Motorcycle Road Test: Yamaha V-Star 650 Custom

A few changes give Yamaha's 650 twins two distinctive personalities. This time we get the boulevardier, perfectly suited for those short of inseam or thin of wallet. From the October 1998 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine.

Unlike a motorcycle manufacturer's flagship -- which commands top dollar by carrying the corporate mantle and delivering the biggest, bestest that the company offers middleweight cruisers must be built to a price point. The challenge of developing middleweight cruisers stems from the need to make them as polished as possible while not exceeding the ceiling of what consumers are willing to pay for a given displacement. One way manufacturers can pump more value into a particular platform is to build multiple models around the same basic motorcycle, something Kawasaki has done with its Vulcan 800 and 800 Classic.

The folks in Yamaha's marketing department are well aware of the benefits of basing multiple models on the same platform. Consequently, the V-Star Custom and Classic share much of the same DNA. Also, the Custom (or Drag Star, as it was called in Europe) enjoyed a year of brisk sales overseas, helping to amortize the tooling used to produce the bike, before being introduced to the United States.

To broaden the V-Star's appeal, the more American-style Classic fits into the fat fashion currently popular, while the Custom -- with its 19-inch front wheel and bobbed rear fender -- slots itself in at the sporty end of the scale. One look at the engines of both bikes reveals virtually identical profiles. Ultimately, the differences between the V-Stars are mostly cosmetic, with only a few functional changes to attract different types of riders. The result: Yamaha has two excellent middleweights vying for sales, for a significantly lower development cost than if it had developed two models independently. And cruising consumers benefit by having more affordable high-quality machines from which to choose.

Although the 650cc Stars may seem a bit light in the displacement department to compete with 750s, they were designated by Yamaha to replace the venerable -- and best-selling -- Virago 750. By placing the V-Star at the bottom of the displacement category, Yamaha faced the additional challenge of delivering the V-Star below the price where a 650cc bike would meet resistance from purchasers. The Custom's $5599 retail price brings the least expensive Star to dealerships well below the $6000 ceiling that traditionally demarcates the sub-750cc class.

Looking at the V-Star Custom highlights Yamaha's attention to detail. The Custom has a fit and finish comparable with and even exceeding some of its pricier competition, including some bigger bikes. The frame, cockpit, engine, exhaust system, and brakes are carbon copies of the more expensive -- by $300 -- V-Star Classic. (See February '98 Motorcycle Cruiser for a full test.) The speedometer and indicator lights follow the style set by the flagship Royal Star, but with mechanical odometers instead of electronic ones.

Similarly, the engine compartment sports a liberal, yet tasteful, application of chrome. Only the plastic pieces betray the Custom's bargain-basement pricing. We've come to expect plastic air cleaner covers and side covers on middleweight bikes, but the V-Star Custom suffers from an overabundance of plastic parts. The fenders, the headlight shell, even engine parts (like the attractive valve and transmission covers) are hydrocarbon-based instead of steel. To their credit, the plastic parts don't look cheap or flimsy; the V-Star is a nice-looking motorcycle.

Comparatively Speaking

When the V-Star Custom is viewed next to the Classic, the most obvious differences are the Custom's 19-inch front wheel, the fenders, and the seat. What surprised us when we rode the Custom was how much those simple changes (and a few not so visible ones) alter the character of the bike.

V-Star Classic riders (as well as onlookers) feel as though their bikes are significantly larger than a typical 650. The Custom, however, acts its size. The petite front fender and the bobbed rear shrink the bike's profile. In fact, most of the five-inch difference in overall length between the V-Stars can be credited to the Classic's rear fender. The thinner saddle with a narrower, removable pillion also contributes to the Custom's slimmer form.

A quick ride highlights the bike's nimble character. The Custom feels more like a 650 than the Classic. The narrow front tire and its different profile cause the wheel to deflect quicker, initiating turns with more immediacy than the Classic. The Custom's slightly firmer suspension increases its sporty feel, although with the unfortunate consequence of increased harshness over square-edged bumps. At all speeds, the bike feels more maneuverable -- but smaller. While some riders will prefer the big-bike feel of the Classic, we expect smaller riders to like how the Custom's light handling (it weighs 25 pounds less than the Classic) and ultra-low 25.6-inch seat height (2.4 inches lower than the Classic) inspires their confidence. Since Yamaha estimates that between 15 and 17 percent of V-Star customers will be first-time buyers, the company may have designed the Custom with these folks in mind, as well.

