Motorcycle Road Test: 2003 Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic

Is bigger better? Yes, especially when you pay less to get it, it rides smoother, it sounds better, and it has more features.

WEB EXCLUSIVE - Updated We received our Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 test bike in April, and rather than make readers wait until July to read about it in the magazine, we have posted the test here.

We now have a couple thousand miles on our test unit, and will occasionally post updates as we have information to add.

We will cut right to the chase. As regular readers know, Motorcycle Cruiser magazine's staff testers have been fans of the Vulcan 1500 Classic in its various iterations since the bike was introduced in 1996. It has consistently ranked at or near the top in our big-twin comparisons for its comfort, impressive all-around function, good looks, solid support from the aftermarket, and great value. Our affection for the 1500 Classic notwithstanding, we think the Vulcan 1600 is a better motorcycle. How much better? We'd say that it's enough of a step up that Vulcan 1500 owners who are ready for a new ride should look here first, and that any big-twin buyer should give it a long look if the style attracts them. However, if you have a Vulcan 1500 Classic FI (see test in the Road Tests section of, we don't think you should feel that your bike has been left behind or rush to buy a 1600, expecting a major change. Though the bike is substantially different, the improvement, both in detail and total effect, is incremental. If you have a four-speed 1500 and like it but have the money and the inclination to move up to a new bike, this motorcycle and the financial incentives created by the current economic climate make strong arguments that it's a good time to jump.

Don't let our statement that the 1600 Classic is an incremental improvement over the fuel-injected 1500 Classic suggest that little has changed. That's not the case. Although the basic crankcase is the same, the engineers and stylists have had their ways with almost everything else. Let's start with the basics. The price is $10,499, or $100 less than the 2002 Classic FI. The Vulcan 1600 Classic is physically bigger than the Vulcan 1500 Classic FI that it replaces. It's longer and fatter, but lower in the saddle. The 66.7-inch wheelbase dimension puts 1.1 inches more distance between the axles than on the 1500 FI. And when you sink into the 26.8-inch-low saddle (a drop of 0.8 inches), you are greeted by a fuel tank that is clearly much wider, thanks in part to an extra quart of capacity. At a claimed 674 pounds (and 746 on our scales, brimming with fuel), Kawasaki says the 1600 is 15 pounds heavier than the 1500 FI.

Turn Up the Volume
And, of course the engine has more internal volume. Although the relatively small Harley 1450cc Twin Cam and Victory 1520cc Freedom engines prove that bigger doesn't necessarily mean better or more power, cruiser buyers apparently like to pack a little extra between their legs. This has led to something of an engine-displacement race, currently being won by Honda's 1795cc VTX. The 1500 Kawasakis, which actually displace 1470cc, were being to look slightly puny. Increasing piston stroke 5mm to 95mm added 82cc, and--at least as important--raised displacement to 1552cc, where it could be rounded off to 1600.

Of course there is more to it than that. By shortening the connecting rods 2.5mm, the engineers kept the engine from getting taller and thereby making the bike more ponderous. New pistons and cylinders are part of the package, with new dished piston-crown shapes that retain the 9.0:1 compression ratio. Longer (by 1.2mm) cylinder sleeves were designed to provide better support for the piston and to counter the tendency for greater ring wear created by the longer piston stroke. This also reduces mechanical noise. The 1600 mill requires 90-octane fuel, despite the digital ignition and detonation-impeding dual plugs in each cylinder. Cam timing has been juggled, with the usual target for cruiser engines: strong low-end and mid-range power. Kawasaki claims 10 percent more torque and 5 percent more horsepower.

More power means more engine heat. The new, narrower (by 10mm), taller (by 20mm) radiator with a more efficient and quieter ring-type fan is touted as improving cooling. We haven't hear it come on during testing despite some hot weather. There is also a dash light to warn of overheating.

Other features of the engine follow tradition for the big Vulcans. Each cylinder has four valves with two springs apiece and a single overhead cam. Hydraulic adjusters set valve-train lash automatically. The single-pin crankshaft and the 50-degree V angle could make for some pretty harsh vibration, but Kawasaki's dual gear-driven counter-rotating balancers stop vibration completely. The induction system retains the dual-airbox configuration, with one air filter on each side of the engine. The fuel-injection system has been remapped and now gets gas from a reconfigured pump (inside the gas tank). The pump's more vertical orientation prevents starvation under braking or acceleration. Kawasaki pioneered air-injection to reduce exhaust emissions, and this bike uses the engine control unit (ECU) to precisely control the air-control valve for greater effect and less mung departing the exhaust.

