The New Classic Cruisers Comparison | Glory Days, Redux

2013 Harley Softail Deluxe vs.Star Roadliner vs. Victory Boardwalk

The Classic Cruiser archetype defined the cruiser explosion of the 1990s, and the formula has continued ever since. But what exactly does the word classic even mean anymore? Twenty years on, classic cruisers as we knew them are becoming scarce—at least in the full-sized category—and far less uniform than they were at the end of the 20th century. Sure, Harley-Davidson still makes an array of full-sized classics, but it's the classically styled imports that shine in lower displacements.

The Classic Cruiser archetype defined the cruiser explosion of the 1990s, and the formula has continued ever since.

If we're talking straight classic cruisers of more than 1500cc, and without bags, the three bikes assembled here are your main options. The good news is that unlike a decade ago, when it was six-plus choices from Clonesville, you've got some variety in the remaining models (Harley and Star make other variations as well). The interpretation of what is "classic" has evolved.

The ‘12 Class of Classics

Star's latest vision of the style, the Roadliner, is rooted partly in tradition, and partly as a reinterpreted Art Deco design (which never really existed on motorcycles before). It got a recent re-do which toned down the deco-ness, however. Harley-Davidson's contestant this time around is the Softail Deluxe, the most classic of its current offerings. Our test unit had the added bonus of H-D's new Hard Candy paint, which hits a 1970s vibe, as opposed to the post-war angle of the rest of the machine. Victory's new Boardwalk is another rethinking of the concept, and keeps retro cues like whitewall tires, but adds contemporary touches like tire-hugging fenders and beach-cruiser-style handlebars.

Victory's Boardwalk rolls on the familiar tube-frame platform shared by the Judge and High Ball cruisers. Replacing the now-discontinued Kingpin as the floorboard-sportin' cruiser of the lineup, it retains Victory's Freedom SOHC V-twin (the other two bikes here have pushrod-actuated valves) and parts-bin (looking) floorboards. Wide, 50s-style whitewalls with 60-spoke rims scream old-school, while everything else looks fairly 21st century, like Victory's signature angular headlight. Victory also seems to have an allergy to traditional tank-mounted consoles, as this machine gets just a minimalist gauge on the bars, like its other cruiser stablemates.

At the other end of the spectrum, Harley's Softail Deluxe looks like a 1940s bike redone in the 1970s. The FLSTN started life in the 90s as the Softail Nostalgia, and has only gotten more nostalgic since then. Details like the downward-turned bars and cutout riser clamp up front, the brief luggage rack, and the grab rail encircling the rider saddle are pulled straight from the archives—as if designers went on a fishing expedition to the Harley museum for cues they could easily work into a modern motorcycle.

The actual oldest design here is Star's Roadliner. Its large shield-shaped headlight and communicative dash are the coolest, most classic elements of the model, and directionally-swoopy turn signals are a nice touch as well, but the exaggerated fenders and wagon wheels are looking a bit dated. Speaking of dated, the Roadliner is still rockin' one of those mega motors that was so popular last decade, making it the most zippy of the group, despite being on par for weight (thanks to an aluminum frame). All that power, however, is less capable of being precisely controlled when needed, like in the rain or with a passenger. It also slurps the most gas and sports the smallest tank, which is a shame, since it has the best seat. Gas consumption might have been better if it came with a six-speed like the other two, but its five-cog tranny did shift smoothly and more positively than the two American machines did, with a lighter clutch engagement to boot.

Harley's 103-inch version of the Twin Cam is just as responsive and torquey as it is in the other H-D models. It's not as all-out powerful as the other two larger-displacement engines, but it's got plenty of torque and winds out at freeway velocities as well (the 6-speed Cruise Drive tranny helps in this regard). There was a time not so long ago when H-D was the only company rockin' an air-cooled power plant, but now, none of these bikes sports a radiator. The "B" (counterbalanced) version of the 103 doesn't find neutral quite as readily as the unbalanced version in H-D's Dyna and Touring models, but it still shifts positively, with a big ‘ol clunk. Clutch effort is heavy, but not annoyingly so.

Victory's Freedom 106 is a free-revving, torquey, smooth beast. Somehow it combines steady power and highway performance with a more connected throttle response, for more excitement than the sedate Victory touring models. It pulls hard from the bottom and just keeps doing so up into higher rpm. Unfortunately, this doesn't carry over into the transmission, and although the Victory six-speed is steadily getting better, it's still not as good as the last-decade trannys of the other two—but at least this time we didn't miss any shifts. Sound is decent on the Boardwalk; not as melodious as the subdued H-D, and not as raspy as the rowdy Star.

