Seven Remarkable Mainstream Cruisers | They Came From the 1980s!

Seven remarkable mainstream cruisers that have more than stood the test of time.

Two decades are forever in the world of motorcycles. We recently glanced through the 1986 Street Bike Buyer's Guide published by sistermagazine, Motorcyclist. It contained more than 100 bikes; only a very few of them exist today in the same basic form. But those bikes that have kept coming back for 20 years are worth a closer look. What makes them so special?

Since these seven mainstream cruisers were first unveiled, all their manufacturers have introduced and discontinued dozens of new models, sometimes making big bets on seemingly spectacular new technology or ideas that are now gone and all but forgotten. Sure, there are bikes like Harley-Davidson Sportsters and Super Glides that still exist in the same displacement and designation...but just try finding a single major part from two decades ago on the current model. Some of the bikes reviewed here have even spawned derivative models, like the Honda 1100 A.C.E., Suzuki 800 Marauder and Kawasaki 800, that have come and gone.

But for two decades these seven motorcycles have soldiered on much as they were originally introduced, continuing to endear themselves to new generations of riders. They have done so with little technological innovation or support from the publicity or advertising departments of their makers. Some have seen their 20th birthdays ride by without a celebration or even a mention. But they still sell, and their riders still love them.

Even though motorcycle magazines tend to slobber over what's new and hot, we wanted to recognize the cruisers that have managed this extraordinary feat. After all, getting old isn't all bad (as Friedman keeps trying to tell us). Even though no one had heard of the internet when they were introduced, there is massive information about these seven bikes' strengths, maintenance needs, foibles and accessory and modification options online and plenty of parts support wherever you may ride. Most mechanics have worked on them before. As an owner, you probably don't need to wonder if there will be a 2007 version that eclipses yours and lowers its value. Riding one of these bikes is also a signal that you are too wise to buy into the idea that something is better simply because it is new.

Don't look for slick technology in this crowd. The bikes have been pretty much left alone by their makers since their introduction (and we have noted any significant updates that were made). There's no fuel injection, no electronic instrumentation, no ECUs, not even self-canceling turn signals (even though that technology was introduced in the 1970s). Though these bikes do have some decidedly dated bits (like the button-tuck upholstery on the Kawasakis, which creates uncomfortable pressure points and holds water after a rain), for the most part they are a testament to how little the march of progress has improved the function of cruisers.

So here they are, seven of the most resilient motorcycles in modern motorcycling, still appealing...even though they are old enough to vote.

Kawasaki Vulcan 750
Introduced shortly before Suzuki's Intruder 700 (now Boulevard S50), the Vulcan 750 is the last surviving representative of the previous school of Japanese cruiser design and a stark contrast to the Suzuki. At that point, the manufacturers had learned that Americans wanted V-shaped engines, especially V-twins, but they hadn't all yet grasped the idea that clean styling was the top item on most cruiser buyers' wish lists. It would be another decade before Kawasaki got around to addressing that issue, starting with the Vulcan 800s, which were built on the basic 750 bottom end.

Back in 1985, Kawasaki figured that American buyers wanted the same things from V-twin cruisers that they did from other bikes-good performance and a nice helping of useful features. So Kawasaki's first V-twin, the Vulcan 700-which became a 750 with the expiration of the Harley-protective tariff erected on bikes over 700cc-had double overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder to let it rev and make good power. It was liquid-cooled to make it durable and used hydraulic valve adjusters to eliminate that task.

The Vulcan 700/750 was (and is) loaded with features that have been deemed unnecessary, unstylish or too expensive on more recent models. The Vulcan 750 boasts shaft drive, cast wheels (a 19-inch front and 15-inch rear) with tubeless tires, dual-disc front brake, a tachometer (redlined at 8500 rpm), a fuel gauge, a coolant-temperature gauge, a headlight-failure warning light, a dual-bulb taillight (if one burns out, you're not invisible at night), four-way flashers, dual horns, shocks that adjust for air pressure and rebound damping, air-pressure-adjustable fork legs, a handlebar choke lever, Kawasaki's positive neutral finder in the five-speed gearbox, two helmet locks and a centerstand. That last item is something we frequently wish for on cruisers (the Yamaha V-Max is the only other cruiser that has one). It makes it easy to check the tires and oil before each ride, and greatly simplifies many service procedures. Fashion and cost concerns have made centerstands all but extinct.

The Vulcan 750 exemplifies the early 1980s Japanese approach to cruisers-make them more functional, safer, simpler to maintain and generally easier to live with. Style hadn't yet reached the top of the designers' list of requirements. However, there are enough cruiser buyers who still appreciate a motorcycle with a lot of conveniences that the Vulcan 750 continues to sell respectably going into its 22nd year. That's made more remarkable because it is not only the oldest bike here, it's also the least changed.

