Great American Road Bike - The Big Bang With Bags Theory

Lightly Dressed Maxi-Cruisers Offer Five Directions To The Great American Road Bike

Road Trip!
Harley-Davidson FLSTC
Heritage Softail Classic
Honda VTX1800T
Star Stratoliner
Suzuki Boulevard C109RT
Victory Kingpin Tour

It is probably the most traditional and all-American class of motorcycles. We hear them referred to by all sorts of names: leather baggers, touring cruisers, casual American tourers, soft-core tourers, traditional touring bikes, basic baggers, highway cruisers, long-haul cruisers and more.

Whatever you call them, the age-old formula is the same: Take a big streetbike and equip it for the open road with leather saddlebags and basic wind protection. By the 1930s saddlebags were commonplace on big American motorcycles (the concept was a carryover from horse riders). They have changed little in concept and only slightly in technology. These days they are rigidly mounted to the motorcycle, so they can't swing into the rear tire like throw-over bags might, and their construction has generally become more rigid. In fact some of the bags here are actually hard bags traditionalized with leather covers.

Basic motorcycle windshields have been around as long as some form of clear plastic has existed that could be propped up on the front of the motorcycle, often with a leather or canvas skirt. Before that, riders rigged up canvas contraptions to cut the cold on frosty rides. The windshields we see today have their roots in the '30s and were familiar by the '40s.

The attraction of this basic bagger arrangement is obvious. The windshield provides a modicum of protection from wind, weather, bugs and debris. Saddlebags allow you to easily tote a few belongings inside with the same sort of weather protection. Neither component adds enough bulk to significantly alter the bike's handling, and even the aerodynamic effects seem minor.

Once upon a time this stuff was added by the rider or dealer, but nowadays dozens of cruiser models roll out of factories already equipped with this simple formula. For our roundup the call went out for the biggest leather-bagged cruiser in each company's stable. Although Kawasaki simply did not have a Vulcan 2000 LT available for us, the other major cruiser builders handed over the five motorcycles you see here.

They reveal quite a diversity in execution of the leather-bag maxi-cruiser. Base MSRPs vary from $14,899 for the Honda VTX1800T to $18,399 for the Victory Kingpin Tour.

Although the big Kawasaki isn't in the picture, the displacement of these five ranges from the Harley FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic's 1584cc to the 1845cc of the Yamaha Star Stratoliner. The wheelbases start at the Harley's 64.4 inches and extend up to the Suzuki Boulevard C109RT's 69.1 inches. Those bikes also represent the extremes in weight as the lightest (757 pounds wet) and heaviest (887 pounds wet) motorcycles here.

The saddlebags range from the basic box style of the VTX1800T and C109RT to the leather-covered hard bags of the Stratoliner. The FLSTC leather bags have a more elaborate shape. The Kingpin Tour combines smallish box-style bags with a leather-covered trunk/backrest. The other bikes have straightforward passenger backrests. On the windshield front the Victory has the smallest, simplest design. At the other end of the scale, the Suzuki comes with a comparatively elaborate setup with separate lower components alongside the fork legs.

When we met for breakfast on the first day, riders got to size up the five bikes. Some were seeing the new Suzuki for the first time, but no one was impressed with the big Boulevard's styling. Whether it was the somewhat bulbous lines, an obvious bottom seam on the tank or the lack of remarkable details, everyone rated its looks as below average for cruisers in this price range. Some also thought the western-style conchos-and-studs motif of the bags and seating clashed with the modern look of the rest of the motorcycle. Its supersize style did impress some, however. The Heritage Softail Classic and VTX1800T, although different from each other, are more typical of what we expect for motorcycles of this cost and mission. Riders viewed them as a bit plain and unremarkable, perhaps because they are so familiar. The Kingpin Tour and Stratoliner, on the other hand, really turned heads. Both bring original, eye-pleasing lines, though a few disappointing details kept either from getting top-tier ratings. For example, the dangling handlebar wiring of the Victory and the ugly evaporative-emissions plumbing of the Star drew criticism. The Stratoliner/Roadliner series has more attention to detail in styling than any other bike around, although not everyone was impressed by the careful shaping of almost every visible component.

