The Victory Cross Roads, Kawasaki Nomad and Harley Road King head for the hills

Two-wheel Wanderlust

The dog days of summer are truly upon us. The air is thicker, the wind calmer, and the days longer—extending before us like endless tarmac shimmering in the late afternoon light. The natural human reaction is to dream of escape, and for cruiser riders, that usually means one thing: Road Trip.

When those symptoms settle over the offices of Motorcycle Cruiser, we immediately look to the machines that can help address the summer doldrums. Touring cruisers offer the components necessary for chasing horizons: locking bags, comfy saddles and windshields to ease the strain.

To help ease the wanderlust, we assembled a trio of V-twin hard baggers and pointed their front wheels out of town. Last redesigned in 2009, the Harley-Davidson Road King has been around in one form or another since man first crawled out of primordial goo, and no hard bag comparison would be complete without it. Unfortunately, a base model (with hard bags) wasn’t available with the new 103ci engine configuration, so we opted for the Road King Classic—which sports leather-wrapped bags—so we could play with the beefier engine. Our next choice, the Kawasaki Nomad, also received a major update in 2009. The final contestant is a relative newcomer to the scene, and we’ve been itching to get our grubby hands on a Victory Cross Roads Core Custom for a while now.

Once the participants were assembled, it was time to strap on the helmets and get to work.

Power Rangers
Occasionally when we gather a class of motorcycles, one of the entries ends up with a decided disadvantage when it's time to tally the cubic centimeters. This time, however, a mere difference of 41cc covered the trio, so no one would have any excuses when right wrists began stretching throttle cables.

We may have lost locking, weatherproof bags when we received the Road King Classic, but we got the new-for-2011 PowerPak Twin Cam 103 engine (Which is available only on the Classic version of the Road King, though ABS and security options are offered as part of a separate Security Package on the base model as well). The displacement is bumped up from 96 cubic inches to 103, yielding a claimed 9.6 percent increase in torque. Unfortunately, the engine felt a little sluggish around town—at sea level. As we climbed up through the mountains, though, it seemed to liven up. Low speed rideability was also affected by abrupt clutch engagement. While not annoying, it did provide an occasional distraction from the task at hand. The Harley’s transmission shifted positively, requiring a firm lift of the lever, and was the quietest shifting on our ride.

The Road King’s exhaust note was the most authoritative of the bunch, sounding just as nice from the saddle as it did from the sidewalk. With its 6.0 gallon tank, the FLHRC averaged 38.1 mpg to deliver a 228.6 mile range, ranking it second by a mere 0.3 mpg.

The Nomad’s engine felt the oddest. Of the trio, it needed to be revved the most to make decent power, a problem exacerbated by its extremely tall gearing. In sixth gear (OD, for overdrive), the engine shuddered and felt like it was lugging—even at speeds of 70 mph and higher. Rolling on the throttle made the shudder more pronounced as speed gradually built. Downshifting once usually made acceleration much more enjoyable. Around town in lower gears, the big 1700 didn’t feel as overwhelmed, but it felt markedly down on power compared to the others. Clutch and shifter operation, however, were seamless and popular with our testing crew.

The Nomad scored the lowest fuel mileage, with an average of 27.9 mpg, which would limit the touring range to 148 miles. Our riders ranked the Nomad a solid second place in the exhaust note shootout.

While the Cross Roads has the largest displacement of these baggers, its 40 cc advantage doesn’t explain how handily it dispatched the Nomad and the Road King in top gear roll-ons from 60 mpg. Even with the heaviest rider aboard the Victory, it pulled away from the others so quickly that we were certain it was in a lower gear. The engine also felt content to loaf along at 55 mpg in sixth, with nary a shudder or complaint. Still, the Freedom engine’s transmission is surprisingly noisy on downshifts. While the exhaust note may not impress folks standing on the side of the road, the intake honk adds to the aural pleasure of opening the butterflies on the beefy V-twin. The well sorted 106ci engine not only produced the most power of the bunch, but also ranked first in fuel efficiency. The Victory’s engine was the clear winner of the ride.

All three bikes illustrate how well-sorted fuel injection has become on cruisers. They all accelerated cleanly without hiccups, and transmission play from on-throttle to off and back on was seamless (belt drive helps in this regard by eliminating most driveline lash).

Shelter from the Storm
A good windshield is essential for a touring cruiser to perform its job well, and for the most part, our trio was up to the task. The Nomad's windshield was the only one to feature lowers, and consequently, it offered the best protection. The Kawasaki windshield's height is also adjustable, and the testers, at 5'10" and 5'11", found that the standard position of two lines showing provided good protection with minimal buffeting. Shorter riders could drop it about 1.25 inches lower. The Harley's windshield was the easiest to remove for riding around town. When in place, it worked as it should, easily placing second for protection.

