Motorcycle Road Test: 1999 Honda VLX 600

With new challengers in the 500 to 700cc class, Honda upgraded its popular 600cc V-twin for 1999. Were the changes enough to allow it to regain prominence? From the February 1999 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine.

What's the best-selling import cruiser? Well, for 1998 it was the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic. Other machines have topped the charts in other years, but if you look at which imported cruiser has sold the best over the last decade, this is the one:

Honda's 600cc Shadow VLX V-twin offers the perfect balance that keeps it moving out of showrooms year in and year out. It's big enough to rely on for highway transportation, small enough to not intimidate short or inexperienced riders, stylish enough to provide pride of ownership, and affordable enough that almost anyone can afford it or buy one as a second bike for a spouse.However, the VLX faced a major challenge for 1998 when Yamaha rolled out the 650cc V-Star -- the first small-displacement V-twin to be drawn in current-cruiser fashion. Not only did the V-Star pack more displacement, longer and more comfortable lines, and an additional ratio in the gearbox, it also blew away the VLX with a lower price. Rumors began circulating that Honda was about to roll out a new VLX to pick up the gauntlet. Since the VLX engine is the basis for the very appealing Shadow A.C.E. 750, there was speculation that the new 600 would follow that tack. So when Honda called and asked if we'd like to sample the new 600, we said, "yes" immediately.

As it turns out, the changes aren't all that sweeping. You have to look twice to see what has actually changed. And the revisions don't address the motorcycle's most prominent shortcomings. For example, this is one of the few bikes still driving through four speeds, and that makes for some pretty wide ratio jumps when you are talking about a 583cc engine -- even with three valves per cylinder and liquid-cooling.

Since the 750 A.C.E. uses the same cases and has an extra gear, we were hoping the revision would bring five speeds. Having just four speeds means that the VLX has to deal with a tall first gear, which makes it struggle to get away from a stop quickly. It makes largish gaps between gears, too. So the idea of a fifth speed in the VLX seemed like a natural. Sorry, still only four, so getting off the line requires considerable clutch slipping. And, you need to wind it tight before an upshift to keep it in the powerband. Changes to ignition timing and a new carburetor (heated by a coolant hose) have lessened this problem to a small degree, but the gaps between gears still loom large, despite slightly broader power. Riders also found themselves looking for fifth gear on the highway. The VLX remains one of the slower 600-class bikes. Despite its extra 50 pounds and a heavier rider aboard, the Yamaha V-Star pulled away from it; so will Kawasaki's Vulcan 500 and the Yamaha XV535. The engine also requires a fairly long warm-up before it will accept throttle without bogging.

The big news for '99 is a rearranged chassis which drops the seat height to a mere 25.6 inches off the road -- a 1.6-inch drop. This was achieved with a shorter, more-progressive rear shock and a wider, lower seat coupled with frame changes. The steering head was moved back and down, and this -- combined with a flattrack-style handlebar bend -- offered the greatest improvement for our testers who found the position more comfortable, particularly at high speeds. The handlebar bend and riding position create a riding position that both places reduced wind force on the rider at 70 mph and make it more comfortable to hold yourself against the wind pressure. The bar also provides light, precise steering control at both high and low speeds. Short riders also liked the shortened reach to earth.

The suspension does a good job of softening bumps, and vibration from the 52-degree V-twin is muted (at least below 70 mph, at 70-plus it becomes annoying). The seat is acceptable for short rides but rapidly becomes a sore spot if you're on a long trek. The V-Star Classic we rode with the VLX was substantially more comfortable. It would make a much better choice for a rider who plans to travel or even has a long ride to work.

The changes have made the VLX slightly more responsive to steering inputs than before, and it turns a bit more quickly than the V-Star. But it's not as responsive as the Kawasaki 500, Suzuki Savage or Yamaha 535 -- though no one complained. Cornering clearance was about the same as the V-Star. It is stable in most situations, though big bumps will deflect it slightly. Honda's attention to suspension quality carries through to the smallest Shadow, with good springing choices and good damping control. Wide bars and that lower saddle make it handy at ultra-low speeds and provide confidence for short-legged riders at a stop.

With a dual-piston caliper leading the way, assisted by a rod-operated drum in back, the VLX makes respectable stops. If cleanliness matters, you'll spend time wiping up what the O-ring, chain final-drive spreads on the wire-spoke rear wheel's chromed rim. There is a maintenance-free battery and an automaticcam-chain tensioner, however. Fork and helmet locks are standard.

The key to the VLX's success has been its stylish profile, quality finish and solid V-twin exhaust note. All those attractions remain, but other bikes now offer them too. The hardtail-look rear suspension, with its single preload-adjustable shock and impressively fat 170/80-15 rear tire, are enhanced this year with a new chopper-style fender/tail section. The side panels have a more conventional shape and no longer flow around the swingarm or into the fender. The Deluxe version we tested fetches $300 more than the base model's suggested retail of $4999. For that price, you get additional chrome on the engine (on the polished covers for the cylinder head, left and right cases, left rear) which meshes nicely with the big, chromed, triangular airbox on the right. For an extra $200 ($5499), you can get the Deluxe in two-tone red/black instead of standard black.

