Motorcycle Cruiser Big Twins Showdown 2000: Excelsior American-X, Harley Fat Boy and SuperGlide, Kawasaki Classics and Drifter, Suzuki 1400 and 1500, Victory V92SC, Yamaha Road Star

Motorycling's Big Ten Conference brought some surprise winners and an underserving loser in 2000. Excelsior-Henderson, Harley-Davidson, Kawasaki, Suzuki, Victory and Yamaha big V-twin motorcycles face off. From the August 2000 issue of _Motorcycle Cruise

It was just June of 1999 that we last collected all the big twins for a side-by-side cruise-off. The idea was to get all of the basic big twins, those without saddlebags or windshields, and see which was out in front of the best-selling class of motorcycles in America. When the thunder subsided, it turned out that the then-new Yamaha Road Star was the resounding favorite. We thought the issue was settled for a while.

But by the end of summer we realized we would have to revisit the class. That's when Harley-Davidson introduced its all-new Softail series motorcycles, with a new frame and a completely redesigned counterbalanced engine. This was particularly significant because the representative of the Softail family, the ultra-popular Fat Boy, had finished a solid last in June 1999. Our experiences with other new Softail models indicated that the Fat Boy had changed radically.

Then Victory showed a revised version of its V92 motorcycle in the form of the V92SC SportCruiser. Rides on this new model showed that Victory had also made huge progress over the last year.

Finally, Kawasaki announced that it had a new version of its Vulcan 1500 Classic. Designated FI for its fuel injection, the new bike had many other new components too. The company also discontinued its original big Vulcan, the twin-carb 1500A, further shaking up matters in the most popular class in American motorcycling.

At first we thought we would just bring back last year's contenders, the top-ranked Yamaha Road Star, Kawasaki's original Classic, the Kawasaki Drifter and a Harley Dyna to face them off against the newcomers. But then Excelsior-Henderson agreed to supply a machine for the comparison.

We were also getting a pile of mail complaining that we never tested any Suzukis (in part because there hasn't been a new Suzuki cruiser for a few years), so we also requested examples of that firm's 1400 and 1500cc Intruders. Once again, we'd have a 10-bike group to compare. Although the twin-carb Kawasaki 1500A and limited-production Harley FXR included in last year's comparo [June 1999] are no longer available, they were replaced by the Kawasaki Classic FI, Vulcan 1500 and the Excelsior-Henderson American X. Even before we had them assembled, we knew that those two bikes and the other two newcomers would shake up the big twin class.

All Together Now

It was, as one observer remarked, "quite a collection of rolling sculpture." The 10 bikes lined up along the curb were undoubtedly the prettiest group of motorcycles we have ever assembled. You could probably spend all morning just taking in their details and lines, letting your eyes caress this carefully crafted fender or that beautifully hewn crankcase cover.

Though the 10 bikes fit into the same class, they fall in different styling categories. The most predominant is the fat look, which is best given its name by the Fat Boy, but perhaps best embodied by Suzuki's 1500 LC. Others that fit in this category are the Kawasaki Classics and the Yamaha Road Star, with the Drifter expressing a tangential version of this look. Broad saddles, fat tanks with instruments atop them, floorboards, plump 16-inch tires, thick-legged fork tubes and wide fenders are the hallmarks of this style. At the opposite end of the big twin styling spectrum is the Intruder 1400, with its stretched, narrow, chopperesque look. It has a taller front wheel with long, thin fork tubes, a small tank and a narrow seat, ending with the only backrest of the bunch. Another look, seen on the Super Glide and V92SC, appears a bit more aggressive and purposeful, the sporting sub-theme showing up in footpegs, long, flattened saddles, low handlebars and other features aimed at making them work on winding roads. The Excelsior is perhaps closest to the wide look, but reflects some of the attitude and function of the sportier cruisers also.

We might have spent hours looking at chrome, lines and paint, but we had something even better to do: ride them. What could top spending a few weeks riding America's favorite motorcycles? So hop on.

Each time you climb on a new bike, you have to hunt for the ignition switch. The Fat Boy's tank-top arrangement, which allows you to unlock the switch and remove the key, was our favorite. Yamaha's switch (a conventional lock at the front of the tank top that also unlocks the seat via a cable) and the Excelsior's unlock-and-remove-the-key aet-up under the right side of the tank were also popular. The FXD (behind the right side panel) and the Kawasakis (up under the left front edge of the tank) were the least convenient.

The four fuel-injected bikes (American X, Classic FI, Drifter and V92SC) hum or whine for a moment as their fuel pumps pressurize their fuel systems and are willing to start immediately without choke or fiddling. None of the 10 bikes are cold-blooded, but the Intruders and carbureted Vulcan took slightly longer to warm than the others. Most were willing to cold-start without choke during the spring days we were riding them.

When it's time to pull away, you'll know you have selected a gear on the V92SC. Despite a tightening and quieting of the gearbox, the Victory still shifts with more clatter than your average cruiser. The American bikes, particularly the Harleys, require a stronger clutch pull, and the 1500 Intruder required the lightest pull. That's good because it has the least progressive clutch engagement. Like other 1500 LCs, this one's clutch only dropped completely home at the very end of the lever's outward stroke, then engaged abruptly. This was most noticeable when you were trying to get away quickly from a stop with a bit more throttle and rpm than a normal start would require. It takes a large left hand and careful lever release to make a smooth, hard getaway on the 1500 LC. Unlike our previous samples, this LC did not glaze its clutch plates or develop a noisy, extra-grabby engagement, even after our dragstrip testing. The 1400 did exhibit a tendency to "gronk" during high-rpm engagement -- which signals glazed plates -- but its normal engagement was much smoother. The V92SC clutch also engaged somewhat abruptly.

Few of the bikes had shifting issues. Some riders said they hit some false neutrals on the Kawasakis, but others called their shifting super-smooth, so it may be a matter of adjustment, ergonomics or rider technique. Certainly finding true neutrals on the Kawasakis were the easiest, since they use the firm's automatic neutral-finder. When at a stop in first, the gearbox will only shift into neutral. The Excelsior was the most persnickety about finding neutral. It was easy if you were rolling, even ultra-slowly, or if you shut the engine off, but tough during a stop with the engine running. The Fat Boy also usually required a few tries before the green light came on.

