Ye Cold Spring Tavern
Ye Cold Spring Tavern is a favorite watering hole for riders bypassing the traffic of route 101, north of Santa Barbara. Just off 154 on Stagecoach Road, the tavern serves buffalo burgers and venison sandwiches.Fran Kuhn

It has been less than two years since we last lined up the various 1100-class tandem V-twins against one another; but Honda has shuffled the deck in this class twice since then. Last year it introduced the Shadow Spirit, an updated version of the original Shadow 1100. The Spirit uses two offset crankpins to balance the 45-degree twin's power strokes, eliminating most of the vibration. This year Honda introduced the Aero, a variation of the best-selling Shadow American Classic Edition (A.C.E.), which returns to the line. The A.C.E. and Aero use a single-crankpin variation of the same basic engine design. The final contender is Yamaha's stalwart Virago 1100. The familiar 60-degree, air-cooled V-twin isn't too different from the first Virago introduced in 1981.

Assembling the bikes for a head-to-head comparison turned out to be time well spent, since it provided some surprises. Ride any one of them around by itself and it seems not too different from the others. But run them side-by-side, or jump off one and onto another, and some pretty substantial differences emerge.

Honda Shadow A.C.E.
Honda Shadow A.C.E.Fran Kuhn

Engine & Performance
This is the area with the biggest surprises when the four bikes are directly compared. Ride each one alone, and the A.C.E. might seem a little slower when passing a truck on a hill. But put the bikes side-by-side on the same hill, in top gear with open throttles and the Virago bolts away from the others. The Aero pulls away ever-so-slightly from the Spirit (another surprise) and the A.C.E. lags behind. The order is the same when you start in first and work through the gears, except the Spirit pulls ahead of the Aero. The Virago makes its acceleration edge with gearing and rpm. It revs much higher than the 5000 power peak of the Aero and A.C.E., and is geared lower too. However, its two-valve engine also makes good power down below 2000 rpm.

On California “winter” mornings, all four would come to life without using the handlebar-mounted choke controls; though the A.C.E. took the longest to warm completely and felt just a little lean at lower throttle openings than the others. Fuel mileage ranged from the Spirit’s 42.5-mpg average to the 35.1-mpg average of the Aero. The Virago averaged 40 mpg and the A.C.E., 36.6.

Though some riders experienced shifting problems with one bike or another, no one motorcycle consistently missed shifts for everyone. Some shift-lever adjustment would doubtlessly remedy the problems for those who had them. No one noted complaints about ratio staging, neutral finding or lash, either. The Honda clutches were very slightly preferred to the Virago's, though the Virago was still very good.

Honda Shadow Aero
Honda Shadow AeroFran Kuhn

Each bike has its own unique ergonomic arrangement. The Spirit is classic American cruiser with a buckhorn bar and feet forward positioning. The A.C.E. moderates that with a lower bar and a more forward saddle. The Aero has the only floorboards and a turned-back bar. The Virago has its own odd handlebar shape—which looks funky but fits most riders well—and puts the footpegs more rearward than the others. Although different body types rated different bikes tops in this area, the Virago was most frequently picked as the most comfortable. One rider picked the A.C.E. The Aero bent some riders the wrong way, prompting mild criticism of the floorboard arrangement and handlebar.

We think the best saddle in the class belongs to the standard model Virago. The button-tuck design on the Special model we rode is thinner and has more pressure points than the plain standard-model saddle. The seat on the Virago Special finishes just behind the other three seats in this group. Smaller riders generally got along better with all of the saddles than the bigger riders; though the Aero ended up with slightly higher marks overall than the A.C.E. and Spirit, which tied for second.

Though the A.C.E. and Aero vibrate more than the others, nobody complained. Suspension compliance varied from the soft rates of the Virago to the firm settings of the A.C.E., which most felt had the poorest ride compliance. The other three were rated favorably. Adding a passenger might overload the Spirit and Virago more than the others.

None of these four machines become awkward in any particular mode, though the Aero's bar ends can hit your legs in tight turns. The Aero also has the most controlled suspension and is the most stable. Though you don't have to muscle it, it does require more forceful steering inputs than the others. Some testers felt the handlebar shape was a bit awkward while riding through the mountains.

The A.C.E. is almost as stable, but turns more easily. No one complained about its handlebar. Its suspension may be the best compromise of comfort and control here. It received high marks for precision, suspension and steering ease.

The Virago has the softest suspension settings, which means it bounds around slightly in corners. It also suffers from the most shaft effect. Shutting the throttle in a turn made it drop more than the others. The Yamaha has the quickest, most responsive steering, which made points in twisty sections.

Though a little tauter than the Virago, the Spirit’s suspension is not as well controlled as the other two Hondas. The combination of a high and wide handlebar, semi-soft suspension, and semi-slow steering response, left all riders lukewarm about the Spirit’s handling manners. No one liked it as much as the other three, and though the order above it differed, the Spirit was universally last. However, no one felt it handled badly, either—they just preferred the others.

