Cruiser

Retro Cruiser Comparison of Eight Middleweight V-Twin Cruisers

What's the right ride for your road to happiness? Harley 883 Sportster; Honda A.C.E. 750; Kawasaki Vulcan 750, 800, or 800 Classic; Suzuki Intruder 800 or Marauder; or Yamaha Virago 750?

The 800 class is the biggest clear-cut class in motorcycling. Five companies offer eight different enticements for the dollars of buyers looking for a middleweight V-twin cruiser. With that many possibilities, just keeping track of what’s available can be difficult.

When we launched this magazine at the beginning of 1996, an 800cc comparison was already on our editorial plan. After all, there were five machines available in the class: Harley-Davidson's popular 883 Sportster (then available in three slight variations), Kawasaki's Vulcan 750 and Vulcan 800, Suzuki's Intruder 800, and the evergreen Yamaha Virago 750. By the time our first issue was ready for press, the list had grown to six as Kawasaki expanded it's offerings to three with the introduction of the Vulcan 800 Classic. By the time that bike was available, we learned that a new Suzuki was on the way. That was the Marauder, released earlier this year. Before the Marauder was available, Honda announced that it would introduce its long-awaited entry, the Shadow American Classic Edition 750 (in two slight variations), this past spring. With all the contenders gathered at last, we began to size them up.

lead
The great eights: Harley's 883 Sportster, Honda's A.C.E. 750, Kawasaki's Vulcan 750, 800, and 800 Classic, Suzuki's Intruder 800 and Marauder, and Yamaha's Virago 750.Cruiser

The machines in this class can be divided into sub groups. Suzuki’s Intruder and Kawasaki’s original Vulcan 800 (a.k.a. the 800A) share a common styling approach with their skinny front tires and chopperesque lines. The currently popular wide look is given form by Honda’s new A.C.E. 750, the Kawasaki Classic, and Suzuki’s Marauder. At the other end of the trendiness scale are the original V-twins from Yamaha and Kawasaki, the Virago and Vulcan 750 respectively. These two, originally introduced in the early 1980s, were designed while Japanese stylists were still groping with the problems of meshing Asian technology with American styling tastes. The final styling variant is represented by Harley’s Sportster, which plays its own song and won’t fit neatly into any of the conventional styling niches.

But the machines must all tackle roughly the same mission. They need enough power and comfort to provide serious transportation and fun for any experienced rider, whether his or her requirements entail riding across town or across the state. All eight also serve the new or “companion” rider. In other words, with their low saddle heights, manageable power characteristics, and friendly handling, they are designed to lure first-timers or passengers, mostly women, who want to take the handlebar into their own hands. Cruisers in the 800 class, should be versatile. They should carry it off with street-smart style.

The problem, at least from the standpoint of a magazine tester, is that all eight accomplish their common mission successfully. Each one has strengths and weaknesses; ranking them became a formidable task.

wide rides
Wide rides: Honda's 750 epitomizes the fat look and prompted the most compliments at gas stations, though Kawasaki's Classic came close. The Marauder modifies the look with its own street-racer overtone. The price difference among the three spans $2000. Though basic equipment is similar, quality varies.Cruiser

The Way You Look Tonight
First impressions always come through the eyes, and the two Vulcan 800s, the Shadow A.C.E., and the Intruder made the most style points. The Honda profile elicited praise from virtually everybody, with the Vulcan Classic a close second. However, some people still have a warm spot for the chopperesque style of the Intruder and Vulcan 800A. The dated styling of the Virago and Vulcan 750 left most riders cold, though they had a few admirers. The Sportster had both fans and critics but it got none of the wows that greeted the Shadow. One rider said, "Form follows function on the Sporty. There's no goofy plastic covers or billet-look beauty panels. It's an honest machine and beautiful for it." Those remarks about plastic covers and imitation billet refer particularly to the Marauder, and to a lesser extent, the A.C.E., both of which prompted each of the ten riders involved in the test to comment about some of the plastic pieces. The Intruder and Vulcan 800s with little plastic, held up the best under detailed inspection.