Out On The Boulevard

Riding the Custom only served to remind us of everything we liked about the Classic. Based on the proven Virago 535 mill, the V-Star's cylinders were bored from 5mm to 81mm and stroked from 4mm to 63mm, to net a displacement of 649cc. Breathing through two valves per cylinder and one 28mm Mikuni constant velocity carburetor per cylinder, the Custom's engine puts out the same power as the Classic accompanied by the same pleasant exhaust note. Power moves from the crankshaft to the ground via a constant mesh, five-speed transmission and shaft drive. The exposed shaft received many compliments. Apparently, cruisers like to see parts move on their bikes -- as long as they don't need to clean or lube them like they would with a chain.

The light clutch is a boon to V-Star commuters, and the slight grab of initial clutch engagement is easy to manage. Accelerating quickly off the line, the Star leaves traffic without incident. Only entering highways, accelerating uphill, or riding two-up calls attention to the V-Star's power limitations. Presumably because of its weight advantage, the Custom is a half-second quicker than the Classic through the quarter-mile. But it still isn't as quick as the Virago 535, which ran a 15.24-second, 85.8-mph quarter-mile compared with the Custom's 15.48 seconds at 82.6 mph. When a downshift is needed to gain velocity, the transmission shifts positively, with minimal movement required to work the shifter from the forward-mounted peg. Similarly, the rear brake is easy to cover and apply with the boot firmly planted on the peg. The 11.7-inch front disc and drum rear brakes work well in every situation we encountered and did not exhibit any tendency to stand up when braking in a corner. The thinner saddle isn't as comfortable as the Classic's, but we could still ride the 140 miles to reserve without suffering. The rubber-mounted handlebar keeps vibration away from the rider's hands and the mirrors until supra-cruising speeds are attained. Simply put, the V-Star works well and is fun to ride.

Yamaha produced a pair of desirable cruisers to bring up the base of the Star line. The Custom, building on the same amiable machine as the Classic, dresses the bike in slightly different clothes and pumps up the suspension a hair. All that cruisers need to decide is which personality they want. With the V-Stars and the Royal Stars taking up opposite ends of Yamaha's cruising displacement continuum, we can only guess what the company will slip into the middle. Merging the heart of the Virago line with the look of the Star worked with the V-Star Custom.

We'll be waiting, anxiously, to see what develops.

**High Points: ** Good looks, pleasant exhaust note, good suspension, great price.
**Low Points: ** Ugly EPA hardware on left side of engine, overly firm seat padding, allen bolts on speedo case and fender rail need covers or chrome.
**First Changes: ** Add a flyscreen to complete the sporty look.


**Cherney: **Don't be fooled, size does matter. When my colleagues asked me if I'd seen the 650 that just arrived, I didn't realize they meant the V-Star Custom. After I'd ridden it a few times though, it made sense. You could say it's a sheep in wolf's clothing. Characteristics like low, narrow bars and light steering in corners betrayed its middleweight status, even while the seating position and suspension felt like that of a bigger bike. The acceleration is adequate but crisp, and the handling is fairly stable on long commutes. That, along with its diminutive seat height, make it a fine choice as an entry-level cruiser. Given my druthers, though, I'd druther take the V-Star Classic for its taller seat height and illusion of size.

Andy Cherney
You can e-mail your Napoleon jokes to Cherney at

**Brasfield: ** Who would've thought that the minor changes differentiating the Custom from the Classic could create such disparate motorcycles? Although in their hearts they are the same bike, the V-Stars -- thanks to the two styling options and the two seat heights, low and lower -- should appeal to a variety of cruisers.

