Full Road Test: 2004 Kawasaki Vulcan 2000 Motorcycle

With the entirely new Vulcan 2000, Kawasaki not only raises the motorcycle displacement bar but sets other standards for future cruisers. From the February 2004 issue of _Motorcycle Cruiser _ magazine.

The newest and biggest Vulcan gives Kawasaki a commanding lead in the ongoing cruiser displacement race. The first production motorcycle engine to break the two-liter barrier, the 2053cc pushrod V-twin in the Vulcan 2000 is more than 250cc larger than the next-biggest motorcycle V-twin, Honda's VTX1800, and makes 1500-class twins suddenly seem like middleweights.

But what does 125 cubic inches in the engine room give you? Well, bragging rights certainly, and a massive dollop of power to be sure, though perhaps not the tire-smoking, arm-wrenching shot of acceleration that you might anticipate if you think that displacement automatically delivers horsepower. However, you get the kind of power that delights riders who like a motorcycle that rumbles down the highway at a relaxed pace but can still deliver a strong lunge when you roll on the throttle. Both fourth and fifth gears are overdrives, so the engine is turning only about 2250 rpm at 60 mph in fifth. But at that rpm, it is already making a massive 120 foot-pounds of torque, just off the 121-foot-pound peak, which it reaches just above 85 mph. When you roll it on, the engine gets up and chugs.

The V2K's broad powerband thrills a rider who likes to short-shift and still drop right into a strong stream of power the next gear up. In fact, this huge twin is happiest when you shift early. If you launch hard in first, you'll want to upshift just as soon as you can get your foot to the shift lever. It is also easy to take off smoothly and strongly in second. The power is quite linear, and the tall gearing spreads it over a wide mph range. Even in that tall top gear, it will pull well from 35 mph (about 1300 rpm) with just a hint of surging at first. On a winding road, you can simply leave it in third or fourth gear the entire way and get great acceleration out of corners.

If you really romp on it, the displacement asserts itself despite the tall gearing and the bike's 820-pound wet weight. The Vulcan 2000's 12.43-second quarter-mile, at 104.2 mph, puts it just ahead of Honda's VTX1800, though Yamaha's V4 V-Max still will have it for lunch, as will Harley's little, light (and much-lower-geared) V-Rod. We sort of expect the hot-rodders to offer a set of replacement gears for the countershaft-to-output-shaft power exchange to shorten the overall ratio and let it rip a bit. (The European version has a different ratio at that point, but it is taller.)

Throttle response is exceptionally crisp and predictable in all circumstances, thanks, in part, to ECU-managed sub-throttle systems in the two huge 46mm injector throats. The sub-throttles help the engine digest sudden large helpings of throttle, keeping response smooth even when the rider isn't. And we have no complaints about abrupt response, though the shock absorbers in the drive train do create some lashlike responses if you get on and off the throttle suddenly. Even though there is no back-torque limiter, it seems reluctant to lock up the rear wheel if you get clumsy with downshifts. The belt drive certainly helps to make the drive train smooth and absorbs some shocks.

Clutch disengagement requires a lighter pull than some smaller, less-powerful engines, and it engages very smoothly and predictably, welcome traits when you are hooking up to all that torque spinning rather hefty flywheels. The heel-toe shifter delivers light, short lever throws and positive gear changes, albeit with a hardy clunk in the lower two gears.

The fuel-injected engine starts up immediately when the button is prodded and runs smoothly right away. The fuel-injection and engine-management systems apparently use fuel pretty efficiently, because the V2K averaged close to 40 mpg, and we didn't even drop below 30 mpg when riding hard on snaking back roads. Of course, the tall gearing contributes on the highway, where the 5.5-gallon tank lets you comfortably ride more than 150 miles before looking for some 90-plus octane petro-swill. The low-fuel light came on with more than a gallon in the tank. Straightening the bike when filling the tank allows you to add about a half-gallon more fuel in the tank.

The upsizing extends beyond the Vulcan 2000's displacement. The V2K is a big motorcycle, with a 68.3-inch wheelbase and 820 pounds of road-squashing weight. Although the saddle is just 26.8 inches off the road, you feel the mass when you lift the bike off the sidestand (which should be lengthened a bit to keep the motorcycle from leaning so far, in our view). Once rolling, the sense of mass is reduced, though not as dramatically as with that other recent leviathan, Honda's Rune. The wide bar offers plenty of leverage, but its length can also create problems when making full-lock turns at walking speeds. Then the outside grip of that long handlebar will actually be out of reach for shorter riders, and the inside end of the handlebar will be bumping into your knee. It's pretty awkward. The bar's width is also an issue for lane-splitters.