Once we hit the highway and began to get a feel for the motorcycles, it became apparent that what you most enjoy riding corresponds to how you are built. A great example is the Star Stratoliner. Taller riders sang its praises loudly after extended superslab sessions, while shorter riders groaned about the torturous relationship between the seat, the floorboards and the ultrawide handlebar that created pain in short order. Predictably, its comfort got top marks from the former group and the lowest scores from the ankle biters-I mean, magazine staff. However, all gave its seat solid to sterling scores. Taller riders said the Softail, somewhat diminutive by the standards of this company, was the least comfortable, citing its relatively short and narrow seat and compact riding position created by an inflexible saddle shape and a leg-limiting floorboard position. Everyone also thought the FLSTC's handlebar was a bit high and slightly awkward. Only one rider was pleased with the H-D's riding posture. The Suzuki's riding position was ranked as just fair by most riders, although its big, wide saddle was lauded by almost everyone and ranked just shy of the Stratoliner's. The Star and Boulevard floorboards were also the roomiest here. The Victory drew universally positive scores for position and, with one exception, solid reports for seat comfort, although its saddle is not nearly as full as those of the three Japanese baggers. In what would become a pattern, the VTXT riding position and saddle scored unanimously as better than average, though not exceptional to anyone. No one complained about them, but no one raved, either. The bottom line is that before you buy, you need to at least sit on these bikes and try to get a ride if you can. Only your body will know what fits it.

Unless your road-trip theme song is "Shakin' All Over," a smooth engine and compliant suspension should be standard equipment, especially at this sort of price point. Riders scored the Boulevard tops in the group for engine smoothness, the Star lowest with its smoothness a bit below average for big cruisers. Positions reversed when we discussed suspension compliance, where the Stratoliner slightly bested the Kingpin with strong marks and the C109RT dropped behind the rest. The FLSTC and VTXT scored slightly below average for ride comfort, a bit of a disappointment overall, especially in motorcycles at this level. Shaft-drive bikes-the Honda and Suzuki-suffer from a lot of unsprung weight, which makes it hard to suppress sharp bumps, while the Harley's suspension rates need some massaging.

Windshield ratings also varied with rider size, although everyone agreed that the Star windshield was too tall. None of us could easily see over it, so once it got wet, dusty or buggy it interfered with the view ahead, particularly after dark or when riding into the sun. However, the air behind it was fairly smooth. That couldn't be said for the shortest windshield, the Victory's, which drew some animated complaints about the buffeting it created. It also blocked winds less effectively than the others, mostly because of its size. The Honda scored slightly better than the Victory but provoked some of the same complaints. With the widest windscreen and the only lowers, the Boulevard windshield nailed the top spot for protection, with the Harley second. Both the Softail and the Star drew praise for their quick-detach windshield designs, which permit you to remove them without tools. The Star's locks so someone who lost theirs can't borrow yours.

Out on the wide-open roads we soon began lining up against each other for power contests. Here displacement asserted itself. With the throttles snapped open in top gear, the others left the Softail behind. Then the Kingpin dropped back. A bit later the VTXT lost ground. That left the Boulevard and Star roaring down the road neck-and-neck. Finally, at speeds you wouldn't want a cop to see, the Star just began to inch-no, to millimeter-ahead. The C109RT felt torquier down low and pulled the hardest up top, but the Stratoliner, which seemed to go flat at high rpm, asserted its displacement advantage up there, as the quarter-mile numbers recorded with the same rider on the same day confirmed. The tall overdrive sixth gears of the Harley and to a lesser extent the Victory didn't serve them well in our 60-to-80-mph top-gear acceleration tests. In fact the Harley took so much distance to reach 80 mph that it was beyond the range of the radar gun we used to measure this. In the real world no one complained about the power of any of them. The Kingpin pumped out just slightly less grunt at low rpm than the others, but it wasn't dead at low rpm, either. Whether chugging around at low speeds or passing trucks out on the highway, all five were powerful enough, though the Heritage Softail Classic was most likely to be downshifted while in passing mode.

While the average fuel mileage here (in the high 30s) wasn't impressive by motorcycle standards, it far exceeded that of the average car, especially around town where all five managed over 32 mpg even while being run hard. Fuel mileage varied almost inversely to displacement, with the Harley doing best at 40.7 mpg of premium and the Suzuki coming in at 35.1 mpg. Low-fuel lights came on around 140 miles after the last gas stop. With 5.0 gallons of fuel and the best mileage, the Harley offers the most range. The Honda, with 5.3 gallons and 37.8 mpg, is second.