The Cross Roads’ windshield certainly looked nice, but it’s not a standard item on the bike. Riders can choose from the mid-height windshield (which we got on our test bike) or the three-inch-shorter version for $550. The Victory’s windshield delivered the least wind protection and, more importantly, spilled choppy air onto the rider’s head at highway speeds. Once the speedometer reached 75 mph, the frequency of the buffeting was enough to blur the rider’s vision.

All three shields were easily removable, with the Kawasaki and Victory requiring an Allen wrench, while the Harley rider needed little more than a pair of opposable thumbs. With the windshields removed, hardware remaining on the Road King’s fork appeared the most polished. The Cross Road’s mounts almost disappeared, while the Nomad’s fork looked most like something was missing.

The luggage was harder to gauge. First, the Road King Classic had leather-wrapped bags, which were neither locking nor weather-tight. They also had the largest volume, holding 13.8 gallons each. While they look nice from the sides, one tester opined that the gap between the fender and the bags made them seem unfinished. A nice detail was the quarter turn fasteners, making removal from the bike a snap. The Nomad’s top-opening bags hold 10.0 gallons each and are more practical than the first generation’s side-opening ones. Two issues remain for the Kawasaki, though. First, the bags feel a bit flimsy in build quality. Second, the excessive gap between the fender and the bags gives them an aftermarket, add-on appearance.

The Victory’s bags looked the most integrated. They fit closely to the fender, and like on the Harley, the bags can be removed with the twist of two quarter-turn fasteners. Still, there were quibbles. The rear portion of the bags has unusable dead space. If designers wanted to keep the internal lines straight, they could have used the wasted space for things like a tool kit or a hand pump for suspension. The hard bags hold 10.5 gallons each (available as a factory option for an additional $1000; leather-wrapped bags standard).

The Ride's the Thing
The real test of these bikes is how well the whole package works out on the open road. The Cross Roads' pulled back handlebar was acceptable when riding at speed, but testers felt the reach to the outside grip was excessive during full-lock parking lot maneuvers. The position of the Victory's floorboards resulted in a hung jury. Two testers felt they were too far forward, and that reach to the controls was too far. The other tester thought they were nuts. All three agreed that the shape and size of the boards gave lots of room to move fidgety feet around on.

Unanimity was the word for our feelings about the Harley’s floorboards. All felt the heel-toe shifter limited foot placement, and that the floorboards seemed too small. The culprit is likely the thick rubber padding meant to damp vibration (interesting since, at any speed above idle, the FLHRC was silky smooth). It meant the rider’s feet could rock from side-to-side, giving the impression of not being fully on the floorboards, while the upper body, in contrast, felt neutrally positioned. The grips also come a bit close to the rider, but never felt cramped. The Road King’s seat tread the middle ground in firmness, and the size and shape garnered no complaints.

The Nomad’s riding position was completely unobtrusive—that is, until we started going around corners. The high points: foot position was ideal, with lots of wiggle room. The controls were easily accessed, and little vibration made its way to our tootsies. The low point was ground clearance.

No topic was discussed more during our testing than how Kawasaki could produce such a well-laid out cockpit and the lightest-steering bike of the bunch, and then hamstring it with so little clearance. This wasn’t an instance of magazine guys taking bikes out and riding them faster than they’re designed to be ridden. These bikes, by their very description, are made to be ridden on unfamiliar roads with extra gear, possibly with a passenger. Going around a corner and having it suddenly change to a decreasing radius or off-camber is a scenario that is likely to be encountered. Plainly put, the Nomad would ground out while carrying the same speeds over the same lines through corners that the other bikes didn’t even touch. Although the boards fold up nicely, unforgiving contact isn’t far away. On the left side, the contact was particularly worrisome because the pipe touched down far enough rearward to upset the chassis.

Another area where the riders were in complete agreement was the comfort of the Nomad's cushy saddle. It molded to the shape of the rider, yet never delivered any hot spots. The pillion was the most ample and featured a backrest—a point most appreciated when we had to haul two large-sized American men two-up from the Cruiser offices after returning test bikes. The Victory's seat received mixed reviews. The passenger accommodations weren't terribly comfortable, thanks to high pegs and a backward sloping pillion.

