Harley Road Glide Custom, Kawasaki Vaquero and Victory Vision 8-Ball

Big Miles, In Style: Haute Couture Baggers, À la Carte

In cruiserdom, baggers are still all the rage, and more makers are getting into the act every year. To parapwhrase our sister publication Baggers, these bikes are designed to straddle the line defined by Custom Touring. While the more popular sub-niche of the genre sports a fork-mounted fairing, riders more concerned about handling often opt for bikes with a frame-mounted fairing, which puts more weight on the front wheel, but less north of the steering head.

The models we assembled are not simply stripped versions of their full-boat touring cousins, either; in fact, the Road Glide Custom beat its fully-dressed cousin to market by over a year (or 12, depending on how you’re counting). But more minimal they are, with a generally lower trim level than the top-of-the-line touring rigs, sometimes dramatically so.

The most spartan of the bunch is the Victory Vision 8-Ball. As a lowered and stripped-down luxo-tourer, you could say it represents a paradox. The original Vision is designed to eat miles in style, and this one carries much of that design, but without virtually any of the bells and whistles. This is a Vision without a sound system, electronic windshield, reverse gear, ABS, cruise control, and a top box. It’s also lowered four inches at the seat via a shorter shock and less padding in the saddle, and it’s blacked-out in all the right places.

Harley-Davidson’s Road Glide Custom isn’t so much stripped (the previous Road Glide standard was equipped similarly) as ripped. The frame-mount-fairing-ed twin to the ever-popular Street Glide in nearly all facets, it’s lowered and sports nice custom touches like fancy floorboards and no central taillight, but doesn’t skimp on the fluff, as its sky-high price tag attests. Additionally, ours came very well-equipped with the Power Pak upgrade (consisting of ABS, security system, and the larger Twin Cam 103 motor) and cruise control.

With the newest entry in the category, Kawasaki opted to tweak their Voyager (rather than just strip it) to come up with the new-for-2011 Vaquero. Based on their Vulcan 1700 platform, it’s a model set up to straddle the line between Tour and Cruise and fulfill a multitude of roles, though it skewed a bit more toward cruising than the other two. It rocks a version of the Voyager fairing without the spotlights, a smaller fairing lower, briefer seat, and loads of glorious dull black paint to offset the brilliant red paint job.

Style is where all these bikes start, so we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention it. The Vaquero cuts a narrow path between old school bagger and modern custom, totally nailing the look, and impressing all the test riders. The Harley, on the other hand, rocks a New Wave ‘80s look that was slightly updated in the ‘90s, but has changed little since then. While it can cut a mean profile as a full-on custom bagger, as a stock bike, it’s past its prime. The very forward-looking Vision designers took risks (and are quite proud of them), but that means visuals that are far from everybody’s cup of tea, with folks loving it and hating it in fairly even amounts.

Aside from aesthetics, the engine designs are fairly different as well. While all are powered by large-ish V-twins, you’ve got a couple of overhead cam models in the Victory and Kawasaki, and the de rigueur pushrod motor from Harley. On the chassis front, Harley is once again in the traditional camp with a steel frame, but so is the Vulcan, while the Vision boldly employs a cast aluminum skeleton and unconventional layout, with the gas tanks up around the steering head. For all these differences, the running gear is pretty close, with similarly-sized rubber on all three machines; only the Vulcan is significantly different, with a 16 inch front wheel, to the other two’s 18-inchers. Weights are fairly close, despite appearances, as are the wheelbases, with the Roadie coming up a couple of inches shorter than the other two, thanks to offset triple trees. Just a few years ago belt-driven 6-speed touring bikes were fairly rare, but all three of these are equipped exactly that way.

As these bikes are a blend of custom street ripper and high-mileage tourer, we made sure to give them a hearty mix of in-town riding, interstate, and mostly the delicious rural roads that fall somewhere between the two. These bikes might look and feel very different, but the intent for all the three is pretty clear: comfortable, cool, convenient, and rideable.