Although riders continue to debate the merits of shaft versus belt final drive, our testers unanimously preferred the characteristics of the belt-drive machines. They are simply smoother, lighter and less clunky. The big spring-loaded dampers in the final drives of the VTX1800 and the C109 make it difficult to make power on-off transitions smoothly, leading to more neck-jerking, helmet-banging shifts and throttle changes. They amplify any abruptness in the throttle response, too. But we were surprised at how much the C109 driveline has been improved over the nearly identical M109, and we rated the Suzuki shaft system and drivetrain smoother than the Honda offering in this group. Because power changes also jack the chassis slightly on shaft-drive designs, there was a penalty in cornering evenness in addition to the unsprung-weight disadvantage.

By comparison the three belt-drive bikes were quite smooth in those situations, with the Star and Harley barely edging the Victory for drivetrain tranquility. It can be hard to separate the smoothness of a lash-free drivetrain from glitch-free throttle response, since play in the drive amplifies any unevenness in throttle response. As a result the three belt-drive bikes may have been rated as having more predictable throttle response than they really did. Whatever the factors, it was easier to provoke smooth responses to throttle inputs on the belt-driven machines in this group.

Though much improved over the M109's clutch, the cable-operated clutch of the C109 was slightly finicky during engagement, and its five-speed gearbox sometimes resisted shifting from neutral at a stop (just ease the clutch out partway while depressing the shift lever). No one had complaints about the other clutches, but some noted that the six-speed Softail and five-speed VTX were "a little clunky." Though the six-speed Kingpin was well received, the Stratoliner five-speed was top-rated for shifting smoothness. Some riders wished for a sixth speed on the Star, however, perhaps to quell that bit of vibration. Since all five bikes have floorboards, heel-toe shifting configurations are universal.

Because the first step to confident handling in twisty roads is predictable response to power inputs, the three belt-wearers started with a leg up on the two shafties and just kept going with it on the mountain and canyon roads of Nevada, Arizona and Utah that we tackled. The Suzuki drew another strike because of its size and weight, and most riders listed it as their last choice for making time when the road meandered. But we need to note that its handling, in particular its steering, is much improved upon that of the Boulevard M109 series bikes, although we aren't sure why. The C109 had virtually none of the M's resistance to turning and was more precise as well. However, it was also the only bike here that drew complaints about following grooves on the road. The Honda was a notch better, but its heft yielded somewhat sluggish steering response. The three belted baggers bested it in both low-speed and fast, winding-road handling manners. All five riders rated the "little" Softail as the most manageable at low speeds, making U-turns on a two-lane road, for example, even though the tall bar created some awkwardness. When the speed picked up, its unimpressive suspension and the most limited cornering clearance in the group dropped it behind the Victory during faster and more serious cornering. Overall the Victory was the sportbike in the group, besting everything when the cornering was fast and almost as handy in tight turns as the Harley. Its suspension isn't quite as supple or controlled as the Star's, but it's more settled than the rest. Our riders ranked the Star with or just ahead of the Harley during cornering and in the middle of the pack at low speeds. The Star's 38-inch-wide handlebar was a detriment in full-lock turns as well. The Star and Victory suspensions offered the best control in bumpy stuff.

None of the big luxury bikes have the antilock brakes they deserve, but there are two schools of braking-system design evident here. The two American brands each have a single, independently controlled disc brake on each wheel. All three Japanese brands use triple-disc systems. Honda and Suzuki provide linked systems whereby the brake pedal operates the rear brake and partially applies the front brake as well. This provides better (and possibly more immediate) stopping when a panicked rider simply stomps on the brake pedal in a moment of crisis, but it makes it harder for an experienced rider to modulate the crucial front brake in a panic stop. The Suzuki's pedal-operated portion also has remarkably little feel. The Star uses independent brakes front and rear, and combined with the power of three big discs and excellent control, that made it the universal favorite stopper here. Victory was a solid second with strong scores, but the others slipped to below-par rankings for unimpressive power (Harley) or uncertain feel and control (Honda and Suzuki).