All four are handy and easy to balance at low speeds, withstand side winds well, and offer reasonable cornering clearance.

Honda Shadow Spirit
Honda Shadow SpiritFran Kuhn

All three Hondas offer excellent feel and good power from their similar, single-disc front brakes; thanks to the twin-piston caliper design. The Virago gets even greater power from two discs up front, with good control from the double-action calipers. The rear brakes (drums on the Spirit and Virago, discs on the A bikes) on all four performed well, too.

Styling & Finish
In terms of appearance, these bikes were generally ranked in alphabetical order: Aero, American Classic, Spirit, Virago. The retro styling of the new Honda, particularly in the orange/cream paint scheme we rode, received almost universal approval. The A.C.E. was close. Most people like the Spirit better than the "1970s post-industrial" look of the Virago. The Special version of the Virago we tested has more chrome than the standard model; but some of it seems excessive or, as on the unpolished rear drive housing, wasted. The paint quality got high marks all around. The Spirit was a 1997-spec machine, which differs graphically from the '98 model but is otherwise the same.

Since it was designed in an age when motorcycle makers were competing to see who could include the most features, the Virago is loaded. It includes a centerstand, tachometer, self-canceling signals, a reserve fuel switch on the handlebar, and dual horns, which actually provide enough volume to be heard. The Yamaha's fork lock is integrated into the ignition atop the fork; which is convenient for both the owner and the thief, who only has to subvert one lock to steal the bike. The Hondas use separate fork locks (operated by the ignition key) and locate the ignition locks behind the engine on the left. The Hondas have self-adjusting hydraulic valve trains. The Spirit comes with saddlebag guards, though they are available for the rest. The A.C.E. currently has the most customizing options, but we expect the Aero to catch up quickly. The Virago, however, lags in this area.

Yamaha Virago
Yamaha ViragoFran Kuhn

Bottom Line
Once you determine your priorities, picking a tandem 1100cc V-twin gets easier. There are two areas where there are major differences: looks and performance. The Virago is significantly faster than the others and, to most eyes, the homeliest. If the styling doesn't grate on you and the looks of the Aero or A.C.E. don't raise your pulse rate, the Virago's functional advantage—and low, low price—make it an easy choice. If styling is a prime consideration, the Aero or A.C.E. probably top your list. The added flair and power of the Aero easily justify its price. If you want cleaner styling than the Virago offers, but still want the smoothness of the offset crankshaft, the Spirit might be your Shadow—though we'd recommend riding an Aero before you dismiss it as too buzzy.

This class offers no dominant player, just a series of attractive choices; none of which have any glaring functional flaws. No matter which one you choose, you’ll find someone on our staff who agrees with your choice.

Riding Positions:
If I could morph the Virago's engine with the Aero's look and the A.C.E.'s ergonomics, I might get a perfect 1100 V-twin. The Virago tops my list in the performance category. It's quick and easily controlled, even with its spongy suspension. I like to get some bang for my buck, so the price here is definitely right too. Yamaha's time-honored twin could take the whole cake, I believe, with a trip to the restyle shop. The Aero, although undeniably attractive with a ready-to-pounce profile, is a little too long and low for my taste. I felt like I needed glasses to read the speedo and my lower back didn't appreciate my hands and feet being anchored so far forward. The A.C.E. gave me the best fit. It may lack power, but the comfort combined with taut suspension (something I prefer), bearable vibration, and above-average looks make it my pick for a long haul. —Jamie Elvidge
Aero: 4 Stars, A.C.E.: 4 Stars, Spirit: 3.5 Stars, Virago: 4 Stars

Leave it to Honda to introduce the Aero and eviscerate the competition, even if two-thirds of those competitors are also from Honda. The A.C.E. had the looks department locked up until the Aero appeared with its cool headlight/instrument cluster, which cleaned up the handlebar lines and set the tone for the whole long look of the bike. What about the fishtail pipe? In this case, size definitely matters, and the Aero’s exhaust note clinches the decision.

Usually, I lean toward function over aesthetics in a bike, but this time I didn't have to compromise too much. Although the Virago has the power, the Yamaha has a face only a mother could love. Yeah, I know it's got a great personality, and with a few suspension mods, it would run away from the Aero. Still, the Aero is the machine I'd rather escort to Cruiser Night at the local watering hole. Call me shallow, but good looks are important. Having the second-best performance only sweetens the prize. Honda, with its relentless improvements, has a firm grip on the 1100 class—for now. A Star-ized Virago 1100 would really shake things up. —Evans Brasfield
Aero: 4.5 Stars, A.C.E.: 3.5 Stars, Spirit: 3 Stars, Virago: 3.5 Stars

1100cc V-twins
The 1100cc V-twins give you four ways to ride the road to happiness. There should be one for any taste.Fran Kuhn

As Evans requested, I’ll call him shallow. A pretty face has turned his head. Sure the Aero is a striking companion for a dalliance at the drive-in; but for a lasting relationship, the comfort, performance, and handling of the Virago win me over.