As soon as you get on a bike, its appearance becomes secondary. The farther and more frequently you ride, the less appearance matters. However, ergonomics turned out to be almost as personal of a matter as appearance in this class. Take the 883 as an example. The high, somewhat rearward placement of the footpegs and short (28.7 inch wide), low handlebar suited riders five-foot-six and under perfectly, but riders over five-foot-ten said it folded their legs up too much, making them feel cramped. However, everyone liked the low bar at highway speed, where it minimized wind pressure. With the Shadow, the situation was reversed. Our shortest rider called it too big, though tall riders felt it was comfortably roomy. The wide (33.4-inch) bar created a problem for just about everyone though, since it not only spreads you out in the wind like a sail, but became awkward while making full-lock turns at parking-lot velocities. Shorter riders had trouble reaching the outside handgrip in a full-lock turn and taller riders discovered that the inside bar end hit their knees.

Old timers
Old-timers: Less trendy than the other 800s but packed with useful features like tachometers and shaft drive, the Virago and Vulcan 750 represent excellent values for riders looking for reliability and function. They won’t win awards for style, but they’ll win the hearts of owners, as last issue’s survey of Vulcan 750 owners shows.Cruiser

Shorter riders also complained about the height of the handlebars on the Intruder and, too a lesser extent, the Vulcan 750, though none of the bikes were too tall for them. Oddly enough, taller riders also felt cramped on those motorcycles, especially the Intruder with its pullback bar, which makes you feel crowded. The Intruder’s riding position is more feet-forward than the Vulcan 750, which places its footpegs back further than most of the other bikes. The Intruder bar places the grips at a more vertical angle than any other bike here, which requires you to grip the bars, not just hook your hands around them to hold on at high speeds. The Vulcan 750 bar is an uninspired, very 1970s bend with few swoops but significant rise; it puts the grips at a comfy angle, just a bit higher than most riders preferred and too close to the seat for bigger riders.

There were some happy mediums, however. Everyone liked the riding positions of the Virago and Vulcan Classic. The Virago has an unusual handlebar shape, but the grips end up in a place that’s comfortable for everyone and neither too vertical nor too pulled back. The position and angle of the Classic’s handlebar ends gave it an edge over the 800A for most riders. The Marauder and Vulcan 800A also worked for most riders, though the bar-peg relationship wasn’t quite as comfortable as on the Classic and Virago. The lowish bar on the Marauder leans you into the wind slightly, though not as much as the Harley. On the highway, most riders on the Marauder soon put their feet on the passenger pegs, in part because the seat and handlebar position invite it and partly because its passenger pegs are easier to reach than the rest.

A few unique annoyances cropped up. The Virago’s rear cylinder gets hot enough to make your leg uncomfortable, despite a heat shield. One rider had a similar complaint about the Vulcan 750. The narrow Sportster tank displeased some riders, who also complained that the protruding air box was an uncomfortable leg rest.

tank
Though currently popular, the tank-top instruments of the Kawasaki 800s are out of your line of sight and take space that could be used for fuel in exchange for leaving fork-top area uncluttered. The conventional location at the handlebar is easier to check without taking your eyes so far from the road.Cruiser

Sit on It
It was easier to get a consensus about seats, though bigger and heavier riders placed greater emphasis on saddle quality. The Virago's saddle met with universal praise. The saddles on the A.C.E., which is the widest and fairly flat, and the generously padded but somewhat narrow Vulcan 750, were also well received. The only complaint about the Honda saddle was that it forces taller riders to sit a bit more forward than they like. The Kawasaki 800s were almost as good and some riders rated them highly. Smaller riders, who sat in the middle of it, liked the Marauder saddle, but taller riders, sitting at the rear, quickly felt uncomfortable pressure from the protruding latching mechanism under the saddle. The Intruder seat felt too narrow for almost everyone, crowded larger riders, and is also thinly padded. Our Harley was a special case, since, having experienced the standard small solo saddle, we didn't want to deal with it again. We arranged to have our test unit fitted with the accessory dual saddle, which was flat and comfortable in shape, though thin padding made it a bit hard for larger riders on long rides.

Though none of these make great passenger haulers, the seats on the Kawasaki 800s seemed to be the best received by back-seaters, with the Honda and Yamaha also getting good marks. Some passengers were drawn to the Vulcan 750 and Intruder by their small passenger backrests, but larger accessory backrests are available for all of these machines.

