Kawasaki's Vulcan Puts the Hammer Down
Named for the Roman god of fire and metalworking, Kawasaki's Vulcan range of cruisers represent a fair share of both of those heavenly disciplines. There's enough forged and cast metal in these bikes to keep even journeyman deities distracted from their usual volcano-stoking duties.
Actually, Vulcan models have been on the road for over 20 years, and this newborn Vulcan 900 Custom shares an engine recently revised for use in the new Vulcan 900 Classic. But what sets it apart is the carefully crafted, minimalist custom styling that causes it to resemble the bespoke choppers you see on various television shows, more than it does the full-fendered and full-bodied cruisers that make up the rest of the Vulcan line.
From its prominent 21-inch cast front wheel and its slim fender, the Custom's design draws the eye in one continuous sweeping flow past the contoured fuel tank, the sculpted engine cooling fins, the staggered, slash-cut chrome exhausts and the one-piece “gunfighter'' seat to the bobbed rear fender. If Kawasaki's cruiser designs were always derivatives of a certain Milwaukee motorcycle manufacturer, the company has nonetheless developed that theme with commendable artistry to produce one of the most definitive examples of the genre in this Vulcan 900 Custom.
That's not all. Along with the sharp looks Kawasaki has delivered a mid-size metric cruiser with the feel and substance of a full-size model. Its new 903cc engine has the sound only a common-crankpin V-twin can produce, but its overhead-cam design, fuel-injected induction system and balance-shaft vibration control combine in one extremely sophisticated powertrain. A smooth five-speed gearbox and tolerably light clutch action provide the necessary synthesis for a machine that is easy and pleasurable to operate.
The kicker is an all-up weight of just about 550 pounds and a price tag at just $7349. Despite the belief of many cruiser riders that the more pounds you get for the dollar the better, moderate weight is always a good thing, particularly if the bike in question still delivers a composed and stable ride. And the Vulcan does, with a steering sensation through the solid-mount drag-bars that is fluid and balanced. There's enough damping in the mechanism to resist deflection on high-speed bumps but it's also light enough to allow steady U-turns on single-lane roads.
It's safe to say that the most important aspect of a motorcycle is whether or not it is nice to ride. Kawasaki nailed that virtue right into the door. The Vulcan feels refined, integrated, friendly, and amenable to any kind of riding you feel like doing. The riding position suited pretty much all of the writers on the introductory trip in Austin, Texas, and our sizes varied appreciably. Even with the sit-up-and-beg riding position endemic to the cruiser genre, the Vulcan provided comfy ergonomics, its truss-style rear swing arm and single-shock suspension somehow damping the spine-jarring rear-wheel bump impacts typically encountered on bikes like this over bad pavement breaks.
I usually experience tailbone stiffness after a few hours in the saddle in this position, but even this was minimized by the Vulcan. Either that or the lunch stop at The Salt Lick barbecue was so good it erased any memory of discomfort. Whatever, the combination of a lazy ride in the hill country outside Austin and a leisurely meal of ribs and beans seemed to be exactly what this motorcycle was intended to do.
It's a case of invisible technology adding versatility to a simple concept. You just insert the key in a slot below the rider's left thigh and thumb the starter button. The electronics take care of the rest, matching the mixture to the temperature, and using an automatic fast-idle system to help warm the bike up on a cold morning. No need to idle for long—that's a terrible Harley-owners' habit—because it just puts unburned gas into the oil. You need wait only for oil pressure to come up, then off you go, happy in the knowledge that the catalyst-equipped exhaust system meets tough Euro-III standards.
Nobody uses much in the way of high revs on a bike tuned for low-end torque, and there isn't even a tachometer on the Vulcan. If you rev it hard to make a pass, you can feel the power delivery go soft as engine speed reaches the point of diminishing returns.
But that's the beauty of the bike. You short shift and twist the throttle and let the offbeat firing pulses build to a jackhammer roar, then shift and do it again. Five gears is plenty for a bike with this power spread, and the belt drive keeps things quiet and smooth at the big 180 rear tire. Since both tires on this machine are mounted on cast alloy wheels, they are tubeless units. That's not something you can have on the spoked rims flaunted by many cruisers.
You might expect a tall and skinny front tire like the 90/90 that graces the remarkable front wheel (which has no straight lines and is extremely complex to make) to offer little in the way of grip or feedback, but it turns out that there's enough information coursing back through the bars to provide the rider with an adequate idea of what's happening at the contact patch. Since lean angle is restricted by the typical cruiser layout, anyway, high speed corner grip isn't really an issue.
On the Vulcan, cornering clearance isn't too bad, but one reducing-radius downhill bend chosen by our photographer for repeated passes prompted ugly scratching noises from the under-slung hardware unless one watched the entry speed carefully.
Fast cornering is not a cruiser's concern. Nor is high-speed travel, where the upright riding position soon produces fatigue. That's why the brakes on cruisers are comparatively modest. The single disc front brake on the Custom is gripped by a twin-piston caliper, and required a firm full-fisted pull for quick stops. The rear brake is also a disc, and it proved useful in slow maneuvers as well as adding to overall braking performance.
In the end, the aim of the cruising game is to have a relaxed ride on a machine with an equally relaxed disposition. The Vulcan, with its generous low-slung seat, its ease of operation, its quality fit and finish, and its happy compromise between size and weight, fits that bill quite well.
One has to ask the question here; does any other cruiser really do a better job of carrying rider from place to place at a nice relaxed clip? And that question becomes more pertinent when you add in the price. Even with a couple of thousand dollars worth of Kawasaki accessories (available as the bike goes on sale) tacked onto the bill, the Vulcan still stickers southwards of ten grand. Okay, it doesn't have a Harley badge on it, but for those who don't need to join that club, it leaves a lot of barbecue money in play.
Surely even Roman gods can appreciate that.