The accompanying sidebar discusses the relative merits of each bike's luggage. Few other details drew comments from the riders except for praise of the Stratoliner's nicely styled and thorough instrumentation, though its position in the middle of the fuel tank means you have to look away from the road to consult it. The C109RT's instrumentation is almost as thorough, though it lacks the tachometer (and the styling emphasis) of the Star.

So if you find yourself in a maximum-bagger state of mind, where should you go shopping? Again, you should assure yourself that any bike you consider buying will fit your build and stance. That proviso is particularly important for our top-rated motorcycle here, the Star Stratoliner. There is a lot to like about it-great power, the best suspension and saddle in this group, strong and controllable brakes, good saddlebags, a removable windshield (too tall in standard form, in our opinion) and carefully hewn styling. But if it is immediately uncomfortable for you, all that good stuff may seem of little consequence.

In that case we'd suggest you look up your Victory dealer and size up the Kingpin Tour. Though we think it's a bit pricey (even with the trunk) and larger riders thought the saddle was too skimpy, the Kingpin was our favorite Victory. The Tour shares many of the attractions of the Stratoliner, with high marks for handling, braking, power/ performance and riding position (from riders of all sizes). Most oglers liked its stand-out styling. The windshield could stand some improvement, but it is otherwise a great magic carpet.

Parked in the middle of the pack, the Honda VTX1800T didn't inspire any real passion either way. It would probably have been a stronger contender with belt final drive, but that was as close to a criticism as we could come. It won't be the bike we will recommend first if someone asks us "Which bagger?" On the other hand if someone says he is getting ready to buy a VTX1800T, we won't try to steer him (or her) away, either. It's competent and pleasant to ride, but not soul-stirring. If you are counting your pennies it's the most affordable.

What most impressed us about the Suzuki Boulevard C109 series was how much more we liked riding them than the M109 models, especially when the road started to bend. The C109RT's size and weight may put off smaller riders, but big riders scored it as very comfortable and roomy, and it has the best wind protection. Though it lags in a few areas, some testers gave it strong marks.

No doubt the Harley-Davidson FLSTC Heritage Softail Classic will outsell all its competitors here, just because it's a Harley. It will probably be a satisfying choice for shorter riders or those who don't get much past the city limits. However, bigger riders who plan to travel on an FLSTC should allow an accessory budget for things like more accommodating saddles, and any of our crew would have changed the handlebar. You probably shouldn't challenge any Stratoliners or C109s to a dragrace, though.

While you can certainly find more luxurious long-distance touring machines and cleaner big-inch basic cruisers, this class of basic bagger retains the same appeal it enjoyed three-quarters of a century ago. They are handy around town, perfect for a Sunday romp through a few counties, and ready to take you and a friend away for the weekend. These days they do all that with a bit more muscle and style.

