americas favorite big twin
Fran Kuhn

Looking for the Best of America's Favorite V-Twin Cruisers

V-twins that stole America's heart

This article was originally published in the June 1999 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

Big v-twins have captured america's heart. We have long loved big cruisers with the style and sound of a thundering twin down in the engine room. The best-selling streetbike in America for the last two years has been Harley's Fat Boy, which sold in excess of 12,000 examples in 1998. Kawasaki's Vulcan 1500 Classic is its best seller. Suzuki's most popular cruiser is its bigger big twin, the Intruder 1500 LC, displacing the still-popular Intruder 1400 which lost only a few hundred sales in '98 with the 1500's arrival.

With big twins experiencing this kind of success, you can see why Polaris' Victory motorcycle brand entered the market with a big V-twin, the 1507cc V92C. Excelsior-Henderson is doing the same with its 1386cc Super X. It also explains Harley's decision to make the huge investment needed to create a new and bigger V-twin, the 1450cc Twin Cam 88, despite the ongoing runaway success of its 1340cc Evolution V-twin. And it's almost a surprise that Yamaha waited until 1999 to introduce its new 1600cc V-twin in the Road Star.

american big twins
On our ride, the Yamaha was rated top marks for comfort thanks to the great saddle.Fran Kuhn

The last time (February ’97) we compared big V-twins (those displacing more than 1300cc), we could only find five bikes from three brands. This time we had 10 model families from five manufacturers and there was an additional manufacturer, Excelsior-Henderson, who chose not to participate. (Although we did get a brief ride on a Super X.)

Harley and Kawasaki each served up three bikes. We asked for one from each of Harley’s three pure-cruiser families. The best-selling FLSTF Fat Boy represented the Evolution-powered Softail series. We asked for the first new model powered by the new Twin Cam (a.k.a. Fathead) engine, the FXDX Dyna Super Glide Sport. And since Harley is making a special run of Evo-powered FXRs this year, we asked for one of them—an FXR2.

Kawasaki’s Vulcan 1500 Classic was our testers’ choice after our last big-twin roundup. It is back. We also brought back the Vulcan 88, the original Kawasaki 1500. And by riding it back from Kawasaki’s introduction in Florida, we were able to get the brand-new, fuel-injected, ultraretro-style Drifter to the West Coast in time to join the fun.

wheels
(Left) Longer, sport suspension, dual-disc front brakes, and pegs (complemented by high­way pegs) that are more rearset than the other bikes in the group make the FXDX the most fun on twisty roads. We would have preferred cast wheels, however, for rigidity and blow-out resistance. (Right) It takes a special kind of bike to flaunt a name like Fat Boy, but the FLSTF pulls it off with panache. Its unique disc wheels are one of its distinctive styling features that have made it America’s favorite motorcycle. However, the FXDX brakes and rides significantly better.Dean Groover

Suzuki’s powerful Intruder 1400 was around for our 1997 big twins adventure, but it has been improved with a fifth speed. And of course, it brought its new-for-’98 family member, the 1500.

Victory and Yamaha offer one big-twin, straight-cruiser model each—the V92C and the Road Star, respectively. Although new, both impressed us very positively during testing for recent issues.

We were ready to rumble.

Main Street

If turning heads when you appear on the boulevard on Saturday night is important, two bikes stand out here. Harley’s FXR2 looks like a well-done custom with its full complement of matched billet items and pretty color. Kawasaki’s Drifter always attracted attention with its unique retro styling, although the subdued burgundy color and the obvious stick-on nature of the pinstriping on the ABS fenders took some of the edge off.

