag.

Even with the low seat height, testers were happy with the available ground clearance. The front-end steered positively with neutral handling, but in the parking lot, it's a different story: the bike feels its length (especially if the top case is loaded) and the passenger boards can nip at your heels in low-speed maneuvers, making for occasionally painful u-turns.

While the Vision can't match the Ultra's low-speed maneuverability, it felt more stable through high-speed curvy stuff, and in a straight line it shone. We even got a chance to test the integral bumpers, and they protected the bike from keeling over, just as advertised.

The Harley's suspension also offers over 5 inches of travel, but it's the generous front-wheel trail (a whopping 6.6 inches) that keeps it from feeling nervous. In a low-speed environment, the shortest wheelbase of the group allows the Limited to outmaneuver the others easily.

Ride comfort is good at all speeds, and 4.3 inches of rear suspension travel soak up most bumps. But the Harley's fork dives noticeably under heavy braking. The redesigned chassis gives it greater confidence in turns and it has commendable ground clearance, though its 901 lbs can be a handful when parking. Still, with your feet on the full-length floorboards and handlebars just under shoulder height, the upright riding position makes for easy balancing even at a crawl. And once you've brought it up to speed, the Limited eats miles with aplomb.

Chassis-wise, the Venture has the longest wheelbase of the group. Its suspension is generally soft but well-controlled and we also found it comfortable for medium stretches of road. Air-adjustable rear shocks can accommodate variable cargo loads, but testers often complained of vagueness from the front.

In the twisties, the Star Venture's front end can feel loose, it especially hates mid-corner bumps. Most of the time, you can tell what the front tire is doing, but sometimes, things feel disconnected or bouncy.

The Voyager's double cradle frame is more compact than the old Vulcan 1600's, which allows for the dresser's 65.6-inch wheelbase-the second shortest here. Couple that with the second lowest seat of the group (28.7 inches), and slow speed maneuvers are a breeze. The 1700 carries its weight low, which makes getting around parking lots easy.

The bike feels lighter than expected through curvy roads, though a few riders complained of wallowing when the Voyager overloaded its short-travel rear suspension. Another commented that the front end didn't seem well-set up for the weight of the big fairing. The limited lean angle too, was a bit of drag; on turns, eager riders can carve marks into the asphalt, more so than on any other bike here. Otherwise the Kawasaki offers a soft but controlled ride. Up to 43 psi of air pressure can be used to adjust the shocks on each side, along with four rebound settings. A side-mounted Schrader valve can be accessed with an accessory hand pump, just like the Victory and Harley.

Brake It Down
Riding the Rockies might be the ultimate test of a vehicle's braking prowess and the Ultra Limited's stoppers didn't disappoint. Even with the bike loaded, the ABS gives considerably better control. Three 4-piston calipers offer good bite, and the ABS system allows ham-fisted engagement of either brake without worrying about skidding. The rear brake's ABS comes in early, but unlike some of the others, Harley's ABS isn't linked, so the rider maintains independent control of both front and rear, which all of us liked.

Victory's integrated braking system hauls in the HMS Vision. The dual disc, three-piston front brake and rear single disc, two-piston unit are linked when the pedal is engaged, though max power is attained with front lever applied as well. Under heavy rear braking, a "degree" of front brake is activated for a more controlled stop, which helped one rider avoid a wayward cow on a back road. Victory has decided to also offer anti-lock brakes on the 2010 Vision.

Our Voyager came equipped with the Kawasaki Advanced Coactive Braking Technology (K-ACT) option. The linked system automatically detects the amount of force being applied and pumps in additional fluid. Dual 300mm front disc brakes with four piston calipers control the front, and a two-piston rear disc brake is utilized out back. Most of us agreed there was easy engagement with a natural feel, even in panic stops, though one rider felt the rear came on too quickly.

The Venture also got surprisingly high marks for its low-tech 2-piston caliper binders, with riders opining that the brakes offered a progressive bite and good control, though unlike the others there is neither linking nor ABS.