Powerful Look
The engine has been restyled a bit too. New airbox covers are the most obvious change, but the chrome covers on the cam boxes also have new shapes. The main crankcase is painted a metallic silver, and the oil lines for the top end have been tucked away. The outer cases have been reshaped slightly. Unfortunately, a sight glass on the right side is still used to check oil level, and the bike still has to be standing straight up when you use it. Kneeling down to eyeball the glass while balancing your bike upright is a recipe for disaster. Harley seems to be the only cruiser maker that understands that if your bike only has a sidestand, then your systems (such as oil-level check, fuel filler position, and the sidestand itself) should be designed to be used with the bike resting on it.

Several folks commented on a couple of styling lapses on the engine however. The horn seems to have been simply bolted on using the first bolt that the designer saw. It would have seemed to make more sense to give a pretty chrome cover and then mount it in front of the somewhat ugly engine mount point just above it. The other unwarranted eyesore is a slotted metal tab that sticks up behind the cylinders on the left side of the crankcase. This apparently acts as a retaining tab for a galley plug. A representative of Kawasaki's American distributor couldn't explain why the slotted tab needed to stick up so conspicuously however. He speculated that it might be used for something on a different model or in a different market. (Hearing this, one staff wise guy said, "Oh, you mean it's for a Suzuki?") It appears that it would be a simple matter for an owner to remove the tab and cut or grind off the vertical projection and perhaps have the finished pieced plated,

Of course, the biggest visual change for the power train is the new exhaust system. The expansion chamber that used to tuck under the swingarm on the 1500s is gone (and that space is now empty). It's still a dual exhaust, but now the mufflers conclude with a slash-cut design and appear to have a balance tube. Inside the mufflers are catalyzers, designed to reduce emissions even more. For some riders, the best part will be that the new exhaust has a stronger, more vigorous note. "That's pretty loud for a factory pipe," observed one tester.

The 1600 engine makes an impact with more than just sound though. Motorcycle Cruiser's carefully calibrated editorial hineys indicate that Kawasaki's claims for a five percent horsepower boost and a ten percent torque increase are pretty close. The engine has a minor but noticeable edge in power over the 1500. That's not to say that it has become a powerhouse; the 1500 was at the low end of the big-twin power scale and the additional 82cc has not brought enough of a boost to change that. Power is perfectly adequate, however, and the engine delivers it even more smoothly and pleasantly than the 1500. Our only complaint, and a minor one at that, concerns the slightly abrupt response when you quickly roll the throttle on from trailing throttle. Some of this may simply be excess play in the drive train.

One of the nicest differences in the 1600 engine compared to the various Kawasaki 1470cc engines is a reduction in mechanical noises. There are fewer rattles and metallic sounds.

Like other fuel-injected bikes, the Vulcan 1600 Classic starts readily under any condition. Though there is a "choke" (actually fast-idle) knob on the left front downtube, we never used it, since the engine was happy to idle immediately without it.

Changing Gears
The transmission has seen a host of changes as well. Kawasaki has redesigned the clutch plates and switched to a paper-based friction material. This is supposed to improve feel, which we felt was much like the 1500's, and reduce stiction when the engine is cold. However, the first time we shifted into gear when the engine was cold, it usually stalled the engine unless we remembered to run the rpm up first. After that it normally worked flawlessly until the next cold start. However, we got got it very hot in stop-and-go traffic on one occasion and the clutch became extremely grabby if you tried to slip it at all. Once cool, it returned to normal.

Wider engaging dogs on transmission gears are intended to better distribute the added load from the more powerful engine. This bike may shift just a hair quieter and more smoothly than the old 1500. The automatic neutral finder, which automatically stops at neutral when you upshift from first gear at a stop, has been carried over, as have floorboards with a heel-toe shift lever.

Although the 1500 looks much like this 1600 in general configuration, almost every chassis component has been updated or reinvented to create the this bike. The frame is new. The fork is fatter. Wheels are different, and brakes, suspension, and tires have been buffed up.

Frame Up
Kawasaki reconfigured the double-cradle frame with two 40mm rectangular steel backbone tubes, increased gusseting at the steering head and cleaned up some details. The fork stanchions (the inner tubes) grew from 41mm in diameter to 43mm, although they still have covers for the classic thick-legged look. The front axle grew to 25mm.