Around town the Road Glide ruled. The torquey 103-inch mill was in its element, as was the quick-steering chassis, easily maneuvering through the craziness that is an urban environment. The short-travel suspension wasn’t ideal, but at least was easily adjustable with the air-pump (and you can say that about the others as well). The Vision was clearly out of its element; while not totally unwieldy, it did require a little more space and forethought to avoid getting into trouble, just like you’d expect of a touring bike. Like so many other times in this comparison, the Kawasaki did the job just fine, not particularly shining or failing. The Vaquero does seem to carry its weight higher, causing one of our testers fits in tight maneuvering.

Like most city-dwellers, we require a healthy dose of superslab to get to anything resembling a decent road, so Interstate performance can be key. Thankfully for you readers, we also live in a particularly challenging freeway environment—they’re grooved, bumpy and fast. The Vulcan did its job well, soaking up irregularities quite nicely. Depending on how we set it up for air, the Vision would go from merely good to super-smooth. The Harley? Well, if it was set up well, it was only a little uncomfortable, but too much or little air would cause some serious harshness, though the handling at high speeds was rock solid. Same story with the Vision; it tracked absolutely perfectly and practically telepathically. The Kawasaki picks up some nervousness in the front end at speed that can be alleviated with a looser grip on the bars.

The Vaquero is also the tallest-geared of the bunch, and it’s up around these lofty speeds that you’ll ever need/want to use 6th gear. The other two are geared more in line with their powerbands, and hum along nicely at even high freeway velocities. The big 106-inch Victory motor is the king of passing cars without a downshift, its meaty midrange seamlessly adding speed, but the others are solid performers as well. It’s probably a good thing that the Vision doesn’t require much shifting, as it’s the balkiest shifter of the bunch. The Road Glide is chunky and clunky, but predictable, while the Kawasaki has a nice low-effort feel.

On the back roads we all love so much, these baggers are all very well-suited to the task. In tighter turns the Glide gets the nod, with light steering and a fun bottom-end burst from the motor that doesn’t come on too abruptly and upset the chassis. Even mellower power delivery can be found on the 8-Ball, with a lazy response that had some of our testers thinking the bike was slow. The Vaquero’s curious engine/transmission issues manifest here as well, with probably the hardest come-on off idle, but the least power down low. The wide spread in the gears forces a rider to either rev higher and deal with the vibration, or lug in the range that it doesn’t sound happy in. All three have adequate ground clearance for tight twisties, but the Vulcan had the least, dragging floorboards lustily in switchbacks.

As speeds increased, so did our love for the Vision. It’s the odd bike that somehow doesn’t steer heavier at higher speeds, or at least not as much as the other two. It always smoothly and stably went wherever you pushed it, even if that somewhere is 80 mph leaned over. The Vulcan is also a light-steering bike, but it has a way of feeling nervous, making for a less relaxed ride. While the Vision people felt like they could fall asleep when piloting, and the Vulcan folk were occasionally weary from the effort of directing it, a happy medium was struck on the Harley-Davidson. Gone are the days of the death wobble at speeds over 70—the Road Glide felt planted, yet let the rider get involved with the ride (unlike on the more detached Vision), which our experienced riders appreciated.

Less experienced riders did not like the bite of Harley’s Brembo calipers, however, which came on hard with little effort, while more experienced touring riders loved it. The Glide’s brakes are powerful and immediate, and it’s probably comforting to some that if they do overdo it, there’s ABS to save their bacon. The Vulcan’s binders are well-sorted too, coming on softer, but providing plenty of power to slow the Vaquero repeatedly. The Vision’s low point was braking performance. Though the linked brakes with stainless hoses and floating rotors look like they mean business, they didn’t get the job done on par with the others. On a heavy-braking road, the brakes begin to fade noticeably, with more and more effort needed to slow the big bike.

Though these bikes aren’t full-on tourers, luggage can make a big difference. Perhaps best suited to the casual role of this group is the Road Glide. Its top-loading (as opposed to side-loading) bags are easy to pop open if you need to switch out a piece of gear or two. While the Victory is actually easier to get in and out of, its smaller interior spaces limit capacity. We’ve learned over the years to use the lid space in the Vision to get more in, but it’s still not as convenient as the big ‘ol bucket on the Glide. With mandatory key usage and large openings, the Vaquero bags are the least convenient, though probably easiest to stuff a jacket into.