Low-speed power is a hallmark of a big twin, and all these bikes dish out pleasing quantities of low-speed grunt backed up with plenty of flywheel. Topping the list when you need to pull stumps are the Harleys, the Road Star, and for some riders, the Classic FI. The Victory also does well and has plenty of flywheel effect. Only the Intruder 1400, which has its powerband slightly up-range from the others and compensates with slightly lower gearing than the rest, was a bit off the mark in off-idle power. The overall power improvement in the Fat Boy from last year's model impressed all who had ridden both.

Shakin' All Over?

Of course, the biggest of many differences between past and present Fat Boys is the smoothness of the current model. Last year's vibrated almost painfully. The 2000 model is as vibration-free as the smoothest of the other bikes here -- which are the Kawasakis. Though it also uses a counterbalancer, the Victory is not as smooth as the rest of the vibration-canceling crowd. The Yamaha pulses some but doesn't have a really rough spot in the rpm range -- perhaps because it stops at 4200 rpm. The Excelsior, the Intruders, and the Super Glide all have rough spots. The Suzukis vibrate with moderate magnitude under throttle, and the American X churns out the most vibration, though primarily above 3500. But even on that bike, which was most often mentioned when vibration was the topic, there wasn't enough shaking to create genuine discomfort at more-or-less legal speeds.

Saddles were a different matter. Hindquarters accommodations range from first class -- on the Classic FI, Drifter and Intruder 1500 -- to ok only if you aren't riding very far -- on the Excelsior, Suzuki Intruder 1400 and Victory. In between are some good seats, on the H-D Fat Boy, the Kawasaki Standard Classic and the Yamaha Road Star, and one that is just fair atop the FXD. Of course, as Travelcade/Saddlemen's Tom Seymour, who helped us out on this ride, remarked, all the seats can be improved. The aftermarket can turn the worst butt wedge into a comfortable cushion.

Turning an awkward or uncomfortable riding position into something that works for you might not be as easy. You could change the V92SC's low handlebar with minimal cost and effort to reduce its somewhat long stretch, which might make the Victory less clumsy at low speeds but dilute its sporty appeal on a winding road. A handlebar swap might also reduce the cramped, sit-up-and-beg riding position of the Intruder 1400 (created by limited space to slide back on its somewhat narrow seat and its pullback bars) which means you ride with your arms bent and the "grips in your lap," as one rider put it. The Intruder 1400's riding position drew criticism from several riders, and even a bar that sets the grip farther from you won't make a six-foot-four rider feel like he has much leg room. However, even short riders gave the 1400 low marks for comfort. The only bike here that fully accommodates tall riders is the Intruder 1500 -- truly a big bike. Though too spread-out for most small riders, the 1500 LC is the choice for riders who felt hemmed in on the other so-called big cruisers. There is more legroom, more real estate on the rider's saddle section and more space between handlebar and saddle than on any of the other bikes. Some also said its saddle step provided the best lumbar support. Next to it, the Fat Boy feels diminutive.

However, for average-sized male riders, the Fat Boy, the Kawasakis, and the Road Star offer the most ideal ergonomics, with the Yamaha and Classic FI getting the most top rankings for comfort by managing to please both tall and short riders. The Drifter, with a seat that slopes up to the passenger portion rather than turning up in a step, doesn't lock you into one position and thereby offers a chance to slide back when you feel the need to squirm. Though taller riders complained that its saddle step didn't let them slide back where they wanted to be, shorter riders were right at home on the Excelsior-Henderson. With its flat handlebar and somewhat rearward footpeg location the Super Glide, even more than the V92SC, presents a riding position that is as much standard-style bike as cruiser. Medium-to-tall riders commented that the Victory felt a bit cramped between peg and seat, mostly because a pocket in the saddle prevented them from scooching back.

Other ergonomic details can improve or irritate, and sometimes it depends on the rider. For example, the Excelsior uses barrel-shaped grips, which are fat in the middle and taper down at both ends. Some riders liked them a lot and others were annoyed by them. Floorboards and heel-toe shifting suited many riders nicely, especially since they allow some flexibility in your foot and leg position. However, a few prefer footpegs, as used on the FXD, Intruder 1400 and V92SC. We even debated whether wide handlebar lever blades were more comfortable than thinner blades. A few pieces met with universal approval. Everyone liked the adjustable-span handlebar levers of the Kawasakis and Intruder 1500. The Yamaha brake lever can also be adjusted to a rider's hand size, but it requires tools. The Harleys' levers were particularly awkward for smaller hands. On long straight stretches, the H-Ds received points for their friction-type throttle dampers operated by thumbscrews under the throttle grips.

Suspension compliance also bears on comfort. None of these bikes were outstanding or particularly bad on large, sharp-edged bumps. We were surprised that the Excelsior excelled on small bumps. We knew that the leading-linked front suspension on the Super X (a sample of which we had along for part of our trip to Isabella Lake) responded well to small bumps, but we expected the telescopic fork, especially since it used large-diameter stanchions that have more fork-seal swept area to increase static friction, to be less responsive to small bumps. It was in the same league, however, as the link fork. The poorest suspension response to bumps came from the Drifter and the Victory. The latter seemed to pack up a bit on large bumps. At their worst, though, the Drifter and Victory were only average.

If you vary the load you carry significantly, you will appreciate the rear-suspension adjustability of the Excelsior and fuel-injected Kawasakis. With its seat removed, the American X permits you to alter the single shock's spring preload and rebound damping (seven positions). The preload adjustment requires a spanner, which is not supplied. On the Drifter and Classic FI, you can accommodate a passenger or other load by pumping a small volume of air into the rear shocks and also adjusting rebound damping through four positions, which is as easy as turning the outer shock collars to a different one of four settings.

As the Road Turns

Obviously, suspension plays an important role in cornering behavior too. On twisty roads, however, firm suspension is often an asset if it keeps the bike from pitching during power changes, braking or other inputs from the rider or road. The top-rated bikes on mountain roads were the Super Glide and the SportCruiser. The Harley has an edge in cornering clearance (the most in this group) and quick steering response when entering corners. The Victory, though slow and slightly heavy feeling in lower speed corners, feels steady in fast bends, and the Dyna, though not unsettled, can't quite match it. The Victory offers less lean angle than the FXD.