On the other hand, the Vulcan 750's styling is...funky. It makes no secret of its liquid-cooling system, and the cylinders don't pretend to be air-cooled. Though it has a somewhat fashionable profile (perhaps a bit short), there are some real eye-stoppers on this bike. Those oval "airboxes" hung ahead of the engine on each side of the bike, the dual horns right under the headlight, the leading-axle fork used to lengthen the fork legs, the passenger backrest (actually, backstop might be a better description because it doesn't rise far enough to rest your back on) that is part of the seat, the obvious black plastic cover around the steering head, and those exhaust pipes on each side that seem to be a series of segments instead of a single flowing unit and their wire heat shields all make you shake your head a bit.

However, if the looks don't put you off, the Vulcan 750 has quite a bit to offer when you throw a leg over it. Power is good; only the Suzuki 800 outruns it in its class. The rubber-mounted engine transmits little vibration, and the drivetrain operates smoothly. The riding position isn't exactly laid-back, with pegs not as far forward as some other cruisers and a bar that sits you up straight in the wind. (A windshield is a good addition for long-distance riders.) Except for its button-tuck upholstery, a quarter-century-old styling fad that should be abandoned, the saddle is acceptable to most riders-flat and nicely shaped. The suspension is softly sprung and lightly damped, letting it ride smoothly over small, sharp bumps. Overall, it's a comfortable bike with enough power for pleasant touring. On the highway it delivers about 50 mpg, giving about 150 miles from the 3.6-gallon tank before you need to find a gas station.

The tradeoff for the compliant ride is that the Vulcan 750 is not quite as steady as you might wish while cornering. However, the adjustable suspension lets you dial in more rebound resistance in back just by twisting the collars of the shocks. You can add a little air pressure at both ends to accommodate a passenger or other load. Cornering clearance is somewhat limited, especially on the left. Steering is quicker and more responsive than other 800cc-class cruisers, making it easy to handle at low speeds or when weaving through obstacles. Although the dual front discs provide strong, controllable braking, the drum rear brake, while strong enough, offers little feel or feedback.

Owners report that the bike has few mechanical issues, though several told us that you need to keep the shaft drive's splines properly lubricated. There are enough Vulcan 750s in junkyards that used parts are easy to find.

Even if it doesn't win any beauty contests, the Vulcan 750 is a satisfying motorcycle for those who want a comfortable, powerful, long-legged and trustworthy riding companion.

Kawasaki Vulcan 750 Suggested Base Price: $6299

Engine Type: Liquid-Cooled 55-Degree Suzuki Boulevard S50Tandem V-Twin

Valve Arrangement: DOHC; 2 Intake, 2 Exhaust Valves, Hydraulic Adjusters

Displact, Bore X Stroke: 749cc, 84.9 X 66.2mm

Compression Ratio: 10.3:1 Minimum Fuel Grade: 87 Octane

Transmission: Wet Multiplate Clutch; 5 Speeds

Final Drive: Shaft

Wheels: Cast, 19 X 2.15 Front, 15 X 3.50 Rear

Front Tire: 100/90-19 Bridgestone Exedra Tubeless

Rear Tire: 150/90-15 Bridgestone Exedra Tubeless

Front Brake: 2, Single-Piston Calipers, 10.1-In. Discs

Rear Brake: Drum, Rod/Cable-Operated

Front Suspension: 38mm Stanchions, 5.9 In. Travel, Adjustment For Air Pressure

Rear Suspension: Dual Dampers, 3.5 In. travel, Adjustments For Air Pressure, Rebound Damping

Handlebar Width: 31.4 In.

Fuel Capacity: 3.6 Gal.

Suzuki Boulevard S50
At the same time that Kawasaki was preparing its first V-twin cruiser, which would roll out as the Vulcan 700, Suzuki was getting ready to launch a 700 V-twin of its own. However, unlike Kawasaki, which took a very Japanese approach to its new V-twin, Suzuki had Americans style its new bike, which would be called the Intruder.

The Intruder had virtually none of the handy bells and whistles of the Vulcan, but it had something no other Japanese cruiser had ever had: looks. Suzuki had really looked at the customs American riders had been building and actually understood and incorporated their appeal. It was doubly shocking because the Intruder would be sharing showrooms with Suzuki's V-four Maduras, possibly the ugliest cruisers ever. That the same company could make such different motorcycles in such rapid succession seemed incredible. The 1200 and 700 Maduras quickly vanished from the lineup and very nearly from memory. The Intruders are still here, though they are now called Boulevard S models.