Engine
1) Harley-Davidson FLSTF Fat Boy; 2) Harley-Davidson FXDX Dyna Super Glide Sport; 3) Harley-Davidson FXR2; 4) Kawasaki Vulcan 88; 5) Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic; 6) Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Drifter; 7) Suzuki Intruder 1400; 8) Suzuki Intruder 1500 LC; 9) Victory V92C; 10) Yamaha Road StarDean Groover

The Road Star consistently received compliments for appearance too, as did the Vulcan Classic. The bright blue of the Victory and the new red and white of the 1500 LC drew more positive attention than the versions of those bikes we have tested previously. However, we still heard criticism on the details of both bikes. You either love or hate the style of the FXDX, particularly the heavy use of black and wrinkle finish. The Intruder 1400 also either worked for you or looked dated. Most felt the Vulcan 1500A looked badly out of style; our testers gave it low marks in the looks department. We were surprised at what a lukewarm reception the Fat Boy received, considering its popularity with buyers. Maybe it’s just too familiar to attract much attention, or maybe with the Suzuki 1500 lurking nearby, it suddenly looks kind of svelte.

The Open Road

We spent a few days riding the 10 big twins together up California’s Route 1, and in the process we were able to compare their comfort levels. Comfort is a highly personal thing. Different bikes fit different builds. Riders have different reactions to vibration, prefer different riding positions or like certain handlebar shapes.

We were therefore surprised so many riders rated the Yamaha tops for comfort and most others rated it in the top three. A great saddle, thoroughly tamed vibration, suspension that absorbs most road shocks, and a riding position that suited most riders made the Road Star a favorite on extended rides.

The riding position of the Classic got the most praise. Many riders said the bike seemed to have been laid out for them. The Victory, Yamaha and Drifter were close behind for most riders. The Victory in particular seemed to suit a wide range of riders and it garnered high comfort ratings from both short and tall riders.

Big Twin Bikes
When it started to rain we thought our photo plans would have to be canceled. But the motorcycle-friendly folks at Best Western Courtesy Inn in San Simeon, CA, let us roll all 10 big twins into the pool house.Fran Kuhn

Riders and passengers judged the Drifter’s saddle the most comfortable. Although it feels overly soft at first, the staffer who rode the Drifter to the West Coast from Florida said it never got hard. The wide saddle of the big Intruder also seduced some riders and was rated second best by passengers, while other pilots rated the Classic or Yamaha seat as the very best.

Passengers liked the Drifter’s large grab rail, which offered a more secure hold than anything on the other bikes.

The backrests of the Vulcan 88 and the Intruder 1400—and to a lesser extent the FXR2—also added to passenger security.

Most riders rated the Fat Boy, FXR2 and Intruder 1400 at the bottom of the comfort spectrum. The Fat Boy generated the most vibration and offered nothing special in terms of position and saddle density to compensate. The FXR2 saddle was narrow and thin and got uncomfortable on long rides. Except for shorter riders, the Intruder 1400 fell out of favor on long rides because of its narrow saddle and narrow pulled-back bar. Although the Vulcan 88 seems to offer similar ergonomics, most riders said it was substantially more comfortable than the Intruder 1400. A few riders also complained about the FXDX riding position, which puts the main footpegs rearward and higher than the other bikes. However, a few riders listed this as an asset of the bike.

Harley-Davidson FXR Gauge
The FXR2’s tank-top gauge cluster includes a tachometer, although its position behind the speedometer puts it well out of your normal line of sight while riding. Two caps complicate fill-ups. The reverse-threaded cap on the left is removed first to fill the low side, then top off via the right tank.Dean Groover

Although tall riders found the stretched-out riding position of the big Intruder quite agreeable, shorter riders felt it was simply too big, even if they liked the saddle. The wide handlebar and distant footrests made the bike awkward and uncomfortable for them. Our smallest rider had a similar remark about the Road Star.

Except for the Fat Boy, vibration was not an issue on these bikes. Whether it was stopped by rubber mounting (FXDX and FXR2), by engine design (the Suzukis and Yamaha) or by counterbalancers (the Kawasakis and Victory), vibration rarely showed up. Where it did arrive, changing engine speed a few hundred rpm dissipated the buzz. The Intruder 1400, at about 2860 rpm, is spinning about 300 to 600 rpm faster than the others at 60 mph. This makes it feel a bit busier than the others on the open road.

