Classic Eights | Honda Shadow Aero vs. Suzuki C50T Classic

800ccs and $8000 is a sweet spot to be in

Over the years, our definition of what is “small displacement” and “entry-level” has evolved dramatically. As the price of making a new model has increased (relative to the material cost involved), producing a small-displacement bike has made less and less sense. To add to that, the phrase “there’s no replacement for displacement” has never more true than it is for current cruisers. With their decided emphasis on usable torque instead of high-revving horsepower, small motors will always be at a disadvantage in that equation. So this is what it’s come to: The smallest 50s-style, chunky cruisers are the 750-800cc models you see here. (Though you’ll see smaller ones on manufacturers’ websites, they’re all prior model years that haven’t sold.)

What’s particularly striking about the two rivals here is how differently they’re focused. Honda’s Shadow Aero is a big little bike, with a midsize engine mated to a tight ergonomic package and a dropped seat height. Suzuki’s C50T Classic looks and feels like a little bike made for big people...or at least average-sized people. Back to back, they almost don’t feel like they’re in the same class.

Honda’s Shadow Aero is actually the second cruiser from Big Red to bear that name. The first was a floorboard-equipped 1100 that came out in the 90s. Like this one, it had chunky tires front and rear, as well as exaggerated, sweeping fenders. Unlike this one, it was a very well-finished, high-end cruiser. The current Aero (which debuted in 2004) is basically a restyled Shadow 750 designed to match the lines of a lost era. Unfortunately, its price is firmly in the ballpark of stalwart machines like Kawasaki’s Vulcan 900 and Star’s V Star 950, so it’s got only its entry-level credentials to bank on in a value-oriented market.

Enter Suzuki’s Boulevard C50T Classic. Clearly a bit of institutional amnesia has cursed this fine machine with the rambling name. Back when the Boulevard cruiser brand was introduced in the early ‘00s, it had a very simple nomenclature: C for Classic Cruiser, 50 for engine size (in cubic inches). It was simple, really. But the original C50 dropped from the lineup a few years back, leaving only the C50T (T for touring), so when an update appeared, it was based on the T (minus the touring stuff), but with a studded seat and whitewalls—thus adding Classic to the name. (Note to Suzuki: Classic 50 sounds way better.)

Get Down On It

Our first analysis for any new motorcycle is always the Sit Test. Honda’s Aero immediately caused all our shorter testers to fall in love, and the taller one to cringe. It’s a distinct reversal from the Sit Test on most other cruisers, where shorter (or even average) riders usually have to make do, or make adjustments to the bike, while tall folk are sitting pretty. Not this time. A super-low, sub-26 inch seat height means everybody not technically defined as a “little person” can go flat-footed on the Shadow. Complementing this setup is a soft foam seat, short-reach bars, and close controls, which all make for a very nice fit if you’re less than 5 feet 8 inches tall. Our token tall tester complained of being locked in one position with feet too high, and too much weight on his tailbone.

Conversely, Suzuki played the usual balancing act, trying to build a bike for everyone, but with a higher success rate than on most bikes. While the bike fit our tallest tester best, it did a good job of fitting everybody else too, with just a sight stretch. The wide, firm seat and floorboards allow for a good amount of movement. Our shortest tester was worried about the width of the seat and the usual air cleaner obstacle to the pegs, but had no problems at all with a straight shot to the right board. The bars are set low and moderately wide, making for a more upright stance with less slouch. This also caused the rider to catch less air on the highway, unlike the Honda’s wide buckhorns, which set up pilots like a sail.

Passenger accommodations were a mixed bag. The Suzuki’s penchant for firmness carried through to the rear seat, which was described by one passenger as a stone bench. Ironically the Aero, with its squishy suspension and underwhelming motor, had a nice cushy passenger seat.

We were split on the dash layout, some preferring the Aero’s simpler, higher-mounted dash, but most liking the additional features (gear indicator, fuel gauge and newer-looking styling) on the C50T. The Honda’s dummy lights are all over the place and hard to see when the sun is out. The Classic 50 seems more done-up and finished, with its seat studs and whitewalls, but there are some items that look distinctly parts bin, like the humongous rear taillight. The Aero is decidedly low-key in its retro-ness, with elongated fenders and spoke wheels (like the Suzuki), but otherwise looking just like the other Shadows.