Pack It Up Pack It In
The Voyager's trunk is a dead ringer for the Limited's-it's about the same shape, and even the side-opening configuration is similar. At 33.2 gallons, though, Kawasaki's set of luggage is roomier. The top-opening saddlebags each have a 10-gallon capacity while the top case holds 13.2 gallons. All open without the key and are easily accessed. The design is user-friendly, though flimsy; latches required a good push to close and started to show wear less than a week into the tour.

With the smallest capacity (25.6 gallons), the Harley's luggage still garnered a thumbs-up from every rider, particularly the side-hinged Tour Pak. The nicely padded passenger backrest and wraparound armrests should coddle most pillion riders. Saddlebags are also a breeze to use, employing a soft-hinge, top-loading lid, though Harley claims a modest 6.4 gallons per bag, these are the easiest bags to stuff full of stuff. Harley's stout, foolproof latches remain the best of this bunch.

With all that bodywork, you'd expect the Vision to offer beaucoup storage. The curvaceous saddlebags alas, are woefully unimpressive-just 7.3 gallons per bag and it seems like it takes Enron style accounting to even get that number. The trunk is roomy and doubles as a passenger backrest, but it opens front to back-so a passenger has to move for access. If body design is world-class, construction is less so; our unit developed rattles after a few days.

The Royal Star Venture's trunk is huge, but it too opens into the passenger. It has a clunky opening mechanism that made us try to break the lid off on a couple of occasions. Its bags are pretty well-sized, but short and wide, although opting for a CD player (which is stored in the left bag) will lower overall volume. The side bags also are very sensitive to luggage getting the way of the latches.

Decisions, Decisions
Though it weighs almost 900 pounds, the Vision set a lively pace the others simply couldn't match. Attention to detail, a snorty V-Twin, good road manners and high zoot amenities made for a great travel companion. Three of four testers had this bike as their top pick.

The Harley Ultra Classic Electra Glide is an acknowledged leader, but if you want more, the Limited succeeds as a step-up mount. Fit and finish is superb, and easy controls and light steering are unexpected surprises, putting the Harley in second or third on everybody's list.

The Voyager is one of the better-equipped, affordable long-range bikes out there. Two of our testers felt it was the easiest to ride. It's built to a price point however, and future refinements to the chassis and engine will help Kawasaki make a stronger showing in this class next time.

Despite its classic appearance, the Venture marches to a different beat. Half our riders took the Star to task for a high center of gravity, lack of amenities, and price. But the Star is well-finished and the engine so understressed that it's hard to imagine any mechanical problems for at least 50,000 miles.

If you can deal with swoopy bodywork and aren't afraid of a little performance (or attention), the Vision is the one.

Next Year's Models
Half of the test bikes in this comparison are 2009 year bikes (the Harley is a 2010 model, and the Voyager was a spring-release 2010), so there have been a few changes for the new model year.

The biggest news for this bunch is that the 2010 Vision Tour is now available with ABS. Victory says the system uses a control module near the side storage compartment to hydraulically-actuate the three-piston front units under moderate-to-heavy application of the two-piston rear brakes. The new Vision also gets a universal cigarette-lighter-style power outlet and an airbox silencer to decrease intake sound levels (though we had no issue with the sonic quality on our bike).

The Venture, to no one's surprise, stays the same for 2010 (save for a new color option). The Honda Gold Wing is likely to continue its tour topping ways, with only color changes planned for the near future.

