Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic Meets Suzuki Boulevard C50 - Happy Mediums

Kawasaki's new 900 V-twin takes aim at the best-selling metric cruiser and ruler of the 800 class

It's easy to understand why Suzuki's Boulevard C50 outsold all other metric cruisers last year. The 750 to 900cc cruiser category has hit a sweet spot for many motorcycle buyers. The bikes in this displacement range are big enough to be taken seriously, even for long-distance travel. And they strike an appealing balance of size, style, comfort and price. Virtually every major motorcycle manufacturer has one (we won't step into the debate about whether the Star V-Star 650 fits in this class) and sees strong sales.

The Boulevard C50 (formerly the 800 Volusia), however, outshines the rest of this fairly large class. Although its $6799 base price puts it right in the middle of the pack, the C50 pulls to the front in comparisons of roominess, comfort, features and performance. Its fuel-injected 805cc 45-degree V-twin engine makes better power than most of the bikes in this displacement range, with its Boulevard S50 stablemate (formerly the Intruder 800) being the notable exception. Superior suspension, features like floorboards, and the general look, feel and manners of a bigger motorcycle have made the C50 the standout 800 V-twin, as evidenced by its (and the C50T's-the same bike with windshield, leather saddlebags, whitewall tires, and passenger backrest) best-seller status among metric cruisers.

Considering the sales numbers in this market, Suzuki's competitors in the 800 class weren't likely to stand by and let it simply grab all the marbles. Not surprisingly, Kawasaki, which has had as many as four 750 and 800cc V-twin cruisers in its line, rose to the challenge. Having learned from the successful Volusia/C50 formula, Kawasaki decided to up the ante. If a large, strong 800 V-twin sold well, wouldn't a 900 be even better? So this spring, it rolled out the Vulcan 900 Classic powered by an all-new 903cc 55-degree V-twin.

Like the Boulevard C50, the Vulcan 900 Classic comes in two versions, a naked cruiser and one dressed with a windshield, leather saddlebags and a passenger backrest for those who want to make the most of the bikes' traveling abilities. Riding the Vulcan 900 Classic LT (the tourer model) from Florida to the West Coast confirmed that it's long-legged enough to be a satisfying touring ride. When it came time for the Kawasaki to challenge Suzuki for the class crown, however, we thought it should be with straight-ahead cruisers, the C50 and the Vulcan 900 Classic.

In some ways, the playing field between the standard cruiser versions of the Vulcan 900 Classic and the Boulevard C50 appears to be quite even. Both favor the classic style, with sweeping curves, a fuller profile and a roomier, more comfortable layout. Both use hidden single-shock rear suspensions. Both have liquid-cooled single-overhead-camshaft V-twins with four valves per cylinder and fuel injection. Both use the traditional balancing scheme for its brand-the Vulcan has a single crankpin and uses counterbalancers and rubber engine mounts to snuff vibration; the Boulevard uses offset crankpins to prevent the shakes. And both have five speeds in the transmission, but eschew dirty, noisy chains. The Suzuki has a shaft final drive, while the Kawasaki brings a belt, which we slightly prefer.

Of course, there are quantifiable differences. The Kawasaki offers the attraction of an additional 98cc of displacement, which gives it a slight power advantage. The Vulcan also gives the impression of being bigger and is a few pounds heavier, but the Boulevard has a slightly longer wheelbase (65.2 inches versus 64.8 for the Kawasaki). The Kawasaki's saddle sits more than a half-inch lower than the Suzuki's and is also narrower, making it handier for shorter legs. With a 5.3-gallon fuel capacity, the 900 carries over a gallon more than the C50, giving it a meaningful advantage on roads where the gas stations are far and few. But the Boulevard C50 has a $500 price advantage, at $6799, compared with the Vulcan 900's $7299.