After long miles, you start to really appreciate (or loathe) the ergonomics of a machine. Shorter testers really liked the tighter ergonomics of the Kawasaki, as everything was in reach, and easily controllable. The taller folks were pretty fond of it too, though all thought it needs a better seat. Same deal with the Road Glide, with its slightly better rider seat and longer reach to the bars (but only just) pleasing the tall folks, and smaller footboards. The Vision was a mixed bag. The deep bucket seat was nice and supportive, urging you to sit back and enjoy the ride. We would have liked to, but the bars are way too close for tall riders, with a weird, super-long reach to the steering pivot; this might have added to the detached feeling from the front end.

We had a limited time to test the rear seats with a couple of volunteers of various sizes, and the results were predictable. The Harley’s sloped rear seat and prodigious torque basically had passengers hanging on for dear life. Kawasaki could give H-D lessons in how to design a rear seat that looks cool, but actually works. It may not be the best seat out there, but it cuts a nice profile and actually has some cush to it. But the Vision won our passenger’s heartiest praise, with a wide, supportive perch complete with oversized garb bars. Though it’s truly a huge seat, the back of the bike was designed to make it not look out of place, so kudos to the design team.

Through the long miles it’s the amenities of a touring bike that keep you from dozing off, or from thinking about crappy weather too much (not that we had that problem). As we piled on the miles and switched machines, it was always a shock to go from either of the radio and cruise-equipped bikes to the Vision. Sure, you can add these things, but the warm-fuzzy would just fade and you’d be forced to listen to the buzzy dash vibrate. The Vaquero was nicely equipped with XM (a $500 option), which displays natively on the audio panel. It was the best reason for wanting to switch back to the Vulcan. However, unlike the Harley, which includes a CD and a simple audio jack (for listening to, but not controlling music players), all options beyond just radio are an upgrade on the Kawasaki. The H-D also dominates when it comes to controlling its gadgetry, with easy-to-distinguish buttons either at your thumbs or on the dash for audio and cruise. The Vaquero has a stack of small left and right sliding switches for audio and the dash displays that made some testers spend way too much time with their eyes off the road. Though the Vision fell down on the fluff, its informational displays were world class, displaying a wealth of information at one time, then cycling through the other stuff with a single button activated by the left forefinger.

In the end, using a few different tallying methods, we ended up deadlocked for the win with the Vision and the Road Glide, but gave it to the Harley (by a nose), mostly because the Vision, while costing far less, simply doesn’t allow you to upgrade to the same level as the Road Glide. The Kawasaki Vaquero is a true contender in the class, offering a very good value at even less money than the stripped 8-Ball. In most ways however, it doesn’t feel as finished as the other two. The way the motor interacts with the transmission and the top heaviness disappoints while nothing much stands out in a positive way. That said, we all agreed it’s a very good-looking bike, and nobody had anything really negative to say about it.

As we’ve said, the other two were like opposites, and contradictions to themselves. The loaded, yet hard-edged old-school Harley versus the space-machine Vision that left most of its high-tech whiz-bang stuff at home. If you want to get a bike just how you like it, with the bells and whistles, then tear it all apart and customize, the Harley is your huckleberry.

If you like your bikes à la carte but somewhat minimal, then the Vision may have your number. All that said, the Road Glide offers a very interactive and visceral ride, while the Victory seems to tell its rider to sit back and leave the hard stuff to the machine. You can’t go wrong either way, but you may have to order off the menu.

Loading for Bear
Since these bikes are stripped versions of bigger, more expensive bikes (to some extent) or made to be accessorized, we collected a few common add-ons to get them all to the same level, as well as beyond. It seems, based on a limited sampling, that the cheaper the bike is, the more expensive the accessories are.