Everyone noted that the Sportster vibrates the most, especially through the handlebar, though this annoyed some riders more than others. The Honda was rated the smoothest by everyone. The Kawasaki 750 and Yamaha also prompted notes about their low vibrations from multiple riders, with the rest getting a single note each about their buzz.

dash
In the case of the Kawasaki 750, it also brings a wealth of instruments and warning lights, which most riders preferred to a simple single instrument.Cruiser

Depending on the moment’s mission, most of the suspensions drew praise or criticism. Only the Honda suspension provides both a compliant ride over bumps and steady handling in sweeping corners. Revised rates in the Harley give it stone steady handling in smooth corners, and it out-scored the other seven in twisty-road competence. However, its tautness and limited travel became a liability when the road was bumpy. It delivered the harshest ride in this group, and big bumps in corners required a degree of circumspection. The Suzukis, Kawasakis, and Yamaha, have softer suspension, which provides significantly smoother passage over rough spots, but also allows those machines to wallow in fast, sweeping corners. The Vulcan 750 and Intruder were the worst in this regard. The Intruder exhibits the most chassis flexibility, and the VN750 has the least effective damping, which lets the suspension continue to pump after encountering a bump or other load in a corner. This lack of damping makes these bikes wallow, though they do so to a lesser degree. The softness of the suspension, particularly on the Virago, and to a lesser degree the Vulcan 750, leave you with little suspension travel after you load a passenger onto the backseat.

None of these 800s are exemplary in gusty cross winds, though again, the Intruder and Vulcan 750 seemed to be affected the most. On winding roads, the Sportster led the league in cornering clearance, with the Honda dragging before any of the others.

In terms of steering manners, the Virago, Shadow, and Sportster were the most neutral and predictable. However, the margin here was very small, no one complained about any of the machines. The wide bars make the Shadow easy to man-handle at tip-toe speeds up to a point. The Intruder’s skinny front tire and low overall weight make it feel quite light and manageable at an ultra-slow pace, though it is also slightly floppy. The Marauder, which weighs just slightly more, doesn’t feel quite as light.

virgo and vulcan 750
There is no particular effort needed to start up these eight machines, although the handlebar-mounted chokes of the Virago and Vulcan 750 are handy on cold mornings.Cruiser

Just Stop It
We expected the only bike here with a disc rear brake to have an edge when it was time to stop, but the Sportster's rear disc brake proved a bit too sensitive. When the group had to make a hard stop, the Harley was the one that locked up the rear wheel first. There wasn't much to separate the single-leading shoe drum brakes of the other seven, especially since they also have a similar tire compound, though the Honda seemed slightly touchier than the others, despite having the widest rear wheel in the crowd.

Still, the front brakes are the critical ones in a hard stop, and there are a number of good ones here. The A.C.E., Marauder, Virago, and Vulcans 750 and Classic, all did the job quite well, delivering strong power with good feel and feedback; the Yamaha and Kawasaki 750s because they have dual discs, the others because they use dual-piston brakes (though the Classic required a stronger squeeze than the others). The VN800A and Intruder felt mushy, but both provided reasonable power despite the feel, especially with the light Intruder, to stop. The Harley front brake also has good power and control—provided your hand is big enough to grasp the lever. Riders with smaller dukes had to choke up on the lever to get their fingers around it, losing power and control in the process. Suspension also affects braking. The softly sprung XV and VN 750s dive hard in rapid stops. The Honda and Harley dove less, making them more stable in panic stops.

rugged individualist
Honda makes much of the fact that the A.C.E. 750 has a heavy-gauge fork brace under its fender, but all of the bikes have similar braces, at least a sheet-metal loop between the fork legs. The Virago has a stout casting bridging the sliders, and this extensive sheet-metal brace is tucked under the Marauder fender.Cruiser

And Eight to Go
Before you stop, you have to go. There is no particular effort needed to start these eight, although the handlebar-mounted chokes of the Virago and Vulcan 750 are handy on cold mornings. None of the bikes are particularly coldblooded, and most will start without choke on warm days. However, once warmed up, the two Kawasaki 800s are a little balky off the bottom, presumably because they are a bit lean. This was more apparent on the 800A than on the Classic. Our Harley also carbureted unevenly, sometimes stumbling when given a full helping of throttle.