The Cross Roads, on the other hand, was the clearance king when the road threw surprises at us. At speed, it was stable and didn’t require much muscle to change lines or link together turns. Until you encounter the long reach to the bar in full-lock turns, the Victory exhibits remarkable poise and maneuverability at low speeds—even with a passenger. The Road King also was easy to handle (grabby clutch aside) in the commuter bump-and-grind. On twisting, two-lane tarmac, the King had the heaviest steering and required some patience when flip-flopping through a series of linked corners.

Brakes were another hotly debated issue during roadside discussions. The Nomad received lots of compliments for having brakes that “just worked” without calling attention to themselves. The Road King, however, had an abrupt initial bite that caused the soft front end to dive. Under light braking we began to suspect that the Harley may have had a warped front rotor because of mild pulsing; it was not apparent under harder application.

The Victory garnered the lion’s share of the braking debate. While all of us agreed that the front lever required lots of effort to stop the bike, the degree of effort was the primary bone of contention. Even while fully engaging the calipers, feedback at the lever was vague, sucking away riders’ confidence.

Much less controversy was aroused by the discussion of the bikes’ handling. We all agreed that the Road King suffered from Hinge-in-the-middle Syndrome. Whether the cause can be attributed to the rubber-mounted handlebar or some frame flex near the swingarm, the result was the same: Every steering input was followed by a delay. In side-to-side transitions, sometimes the front and back wheels didn’t seem to know what the other was doing. When coupled with a soft front end, the rider experienced some hobby-horsing over mid-corner bumps.

The Nomad’s ride was plush, though we sometimes wanted a little more firmness when hard parts were contacting the ground. Quick steering inputs also made the Nomad wobble a bit, but not to the same extent as the Harley. As with its braking, the Victory’s front wheel didn’t give much feedback. Although the chassis felt firmly planted and gobbled up most road irregularities, it did suffer from occasional rear end harshness.

Touring bikes tend to ship with gobs of electronic niceties these days. However, the Harley featured the bare minimum: an LCD readout of odometer, trip, and time. The Victory was voted has having the best-placed instrumentation; its handlebar mounted display gave readouts for odometer, a tripmeter, tachometer (the only one here), gear indicator, a tastefully subtle fuel gauge and a clock—all controlled by the rider's left index finger via toggle on the switchgear. The Victory also included cruise control as a standard feature. The little black box worked to maintain speed and relinquish control when it should, although the buttons were a little small to access easily without taking eyes off the road.

By the same token, we were puzzled by Kawasaki’s choice of placing a ton of fancy LCD doodads practically in the rider’s lap. Take a gander at all the information the Nomad supplies: gear-position indicator, fuel gauge, clock, odometer, dual trip meters, remaining range and average fuel consumption. It’s too bad the rider has to look so far down to peruse all the data. The Nomad controls the readout with a cluster of buttons on the right grip. The standard cruise control resides below the trip computer switch gear. Again, the Nomad’s cruise functioned exactly as you’d expect it to.

Eye of the Beholder
Whenever we comment on cruiser styling, someone always pops up to tell us we're sadly mistaken. So the discussion of the Cross Roads', Nomad's and Road King's looks had some serious back-and-forths. While all agreed that the Victory had the best fit and finish, that's where the consensus ended. One tester preferred the Road King because it wasn't trying to be any style. It just was classic. Another thought the Victory's lines were the bomb—to the entertainment of the others. The last felt the Nomad's middle-of-the-road approach was ultimately the most successful. Hopelessly deadlocked, we turned to the man/woman on the street. Almost without fail, they chose the Nomad. Their sentiments could be summed up by one 20-ish woman, who said, "I don't know anything about motorcycles, but [the Nomad] looks more cruiser-ish." We agreed that what probably swayed non-riders was the big, wide pillion and the backrest. The Nomad simply looked more comfortable.

So, after hundreds of miles on these three touring cruisers, who did we choose as the winner? Once the votes were tabulated, the Nomad stood on top of the podium. By consistently ranking first or second in every category, the Nomad defined what the better package in this class of motorcycle should be. Next came the Cross Roads with a slight lead over the Road King. Our most important conclusion, however, was that whatever you’re riding, get out there and go. The long days of summer don’t last forever.

Riding Positions

Steve Mikolas
6 ft., 190 lb., 32-in. inseam

I would have never imagined that three bikes with the same ultimate goal could have been so diverse. A cruiser is a cruiser, is right... except when I dug into my notes. Comfort turned out to be the determining factor for me. The Kawasaki has the bases covered in all categories and gets my vote as ‘Best in Show’. It didn’t top all the lists, but it was the most well-rounded. The controls are well laid out, and the Nomad’s rider and passenger position is second to none. I will give credit to the Victory Cross Roads, though, and I rate it a close second overall. The Nomad may lack the modern look of the Victory or the expensive badge of the Harley, but the Kawasaki delivers the most complete bagger package.