$17,945-$19,470 $14,899-$16,049 $15,480-$16,580 $14,999 $18,399-$18,649
STANDARD COLORS Black Black, blue/black, black cherry/black Black, black cherry/silver, white Blue/white, black/gray Black, maroon, gray (plus 2-tones)
STANDARD WARRANTY 24 months 12 months 12 months 12 months 12 months
TYPE Air-cooled, 45-deg., tandem V-twin Liquid-cooled, 52-deg., tandem V-twin Air-cooled, 48-deg., tandem V-twin Liquid-cooled, 54-deg., tandem V-twin Air/oil-cooled 50-deg. tandem V-twin
DISPLACEMENT, BORE X STROKE 1584cc, 99 x 111mm 1795cc, 101 x 112mm 1854cc, {{{100}}} x 118mm 1783cc, 112.0 x {{{90}}}.5mm 1634cc, 101 x 102mm
VALVE TRAIN OHV; 1 intake, 1 exhaust valve/cyl SOHC; 2 intake, 1 exhaust valve/cyl. OHV; 2 intake, 2 exhaust valves/cyl. DOHC, 2 intake, 2 exhaust valves/cyl. SOHC; 2 intake, 2 exhaust valves/cyl.
COMPRESSION 9.2:1 9.0:1 9.48:1 10.5:1 8.7:1
FUEL SYSTEM EFI EFI, 42mm throttle bodies EFI, 43mm throttle bodies EFI, 52mm throttle bodies EFI, 45mm throttle bodies
LUBRICATION Dry sump Wet sump Dry sump Semidry sump Wet sump
TRANSMISSION Wet clutch, 6 speeds Wet clutch, 5 speeds Wet clutch, 5 speeds Wet clutch, 5 speeds Wet clutch, 6 speeds
FINAL DRIVE Belt Shaft Belt Shaft Belt
OVERALL LENGTH 94.5 in. 103.5 101.6 in. 101.8 in. 102.9 in.
WHEELBASE 64.5 in. 67.5 in. 67.5 in. 69.1 in. 65.6 in.
HANDLEBAR WIDTH 33 in. (1 in. dia.) 34 in. (1 in. dia.) 38 in. (1 in. dia.) 35.5 in. (1 in. dia.) 36.5 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 27.4 in. 27.4 in. 28.9 in. 28.0 in. 26.5 in.
WET WEIGHT 757 lb. 856 lb. 819 lb. 887 lb. 768 lb.
GVWR 1160 lb. 1219 lb. 1213 lb. 1310 lb. 1234 lb.
RAKE/TRAIL 32 deg./147mm 32 deg./163mm 31 deg./152mm 31.8 deg./132mm 32.8 deg./138mm
WHEELS Cast, 16 x 3 in. front Cast, 17 in. front, 16 in. rear Cast, 18 in. front, 17 in. rear Cast, 16 x 3.5 front, 16 x 8.0 rear Cast, 18 x 3.00 front, 18 x 5.00 rear
FRONT TIRE MT90B16 150/80R-17 tubeless rad. 130/70-18 150/80R16 tubeless rad. 130/70B18
REAR TIRE 150/80B16 180/70R-16 tubeless rad. 190/60-17 {{{240}}}/55R16 tubeless rad. 180/55B18
FRONT SUSPENSION 41.3mm fork, 5.1 in. travel 45mm inverted fork, 5.1 in. travel 46mm fork, 5.1 in. travel, adj. spring preload 49mm fork, 5.1 in. travel 43mm inverted fork, 5.1 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Softail, 2 dampers, 4.3 in. travel 2 dampers, 3.9 in. travel, adj. for spring preload 1 damper, 4.3 in. travel 1 damper, 4.6 in. travel, adj. for spring preload 1 damper, 3.9 in. travel, adj. for spring preload
FRONT BRAKE 4-piston caliper, 11.5-in. disc Two 3-piston calipers, 12.4-in. discs, linked Two 4-piston calipers, 11.7-in. discs Two 3-piston calipers, 11.4-in. discs 4-piston caliper, 11.8-in. disc
REAR BRAKE 2-piston caliper, 11.5-in. disc 2-piston caliper, 11.7-in. disc, linked 2-piston caliper, 12.6-in. disc 2-piston caliper, 10.8-in. disc 2-piston caliper, 11.8 in. disc
FUEL CAPACITY 5.0 gal. 5.3 gal. 4.5 gal. 5.0 gal. 4.5 gal.
BATTERY 12V, 19AH 12V 12V 12V 12V
LIGHTING 1-bulb taillight, fender light 1-bulb taillight LED taillight 7.1-in 60/55-watt multireflector headlight, position lights; LED taillight LED taillight
INSTRUMENTS Analog speedometer; LCD clock, odometer, tripmeter, remaining miles countdown; warning lights for neutral, high beam, turn signals, engine failure and low fuel Analog speedometer; LCD odometer, tripmeter; warning lights for neutral, high beam, turn signals, low fuel Analog speedometer, tachometer; dual LCD tripmeters, odometer, clock; warning lights for neutral, high beam, turn signals, low fuel Analog speedometer; LCD odometer, 2 tripmeters, clock, fuel gauge, oil pressure; warning lights for neutral, high beam, turn signals, low fuel, FI failure, temperature Analog speedometer; LCD odometer, tripmeter
FUEL MILEAGE 35-44 mpg, 40.7 avg. 33-42 mpg, 37.8 avg. 34-40 mpg, 38.0 avg. 32-38 mpg, 35.1 avg 35-41 mpg, 39.3 avg.
AVERAGE RANGE 204 miles {{{200}}} miles 1/1 miles 176 miles 177 miles
QUARTER-MILE ACCELERATION 13.63 sec. @ 93.93 mph 12.61 sec. @ 103.54 mph 12.48 sec. @ 105.08 mph 12.58 sec. @ 104.37 mph 12.82 sec. @ 100.96 mph
60-{{{80}}} MPH N/A 6.25 sec. 5.56 sec. 6.14 sec. 8.67 sec.