One of the most clear-cut differences among the bikes was power. The Intruder just runs away from the other machines, especially the single-carb models. No matter what the speed, if you open the throttle on the Intruder, you immediately zip past the other bikes. Some of the other bikes can’t keep up with it, even when downshifted a gear. What surprised us the most, however, was how much slower the Marauder—which is supposed to have the same engine as the Intruder, and more efficient chain drive—was in comparison, at least in all-out sprints, where it fell behind the second-faster Vulcan 750 and the Virago. The Marauder does better when the race starts in top gear; in that event, the Marauder is stronger than anything except the Intruder. Among the single-carb bikes, the Kawasakis were slightly better performers. Honda’s new Shadow A.C.E., which has the least displacement in the class by a few cubic centimeters, is the slowest member of this club. But displacement isn’t the answer, since the Sportster, with a 10 percent advantage in engine size over the next biggest machine, was barely faster than the Honda. The slower bikes suffer in part because of their tall gearing, which makes them feel more relaxed at highway speeds than the others.

An area where the Sportster clearly out performed all the others—due in part to its tall gearing—was fuel mileage. The Harley was the only bike that consistently broke 50 miles per gallon out on the highway. That still wasn’t enough to give it the greatest cruising range in the group, due to its smallish 3.3-gallon tank (though it’s a major improvement over the 2.25-gallon it replaced). Despite just average fuel mileage, the Kawasaki 800s, with their 4.0-gallon tanks (the biggest here), can go slightly farther between fill-ups, according to our calculations. The Intruder, with the smallest tank (3.2 gallons), and only average mileage, will normally need to be replenished with fuel after the fewest miles. The bikes all shifted well, though the Honda was the smoothest gear-changer. The Harley was the noisiest shifter, but it resisted our attempts to make it miss a gear. One rider found the Marauder shift lever a little short for his feet, and others wished for slight adjustments to the shift levers. Finding neutral on the Harley could be a little tricky, though it dropped right in if it was selected before coming to a complete stop. The automatic neutral finder of the Kawasakis, which prevents the transmission from shifting up past neutral when you’re at a stop, simplifies this chore, although the Vulcan 750’s neutral light didn’t always know it was in neutral. No one complained about ratio staging on any of the bikes, though the Intruder and Vulcan 750 seem the busiest on the highway.

honda
A rare sight: The Marauder toolbox lid still in place. Vibration quickly loosened every lid screwed on the box. We lost two lids and the tool kits behind them.Cruiser

To live up to their requirement for manageability, these machines must provide light, progressive clutches. The Harley requires a heavy pull, which elicited complaints from riders with smaller hands. It did engage smoothly though. The Marauder worked well when pulling away normally, but rolling away briskly with lots of throttle and rpm made it grab. Lash in the Virago’s drive train showed up as abruptness in clutch engagement during high-power departures. This may be a damper somewhere in the drive line that bottoms out. The rest of the clutches prompted no complaints.

While on the subject of power trains, it’s worth noting how they sound. Everyone has his or her own favorite cadence and tone, but there was general agreement that the Sportster, thanks to its new, less restrictive mufflers, sounds better than ever and better than any bike here. It also seems to make less mechanical noise than it used to. The exhaust note of the Virago also drew appreciative comments. The Honda was quiet at idle but found its voice, a pleasant one, under load.

toolbox
Honda mimicked the aftermarket with billet-look pegs. Though not polished like real billet, they push the envelope a little bit and add a distinctive touch.Cruiser

Problems
We had a few minor mechanical difficulties with the bikes. The 750 Vulcan had an intermittent electrical connection. Occasionally it would fail, leaving the tach, horn, and instrument lights inoperative. Wiggling the instrument panel or turning the ignition on or off solved the problem. When running at high (above legal highway) speed, the Intruder would occasionally slow down; we believe the symptom was caused by a fuel-flow problem. The Virago's low-oil-level warning light came on for several minutes at one point, scaring the rider, even though the bike had plenty of oil.