The Excelsior also proved very handy when the road meandered. But it was good news/bad news. The good news was that it steered quickly and held its line well when leaned over -- until something dragged. The bad news was that, unlike most of this group, the American X dragged solid pieces almost as soon as the floorboards dragged, and it wasn't leaned over all that far when that happened. The boards didn't fold up as far or as easily as on other bikes. If you didn't take the hint and kept leaning, it began to lever the wheels off the pavement, giving a few riders more excitement than they wanted. Excelsior-Henderson plans to fit a longer fork to this model when it goes into production, so this should change. The firm estimates that the American X will have another 38-inch ground clearance, which is substantial. Note that the leading-link Super X has an edge here, not only because the fork is a bit longer, but also because it does not pitch forward during braking. (However, the Super X also doesn't tolerate riders who ignore that first sound of contact.) Riders who had one of these moments tended to rate the E-H lower than those who had learned by watching their experiences.

Though their chubby style doesn't pump up your expectations, Kawasaki's Classics, the Fat Boy and the Road Star rose to the challenge of the "Bodfish Breakdown." You can immediately feel the differences in the two Kawasaki frames on a winding road. The original Classic may be dipped deeply into a corner with comparatively little effort and held there. It took more handlebar pressure to lean the Classic FI over until its floorboards were throwing sparks. However, in fast bends the FI felt steadier than the classic Classic, which sometimes responded to such ungentlemanly conduct with a non-threatening but noticeable wallow. But the FI was not as steady as the Fat Boy or the Road Star, both of which turn with modest effort and hold their lines well. Once again, the Y2K Fat Boy is a major improvement on the '99 model with much steadier tracking through faster corners. Though the Road Star had less clearance than everything but the E-H, it is remarkably comfortable when leaned over with a floorboard making an awful racket. Riders who had never ridden a Road Star before exclaimed about its handling, impressed that so much noise was coming from underneath a bike that felt so settled. We continue to await aftermarket magnesium or other high-spark replacements for the Yamaha's floorboard inserts, which contact the road. We think there is an overlooked opportunity for spectacle here.

A few riders liked the way the Intruder 1400 turned into and tracked through corners, but most felt the suspension was too wimpy, especially since it has more jacking effect from its shaft drive than the other shafties. The majority said that the 1400 felt generally awkward and overworked when being pushed hard. It also drags solid components shortly after it first touches down. A few liked the Drifter, but most said it needed too much effort to bend into a turn and it felt unsettled when leaned over. The bike also drags relatively early. The same criticisms were leveled at the Intruder 1500, but more emphatically. With its considerable mass and wide tires, the LC takes a forceful push on the bar to get it leaned over and keep it there, and it feels a bit unsteady until you straighten it up again.

The 1500 LC redeems itself when the road opens and runs straight to the horizon. It is steady in cross winds, truck wakes and unfazed by parallel pavement grooves. None of the bikes required much attention running down a straight road though. The big fenders on the Drifter did seem to have some drawbacks in gusty side winds, however.

Mountain road adventures also put a premium on strong brakes. The Victory is the clear winner here. Its brakes live up the "sport" part of its designation, providing powerful stops with two fingers on the front lever. Though none of these bikes run out of cornering traction before they run out of cornering clearance, good tires can provide traction to make the most of strong brakes. The Victory delivers here too, with Dunlop radials that are much grippier than any other tires in the group. As a result, the Victory can stop harder than any of the others. The Excelsior has the second strongest front brake and the least powerful rear brake. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since over-braking the rear wheel and the resultant lock-up can cause it to skid out of line -- a common reason for loss of control in panic stops. A few riders complained about the poor feel or power of the Drifter brakes, but the rest received generally solid marks, with an occasional dissenter. The changes to the Fat Boy are impressive in this area too.

Newton's 17th Law of Cruising states "What slows down must speed up." Of course, some of these bikes speed up better than others. Three bikes stand out for their all-around muscle. We were surprised that, after the smoke had cleared at the dragstrip, the Fat Boy turned out to the bad boy, and the only bike that edged into the 13-second bracket, with a 13.97-second, 91.90-mph run. Though last year's FXDX ran even quicker than that, this year the lighter FXD couldn't do better than 14.03 seconds at the same 91.90 mph terminal speed as the Fatty. Third place, with the best terminal speed (often regarded as the true measure of horsepower) was the V92SC at 14.11 seconds and 92.30 mph. It also ran quicker last time (April 2000) we tested the very same bike, so the headwind all the bikes were bucking this day apparently slowed them down. The slowest bikes were the Excelsior at 15.08 seconds, and the carbureted Kawasaki at 15.03 seconds. These two bikes also brought up the rear in contests of top-gear acceleration, which we also noted out on the highway before measuring it at the strip. That top-gear-acceleration category continues to be the property of the Suzuki 1400 Intruder, thanks largely to its gearing advantage, with the Victory pulling ahead of the Harleys for second best.

How a bike delivers its power is as important as how much power it makes. Only the Drifter received multiple comments about lumpy carburetion, specifically its somewhat abrupt throttle response. The Classic FI, Harleys and Victory got overall praise for their throttle response and power characteristics, and the Yamaha was cited for its excellent in-town power delivery. This was another area where the Fat Boy has improved tremendously, having gone from poorest engine performance last year to among the very best.

Bits and Pieces

There are a number of detail features that attracted testers' attention. The Victory's all-inclusive yet unobtrusive instrument cluster received quite a bit of praise. Besides the speedo and inset analog tach, it offers information about electrical and engine condition, fuel quantity and permits adjusting of instrument backlighting, all using the same LCD window that shows odometer, tripmeter and a clock. Buttons at the front of the handlebar switches let you choose what's displayed and to adjust the display. The Classic FI and Road Star also offers clocks on their LCD odometer/tripmeter displays, and the Suzuki 1500 has a bar graph for fuel quantity. The fuel-injected bikes, which do not have reserve plumbing, need fuel gauges, which are also found on the carbureted Classic and the Harleys. Most of the bikes -- the Suzukis being the exceptions -- offer self-canceling systems for the turn signals. Mirrors proved a source of annoyance on the Suzukis and Yamahas because of their multi-threaded construction, which requires you to have a wrench to make significant adjustments and come loose if not thoroughly tightened. The FXD's mirrors were set too narrow to offer a satisfactory rear view.