SPECIFICATIONS
2010 H-D ELECTRA GLIDE ULTRA LIMITED 2009 KAWASAKI VULCAN 1700 VOYAGER 2009 STAR ROYAL STAR VENTURE 2009 VICTORY VISION TOUR (PREMIUM)
BASE PRICE $24,699 $16,799 $18,690 $20,749
AS TESTED $24,699 $17,899 (K-ACT ABS) $18,690 $24,009 (GPS, trunk rack and reverse and more)
COLORS Black, blue, red Blue/black, silver/black Black, blue, red Black, blue, red
STANDARD WARRANTY 24 mos., unlimited miles 36 mos., unlimited miles 5 year limited warranty 12 mos., unlimited miles
ENGINE
TYPE Air-cooled, 45 degree Twin Cam 103 V-twin Liquid-cooled, 52 degree V-twin Liquid-cooled, 70 degree V-four Air/oil-cooled, 50 degree V-twin
DISPLACEMENT, BORE X STROKE 1690cc, 98.425 x 111.252mm 1700cc, 102 x 104mm 1294cc, 79 x 66mm 1731cc, 101 x 108mm
VALVE TRAIN OHV, 2 valves per cylinder SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
COMPRESSION 9.7 : 1 9.5 : 1 10.0 : 1 9.4 : 1
FUEL SYSTEM EFI, 42mm throttle body EFI, dual 42mm throttle bodies 4 32mm Mikuni carburetors EFI, dual 45mm throttle bodies
RECOMMENDED FUEL 91 octane 91 octane 89 octane 91 octane
TRANSMISSION 6-speed, multiplate wet clutch 6-speed w/overdrive, multiplate wet clutch 5-speed w/overdrive, hydraulic clutch 6-speed overdrive, plus electric reverse
FINAL DRIVE Belt Belt Shaft Belt
CHASSIS
OVERALL LENGTH 98.6 in. 100.8 in. 104.5 in. 104.9 in.
WHEELBASE 63.5 in. 65.6 in. 67.1 in. 65.7 in.
WET WEIGHT 901 lbs. 895 lbs. 893 lbs. 886 lbs.
SEAT HEIGHT 30.7 in. 28.7 in. 29.5 in. 26.5 in.
RAKE/TRAIL 26 deg./6.69 in. 30 deg./7.0 in. 28.83 degrees/5.16 in. 29 deg./5.4 in.
WHEELS 28-spoke cast aluminum 9-spoke cast aluminum 7-spoke cast aluminum 5-spoke chromed forged aluminum
FRONT TIRE 130/80B17 130/90 x 16 tubeless radial 150/80-16/ 130/70R18 Dunlop Elite 3
REAR TIRE 180/65B16 170/70 x 16 tubeless radial 150/90-15/ 180/60R16 Dunlop Elite 3
FRONT BRAKE Dual 290mm discs, 4-piston calipers Dual 300mm discs, 4-piston calipers Dual 298mm discs, 2-piston calipers Dual 300mm discs, 3-piston calipers
REAR BRAKE 275mm disc, 4-piston caliper 300mm disc, 2-piston caliper 320mm disc, 2-piston caliper 300mm disc, 2-piston caliper
FRONT SUSPENSION Telescopic 41mm fork, 5.12-in. travel 45mm hydraulic fork, 5.5-in. travel Telescopic 41mm fork, 5.5-in. travel 46mm telescopic fork, 5.1-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Twin shocks, adjustable air pressure and rebound damping, 4.3-in. travel Twin shocks, adjustable air pressure and rebound damping, 3.1-in. travel Single damper, 4.1-in. travel, air adjustable for preload mono-tube gas shock, air-adjustable, 4.7-in. travel
FUEL CAPACITY 6 US gal 5.3 US gal 6 US gal 6 US gal
INSTRUMENTS electronic speedometer with odometer; dual trip meter; mileage countdown; tachometer, voltmeter, air temperature gauge, fuel gauge, oil pressure gauge, and clock Analog speedometer, LCD odometer/dual tripmeter and fuel gauge; average fuel economy computer with distance to empty, oil temperature gauge, and tachometer Analog speedometer, LCD odometer/tripmeter, and fuel gauge; Analog speedometer, LCD odometer/dual tripmeter, clock, air temperature gauge, voltmeter, tachometer, range indicator, instant and long range fuel efficiency gauge, 10-hour stop watch, and fuel gauge
LUGGAGE 12.8 gal. trunk; two 6.4 gal. saddlebags.; 25.6 gal. total 13.2 gal. trunk; two 10 gal. saddlebags; 33.2 gal. total 15-gal. trunk; two 9.3-gal. saddlebags; 33.6 gal. total 14.6 gal. trunk; two 7.3 gal. saddlebags; 29.2 gal. total
PERFORMANCE
FUEL MILEAGE 30-43 mpg; 39.7 mpg avg. 30-37 mpg; 34.7 mpg avg. 32-38 mpg; 34.1 mpg avg. 33-46 mpg; 42.5 mpg avg.
AVERAGE RANGE 238 miles 184 miles 204 miles 255 miles

Out Of The Box, The Honda Gold Wing
The venerable Gold Wing is still considered by some to be the pinnacle of motorcycle touring. All current Wing packages are powered by an 1832cc liquid-cooled horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine with fuel injection, computer-controlled ignition, a single overhead camshaft, and two valves per cylinder. Output is delivered via shaft drive and a five-speed overdrive transmission. You also get an electric reverse, handy for parking on a slope.