Once moving, steering is remarkably responsive and immediate even though stability is excellent at all speeds. Keeping fork offset at just 10mm makes steering quite light. You can turn the big motorcycle into corners more quickly and precisely and hold a line better than on some bikes, such as the Yamaha Warrior, that would seem to be better suited for such activities. The maximum Vulcan can almost match Kawasaki's great-handling Mean Streak 1600 on a winding road. Despite the emphasis on length and lowness, the cornering clearance is reasonable, better than Kawasaki's big Vulcan Classics, Yamaha's Road Stars, Victory's Vegas and the Honda VTXs, but behind Harley's big twins. The floorboards drag first but fold just a few degrees before they make solid contact.

The motorcycle also feels unusually stable, probably because the chassis is so solid. The emphasis on rigidity is visible everywhere: the fork has massive 49mm legs, forgings are used for the steering-head and swingarm-pivot portions of the frame, the cast wheels are strong and wide, and the triangulated swingarm, with its single damper set near horizontal under the right side of the seat, looks very stiff. There is no sense of looseness in corners, on bumps or in gusts, and it holds a line well when leaned over.

Our only real handling complaint at speed concerns the single-shock rear suspension. Even with the eight-point rebound damping set at its maximum, the rear end kicked up over larger bumps, which unsettled the bike in corners and was unpleasant at other times. This was less of an issue for larger riders or when carrying a passenger, but light riders in particular found the rear end's ride jarring over large pavement irregularities.

Kawasaki has matched the Vulcan 2000's heft and power with strong, controllable triple-disc brakes, a pair of four-piston calipers on 300mm discs up front. At 90 mph, we could easily and comfortably get the front tire squealing, while the rear brake has been tempered a bit to require slightly more than average pressure before it locks. This is an optimal arrangement for non-anti-lock brakes, in our view, though ABS would be a welcome feature. The big Bridgestone Battlax tires, a 150/80-16 in front and that meaty 200/60-16 on the rear, provide decent braking traction on dry pavement, but you are still stopping a lot of mass -- more than half a ton with a rider. The bike isn't going to stop on a dime.

Those who plan to travel on Kawasaki's monster motorcycle will want to search out a more comfortable saddle. Most riders complained pretty quickly, and even our resident iron-butt was squirming after an hour and a half. The issues were both the shape, which limited space in the rider's section, and the padding and density of the saddle. Longer-legged riders may also feel a bit limited in leg room, which could be remedied by a reshaped saddle. Passenger accommodations are even worse (see "Back Talk.") Kawasaki already has an accessory passenger seat and backrest, and we understand that Mustang is working on a saddle, too. (Disposing of the passenger seat requires the owner to fill four mounting holes for its latch.)

The seats and the rear end's response crossing big bumps were our only comfort complaints. The front suspension is more compliant than most cruisers', and the rear shock handles small and medium bumps pretty well. Although Kawasaki makes a big point of the 2053cc V-twin's pulse, vibration is noticeable only when you wind it up near the 5250-rpm rev limit, when it reaches you through the saddle. Under all other conditions, the dual chain-driven counterbalancers and rubber front mounts for the engine keep the vibration down to a pleasant throb.

Although that big headlight breaks up some of the wind rushing at you, most riders will want a windshield (Kawasaki plans to offer three sizes) for long highway stints because the handlebar spreads you out pretty wide. Kawasaki's accessory division is also working on a light bar, engine guard and some rather ugly saddlebags. In addition, the company has circulated early models to the aftermarket so that it will have accessories in the works when the motorcycle hits dealers.

On showroom floors and in burger-joint parking lots, discussion is likely to turn quickly to that big four-beam headlight, which is encased in a large chrome nacelle that starts at the fork-leg covers and flows up around the light and back over the fork caps. Some people simply don't like it, though others (most of us included) like it a lot. It is the bike's visual calling card, the feature that makes it instantly identifiable to knowledgeable onlookers, and for that reason, we think owners will at least grow to like it. It is also very effective at night. Our complaint relates to the abundance of screws used to attach the nacelle and its top plate around the ignition lock. We wouldn't want to pay the bill for replacing that headlight, though. (For those who can't swallow the headlight's style, remember that Suzuki is likely to adopt this bike in the near future, and we'd expect it to use a more-conventional headlight to set its version apart.)