A unanimous verdict gives the Vulcan higher marks for aesthetics. Everyone we polled preferred its cleaner, more unified and better detailed appearance, which not only outshines the C50 but also other Kawasaki cruisers and certainly sets new standards in this price-conscious category. Although it's actually an inch or so shorter than the C50, the Vulcan 900 appears longer due to its lower profile. With fat tires in fashion, you get more rear rubber from the Kawasaki. Its 180mm rear tire is wider even than most Harley counterparts as well as the Suzuki's 170-section tire.

No one knocked the Boulevard's looks, but they simply weren't as carefully drawn as the 900's. Its components and overall style simply don't flow as smoothly. Take the saddles as a microcosm of the overall style: The Vulcan's seat swoops across the bike as a single unit, while the Suzuki's seat consists of two obviously separate pads. You see the same effect repeated on the pipes and other components, and you'll find a few extra concessions to C50's price point-the fenders, side covers and airboxes are plastic, not metal (which saves weight as well as money). Like the Vulcan's, the Boulevard's fuel tank has a visible lower seam, but the styling is otherwise well done, with details such as carefully routed wires and cables. Both bikes have tank-mounted speedometers with LCD odometer/tripmeter and clocks. The Kawasaki's instrument pod wears a slick chrome trim, which can turn into a mirror that reflects glare into the rider's face at high noon. The low-profile LED taillight adds a touch of big-bike style to the Vulcan.

Most listeners also fancied the Vulcan's exhaust note, which has the traditional single-crankpin cadence and a deeper, louder note. Only our resident old fogy preferred the Boulevard's quieter, smoother exhaust beat.

The Suzuki runs the way it feels and was slightly smoother at highway speeds than the Kawasaki, though the Vulcan doesn't vibrate enough to actually annoy even the most vibrophobic rider. The difference in smoothness of their rides is much more pronounced. Bumps of all sizes and shapes roll under the C50 with less commotion and shock at the rider's station than with the Vulcan, which occasionally bottomed hard in potholes. The C50's suspension is simply more sophisticated and better sorted than the VN900's. In particular, the 900's rear suspension feels soft and under-damped.

Shorter riders voiced a slight preference for the Vulcan's ergonomic layout and saddle shape, while bigger riders seemed to have an even less-pronounced preference for the Boulevard's. Some of this was due the saddle shape. The lower, narrower saddle of the Kawasaki made it easier for shorter inseams to obtain a solid flat-footed stance at a stop, while taller riders had more room to move on the flatter Suzuki seat. The wider, deeper Suzuki seat also provides more room and support for taller, heavier riders, especially those who are a bit broad in the beam. Passengers enjoy more room front-to-rear on the Kawasaki.

Both bikes offer adjustable brake levers, wide bars, forward-mounted floorboards and foot controls with heel-toe shifters, usually standard only on bigger bikes. Overall, except for suspension compliance, the two are closely matched in comfort and superior to other cruisers in this displacement range. In fact, some riders said the Vulcan 900 and Boulevard C50 were more comfortable for them on long rides than the same companies' mega-twins we tested for our last issue. Riders taller than six feet might disagree, but we suspect that many riders of lesser length will discover that these two middleweights offer much more comfort than they anticipated from this displacement class.

Of course, after we spent a few weeks with those hefty two-liter V-twins, the C50 and 900 seemed to handle like sportbikes by comparison. Both respond nimbly and precisely, offering predictable steering and easy control at all speeds. The C50 is a bit more nimble, bending into turns more quickly and with less effort than the 900, which was certainly no truck, even by comparison.

The Suzuki increases its handling advantage with its superior suspension and noticeably better cornering clearance than the Kawasaki (and most other cruisers). Both are steady and easy to manage at walking speeds, though the Kawasaki's low seat height may give some riders a bit more confidence.

At the other end of the speed spectrum, you enjoy reassuring stability from both these bikes when motoring along above the speed limit on the highway. Both resist crosswinds well, and giving either bike's handlebar a hard shake at 80 mph revealed no hint of unsteadiness. Both also held lines well through corners, although the Suzuki's better suspension and greater cornering clearance gave it an edge when chasing down a twisting road.