And they’re Off

The Classic is based on Suzuki’s stout, 800cc cruiser powerplant. Always an overachiever for its weight class, the C50 somehow delivers vastly superior performance to the Honda powerplant with just 60 more ccs and one more valve (but an otherwise similar set of stats). It’s got power everywhere, revs out nicely, and doesn’t care if/when you shift; that’s a rarity even at slightly higher displacements. The only disappointing issues with the 50’s motor is its muted exhaust note and exaggerated gear noise.

The Aero’s unique three-valve twin is designed for torque, but it only really delivers over a smallish midrange powerband. It’s a fairly weak motor, and fairly sensitive to weight. Heavier riders reported sluggishness any time they slipped out of its RPM happy place, and one even reported that it would either accelerate, or climb hills—but not both at the same time. On the other hand, we witnessed a lighter Honda rider pull away from a heavier Suzuki rider while ascending a hill. Since the Honda is a significantly lighter bike, the combined weight savings is enough to give it a leg up if kept at the right rpm. On the plus side, the Aero will pull into the high rpms...right until it slams forcefully into the rev limiter. No matter the revs though, the Honda’s mill had a sweet exhaust note with a bit of rumble and swagger. Its power delivery is super-smooth, and even at high rpms there is no jerkiness on and off throttle.

The Aero’s transmission is a mixed bag, however. It’s got a light clutch pull and easy shifter feel, which contributes to the smooth feel of the bike, but it also occasionally missed shifts and has a huge gap between first and second gear. Most of us would get confused as to what gear it was in, stalling out like a rookie on a few occasions. The Suzuki’s gearbox (like the rest of the bike) is wound pretty tight, with more of a positive click between the close-ratio gears. The tight ratios that made for positive shifting also meant the little motor would rev out excessively at freeway speeds, and the tranny also seemed to make a lot of noise, but that may have been due to the oh-so-silent exhaust note.

Suspension action was another study in contrasts, with the firmly-sprung and damped C50 versus the softly sprung and bouncy Aero. Like the ergonomics, this impacted larger riders more than the smaller ones, as the Suzuki adapted well to different-sized riders as well as differing riding habits, with the smaller riders noting that it felt a little rigid at times. Conversely, the Honda would blow through the suspension stroke with a heavier rider, but be only on the soft side for smaller pilots. The exposed rear shocks are easy to adjust for preload, but when set stiffer, don’t give enough damping, and there was no adjustment for the soft forks. That said, smaller riders were much more comfortable at high speeds on the Aero, as it smoothly handled freeway speeds with ease. The Suzuki had a tendency to grab freeway grooves so it took more concentration to ride at speed.

Suspension begets handling, and the same rider preferences were noted when the roads got twisty. The Suzuki’s tightly-wound suspension made for a big positive when aggressively ridden. It abruptly drops into corners, which unsettled some testers, and transitions side-to-side only with some muscle, which meant that it took some getting used to; perhaps that’s just a side effect of being a far heavier bike. The Aero was very neutral handling and light-steering, but if the road was even a little bumpy, larger riders would be busy focusing on the bounce instead of just riding. Honda’s choice of footpegs means the Aero has more cornering clearance compared to the Suzuki’s floorboards, which would drag fairly easily. That said, both have shaft drive, so cracking the throttle a little earlier in the turn gains you a couple degrees of cornering clearance via shaft jacking at the rear end.

Braking action was right in line with the rest of the machines’ DNA, with the C50 having harder-edged, more responsive brakes, while the Aero was soft and smooth, but not all that responsive. Nobody was happy with the fact that both bikes sport drum rear brakes in the 21st century, though neither exhibited any grabbiness or fade.

The Choice is Yours

In theory, the whole reason for capitalism is choice through competition. In this, both Suzuki and Honda have succeeded in grand fashion. Honda went after a crowd that is frequently ignored by bike makers; namely smaller riders who’d like something more substantial than a 250-500cc bike. They just happened to also make a bike that’s an ideal starting point for a beginner (up to a certain size) who dreams of something bigger. Suzuki went more the jack-of-all-trades route, making a powerful, compact and affordable bike that appeals to all sizes of riders.