how bikes look
While everyone had their own personal preference on how the bikes look and sound, each bike had its own positives and negatives.Cruiser

Our Marauder, which is the same bike we tested for our February issue, lost its tool kit during that original test. The problem was caused by the design of the toolbox, which uses a screw-on sheet-metal cap. The location of the cylindrical toolbox above the transmission means that it gets rattled by the engine. Vibration simply loosens the cap, which falls off. The tool kit follows a short while later. During this test, we confirmed that it wasn’t an isolated problem, as we lost two more tool kits and toolbox lids. (We have heard of other Marauders with the same problem.) The last cap that departed the bike was taped in place and still came loose. This is not only aggravating, it’s dangerous because the tools can hit someone riding behind you. In our opinion, Suzuki should redesign the toolbox—which looks dated anyway—at the earliest opportunity. We also believe that the lids and tool kits should be replaced under warranty, since it’s obviously a design defect. At least the Marauder has a tool kit; the Sportster doesn’t, and has no place to store one. Figure on spending in excess of $100 for a kit, and a carrying bag if you want one on an 883.

In the 1000 miles or so we put on each bike, none used a significant quantity of oil or required any other routine maintenance, not even chain adjustment. However, wiping chain lube off the rear tires and fenders of the Shadow, Marauder, and Vulcan 800s did get old quickly, though the Marauder’s cast wheels were easier to clean than the wire wheels on the other three. We like the looks of wire wheels, but cast wheels have other functional advantages. Most notably, they can mount tubeless tires, which tend to lose air more slowly when punctured than a tube-type tire. A punctured tube can deflate rapidly or blow out, creating a possible control problem. Spoked wheels also require occasional maintenance.

sportster
Besides providing security for a passenger, the small backrests of the Intruder and Vulcan 750 (shown) are an easy-to-reach place to store tool kits. The Sportster has neither kit nor box.Cruiser

Sweating the Small Stuff
These machines offer a variety of maintenance-reduction features. The Vulcan 750, which includes shaft drive and hydraulic valve adjustment along with the usual amenities—automatic cam-chain tensioning, fiddle-free electronic ignition, and a spin-on oil filter—seems to ask the least from its owner in terms of maintenance. The Sportster also offers a no-adjustment-needed valve train, and the Harley's belt drive seems to need less maintenance than a chain (and no messy lube). The Harley and Kawasaki 800 air cleaners are the easiest to service. The VN800 air cleaners mount alongside the engine like that of the Harley and are accessible by removing a single nut; the 883 has two screws. Honda also placed the A.C.E. 750 element in a chrome plastic oval pod on the right side of the engine, but you must remove six screws to get at the element, which occupies just a fraction of the volume of the airbox. Intruder 800 owners complain about the difficulty of reaching the battery, which is located under the swingarm. The centerstands of the Vulcan 750 and Virago simplify almost every aspect of maintenance, especially when you must removal a wheel.

In terms of day-to-day usefulness, each bike had minor points we liked and we some didn’t. The tank-top speedometers of the Vulcan 800s require you to take your eyes off the road to check them. Speedometer accuracy at 50 mph varied from just over one mph optimistic on the Sportster and Intruder, to almost five mph on the Vulcan 750, which adds up after a full day at high speeds. Several riders appreciated the tachometers of the Vulcan 750 and Virago. We also liked those bikes’ dual horns, with the Virago actually providing a serious amount of noise, unlike most bike horns.

The Vulcan 750’s center-to-cancel turn-signal system is a bit awkward. However, everyone preferred it to the self-canceling two-button Harley system, which cancels too soon around town and not soon enough on the highway, leaving us unsure of whether it’s still flashing or not, especially since the instrument lights are so dim. The Yamaha also has self-canceling turn signals but uses a single switch with a push-to-cancel design. Though one rider didn’t like the self-canceling feature, which he felt removed control by turning off whether he wanted it to or not, most of the other testers appreciated it on the Yamaha. The rest of the 800 twins have standard push-to-cancel manual switches. The tinted mirrors of the Sportster reduced visibility at night, and the round mirrors on the Shadow VN750 and Marauder offered reduced angles of view when compared to the horizontal mirrors, which let you see across two lanes behind you.