Both the Excelsior and the Harleys lack tool kits, something Excelsior says it might change in the future. You need an allen wrench to remove the American X's saddle and additional tools to adjust the shock beneath. Our biggest failure was with the Victory, which lost the low then high beam of its sealed-beam headlight. The bike apparently vibrated the element apart. At the very end of the test, the Excelsior broke its horn bracket, another victim of vibration, though it didn't depart the bike or stop working. One turn signal burned or vibrated out on the Fat Boy. Both Harleys had peeling trim on their tank dividers and minute oil seepage. All in all, there is little indication that you should expect to do roadside maintenance anymore, though the Japanese bikes still seem to have a slight edge for integrity.

You will need to add gas, however. The Victory was the thirstiest, with an average consumption around 35 mpg. That will get you approximately 150 miles before you need to find fuel. The Suzuki 1400 has the least range -- you'll want to find a gas station by the time you have accumulated 100 miles on a tank. The 1500 LC goes just slightly farther because, despite its appearance, its tank holds only 4.1 gallons. The Fat Boy found its traditional reputation for supreme fuel mileage and range being challenged by the Classic FI, which virtually matched it for mileage (both averaged better than 44 mpg) and range, since they both have 5.0-gallon tanks. However, the 5.5-gallon tank on the Excelsior makes it the king of range, even if it goes slightly fewer miles on each gallon. All three require premium fuel, however. The FXD and the Road Star will also let you travel 200 miles between gas stations, though the Yamaha does it on regular gas. All four American bikes left a puddle of fuel if you tried to fill their tanks aggressively. (The Excelsior has two removable gas caps, but if you remove the reverse-threaded left cap, you find nothing but a small compartment.) None of the 10 bikes used much oil.

You can find a vast range of opinions about the looks of these bikes. The Victory probably drew the greatest range of reaction, from a heartfelt "Ooooh!" to something similar but clearly not positive. It has the least polished finish of the group, but also the most aggressive style. People seem to take an immediate and strong like or dislike to the Drifter's looks. You can always find people who act impressed by Harleys, but the more studied reaction to the look and components of the Dyna Super Glide was distinctly cool. The cleaner Softail style, cleaner finish, disc wheels and unique exhaust system definitely help the Fat Boy distinguish itself and justify the additional $4000 you pay to buy it instead of the Super Glide -- which at $11,250 (and up) is the most affordable Harley big twin. The Excelsior impressed people for its novelty, uniqueness and general quality of finish, making its over-$15,000 price attractive for those who appreciate such qualities.

There is a distinct separation between American and Japanese style and detail of finish. The American bikes are a bit rougher, with the Victory falling into the rougher category and the Excelsior on the finished side of the Harleys. The Japanese bikes appear more carefully built, with every part obviously worried over and massaged. Some parts, such as the sprocket-styled cover over the Road Star's belt drive pulley, seem to be the victims of too much attention. Though its look has fallen out of fashion, the level of attention to clean details on the Intruder 1400 remains exceptional, and its $8300 price is a bargain if it suits your style. In contrast, the 1500 LC seems sort of proletarian, with finish and detailing given less attention. However, its $9950 price point also puts it within reach of even more budgets than the other Japanese brands. The Classics and Road Star show the typical excellent finish and detail quality of their brands, though our testers perceived a slight edge for the Yamaha here. The Drifter, the most expensive of the Kawasakis, lost style points for its plastic fenders and stuck-on striping. In terms of quality of finish for the price, the basic Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic, at $10,000, shows why it is the most popular metric cruiser.

Choose Me!

Picking one of these machines requires an assessment of not only what looks good and fits your budget, but also of your riding plans. None of our riders really enjoyed the Suzuki Intruders. The 1400's dated style and awkward, uncomfortable ergonomics put us off. But if you are attracted to its quick acceleration on the road and impressive detailing, and can get comfortable with its ride and look, then the 1400, at approximately half the price of a Fat Boy, is quite a bargain.

The Intruder 1500 LC was also at the bottom of our riders' ratings, thanks to its ponderous feel and handling, unexceptional appearance, snappy clutch engagement, lack of customizing potential and generally unimpressive performance. However, many of our objections would be moot for a tall rider who planned to use it primarily for long hauls on straight roads.

Though a cut above the Intruders in our hearts, the Harley Dyna Super Glide didn't impress many riders except on twisty roads, where it excelled. The FXD's plain looks and uninspired ergonomics kept it off the tops of our riders' rankings. However, it has vast customizing potential, is fun to ride on twisty roads and can be had -- assuming you can find a dealer who isn't tacking on a hefty buyer's surcharge -- for less than other Harley big twins.

Our passenger rated the Kawasaki ultra-retro Drifter as her favorite, and it makes a good long-hauler for the rider too. Nonetheless, we were not enthusiastic about its throttle response and not too many in our group were smitten with its style.

It is impressive that the Excelsior-Henderson American X -- from a rookie manufacturer with some rough prototype components -- could earn a rating in the midst of this pack of veteran cruiser makers. We suspect that it will only improve if, and when, Excelsior gets it into production. Distinctive style, a generally well-sorted chassis, strong front brakes, quality components and finish and an absence of the detail annoyances that can stain a new bike put it squarely in midpack.

Kawasaki's original Vulcan 1500 Classic, the bike that took top honors in our first big twins comparison back in February 1997 remains in the top half this year, thanks to the same qualities that endeared it to us then. It's comfortable and confident whether trolling in town, touring on a super-slab or tearing up a mountain road. It slips from the top because there are newer bikes that can deliver those qualities with better power, improved fuel mileage and slightly better chassis performance. It remains a bike we are always pleased to find in our garage.

The new Victory V92SC SportCruiser edged out the Classic by offering something unique that appealed to many riders. Though it wasn't as handy in traffic as most of the other bikes and its saddle was not comfortable enough for enjoyable long hauls, those factors become unimportant when you ride the bike because it usually seemed to point itself to the nearest twisty road. The Victory's original style and strong engine also gave it points.

The top three were pretty close. Last year's favorite, the Yamaha Road Star, remains popular thanks to the same all-around excellence that put it on top in '99. Comfortable, fun to ride, good-looking and receptive to whatever activity you have in mind (except perhaps, racing) it has few faults.

However the same can be said of Kawasaki's new Vulcan 1500 Classic FI, which riders rated just slightly higher, in second place overall.