||| |---|---| | Victory | | Top Box| $1599.99| | Radio| Not Available| | Audio accessories | XM $429 iPod $100, aux cable $44.99| | Cruise| Not Available| | Reverse Kit| $1599.95| | Heel Shifter| $99.95| | Windshield| $189.99| | Air Pump| $50 from Victory| | | | | Harley-Davidson| | Tour Pak (plus mounting kit)| 499.95 | | Mounting kit (ours had it)| $149.95| | Two-up TourPak mount| $179.95| | Sundowner Seat| $299.95| If you want iPod access, tough; that's what the Aux plug is for. | Kawasaki| | Top Box | Not Available| | Passenger backrest*| $492.95; $116 mounting kit; $160 rack| | iPod dock| $107| | Universal audio plug:| $70| | DC socket| $35| | Touring seat| $250| *for comparison, H-D sells a comparable detachable sissy bar, docking hardware, and backrest for $430

Harley-Davidson Road Glide Custom Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero Victory Vision 8-Ball
Base price $18,999 (as tested w/ Cool Blue Pearl paint, cruise control and Power Pak; $21,769) $16,499 (As tested with XM radio; $16,978.99) $17,999
Colors Black (gloss or denim), orange, blue (shown) Black, red Black
Standard warranty 12 months, unlimited miles 12 months (extendable up to 36) unlimited miles 12 months, unlimited miles
Type Air-Cooled 45-deg. V-twin Liquid-Cooled 52-deg. V-twin Air/oil-cooled 50 deg. V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke 1690cc, 98.4x111.1mm 1700cc, 102x104mm 1731cc, 101x108mm
Valve train OHV pushrod, 2 valves/cyl SOHC, 4 valves/cyl SOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Compression 9.6:1 9.5:1 9.4:1
Fuel system EFI EFI EFI
Transmission 6-speed 6-speed 6-speed
Final drive Belt Belt Belt
Overall length 95 in. 98.8 in. 103.5 in.
Wheelbase 63.5 in. 65.6 in. 65.7 in.
Wet weight 817 lbs. 835.7 lbs. 800 lbs.
Seat height 27.1 in. 28.7 in. 24.5 in.
Rake/trail 26 deg./6.69 in. 30 deg./7 in. 29 deg./5.6 in.
Wheels 5-spoke aluminum 9-spoke aluminum 5-spoke split aluminum
Front tire 130/70-18 130/90-16 130/17-18
Rear tire 180/65-16 170/70-16 180/60-16
Front brake Dual 290mm discs, four-piston calipers w/ABS Dual 300mm discs, twin-piston calipers Dual 300mm discs, four-piston calipers (linked)
Rear brake 275mm disc, four-piston caliper 300mm disc, twin-piston caliper 300mm disc,twin-piston caliper (linked)
Front suspension 41mm fork, 4.6 in. travel 45mm fork, 5.5 in. travel 46mm fork, 5.1 in. travel
Rear suspension Dual air-adjustable shocks, 2 in. travel Dual air-adjustable shocks, 3.1 in. travel Single linkage-style shock, 3.65 in. travel (air adjustable)
Fuel capacity 6 gal. 5.3 gal. 6 gal.
Instruments Speedometer, tachometer, dual tripmeters, distance to empty, clock, air temperature, oil pressure, voltmeter, and fuel gauge. Speedometer, tachometer, temperature gauge, fuel gauge, dual tripmeters, average mileage, distance to empty, gear indicator, clock Analog speedometer, LCD odometer/dual tripmeter, clock, air temperature gauge, voltmeter, tachometer, range and fuel efficiency indicator, and instant and long range fuel gauge.
Fuel mileage 45 mpg 38 mpg 44.9 mpg
Average range 270 miles 201 miles 269 miles

Riding Positions

Betsy Nash Gabele
:: 5 ft. 5 in., 123 lbs., 32-in. inseam
I put the Vision 8-Ball first. This has got to be one of the smoothest bikes, in all aspects; The engine, the gearing, the sound, the braking. This is the bike you would want for very long rides, as long as you can stay awake on it. Shifting is clunky but as heavy as this bike is, it's got good weight placement. The seat is extremely comfortable. The bike has plenty of power and turns in the canyons are as smooth as the bike itself with good clearance as well. The looks initially were a bit intimidating but, grew on me. It definitely turns a lot of heads.