The base Audio comfort package will set you back $20,999. Our test bike was the 2009 Premium Audio/Comfort/Navi/ABS/Airbag 'Wing, which features Honda's supplemental restraint with ABS, XM, and satellite navigation, retailing for $25,599, putting it right in the ballpark with our other high-end bikes.

Unlike the other bikes in this group, the GL sports footpegs instead of floorboards (at least for the rider, the passenger gets boards) to make room for its six horizontally opposed cylinders. That can create a cramped, un-adjustable riding position, that gave a couple of our testers lower-back fits.

Handling has always been Honda's forte, and this bike surprised first-time 'Wing riders with its low-speed balance and high-speed stability. We rolled through every kind of corner on our trip, and the Honda handled them all, with respectable cornering clearance. Honda locates the Gold Wing's tonnage as closely as possible to its center of gravity, giving the touring behemoth the kind of manners you'd normally find on a 900cc standard.

Our test unit came with Honda's Premium Audio system, and every tester agreed it was the best stereo going. The highly amplified 80 watt system proved to be nearly distortion-free at all times. Audio controls are spread between switches on the handlebar and atop the faux fuel tank, where you'll find a blur of buttons and tabs that handle everything from cruise control to headlamp position to rear suspension preload.

The riders who had seat time on the thing agreed that even though it was functionally the better bike, there weren't any real standout qualities. It's the overall package that makes it so easy to ride. Blame it on Honda's penchant to stress efficiency first: We're not saying the Gold Wing is an appliance, but it certainly doesn't ooze with character.

Unfortunately, we totaled it before we all had a chance to test it back to back with the others. At the time of its demise it was in the mix with the Victory for the win, acquitting itself well in early testing, but we'll have to wait for our next big touring test to really be sure.

2009 HONDA GOLD WING
BASE PRICE $22,899
AS TESTED $25,599 (Airbag Package)
COLORS Black, blue, red, yellow, silver
STANDARD WARRANTY 36 mos., unlimited miles
ENGINE
TYPE Liquid-cooled, horizontally opposed six cylinder
DISPLACEMENT, BORE X STROKE 1832cc, 74.0mm x 71.0mm
VALVE TRAIN SOHC, 2 valves per cylinder
COMPRESSION 9.8 : 1
FUEL SYSTEM EFI, 42mm throttle bodies
PREFERRED FUEL: 91 octane
TRANSMISSION 5-speed (includes overdrive), plus electric reverse
FINAL DRIVE Shaft
CHASSIS
OVERALL LENGTH 94.1 in.
WHEELBASE 66.5 in.
WET WEIGHT 928 lbs.
SEAT HEIGHT 29.1 in.
RAKE/TRAIL 29.15 deg./4.3 in.
WHEELS Cast aluminum
FRONT TIRE 130/70R-18
REAR TIRE 180/60R-16
FRONT BRAKE Dual 296mm discs, 3-piston calipers
REAR BRAKE 316mm disc, 3-piston caliper
FRONT SUSPENSION 45mm cartridge fork, 5.5-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Single, preload- adjustable damper, 4.1-in. travel
FUEL CAPACITY 6.6 US gal
INSTRUMENTS Analog speedometer, LCD odometer/tripmeter and fuel gauge; indicator lights for high beam, neutral, FI, turn signals, oil pressure 13.8 gal. trunk;
LUGGAGE Two 9 gal. saddlebags; 31.9 gal. total
PERFORMANCE
FUEL MILEAGE 35-40 mpg; 37 mpg avg.
AVERAGE RANGE 244 miles

Riding Positions

Brad Olshen
5'10", 180 lbs., 32" inseam

Even though I'm definitely not a fan of its styling, it's hard not to rate the Vision at the top of my list. It just did everything well. Overall, the Harley was my second favorite bike in the lineup, and I would unquestionably buy it-though I would have liked more seat time on the thing (Cherney kept hogging it). In terms of pure function, the Honda was the best bike we rode for the 3 days we had it. Ergonomically though, the Kawasaki fit me best-of the three metric bikes, I liked this one most for my fitment. I'd even be tempted to buy one for touring due to its low price and decent styling. The only negative things on the Voyager are the lower fairings that retained too much heat-as we rode in a lot of high temperatures.