A few bikes drew complaints about suspension quality. The ride of the Fat Boy was most likely to be dissed, be­cause its ride was the harshest on all bumps. However, big bumps also provoked comments about the Vulcan 88, Intruder 1400 and V92C. The Drifter, which has air suspension at the rear, and the Yamaha were what most riders would pick to ride on a bumpy road.

Kawasaki Classic Seat
Only the Kawasaki’s Classic (shown) and Drifter offer bungee-cord hooks, a simple addition which simplifies packing a briefcase or cooler. However, the Intruder LC fender rails include slots on the undersides to accommodate bungee hooks, which are just as secure while giving a cleaner look.Dean Groover

One bike gave us a rash of problems during our travels. The Fat Boy vibrated both of its front engine mount bolts out before the bike had 1000 miles on its odometer. It also loosened a rear turn signal and shed a nut that holds a front turn signal and mirror. And this is a bike that doesn’t even include a tool kit. The V92C lost a fastener in its shift linkage, requiring a temporary roadside repair. It also annoyed some riders with a whistling noise that may have been an exhaust manifold leak. We found some seepage around the FXDX primary cover. The heat shield for the Vulcan 88’s left side header turned up MIA. By comparison, we put more than 4000 miles on the Drifter, without a trace of trouble and less than a quart of oil.

The Road Star allows you to exploit its comfort with the longest range of any bike here. Although all the Harleys got better fuel mileage, the Yamaha has the largest fuel tank at 5.3 gallons. Both it and the FXDX will take you more than 200 miles on a tank of gas. But if you do it in one sitting, it’s likely you’ll be significantly more comfortable on the Yamaha.

Kawasaki Vulcan 88 Gauge
Kawasaki’s Vulcan 88 puts the speedo­meter up where you can see it and the warning lights flank it. The covered gas cap mimics a tank-top speedo. These styling inventions of the 1980s reflect the difficulty the Japanese experienced trying to interpret cruiser styling.Dean Groover

Burn-Out Boulevard

None of these big twins qualify as a musclebike, but a few of them proved to be more powerful than the rest, and one was noticeably slower. Out on the road, the Intruder 1400, thanks to its efficient six-valve engine and lower gearing, pulled away quickly from the others when we were simply grabbing a handful of throttle in top gear to pass slower traffic. Although the smaller Intruder hesitated slightly sometimes when the air was cold, it still punched past the others. Its closest competition, as the accompanying graph shows, came from the FXDX, which confirms how potent Harley’s new Twin Cam twin is. The Intruder retained a visible edge mostly because of gearing. The Vulcan 88 was close behind the FXDX.

At the dragstrip, the FXDX proved quicker than the Intruder 1400, which barely edged the Vulcan 88. The Fat Boy lived up to its name and lagged behind in most races, although it was able to best the Classic at the drag­strip—at least on its first run. It faded quickly as it got warm, while the Classic acted as though it could run 14.7s all day, displaying the advantage of liquid cooling. The rest of the bikes were led by the Victory and all ran within two-tenths of a second.

Something worth noting here is weight definitely matters. Take two riders with a 50-pound weight differential and put the lighter rider on a slower bike and it might suddenly start beating a faster bike with the heavy rider aboard. Although the same rider rode all 10 bikes at the dragstrip, we could clearly see the difference in relative performance when we traded bikes out on the road. If your bike seems slow, a diet might be the answer.

All the bikes shifted dependably, though the Victory was the noisiest about it. We are told that tolerances have recently been tightened up and future V92s will shift more quietly. The four-speed transmission in the Vulcan 88 sounds kind of quaint, but no one complained about it. In fact, some riders didn’t realize it had only four speeds.

The V92C clutch engages somewhat abruptly, though it is still better than the Suzuki 1500’s, which in turn is somewhat improved compared with previous 1500 LCs we have ridden. This bike’s clutch did not engage with such a nasty snap during high-rpm launches, though there is plenty of room for improvement.

