Will You Grow Out of Your Bike?

Size Matters

Will you grow out of your motorcycle?
Will you grow out of it or is it too much bike?Illustration by John Breakey

I had spent most of the day riding our Kawasaki Vulcan 800 Drifter test bike when I received an e-mail from a reader asking if the 800 he was contemplating buying was "big enough." The reader is five-foot-eight and weighs 155 pounds and was worried a bigger bike would be too much to handle. He had been warned that he would "grow right out" of an 800 if that's what he ended up buying.

If I could somehow collect a small stipend every time I answered this question, I could afford to buy these test bikes instead of borrow them. I could also spend more time riding them rather than writing about them. I suspect that some of these questions are motivated by a desire to point to my reply and say, "See, honey, I really do need that 1500. The new roof will have to wait." If that's your angle, you are asking the wrong guy. Thirty years ago, I rode a 175cc, two-stroke single 10,000 miles through Mexico and never felt badly underpowered. When I returned home, I bought a 350 twin (also a two-stroke), rode it across the country, spending much of the ride marveling at its power. More recently, I went from California to New England and back on a 750 twin. I have also cruised to the sunrise side of the country on several larger bikes. I can't say that I enjoyed the ride on them more than I did on the 350, nor did I enjoy it less. Bikes of different sizes aren't necessarily better or worse, but they are usually different. In the case of cruisers, bigger isn't necessarily faster.

Consider the big twins tested this issue. Honda’s 750 Magna would squirt away from all of them. The quicker of the 1100 twins we tested in our last issue would also hang with the faster big twins and run away from the slower ones. Even Kawasaki’s Vulcan 500 vertical twin will keep up; it just takes an extra ratio in the gearbox and a lot of revolutions. I wouldn’t worry about relative reliability either.

So why buy a big twin? Well, the big bikes generally have classier details and a better finish quality. You get features such as fuel injection and greater sophistication in components like suspension with many larger cruisers. For me, the most important functional consideration is the additional roominess that comes from a longer wheelbase. When we hear from riders who say their six-foot-plus frames feel compressed on most bikes, we ask them if they have tried Suzuki's leviathan 1500. If that's too small, we're talking custom.

Of course, much of a big twin’s appeal is emotional. People seem to think that manhood and bike size are interconnected—an illusion which big-bike owners are quick to foster. There’s also something seductive about all that grunt when you ease out the clutch at 331⁄3 rpm. Owning a big bike gets you a more potent beat hammering from the exhaust. And we puff with pride when somebody’s eyes widen and he exclaims, “That’s as big as the engine in my car!” Just steer the subject away from horsepower, because we are paying the big-bike premium for prestige—not performance. A lot of people go for a big bike simply to keep up with the Joneses.

If I had a choice between Kawasaki’s 800 Drifter and its 1500 Drifter for my next ride across the country, I’d immediately ask for the 1500. Not because of its size or prestige (which somehow becomes insignificant 400 miles into a 500-mile day), but because of its saddle. The 1500 Drifter possesses one of the best stock seats of any motorcycle. If the seats were swapped, however, I’d opt for the 800. Of course, part of the reason the 1500 has a more accommodating saddle is that it has more room between its axles. If I had to spend my own money, maybe an aftermarket seat would bring the 800 up to the comfort level of the 1500. The money I saved could pay for that ride across the country.

But for around town, I’d pick the 800, which comes off the mark more smartly than the bigger bike and, in this particular case, actually has nicer styling. It is also much handier in tight traffic and easier to push around when you are trying to squeeze into a tight parking place. If, however, the assignment involved winding roads, I might forsake both bikes for the company’s 500cc Vulcan (if I couldn’t have a Magna).

If people who worry a less-than-maximum bike will be too small are surprised by my answer, so are the people who fear a big twin will be too much bike. “Sure you can handle a 1500,” I have told many doubtful riders short of stature or inseam. Plenty of big bikes have surprisingly low saddles. If you can solidly plant the balls of your feet on the ground on both sides, it’s not too big. Just make sure your boots have high-traction soles. The extra bulk of a big bike will be apparent only at speeds below three mph. The rest of the time it’s about balance. You may want to change the handlebar position or bend a bit to make the reach to the grips less formidable, but that’s easy enough to adjust on most bikes. You’ll notice a big bike’s additional heft most when trying to lift it off the sidestand when parked on a grade that drops off to the left.

Of course, these conversations about “it’s not too much bike” usually conclude with me confusing the person even more when I tell him that he won’t give up much in terms of function if he goes with the smaller bike. The issue is usually how much a person wants the prestige of a big bike.

But that is true in most cases. The functional advantage of a cruiser with an engine that displaces in excess of 80 cubic inches relative to something with half to three-quarters of that displacement is usually much smaller than the price difference. The perceived disparity in stature tends to be much larger. If big is beautiful to you, then a 1500 or 1600 may be more manageable than you have been led to believe. On the other hand, if you think a 650, 800 or 1100 looks, feels and prices out perfectly, but worry you will someday soon wake up and find that it’s inadequate, don’t fret. Big-bike lust is a transmittable mental disorder—not an actual physical condition—and you may never be infected.