MegaTwin Motorcycle Comparison - Honda VTX1800, Kawasaki Vulcan 2000, Star Roadliner, and Suzuki M109R

Which is the best of the biggest?

from 2007

No puny 1700s here. We're playing with the big boys. If you aren't packing more than 1700cc in your V-twin, you don't need to show up. Only four bikes qualify at this rarified displacement level. Kawasaki's Vulcan 2000, the biggest of the big, brings 2053cc to bear. Yamaha's new Star Roadliner weighs in at second with 1854cc. It's followed by the original MegaTwin, the Honda VTX1800, boasting 1795cc. And the final and most recent entry into this elite group is the 1783cc Suzuki Boulevard M109R.

It may be that the drive for ever-bigger V-twins has finally stalled and that we have found what's big enough. Even before the Vulcan 2000 arrived in 2004, we had heard some misgivings about excess at the top of the cruiser world. Some riders had discovered that there is such a thing as too much displacement-or at least too much motorcycle wrapped around it. Big might be OK; heavy isn't.

Back in 2001, when it broke the 100-cubic-inch-displacement mark with the first VTX, the 1800C, Honda said that it viewed the bike's displacement as the practical maximum for a motorcycle V-twin. When Yamaha introduced the Roadliner earlier this year, it admitted that it had initially experimented with a bike that was even bigger than the Vulcan 2000, but that the machine was simply too big. Suzuki said much the same thing when it rolled out the 2006 M109R.

Yamaha went a step further in addressing the "too-big" complaint by fitting the new Star flagship with an aluminum frame and swingarm riding on a single rear shock. The Roadliner also stretched styling boundaries with an early-20th-century-inspired styling theme that's reflected in almost every detail of the bike. The engine is a classic American-style air-cooled pushrod V-twin, driven by a belt.

Suzuki played the performance card, and not subtly. The M prefix on one of its Boulevard cruisers designates a musclebike, but you don't need to know that to get the message. From the little cowl over the headlight to the fat 240/40-18 radial rear tire, the M109R flaunts its muscularity and backs it up with the only double-overhead camshaft in the group.

Honda has been busy since it christened this class five years ago. There are now five versions of the VTX1800, all powered by the same single-overhead-camshaft 52-degree fuel-injected V-twin on the same basic chassis. The muscular C was the 2001 original, followed in 2002 by the classically styled R and S, which are virtually identical to each other except for their wheels-cast on the R and wire spoke on the S. In 2004, Honda added the neo-retro VTX1800N, which won our maximum-twins test that year. In 2005, the VTX1800F, the bike tested here, added a sort of dragbike influence to the line with its cut-down fenders, low, flat handlebar, competition-style saddle and 18-inch radial tires.

Kawasaki's new Vulcan 2000 Classic doesn't stray too far from the original, with the same liquid-cooled, 52-degree pushrod V-twin powering an identical long, single-shock frame. A conventional cruiser headlight treatment, a different handlebar shape and a more commodious passenger saddle distinguish the Classic from the original.

We rounded up the four bikes and five riders (we also brought a Suzuki V-Strom as a photo bike) and headed north to spend a week playing on the roads along the beaches and coastal mountains of California north of San Francisco, using Mendocino as our base.

When four big bikes come rumbling into a gas station or restaurant parking lot, the question you'll frequently hear is, "Which one's fastest?"

The answer's easy in this group. It's the Suzuki. The M109R may not pack the displacement, but it definitely packs a wallop, easily leaving the other three behind when the tach needles are climbing and the throttles are open. Though a little softer than the others down at low rpm, the M109R pulls hard once the engine get spinning, and it also makes the most rpm of any of this quartet. Where the others run out of breath well below 6000 rpm, the Suzuki revs almost to 7500 rpm, and it's pulling fiercely up there.

Though the Roadliner and Vulcan 2000 actually accelerate harder than the VTX1800F, the Honda feels like it has more power, in part because its powerband provides more of a surge than the other two. The Yamaha in particular has a smooth power curve, which makes its acceleration seem mellower than it actually is.