Suzuki's Intruder design team created a bike with extremely streetwise style. It was long, low and exceptionally narrow. In 1985, the Intruder was simply the cleanest production bike ever. The designers went all-out to hide wires, cables, fasteners and other ugly bits that didn't need to be on display to do their jobs. To keep it narrow and clean, Suzuki uses different 36mm Mikuni carburetors tucked away out of view. The front four-valve cylinder head feeds from a downdraft carb hidden up under the 3.2-gallon tank, while the rear cylinder inhales from a side-draft carb in the frame behind it. The shaft final drive meant there was no chain to oil up the rear end. There was lots of chrome, and it was exceptionally smooth and deep-looking. Despite being liquid-cooled, the engine was beautifully finned, and the tall, narrow radiator tucked neatly in front of the engine. When we rode our first test bike around that year, other riders kept asking, "That's a Suzuki? Really? A Suzuki?" It may have been the greatest motorcycle styling coup of all time. It certainly was the greatest styling leap by a motorcycle manufacturer.

If the Intruder retained any old-school ideas, it was that a motorcycle should perform. Later cruisers in the 800 class would become less cammy and more torquey, but the Intruder liked to accelerate. And with each increase in displacement, first to 750cc in 1988 and then to 805cc in 1992, the Intruder got stronger. By 1992, the only riders of big V-twin cruisers that could be sure of staying ahead of the Intruder 800 were on Intruder 1400s. Even a Kawasaki 1500 pilot who was too slow to shift could find himself watching the Intruder 800's taillight recede.

The liquid-cooled 805cc motor has respectable low-end power, but it's happiest if you get the rpm up a bit. The rest of the shaft-drive powertrain is ready to go along with whatever mode you adopt. The clutch is light and predictable, the five-speed gearbox shifts smoothly and solidly. While the C and M models got fuel injection when they became Boulevards, the S models are still carbureted, which leads to our biggest complaint about the S50-its cold-bloodedness. It took a few minutes before it would run smoothly after starting from cold and was cantankerous until then.

The switch from Intruder 800 to Boulevard S50 did bring some changes, however. A new faux airbox on the right side of the engine now houses the toolbox instead of the passenger backrest, which was discarded with the switch to a recontoured, slightly wider seat with a new cover material. The pullback handlebar was replaced by a 29.2-inch-wide flat bar on 7-inch risers, similar to the bar of the original Intruder 700. The changes improve both the looks (especially with the elimination of the backrest) as well as the ergonomics. The S50 is a bit roomier and nicer to sit on than the Intruder 800. The handlebar change slightly reduces the effort needed to hang on against wind pressure at speed, and the seat's shape, surface and width extend the period you can comfortably sit on it.

Suzuki uses offset crankpins to counter vibration in the S50 and S83, and the result isn't quite as smooth as the Kawasaki Vulcan 750's counterbalancers, but the Boulevard S50 is not buzzy, by any means. The same applies to the suspension compliance, which is adequate but not as good as the Kawasaki's (or that of the S50's Boulevard stablemate, the C50). The brakes too are simply good enough. The single disc up front and the drum rear brake provide unexceptional power with good feel.

Handling is more predictable and requires significantly less effort than the 1400. Bumpy corners overwork the suspension and unsettle the bike. Though it steers nicely, ground clearance is only fair. That's important because what drags first is the footpeg bracket, which is mounted well forward, has little give and is relatively close to the bike's centerline. As a result, when you drag the bracket, it's likely to lever the front wheel off the ground, causing bad things to happen. We wish that Suzuki would change the footpeg mounting system or install some sort of noisy drag point that yields a bit to warn you that you are close to dragging.

As choppers have returned to fashion, the narrow, stretched profile of the Intruder 800/Boulevard S50 may see new life in an 800 class dominated by wide, classically styled cruisers, including two other Boulevards. Those other bikes are a bit more comfortable than the S50, but the Boulevard S50 is more aggressively eye-catching and accelerates harder.

Suzuki Boulevard S50Suggested Base Price: $6499

Engine Type: Liquid-Cooled 45-Degreetandem V-Twin

Valve Arrangement: SOHC; 2 Intake, 2 Exhaust Valves, Screw-Type Adjusters

Displacement, Bore X Stroke: 805cc, 83 X 74.4mm

Compression Ratio: 10.0:1

Minimum Fuel Grade: 87 Octane

Transmission: Wet Multiplate Clutch; 5 Speeds

Final Drive: Shaft

Wheels: Wire-Spoke, 19 X 2.15 Front, 15 X 3.00 Rear

Front Tire: 100/90-19 Bridgestone Exedra Tube-Type

Rear Tire: 140/90-15 Bridgestone Exedra Tube-Type

Front Brake: 2-Piston Caliper, 11.6-In. Disc

Rear Brake: Drum, Rod-Operated

Front Suspension: 37mm Stanchions, 5.1 In. Travel

Rear Suspension: Dual Dampers, 3.5 In. Travel, Adjustments For Spring Preload

Handlebar Width: 29.2 In.