We are impressed with most of the detailing, such as the steering-head area of the frame that often gets muffed. The tank is huge, but it is beautifully finished, with nice clean edges and beguiling curves. The components mostly appear first-class. An exception is the dorky wrinkle-black paint on the main engine cases, which not only looks a bit too disco but might collect grunge. We'd get a heat gun and peel off those tacky gold "2000" stickers on the airboxes. If we wanted to alert folks to our big pistons, we'd paint or engrave "2053cc" instead.

We were left cold by the colors chosen for the bike's debut, though they were applied perfectly. We usually don't like dark colors, but the purple/black was the least disagreeable in this case. Even the Editrix says the silver blue is "too fem." Maroon is the third color. We hope for some better choices and perhaps some two-tones in the future.

One thing we loved was the exhaust note -- deep and solid and about as strong as a production bike can legally be. It's a great match for the maximum twin.

Detail complaints did not blunt the thrill of riding Kawasaki's monster, which is exceptionally well sorted for an entirely new design. The basics and most of the functional aspects are exceedingly well done, and those that aren't can be fixed fairly easily by the owner with aftermarket parts. If your adrenaline levels rise at the concept, the Vulcan 2000 is virtually guaranteed to please you. It's also going to be intriguing to see what V2K spawns, both inside and outside of Kawasaki.

BACK TALK

Hate to say it folks, but your honey won't be sweet on this setup, and it will take much fixing to make it right.

Start with the seat, which is an insult to the human bum. Hard as a rock, it actually slopes rearward. Completely unacceptable, so change it immediately.

The next issue is footpeg placement. The passenger seat is too high for anyone with more leg than an ape, and worse, the pegs are set too forward. That's right, too forward instead of too rearward, which is the usual disaster. However, the forward placement is even more of a problem since it doesn't allow you to get your weight over your hips, which causes you to constantly feel like you're rolling off the back. So much so that you grasp your pilot in a way that makes him want to somersault rearward, too.

Basically, between the ridiculously uncomfortable, misshapen rear seat and illogical peg placement, you passenger will be utterly offended. Change the seat and add a backrest, then we'll talk. _ -- Jamie Elvidge_

RIDING POSITIONS

Cherney: Kawasaki's beefy new cruiser may be 2000ccs of V-twin muscle, but hot rod it's not. After all the oohing and aahing over the belt drive, the scratching of heads over the headlight treatment and the grins from the gut-busting torque, it all comes down to the fact that Kawasaki has built another rock-solid bike worthy of the Vulcan moniker. Thing is, it's not one that'll be challenging the quarter-mile times of quicker bikes (read: Yamaha V Max) anytime soon. For one thing, the Vulcan 2K is heavy (more than 800 lbs. wet): it takes effort just to get it off the sidestand.

Still, the Kawasaki brings a groovy-fat 200 series rear tire, sweetly sculpted five-gallon tank and impeccable fit and finish to the party with as much class as a machine this burly can muster. And heavy never felt quite this smooth before -- seamless fuel injection delivers the goods without a hiccup, and the yard-wide handlebar provides good leverage for what's a surprisingly well-mannered machine in corners.

But now that I know it's not a dragbike, I'm aching to put some serious miles on this puppy. I'm guessing the long haul is where the V2K will really flex its muscles.

Friedman: Unlike the displacement race of the 1960s and '70s, which took riders from 50 and 90cc bikes to liter-class machines, the current cruiser quest for size seems to have little to do with performance. We seem to be pursuing size just for the sake of bigness, kind of like those "enhance yourself" spams that clog my e-mail inbox.

Yes, there are some benefits besides bragging rights that come with bigger engines -- a more relaxed engine cadence and/or greater passing power in the upper gears -- but the trade-offs are more mass, higher prices and bigger insurance rates. Weight in particular is a serious drawback, since it harms steering response, fuel mileage, acceleration and stopping distance with no benefits in return. Kawasaki has done an impressive job of addressing those issues with steering geometry and strong brakes (though anti-lock braking should be an option on any flagship), but they still can't overcome the challenges created by the need to turn and stop more than half a ton of bike and rider.

