First Ride: Kawasaki 1600 Motorcycle

We enjoy a surreptitious ride on Kawasaki's new Vulcan 1600 Classic FI. By Jamie Elvidge


his article was originally published in the December 2002 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser. It's a well-known fact that Motorcycle Cruiser Magazine is fond of Kawasaki's Vulcan line. The Vulcan line, especially the large- displacement cruisers, has an air of quality that's rarely matched by its competition. Its fit-and-finish, attention to detail and overall balance of function and refinement keep us cheering. For 2003, all but one of the the 2002 Vulcans will stay in the line and accept new color options. However, the deeply popular 1500 Classic FI will be replaced entirely by this new machine. And this new machine, the Vulcan 1600 Classic FI, is quite different. We'd seen an earlier rolling prototype (silver bike in photos) and were allowed to shoot it in our studio. That bike wasn't a runner, however, so short of pushing each other around the parking lot, it appeared we wouldn't be able to ride the new Vulcan until late winter at the actual press introduction. But then again, when something is meant to be, you can't really stop it from happening, can you?

Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic FI
Kawasaki's Steve Rice runs the prototype Vulcan 1600 past the camera. (And, yes, we know that something is dangling from his jacket.)Kevin Wing

When Steve Rice, head of Cruiser P.R. for Kawasaki, called a few weeks later with an invite for a Saturday ride where I'd be able to check out a new heavy-duty clutch from Valley Kawasaki he'd installed in his personal Nomad (very slick), I said I'd be delighted. I wasn't thinking I'd have an opportunity to ride the new 1600, since not one of the three units shown to the magazines was mechanically functional. When I arrived, however, I ran into John Hoover, Kawasaki's head of Product Development, and he whisked me away to see a red 1600 that was inhouse for promotional action photography. He said it would only be there until Monday. "Why don't you take it for a ride," were the magic words I was waiting for.

There are a lot of conditions that come with first rides like this one. The primary rule is that you must acknowledge the bike might change dramatically by the time it goes public. In our experience we've found that production versions are always improved over early prototypes, and I expect no less from this bike. Aesthetically, it had already been enhanced since our studio shoot three weeks prior to my ride by the removal of the large black/chrome "box" that was situated undern the swingarm. "It didn't do anything," said Rice of the element, which was added by Japanese stylists, "so we just took it off."

Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic FI
Positioning of the new headlight exaggerates the bike's length.James Brown

Three additional items we know are going to change on the production version are: replacement of the stainless steel fork housing (the stainless was a classy touch, but there isn't enough applied to other areas of the bike to balance it), the brake discs shown here, which will be replaced with a set that feature more venting cutouts, and a restyled front fender that will be more like the Nomad's--less square than what you see here and more in keeping with the round, flowing lines of the new bike.

Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic FI
A mystery box under the swingarm has now disappeared, but the rear end is looking cluttered, don't you think?James Brown

The first thing you notice about this new Vulcan Classic is that it's stylishly fattened over the 1500, which was more chiseled in appearance. The new chassis, which offers a wheelbase that is only a little over an inch longer than its predecessor at 66.7 versus 65.6 inches, visually stretches all the ergonomics and styling elements (like headlight placement) to give the impression you're sitting on a much longer machine. It has a softer look as well, more of a Botticelli appeal. Just about everything on the bike, both externally and internally, is new or has been reworked, except for most fitment points which might allow some 50-percent of existing accessories for the 1500 Classic line to fit this new model. Some details on the new bike were immediately admired, like the cutout cast wheels and Drifter-style taillight, while other elements were less attractive than the old style, like the rubber-ended grips and gaudy license plate rack.

Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic FI
Kawasaki tells us the front fender you see here will be changed on the production version.James Brown

We rolled out of Kawasaki's corporate parking lot and headed straight for the Santa Ana Mountains and the twisty roads that lie above Cook's Corner, a popular biker hangout, which we skirted as people on prototypes will. This new Vulcan is immediately smooth and comfortable. "Very pleasant" was my first roadside comment. As we've come to expect with Kawasaki cruisers, the bike is well-mannered and easy to ride in every situation. It did perfectly well in the corners too, and the ground clearance seems to be slightly better than the earlier FI model, with the floorboards touching only during truly aggressive cornering, and then so with only mild effect. The dual exhaust emits a humble rumble--very civilized and not quite deep enough to be called throaty. Pulling through the gears is also painless and quiet, with silky-smooth shift action. Rice explained that the new transmission utilizes stronger gears with new profiles and widths. Suspension up front features a fork with 43mm stanchions, which is up 2mm from the one it replaces. Out back there are dual shocks, which will feature four-way preload and air adjustability (although the prototype wore a non-adjustable set).

Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic FI
Many details have been changed to make the 1600, including airbox, muffler shapes, floorboards, and more. But the price went down.Kawasaki

We cruised up into the mountains and then back down into Orange County's flat fertile valley on our way to Pacific Coast Highway. This stint provided lots of empty surface streets and stoplights to romp through the gears and see what the enhanced motor had to offer. I wished for a Vulcan 1500 Classic FI to provide a head-to-head comparison instead of Rice's own carbureted Nomad, because there was no obvious difference in high-end output. However, the 1600 prototype does seem to pull with more strength off the line and move through the gears with more grunt. Later, Rice offered that Kawasaki engineers "wound the rubber band a little tighter" in this motor (which is only punched out by an additional 82cc), meaning that what traditional performance indicators will probably reveal is more of a difference in the power curve than top-end horsepower.

Having more low and mid-range oomph is always a nice thing since that's what you use in real world riding. Having more horsepower is the kick in the butt though, and I wish I were more impressed with what the 1600 was dishing out. Rice assures me they aren't done tinkering quite yet, so more peak power is possible in the production version. Again, it goes back to the balance of comfort, refinement and function that Kawasaki cruisers have become famous for.

There's no doubt this bike is going to carry on that reputation. It will not, however, carry the company toward new territory in the performance or "modern custom" arenas, that venue illustrated so well by Victory's radically styled new Vegas. It seems to me the Vulcan 1600 Classic FI is a rather safe choice at a time when Kawasaki might need to get on the table and dance. Indicators say there are big things in the Kawasaki cruiser closet, but the company might want to dole out a couple of major breakthroughs in a competitive way. Of course the 1600 FI motor and chassis change isn't a bad step, it just isn't a big step. And you have to respect the company for at least making only smart moves, however small they seem.

Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic FI
"The bike feels so comfortable I could have easily stayed on the coast road until I rode onto the ferry to Canada."Courtesy of Kawasaki

The bike feels so comfortable I could have easily stayed on the coast road until I rode onto the ferry to Canada. The floorboards are roomy, although I found they were positioned slightly rearward from the place my feet would prefer to be. The wide bar was not too much of a stretch and made handling input feel effortless. The seat, which seems slightly wider and more dished than the old one, felt comfy for the afternoon.

We made our way up the crowded highway and headed inland to drop by Hoover*s garage to check out his personal turbo-charged Mean Streak custom project (a very cool bike you will definitely see in a future issue). I am always impressed by how passionate Kawasaki's development staff is--they are true enthusiasts who've dedicated their lives not only to a product, but to the entire sport. This is one of the primary reasons I believe this company continues to make so many preferred metric cruisers, and one reason I have faith that the Vulcan line will not fall behind in this time of transition and growth. The 1600 Classic FI is a promising addition and we're excited to see the finished product. It is our hope that the new motor will continue to be refined as it is adapted to the other big twins in the lineup, which we believe will begin in 2004.

For now, you'll have to wait until spring to see this new Vulcan in the chrome. Amazingly, the price for the new Classic is $10,499, which is $500 less than last year's 1500 FI. Color choices for the 1600 FI are silver (which carries a pink tone none of us liked), red or bronze, which is actually black with heavy metal flake that shows color in the sun.

Primary Specifications

Designation: VN1600A1
Expected price: In the $10,499 range
Valve arrangement: SOHC, 2 intake, 2 exhaust valves per cylinder; hydraulic adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1552cc, 102mm x 95mm
Transmission: Wet, multi-plate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: shaft, final ratio: 2.619
Wheelbase: 66.7 in.
Rake and trail: 32 degrees,7.0 in.
Seat height: 26.8 in.
Wheels: Cast, front: 16 x 3-in.; rear: 16 x 4.5 in.
Front brake: Two discs with 4-piston calipers
Rear brake: One disc with 4-piston caliper
Front suspension: 43mm stanchions
Rear suspension: Adjustable dual dampers, 3.8-in. travel
Fuel capacity: 5.28 gal