We’re painting with broad brush strokes here but generally speaking, you’re either a fan of cruisers or not. While a sportsbike rider may enjoy a naked or even an adventure bike, there’s very little crossover between those kinds of bikes and cruisers. But what about a cruiser that blurs that gap somewhat and could potentially attract non-traditional customers? We think the Kawasaki Vulcan S may succeed where very few have done previously.
From the outset, Kawasaki has set about trying to develop a cruiser that didn’t conform to what a cruiser is expected to be. V-twin? No, thanks. Black only paint scheme with chrome everything? Uh ah. Only masculine men with beards need apply? Nope! Image above actual performance? No, sir. While it resembles a cruiser and the ergonomics of it mean you know what type of bike you’re sitting on, Kawasaki has ignored all other expectations of what a cruiser should be.
They’ve also put a lot of thought and research into making this bike as accessible as possible. Some of that went into how a motorcycle can possibly be a one size fits all machine and the answer obviously is that it can’t. Hence, the bike has been designed to have easy modifications made available to reposition the seat, handlebars and even the pegs to ensure this bike fits both shorter and taller people.
For those living in the United States, that customization comes under the umbrella of the ergo-fit system, whereby dealers can modify the bike at the point of sale for free. In other markets, it’s potentially an extra cost at the time of purchase though that will be up to the individual dealers.
When we first saw images of the Vulcan S last year, we were quite impressed at how Kawasaki had managed so well to make it instantly recognizable as a cruiser yet give it a nice injection of modern design. Part of that is probably to do with both the perimeter frame and the offset laydown single-shock which Kawasaki have kept on prominent display. Expect future editions of the bike to have these two items with contrasting colors to really standout like they do now on the some of the 2015 ER-6n’s.
Fit and finish is excellent and to us at least, there’s almost nothing visually wrong with the bike. The exhaust silencer might look a bit too ‘try hard’ for some but it’s in keeping with the overall look of the bike. Our only complaint would be the large plastic shroud over the front of the fuel tank that surrounds the ignition. It’s a lot of black plastic and hides much of the gorgeous tank – make it smaller next time, please.
On paper, the 649 cc parallel twin shouldn’t be anything to get excited over, but it’s a real gem of an engine. It’s been at home in the Ninja 650 and ER-6n for many years now and to huge success, especially in Europe. It provides plenty of grunt down low and it’s probably one of the best ‘real world’ engines (by that we mean performance on the street without risking your license) around. Power delivery is smooth and linear and has a great amount of bottom end grunt.
Despite being an already good motor, Kawasaki have put a lot of effort into making it as user friendly as possible. The crankshaft was resigned with a heavier flywheel to improve engine braking and also reducing the propensity to stall the bike at low speed. Modifications were made to the camshaft profiles and intake ports, which mean the engine delivers more horsepower at lower revs but at a slight cost to torque.
Despite all this focus on the bottom end, the bike sits quite happily around around 5,000 rpm when cruising on the highway, though no doubt a bit of top speed has been lost compared to the Ninja 650. We’re not expecting to see too many Vulcan S’ at the track to test that however. Throttle response isn’t perfect and there’s an ever so slight jerkiness when opening it up from low revs in first or second gear, but we’ve experienced a lot worse.
Where the engine is good, the biggest surprise is the handling. While certainly lighter than many other cruisers, the Vulcan S still weighs a portly 226 kilograms. That’s a full 20 kilograms heaver than the aforementioned ER-6n and 15 kilograms more than the Ninja 650. And yet it feels lighter than either of them by quite a margin. That’s no doubt helped by the longer wheelbase of and lower center of gravity.
Low speed maneuvers were a doddle and the turning circle was excellent. If the bars weren’t so wide this bike would be almost perfect for filtering through city traffic. It’ll be a breeze to use in suburbia and provides yet another positive for the Vulcan S. Until you start going for a spirited ride in the mountains you’d be hard pressed to believe you were on a cruiser.