Winning by a fender tip is the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy, which came from a solid last in 1999 to top this year's rankings. Harley's reinvented Fat Boy is better in every way than the Evo-powered version: better braking, confident in corners, faster, more comfortable, smoother, and almost certainly more reliable. And it retains the style that made it America's favorite motorcycle. Now the FLSTF combines that style with a substance to make it as pleasurable for the rider as the beholder.'s Road Tests section also includes more recent (2002) as well as earlier (1997) big twin comparisons.


What's not to love? Any bike with a beefy big twin gets an asterisk in my book. Dress it in finery and it gets two. Nearly all of these cruisers asserted such dynamic charms it was difficult to focus affection on just one. So I didn't. The Vulcan FI is my intellectual favorite for balance of function, efficiency and clean, good looks. I like 'em fast, and the Kawasaki finally fills that requirement. The smoothness is fantastic for a big-twin powered bike, and the overall manageability refreshing. The Drifter, I think, is the hands-down looker of the group and the Fat Boy's had an astonishing mechanical makeover.

But for uniqueness, subtle beauty and big power the Victory was my emotional favorite. I know, I know, I rated it nearly last in our sport cruiser comparison...and in that athletic arena it truly was lacking. Comparing big twins is more of a drop-your-pants-and-pose affair though, and the V92SC's attributes were hard to ignore. Strength of character speaks louder than chrome.

Jamie Elvidge Our former editor-at-large, now editrix, gets email at

The biggest class in cruiserdom has become the hardest to choose from. When Friedman came around barking, "Which one's your favorite"? - I rolled my eyes. How could ya pick only one?!

Which is not to say they're all perfect. It comes down to whether you like your pizza with pepperoni or sausage. That said, I'd chuck the two Suzukis. They had none of the fire I'm looking for in a big cruiser. The Drifter's biggest assets, besides its fenders, was a pillowy saddle and a comfortable ride. That's just not enough. The carbureted Classic grunted well and held its own in the canyons, but the competition was tougher. The Excelsior gets beaucoup style points and bushels of respect as a newcomer in a class of wily veterans - not too shabby for a first timer. The Harley Dyna Glide slid through twisties with all-around gusto, though it skimped in the styling department. I expect better from a $14,000 motorcycle. The Victory V92SC was my dark horse favorite - and though I liked it as a sport-cruiser, the tractor-trailer transmission and truckish steering took the V92SC out of my top ranking.

Which leaves us with my top dogs. Though you can't find much wrong with the bodacious Road Star, it is, at this point, yesterday's news. Been there, though I'd be happy to do that again. Kawi's fuel-injected Classic was an efficient companion, and a smooth operator. You didn't see the word "passionate" in there, did you? Which is why the Harley Fat Boy is getting my vote, by a chromed nose. The new 88B engine and stronger brakes launch El Gordo into the increased performance department without sacrificing its elusive, intangible excitement. Yes, the Fat Boy's more fun and more functional, but it still has the same character. And character is what makes the Boy, er, man.

Andy Cherney Email your deep-dish pizza coupons to:

What we have here is two distinct camps.

There's the Japanese Way, where smoothness and refinement are the hallmarks. Then there's the American Way, which accepts a little roughness around the edges to deliver a more gritty, mechanical character. So how cool is it that the Harley Fat Boy manages to stick a big, leather-clad paw into both camps? Suddenly, its running vibration, control action and general level of polish are right there with the Road Star and Vulcan Classic. Yet it still retains that Real Steel Feel.

This is a huge development, I think, and further evidence that they're a lot smarter over at the Motor Company than some of the rattly old products might have suggested. I'm impressed and pleased.

Kevin Smith
Motorcycle Cruiser
's former editorial director has gone over to the Dark Side. He now does his thing at Motor Trend magazine.

I really tried to be professional about choosing my favorite Big Twin. Tallying relative strengths and weaknesses, I even narrowed the field down to the top three with two relatively close runners-up. I struggled with how to order the Fat Boy, the Vulcan Classic FI, and the Road Star. Every time I rode one, the order shifted. Until the dragstrip. After logging the second-quickest time and the fastest speed on the Victory V92SC, I knew that the timing slip had proved what my heart had whispered to me all along. The ride home, swooping down national forest roads, finalized the SC's jump from fourth to first. Despite all the rational reasons for choosing the other three, I have to vote with my passion. Cruisers will understand.

My choice for fifth? The Excelsior-Henderson made a surprisingly strong showing. Ground clearance aside, the bike worked well in most respects and offered the best brakes of the bunch. I hope the company comes back online so we can see how the E-H line matures.

Evans Brasfield
Motorcycle Cruiser
former associate editor has gone over the Light Side and become a freelancer. You can reach him through his website.

At this rate, we are going to have to run cover blurbs that say, "All Big Twins Are Good! We Investigate!" The state of the art among big V-cruisers has progressed so significantly in the last 16 months that there are no longer any bikes here that I simply want to avoid.

I could easily attain cruising bliss on five of these bikes: We threw a pretty demanding array of roads at these ten, and the Harleys, Kawasaki's Classics and the Yamaha Road Star pleased me no matter what we were negotiating. It would be easy to make a case that the Fat Boy is the functional winner here, and I won't argue with that. However, since I'd rather ride something that I won't encounter at every other intersection, I probably wouldn't take one of the Harleys. The Classic FI and Road Star both play my song, and the original Classic still knows all the words.

Still, I can find reasons for picking the others. Take the Suzuki 1500 for its open-road comfort, the Victory V92Sc for its distinctive style and mountain-road prowess, the Excelsior for its uniqueness, the Drifter for its comfort and singular style, or the Intruder 1400 for its clean looks and distinguishing lines.

Our testing did settle one thing. Which bike you ride is much less important than the people you ride with, the roads you ride on, and destinations you choose.

Art Friedman The senior editor's email address is or

American X

Editor's note: This test was conducted during the summer of 2000, when the outcome of Excelsior's money problems was still not known. As the issue went to press, the company had received a much needed loan, which it hoped would allow it to emerge from bankruptcy. The American X, the prototype model included in our test, carried the hopes of the company, which had realized that the bulky fork used on its Super X lead model put customers off. The America X had a much more conventional and cleaner style. Unfortunately, the company never was able to get production started again, so this bike was never produced. Too bad, because the motorcycle, depite some prototype faults, performed respctably against its competitors. This was the only magazine report on the bike that we have ever seen.