Fuel Capacity: 3.2 Gal

Honda Shadow 1100 Spirit

In 1990, as the first cruiser boom seemed about to go bust, there was only one cruiser in Honda's lineup, the VT1100C Shadow, then $5998. The following year it went on hiatus, presumably because there were plenty in the warehouses, but it returned for 1992 ($6499) as interest in the cruiser market picked up again. We are glad it did, because it has remained one of the most ridable cruisers around for the last 22 years. Some of its competitors may have been more stylish or muscular, but the Honda 1100 V-twin combines satisfying power with good comfort and confident handling.

Honda has frequently tried to upstage the original Shadow 1100. In the early 1990s there was the A.C.E., which introduced more Americanized styling and a single-crankpin engine instead of the Shadow's dual offset crankpins, which help eliminate vibration. The A.C.E. arrangement gave a more traditional exhaust cadence however, and, combined with its nicely executed styling, looked like a threat to the original Shadow. But the A.C.E. and the 1100 Aero, which had a similar engine with more retro styling, arrived with much fanfare and quietly disappeared as the original Shadow, now called the Spirit, just kept going. More recently, its position in Honda's line has been challenged by the Shadow 1100 Sabre and the VTX1300 series. But at the end of the day, the Spirit is still a nicer bike to ride than its newer, spiffier-looking stablemates, especially if there are a lot of miles to cover. In fact, the Spirit and the Yamaha V-Star remain our favorite cruisers in the 1000 to 1300cc segment.

One of the reasons we like the Spirit so well is its smoother engine. The staggered crankpins used to quell the V-twin's vibes may not produce a Harley-like exhaust note, but they make it much smoother and a bit more powerful too. The engine is free of foibles, with easy starting, good response when cold and a usable spread of power that continues pulling when others trail off. That strong top-end pull is particularly welcome on the highway, where it allows quicker passes. Because it likes to continue revving, we wish it still had the tachometer that was included during the first two model years.

Our biggest complaint with the drivetrain is that the gearbox ratios are staged a bit unevenly. In particular, the first-to-second gap is pretty large, making you rev it a bit harder during acceleration in first before you shift to second and creating extra deceleration when you drop from second to first. The first-to-second shift is also noisy going either way. The clutch is light and smooth. Fuel mileage is unremarkable at about 45 mpg during our highway jaunts, but that's still good for over 150 miles between stops.

It's also the most comfortable motorcycle here, not only for the rider but a passenger as well. The saddle is very comfortable, and the riding position is roomy without making any of us stretch. The 32-inch-wide handlebar stretches you out in the wind though, and a windshield would be our first addition if touring was in the offing. There is little vibration. With more than average suspension travel and somewhat soft springs and damping, the suspension provides a smooth ride.

You might wish for a bit stiffer springing and more damping in corners, where it does bound around a bit. There is a comfortable amount of lean angle available though, and steering is light and precise. It is stable at high speeds, even in crosswinds. There is just a slight tendency to drop in during turns at low speeds. At 32 inches, the handlebar's width cramps us a bit while splitting lanes. The brakes are very controllable and have good power. Although it dives significantly during hard stops, it is the most effective bike here during a panic stop.

Owners of 1100 Spirits, which are built in America at Honda's Ohio facility, seem to ride them a lot and are pleased with their long-term reliability and easy maintenance. Liquid cooling has apparently done a good job of keeping the engine healthy in the long run.

One of the riders who helped us with this article was going to take a long ride over a three-day weekend. He'd already ridden all seven bikes for some time, and when we offered him a choice of any of them for his trip, he immediately requested the Shadow Spirit. He returned singing its praises to anyone who would listen. His experience mirrored those of staffers and others. Even if the looks don't impress you, you'll have no problem understanding why the original Honda 1100 Shadow is still going strong if you ride one.


