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2004 Kawasaki VN1600

Thursday, January 15, 2004
Kawasaki VN1600
Kawasaki's popular big Vulcan got more cubes, more power and better handling in 2003; we tested the '04 version.
Redesigning a motorcycle is a costly proposition for any manufacturer, especially for some of the smaller companies like Kawasaki, so changes usually come in the form of a few tweaks and improvements here and there every few years. The Vulcan 1600 Classic, which replaced the fuel-injected 1500 Classic FI in 2003, couldn't be described as a totally new motorcycle. But there were so many upgrades and enhancements that it certainly goes way beyond the typical evolutionary cycle of improvements.

First let's talk about the engine upgrades. Displacement is bumped from 1470cc to 1552cc. That may not look like much on paper, but that plus a few other tweaks result in a 5% increase in horsepower and 10% increase in torque, according to Kawasaki. This makes a significant difference which is readily apparent and much appreciated. Two spark plugs per cylinder are fitted for better power and burn efficiency, and remapped fuel injection improves low- and mid-range torque. This improved motor provides a strong, steady stream of power up to about 5000 rpm. Ample low-end grunt means there's no need to wind it up to the 6000-rpm rev limiter. And the hydraulic valve adjusters mean low maintenance, too.

The gear-driven counterbalancer and rubber engine mounts work well to quash unwanted vibration from the single-pin crankshaft powerplant, yet doesn't rob the engine of its rumbly character. There is a noticeable lack of mechanical chatter. Even equipped with an environmentally friendly catalyzer ahead of the chamberless dual slash-cut chrome mufflers, this Vulcan puts out a very low thrum which gives the Vulcan an almost ominous tone and feel. It's like a big jungle cat waiting for you to rip the throttle open and unleash the power. It's that unique personality that just adds to the excitement of riding this Vulcan.

The transmission gears have been beefed up to handle the added power and torque, and the hydraulic clutch has been improved to provide a wider engagement range. Clutch pull is fairly light, and the lever has a 5-position adjustment ring to accommodate any size hand. The transmission operates very well, with upshifts and downshifts being sure and well-damped. Add Kawasaki's exclusive "Positive Neutral Finder" and you've got one of the best tranny set-ups in the business. Even the position of the heel/toe shifter is perfect, as it allows you to just slide your foot back on the floorboard and tap your heel on the pedal.

The Vulcan's brakes have been upgraded, with dual 300mm front discs and dual-piston calipers replacing the old 1500's single disc. The rear gets the same 300mm single disc with twin-piston calipers. Both brakes provide excellent stopping power, with good feel and no noticeable fade under hard usage. Like the clutch lever, the front brake lever also has a 5- position adjustment wheel to fit small or large hands comfortably.

Kawasaki VN1600
The addition of Kawasaki's accessory windshield greatly extends the Vulcan's road repertoire.
The Vulcan has always been a big motorcycle, and this latest model is a bit longer and lower than the old one. The swingarm, pulled from the Mean Streak, is 30mm longer. Rake and trail have also been increased to provide more stability, yet without much of a sacrifice in handling. But with an overall length of 98.6 inches, a wheelbase of 66.7 inches, and a wet weight of 745 lbs., this Vulcan 1600 is getting into the Lincoln Town Car neighborhood. Remarkably, however, it doesn't feel all that heavy when riding, due to the low center of gravity and excellent balance. It's only during parking lot maneuvers that you might wish you'd spent more time in the gym.

A redesigned tubular and box-section frame with a single backbone offers more rigidity than previous and it allows for the longer and larger-capacity fuel tank. The front fork stanchions have been beefed up to 43mm for added strength. In the rear, dual air shocks soak up the bumps quite well, and have 4-position damping adjustments that actually can be felt from click stop to click stop. Connected to the new suspension are a set of dished cast wheels sporting a 170/70-16 tubeless rear tire, and a 130/90-16 front hoops.

It only takes about five minutes out on the road to realize that the Vulcan 1600 is a pleasure to ride. Everything seems so well sorted out and comfortable. There is more than enough grunt to scoot away from stoplights, or to make a high-gear pass at speed without downshifting. The engine always feels willing to play and throttle response is immediate. The fuel injection system, and microprocessor-controlled timing, means there are no hiccups or flat spots. Cruising at illegal highway speeds is smooth and effortless, especially with a handsome chrome-accented windshield in place, a very welcome accessory for highway cruising as the handlebars have a wide spread. Without one, you'll be fighting a lot of wind blast.

Lay the bike into a long sweeper and it will stay where you aim it. All of the new frame and chassis bits, combined with the meaty rubber, give the rider a solid, confident feeling. Tighter turns and transitions take a bit of muscle, but the bars provide good leverage and you can enjoy an aggressive ride on any type of road, hindered only by the lean angle limitations typical of all cruisers. The strong brakes add to the feeling of security, and even a hard pull on the front binders won't induce too much front end dive to upset the balance. And hard acceleration out of a turn won't produce any noticeable lash from the shaft drive. This is one of the easiest cruiser bikes to ride well right out of the gate.

Ergonomically, there isn't much to complain about. The wide seat is comfortable for a long ride, and the passenger won't have complaints with the removable pillion pad. The controls are properly placed and work well. The floorboards are set a few inches forward and tilted up just a bit for a comfortable upright seating position, and there is plenty of room to move around, even for tall riders. The low seat height makes it easy to plant your feet solidly on the ground, without the floorboards or any other parts to get in the way. The mirrors are rock solid at speed, although we'd get a better rearward view if the stems were extended another inch outward.

Kawasaki VN1600
Longer and lower than previous, the Vulcan 1600 proves to be an effortless cruiser.
Visually, the bike is handsome if not stunning. I like the sweeping upturn of each fender's trailing edge, as well as the chrome fender brace that highlights the contour of the rear fender. The stretched gas tank looks sleek and well integrated into the overall shape. There is plenty of chrome to catch your eye, from the new larger multi-reflector headlamp and front fork uppers, to the tanktop instrument panel, tranny case and driveshaft covers, as well as several engine accents. Fit and finish is top drawer. I especially appreciated the attention to details like the routing of the front cables and wires along the handlebars that are tucked behind the huge headlight nacelle for a clean, uncluttered look.

The Vulcan also has a lot of nice amenities such as self-canceling turn signals, helmet lock, and a locking left-side tool kit storage compartment. The tank-mounted instrument cluster has a digital LED readout with tripmeter, clock and a fuel gauge. The Vulcan gets one demerit for not having a tachometer, however. (When I become emperor, every motorcycle will be required to have one.)

With all these upgrades, you're probably wondering how much more money this new and improved Vulcan has to cost. Well, you needn't run out to get that second mortgage, because the MSRP on this outstanding motorcycle is $10,499 - that's $500 less than the '02 Vulcan 1500 Classic FI! This reasonable price tag is why Kawasaki sells so many of them.

So how could they price a much improved motorcycle for less money than the previous model? Apparently, Kawasaki has a really, really, good team of designers and engineers, and a really lousy team of accountants!

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2004 Kawasaki VN1600 Highs & Lows
Highs
  • Low price tag
  • Great motor
  • Good looking machine
Lows
  • No tach
  • Mirrors are not very useful
  • Feels heavy in the parking lot

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