I wouldn’t kick the Aero out of bed—er, the garage—for eating crackers, however. It is beautiful, and I enjoy it when trolling around town. It should also put to rest that tiresome saw about Japanese cruiser styling being an imitation. This motorcycle sets new standards for flawlessly executed retro looks. Though the flat floorboards, turned-back handlebar and bucket saddle are just fine when motoring down Main Street, it gets old after a 100 miles or so.

The Virago continues to be a pleasure when no one else is looking. It’s more confident on a challenging road or in heavy traffic. It’s more comfortable, particularly on a long ride. And like the old song says, “She’s ugly, but she sure can cook.” The Aero’s performance gains leave the A.C.E. in its dust. The A.C.E. is a pretty but uninspired ride. The Spirit falls behind as well, though it remains a pleasant-enough machine.

I agree that Yamaha owes it to cruiser enthusiasts everywhere (and to itself) to give the Virago 1100 the Star treatment. Don't change the engine performance one iota, or mess with that wonderful chassis too much. Just give her some clothes that she can flaunt on Saturday night. —Art Friedman
Aero: 3.5 Stars, A.C.E.: 2.5 Stars, Spirit: 2.5 Stars, Virago: 4 Stars

You won’t be disappointed if you buy any one of these motorcycles. Spending two days on the road with these four machines was an absolute blast.

The Aero has eye-catching good looks and the most power of the Hondas. It has neat features like the speedo and the exhaust note, but the floorboard position makes long rides a bit uncomfortable.

The A.C.E. has classic styling and was the most maneuverable, but it lacks the power of the Aero. (Don’t believe Honda’s claim of a five-horsepower difference; it feels like 10 or 15.)

The Spirit rounds out Honda’s line nicely, with great Honda quality and a proven track record.

Then there is Yamaha's Virago, a bike that has been around forever for good reason. With proven reliability, great power, wonderful handling and comfy ergonomics, it was also the cheapest of the bunch. If I were buying one of these 1100 V-twins, it would be the Virago. With the extra cash, I'd buy some neat goodies for the bike and myself.—Richard Cicchino
Aero: 3.5 Stars, A.C.E. 3 Stars, Spirit: 3 Stars, Virago: 3.5 Stars

I have two favorites in this group, depending on how we define our terms. Honda’s lovely new Aero sweeps the beauty pageant, no question. The period motif is handled deftly, with deeper fenders that still look graceful and well-balanced. The detailing is clean, and the finish work is impeccable. I especially like how the motorcycle seems to drop down out of the way of your view in front. Snuggling the speedo into the headlamp shell feels much less intrusive than propping it up in my face, as the other Shadows do.

But the Aero isn't my first choice when it's time to ride, especially if the route has a curve or two along the way. Then, Yamaha's venerable Virago easily seduces me with its narrow, close-coupled feel, and class-crushing horsepower. In this company, it is far and away the sportiest, fastest, most responsive player. That may not rate high on everyone's priority list. But I'm not prepared to give up the inherent benefits of speed and maneuverability a motorcycle offers in traffic, nor the unbridled delight of swinging through corners with some enthusiasm, just to make a styling statement. (But one look at the gaudy, overdone splashing of chrome geegaws all over the Virago would tell you that.) The high but narrow handlebar gives fine control into and out of corners, throttle response is lively, and the Yamaha does pretty much whatever you ask of it—just like a modern motorcycle should. That's what catches my eye. —Kevin Smith
Aero: 4 Stars, A.C.E. 3 Stars, Spirit: 3 Stars, Virago: 4 Stars

This article was originally published in the April 1998 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser.

Honda A.C.E Specifications
Price: $9199-9599
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1099cc, 87.5 x 91.4mm
Wet weight: 622 lb
Seat height: 28.7 in.
Wheelbase: 65.0 in
Front tire: 120/90-18
Rear tire: 170/80-15
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gal.
Fuel mileage: 38.3 mpg average
RPM at 60 mph, top-gear: 2680
200-yd, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 68.0 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 14.92 sec., 86.2 mph
Honda Spirit Specifications
Price: $8599-8899
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1099cc, 87.5 x 91.4 mm
Wet weight: 592 lb
Seat height: 28.5 in.
Wheelbase: 65.0 in.
Front tire: 110/90-19
Rear tire: 170/80-15
Fuel capacity: 4.2 gal.
Fuel mileage: 42.5 mpg average
RPM at 60 mph, top-gear: 3150
200-yd, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 70.7 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 13.86 sec., 94.1 mph
Yamaha Virago Specifications
Price: $7599-7799
Displacement, bore x stroke: 1063cc, 95 x 75mm
Wet weight: 536 lb
Seat height: 28.1 in.
Wheelbase: 60.0 in.
Front tire: 190/90-19
Rear tire: 140/90-15
Fuel capacity: 4.4 gal.
Fuel mileage: 40.0 mpg average
RPM at 60 mph, top-gear: 3500
200-yd, top-gear acceleration from 50 mph, terminal speed: 79.5 mph
Quarter-mile acceleration: 12.72 sec., 95.7 mph