John Brasfield
5 ft. 10 in., 210 lb., 33-in. inseam

It came down to this: The Kawasaki was always there. It didn’t do anything perfectly, but it did everything adequately. It has the least ground clearance, but if you ride a cruiser as intended, that shouldn’t be an issue. The gearing is extremely tall, but the ergonomics were perfect for me and the ride was comfortable.

The Victory was my second choice, purely for the motor and the handling. The styling completely missed with me, and the ergos were completely wrong for my frame. But it had the most horsepower and ground clearance.

The Harley surprised me! The fuel injection was perfect, the gearing good and the bike vibrated less than the other two (except at idle). The shorter wheelbase facilitated better handling around town. But if I’m spending that much on a “new” bike, I don’t want it to look like Harleys have looked for forty years.

Evans Brasfield
5 ft. 11 in., 170 lb., 32-in. inseam

There’s no accounting for love. Given my long, torrid relationship with Nomads, I was sure I’d fall for her all over again. Unfortunately, it was like hanging out with the younger sister of an ex-girlfriend; she was nice and all, but the more time I spent with her, the more I realized that what I really wanted was her sister. The Road King was good-looking and personable, but in the end, we’re just gonna be friends.

Now the Cross Roads. From the moment I first saw her, two words came to mind: hubba and hubba. With those curves and moves...let’s just say she put thoughts of other motorcycles out of my mind. So, while those other guys can talk about the Victory’s issues, I’ll just take her for a ride into the sunset.

Gear Exam

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2011 H-D Road King 2011 Kawasaki Nomad 2011 Victory Cross Roads
Base price $19,499 (as tested $19,874) $15,499 $14,999 (as tested $15,849)
Colors Black; two-tone and custom Blue/silver, black/gray Black, crimson
Standard Warranty 24 mos., unlimited miles 24 mos., unlimited miles 24 mos., unlimited miles
Type Air-cooled, 45-degree V-twin Liquid-cooled, 52-degree V-twin Air/oil-cooled, 50-degree V-twin
Displacement, bore x stroke 1690cc, 98.4 x 111.3mm 1700cc, 102 x 104mm 1731cc, 101 x 108mm
Valve Train OHV, pushrod-actuated, 2-valves / cylinder SOHC, 4-valves / cylinder SOHC, 4-valves / cylinder
Compression 9.6:1 9.5:1 9.4:1
Fuel System Port-injected EFI EFI EFI
Transmission 6-speeds 6-speeds 6-speeds
Final Drive Belt Belt Belt
Overall Length 94.2 in. 98.4 in. 104.4 in.
Wheelbase 63.5 in. 65.6 in. 65.7 in.
Wet Weight 810 lbs. 834 lbs. 745 lbs.(dry)
Seat Height 28.1 in. 28.7 in. 26.3 in.
Rake / Trail 26 degrees / 6.7 in. 30 degrees / 7 in. 29 degrees / 5.6 in.
Wheels Laced steel 9-spoke cast 5-spoke cast
Front tire 130/90-16 130/90-16 130/70-18
Rear Tire 180/65-16 170/70 -16 180/60-16
Front Brake 300mm discs, 4-piston calipers 300mm discs, 2-piston calipers 300mm discs, 4-piston calipers
Rear Brake 300mm disc, 4-piston caliper 300mm disc, 2-piston caliper 300mm disc, 2-piston caliper
Front Suspension 41.3mm fork; 4.6-in. travel 43mm fork; 5.5-in. travel 43mm inverted fork; 5.1-in. travel
Rear Suspension Air-adjustable dual dampers; 3-in. travel Rebound-adjustable dual shocks; 3.1-in. travel Single monotube, air-adjustable; 4.7-in. travel
Fuel Capacity 6 gal. 5.3 gal. 5.8 gal.
Instruments Electronic speedometer w/odometer, clock, dual tripmeter, mileage countdown feature, gear indicator Analog speedometer w/LCD odometer, dual tripmeters, range to empty, clock, average fuel gauge, gear position, cruise control Analog speedometer; LCD w/odometer, tripmeters, tachometer, gear indicator, fuel gauge and clock
Fuel mileage 38.1 mpg 27.9 mpg 38.4 mpg
Average range 228 miles 148 miles 223 miles
Torque (claimed) 102 ft-lbs.@3500rpm 108 ft-lbs.@2750rpm 109 ft-lbs.@NArpm