Both have single-disc front brakes with two-piston calipers. But while the Suzuki's 11.8-inch front disc is bigger than the Kawasaki's 10.8-incher, the Kawasaki's is a bit more powerful. Judging from the spec sheet, the Vulcan's disc rear brake should perform better than the Boulevard's drum as well, but it isn't particularly powerful. Both motorcycles require extra pressure to lock the rear wheel, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, since riders tend to overbrake the rear in a panic stop. Good brake control, which can be improved by personalizing the handlebar levers' position with thumbwheel adjusters, is heightened by solid traction from both motorcycles' tires. Unfortunately, both bikes use tube-type tires because of their wire-spoke wheels. We'd prefer cast wheels and tubeless tires, especially on the touring versions of these bikes.

Since both engines have fuel injection, they start immediately and respond readily to throttle, hot or cold. Both also have crisp throttle response, though the Suzuki occasionally reacts somewhat abruptly to throttle-position changes. While the 805cc Suzuki is quicker away when the light changes, the 900 Classic's added displacement and broader torque curve soon catch up. In all-out races, the 903cc Kawasaki has the edge. It also has more grunt in reserve when you roll on without getting the revs up. This is most noticeable when you're carrying a passenger or passing on a hill. The Suzuki needs a downshift and a bit more rpm to keep up. If you like to ride at low rpm, the Vulcan 900's power will please you a bit more. If you prefer an engine that revs freely, the Boulevard C50 motor will be more your speed.

Both drivetrains are smooth and easy to manage. The clutches are light and engage predictably. Gear throws on either motorcycle's heel-toe shifter are light and positive, and finding neutral is easy, though the Vulcan's automatic neutral finder gives it a slight edge. Ratio staging leaves no complaint on either bike, although adding a sixth speed would be a solid plus on both machines. The Suzuki seems just a bit busier on the highway, but that's probably due to its dual-crankpin layout, as its top gear is fairly tall. The C50's shaft final drive doesn't add any significant lash to the drivetrain, nor does it create much jacking. The Vulcan's belt-drive power train also doesn't create any such issues and is a bit lighter and cleaner, although it has just a small amount of whine.

Both bikes are capable of returning 40 mpg or better on the highway, but the C50 approached 50 mpg more frequently than the 900 Classic. However, its extra 1.2 gallons of fuel capacity gives the Vulcan a range comparable to the Boulevard's. With EFI, neither bike has a reserve system, just a warning light that signals when you're working on your last gallon. The fact that the Vulcan 900's speedometer and odometer/tripmeter are about twice as optimistic (almost eight percent versus four) as the C50's may have you believing you've gone farther, faster and gotten better fuel mileage than you actually have.

In the end, neither of these motorcycles eclipses the other, although they do stand above the other current cruisers in this 750 to 1000cc category. (To be fair, we haven't ridden Honda's new-for-2007 shaft-driven Shadow Spirit 750.) We think the presence of a good dealer would be reason enough for picking one over the other. That said, each bike has its strengths.

If you buy for looks, we suspect the Vulcan 900 will be your choice. It's also the better pick if your plans include riding frequently with a passenger or touring (for which we'd suggest the LT version). If you expect most of your riding to be urban or on winding roads, then the Boulevard C50 is the better choice. It's also the more economical player, not only because of its lower buy-in, but also because it gets better fuel mileage. There are also no major changes we'd want to make to the C50, but we would want a better rear shock on the Vulcan 900 and probably a new seat for touring. Nevertheless, either bike can happily manage any motorcycling mission in style.

The bottom line is that both of these motorcycles are great cruisers-maybe even the perfect cruisers. Notice we didn't include "middleweight" or any other size qualifier in that statement. The Boulevard C50 and the Vulcan 900 Classic are simply great motorcycles to ride, no matter what the mission. Wield the Suzuki Boulevard M109R on a cross-country odyssey? Only if a personal chiropractor comes along. Wrestle the notchy 900-pound Kawasaki Vulcan 2000 around downtown L.A.? No thanks. But press the Boulevard C50 or the Vulcan 900 into those situations, or a dance down a wriggling road, and the ride becomes a hoot, not a headache. There's enough power and size here to comfortably and confidently set off after the horizon with a passenger, but their reduced bulk makes them much more fun than bigger bikes when maneuvering.

The Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic and Suzuki Boulevard C50 are bikes we've already been recommending frequently to readers asking for buying advice. That's not just because they offer exceptional cruising value for the money. Come visit our garage almost any evening or weekend while we're out. You'll probably find the big, stuff-of-dreams mega-twins languishing there unridden while these two "middleweights" are out making serious miles with us. Unless power or the ability to brag about the size of your piston is your primary yardstick, these motorcycle are simply better and more fun to ride.

SPECIFICATIONS
2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic 2006 Suzuki Boulevard C50
Designation VN900B C50
Suggested base pric $7299 $6799
Standard colors Red/black or blue/silver Black/red or white/silver
Standard warranty 24 months/unlimited miles 12 months/unlimited miles
ENGINE & DRIVETRAIN
Type Liquid-cooled, 55-degree tandem V-twin Liquid-cooled, 45-degree tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement SOHC, 2 intake, 2 exhaust valves SOHC, 2 intake, 2 exhaust valves per cylinder
Displacement Bore x stroke 903 cc, 88 x 74.2 mm 805cc, 83.0 x 74.4mm
Compression ratio 9.5:1 9.4:1
Carburetion Fuel injection, two 34mm throttle bodies Fuel injection, two 34mm throttle bodies
Lubrication Wet sump Wet sump
Minimum Fuel Grade 87 octane 87 octane
Transmission Wet clutch, 5 speeds Wet, multiplate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive Belt Shaft
CHASSIS
Wet weight 627 lbs. 592 lbs.
Seat height 26.8 in. 27.6 in.
Handlebar width 34.2 in. 35.2 in.
Overall length 97.0 in. 98.8 in.
Wheelbase 64.8 in. 65.2 in.
GVWR 1016 lbs. 950 lbs.
Rake: 32 degrees 33.2 degrees
Trail: 6.3 in. 5.6 in.
Wheels Wire-spoke, 16 x 3.00 front/15 x 4.50 rear Wire-spoke, 16 x 3.00 front/15 x 4.50 rear
Tires 130/90-16 Dunlop D404F tube-type, front/ 180/70-15 Dunlop D404 tube type, rear 130/90-16 tube-type Dunlop D404F, front/ 170/80-15 tube-type Dunlop D404, rear
Front suspension 41mm stanchions, 5.9-in. travel 41mm stanchions, 5.5-in. travel
Rear suspension Single damper, 4.1-in. travel, adjustable for spring preload Single damper, 4.1-in. travel, adjustable for spring preload
Front brake 10.8-in. disc, 2-piston caliper 11.8-in. disc, 2-piston caliper
Rear brake 10.6-in. disc, 2-piston caliper Single drum
Fuel Tank Capacity 5.3 gal. 4.1 gal.
ELECTRICAL AND INSTRUMENTATION
Forward lighting 7.0-in. 55/60-watt reflector headlight, position lights 7.2-in. 55/60-watt reflector headlight, position lights
Taillight LED, license light Single bulb, license light
Instruments Speedometer; LCD odometer/tripmeter, clock; lights for high beams, turn signals, neutral, low fuel Speedometer; LCD odometer/tripmeter, clock; lights for high beams, turn signals, neutral, low fuel

**Kissing Cousins **
A touring version is just a catalog awayShrewd manufacturers offer lightly dressed touring versions of many of their newest cruisers these days-and the Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic LT and Suzuki Boulevard C50T are two of the best examples.