Within our small group of testers, 5 feet 6 inches seemed to be the “I’ll-take-either-one” area between the Honda and the Suzuki, with folks above 5 feet 10 inches looking strictly at the Boulevard, and probably anyone under 5 feet 4 inches squarely in the Honda’s camp. In the middle, it all comes down to riding preferences. The C50 has a harder edge, and its suspension is more responsive than comfortable, which will appeal to people who like to muscle their bikes around. Likewise, the aesthetic adds a bit more bling.

While we came down to a virtual tie in this test, our testing also turned up a runaway victory for both bikes...depending on who you are. Folks in the middle (of size or experience) will have a tough choice to make, but we can guarantee that neither of these fun, accessible machines will do you wrong. CR

What about the 900s?

While displacement is only part of the story, there is another side to this class of bikes that we haven’t touched on. Starting at about the price of the Honda Aero are the chunky 900s. The Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic, Star V Star 950, and the Triumph America are all within the same price range, but all roll with heftier motors. While they cut a similar profile, these machines actually take performance to the next level.

They’re not as much designed for beginners, though they would be far from a bad choice. The V Star has won every test we’ve thrown it at, but it is the priciest of the bunch, and is a little less traditional in execution. The Vulcan is perhaps the prettiest bike of the class, and hews closely to the same retro blueprint as the C50. While both the V Star and Vulcan sport belt final drive, Triumph’s America uses a good old-fashioned chain. It’s also the only one with a parallel twin in a field of Vs, making for a revvier engine with less torque and more horsepower.

We’d have a hard time picking these 800s versus the 900s on straight-up performance or capability, as you really do get a lot more bike for a little more money.

2012 Honda Shadow Aero 2012 Suzuki Boulevard C50T Classic
Base Price $8240 ($9240 w/ABS) $7,999
Colors Red, black/silver Red/black
Standard Warranty 12 mos., unlimited miles 12 mos., unlimited miles
Type Liquid-cooled 52° V-twin Liquid-cooled 45° V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke 745cc, 79 x 76mm 805cc, 83 x 74.3mm
Valve train SOHC, 3 valves/cylinder SOHC, 4 valves per cylinder
Compression ratio 9.6:1 9.4:1
Fuel system EFI EFI
Transmission 5-speed 5-speed
Final drive Shaft Shaft
Overall length 98.9 in. 98.4 in.
Wheelbase 64.6 in. 65.2 in.
Wet weight 560 lbs. 611 lbs.
Seat height 25.9 in. 27.6 in.
Rake/Trail 34°/6.3 in. 33.2°/5.5 in.
Wheels Laced aluminum Laced aluminum
Front tire 120/90-17 130/90-16
Rear tire 160/80-15 170/80-15
Front brake 296mm disc, two-piston caliper 300mm disc, two-piston caliper
Rear brake 180mm drum 180mm drum
Front suspension 41mm fork; 4.6 in. travel 41mm fork; 5.5 in. travel
Rear suspension Dual shocks; 5.6 in. travel Link-style single shock; 4.1 in. travel
Fuel capacity 3.7 gal. 4.1 gal.
Instruments Speedometer w/ dual tripmeters, clock Speedometer w/ dual, tripmeters, clock, gear indicator, fuel gauge
Fuel mileage 52.6 mpg (avg) 47 mpg
Average range 195 mi. 193 mi.

Riding Positions

Billy Bartels
:: 6 ft., 195 lbs., 33 in. inseam

While I laud Honda for giving shorter riders a solid choice, I’m clearly not the demographic for this bike. But even if it fit me perfectly, I’d probably still pick the Suzuki. I like its style and feel, and I like the way it drops into corners and drags stuff. I don’t like the sound as much as the Aero, but that could probably be remedied with a set of pipes. That the C50T actually pushed my buttons is a testament to the awesome little bike that it is.

The reality is that riding the Honda was cramped, bouncy, underpowered, and made my butt hurt. All the accolades my fellow testers laid on the Honda, I’m just not seeing. To me it brings substantially less to the table, for $300 more. That may sound insignificant, but if you consider that one of my favorite motorcycles (the V-Star 950) is just $200 more ($8499), it may make more sense.

