Leather Bagger Showdown - Soft Bags Deluxe

Traditional Touring Cruiser Test

**They only come in red. **That's right, these three models, all competitively priced and equipped, are only available in the glorious cop-attracting color you see here. With a little give-and-take on the specs, and looks and price, they basically court the same rider... and apparently that guy likes red. They're all within 100ccs of each other, all are belt-driven, all have metal fenders and no unsightly tank seams, all for the guy who wants a full-sized bike with the bare minimum of touring amenities. Did we mention they're red?

This was intended to be a leather bagger comparison. We tried to keep the prices close, and aimed for the mid-heavyweight displacement of 1600-1700ccs, staying away from the true heavyweights and the 1200-1300 class. As for the other contenders: Honda's 1300 doesn't even get to this neighborhood, while Suzuki brackets it top and bottom, and Harley's philosophy is that if you're getting a touring bike, you're stepping up to near $20k... or you can put saddlebags on your cruiser from the P&A; catalog.

Both the Vulcan 1700 and Thunderbird were introduced recently, and both reflect a need to maximize R&D; budgets in trying times. They both represent each company's full-size cruiser, but both also have a sibling of bigger displacement; those almost ludicrously big machines seem vestiges of an age of abundance. As flagships, they fulfill multiple roles, from standard cruiser to full-boat tourer. In the case of the Kawasaki, all four versions of the 1700 appeared last year simultaneously. The LT represents the briefest touring version of the rig, adding a sissy bar, bags and a shield to the standard Classic, but is otherwise unchanged.

Triumph's just-introduced SE is the first tweak on the Thunderbird. It includes not just the de-rigueur shield, bags, and backrest, but also throws in floorboards for rider and passenger (the original model has pegs), a luggage rack, and a touring seat. It's a $2500 premium over the base T-Bird, but that lands it right in the middle of this bunch. Star's venerable Road Star Silverado S completes our trio of Motos Rouges. We would have preferred the base Silverado, which would have priced out in the middle of the test, but we received the higher-spec S model, which swaps hard bags in for the softies on the base model, and adds chrome bits. Compared to the base Road Star, the Silverado also adds a shield and a sissybar to the mix.

The old man of the group, the Star sports an air-cooled engine and five-speed transmission, which along with the hidden shocks and bubbly 16-inch wheels, harkens back to well, the 90s. Though the Road Star family gained EFI and a few extra cubes a few years back, it's definitely showing its age. But that's not always a bad thing with cruisers, as that kind of stability allows the aftermarket to produce all kinds of goodies for a bike, something the two youngsters will have to earn over time. At just a year old, Kawasaki's Vulcan Classic LT is the next oldest bike. The Vulc has a liquid-cooled engine and 6-speed transmission, sports a thick-tire stance, and is embellished with studs on its leather and two-tone paint on its sheet metal. Triumph's Thunderbird is the newcomer. Introduced as a late-release 2010, the T-Bird SE fills a niche that hasn't been seen in awhile; a custom/sporty cruiser with 'boards and bags, rather than a "classic". Like the Kawasaki, it runs a liquid-cooled DOHC engine and six-speed transmission, but deviates from the others with a parallel configuration to its twin cylinders. Not to worry, it's still got that lumpy V-twin sound.

As would be expected from their appearance, the Vulcan and Star are fairly similar ergonomically. Both feature wide pull-back bars, while the Thunderbird has a flatter, narrower tiller. The Star's soft solo-style seat gets a little support from the front of the pillion section. Some testers liked the cushiness of it, while others longed for more support, but all appreciated the multitude of positions possible on it. The Kawi has a deeper bucket and is more supportive, but still retains a good deal of squishiness. However, the Vulcan's boards were the most panned, with a flat angle that made them feel "droopy." The Triumph offers the most support, but also the least options for moving around with the smallest footboards of the bunch, and a seat that locks you into place. Thankfully, that one position was one that suited all of our testers. The Triumph and Star employed board-hugging contoured heel shifters which only minimally intruded on floorboard space, while Kawasaki's hung off of the back of the board with an easy-to-find square pad.