Ergos and Burnouts

All three of the bikes distinguish themselves in the ergonomics department. H-D aimed the low-riding Deluxe at a smaller physique-ed demographic, with the old-school tractor seat pushing the pilot up to the vintage tiller bars, and over the boards. Larger riders felt pretty cramped, but there was plenty of seat padding to take the pressure off, while small riders were decidedly comfy, especially for a bike in this class. Star went the other direction with the Roadliner, as even six-foot riders said they felt like the bike was built for someone bigger (even though they felt comfortable on it). Victory split the difference on the Boardwalk, with wide bars that required a reach from about everyone, but feeling fairly neutral elsewhere. The deep bucket of the seat was nice, but larger riders could feel the pan through the thin foam; it's better than the squishy Victory seats of yore, but only a little.

On the open road, the three bikes are a mixed kettle of fish, but relatively similar and capable. The biggest ergonomic drawback for all are the wide bars coupled with the lack of a windshield. How the rider is shaped seems to have the most bearing on how much wind bothers them, but for the most part the Boardwalk was the worst offender, followed by the Deluxe, then the Star. On a smooth road, differences are minimal, but rough it up a little and the Boardwalk begins to shine. On the washboard tracks that pass for freeways in L.A., the Roadliner is cushy, but it lacks rebound damping, getting bouncy when pushed. The Softail is more controlled, but in the same fast, choppy conditions that flummox the Star, it tends towards harshness, while the Victory balances control and comfort, with or without a passenger (the other bikes just get worse with added weight).

On back roads the Boardwalk continues to be a winner, with easy handling, smooth power delivery and steady suspension. On very tight roads (and parking lots) the wide, forward bar can be a distraction. The Softail impresses with superior throttle response, good suspension and decent ground clearance for such a low bike. However, if the H-D starts dragging parts, it's usually the frame or other "hard parts." The Roadliner is okay in the back country, with some of our more aggressive riders preferring the power that comes on hard, right from the bottom. But the Star's slow steering, drivetrain lash and underdamped suspension makes for a bike that, although enjoyable, requires work to hustle around corners.

Tires turned out to be an issue we wouldn't normally expect in this day and age. Harley's Dunlops were the best of the bunch, notable simply for delivering good grip during the whole test. The Bridgestones on the Star seemed to skid easiest in most conditions, while Victory's Metzelers seemed to break free whenever traction was questionable, but thankfully never when on the brakes. Thrice the rear wheel spun when accelerating hard in second gear, and whenever it rolled over a tar strip, polished concrete, or any grooved surface there was a distinct wiggle. While nothing serious happened, it wasn't confidence-inspiring.

A Reluctant Winner

While the new Boardwalk finished as winner in this contest, it wasn't one of those tests where we love everything, or one where we love just one bike. All three have their charms, and all three will appeal to different riders aesthetically as well, with very different interpretations of what a classic should look like.

Harley's Deluxe will draw smaller riders, with its low center of gravity, narrow spread at the front of the seat, and an easy reach to the controls. It also appeals to the premium buyer; well-heeled riders who are willing to pay more for significant items like ABS, and the best fit, finish and detailing of the bunch. Harley-Davidson's 110 years of history are apparent on this, the most nostalgic of all the models here.

Star's Roadliner is a little long in the tooth, but mostly in a fashion sense. Are wide rear tires, Deco styling and rowdy gas-sucking engines the sort of thing people pay extra for these days? That said, the bike is a blast to ride, and the big engine either makes you a hooligan, or scares you into submission. It's one of the few bikes that fit very large riders exceptionally well, and comes in at roughly the same price as the bargain-listed Victory.

You can accuse us of New Bike Syndrome—picking the shiny new one to win—but the reality is that in this category, where there's not a lot of competition, Victory carved out a nice slice of the pie. It goes toe-to-toe with the mega-bore Roadliner in the engine performance category, makes a very distinct style statement from the Deluxe, and manages to be a more capable steed than either one in all-around riding pleasure and comfort. The fact that it comes as the least expensive is just icing on the cake.

Riding Positions

Ricky Talbot 5 ft. 6 in., 31 in. inseam, 165 lbs

I think for this one, my pick is going to be the H-D, closely followed by the Star. I wasn't all that fond of the Victory, mainly because it wasn't as comfortable to ride. I like Victorys but I spent most of my time riding this one on the freeway and the beach bars just didn't ever feel comfortable, though there was plenty of power on tap. As far as price points go, I wouldn't need the paint or the ABS on the Harley, so from a purely financial standpoint, I would pick the Star. However if price was not a factor, I would probably like the Harley a little more; it's just a little bit more stylish and has better lines. During the test, someone told me that, " ...the Star is an example of what Japanese engineers see through their eyes, of what a cruiser should look like..." which I agree with. So the Harley had the look, the sound, and the feel, and unfortunately for Star, it won my heart (though the Star was close behind). The Victory was just a little bit less comfortable, that's all.