Intruder Seat
Riders who weren’t used to the Intruder 1400 played find-the-toolbox without success. The tool kit is reached by popping off the pad on the passenger backrest, which reveals the door for the very tight tool-storage compartment. At least it has tools—none of the Harleys do.Dean Groover

The fuel-injection systems of the Drifter and Victory mean these bikes start easily hot or cold and idle immediately. The fuel injection and other changes have also improved the power and mileage of the Vulcan 1500-based engine compared with the single-carb version in the Classic, though it still doesn’t match the twin-carb Vulcan 88 ancestor. Weight may be an issue here, however, since the Drifter is almost 100 pounds heavier than the Vulcan 88.

The Drifter pulls harder off the bottom than the other two Vulcans, though the Road Star is the champion in this regard. Suzuki’s 1400 seems to be weakest just off idle. The Victory felt flatter than our last test V92C, when the throttle was opened at low rpm.

The Long and Windy Road

With its steep steering head and generally quick steering geometry, most riders favored the FXDX when the roads turned twisty. The sporty Harley also has the most cornering clearance. However, not all felt as happy with the way the FXDX responded to steering inputs, preferring the slower response that comes with more conventional cruiser steering geometry.

America's Big Twin
We spent a few days riding the 10 big twins together up California's Route 1, and in the process we were able to compare their comfort levels.Fran Kuhn

The Victory, Yamaha and Classic also garnered votes for best handling. Most riders rated them highly in this regard, though with their floorboards they have significantly less cornering clearance than the FXDX. The Intruder 1400 was criticized for somewhat unstable cornering manners by several riders, and the 1500 LC also lost points because of its heft. “Slushy suspension” was the complaint leveled at the Vulcan 88. How­ever, the Fat Boy occupied the bottom positions of most riders’ handling ratings.

Small riders preferred the FXDX, Intruder 1400, FXR2 and Victory when they had to manhandle them at low speeds. Those with short legs and less upper-body mass tended to be daunted by the king-size Intruder 1500, the heavy Drifter and perhaps the Road Star and Vulcan Classic.

Out on the highway, the Drifter was the most stable, thanks to its Nomad-style steering geometry with loads of trail, though the Road Star and Victory were almost as unruffled.

Riders consistently rated the Road Star’s brakes as the best of the bunch for power and control. Many said they were in a class by themselves. Kawa­saki’s Classic and Drifter got generally high marks as well, with the Victory and Suzuki 1500 close behind. The FXR2 and Fat Boy tallied uniformly low scores for their single-disc front brakes, and the Fat Boy had the most awkward rear brake pedal position. The FXDX rear brake was also a bit too sensitive for some riders. The easily adjustable handle­bar levers of the Classic, Drifter and the big Intruder were welcome.

Suzuki Intruder Tank
After using all available space above the engine to accommodate the larger airbox needed to give the Intruder 1500 the power Suzuki was looking for, the fuel tank was relocated beneath the seat. The filler is reached by opening a tank-top cover, and is among the easiest to top off.Dean Groover

On Broadway

These 10 bikes have a lot in common since they all take aim at the same sort of riding style with similar equipment. However, they are different enough to satisfy different tastes. The differences also make some of them work better or perform better at certain tasks. So, in alphabetical order, this is how they stack up after hundreds of miles.

It may be America’s favorite motor­cycle, but the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy was the least popular big twin by the end of our test. Vibration, unimpressive performance, the greatest number of problems and no particular strength other than ease of customization prompted more than half of our riders to rate it last in this group. The highest anyone ranked it was fifth. At a suggested base price of $14,835 (the second most expensive bike here) it is hardly a bargain, though you can still expect a Harley to retain its value better than other brands.

The responsive handling, strong performance, rubber-mounted engine, and unique styling made the FXDX quite popular. Although one rider put it at the bottom of his rankings, one ranked it first, and most listed it in the top half of their ranking lists. If sporting handling is important and the style and ergonomics fit your taste, the Dyna Super Glide Sport ($12,995 base price) may be the big twin for you.