That smooth power delivery makes the Yamaha top-rated in terms of engine control and manageability and drivetrain response. The Suzuki, on the other hand, was unanimously rated dead last in this regard. The M109's power-delivery problems start with abrupt throttle response from the fuel injection. To make a smooth transition from trailing throttle to acceleration, you have to roll it on very smoothly and slowly or it will accelerate with an initial jerk. Exacerbating this problem is the most lash and drive-shock-absorber take-up of any of the bikes here, as well as the most chassis jacking from the shaft drive. This is a minor problem when you're riding around town solo or out on a straight road, but it significantly slows you down when you apply throttle at the apex of a corner. This is something of a surprise because Suzuki shaft-drive systems have traditionally been very smooth. Both the Honda and Suzuki use shaft final drive, but the VTX was considerably smoother than the M109. Our comparison ride made at least one tester a belt-drive convert, and that would be the drive of choice in this class.

Most riders scored the Yamaha or Honda best for shifting. The light-shifting Kawasaki actually changed cogs pretty well for most of us, but the rider who spent the most time on it reported a few false neutrals between the top gears and some clutch grabbing during high-power launches. The Boulevard 109's shifting, which one tester termed "truck-like," received the lowest scores for its noisy gear changes and the heaviest clutch pull in the group. The classically styled Kawasaki and Yamaha have floorboards with heel-toe shifting arrangements, which some riders prefer but others dislike.

For many cruiser buyers, the way an engine sounds can be as important as how it drives. If you simply want volume, the Suzuki is tops. When we were pulling out of a motel at dawn, those aboard the Suzuki and Yamaha (the second loudest) were acutely aware of all the sleepers who would awaken swearing at them. Those who prefer quiet bikes gave the Honda top marks. The Suzuki and Honda use staggered crankpins to smooth the engine vibration, but this also creates a cadence that's different from the traditional single-crankpin rumble of the Kawasaki and Yamaha. As a result, there was little agreement among testers on which sounded right (to one the Honda was "mellow," to another "tinny"), but the Kawasaki received the highest combined scores.

You won't find too many ergonomic shortcomings on the Star Roadliner, which all five riders rated tops for comfort. The Yamaha has but two slight ergonomic flaws: Its handlebar, at 37.4 inches wide, spreads you out too much in the wind at speed, and it vibrates just noticeably. The wide, relatively flat, roomy Roadliner saddle was rated best by all but one tester, both for its general comfort and the fact that it doesn't lock you into one position the way the others do. The Yamaha's roomy floorboards also let riders of varying sizes find a comfortable posture. Finally, its suspension delivers the plushest ride in this group despite coming up slightly short in rebound damping.

The VTX1800F and Vulcan 2000 vied for second place in terms of overall comfort. The Kawasaki saddle fit a couple of riders well, and they ranked it first and second, but the rest of our testers ranked it last for its pressure points and inflexible shape, which locks your butt and back into one position. The Kawasaki's floorboards, though not as roomy as the Yamaha's, offer some flexibility and helped the Vulcan garner second place for riding position. A couple of riders noted that the buckhorn handlebar required a strong grip at higher speeds. Even though its smooth engine and suspension drew praise, the VTX1800F lost points because of its clamshell riding position and its saddle, which ranked last or second to last for everyone. Just remember there are several variations of the VTX1800, particularly the neo-retro N model, that offer ergonomics (including floorboards) that are much more comfortable than those of the F. The VTX1800F model's harder-edged drag style doesn't mesh with a plush saddle or floorboards.

Riders who droned the longest on the Suzuki rated its saddle second to the Yamaha's, with one rating it second overall for comfort. Several commented that its riding position was better than they expected in a straight line, especially when accelerating hard. The low handlebar and headlight cowl break or eliminate most of the wind pressure on the rider at high speed, too. Nonetheless, most riders put the Boulevard's relatively extreme clamshell riding position at the bottom of the group, and some remarked that the footpegs were slightly awkward to reach. Combined with a solid shudder under acceleration and the bumpiest ride of this foursome (which seems to be due at least in part to significant unsprung weight), the Suzuki ended up last in scores for comfort.