Billy Bartels 6 ft., 33 in. inseam, 185 lbs

"Out of touch" describes my bottom two choices in this test. The Roadliner was a fine machine in its time, but compared to the two more refined American rides, it feels rough around the edges. The H-D Deluxe feels good, sounds right, and does everything it's asked, but the stock bar/seat combo doesn't work for me (though I love the wedge-shaped boards). It's the price that has me balking, especially when you add flashy paint and ABS.

I grudgingly accepted the Victory Boardwalk as the king of this class. The blend of powerful motor, tight handling, fantastic suspension and reasonable price made it a winner out of the gate. I liked it, but didn't want to. It all came down to beach bars. They're such a stylistic throwback to the 90s, and uncomfortable to boot, plus those floorboards surely could have been massaged to be more comfortable, right? But after a few weeks, the lines started to make sense, and though the bars still gave me tennis elbow, I try not to ding a bike for something as that easy to fix. In the end, the Boardwalk won me over, and I'm a fan.

2013 Harley-Davidson Softail Deluxe 2013 Star Roadliner 2013 Victory Boardwalk
MSRP $17,399 $15,690 $15,999
Colors Black, blue, red, black/white, red/white Black Black, White
Warranty 2 years, unlimited miles 1 year, unlimited miles 2 years, unlimited miles
Type 45° air-cooled V-twin 48° air-cooled V-twin 50° air/oil-cooled V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke 1690cc, 98.4 x 111.1 mm 1854cc, 100 x 118 mm 1731cc, 101 x 108 mm
Valve train OHV w/pushrods, 2 valves/cylinder OHV w/pushrods, 4 valves/cylinder SOHC, 4 valves/cylinder
Compression 9.6:1 9.4:1 9.4:1
Fuel system EFI EFI EFI
Transmission 6-speed 5-speed 6-speed
Final drive Belt Belt Belt
Overall length 94.7 in. 102 in. 97.6 in.
Wheelbase 64.5 in. 67.5 in. 67.8 in.
Weight 728 lbs. 750 lbs. 675 lbs. (dry)
Seat height 25.9 in. 27.8 in. 25. 9 in.
Rake/trail 32.1°/5.8 in. 31°/6 in. 32°/6.7 in.
Wheels Wire spoke 13-spoke aluminum Wire spoke
Front tire 130/90-16 130/70-18 130/90-16
Rear tire 150/85-16 190/60-17 150/80-16
Front brake 292 mm disc, 4-piston caliper Dual 298 mm discs, 4-piston calipers Dual 300 mm discs, 4-piston calipers
Rear brake 292 mm disc, 2-piston caliper 320 mm disc, 2-piston caliper 300 mm disc, 4-piston caliper
Front suspension 40 mm fork; 5.1 in. travel 46 mm fork; 5/1 in. travel 43 mm fork; 5.1 in. travel
Rear suspension Dual reverse-pull shocks; 3.6 in. travel Monoshock; 4.3 in. travel Monoshock; 3 in. travel
Fuel capacity 5 gal. 4.5 gal. 4.7 gal.
Instruments Speedometer w/digital odometer, dual tripmeters, fuel range, clock, gear indicator, tachometer Speedometer, tachometer, fuel gauge w/digital clock, dual tripmeters, odometer, reserve odometer Speedometer w/ digital odometer, tripmeter, clock, gear indicator, tachometer
Fuel mileage 43.4 mpg 36.3 mpg 38.8 mpg
Avg. Range 217 mi. 163 mi. 183 mi.
Horsepower (claimed) NA 91 97
Torque (claimed) 98.7 ft. lbs 117 ft. lbs. 113 ft. lbs.
Victory's Freedom 106 is a free-revving, torquey, smooth beast.
Harley's 103-inch version of the Twin Cam is just as responsive and torquey as it is in the other H-D models.
…the Roadliner is still rockin' one of those mega motors that was so popular last decade, making it the most zippy of the group…
Softail Deluxe
Star Roadliner
Victory Boardwalk
Softail Deluxe
Star Roadliner
Victory Boardwalk
Softail Deluxe
Star Roadliner
Victory Boardwalk
Softail Deluxe
Star Roadliner
Victory Boardwalk
Softail Deluxe
Star Roadliner
Victory Boardwalk