The stock bike's basic bits remain unchanged, but are usually supplemented on the touring models with a windshield, pillion backrest and saddlebags. In Kawasaki's case, that bike is the Vulcan 900 Classic LT (top picture). It gets an optically correct, acrylic windscreen, this one height adjustable (though tools are required), a pillion backrest to match the touring saddle's chromed studs and studded top-grain cowhide saddlebags. These pieces as well as an engine guard, lightbar and passenger floorboards are also available separately from the Genuine Kawasaki Accessories catalog and can be bolted right onto the base Classic model, although it will cost considerably less if you simply buy the LT to start with. Read Art Friedman's tour test on motorcycle cruiser.com and Mark Zimmerman's long-term review in this issue to see how much we're all impressed with Kawasaki's light-touring version.

It's the same song for Suzuki-the C50T touring bike (bottom) builds upon the base model with a height-adjustable windshield, full-sized leather saddlebags with box-type lids, a large pivoting passenger backrest and studs on the spacious saddle, backrest pad and saddlebags. And again, you'll save money if you buy them all as a pre-installed package.

You might think loading up a middleweight twin with touring gear would only result in tears, but when we rode the 805cc C50T last year and again when the Vulcan 900 Classic LT transported Friedman across the country this spring, both impressed us plenty with ample powerbands and roomy, comfortable accommodations.

Suzuki Boulevard C50High Points
*Responsive power
*Impressive suspension
*Comfortable, roomy seating
*Great fuel mileage

Low Points
*Front brake could be stronger
*Tube-type tires

First Changes
*Seal or replace the wheels
*for tubeless tires
*Try different brake pads

**Kawasaki Vulcan 900 ClassicHigh Points **
*Big-bike feel
*Roomy and comfortable
*Belt final drive

Low Points
*Poor rear suspension
*Noisy drivetrain
*Tube-type tires
*Optimistic speedometer

First Changes
*Aftermarket saddle
*Seal or replace the wheels for tubeless tires

Riding PositionsArt Friedman
We need to do more comparisons like this one, where the players are each so good you're convinced that whichever one you're riding at that moment just has to be the best. You can close your eyes and pick one and be sure that you have made a great choice.

Each of these two bikes does have a few strengths over the other, however. The Vulcan 900 is roomier for a passenger and stronger on the highway. And I prefer the Kawasaki's belt to the Suzuki's shaft. Its styling is cleaner.

I'm noticeably more comfortable on the Boulevard C50, however. Its seat is substantially better for me, as is the riding position. The Suzuki is also smoother, but its biggest edge is its superior suspension and ride comfort, which even puts many bigger cruisers to shame. It's $500 easier to own, too.

To tell the truth, I'd rather own and ride either of these bikes than either of these companies' entries into our recent mega-twin comparison. I know I'm supposed to pick a winner here, but it's not clear. Touring with a passenger, take the Vulcan 900 Classic. Daily commuting, give me the Suzuki. The winner is whichever one you're riding. I know I could buy either and never doubt my choice or wish for something bigger.

Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic Suzuki Boulevard C50

Andrew Cherney
Pity the poor middleweights-the Rodney Dangerfields of the cruiser world. They get no respect, hardly any attention, and you sure as hell won't catch 'em in the next James Bond movie. Which is fine by me; these are the bikes I'll be threading through L.A. gridlock on a day-to-day basis while the 4-foot-wide, 22,000cc land barges remain landlocked in the garage, victims of their portly proportions.

The problem is, both of these bikes are a breeze to ride in almost any situation. Quick commute? They're good right out of the box. Slap a shield and bags on either and-bam!-you're set for a long, interstate weekend. Yes, the problem lies in the fact that both work so well they're almost boring. Which is why I'm throwing my lot in with the Vulcan-it actually has some style to go along with its substance (something with which the Suzuki seems wholly unconcerned). Sure, the C50 has it all over the 900 in the suspension department, but that's where the advantage ends. The Kawasaki's ergonomics, belt drive and smooth, responsive throttle appeal to my more visceral receptors, while the Suzuki's shaft and buzzy tone don't quite get me there.It's a testament to how closely matched these bikes are that I have to resort to that kind of nitpicking.