If passenger comfort figures highly into your choice of motorcycle, the Vulcan's saddle, which has the widest passenger section, will be a strong attraction. The M109R comes with both a passenger seat and a rear cowl, which can be exchanged in a minute or two. That seat was rated the second best for passengers, but the bike's high footpegs aren't as accommodating. Considering the Roadliner's otherwise strong emphasis on comfort and elegance, it's sort of disappointing that it has such a lame passenger pad. And again, if passenger comfort is high on your list, there are different variations of the VTX1800 that will serve you better than the F.

On the other hand, if you choose a different model VTX1800, you may give up some of the endearing handling qualities of the F. Compared with the VTX1800N, the F has taller wheels (18-inch diameters compared with 17- and 16-inchers), slightly narrower tires, less front-wheel trail (5.7 inches instead of the N's 6.4), and slightly fewer pounds, all of which make the F more responsive than the N-and than its competitors in this comparison. The VTX1800F also has the most cornering clearance and the most effective suspension. Put all that together and you get the best MegaTwin on winding roads and during low-speed maneuvering.

The M109R wound up solidly at the bottom of the score sheets for handling. In addition to the problems created by the abrupt throttle response and herky-jerky drivetrain, it was hampered by its wide tires, which make the bike resist leaning into a corner, especially under braking. And its riding position makes it hard to counter that tendency. Stiff suspension and meager cornering clearance are further reasons this is a bike that's happiest on straight roads. At low speeds, the awkward ergonomics, lurchy drivetrain and heavy clutch all conspire to make it the toughest bike to master in this group.

In the middle of the handling rankings, despite unimpressive cornering clearance and wimpy rebound damping that make it kick up over sharp bumps, the Roadliner got higher marks than the Vulcan 2000. Both are reluctant to turn under braking, but the Roadliner's wide handlebar provides enough leverage to make this relatively easy to overcome and to hold the Yamaha on the line you intend. The riding position, handlebar leverage and low center of gravity make it the most manageable of the group when maneuvering at walking speeds.

The Kawasaki is still the biggest, heaviest and longest of these bikes, which are liabilities at low speeds, and the new buckhorn bars create some awkwardness, such as colliding with knees during tight, low-speed turns. Its suspension gets overwhelmed on bumpy roads, but its steering manners-somewhat heavy with extra attention needed to hit the line you want-were rated about average for this class.

Triple discs stop all of these machines except the VTX, which uses a linked braking system to operate its brakes. With this system, the pedal operates both pistons of the rear brake caliper and the center of three pistons in each front brake caliper. These linked (or combined) braking systems work very well for inexperienced riders in panic stops and for experienced riders in controlled braking tests. Despite that, we prefer independent braking systems. At low speeds, they let you release pressure on each wheel as the bike rolls over something slippery, and during panic stops, you can modulate them independently. During full-goose braking with a linked system, you have to readjust the front every time you change pressure on the rear. The Honda also lost points because, like the Yamaha, it has no adjustment for the front lever position.

The best stopper of the MegaTwin foursome is the Suzuki. The M109R's radial-mount calipers give excellent power, control and feel. We rated the Kawasaki a strong second, ahead of the Yamaha, because of its stronger brakes and an adjustable handlebar lever.

Besides adjustable brake levers, other functional features that riders liked included tachometers on all but the Kawasaki. However, the Kawasaki's instruments were judged the easiest to read, ahead of the Honda's and Suzuki's, while the Yamaha's were considered the least readable during the day but the nicest at night.

We can't tell you which one of these is the best looking, because we couldn't decide ourselves. Styling scores were all over the place, with each but the Vulcan garnering at least one tester's vote for best looking. Overall, the Yamaha got the highest score, but there were also some testers who felt that the styling is too over-the-top. Though the Kawasaki was ranked last, it was generally agreed that the Classic is better looking than the original Vulcan 2000.