Riding Position

Art Friedman
5'10", 220 lb, 32" inseam

What distinguishes a traveling machine for me is comfort-long rides are no fun if my neck hurts or my butt aches. Seats in particular make or break a tourer for me. In this case size mattered, and roominess, full saddles, good wind protection and lack of annoyances quickly put the Suzuki and Star ahead of the rest. The drawbacks of the two-the too-tall windshield and overwrought design nuances of the Star and the heavy handling and quaint styling of the Boulevard-never rose to the point where they detracted from either bike (although if it were mine, I'd take a hacksaw to the Stratoliner's windshield as soon as I got it home). All was right with the world when I was aboard either one, though I wasn't unhappy on the Honda. A fuller seat would have likely changed my outlook on the Victory considerably.

It came down to the final ride. I was enjoying myself on the Suzuki, but I found bliss on the Star. The motorcycle could have been tailored to fit me, and I like the way it makes and delivers power. Belt final drive makes for a much smoother driveline. I like the Stratoliner's bags, its looks, its handling, its brakes and its sound, too. It is the only one here that seems like a true luxury tourer to me.

Harley 2.5 stars
Honda 2.5 stars
Star 4 stars
Suzuki 3.5 stars
Victory 3 stars

Mike Barker
6'0", 175 lb, 34" inseam

I was apprehensive when Art dropped off the Honda before the ride; it seemed so big I wondered what I had gotten myself into. But after getting used to these bikes I have to say they are all pretty much a blast to ride.

The Japanese bikes were all fairly close as far as riding position-not bad for me, but the Victory just seemed to fit my physical dimensions best with the right seat/bars/footrests relationship. It seemed to be the closest choice here to a true touring bike, with a topcase and a comfortable riding position.

I felt the Yamaha had the best motor of the bunch; I just loved getting on the throttle and thundering it up. Overall it was a good fit, too, though its bars and seat felt lower than the Victory's.

The Japanese bikes seemed to have a low seat, and reaching the bars on the longer stretches of the ride gave me a backache. The Suzuki had very smooth power delivery, not quite as strong as the Yamaha, but I just didn't care for its somewhat "squirrelly" handling. The Honda wasn't bad on most fronts, but it didn't stand out, either. And the Harley looked cool, but it was certainly the most uncomfortable for me. The short, low seat didn't fit, the higher bars were awkward, and my feet kept blowing off the footrests. In short, I wasn't a fan.

Harley 1 star
Honda 2 stars
Star 4 stars
Suzuki 3 starsVictory 5 stars

Andrew Cherney
5' 7", 155 lb, 30.5" inseam

I used a simple formula when rating these bikes: They either fit me or they didn't. For big-mile jaunts ergonomics are crucial, so it was pretty easy to delete the duds after about 1000 klicks.

Unfortunately the Strat-everyone else's top pick-didn't make my cut. I'm not saying it's not a solid performer, but the Star's riding position was absolutely torturous for this 5-foot-7-ich ankle-biter. That's a shame, because its motor, handling and luggage are top-notch. Sorry, no can do. The Suzuki's motor packed a pleasant wallop, too-in a straight line, anyway. The wide bar and finicky clutch, though, made it unwieldy in parking lots. It was too bulky for me. And if I haven't mentioned the Honda yet, that's because it felt nearly invisible. Everything on the VTXT is OK-seat, shield, brakes-but nothing is truly excellent except for the power and the price. The Harley too was outclassed in almost every category, and although the engine sounds good, it runs out of steam up top. I did cotton to the Softail's seating position and superior finish, though.

So it's the Kingpin Tour-by default. The 'Pin's easy to shepherd 'round turns, and its power is more usable than any of the others. Most importantly, the riding position fits me. It gets a thumbs-down for the cheapie luggage and the absurd price tag, but the Kingpin is the one I'd take on a long ride over all the others.