Honda Shadow 1100 Spirit

Suggested Base Price: $8599

Engine Type: Liquid-Cooled 45-Degree Tandem V-Twin

Valve Arrangement: SOHC; 2 Intake, 2 Exhaust Valves, Screw-Type Adjusters

Displacement, Bore X Stroke: 805cc, 83 X 74.4mm

Compression Ratio: 10.0:1

Minimum Fuel Grade: 87 Octane

Transmission: Wet Multiplate Clutch; 5 Speeds

Final Drive: Shaft

Wheels: Cast, 19 X 2.15 Front, 15 X 3.5 Rear

Front Tire: 110/90-19 Dunlop F24 Tubeless

Rear Tire: 170/80-15 Dunlop K555 Tubeless

Front Brake: 2-Piston Caliper, 13.2-In. Disc

Rear Brake: Drum, Rod-Operated

Front Suspension: 41mm Stanchions, 6.3 In. Travel

Rear Suspension: Dual Dampers, 3.9 In. Travel, Adjustments For Spring Preload

Handlebar Width: 32.1 In.

Fuel Capacity: 4.2 Gal.

Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTD

The stars must have aligned right while they were designing cruisers for 1985, because so many of them are still around. We hope Kawasaki gave a big bonus to the guy who suggested taking half its big liquid-cooled four-cylinder engine from the Ninja sportbike and putting it in a middleweight cruiser and later a sport-oriented bike (the EX500). Both those half-liter liquid-cooled vertical-twin models still live on in Kawasaki's line (and the four-cylinder version of the engine survives in the Concours sport-tourer, introduced in 1986). In 1990, the cruiser became a 500, which became the LTD in 1996. The LTD version got a longer frame, a 4.0-gallon tank and a raft of styling tweaks.

Until recently, the Vulcan 500 was unique among OE cruisers for its six-speed transmission, which allows the rider to keep the high-revving vertical twin on the boil. Though it has enough midrange power to perform comfortably without a lot of revving, the DOHC eight-valve motor does its best work when you accept its high-rpm personality and let it spin. If you keep the revs up, the Vulcan 500 delivers impressive performance, easily outrunning any current cruiser under 700cc, including both those here. The transmission shifts lightly, smoothly and certainly, and Kawasaki's positive neutral finder makes turning on the green light on the dash a snap.

With a wheelbase that's actually 0.6 inches longer than the Vulcan 750's, the LTD feels quite roomy. Noticeably bigger and heavier than the Suzuki S40, it nevertheless is still quite nimble and quick to turn. The suspension is lightly sprung and damped, providing a smooth ride until the bumps get too large. The suspension gets working hard in bumpy corners, but the length keeps it stable in most conditions. You can drag it a bit easier than the Suzuki 650 when leaned over. The brakes are a good match for the bike, and its drum rear brake offers more feedback than the 750's.

In term of comfort, the Vulcan 500 feels much bigger than the Honda VLX or Shadow. It's not only roomier, but it has a better saddle, especially compared to the Honda, better handlebar placement, and the smoothest engine in this entire group of seven bikes, thanks to a counterbalancer. Some taller riders wanted a bit more legroom, which was adequate for 32-inch inseams, but it otherwise got significantly higher marks for comfort than the S40 or VLX and also better than the other two Suzukis.

If you lubricate the chain frequently (and clean up the resulting mess), the Vulcan 500 will give years and many miles of reliable service, we're told. We wish that Kawasaki would switch to belt drive (which is probably a much bigger change than it sounds like, in which case it's not likely to happen).

Back in 1996, we took three recent graduates from a learn-to-ride class and set them loose with four 500 to 650cc cruisers. One of those bikes, the Yamaha Virago 535, has since been discontinued, but the other three-the Honda VLX, this Kawasaki and the Suzuki Savage (now the Boulevard S40)-are in this group. All three riders admitted they were most looking forward to riding the good-looking Honda, which they expected to be the best bike in the group. However, all wanted the somewhat smaller Suzuki for their first forays into traffic. Once they had developed some confidence, they switched to the Honda. After riding that they tried the other two bikes. They all were surprised to discover that after riding the Kawasaki and Yamaha, none wanted to go back to the Honda or Suzuki. It didn't surprise our more experienced riders, who had quickly cottoned to the fact that the Vulcan 500 and Virago were faster and more comfortable than the others.

The Vulcan 500 remains a standout in the sub-750 class and is significantly faster than the Yamaha V-Star 650 that supplanted the Virago 535, though not quite as comfortable. In fact, the riders who spent time on all seven bikes assembled here all picked the Vulcan 500 as one of their top two or three favorites, and it was actually the bike that got ridden most frequently because it is so effective in traffic.