In terms of quality and detail, the Roadliner finished second to the VTX1800F. The Roadliner suffered in part because our test bike was a California model and had the required evaporative-emissions plumbing laced up the left side of the front frame downtube. The M109R was third, losing points for the obvious seam on its fuel tank, and the Vulcan, which annoyed most testers with its off-center instrument panel, a glaring quality-control issue, scored last.

But as always, our job is to find out which bike works best, and in this group, it's the Yamaha Star Roadliner, which drew three of five votes for best overall. The Honda, which drew one first-place vote, finished a strong second, and since the N version of the VTX1800 is more like the Roadliner, it might have done even better. A lone first-place vote edged the Suzuki ahead of the Kawasaki for third place.

If price is a consideration, the M109R, at just $12,599, is the bargain here, undercutting the $12,999 Vulcan Classic. The VTX1800F starts at $13,499, with nine spec and color option levels that can take it as high as $15,399. The Roadliner starts at $13,580, with the highest level of color and finish options raising it to $14,980.

And if the Kawasaki's sheer size makes it the big winner for you, you can take pleasure in the fact that while someone is almost certainly already at work sketching a better big twin, it's unlikely anyone has plans for a bigger one.

Riding Positions

Andy Cherney

Press releases to the contrary, I don't find the ultraheavyweight class of cruisers to be aperformance-based bunch. Because all of these blinged-out behemoths taxed my patience on even mildly twisty stretches of pavement, I thought it best to judge 'em on the visceral thrills they generated in a straight line.

By that measure, it was hard for me to stifle big, fat guffaws when clinging to the oversized grips of Suzuki's M109R-the most unabashed power monger I've met since the Triumph Rocket III. But when it didn't buck me off the thin, dished saddle on sharper bumps, the M109R's jerky power delivery and meaty slab of rear rubber had me rocking like a deluded Elvis impersonator. Don't be cruel indeed. But, man, did it look cool, and it pulled big Gs off the line every time. This bike's meant for a very specific niche-the power-cruiser savant.

A notch behind Suzuki in the thrills department was the Vulcan-a big-boned battleship with a touch more refinement. I still don't dig its pronounced heaviness in turns and low-speed maneuvers, but the Kawasaki gave me a neutral, comfortable perch with its wide bars (too wide at full lock) and stepped saddle (which dug into my back on longer jaunts). I could mete out big power with more control than the M109 and the Vulcan never topped out-there always seemed to be plenty left in the hopper. And its exhaust note is, hands down, the most pleasing one to my perforated eardrums

The other two bikes did nothing exceptionally well, but they didn't have the glaring flaws of the first two, either. What this meant was that the Honda was perhaps the most accommodating bike to ride, with ample power, the most clearance and the most neutral riding position, but because it was so refined, the VTX1800F suffered from a lack of personality. And the Roadliner-with its Barcalounger saddle, wheelbarrow bars and stylized finish-was undeniably the most comfortable bike from an ergonomic standpoint, but those same elements conspired to quash any rush of adrenaline, too. Just think about how exciting Switzerland is, and you'll understand why I don't think "neutral" is a good adjective for a motorcycle.

None of these bikes is a logical choice-your decision has to be made on pure emotion only. Any sort of quantitative analysis misses the point.

Mark Zimmerman

It's not always about hardware, is it? Ironically, the most technically sophisticated bike of the bunch, the Suzuki M109R, finished dead last. In its own way, it's as narrowly focused as a hardcore sportbike, and as such I found it just too demanding to ride. In truth, it reminded me somewhat of a V-Max, without the Max's easygoing nature.

The VTX, which is also rather advanced, at least for a cruiser, just doesn't do it for me. Yes, it's a nice motorcycle, and yes, it does everything well, but I'd expect nothing less from Honda. The seamless ease with which the VTX covers all the bases makes it a little too appliance-like for my tastes. The VTX and 109 also lose points with their feet-forward, clamshell riding positions.