Victory V92C Gauge
The award for best instrumentation (and packaging) goes to the V92C’s single-face instrument set into the headlight shell. Besides the usual speedo and warning lights, it includes an analog tach and a multifunction LCD that includes fuel gauge, voltmeter and other information.Dean Groover

Although the $16,995 MSRP makes it the most costly bike here—and its limited-production status means you’ll be lucky to pay the suggested price—the look and cosmetic detail of Harley’s FXR2 make it easy to justify the cost. It looks like a well-done custom. Two riders said the FXR2 was the most desirable of these bikes (though only one of them said they’d pay their own money for it) and ranked it first. Only one rider ranked it last. And as the last of Harley’s still-valued FXR series, it will probably retain more value than any other bike here.

Although, at $7995, it is the most affordable bike here and most riders liked the way its engine performed, Kawasaki’s original 1500, the Vulcan 88 didn’t inspire anyone. Even with price factored into it, the best ratings it garnered from our testers were a couple of second places, one of them from someone who owns one. Dated styling, difficulty of customization and comfort limited by ergonomics kept its rating to the middle or lower portion of most riders’ lists.

The Vulcan 1500 Classic demon­strated why it’s Kawasaki’s best-selling bike. Al­though only one rider ranked it best, all but four of the rest rated it second. Those four were split between third- and fourth-place rankings. Although it’s not as powerful as most of the rest of the 10 twins, it is stylish, very comfortable, and fun and easy to ride. The Classic enjoys plenty of aftermarket support for those who want to personalize it. Its $9999 price makes it affordable, too.

Unique styling distinguishes the Drifter. If it attracts you, you’ll find middle-of-the-class power, stately handling, first-class comfort for rider and passenger, and a growing number of aftermarket goodies for customization. One rider picked it as his favorite, and all but one of the rest (“It’s not my style”) placed it among the top five. The priciest of the imports here at $11,499, the Drifter may hold its value better if it becomes collectible.

Suzuki’s 1400 is powerful and proven with styling that is clean and original, despite being slightly long in the tooth. But even after taking its $8199 price into consideration, only one rider liked it well enough to rank it in the top half. One rider placed it last, but for most it was simply an uninspiring ride.

No one placed the other Suzuki—the LC—in last place, but no one ranked it among the top three, either. Some riders enjoyed its comfort but that was balanced by unimpressive looks, handling and performance. It seems to be a difficult bike to customize, with few com­panies offering bolt-ons. No one was motivated to love it or hate it, even though its $9899 price puts it within reach.

You’d have a hard time drawing a consensus about the Victory from our riders. One rated it first, two rated it last and four of the rest placed it among the top five—three in the bottom half of the group. Some praised its appearance, comfort, novelty or handling. Others were put off by its appearance, slightly rough functional aspects (such as the shifting) or handling. For those who love it, the price is $12,995.

Last but definitely not least, Yamaha’s Road Star impressed us all. Half of our riders picked it as the bike they’d buy, and of the rest all but one (who said it was simply too big to enjoy riding) ranked it among the top half. Although the engine output falls slightly short of the promise of 1600cc, the Road Star is comfortable, fun to ride, easy to customize and pleasing to the eye. The aftermarket plans to support it ener­getically, and that $10,499 price might leave some budget for accessories.

Big twins speak to different people in different ways. One rider’s dream machine may not stir another in the least. But if you have read this far to find out which big twin we recommend, you already know the answer. Yamaha’s Road Star is the undisputed leader of the pack.

Yamaha Road Star Biggest Twin
The Road Star currently holds the title of biggest V-twin. Although the right side of the engine is a work of art, there are some messy bits on the left side, including some unfinished-looking hoses and an unusual pulley-motif cover over the front pulley for the belt final-drive system.Dean Groover

Riding Positions:

I’ve never been that involved with cruisers, preferring the performance of sport bikes and the occasional standard model instead. On a lark one day, I took a brief spin on the Vic­tory in the parking lot a few weeks before the big-twin test, and my interest was piqued. Before I knew it, I was drafted for the cruise-off.