This is one of the few times that I’m the weirdo outlier in the ergonomics department. Trust me tall people, if this is the tax bracket you’re shopping in and you’re looking for a classic-styled bike, look no further than the Suzuki.

Betsy Nash Gabele
:: 5 ft. 5 in. 127 lbs. 32 in. inseam

I chose the Honda first for the simple reason that it’s a great bike for new riders; it’s very easy to handle and not at all intimidating. The Aero has a classy look and it’s also comfortable to ride. With the very low seat height, your feet are securely on the ground at stops. It’s really well-balanced and leans with ease in the turns. I had a bit of a problem getting into first gear and it stalled on me rather easily, but the gearing was very forgiving, and the engine had plenty of power without having to worry much about panic throttling. You can have a lot of fun with this bike in the canyons as it has good clearance and handles really well, and the suspension has a lot of cush compared to others in this class.

The Suzuki looks like a classic cruiser born in Texas -- a little bit country, a little bit rock n roll. It’s a very basic model but those accessories do make it feel very accommodating. My favorite thing about the C50T is the roominess; I could easily move myself into about four different riding positions. The suspension was almost perfect; firm but not rigid. On the freeway it had a little shimmy in the front, but it had plenty of power, especially up top. The front brake was soft but I was impressed with how much bite the rear drum brake had. It handles well in the canyons but you can feel the top-heaviness when you lean into a turn, and it scrapes a bit in the twisties.

Travis Rabenerg
:: 5 ft. 6 in. 150 lbs. 29 in. inseam

Honda’s Aero won me over in the first 5 miles. With its amazing sound and an unbelievably smooth ride I did not want to stop riding! Even though it’s underpowered, the Honda just flows much better and has a real smooth sense about it. The Suzuki produces great power out of the corner and in mid-range, but it’s lacking in the sound department.

I also liked the riding position of the Honda much more than that of the Suzuki; the C50T’s mirrors were in an annoying location and the floorboards were a bit of a stretch. The Honda handles with more agility and a better lean angle, with smooth power and shifting. However, on rough roads the suspension feels a bit mushy and it bottoms easily, and the rebound is a bit harsh coming out of corners.

The Suzuki is pretty much the opposite of the Honda. The suspension is stiffer, the brakes feel hard, and acceleration is quick. But even with the stiffer ride, I still feel like the bike corners more slowly and does not allow for smooth transitions corner to corner. The Suzuki offers a lot of power but also feels more clunky. This bike works better ergonomically for a larger person.

Overall, the Honda provides one really smooth and comfortable ride. Yes, it can feel a bit soft, but the bike just fit me really well (did I mention I loved the way it sounds?!).

I was surprised at how much fun and comfortable both of these bikes were for an all-day cruise. Both have good torque and good stopping power, but at the end of the day, I enjoyed the Honda more.

Ricky Talbot
:: 5 ft. 7 in. 165 lbs. 31 in. inseam

The Honda has a lot of features that I really appreciated. For one, the fact that I could reach the ground easily made it obviously feel more stable. I can also reach all the controls comfortably, without having to stretch far. It’s a great little all-around bike except for some minor flaws. One complaint is the handlebar and rearview mirror position; they happen to be exactly where you might contact other drivers’ rear view mirrors in traffic, making lane-splitting very uncomfortable. Still, the engine felt surprisingly powerful to me. I was able to find the sweet point of the power band relatively easily and had no problem getting out of the way of traffic. I did have a hard time finding some gears; second gear was especially trying.

The Suzuki Boulevard C50 T Classic is enjoyable to ride and it fit me well. I like its style, too; the studded seat, the whitewalls,the controls... it’s a classy little bike.The power band is awesome and there’s a lot of torque there. I was actually surprised with that aspect, because it definitely does not feel like an 800cc motorcycle. It sure kicks ass for what it is! As far as handling, though, it feels a little bit slower than the Honda, and a little heavier. That said, I still preferred riding it over the Aero. Overall it just appeals more to me, and it’s a little more stylish.