Maybe Kawasaki will make a version of this bike that follows the Yamaha Warrior with a lightened chassis and running gear. At 600 pounds or less, this motorcycle would be much more appealing to me, though I am still hugely impressed. It is fun to ride, even if nobody is looking.

Elvidge: Can you say Super Size? This new Kawasaki is a whopper in every way, which, of course, leads to the inevitable question of whether excess is a good thing or a bad thing.

For me, the bike was a letdown. I'd expected it to be more of a hot rod, something that might even keep step with the real power cruisers such as Yamaha's V-Max or the Honda Valkyrie. Wishful thinking. The new Vulcan is a pachyderm among the big boulevard cruisers. And although it's one hell of an athletic elephant, it's just too big for its own good.

Of course all that torque is lovely, and the bike does handle, stop and sprint off a stop with admirable efficiency, but I can count more low points than high points here. If your favorite characteristic of a new bike is its exhaust notes, I'd say something was lacking. In style matters, I don't find this Vulcan visually appealing at all, especially the aesthetic arrangement of what could be a stunningly attractive powertrain.

I think this engine and chassis should have been released as an all-new Nomad instead. Add a nice seat, hard bags and a windshield to the package and it would make more sense to me.

SPECIFICATIONS
2004 Kawasaki Vulcan 2000

Designation: VN2000
Suggested base price: $14,499
Standard colors: Black, maroon, silver blue
Standard warranty: 12 months, unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 6000 miles

ENGINE & DRIVE TRAIN
Type: Liquid-cooled, 52-degree tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: two intake, two exhaust valves operated by pushrods, hydraulic adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 2053cc, 103 x 123.2mm
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Carburetion: EFI, two 46mm throttle bodies
Lubrication: Dry sump, 4.9 qt.
Minimum fuel grade: 90 octane
Transmission: Wet multiplate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Belt

CHASSIS
Wet weight: 820 lbs.
GVWR: 1226 lbs.
Seat height: 26.8 in.
Wheelbase: 68.3 in.
Overall length: 100.4 in.
Rake/trail: 32 degrees / 7.2 in.
Wheels: Cast, 16 x 3.50 front, 16 x 6.00 rear
Front tire: 150/80R-16 Bridgestone Battlax BT020 tubeless radial
Rear tire: 200/60R-16 Bridgestone Battlax BT020 tubeless radial
Front suspension: 49mm stanchions; 5.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: One damper, 3.9 in. travel, adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping
Front brake: Two four-piston calipers, 11.8 in. discs
Rear brake: Two-piston caliper, 12.6 in. disc
Fuel capacity: 5.5 gal.
Handlebar width: 34.8 in., 1.0 in. diameter

ELECTRICAL & INSTRUMENTATION
Battery: 12v, 18AH
Forward lighting: 7.3 in., four-beam projector headlights, position lights
Taillight: Single-bulb taillight, license light
Instruments: Electronic speedometer, LCD odometer, dual tripmeters, fuel gauge, high beam, warning lights for high beam, turn signals, neutral, oil pressure, low fuel, EFI

PERFORMANCE
Fuel mileage: 31 to 43 mpg; 38.4-mpg average
Average range: 211 miles
RPM at 60 mph, top gear: 2250
0-60 mph time: 4.12 sec.
60-80 top-gear acceleration: 4.10 sec.
Quarter-mile acceleration: 12.43 sec @ 104.2 mph

Photography by Kevin Wing.
Chromed external oil lines on the engine's left sort of mirror the right side's pushrods. For further details read our Kawasaki Vulcan 2000 Tech Briefing.
The taillight is clean and tradtional, though an LED style would have been cleaner.
The ignition key may be removed after the ignition is turned on. The electronic speedo includes an LCD with a fuel gauge and dual tripmeters.
It's the most powerful bike yet to use a belt final drive and breaks with the tradition of shaft drive on big Vulcans, but the belt is light, smooth, doesn't involve the jacking that goes with a shaft, and allows for easier wheel customizing.
Two four-piston calipers operating on 300mm rotors give impressive front-brake power.
We could find a rider of any size who was comfortable for long on the stock saddle. Fortunately, Mustang already has saddles available.
Three small reflector beams provide a nice spread of light on low. The bottom beam adds more candlepower for high beam.
Pushrods operate four valves per cylinder. Only the heads and under cylinders are liquid-cooled.