Windshields are almost always open for debate, depending on the rider, and these were no exception. The tall folk loved the Triumph's shorter shield, which they could see right over and which directed turbulence to their shoulders, while it was right at the edge of the sightline for shorter riders, causing no end to bouncing helmet syndrome. The Star was opposite, with tall riders heads getting bounced and with a shield edge in view, while shorties just looked through the glass in relative calm. Kawasaki had perhaps the best solution, with an adjustable screen to fit all comers. The Thunderbird had the distinct advantage of having locking and removable hardware for both shield and backrest. We also credit the T-Bird's lower deflectors for allowing the least amount of wind to blow up from below.

Passenger accommodations were decent on all three. The Thunderbird SE improves on the tiny perch that we panned in our original review of the standard model, and adds floorboards for good support. The Star features fairly high footboards for taller passengers, but was otherwise comfy, while the Vulcan sports the only passenger pegs-which were less supportive, but better-placed.

There were no surprises in the saddlebags. The two leather-bagged bikes were predictably easy to stuff, but weren't lockable. Both offer the combination of a traditional buckle and a quick-release, for ultimate adjustability. The Silverado's hard bags didn't result in the advantage you might imagine, with a cheap-feeling latching system, small size, and an inability to stay open. Still, their solid appearance and locks would deter most thieves like a leather bag never will.

The newer bikes again had an advantage in the instrumentation, with a distance-to-empty feature that the Silverado lacked. The Kawasaki has all of the functionality of the higher-touring spec Voyager, with an average mileage feature and unique display. The Thunderbird alone sported a tachometer, though ironically, with its powerful engine, needed it the least. The Star wasn't far behind, with an analog fuel gauge to the other bike's digital displays.

One feature missing from the Thunderbird was an integrated ignition/fork lock the others were equipped with. The Vulc had the nice touch of a key that could either be taken out or left in the large ignition housing.

The bells and whistles are useless if riding isn't any fun, and all three of these machines offer very different riding experiences. Laid-back, lazy riders will enjoy the manners of Star's Silverado. It has a powerband best suited for lugging out of corners, and loafing around at low RPM. Although it can rev out when pushed, it's happiest and feels best in the low revs. Kawasaki's Vulcan is the opposite, with a motor that likes to be spun up, and feels clattery if shifted short. The 17's high-geared six-speed transmission feels oddly matched, as we rarely got into 6th gear. Unfortunately for both of those bikes, the smaller-engined Triumph adapted to both kinds of riders better. With a motor that is as at home lugging as spinning, all comers found the T-Bird to their liking.

As long-distance superslab haulers, the bikes performed somewhat predictably. The Silverado was out of its depth at highway speeds. Handling is more disconnected and vague compared to the other bikes, and for some riders it could be unnerving. Quick movements of the bars made for unstability in the front end, and wind only made it worse. The Vulcan is a light-steering bike, which was not to everyone's taste either. Though it never felt detached like the Star (indeed, the front feels very solid) it's just a super-light touch. Unfortunately it's not just the rider that can change directions on the Kawi, as the wind also will blow this bike around. The solid-feeling and neutral-handling Thunderbird was a joy on the open road, as it tracked straight and positively, feeling controllable at all times. Gearing was similarly perfectly spaced on the Triumph; although it's lower-geared than the Kawasaki, it revved out nicely to make up for it. The Star was tapped at highway speeds but could keep up with anything approaching the legal limit.

As the roads tightened up, the Silverado came into its own. More aggressive riders were still frustrated by the lack of feedback from the front, and its inability to change directions quickly without shimmying, but if taken in a relaxed fashion, twists and turns actually suited it fine...until it ran out of ground clearance. The Kawasaki felt a touch more top-heavy than the others, but its light handling was welcomed, even if its revvy nature kept it usually a gear lower than the others to keep the engine in its happy place. Just as on the highway, the T-Bird was as at home with aggressive as with passive riders, with a motor that pulls strong from the bottom and a chassis that felt far better at an accelerated pace.