The Harley is the complete opposite. The suspension is hard, the gear shifting clanks, the front brake grabs hard, there’s a lot of vibration. So why do I like it? Because it’s a bike you need to actually “ride,” unlike the Victory. It’s got pretty good clearance and the grips are at a comfortable distance. It’s got a snappy throttle and the power needed at higher speeds. But the dash gauges are too small and hard to see at night.

The Kawasaki is my third choice not because it is my least favorite, but because it is just an all-around basically good bike. It’s my favorite looking of the three, and all the controls are easy to use and nicely placed. It’s easy to set the cruise control and has very smooth acceleration. The gauges and the 50’s style dash are beautiful. It’s comfortable and ergonomics are great. The Kawasaki, however, doesn’t have much clearance in the turns, and there’s a lot of vibration in the front end at high speeds. This bike is very top heavy at low speeds.

**Brad Olshen **
:: 5 ft. 10 in., 175lbs., 32-in. inseam
The Vaquero takes the #1 spot for styling and overall function, and that red paint is great. I loved the XM and the optional iPod hookup. It's a smooth daily rider and equally good out on the highway, comfortable all day no matter what you're doing. I was less impressed by all the bags and compartments, and needing a key to enter them.

But really, I would buy the Harley. Girls will always want to ride with me then. It has a great look as well, and I like the 18 inch wheels. We pumped up the rear a bit, which had it cornering really well, but made for a pretty stiff ride too. I felt like I was more connected to the road on this bike. The motor is crazy good, with power everywhere.

The Vision has great lines for something out of the Jetsons, but it’s not for me. I would pick this bike on a long ride, but would need to upgrade it a bit—at least to get a sound system in there. I love the dash display, and it carves corners like it’s on autopilot, but in the end, it felt kinda boring to ride.

Billy Bartels
:: 6 ft., 190 lbs., 33-in inseam
I'm really torn between the 8-Ball and the Glide in this test. It's new school versus old, but that's not the source of my conflict. The Vision's hourglass styling is eye-catching and cool, while the shark-nosed Harley can be cut up and changed five ways to Sunday. My issue is the giant, nearly-$4000 gulf between the two.

I like the handing and feel of the Vision, but prefer the brakes and power delivery of the Road Glide. Overall the ergonomics on the Vision are superior, but the bars are way too close and awkward. The Harley has that very neutral touring stance, though I’d prefer the standard boards to the “custom” ones fitted, and a better seat. But a really big difference would have to be all of the fluff. I flat-out missed it on the Victory. No radio and no cruise is a big bummer… and you can’t even buy them as accessories! Give me the Glide...but just barely.

As for the Vaquero, I just didn’t click with it like I did the other two. The switches are a hot mess, it’s less comfortable, has less range, and the motor and transmission don’t work and play well together. I did, however, love the XM option. Nice looking bike, and if you’re sold on the styling and value, you can’t go wrong, but it’s not for me.

Andy Cherney
:: 5 ft. 7 in., 160 lbs., 30-in. inseam
What I thought would be a runaway triumph for Victory turned into an unexpected win for the Road Glide. But they are all viable contenders.

It may be only 18K, but the 8-Ball comes essentially stripped for that price. Which isn’t a bad thing; the bones are powerful and it’s sleekly rendered, making for a wild design statement with plenty of beans on tap. I only rode it for a couple of days in L.A., but in that time, got dozens of comments from riders and non-motorcyclists alike. It looked like a custom bike through and through, but I felt it rode like one too—harshly.

The Vaquero brings lots of amenities to the table at a way-reasonable price, but it just didn’t overwhelm in any one category. Still, I almost gave Kawasaki the whole prize—for the value, it’s hard to beat. So it landed in second place, just a nose ahead of the Vision.

The Road Glide isn’t my style. Or so I thought at first. Visually it does nothing for me, with a dated look and the same-old spec sheet. Funny thing is, all that stuff fits me pretty well—the ergos, the accessible controls, the powerband, the brakes. And that 103 mill is a revelation. It positively spanked the Kawasaki and even the Victory, but not because of sheer dyno-thrashing horsepower. It was the accessibility of the powerband.

But I was hesitant to anoint the Road Glide with the gold medal—both engine and ABS are major optional upgrades, and spendy ones at that. They’re a big part of the reason the Glide rises above the others. Which is a big caveat.