These machines offer different levels of standard theft deterrence. In standard form, the Sportster has nothing more than an ignition switch, though there are lugs on the steering head and frame to lock the fork with a padlock. (However, you must then find a way to carry the padlock.) The Vulcan 750 and Virago combine fork and ignition locks in a single unit atop the fork crown. Although we like this ignition lock location and being able to turn off the bike and lock the fork in a single motion is handy, it’s also convenient for thieves, who need only slide-hammer a single easy-to-reach lock to ride away on your bike. Of course, these two bikes are probably much lower on thieves’ most-wanted list than Sportsters. The rest of the bikes have separate ignition and fork locks, but on the Suzukis, they also use different keys, which serves no useful purpose that we can think of (unless you have to replace one of the locks, in which case it saves you from buying the whole set).

kawasaki
Kawasaki’s front ends trace the evolution of Japanese cruiser style. The 750 Vulcan designed in the mid 1980s, emphasized function with strong dual-disc brakes and a cast wheel suitable for tubeless tires. More recently, long-looking forks with skinny 21-inch front tires on wire-spoke wheels came into vogue. The Vulcan 800 shown is similar to the Intruder and, like the Suzuki uses a single caliper and disc. Kawasaki’s Classic represents the current rage also pursued by the A.C.E. and Marauder, with a wide 16-inch wheel, fat fenders, wide fork legs, and a double-piston caliper stopping a single disc.Cruiser

Behind the 800 Ball
After accumulating more than 10,000 miles among the eight 800 twins, there are some winners but no dominant, head-and-shoulders-above-the-rest victor. Personal preference pulls everybody a different direction, as the accompanying personal ratings chart reveals. In a couple of cases, a bike that got the highest rating from one rider received another rider's lowest score. This emphasizes how important it is to try before you buy. If you can't get a test ride, at least take a leisurely test-sit.

The bikes that got consistently strong reviews were the Honda and the two Kawasaki 800s. Though underpowered in comparison to the other seven and bedecked with a bit more plastic than we’d like, Honda’s new Shadow A.C.E. 750 was comfortable for all but our smallest rider and turns more heads than any of the others. Good handling and strong brakes complete a well-executed package which comes with a palatable price.

Kawasaki’s two 800s also put in a sucessful all-around performance, offering comfort, steady handling, pleasing styling, and clean detailing. Though stronger than the Honda, they are still slow by comparison to the twin-carburetor machines. However, the price of the VN800s is a bit high for what they deliver. If they had shaft drive systems the current price would be in the ballpark. The Classic in particular, at over $1000 above the rest of the field, seems pretty pricey. The Vulcan 800A, which is $800 less than the Classic, despite having comparable equipment, is more reasonable.

exhaust
A variety of final drive styles is available in this class. Chain drive, as used on the Honda, both Kawasaki 800s, and the Marauder (shown), is cheap, light and efficient, but requires regular maintenance and is a bit messy (if serviced the way most chain makers recommend). Harley’s toothed belt drive eliminates the mess and the need for most maintenance. Its width uses up more space than a chain, limiting rear wheel width. It’s quieter than a chain, and although its life seems to be longer than a chain’s, it will eventually need replacement. The shaft final drives used on the Vulcan 750, Intruder (shown), and Virago are more expensive and heavier than the other two types. They also induce some chassis jacking when you apply throttle. However, they require little maintenance, make no mess, and will probably outlast two or three owners.Cruiser

Two riders picked the Yamaha Virago. With strong power, comfort equal to or better than any of the other bikes, neutral steering, and an extensive equipment list, the Virago offers plenty for anyone who likes its looks.

Though a bit cramped for tall riders who scored it accordingly, the Harley appealed to smaller riders. Improvements to suspension rates have paid dividends, allowing the Sportster to live up to its name. Power isn’t impressive and standard equipment is quite spartan, but the low price tag provides an excuse and leaves budget to fix those things—assuming you can find a dealer who will sell one for the suggested price. Still, it vibrates more than any bike here, which isn’t easily fixed and proved a major annoyance to some riders. “I like the rumble but not the shake,” said one novice. It enjoys the best parts and accessory support of any bike in the class.