Harley 3 stars
Honda 3 stars
Star 2 stars
Suzuki 3 stars
Victory 4 stars

Evan Kay
5'4", 159 lb, 29" inseam

I'm disappointed. Whatever happened to "The bigger they are, the better they are?" These are supposed to be five primo touring bikes, but I think they all need some re-engineering. The Harley needs different bars-I've evolved from being an ape and I don't want to look like one while riding, plus they leave me disconnected from the road. Honda has developed a quick-release upper windshield mount for a non-quick-release shield, and the on-off-on throttle manners are a pain in the neck. Star, oh, Star! With your awkward 1927 riding position-arms low and wide, hands far from the body-my back said, "Sayonara!" after 10 minutes. And Suzuki-what's the deal? Love your sportbikes, but the new C109RT drops the ball with herky-jerky throttle response and shaft effect, plus wallet-sized saddlebags, so I'm just saying no. The Victory isn't, the lower gears in the six-speed tranny killing the great acceleration of the Kingpin Tour and the windscreen producing head-pounding buffeting on the highway.

It may sound harsh, but I wouldn't buy any of them. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose, well, I'd just let you fire.

Harley 3 stars
Honda 2.5 stars
Star 2 stars
Suzuki 2 stars
Victory 3 stars

**Where We Rode

Escaping To Southern Utah's Zion**

Beefy bikes, big cubes and lotsa luggage demand real distances with spectacular vistas, right? Figuring it was approximately 450 miles from the dank confines of the Cruiser garage to the craggy red slabs of Zion National Park, we aimed our bikes east for a bona fide road trip with a massive scenic payoff. Mother Nature had different ideas at first, though. Our departure date dawned foggy and misty-a worst-case scenario for testing and photographing shiny cruisers. We peeled out of the Denny's parking lot mumbling prayers to the smog gods for a respite from the grayness.

It worked. By the time we hit Utah in late afternoon, the sunglasses were on and the hills ablaze from the setting sun.

Our base camp would be St. George, Utah, a medium-sized town about 50 miles from the Zion park entrance. To get to Zion National Park itself we hopped off I-15 at Highway 9 and cruised to Springdale.

The little burg of Springdale, just outside the park boundary, is also a fine place to fuel up both body and bike before hitting the trail. For the former you can't go wrong with the Mean Bean Coffee House on the main drag-as the name implies, they serve a mean cup of joe and a nice array of breakfasty items. But this part of the country is all about natural majesty, and Zion Canyon is the epicenter of visual exclamations. The sculpted sandstone in its color, shape and scale here is simply amazing. As we lazed along redtopped Route 9-the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway-through the park's center, it was all we could do to keep our eyes on the road. It seems like there's a soaring, jaw-dropping vista around every corner of the park.

But don't plan on a quick rumble up Zion Canyon itself during peak season-it's been closed to private vehicles thanks to heavy traffic and park pollution. You'll have to jump on a shuttle bus to get down Zion Canyon Scenic Drive from late March through late October; private vehicles are allowed only from the first of November through March. Highway U-9 through Zion-Mt. Carmel Junction, however, is open to vehicle traffic all year. The caveat is that Zion is also highly subject to NPS. That stands for National Park Syndrome, and its symptoms include 45-mph speed limits and roads crawling with RVs and pesky hikers. The park's picturesque 1.1-mile Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, for instance, can develop big-time backups of tour buses and scenery-searching SUVs at either entrance, so it's best to get through the park early in the morning.

Luckily there are gobs of other route options outside the park-Highway 89 lies just to the east, and it connects to a host of scenic treasures. Thirty miles north on 89, for example, is the beginning of one of my favorite roads, SR 12-a Scenic Byway that runs 125 miles through some of the most spectacular backdrops on the planet. And be sure to check out the far-less-crowded back door of Zion. That means the Kolob Fingers Road off I-15, which only runs six miles but ends at the Kolob Canyons overlook. Bring a camera. Or you can sample SR 143, which you can catch off Highway 89 from Panguitch. The ride might be chillier at this higher elevation, but the payoff is a dearth of RVs and miles of clear, twisty asphalt.

Of course Highway 89 is colorful in its own right, snaking east through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument before crossing the Colorado River and turning south at Page. Or head south on Route 67 directly for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Zion National Park is on Highway 9 via I-15 outside the town of Springdale. The Kolob Canyons are located just off I-15 at Exit 40, 20 miles south of Cedar City. The park charges $25 per vehicle, but motorcycles get something of a break-$12 per person for a seven-day pass.