"Are they still building bikes?" Motorcyclists who saw the Excelsior-Henderson parked among our big 10 asked that question repeatedly. The short answer is, "No, but the company plans to start again now that it has an escape route from its money woes." The return to production is not planned for a few months yet, perhaps even the beginning of 2001, but gloomy predictions (our own included) may have been premature as Excelsior-Henderson now has a plan -- and the cash -- to restructure. Currently, the company is just servicing existing customers with warranty problems, parts, etc.

When Excelsior agreed to supply a bike for this test, we were asked if we would like the telescopic-forked American X. Though the leading-link fork Super X appears to be functionally superior, we suspect the telescopic version will be more popular because of its appearance. Using a conventional front suspension also permits the firm to lower the price by more than $1000 -- which will make this model even more appealing, though still pricey. The company expects a retail price between $15,000 and $16,000. With that in mind, plus the fact that the American X has not been previously tested, we opted to include the telescopic-fork version. Although the rest of the bike is off the production line (but may see some changes by the time production resumes), the fork and other front end components were prototypical and will probably change. Excelsior expects to use a longer fork for production. The American X (the model name may also change) uses a slimmer fender than the leading-linked Super X. It wraps around a 16.0 x 3.0 chromed wire-spoked wheel with an MT90B16 tube-type tire. The fork has shapely, curved-profile chromed sliders topped with chromed seal covers sliding on stout 45mm stanchions. Like the leading-link item, this fork distinguishes itself in the crowd for both its appearance (which in this case we think will be more appealing than the leading-link design with its external springs) and functional edge.

This unique-yet-functional approach is repeated in many components. The curving tubes of the frame's front downtubes and the swingarm distinguish themselves and are backed up with enough gusseting to assure strength. Excelsior has the only full tank-top instrumentation that includes a tachometer along with a speedo and fuel gauge. The ignition switch, which you unlock and remove the key from before starting, is conveniently located under the right side of the fuel tank. Its large size makes it easy to operate even when wearing heavy gloves.

However, the firm also used conventional designs when they were appropriate. The handlebar switchgear follows the pattern used by most other motorcycles without any eccentricities such as the two-button turn-signal systems used by BMW and Harley. E-H also adopted a locking-type sidestand used on Harleys, which will not retract when there is weight on it. This enables the bike to be bumped or even moved around on a smooth surface while resting on the stand without the stand retracting. Rear suspension is via a single damper that may be adjusted for spring preload and rebound damping after you remove the saddle. The shock is well out of sight (under the saddle) giving the frame a clean, hardtail appearance. The swingarm wraps around a similar wheel and MU90B16 Dunlop K491. Both ends are stopped with four-piston calipers pinching 11.5-inch discs.

The American X gets its own seat, which features a basket-weave finish and a unique retaining slot for the passenger grab strap. The generous 5.5-gallon fuel tank and the rest of the bike (rear of the steering head) are the same as the original Super X and are production pieces. The tank features the same notches in its bottom edge to clear the tall cam towers atop the cylinders. The battery resides under a ribbed chrome box on the left. Our bike was finished in solid black with tank graphics that keep it from getting too subdued. E-H plans to offer it in four additional colors that have yet to be decided.

The 1386cc "X-twin" engine sports a 50-degree V angle. Incoming air from the unique airbox on the left side of the engine is mixed with 92-octane fuel by a port-sequential closed-loop fuel-injection system. The air passes through 42mm throats -- one for each cylinder -- and past two intake valves in each cylinder, then exits through two exhaust valves. Chain-driven dual overhead cams operate each cylinder's four valves with hydraulic adjusters between the cam lobes and the tops of the valves to eliminate the need for adjustment. The silent Hy-vo-type cam chains are also tensioned automatically. The engine management system includes a diagnostics port for troubleshooting.

The bottom end uses a single-crankpin crankshaft with conventional side-by-side rods running on plain bearings. Lubrication is a dry-sump system with the sump located below the transmission. Oil is added through a long-neck filler tube that emerges from the right side panel. The primary drive is by gear, and a toothed belt gets power to the rear wheel.

We found lots of details to like on this bike. Among those that bear mentioning are its tire valve stems, which are offset to the right side of the wheels' centerlines making them easy to reach. A four-way flasher system is standard. The rear fender rail has notches for bungee cord attachment.

If Excelsior-Henderson can leave its financial problems behind and get its bikes back into production, the American X is ready to deliver the goods.

FLSTF Fat Boy and
FXD Dyna Super Glide

Even when the increasingly dated Evolution engine provided the power, Harley's Fat Boy was the best-selling motorcycle in America, though it wasn't very popular with our testers after last year's big twin cruise-off. This year Harley reinvented its Softail series -- those models concealed rear suspension and solidly mounted engines. H-D started with the engines used in the Dyna and Touring series bikes, such as the FXD included in this comparison.

For 1999, the company introduced an entirely new big twin, even though it followed the basic format of the old Evo engines with air-cooling, a 45-degree V angle, a single carb, overhead valves operated by pushrods and hydraulic lifters, a single crankpin using a "knife-and-fork" connecting rod arrangement and a separate transmission case. Displacing 1450cc (instead of the Evo's 1340), the new Twin Cam 88 engine not only made substantially better power, but also brought modern design, materials and manufacturing techniques to the venerable 45-degree V-twin. The new engine brought beefier and stronger components, more compression, tighter tolerances, better bearings and improved lubrication. Overnight, those bikes with the new motors, Harley's Dynas and tourers, achieved power parity and even supremacy over other big twins -- despite their displacement disadvantage. The engines were mechanically quieter and generally seem to have provided the improved reliability and reduced maintenance that the modern design promised.

For '99 Harley also introduced a raft of other changes, including improved brakes, that brought the Dyna series in line with the rest of the cruising community. For last year's test we included the FXDX, the Sport version of the Dyna Super Glide, which had dual discs up front, adjustable suspension and other changes. Since we had tested versions of the Sport three times in last two years, we opted for the base Super Glide model for this test. The FXD is a no-frills Dyna with the "internal" Dyna dual-rear-damper frame, which mounts the Twin Cam engine in rubber to isolate vibration. Like the FXDX, the base model has a 28-degree steering head angle for quickened steering. The 4.9-gallon tank has a center console with a fuel gauge. This year the handlebar is a narrower XR-pattern. It rolls on cast wheels.