Despite its class-conquering power and tremendous attention to detail, Suzuki’s Intruder pays for its chopper-style lines with cramped ergonomics and a somewhat flexible chassis. And, though some riders love its look, others are unimpressed. The price is definitely right for a bike with so few cost-cutting measures and shaft drive, but the Intruder itself is not right for everyone. The aftermarket supports it better than any of the other Japanese-brand machines.

In comparison to the Intruder, it seems that Suzuki spared no expense in cutting corners on the Marauder. The basic look is pleasing and original, but chintzy pieces are everywhere. A surprising amount of power has been lost in the translation from the Intruder, but the Marauder offers greater roominess, steadier handling and better brakes than its stablemate. The price is also an attraction, especially if you get to keep the tool kit.*

Despite a strong-running engine, a comfy saddle, and the most extensive list of standard features—which includes meaningful functional attractions like shaft drive, no-maintenance valves, and a centerstand—Kawasaki’s Vulcan 750 slips to last in this group. Though two riders rated it among their top picks, others were put off by the unsophisticated styling and mushy suspension.

When you factor in all aspects of these bikes and different riders reactions to them, the difference between first and last is surprisingly small especially when you consider they were designed by five different companies over a decade and a half. None of the bikes were given abysmal scores by any of the riders, and only one rider gave one bike a very strong score. Though the 800 twins don’t push the same hot buttons as some of their big-displacement counterparts, none of them is a complete toad either. In traffic or under smaller riders, these are much handier bikes than most big twins. Any one of these eight can provide dependable transportation, whether its for a weekly run downtown, a daily 100-mile commute, or a long-distance summer trip.

Our 800 round-up has been a long time in coming, but finding eight such solid, versatile machines made the wait worthwhile.

Cruiser
After racking up the miles on the eight 800 twins, there are some winners but no dominant one that stood out significantly above the rest.riding positions

Riding Positions:
If all eight 800s were full-time residents of my garage, the Yamaha would rack up the most miles, with Kawasaki's Classic and Honda's newest Shadow vying for second. The Virago is comfortable, has good power, and steers exactly the way I like a bike to. More than any of the others, the Yamaha invites me to ride.

The Sportster would get attention too. I’d ride it when twisting roads beckoned, and I’d fiddle with it the most. It would make a great project.

I'd probably ride the Intruder and the Vulcan 800A occasionally, when my mood suggested one of them. I suspect that the Mar­au­der and the Vulcan 750 would just sit. The VN750 doesn't do anything that the Virago doesn't do as well or better, and the Marauder, with all the plastic pretend stuff, is hard to take seriously. —Art Friedman

Friedman, who has been testing motorcycles for publications for over 25 years, stands 5-foot-10 and weighs 185.

chopperesque
Chopperesque: Two machines, the Intruder and the Vulcan 800A fit into the chopper-style sub-category of the 800 class. The Intruder boasts maximum power and shaft drive, but the ergonomics of the Kawasaki impressed riders, a few of whom rated it as their top pick among the eight machines included here.Cruiser

Rating these bikes is daunting. Performance was not the deciding factor and opinions on ergonomics differed dramatically from rider to rider. Believe me, I tried to find that uncomfortable bump in the Marauder’s seat, but failed. As a result, the Marauder tied with the Shadow A.C.E. near the top of the bunch. But, before I get into my favorites, let’s talk about what I didn’t like.

The Vulcan 750 was a bore: boring ergos, boring looks, and boring motor. The Virago 750 was a step up, but still suffered from vanilla ice cream syndrome. The Intruder had the best power of the group, but looks like it is trying too hard to be cool. Pass. Bring on the Marauder instead. It was fun in the twisties, manageable in traffic, and comfortable on the long haul. The Shadow was a pleasant surprise. I expected the wide handlebar to make handling cumbersome, but the Shadow felt light and responsive. The Vulcans 800 and 800 Classic offer good handling and looks, but their prices and lack of low-speed guts push them down my list.