Trust me, it's worth it.
-Andrew Cherney

**Carry-On Cruisers

When You're Pushing 2 Liters, Your Bags Better Be Big**

The whole point of riding a tourer is being able to take it all with you on the road, and in that regard most of these big boys don't skimp on capacity.

Total capacity as listed by the manufacturers can be misleading, though-all these bags have wildly dissimilar shapes, and that can mean the difference between hauling home that oddly shaped antique you found on the way or just settling for easily packed T-shirts.

The saddlebags in our group of five range from the basic traditional box style of the VTX1800T and C109RT to the shapely, leather-covered bags of the Stratoliner. Both the Honda and Suzuki bags get genuine leather covering a molded plastic interior on a steel frame with a box-top-like closure. Both also feature top-loading lids and buckles concealing quick-release clips on the sides. Where they differ is in cargo capacity-each bag on the VTXT claims 1464 cubic inches of space versus the Suzuki's meager 675ci per. That means the VTXT bags are the second-roomiest units here (which is hard to believe, based on what we could fit in them), compared with the Suzuki's stingiest-in-class measurement. Both companies offer the pieces in their respective Parts and Accessories catalogs as well ($589 for the Honda's and $649 for the Suzuki's bolt-ons). The Harley's thick leather bags have a more rectangular shape than the others with top-grade cowhide construction and reinforced rims and sides to help maintain form. They look like the most capacious saddlebags here, but the numbers don't bear that out-even though they are the easiest to pack stuff into because of their width. They're also the ones with the most attractive details-chrome studs and a chrome-plated brass medallion coined with the Harley-Davidson logo. Their tops are secured with leather straps that conceal quick-release hardware underneath. They are available as accessory options too-but they'll cost you a cool $799 for the studded Heritage style.

The Kingpin Tour features smallish, box-style, semirigid bags but makes up for their stingy capacity with a top-mounted trunk/backrest. All three pieces are faux leather (um, vinyl)-covered ABS plastic and are lockable. They can be removed via a few bolts, but you can't really call them "quick" detach. The trunk is spacious-it carries more than the saddlebags put together-which is a good thing as the bags have about the slimmest openings here.

The Stratoliner's sleekly styled leather-covered "sidebags" (the company's term) have always struck us as most impressive, because they're purposely designed for this bike and not some generic off-the-shelf design. As another bonus they offer a quick-release feature and are lockable as well. They also offer a good amount of carrying space, with a 2860ci total capacity, but they'll cost you a whopping $1175 if you buy them separately. -AC

Model Left Saddlebag Right Saddlebag Trunk Total
(cubic inches) (ci) (ci) (ci)
KINGPIN TOUR 1039 1039 3009 5082
HARLEY FLSTC 1100 1100 N/A 2200
HONDA VTX1800T 1464 1464 N/A 2928
STAR STRATOLINER 1430 1430 N/A 2860
SUZUKI C109RT 675 674 N/A 1350
"For our roundup the call went out for the biggest leather-bagged cruiser in each company's stable."
"The bottom line is that before you buy, you need to at least sit on these bikes and try to get a ride if you can. Only your body will know what fits it."
Though both classically styled, Harley's and Honda's tank-mounted gauges do the job a little differently.
We like the VTX's lockable, aircraft-style fuel-filler cap, but the Softail's "miles remaining" readout is a nice feature, too.
The Star Stratolinerand the Suzuki C109RT offer the most thorough readouts of the bunch (though the Stratoliner adds a tachometer and a touch more style).
The Star's gauge forces your eyes lower down the tank, however.
The Kingpin Tour may have bare-bones instrumentation, but its single, handlebar-mounted gauge is one of the easiest to read.
Harley-Davidson It may look plush, but every tester except one gave the Softail seat a thumbs-down.
Star This is one great saddle, especially if you're on the tall side.
Victory Though the bigger riders occasionally felt constrained, the Kingpin saddle appealed to all.
Honda Though not exactly a throne, most of us felt the VTX's seat was better than average.
Suzuki Judged wide and roomy by all, the C109RT's seat also got high marks.
Though all the bikes' shield heights look similar in front of our 5-foot-7-inch rider, a slight difference in shape can mean beaucoup buffeting. The shortest-in-class Victory unit is by far the noisiest, while the Star Stratoliner's plastic was much too tall for most. The Suzuki C109RT's shield shape and added lower configuration was the winning combo for all the testers.