The Vulcan 900 Custom features a slim front end, with its black matte finish getting a big thumbs up from our test crew.
Kawasaki’s Vulcan 900 rests right smack in the middle of the Japanese marque’s cruiser lineup. At the very bottom is the itty bitty Eliminator 125 with the massive Vulcan 2000 at the top. The 900s, however, look much closer to their larger siblings. For our test we received the Vulcan 900 Custom, which sports a more stripped down look than the similar Vulcan Classic.
The Vulcan Custom’s narrow fork tubes, along with the skinniest tire of all the test rides, contrast the bulkier front ends on the Star and Honda entries. The lines flow up to the high-placed handlebar, with the 21-inch front wheel (largest in our test) completing the stretched, skinny look. The drawback of the minimalist front is it leaves the radiator and oil-cooler more exposed, less integrated into the design than the radiator on the Shadow, and busier-looking than the clean fronts on the air-cooled Harley and Star.
The matte black tank and bodywork garnered compliments from of our test riders, along with the slashcut right-side exhaust. Out back the narrowest front tire of the test is contrasted by the opposite extreme, with the fattest rear tire at 180 spooned onto a 15-inch hoop. The two-tone seat looked strange to some, but the Kawi styling elicited a overall favorable response.
“This one caught my eye out of them all,” says Joey of the Vulcan Custom. “The matte finish black was just sexy.”
Styling’s a big factor in the cruiser aesthetic, but the Kawasaki backs it up with a potent engine. The Kawasaki Twin gets its 903cc displacement from an 88mm bore by 74.2mm stroke – the 900 upping displacement from 800 during the 2006 model year. A single overhead cam operates the 900’s four-valve head design. The fuel-injected, liquid-cooled Kawi took top honors in raw power production, registering peak numbers of 50.61 hp and 51.47 lb-ft torque on the Mickey Cohen Motorsports dyno.
Seat of the pants dyno on the street found the Kawasaki Twin not as visceral as the Harley mill, though all agreed the Kawi felt the best off the bottom. The usable immediate power down low allows riders to chug along at low rpm with ease, even in high gears. And when it does come time to ring out the throttle, power delivery lacks any hiccups or surges with the steady fueling. As a total package the Kawasaki Twin feels refined yet authoritative, building power in a linear manner. Riders rated it second to the Sportster in on-road performance and personality, only because the Harley’s motor felt a hair snappier with a more responsive mid-range
“The Kawasaki had probably the best bottom-end,” agrees Adam, “Its mid-range wasn’t as stout feeling as the Harley’s, but overall a good happy-medium.”
The Kawsasaki featured some of the best ground clearance, allowing for a faster pace than its competitors in the corners.
As mentioned before, the exhaust looks great (a special edition version of the Vulcan offering blacked-out pipes). But while the exhaust note sounds fine enough, it could use a little more rasp for the extra chutzpah to match the tone of the H-D and surprising rattle from the Shadow.
The well-sorted five-speed gearbox never had any issues, with clutch engagement quick and easy. Neutral was particularly easy to find (the same could not be said of the Star) and lever pull was light. No complaints from any test riders, explaining its top rating in clutch and transmission.
While none of these cruisers can boast the invigorating braking prowess of a sportier street/sportbike, the Kawasaki’s brakes rated best of our comparo bunch. The front 300mm rotor pinched by two-piston Tokico caliper delivers a pleasing bite and feel at the lever. Teamed with the 270mm rear disc, the two binders bring things to a halt well enough, all the more impressive considering they slow down the heaviest curb weight at 619 lbs.
Yet the extra pounds don’t hinder the Kawasaki’s handling scores, where it came out on top, nor does the tall/skinny front and wide rear tire combination. Sporting a 33-degree rake, the Vulcan has the most trail (7.2 inches) in our testing group, almost an inch more than the Honda. Combined with its 64.8-inch wheelbase, it may not turn quite as quick at the others, but once it does the Vulcan holds a smooth, stable line. Simply push on the wide bars and tip the Vulcan into the turn, where, unlike some of the other rides in our comparison, it can actually lean over a little without the immediate scraping of hard parts.
Ground clearance on the Kawasaki far exceeds the Star and Harley-Davidson, encouraging more spirited runs around the corners – always a grin factor plus. The Vulcan can handle the quicker pace offered by the extra lean without the wallowing instability of the Honda. The suspension, a 41mm fork and preload adjustable rear shock, hold up its share of the handling duties, delivering more than ample travel (5.9 inch front, 4.1 inch rear) and a plush ride.
Speaking of plush, Kawasaki describes its Vulcan perch as a gunfighter seat, not quite sure why, but it’s certainly comfortable whatever the name. Rated the cushiest in our test, the seat is just one highlight of an ergonomic package that best suited our test rider frames, another being the tall handlebar, with its great leverage and comfortable reach. Footpeg placement gives riders that foot-forward cruiser pose, but the entire riding position is quite agreeable to packing on the miles. No question if we told our four testers they had to select one bike for an iron-butt rally, they’d fight tooth and nail over the Vulcan.
Fit and finish on the Vulcan has highs and lows. The controls and switchgear are functional, if a little plain. The mirrors don’t add to the design, though they provided one of the better rear views. On the plus side, we found the instrument console attractive, very much appreciating the fuel gauge. The headlight brightness was good too, tied with the Yamaha as second-most visible from the front, but bettering its Japanese rival in illuminating the road for the rider.
As for fuel, the Vulcan observed the lowest fuel efficiency at 42 mpg. However, it yielded the longest range at 222 miles from its 5.3 gallon tank. Getting 200-plus miles from a full tank always gets a brownie point in our book, making longer distance runs and touring more amenable.
The Kawasaki took tops in grin factor rating, with its competent engine performance and handling chops. It’s not always one thing that makes a bike stand out in this most subjective of categories. Often it’s just all the intangible traits of a bike matching up best with the personalities of the test rider. Whatever it is, the Kawasaki has it.
“Best grin factor with looks, engine sound and performance,” agrees Ray, one of majority to rate the Vulcan high in the category.
Sure the smiles come with a slightly higher MSRP, the Vulcan the most expensive ride in our test at $8349 (includes a 12-month warranty). That’s $260 more than the Star we tested (different paint schemes for the V Star close the gap to a mere $60), but a small price to pay for those who find the Vulcan fetching.
Really the biggest question with the Vulcan is the styling, and riders who don’t fancy the Custom’s lines might prefer the beefier looks of the 900 Classic. Whatever the case, the sum of the Vulcan 900’s parts add up to a fantastic cruiser experience, one many of our test riders found the most personally satisfying.