The most significant change may be the switch to cast wheels with tubeless Bridgestone tires, which are significantly less likely than the tube-type tires used with wire-spoke wheels to deflate rapidly (that is, blow out) when punctured. Tubeless tires are also easier to repair on the road. And, of course, cast wheels are easier to clean than wire wheels. Both retain the 16-inch diameter of the 1500 Classic's wire-spoke wheels, and the front tire is the same 130/90 profile. The rear tire has spread out from the 150/80-16 of the 1500 Classic FI to 170/70. The new wheels bring an additional 11.8-inch brake rotor and dual-piston caliper on the front. At the rear, the rotor diameter increased from 10.6 inches to 11.8 inches, and it retains the two-piston caliper design.

Get Down, Get Wide
With similar steering geometry (the only change is an additional 0.2 inches of front wheel trail), the 1600 enjoys the same pleasant steering of the Vulcan 1500 Classic. The steering is predictable, precise and light. The only complaint we heard concerns ergonomics. The 1600s handlebar, at about 35.1 inches wide, is about 1.5 inches wider than the bar on the Vulcan 1500 Classic FI. It also pulls back more than that bar. As a result, when you are making full-lock turns, your inside hand ends up right in your midriff.

The most noticeable chassis change is improved suspension control. Though the rider's initial impression is one of greater stiffness, the suspension does an impressive job of taking the edge off sharp bumps and making big ones feel smaller and rounder. Riding on familiar roads, we frequently found ourselves bracing for slams that never came. In places where other big cruisers get loose and bounced around, the new Kawasaki tracks through unruffled. These chassis changes have also reduced -- though not eliminated entirely -- the tendency of previous big Vulcans to weave slightly in fast corners. We'd rate the revised suspension as the most significant improvement over the 1500s.

On the down side -- literally -- is reduced cornering clearance. It appears that most of the seat-height drop came from lowering the chassis itself. Also, having a longer wheelbase means that the bike has to be leaned over a bit more to carve the same arc at the same speed. You don't drag as much as some low-riding cruisers, like the Yamaha Road Star or Victory's new Vegas (look for a comparison with the Harley-Davidson Deuce in the June 2003 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser), but we think it's going in the wrong direction.

The riding position is roomier. You can tell that your butt is closer to the road, but even long-legged riders had no complaints about reduced leg room. Most of us would chop about an inch off the ends of the handlebar, not only for more full-lock-turning clearance but also so that we aren't hanging out in the wind as much. We found nothing to whine about on the vibration front.

The new saddle pleased smaller riders more than taller ones. Though it's padded well, the rear portion of the rider's section angles up, making it hard to sit on, even though it is apparently a major part of the seating surface. Taller riders begin to squirm within an hour. Smaller riders sat more on the flat front portion and are less bothered by this "ramp." They also liked the fact that the seat is quite low. This will probably be our first change.

Because it's accompanied by improved traction from the tires, the increased front braking power is quite welcome. Control is good, and the extra braking capability is welcome.

Come Clean
Appearance is often the primary deciding factor for cruiser buyers, and we can't tell you what you like, just what we heard and thought. Our testers and folks we talked to appreciated the cleaner lines of the 1600, though some felt that it looked too tubby. The deeper fenders seemed to be the most controversial aspect of the bike, with some riders loving them and others making jokes about designer drugs. There were a few remarks about the sidepanels and their shapes relative to other components. The detailing drew some criticism, with critics taking exception to the horn's prominence, the array of reflectors obtrusively mounted on the license-plate bracket, the open axle end on the fork, and that unnecessary tab behind the cylinders. "Somebody forgot that cruisers should be clean," was the way one Kawasaki owner summed it up. However, the nice finishes on the headlight/triple-clamp area, the rear end, and shaft drive, also drew praise.

None of our testers really likes the pinkish or purple cast of the "Canyon Silver" paint on our bike, but it also draws some appreciative remarks from oglers. It does change hue in interesting ways as the ambient light shifts. Whether it's basic black, red, or our bike's silver, the color is applied without interruption from pinstripes or other flourishes.

Of course, there are many detail changes, the biggest of which is in the instrument pod, which still resides atop the fuel tank. The electronically operated speedometer is joined by a larger LCD screen, which shows fuel status and lets you switch between clock, odometer or tripmeter. The ignition switch is at last located here too, just in front of the speedometer. You can remove the key after the ignition is turned on, though once it's off, you need the key to turn it on again.

Check the accompanying photos and captions for many of the detail changes and features. The August issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine will have a comparison matching the 1600 Classic with another new big twin. That bike will be revealed here on the site in early June.