The Venture didn't have much going for it. With carbs, shaft drive, and no power down low, I was surprised to find out that it was made by the fine folks at Yamaha... er Star, their bikes tend to be spot-on.

Rick Talbot
5'7", 170 lbs., 31" inseam

I enjoyed riding most of the bikes. This was my first real long distance tour and most of the way, the Honda Gold Wing was my favorite. It felt the most comfortable and solid of the four. I felt utterly safe and confident on it. Next in line was the Kawasaki-it turned out to fit my body the best and, I felt that for a long touring ride, form should follow function. To me, that was the Voyager. It handled well, too, but I had some issues with the way it would get blown around when winds were high. I liked the Harley's character and feel on the road, and overall, it was a well-designed bike that was fun to ride. The Victory was a strong runner and definitely offered the best protection in inclement conditions, but when the rear passenger board almost took my foot off (for the third time) in a low speed u-turn, that was the last straw. I simply didn't want to ride it anymore. As for the Star...well, I liked the paint job. Its nervousness in corners just unnerved me, sapping my confidence, and made me really not want to spend much time on it.

Andy Cherney
5'7'', 155 lbs., 30" inseam

If a jaunt to Sturgis is in your future, any one of these freighters will punch the clock without complaint. None of them really suits my touring style (900 pounds, no thanks), but for overall ergos, the Voyager fit me to a tee. True, it didn't have as many doodads as the others, but I don't use half that crap anyway. If you need to stare at a GPS screen en route, just go buy one for $100. Nevertheless, Kawasaki should offer more options if they wanna play in this class-and clean up the gearing ratios while they're at it. It's a solid first effort, but the Voyager needs a bit more refinement to really shine.

I nearly got swept away by the Vision's impeccable road manners, but the thing is too unwieldy at low speed, plus storage capacity is kind of underwhelming. Which is a shame, because the Victory ticks all the right boxes otherwise- superb ergonomics, spot-on fueling and an impressive power band made it the bike to beat here.

Harley's Limited finally throws down an answer to the wheezy Twin Cam 96, and the 103 mill should be standard issue on all of Milwaukee's tourers. I can't say enough good stuff about the ABS system, either. H-D has a winner on its hands-too bad the Vision bests it in almost every way, and for less coin. Meanwhile, the Venture...well, it's tall, top-heavy and...it just doesn't fit me at all.

I didn't get to ride the 'Wing, but for this race, it's the Vision in a photo-finish.

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

The way I see it there are two classes of bike in this test; those over and those under $20,000. If you want bikes with factory-installed bells and whistles, you're looking at well north of 20. In the under-20 category, it's an interesting clash of new versus old with Kawasaki's bargain-priced Voyager squaring off against Star's perennial Venture. I remember working at my first motorcycle magazine job back in the 1990's when the Venture was first released, and not much has changed since. The Voyager, on the other hand, is a brand-new bike, but one that seems not as well thought-out. The six-speed transmission is poorly matched to the high-strung powerplant, the plastic is particularly flimsy, the hand controls are odd, and the handling is weird. I like the Star better, as everything that's wrong with it is easily fixed, but it's still silly to charge so much for an eleven-year-old machine.

The high-end bikes are more my cup of tea, as they're purpose built touring rigs not modified cruisers. The Harley is like a refined old friend. Comfortable, familiar, and seems to be getting better all the time. It's got a good number of bells and whistles, last year's new chassis works well, and the 103 engine is a step in the right direction. If traditional is your schtick, this is the way to go. That said, the freakishly-styled Victory Vision bests it in almost every way. Comfort, power, and handling are all better. Even so, it does have some carrying issues; that top box is so high and far back that when loaded it creates some low-speed handling jiggles, and the side boxes are pretty skimpy, but of the bikes we had, it was the most in demand.

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