In some ways, cruisers are great compared with the sport bikes I usually ride: mirrors that actually work, seats that are comfortable and horns you can hear (for the most part). While all the bikes steered surprisingly lightly considering their bulk, front-end feedback was vague—and I never had any confidence on twisty roads. Aside from the Road Star, the brakes on these things are terrible; single front discs on bikes this heavy just don’t cut it. And who came up with the idea of putting gauges on the tank where you can’t see them?!

There are two distinct groups in this batch, the laid-back big-wheel bunch, and the newer generation of vintage-look-alike bikes. I much preferred the latter for comfort, styling and handling, and these five (Star, Classic, Intruder 1500, Drifter and Victory) topped my ratings in all the categories. The Victory, despite superb handling, falls a bit behind power and refinement-wise. I thought the styling of the Drifter was bitchin' but those big heavy fenders don't do a lot for the handling and comfort. The clutch on the Suzuki spoiled an otherwise great motor. I was pretty tossed up between the Vulcan Classic and the Road Star as my favorite, but the super brakes on the Yamaha made the difference for me. —Andrew Trevitt

Kawasaki Vulcan Drifter Fender
Blacked-out wraparound rails protect the deep ABS fenders, which give the Drifter much of its distinctive style. The comfortable cantilevered saddle retains the solo-seat look. Those rear damper assemblies are air-pressure adjustable and also offer four damping settings.Dean Groover

Well, I never thought I’d say this, but there’s a new king of the big-twin class. The Yamaha Road Star has won my heart. Combining the characteristic fit and finish of the Star line with a nifty new engine produced a winning result. With its ultralow rev limit, the big 1600 loafs along in a manner that belies its ability to make speed when necessary. Call it Torque. (Yes, with a capital T.) My only functional quibble is the cornering clearance, which is a little on the low side. I’m still waiting for those titanium or magnesium scuff plates to make the floorboards spark up at night.

My second surprise of the trip was the bike that muscled its way into second place. Until I experienced the FXDX I’d never ridden a stock Harley I’d want to own. The Twin-Cam engine, although cold-blooded at times, simply kicks butt! (Getting a little too aggressive with my launch at the dragstrip had the bike sideways with the rear tire churning the pavement.) And the FXDX has the suspension to utilize the engine’s power on a winding road. I like the blacked-out look too—even the wrinkle paint. Although my third choice isn’t the Vulcan Classic either, I don’t feel like I’m dissing my erstwhile favorite. Why? Because the Drifter is a variation on a theme that I’ve enjoyed immensely over the past couple of years. The fuel injection and hotter cams give the engine a different character—and exhaust note. Maybe I’m suffering from chrome-itis, because I dig the blacked-out look with just a few chrome highlights. Put a solo seat on this bike and you’ve got one sexy ride!

The rest of the pack? Well, they run so close together as to make ranking them an exercise in futility. With the exception of a couple of bikes in this group—names withheld to protect the guilty—cruisers can't go wrong. —Evans Brasfield

It’s not enough to look good, you have to feel good too—at least if you buy one of these things to actually ride. A motorcycle should be fun to ride. That means it should function well and be comfortable.

If looks were all that mattered, the FXR would be the top choice. And if performance was the only requirement, the FXDX might be the winner. (And if Harley tricked-out the FXDX like the FXR2, it could be the winner.) And if the decision is simple bang-for-the-buck economics, the Vulcan 88 fills the bill nicely.

But I want to ride all day in comfort and revel in the admiring glances when I stop. And I want to stop when I choose, not when something vibrates loose. So it is easy to see why the Road Star and Vulcan Classic were so popular, both look good and work well. If I intended to keep it stock, the Yamaha would be my choice. If I planned to personalize it, the aftermarket offers more choices for the Vulcan Classic. —Art Friedman