2003 Kawasaki Vulcan 1600 Classic
Designation: VN1600
Suggested base price: $10,499
Standard colors: Red, black, beige
Extra cost colors: None
Standard warranty: 12 mos., unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 8000 miles

Engine & Drivetrain
Type: Liquid-cooled, 50-degree tandem V-Twin
Valve arrangement: SOHC; 4 valves per cylinder
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1470cc, 102 x 95mm
Compression ratio: 9.0:1
Carburetion: Digital fuel injection, two 36mm throats
Lubrication: Wet sump, 3.7 qt.
Minimum fuel grade: 90-octane
Transmission: Wet, multi-plate clutch, 5 speeds
Final drive: Shaft, 2.619:1

Wet weight: 743 lb
Wheelbase: 66.7 in.
Overall length: 98.6 in.
Seat height: 26.8 in.
GVWR: 1153 lb
Rake/trail: 32.0 degrees/7.0 in.
Wheels: Cast alloy, 16 x 3.00 in. front, 16 x 4.50 in. rear
Front tire: 130/90-16, Bridgestone Exedra tubeless
Rear tire: 170/70-16 Bridgestone Exedra tubeless
Front brake: 2, single-action, two-piston calipers, 11.8-in. discs
Rear brake: Single-action, two-piston caliper, 11.8-in. disc
Front suspension: 43mm stanchions, 5.9 in. travel
Rear suspension: two dampers, 3.7 in. travel, adjustments for spring preload and rebound damping
Fuel capacity: 5.3 gal.
Handlebar width: 35.1 in., 1.0 diameter

Electrical & Instrumentation
Charging output: 588 watts
Battery: 12v, 18AH
Forward lighting: 7.0-inch 55/60-watt headlight, position lights
Taillight: single-bulb taillight, license light
Instruments: Electronic speedometer; LCD fuel gauge, oil-pressure, odometer/tripmeter/clock; warning lights for high beam, turn signals, neutral, engine diagnostics, low fuel

Fuel mileage: 34 to 43 mpg, 39.1 mpg avg.
Average range: 207 miles
22-yard top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 71.1 mph
Quater-mile acceleration: 14.21 sec., 90.2 mph

Cleaner, wider, longer lines distinguish the 1600 from its 1470cc predecessors.
The 1600's engine is bigger, more powerful, and mechanically quieter than the 1500's. It also pollutes less.
The new radiator offers more cooling capacity.
Redesigning and reorienting the in-tank fuel pump reduces the potential fotr fuel starvation duiring braking and hard acceleration.
The horn could have been covered and used to mask the engine mount, Instead, they are two ugly elements.
Here's the first change we'd make. We remove this retainer and cut off the tab that sticks up above it. We are surprised this got through.
The new pipe has a crossover tube.
Clutch friction plates were redesigned with new materials. Click image for comparison.
Longer, lower, and cleaner, the new frame uses a twin-backbone construction, though its basic configuration is like the 1500's. The right cradle unbolts to ease engine removal.
The new alloy wheels have cast-in faux rivet heads, apparently to create a built-up look. The angled valve stem makes pressure checks easier than a straight one.
The rear shocks adjust for rebound (4 positions) and spring preload. The helmet lock uses the ignition key.
An additional disc and caliper increase front wheel stopping power.
The swingarm was stretched 1.2 inches (30mm). The driveshaft housing retains is chrome cover and the rear end its polish. With no exhaust expansion chamber to hide, the rectifier was moved from beneath the swingarm.
The wide two-part saddle sits lower, and has firmer but comfortable padding. Riders have different takes on whether its shape is ideal. The "ramp" where it steps up is fairly steep and creates pressure points for average and tall pilots
One of the first things we'd do is throw away the passenger grab strap, which is the worst thing for a passenger to hold on to. On the 1600 that means you will have to find some way to fill these slots in the chrome fender rails.
The chrome fork nacelle is a visually significant styling change, providing clean routing for cables and wires from the handlebar. They tuck neatly behind the plate through slots between it and the top triple clamp. The big multi-reflector headlight and self-canceling turn signals have new, less obtrusive mounts as well.
Kawasaki's five-position cam-type adjusters in the control levers for the front brake and hydraulic clutch permit you to quickly and easily set the levers closer to or farther from the hand grip for different size hands or to accommodate heavier or lighter glove weights. Every bike should have them.
The taillight comes from the Drifter That plastic license mount with its ugly reflectors might vibrate off if we bought a 1600, requiring a chrome replacement.