The Kawasaki came close, but it just missed the mark. The styling is mundane, particularly the monochromatic paint job, and I'd like to see a little more giddyup from a 2-liter mill. I was really put off by the lack of attention to detail, particularly the crooked speedometer housing. There's just no excuse for something like that. It's a shame, because there's a lot to like about this bike: It's stable, comfortable and has a booming exhaust note. A little more attention to detail and a wee bit more juice and it might have taken the Roadliner's Best of Show ribbon away.

Ah, yes, the Roadliner-if Captain America and Madonna worked at Yamaha, this is exactly what they would have built. Granted the 'liner's styling is a little over the top, but that's part of its charm. The Yamaha's virtues-smooth power delivery, solid handling, decent brakes and especially its well-thought-out ergonomics-made this one the clear winner in my book, and the only bike in the bunch I'd seriously consider buying. On the downside, the instrument cluster was a bit difficult to read, but given the rest of the bike's virtues. I could learn to live with that.

Jamie Elvidge

Mentally, I had to switch my thinking from how these bikes were performing in the world of long-distance touring and maniacal cornering to how it would translate to performance in the world these bikes were intended for: a trip to Laughlin or Daytona, rides to local bike nights, a cruise into the country on Sunday.

That's how the Suzuki ended up becoming my favorite. It was like a fish out of water in most of the environments we were blasting through, but, man, that bike is super-cool. The best looking by far-truly in its own class aesthetically. The others look too classic, and that vintage look doesn't fit with huge horsepower, in my thinking. And, boy howdy, the Suzuki's engine sure does rock-my favorite powerplant, to be sure.

I'm preferential to practicality, however, so my choice of which bike I think is best and which one I'd buy are not the same. I'd only buy a bike I can put pretty big miles on and, yeah, ride like a fool through the twisties. For me, that bike is the Honda VTX-in any designation except the Retro. It's well built, well balanced, has tons of power and will take me cross-country and back in comfort (and has, more than once).

Those were the two bikes that stood out for me. The Yamaha works well, sure, but it's bland to my tastes, and Kawasaki, well, it's what it's always been for me-a Vulcan gone obese

Art Friedman

Even though the latest crop of 2-liter twins brings some improvements, I still kind of feel they're all too big.

If I was going to buy one of these bikes, it would be the Roadliner or the VTX1800-the N version, not this uncomfortable drag-racy one. I prefer the more modern Honda engine, but the Yamaha is definitely the comfort king and that would probably get my bucks. My wife would want a better seat and a backrest to match, though, so I'd probably be considering the Stratoliner not long after I walked into the dealer.

Fortunately, I have the luxury of waiting for the right one. You know, the one with the comfort of the Yamaha, the power of the Suzuki, the finish and quality of the Honda...

Evans Brasfield

From the moment I threw a leg over the Roadliner, I simply loved it. The layout of the controls, the styling and the handling all combined to create a winner, in my book. My initial thought was that none of the other bikes would ever be able to challenge it. Then I rode 300 miles up California's Central Valley into a headwind. The sit-on-top-of-the-bike riding position and the widely spread bar made for tough going. Still, it ranked above the rest.

The first time I rode the Kawasaki, my impressions were less than pleasant. The new bend in the handlebar caused my knee to get caught between the grip and the brake lever. Then, as my anger subsided, I progressively became more and more fond of the Kawi. A close second.

The Honda is a bike I've really liked over the years, and I was surprised that I didn't rank it higher, but time doesn't stand still for machinery. The Honda did, however, have my favorite exhaust note of the bunch.

The Suzuki suffered from being designed for a different riding environment than the one we chose. Perfect for hooligan antics in the big city, the big, fat rear tire was out of its element in the wilds of Northern California. The M109R suffered from one unforgivable flaw (as did the VTX): The pillion's leading edge cut into my lower back in an extremely painful manner. The Suzuki's styling and attitude leaves the other bikes in the dust, and it has a tachometer you don't have to take your eyes off the road to consult.