Kawasaki Vulcan 500 LTD

Suggested Base Price: $4899

Engine Type: Liquid-Cooled Vertical Parallel Twin

Valve Arrangement: DOHC; 2 Intake, 2 Exhaust Valves, Shim Adjusters

Displacement, Bore X Stroke: 498cc, 74 X 58mm

Compression Ratio: 10.2:1

Minimum Fuel Grade: 87 Octane

Transmission: Wet Multiplate Clutch; 6 Speeds

Final Drive: Chain

Wheels: Wire-Spoke, 19 X 2.15 Front, 15 X 3.50 Rear

Front Tire: 100/90-19 Bridgestone Exedra Tube-Type

Rear Tire: 140/90-15 Bridgestone Exedra Tube-Type

Front Brake: Single-Piston Caliper, 11.8-In. Disc

Rear Brake: Drum, Rod-Operated

Front Suspension: 31mm Stanchions, 5.9 In. Travel

Rear Suspension: Dual Dampers, 3.8 In. Travel, Adjustments For Spring Preload

Handlebar Width: 29.4 In.

Fuel Capacity: 4.0 Gal.

Suzuki Boulevard S40

No one paid much attention when Suzuki rolled out its big single-cylinder street bike back in 1986, and it was actually discontinued for six years starting in 1989, then returned for 1995 with improvements including five speeds instead of four. Last year it was swept under the Boulevard banner and redesignated with that line's cubic-inch nomenclature as the S40.

Though singles are simple, narrow, light and tractable, they also tend to vibrate and aren't as powerful as bikes with more cylinders. However, those positive characteristics plus the Savage/S40's low weight (380 pounds wet), low (27.6 inches) seat height, low price and clean Intruder-style looks made Suzuki's 650 Savage attractive to beginners, riders of shorter stature and those shopping for motor home lifeboats.

Suzuki also gave it an edge with a counterbalancer, which reduces but doesn't quite eliminate vibration. Although it feels a bit out of breath at 65 mph, it doesn't shake with anything like the ferocity of an unbalanced 652cc single. If you don't plan to cruise at 75 mph, there is enough power. Yet, despite its good fuel economy, we wouldn't be inclined to travel on an S40 because of its limited power at interstate-highway speeds. The powerband is broad and you don't need to make much of an effort to keep the rpm up to tap its power potential. It won't accelerate as hard as any of the other 500 to 650cc cruisers except the Honda VLX, which is still a bit stronger on top-end. It does tend to backfire rather frequently during deceleration. The gearbox and clutch perform admirably. The S40 is the only bike here with final-drive belt, which is quiet, clean and probably absorbs a little of the big single's power pulses.

Because it's low, light and short, the S40 handles very responsively. It's quick and precise yet steady at all speeds. Lean angle is respectable too. Its only weakness is the suspension, which is lightly sprung and damped, and surges a bit in bumps. Although it's not a wobbler, it takes a couple of cycles to stabilize if you give the handlebar a good shake at highway speed. Because it's light, the modest brakes, which give good feel and control, are well matched to it.

While larger riders feel somewhat confined, short riders find that Suzuki's single fits them quite handily and are less likely to complain about the saddle or ride quality. Passengers don't get much room, but riding two-up kind of overloads the S40 anyway.

Overall, the Boulevard S40 fills the vast gap between the 250s and the other bikes in the 500 to 650cc range. Although its displacement makes it a 650, its physical size and weight position it like a smaller cruiser. In terms of performance, it's neck-and-neck with the more expensive Honda VLX, but slightly ahead in comfort. It makes great urban transportation because it is narrow, maneuvers easily, has willing power characteristics, gets terrific fuel mileage and is inexpensive to insure.


Suzuki Boulevard S40

Suggested Base Price: $4399

Engine Type: Air-Cooled Vertical Single

Valve Arrangement: SOHC; 2 Intake, 2 Exhaust Valves, Threaded Adjusters

Displacement, Bore X Stroke: 652cc, 94 X 94mm

Compression Ratio: 8.5:1

Minimum Fuel Grade: 87 Octane

Transmission: Wet Multiplate Clutch; 5 Speeds

Final Drive: Belt

Wheels: Wire-Spoke, 19 X 2.15 Front, 15 X 2.75 Rear

Front Tire: 100/90-19 IRC Tube-Type

Rear Tire: 140/80-15 IRC Tube-Type

Front Brake: 2-Piston Caliper, 10.4-In. Disc

Rear Brake: Drum, Rod-Operated

Front Suspension: 38mm Stanchions, 5.4 In. Travel

Rear Suspension: Dual Dampers, 3.1 In. Travel, Adjustments For Spring Preload

Handlebar Width: 28.4 In.

Fuel Capacity: 2.8 Gal.

Suzuki Boulevard S83

Arriving two years after the Intruder 700, the Intruder 1400 brought the same clean style and layout to the big-twin class. In fact, for a month or so before the 1470cc Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 arrived, the 1360cc Intruder was the biggest V-twin available. Though it closely followed the style of the 700, the 1400 employed somewhat different technology. It has the same staggered-crankpin lower end, but the top end is air/oil-cooled instead of liquid-cooled and has three valves per cylinder instead of four. It also had one fewer ratio in the transmission, but that was remedied in 1997 when the five-speed transmission already used in other markets came to the American market.