When the time comes to ride the bikes, these two Yamahas show that the changes are more than skin deep. If I rode either of these bikes blindfolded (kids, don't try this at home), I would be able to tell after a few turns whether I was piloting a Custom or a Classic. However, when forced to choose between these middleweight Stars, I'd have to give the nod to the Classic. The difference in the seats would be the primary deciding factor. But the fact that the Classic feels bigger -- admittedly a subjective feeling -- influences my decision, as well. Cruisers looking for a middleweight bike should take the V-Star for a demo ride to see how nice a 650 can be.

Evans Brasfield
Former Associate Editor Brasfield receives e-mail through his website.

**Friedman: ** I am sort of surprised that Yamaha sees the V-Stars as a replacement for the Virago 750 rather than the 535. The 750 was a much different machine -- faster (0.24 seconds and 3.2 mph speedier through the quarter-mile!) and more nimble -- but wounded by seriously dated styling. It was my favorite in last year's 750 and 800 comparison.

As much as I miss the Virago 750's power, the V-Stars are pretty appealing. Both fit me well, but the Classic is more comfortable because of its saddle. And I can't moan about the styling. Although this Custom feels smaller and is slightly more responsive than the Classic (with an even shorter reach to the ground) it still looks like a much larger machine -- both in terms of size and quality. And, of course, there is the price advantage compared with the 750, which sold for $900 more in '97.

Art Friedman
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1998 Yamaha V-Star Custom

Designation: XVS650K
Suggested base price: $5599
Standard colors: Black, blue/silver
Extra cost colors: NA
Standard warranty: 12 mo., unlimited miles
Recommended service interval: 4400 miles

Type: Air-cooled, 70-degree V-twin
Valve arrangement: SOHC, 1 intake, 1 exhaust valve per cylinder
Displacement, bore x stroke: 649 cc, 81mm x 63mm
Compression ratio: 9.0:1
Carburetion: 2, 28mm CV
Lubrication: Wet sump, paper, cartridge-type filter, 2.9 qt
Transmission: Spring-type clutch; 5 speeds
Final drive: Shaft, 5.3:1

Wet weight: 515 lb
GVWR: 897 lb
Wheelbase: 64 in.
Overall length: 91.5 in
Rake/trail: 35 degrees / 5.7 in.
Wheels: Wire-spoke, 19 x 2.5 in. front, 15 x 3.5 in. rear
Front tire: 100/90-19 Bridgestone Exedra L309, tube-type
Rear tire: 170/80-15 Bridgestone Exedra G546, tube-type
Front brake: Single-action, dual-piston caliper, 11.7-in. disc
Rear brake: Drum, rod-actuated
Front suspension: 41mm stanchions, 5.5 in. travel
Rear suspension: Single damper, 3.4 in. travel, adjustments for preload
Fuel capacity: 4.3 gal (0.9 gal reserve)
Handlebar width: 31.3 in. wide, 7/8-in. diameter
Inseam equivalent: 30.5 in.

Charging output: 280 watts
Battery: 12v, 10 AH
Forward lighting: 55/60-watt headlight
Taillight: One bulb
Instruments: Speedometer, odometer, tripmeter; warning lights for high beam, turn signals, neutral, engine

Fuel mileage: 38-45 mpg, 41 mpg avg.
Average range: 178 miles
RPM at 60 mph, top-gear: 4255
200 yard, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 69.8 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 15.48 sec., 82.6 mph

_Additional motorcycle road tests and comparisons are available at the Road Tests section of I am saying is close to your

Check out this professional custom treatment of a V-Star 650 Custom in the Tech & Custom section of

Photography by Dean Groover
The big, 19-inch wheel and the small plastic fender highlight the Custom's sporty personality. The disc and fork are the same as the Classic's -- except the stanchions are revealingly naked.
The hardtail-style rear end absorbs bumps courtesy of the single shock hidden under the saddle.
Is this a V-Star Custom or Classic? You'll need to see more than just the right side of the engine to be sure. The plastic air cleaner cover betrays one of Yamaha's price-saving compromises.
Astute V-Star viewers know what makes this engine a Custom: The slimmer, curvier shape of the transmission cover is the key, rather than the fat Classic piece.
The two-piece seat accounts for the V-Star's incredibly low seat height. The sculpting of the slightly thinner foam is responsible for most of the 2.4-inch difference in seat height, compared with the Classic.