Braking followed a similar path; the Star was least aggressive, while the Vulcan was a bit touchier, and the Thunderbird had the strongest, most responsive binders. For those afraid of heavy braking, the Triumph also had the advantage of ABS, making stops on any surface absolutely fear-proof. Unless you count Harley's Road King, it's the only bike at this displacement so equipped (though we have a feeling that will soon be changing).

Even when you took into account each bike's range, the Triumph dominated, with the best gas mileage as well as the biggest tank in the group. It almost wasn't fair.

Well, mostly. In case you couldn't tell, we fell in love with the Thunderbird all over again. In two tests against very different opponents, the Thunderbird has shown itself to be a versatile machine, from aggressive, sporty cruiser (vs. the Star Warrior , April '10) to more sedate long-distance hauler. However, if you're looking for a more classic-looking machine, it's probably not going to float your boat without some extensive modifications. Luckily, Triumph has rolled out a boatload of accessories for this model. (see www.triumph.co.uk/usa) And if you absolutely need a V-twin, this isn't your bike.

As much as our testers might have ragged on it, the Silverado has a lot going for it. It could be a fine mount for those who like to just sit back and watch the scenery go by. Handling problems aren't a problem if you're just cruising along, and isn't that what these bikes are about?

For a more involved experience, Kawasaki's LT steps up to the plate. It's immediate and visceral, demanding of your attention to get it to the right gear or to stay headed the right direction. It's connected to you, and offers up a wealth of information on its LCD if you need something to look at on a long trip.

So here's to the newest Thunderbird: we look forward to the next one.


BASE PRICE $14,199 $15,190 $14,999
COLORS Red/Titanium two-tone Red Red
STANDARD 24 months 1 Year 24 months
TYPE Liquid-cooled V-twin Air-cooled V-twin Liquid-cooled parallel twin
DISPLACEMENT, 1700cc, 1670cc, 1597cc,
BORE X STROKE 102mm x 104mm 97mm x 113mm 103.8mm x 94.3mm
VALVE TRAIN SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder OHV, 4 valves per cylinder DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
COMPRESSION 9.5:1 8.3:1 9.7:1
TRANSMISSION 6-speed, multi-plate wet clutch 5-speed, multi-plate wet clutch 6-speed, multi-plate wet clutch
FINAL DRIVE Belt Belt Belt
OVERALL LENGTH 98.4 in. 98.4 in. 92.1 in.
WHEELBASE 65.6 in. 66.5 in. 63.5 in.
WET WEIGHT 798 lbs (claimed) 774 lbs. 812 lbs.
SEAT HEIGHT 28.3 in. 27.9 in. 27.5 in.
RAKE/TRAIL 30°/6.7 in. 32°/5.6 in. 32°/5.9 in.
WHEELS 9-spoke cast 9-spoke cast 5-spoke cast/machined
FRONT TIRE 130/90-16 130/90-16 120/70-19
REAR TIRE 170/70x16 150/80-16 200/50-17
FRONT BRAKE 300mm discs; 298mm discs; Dual 310mm floating rotors;
dual 2-piston calipers dual 2-piston calipers dual 4-piston calipers and ABS
REAR BRAKE 300mm disc; 2-piston caliper 320mm disc; 2-piston caliper 310mm disc; 2 -piston caliper and ABS
FRONT SUSPENSION 43mm fork; 5.5 in. travel 43mm fork; 5.5 in. travel 47mm fork; 4.7 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Dual shocks, preload and rebound adjustable Single shock; 4.3 in. travel Dual preload-adjustable shocks; 3.75 in. travel
FUEL CAPACITY 5.3 gal 4.74 gal 5.8 gal.
INSTRUMENTS Speedometer, dual LCD readout w/odometer, dual tripmeters, mpg display, range, gear indicator, fuel gauge and clock. Speedometer, odometer, dual tripmeters, clock and fuel gauge Speedometer, tachometer, LCD display w/ odometer, dual tripmeters, clock, range, fuel gauge.
FUEL MILEAGE 32 mpg 36.5 mpg 39 mpg
AVERAGE RANGE 170 miles 173 miles 226 miles