The five-speed transmission smoothed out the biggish jumps between gears of the four-speed, and made what was already the quickest big twin even quicker. It has since been eclipsed by newer, bigger twins, yet the Intruder 1400, now Boulevard S83, is still quicker than bikes in its own (1400 to 1600cc) displacement range. The power is good all the way, and the 83-incher doesn't suffer from the cold-bloodedness that mars the 50-incher.

What plagues the S83 is a clutch that grabs if you try to launch quickly with the revs up. This makes for some awkward and potentially dangerous getaways as the bike lurches forward when the clutch suddenly hits harder than expected. Otherwise, drivetrain behavior is exemplary. It shifts smoothly, finds neutral easily, and has no significant jacking and little lash.

As with the 800, the change from Intruder 1400 to Boulevard S83 saw the pullback bar traded in for a flat handlebar on 7-inch risers and the toolbox migrate from the backrest to the new faux airbox on the right side of the engine. However, unlike the 800, the 1400 still has a passenger catcher at the rear of the restyled saddle. Our test bike was delivered with a small accessory windshield, which made it hard to tell how the handlebar swap affected wind pressure on the rider (but did create some annoying buffeting). Otherwise, the riding position seems little changed. There is enough vibration to merit comment but not complaint, and the suspension compliance is perhaps just a little short of the standards for its class.

The S83 won't win any handling awards. Because the front end has so much rake, low-speed handling is floppy. That is, the front wheel tends to drop in during low-speed turns. When you build some speed, you need to muscle it to make it lean deeply, and like the 800, the footpeg brackets are the first things to touch down. Though they are just as solid, they aren't as close to the centerline and are less likely to upend the bike when you do plant them. We hit it the hardest in bumpy turns when the suspension settled.

With its clean lines, strong performance and the lowest price of any big twin, the Boulevard S83 still has much to recommend heading into its 20th model year.


Suzuki Boulevard S83

Suggested Base Price: $8499

Engine Type: Air/Oil-Cooled 45-Degree Tandem V-Twin

Valve Arrangement: SOHC; 2 Intake, 1 Exhaust Valve, Hydraulic Adjusters

Displacement, Bore X Stroke: 1360cc, 94 X 98mm

Compression Ratio: 9.3:1

Minimum Fuel Grade: 87 Octane

Transmission: Wet Multiplate Clutch; 5 Speeds

Final Drive: Shaft

Wheels: Wire-Spoke, 19 X 2.15 Front, 15 X 4.00 Rear

Front Tire: 110/90-19 Bridgestone Exedra Tube-Type

Rear Tire: 170/80-15 Bridgestone Exedra Tube-Type

Front Brake: 2-Piston Caliper, 11.6-In Disc

Rear Brake: 2-Piston Caliper, 10.8-In Disc

Front Suspension: 41mm Stanchions, 5.1 In. Travel

Rear Suspension: 2 Dampers, 4.1 In. Travel, Adjustments For Spring Preload

Handlebar Width: 30.4 In.

Fuel Capacity: 3.4 Gal.

Honda Shadow 600 VLX

Introduced in 1991, this bike was almost too new to include in this article. However, it has been so popular year after year-some years being the best-selling metric cruiser-that we didn't feel we could ignore Honda's smallest Shadow.

Why is the 583cc Shadow so successful? We suspect that looks account for much of its appeal. Its long, low lines almost define cruiser, and they are completed by nicely turned details and a minimum of clutter. Its hidden single-shock rear suspension, the only one in this group, creates a clean hardtail-like rear end. The crowning touch is the V-twin engine, which, especially in the Deluxe version that we tested, looks good and sounds strong.

Of course, sounding strong and actually pulling hard are two different things. In terms of acceleration, it's very close to the Suzuki Boulevard S40. The S40 is stronger in the low to midrange, but the VLX has a bit more on top, in part because it revs further. The Honda pulls ahead at about 65 or 70 mph, although it vibrates more to do it. Yamaha's similar V-Star 650 Custom is faster than either and only slightly more expensive than the Honda (and includes shaft final drive). Of course, the Kawasaki Vulcan 500 will run and hide from any of them.

