2011 Bagger Cruiser Shootout

MotorcycleUSA Staff | July 11, 2011

In the past a bagger was defined as any motorcycle outfitted with at least a set of saddlebags, but more commonly the term referred to a cruiser with hard bags, a top case and a fairing with a windshield. In the last half-decade a bagger has become more of a specific style of a stripped down and sleek V-Twin cruiser with just hard side bags and a batwing fairing with a chopped windshield. Gone are the top cases, back rests and extraneous headlights of the original touring cruisers that once carried the slang label of bagger.

The Stratoliner Deluxe is longer than both the Kawasaki Vaquero and Harley-Davidson Street Glide.
We headed for the cooler temps of the Sierra Nevada Mountains with three baggers for three days of testing.

When the modern iteration of the bagger began to evolve, customizers began to strip down the Harley-Davidson Electra Glide for a sleeker and more streamlined style. They tossed the top case, removed the passenger seat, and cut down the windshield to a short stubby air-deflecting screen. The bagger was the bridge between the full dressers and the choppers of the day. These were slick cruisers that were functional and comfortable for all day rides but could also hold their own at the local bike night show-n-shine against full custom choppers. The bagger is a product of the best-of-both-worlds approach to cruiser style and usability.

Harley-Davidson took note of customers stripping down their Electra Glides and decided to offer a showroom-ready bagger in 2006 with the Street Glide. Finally bagger fans could roll out of the dealership with a bike they didn’t have to tear apart. Add some airbrushing or new paint, some pipes and maybe different wheels and you are ready to rock and roll. In recent years other cruiser manufactures have also offered up their own bagger-specific cruisers.

We decided to round up three baggers (should have been four – more on that later) and head for the eastern Sierra Mountains for a shootout. We struck out from the cool coastal temperatures at our Irvine, CA, offices towards the dead-straight blacktop of Highway 395 in the High Desert. After six-plus hours of battling triple digits on the thermometer we

climbed out of Owens Valley into the thin mountain air of Mammoth Lakes. The next day we rode to Yosemite National Park via Tioga Pass to take in the sights and continue our testing. Then we did it all in reverse to finish off our subjective testing for the 2011 Bagger Cruiser Shootout.

Kawasaki has come in hot and heavy into the bagger segment with its latest Vulcan cruiser, the Vaquero ($16,499). Sharing the same base platform as the Voyager luxury cruiser, Team Green’s bagger is the only machine in this test with a frame-mounted fairing which is a stripped down and slightly restyled version from its big brother. Its 1700cc 52-degree V-Twin received praise from our Cruiser Editor Bryan Harley, and having just completed a review and a first ride recently, we expected that the Kawi would be a serious contender for the win in this comparison.

Star jumped into the bagger game last year with the Stratoliner Deluxe ($17,490), which is the only bagger built up from a standard cruiser rather than a stripped down version of a luxury ride. Starting with the well-received Star Stratoliner, the engineers at Yamaha added a swoopy, fork-mounted fairing and matching hard bags along with an iPod stereo. The new additions flow perfectly with the Art Deco lines of the tank and fenders, but Star missed a few important features, number one being cruise control. The massive 1854cc pushrod V-Twin is a monster, and we suspected that it would rank high in the performance testing categories.

The third machine for our test is the original factory bagger, the Harley-Davidson Street Glide ($21,769). This stripped down and lowered member of the FL family of Harleys is dressed in

minimal chrome giving it a sleek, low look. A bare bones Bat-Wing fairing designed by Willie G. himself is mounted to the conventional fork and houses the Harmon Kardon stereo and speakers. The beating heart of the Street Glide is a 96 cubic-inch Twin-Cam engine mated to a six-speed overdrive transmission. As the first on the block and also the most popular, can this American made bagger keep its metric competition at bay? We had a feeling it would be a brawl to the final bell.

I know what many of you are thinking right now, “Where’s the Victory?” A communication error occurred somewhere in the vast expanse of the World Wide Web, and somehow we ended up with a Victory Cross Roads sitting in our garage instead of the applicable Cross Country model. Without enough time in the schedule to wait for the correct bike, we charged ahead without the second American-made bagger. Don’t fret Victory fans we took the Cross Roads along, and I will be posting a separate review in due time. Sometimes things happen and you have to punt.

Finding a willing crew of test riders was not a problem for this mission as the scenery and bikes promised to be epic. Road Test Editor Adam Waheed was the mastermind of this test, and laid out the route and schedule. So of course it was tailored for his insatiable lust for epic wilderness. Editorial Director Ken Hutchison jumped into the fray with little to no convincing, and our video mastermind Ray Gauger was ready to breathe in some mountain air. I completed the squad as I have never been to Yosemite, and if Bryan Harley had tried to arm wrestle me for the final slot I would have snapped his arm quicker than Sly Stallone in “Over the Top.” But don’t feel too bad for Bryan; he pulled the card to attend the 2012 Harley-Davidson CVO Introduction in California Wine Country.

Our standard scoring protocol is once again in use for this comparison. Ten subjective categories such as engine character, handling and appearance are scored by our test riders during their time on the bikes. Once we return to the office ten objective categories are scored ranging from quarter-mile times to fuel economy to MSRP. The winner of each gets 10 points, followed by 8 points for second and 7 for third. From there the scores are tallied and an overall winner is declared. Usually when there are fewer than five machines in a shootout the results are either extremely close or one bike wins in a landslide. Which way would it go for our 2011 Bagger Cruiser Shootout? Let’s hit the open road and find out.

MotorcycleUSA Staff