Even in high speed corners, the Vulcan S rides far better and with more aplomb than a cruiser has any real right to. Peg height will always be a limiting factor on a cruiser but even so, I was able to take a fair bit of speed into the turns on the Vulcan before touching the pavement with either the front pegs or my boot.
Again in a very un-cruiser like way, suspension has been made more sporty than soft and provides a decent amount of feedback given the price bracket it’s playing in. You’ll feel the bumps but it’s not a harsh ride – just not marshmallowy soft like most in the category. Much of those bumps will be absorbed by the seat anyway which at nearly 2.5 inches thick will make many sportsbike riders weep with jealousy.
Kawasaki have also chosen performance over aesthetics in another key area – the wheels and tires. The fronts are 120/70R on 18 inch rims while the rear is 160/60R on a 17″ wheel. Those sizes are again more akin to a sportsbike than a cruiser, where the the front is usually larger and the rear is often much smaller
All of this goes directly to what Kawasaki was aiming for with this bike – making a cruiser accessible and easy to ride. Good power delivery, good road feel and handling, extremely easy cornering ability.
Unfortunately, the brakes detract from that goal slightly. The weakest point on the Vulcan S is the front brake. I was skeptical upon seeing that Kawasaki had only gone for a single disc setup on the Vulcan S, which seems a bit under cooked for a 226 kg bike and in actual riding – it feels it. Pulling in the front brake doesn’t offer much initial bite and you’ve really got to squeeze the adjustable lever hard to get feedback. Once that lever is fully pulled in, the twin-pistons do a good job of slowing you down, but again with little feedback. That said, the ABS system is quite good and especially so on the rear brake which only seemed to cut in when you tried your best to lock the rear up.
From a comparative perspective, the Vulcan S sits right between the Harley-Davidson Street 500 and 750 in engine displacement. Harley’s offerings are also bikes designed to attract a younger audience. But the Street 500 and 750 really don’t break the mold much in our opinion. They still look like traditional cruisers, painted in various shades of black (H-D charge extra for colored versions) and they still handle and perform like, well, a Harley-Davidson.
The Vulcan S doesn’t. It’s a mild sportsbike hiding as a cruiser. It has decent straight line performance, nice handling, good suspension. It’s really what cruisers should be – very comfortable and relaxed but with quality components and good dynamics.
From our perspective, we think the Vulcan S is the far better looking machine but that will come down to individual tastes. But from a build quality perspective the Vulcan S is streets ahead. Little things like the quality of the plastics is just far superior on the Japanese cruiser and we have little doubt that the bike would perform just as well as it did on our test ride as it would after clocking up thousands of miles.
What we’re saying is that the Vulcan S is fairly cheap, but it in no way feels like it and that’s a sign of quality.
From a sportsbike riders perspective, there’s nothing new or groundbreaking about the Vulcan S. It’s just a simple and enjoyable motorcycle, but it has no pretensions about being anything else. It’s a bike designed for newer riders but we think it would be just as suitable for more seasoned riders too who are looking for something different.
Price wise, the Vulcan S is either an absolute steal or just okay, depending on where you live. In Australia, Kawasaki has priced it at $9,999, undercutting the Yamaha Star Bolt by $2,000 and right in line with the HD Street 500 (though HD doesn’t come with ABS which is standard in Australia). In the UK it’s just as good a bargain, where the Vulcan S is £5,949 compared to the Yamaha at £7,199. In the US however, it’s priced right between the HD Street 500 and 750 and despite (in our opinion) being a far better bike than either of them, that cost will no doubt cause a few people to reconsider.
In the UK, Kawasaki is also offering an A2 version which decreases horsepower and torque by restricting the throttle play. In Australia, the restricted LAMS version is the only one on offer at this stage, but having ridden in in restricted mode, it would still make a great bike for a first time rider.
But Kawasaki is selling this machine short as a learner only motorcycle. With full power available, this is a wonderful bike that would make many HD owners realize what they’ve been missing out on all these years – if they could only look past the badge.
Special thanks to Wayne and the team at Team Moto Kawasaki Bowen Hills for the use of their bike.