The reason Softails didn't get the new engine last year was that Harley had a surprise. H-D apparently decided that the heavy vibration of the Softails was no longer acceptable in the marketplace. (Our '99 Fat Boy vibrated two engine mount nuts loose.) However, the style of the Softail was not compatible with the space required for rubber mounts. So in a move that many saw as a major change of direction for Harley, the company created a counterbalanced version of the Twin Cam 88 engine, which could be mounted solidly in its frames. Two counterbalancers, one ahead and one behind the crankshaft, are chain-driven from the right end of the crank to create forces that offset the vibration created by movement of the pistons and other actions of the 45-degree twin. Counterbalancing has long been used in bike and car engines, with Yamaha and Kawasaki employing it in the 1970s and Kawasaki adopting it for its Vulcans since their introduction in the 1980s. Some were surprised that Harley would adopt technology that was so closely identified with its Japanese rivals and felt it represented a sort of mechanical sleight-of-hand. But nobody is complaining about how the new engine, dubbed the Twin Cam 88B, works. Though the balancers soak up a small amount of the engine's power, the tremendous smoothness brings new comfort and vastly reduces the wear and tear on components the old hard-shaking Evo engines created.

However, the Fat Boy and the rest of the Softails enjoy more than just a new engine. The frame was stiffened substantially and many components were redesigned or improved, including the oil tank, the bigger 5.0-gallon fuel tank (now one piece), a maintenance-free battery and a new transmission. Despite the changes, the Fat Boy remains unmistakable, and, in fact, appears quite similar to the Evo-powered version. His Fatness wears wide-legged covered fork tubes, a 7.0-inch headlight, chubby fenders, floorboards, a tank-top speedo and revised shotgun-style dual mufflers. The saddle features sections with different textures. The rear suspension is controlled by two dampers hidden beneath the engine, and working backwards (they extend as the rear of the bike drops).

Overall, it's a clean, eye-catching package that motorcyclists have a hard time resisting. With the modern engineering the Fat Boy now incorporates, they have even fewer reasons to try.

Vulcan 1500 Classic
Vulcan 1500 Classic FI
Vulcan 1500 Drifter

Kawasaki joined the big-twin game in the 1980s with the original twin-carb Vulcan 1500. That bike carried the flag for 10 years until 1996 when, perhaps anticipating Motorcycle Cruiser would need a crowd-stopper for the cover of its premiere issue [Spring 1996], Kawasaki introduced its Vulcan 1500 Classic. The Classic was the first import to offer the sort of style and substance that Americans wanted from a big twin. Instead of the obviously liquid-cooled engine of the twin-carb 1500A, the Classic had heavily finned cylinders and its radiator tucked out of sight between the front frame tubes.

It breathed through a single carb and was tuned for lots of thrust right off idle. It retained the single-crankpin design with its traditional sound (and continued to quell vibration with a counterbalancing system). However, the cadence of the exhaust was now backed up with traditional American lines -- a big headlight, covered, fat-legged fork tubes, a fat fuel tank and seat, floorboards, a staggered dual exhaust and wide fenders curving deeply around wire-spoke 16-inch wheels. The bike retained features such as the clean, quiet, low-maintenance shaft drive. Though some pundits thought the Classic was a blatant attempt to copy Harley-Davidson, instead it was the company's response to research that said customers wanted a cruiser that looked, sounded and felt the way the Classic does. This bike promptly became the best-selling metric cruiser, a title that it continued to hold the last time we checked.

Kawasaki soon began producing derivative models, such as the Nomad tourer, which came with a new version of the twin-shock frame, beefed up to support the weight of a touring load and with revised steering geometry. Next was the Drifter. It brought an even more nostalgic look with the full fenders that harkened back to the Indians of the 1940s and other pre-war touches. Blacked-out trim and a minimum amount of chrome and polish easily distinguish the Drifter from the Classic -- even though they use some of the same components, including the 4.2-gallon fuel tank. The Drifter also introduced fuel injection, a feature that was updated and incorporated into the Nomad FI late last year.

The most recent of the Classic derivatives is the Classic FI, which assembles the best pieces from the rest of the line. It has the strengthened frame of the Nomad and the air-assisted shock from that bike, its own version of a fuel-injection system and the other power enhancements that come with it, such as nastier overhead camshafts and more compression for the four-valve combustion chambers. It also brings new gear that is so far unique, including a 5.0-gallon fuel tank topped by a revised instrument cluster with an LCD odometer/tripmeter/clock readout. With the arrival of the Classic FI, the original Vulcan 1500 -- the twin-carb 1500A -- was retired, its sales having diminished to a point where it was no longer worth building.

Because there are substantial differences between Kawasaki's three basic cruisers, we ended up including them all here. Though the Classics may appear the same, they have substantially different engines, ergonomics and frames.

A more detailed individual test of the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic FI is also available in the Road Tests section of Tha section also contains a full test of the replacement for the Classic FI, the Kawasaki 1600 Classic.

Intruder 1400
Intruder 1500 LC

The oldest bike here, and perhaps in all of cruising, is Suzuki's Intruder 1400. When Suzuki introduced the 1400 in 1987, it was something of a revelation. It had the tidiest detailing ever seen on a production bike, with wiring and clutter -- even the spark plugs -- tucked neatly out of sight. Its styling took Japanese customs to a new level of Americanization, and its 1360cc air/oil-cooled V-twin was, at least briefly, the biggest we had ever experienced. The styling had come from Suzuki's American facility and, though it may seem dated now, it was cutting-edge back then.

With its pullback bars, undersized 3.4-gallon tank, narrow frame, and banana-like seat with a backrest, the 1400 was a deft replication of the kinds of customs Americans had been building, even though it arrived as tastes were shifting away from that look. Though Suzuki initially offered variations with flat handlebars and cast wheels, the pullback bars and wire wheels were what Americans wanted and the other models were discontinued.

The engine offered the style of a 45-degree V, but snuffed vibration by using two crankpins, staggered so that the forces created by the pistons' strokes canceled most vibration. The drawback to this was that the characteristic cadence of a single-pin 45-degree V-twin was lost. Each cylinder inhaled through its own 36mm Mikuni carb and a pair of intake valves and expelled burnt gases through a single exhaust valve. A single overhead cam operated the valves. Originally coupled to a four-speed transmission, the 1400 was upgraded to a five-speed in 1997. A drive shaft delivers power to the rear wheel.