In the end, its clean, unique looks may be the Shadow VLX's strongest appeal as it confronts a growing number of mostly faster (the Suzuki Savage is the exception) and better-equipped middleweight cruisers -- some of which can match the smallest Shadow's savvy style with street-wise looks of their own.

**High points: **Great styling and sound, improved riding position.
**Low points: **Four speeds hinder performance, unimpressive power.
**First change: **Aftermarket saddle for long rides.

_As of 2003, the VLX remained in Honda's line with no significant changes. Here are the last few model years:_

SPCIFICATIONS
1999 Honda VLX shadow 600

Designation: VT600C/CD
Suggested base price: $4999, $5299 Deluxe
Standard colors: Black
Extra cost colors: Red/black, add $200
Standard warranty: 12 mo., unlimited miles

ENGINE & DRIVETRAIN
Type: Liquid-cooled, 52-degree tandem V-twin
Valve arrangement: SOHC, 2 intake, 1 exhaust; screw-type adjusters
Displacement, bore x stroke: 583cc, 75 x 66mm
Compression ratio: 9.2:1
Carburetion: 1, 34mm CV
Transmission: Wet clutch; 4 speeds
Final drive: Chain

CHASSIS
Front tire: 100/90-19 tube-type
Rear tire: 170/80-15 tube-type
Front brake: Dual-piston calipers, 11.8-in. disc
Rear brake: Rod-operated drum
Front suspension: 39mm stanchions, 5.7 in. travel
Rear suspension: Single damper, 3.5 in. travel; adjustable for preload
Fuel capacity: 2.9 gal (0.9 gal reserve)
Seat height: 25.6 in.
Wheelbase: 63.2 in.
Weight: 483 lb

ELECTRICAL & INSTRUMENTATION
Forward lighting: 5.5-inch, 55/60-watt headlight; position lights
Taillight: Single bulb
Instruments: Speedometer, LCD odometer/tripmeter; warning lights for high beam, turn signals, neutral and oil pressure

PERFORMANCE
Fuel mileage: 39-50 mpg, 45.2 avg.
Average range: 131 miles
RPM at 60 mph, top-gear: 3900
200-yard, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 65.1 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 16.42 sec., 78.1 mph

**RIDING POSITIONS

Cherney: **You know the tale: 600ccs of comfort and familiarity wrapped onto a low-profile platform replete with the good ol' Honda finish, handling, and suspension we've come to expect from the VLX for nearly a decade now. But heck, it's been a decade now! Honda's 600 wasn't ever meant to shock anybody, but a subtle improvement -- an upgrade to five gears -- would be a welcome change and might keep the competitive wolves at bay. There's nothing really wrong with the VLX, just as there's nothing wrong with slipping on a pair of old shoes every now and then. (I hear they even have arch supports nowadays.)

3.0 stars

Andy Cherney
Send your tattered, your smelly, your unheeled wingtips to: Andy.Cherney@primedia.com
petersenpub.com.

**Friedman: ** The VLX 600 has always been good-looking. It's also been underpowered, even for a 600, and that four-speed tranny just emphasizes its shortcoming. It desperately needs a fifth, or even a sixth, gearbox ratio. Although the improved ergonomics are welcome, the smallest Shadow pales in comparison with its competition. All the other 600-class cruisers, except Suzuki's Savage, are more powerful. And I'm more comfortable on all three of Yamaha's offerings, though this is where the VLX has most improved. Both the V-Stars are finished as well as the VLX with more contemporary new-classic styling and roomier ergonomics. The additional $100-600 spent on a Yamaha V-Star Custom would be among the best investments you ever made; the shaft drive alone makes that a bargain.

3 stars

Art Friedman
Friedman's e-mail address is: Art.Friedman@primedia.com
.

Brasfield: You've got to like the VLX for its staying power. How many motorcycles last this long, virtually unchanged? Which is why I was both sorry and excited when I heard Honda was upgrading the 600 for 1999. The new styling will probably win the VLX some new admirers. Still, it's too bad the most needed change -- a fifth gear -- didn't make it into the mix. After all, bikes are about riding, right?

3 stars

Evans Brasfield
Four-speed aficionados can teach Brasfield the error of his ways via his website: www.EvandBrasfield.com

CAPS _As with other Honda cruisers, the speedometer is up where it's easy to read at a glance instead of out of sight on top of the tank. Wide bars offer lots of leverage. _

Along with its lowered saddle, the latest Shadow VLX gets a few related changes -- like this restyled fender/tail section and substantially reshaped frame side panels.

Photography by Dean Groover (www.DeanGroover.com).
Honda's 600 is slower, more cramped, and buzzier than other bikes in this price and displacement range.
Along with its lowered saddle, the 1999 Shadow VLX got a few related changes -- like this restyled fender/tail section and substantially reshaped frame side panels.
_As with other Honda cruisers in 1999, the speedometer was up where it was easy to read at a glance instead of out of sight on top of the tank. The VLX's wide handlebar offers lots of leverage. _
2001
2002
2003 (standard model)
Other modern cruisers once had four speeds, perhaps as a subtle boast about their engine torque (they were all larger bikes). All of them switched to a five-speed gearbox. Unfortunately, the VLX is not particularly torquey and would greatly benefit from a fifth speed. We were surprised when Honda did not include it in the 1999 upgrade.