The liquid-cooled 52-degree VLX engine is quite user-friendly. In addition to a broad spread of power, it starts readily and doesn't need much warmup before it's ready to play. However, the nice power characteristics are significantly constrained by the last four-speed gearbox in a modern motorcycle. When we heard that an updated VLX was in the works for 1999, we assumed it would get a much-need fifth speed (especially since the lower end had been adapted to the recently introduced 750 A.C.E., which had a five-speed). Unfortunately, that was not to be, and the VLX has to work with wide gaps between gears, especially first and second, a top gear that might make it rev more than it needs to on the highway, and compromised acceleration. Four-speed gearboxes are almost prehistoric these days, and even bikes with much wider powerbands than the VLX have switched to five or even six speeds. We'd like to see Honda do that (and maybe go to belt drive at the same time), though such changes may be cost-prohibitive for bikes is this price range.

Those 1999 changes improved the riding position and lowered the saddle by 1.6 inches, bringing the earth within reach of all but the stubbiest legs. This was accomplished by using a shorter shock with a more progressive spring, which had minimal impact on ride quality. Big bumps still bounce it and small, sharp bumps are just a bit more apparent, but the ride is acceptable. The seat was also changed, and even though it was widened, its shape doesn't seem to suit much of anyone. Certainly it has the least popular saddle here. It offers a bit more legroom than either the Kawasaki 500 or the Suzuki 650. Vibration becomes annoying at speeds above 65 mph.

The VLX earns good marks for handling and braking. The low-effort steering is predictable and precise at all speeds, and the suspension is relatively well controlled. It feels stable, fast or slow. Ground clearance is about average for the class. Both brakes provide good feel and feedback, and the critical front brake's power is well matched to the bike and front tire.

Like some of the other less expensive bikes here, Honda VLXs sometimes suffer from neglect with routine maintenance being forgotten and the bike being left outside at the mercy of the elements, which can lead to problems caused by corrosion. However, bikes that are cared for (lube the chain every three fill-ups) apparently give good service life. There don't seem to be many riders who use them to travel on, though the one woman we talked to who did so said she had never had any sort of problem with it except running out of gas once. With only 2.9 gallons of fuel, it's not a long-range machine by any means.

Owners who ride a lot generally say they love their VLXs, and those who are thinking of a different bike usually confide they are looking at a bigger Honda. However, when we offered a trio of new riders a chance to ride all the bikes in this class, they generally found that the VLX looked better than it worked and said they preferred the Kawasaki or Yamaha. In particular, they didn't like the limitations imposed by the VLX's four-speed transmission. The other bikes' better performance at highway speeds also attracted them. When they chose the VLX, it was for urban use, particularly where they expected others to see them.


Honda Shadow 600 VLX

Suggested Base Price: $5399, Deluxe Model $5699

Engine Type: Liquid-Cooled 52-Degree Tandem V-Twin

Valve Arrangement: SOHC; 2 Intake, 1 Exhaust Valves, Screw-Type Adjusters

Displacement, Bore X Stroke: 583cc, 75 X 66mm

Compression Ratio: 9.2:1

Minimum Fuel Grade: 87 Octane

Transmission: Wet Multiplate Clutch; 4 Speeds

Final Drive: Chain

Wheels: Wire-Spoke, 19 X 2.15 Front, 15 X 3.50 Rear

Front Tire: 100/90-19 Dunlop Tube-Type

Rear Tire: 170/80-15 Dunlop Tube-Type

Front Brake: 2-Piston Caliper, 11.8-In. Disc

Rear Brake: Drum, Rod-Operated

Front Suspension: 39mm Stanchions, 5.7 In. Travel

Rear Suspension: 1 Damper, 3.5 In. Travel, Adjustments For Spring Preload

Handlebar Width: N/A

Fuel Capacity: 2.9 Gal.

Yamaha V-Max

Though it isn't one of the mainstream cruisers we wanted to focus attention on here, Yamaha's mighty 1200cc V-four V-Max power cruiser has the same sort of staying power. That's doubly remarkable when you consider that its focus is performance, an area which has seen tremendous advances during Max's 22 model years. Other companies have tried to dethrone the V-Max, but it has summarily humiliated and dismissed every challenger to its performance-cruiser title.

Despite some minor suspension and brake upgrades along the way, it retains the same handling foibles it was born with. Its aggressive riding position and narrow seat make it a less-than-ideal tourer.

But that doesn't matter anyway. The joy of riding the V-Max is pulling the trigger on upwards of 125 horsepower and getting kicked in the butt as that fat rear tire hooks up and again when the V-Max's unique V-Boost system opens up and doubles the intake volume for a surge in power.

A concept bike at the 2005 Tokyo Show has spawned speculation about a replacement, but we have no word in yet. It's not the first time for rumors, and every year, the same ol' V-Max returns, still the fastest gun on Burnout Boulevard. Sure, we'd be glad to have a fresher version of the bike with an updated chassis, as long as it doesn't give up a bit of the fun you get when twisting the V-Max's throttle.