The Intruder 1500 LC was introduced in 1998 and presents a stark contrast to the look of the 1400. Instead of the 1400's thin style, the hulking 1500 is the ultimate in fat. Its fork is covered and chubby -- not long and lean. The tank area (which is actually a dummy -- the real tank is under the seat) is huge, and the seat is wide and roomy. The front tire is a tubeless 16-incher on a cast wheel instead of the 1400's skinny 19-inch tube-type. Fenders are broad and deep. A chrome filler panel backs up the oversized headlight. The bigger bike gets floorboards instead of footpegs, and its instruments reside atop the tank. The entire package is wider, longer (with three inches more wheelbase) and more portly -- to the tune of 117 additional pounds with fuel -- than the 1400. The engine is the same basic air/oil-cooled 45-degree staggered-crankpin design, bored and stroked to displace 102cc more than the 1400 and re-skinned to create a massive look that matches the rest of the bike. The intake plumbing has been rearranged so that both carbs nestle inside the V (instead of each behind its cylinder as on the 1400), and they breathe through a huge airbox that occupies much of the volume inside the dummy fuel tank. (The faux airbox on the right side of the engine houses other components.)

Both of Suzuki's big twins combine main-street American styling themes with the company's own touch to create individual personalities and real alternatives to the rest of the big-twin class.

V92SC SportCruiser

Victory has two models, the original V92 cruiser and the new V92SC. Both use the same engine, frame and some other major components such as the 5.0-gallon fuel tank. However, the SC has its own exhaust system and revised airbox to improve power, revised ergonomics, and more sporting suspension, brakes, wheels and tires. Slimmer fenders, a lower handlebar and footpegs instead of floorboards significantly change the bike's profile. With its massive 50mm fork stanchions, low-profile radial Dunlop tires on 17-inch wheels, dual four-piston-caliper front brakes, dirttrack-style 2-into-1 upswept exhaust and cut-down saddle, the SC has an aggressive purposefulness that few other cruisers can project.

Though it's been blacked out, the air/oil-cooled 1507cc 50-degree engine shares the same internals as the original Victory cruiser. Single overhead cams drive four valves per cylinder through fiddle-free hydraulic lifters. From the airbox up under the tank, the electronic fuel injector delivers mixture to the cylinders, each through its own 44mm throat. In the crankcases, a counterbalancer offsets the shaking of the single-pin crankshaft. A torque compensator helps smooth out power delivery.

The chassis is the same single-shock design of the original Victory cruiser, though the SC uses a higher-grade Fox unit which provides a ride-height adjustment. The multi-function LCD window and miniature tachometer are still included in the face of the headlight-mounted speedometer. Overall, the personality of the SportCruiser impressed us even more than the original V92C, and we wanted it to represent that other American motorcycle builder in our big-twin confrontation.

A test of the original Victory V92C is also available in the Road Tests section of

Road Star

Last year's big twins comparo winner returns unchanged to face the challenges from the new twins on the block. Still the biggest of the big, Yamaha's 1602cc monster has lots of visual appeal with its oversized pushrod tubes and heavily finned air-cooled cylinders. A large triangular airbox on the right side feeds the cylinders through a single 40mm carb. Each cylinder has four valves and two spark plugs. A long rocker operated by a pushrod depresses each valve pair, and one of the pair has a screw adjuster in its tappet to adjust for wear. Hydraulic adjusters set the primary clearance automatically, and the intake and exhaust pushrods share a common tube.

The cylinders are lined with a ceramic composite material. No counterbalancer or crankpin juggling was used to quell vibration from the 48-degree single-crankpin twin -- though that doesn't seem to have created a problem with vibration, thanks to engine location and the damping effect of the massive 45-pound crank. A dry-sump lubrication system stores oil in a reservoir atop the transmission. The transmission has an extra shaft that emerges to propel the final-drive belt near the swingarm's pivot point, thereby minimizing belt-tension changes as the single-shock swingarm moves through its arc.

Riding on 16-inch wire-spoke wheels with dual discs up front and the sort of wide seat, tank, floorboards and fenders that are currently fashionable (and always comfortable), the Road Star squarely hit the cruiser buyers' perceived target, making it an immediate hit.

An individual test of the Yamaha Road Star is also available in the Road Tests section of

We also have a "First Ride" article about the Road Star 1600's replacement for 2004, the Road Star 1700.

Photography by Kevin Wing.
Excelsior-Henderson's American X was a surprise participant in our comparison (in protottype form). Unfortunately, it would never make it to production before the company succumbed to financial problems.
The advent of Harley's Twin-Cam (TC88) engine for 2000 and other changes radically improved out opinion of the Fat Boy.
The Dyna Super Glide uses rubber engine mounts instead of counterbalancers and varies from the Softails in many other respects.
Though it resembles the 1500 Classic FI, Kawasaki's carbureted 1500 Classic varies in many major aspects.
The Kawasaki Drifter 1500 brings the roominess and elegance of classic American motorcycles.
Victory's 92SC SportCruiser was an attempt to combine winding-road excdllence with cruiser style.
Suzuki's Intruder 1400 is the oldest and most uniquely styled motorcycle in this group.
A year before this test, the Yamaha Road Star had been supreme V-twin.
Though fuel injection gets top billing on the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 FI, a number of other changes have had bigger impacts.
Though it doesn't pack the most displacement, Suzuki's Intruder 1500 is physically the biggest bike here.
Though it was just a prototype from a small company, the American X made a respectable showing.
The Excelsior-Henserson instrument configuration was intended to evoke those of the original, though we aren't sure anybody recognized that.
The American X has a conventional fork instead of the bulky item on Excelsior's Super X.
At 1386cc, the X engine was the smallest in this class.
Excelsior-Henderson built its own engine, and even dared to put the airbox on the left.
Harley's Fat Boy came out swinging in '00.
Instruments on the tank are a standard component of the fat look.
H-D considered the Super Glide it's sporting platform.
The carbureted Vulcan Classic.
Kawasaki's ultra-retro Drifter 1500.
Kawasaki's new FI version joins the original Vulcan 1500 Classic.
Suzuki's Intruder 1400 was introduced in 1987.
The Intruder 1500 engine is based on...
...the strikingly different 1400.
Victory's SportCruiser had a short production life.
Victory's early 92-series bikes have this unique multi-function instrument in the headlight shell.
Yamaha's Road Star was an entirely new design.
In 2000, the Road Star was the biggest twin.