Riding Positions
Betsy Nash Gabele
:: 5ft. 5in., 127 lbs., 32 in. inseam

My favorite is the Triumph Thunderbird. It's solidly geared with plenty of power and range throughout. It's very comfortable, though I did have to scoot forward a bit to feel more secure when coming to a stop, due to the wide seat. Out in the canyons it has the maneuverability, gearing and clearance to make for an enjoyable ride. Its engine is not too loud but has a nice chorus as it idles. This bike has style and even better gas mileage than the more expensive Star.

Second choice would be the Kawasaki. I wish it didn't have an overdrive that seemed useless unless you were doing 80mph+. Shifting makes me cringe every time; it "clunks" hard into gear and is not smooth. It does fairly well in the canyons because it likes to lean into turns. On a windy day this bike will go everywhere and the windscreen causes some turbulence. I feel a little crunched on this bike, too.

The Star is my third choice is because of its poor handling at high speeds. The front end starts to shake around 50mph and gets worse as you go. Still, it's an extremely comfortable bike with lots of leg room and many ways to reposition yourself. The windscreen is very effective. The engine and suspension are incredibly smooth, though I hit the rev limiter way too often. It does not have a lot of ground clearance but has a great turning radius and is easy to maneuver. I would recommend this bike to an experienced rider who is more interested in Sunday cruises than going out mad-dogging.

Ricky Talbot
:: 5ft. 7in., 157 lbs., 31 in. inseam

I had the opportunity to ride the Thunderbird to Hollister, CA last year, and really enjoyed it. Riding a Vulcan to Sturgis last year also left me with a good feeling. Unfortunately, I wasn't crazy about the Silverado after this test ride. It's nothing against Yamaha; I just don't mesh with the engineer that designed this bike.

I feel detached from this machine; it feels loose and unstable at highway speeds. Aesthetically, it was appealing, and at low speeds and in the canyons it was relatively enjoyable. But every time it was my turn to ride it, I wished I was on another bike.

On the other hand I felt right at home on the Triumph; completely attached, and as one with the machine. I liked the transmission and there was continuous power throughout the gears. The bike came with ABS, so there's no comparison with the other bikes in stopping power.

I like the Kawi as well, but not as much as the Triumph. Both were similarly styled, and the paint on the Vulcan was really nice, but the Thunderbird looks better overall to me. The Vulcan handled very nice for my style of riding, dropping into the corners with ease and control while being stable at high speeds. One downside was that the windshield acts like a sail in windy conditions, so you have to loosen up and let the wind move you around a little.

My picks were easy: the Thunderbird was way in front, with the Vulcan second and the Star bringing up the rear.

Billy Bartels
:: 6ft., 190 lbs., 33 in. inseam

This isn't even close. If you're looking for a light tourer, and you're not hung up on the low-and-fat look, the Thunderbird SE owns this category. It fits both my riding style and my body type, but it fits lots of others too. It rides like it's on rails and is just as capable of lugging around at low RPM as it is winding out and chasing the dragon.

While the Star and Vulcan are very close, I'll play the contrarian and pick the Silverado. It seems like a bike just made for cruising. Yanking the bars around and going hard on the gas and brakes give it fits, but the Star is made for a more relaxed pace, and I like the reward of the ride it gives a smooth rider as it flows corner to corner on a windy road, occasionally scraping a floorboard as a reminder to take it easy. It loves to be short-shifted with a torquey motor that pulls hard off of the bottom, encouraging you to just ease it through the corners. It does true cruising very well.

The Vulcan is a more modern-feeling machine that can take a little more aggression, just nowhere as well as the Thunderbird. It's by no means a bad bike, but it seems to have an identity crisis. The tall gearing doesn't go with the motor, while the steering is precise, but requires a steady hand on the sensitive tiller. Overall it's a lot of work to ride for not much reward. Kudos to Kawasaki for bringing it in for such a nice price though.

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