One bike stood headlight and seat above the rest. The Sportster is in a class all by itself. For just over $5K, you get the most versatile package in the 800cc class. Great handling and torquey low-end punch make the Sportster fun to ride. And you'll have the bucks left after the purchase to make the Sporty your very own statement. Granted, this may not be the route for you, in which case, the Marauder or Shadow can take you straight from the showroom floor to the asphalt jungle in a matter of minutes. (It may be a little longer for the Marauder since you'll have to fix the tool kit.) —Jenny Han

Han, a motorcyclist of five years, is associate editor for Hot Rod Bikes. She stands five-foot-six and describes herself as “a stegosaurs.”

This class has much to offer, though the 800s are not, in my opinion, for everyone. They are not for people who shop for clothes marked XL, travel long distances, or have lots of riding experience and a hankering for power. If price was not an issue, my first choice would be the Kawasaki Classic, but since the Kawasaki 800A is just as solid and comfortable, I’d buy it. The Honda would get some consideration too, though a little more steam would be nice along with some bars that didn’t spread my arms so wide.

I was impressed with the clean lines and improvement in quality control on the Harley, but it's much too cramped for my 5-foot-11 frame, power is down, the clutch is unnecessarily stiff, and it is paint-shaker smooth. —Ron Ramlow

Ramlow, a veteran motorcyclist with over 30 years of riding experience on- and off-road, is a frequent participant in Motorcycle Cruiser tests.

My mother always told me that I was too picky. Thus it’s no surprise that if I had my druthers, I’d be stealing parts from each of these bikes to assemble one great 800 cruiser. Hmm, let’s see. The power of the Intruder with the upright styling and handling of the Sportster? Or wait, how about the clean lines of the Kawasaki Classic with the cushy seat of the Virago?

But I suppose it's a bit much to expect perfection. I selected a keeper based on how well the positives fit what I want in a cruiser. These wants are: looks, responsive handling, power, and comfort. I found these elements in the Virago. Sure, it had its problems, like being a little wobbly at high speeds in the sweepers. But besides being just a downright pretty bike with the cushiest seat of the bunch, it had power and it had responsive handling. Frankly, I felt as comfortable riding this bike on challenging mountain roads as I did in town skipping around cars. Yep, I'd be happy to add this bike to my collection. —Elisabeth Piper

Piper is a California Motorcycle Safety Program instructor and editor of Ladies Room, on Bikenet. She is five feet, five inches tall, and has been riding for three and a half years.

rugged
Rugged individualist: When you are done carving up the 800 V-twin class into sub-categories, the 883 Sportster ends up all by itself. Its look, feel, detailing, stark equipment, and ultra-affordable price all set it apart. Its ergonomic layout feels almost standard style, and its steering and handling are the most sporting of the lot.Cruiser

This selection of twins provides a varied playground for someone who has multiple personalities, like myselves.

Meet Mister Twisties: Although the Sporty looks and feels more like a standard to me, it’s in this comparison, and with its good ground clearance, firm suspension, predictable steering, and strong brakes it gets my vote on any winding road. Enter Jess Gassit: I first became aware of this prankster after we trounced all the other 800s in roll-on races. I could hear him cackling inside my helmet taunting the other riders on lesser machines. The blunt instrument with which he’d just beaten the poor sods? The Intruder does one thing exceptionally well—it accelerates. While the skinny front tire and wimpy frame make the Intruder wobble on high speed corners, all rational thoughts disappear as the carburetors’ butterfly valves head towards horizontal.

Welcome Classy Cruiser: Cruisers are about style and attitude, not just performance. I thought that the Vulcan 800 Classic would be a shoo-in as my personal favorite. However, the Honda didn’t agree with my initial assessment. Every time I rode one of these two, I crowned it the winner, only to change my mind on the next ride. Both bikes have the look I favor, a comfy seat, good brakes, and a suspension that straddles the appropriate compromise of plushness and firmness for cruiser duty. What settled the decision? Price. The money saved could buy a lot of accessories for the Honda—like some chrome to cover those ugly allen bolts on the gas tank.

In case you wonder which of my personalities is the dominant one. I say, let the boys play with their toys. It's Friday evening; Karin and I will ride the Shadow to dinner and a movie. Later? A moonlit ride home. That's cruising. —Evans Brasfield

Brasfield is associate editor of Motorcycle Cruiser and an instructor for the California Motorcycle Safety Program. He stands six feet tall in his boots.

This article was originally published in the August 1997 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.