New for 2011, the Vulcan Vaquero is Kawasaki’s entry into the bagger segment, following the lead set by Harley-Davidson, Victory and Star. Coming into the fray later than the competition allowed Kawi to see what works and what doesn’t and learn from the other manufacturer’s successes and failures in the exercise of creating a solo touring cruiser. At first glance it looks like Team Green did its homework, but how does the Vaquero stack up against the veteran Street Glide and the powerhouse Stratoliner Deluxe?
Slotted between the luxury touring Voyager and the classically styled Nomad, the Vaquero shares the same basic frame and 1700cc 52-degree V-Twin engine. Featuring a single overhead camshaft and four-valve head, the 103.1 cubic-inch mill pumped out 68.97 horsepower at 4900 rpm on our dyno and 86.96 lb-ft of torque at 3200 rpm. That just bested the Harley in the hard numbers department, and on the road it feels slightly quicker than the Harley. The damper-less clutch sourced from the 1700 Classic helps the Vulcan get off the line with a little more oomph, but its times in the quarter aren’t exactly pavement scorching at 14.63 seconds at 92.33 mph.
The Vulcan Vaquero has more than enough power for cruising
down the interstate but trails the Stratoliner Deluxe in the
horsepower and torque department.
Ken Hutchison put the power numbers into perspective, “As it is the H-D and Kawasaki feel very similar. They are not hot rods despite what they look like. They are baggers, intended to cruise down the road at a mellow pace and make the rider feel good about where they are and what they are doing. If you want more than that you’ll simply have to throw some money at them.”
As straight-line performance isn’t what these motorcycles are about, comfort and usability are key attributes to the success of a bagger. This area of the Vaquero was a mixed bag, with some excellent features but also a couple not so hot issues with comfort. Although the Vulcan looks like it could lay down the miles with ease, the gunfighter seat makes long days a chore. The slope of the seat caused our backsides to squirm and feel fatigued after about an hour or so, and with days of riding ahead of us the crew began to loathe the Vaquero’s saddle. Combine that with cramped floorboards that didn’t allow a variety of foot positions, and you have the third place finisher in the comfort category.
Easy-to-read instrumentation and the dash mounted multifunction stereo were the hands-down favorite with our testers, and the Vaquero garnered a unanimous victory in the instrumentation and electronics category. The super-cool ‘60s muscle car inspired dash is laid out well and using the stereo via the handlebar mounted switches is easy even without looking through the manual. The multitude of listening options of AM/FM radio, iPod, weather band, and XM Satellite Radio meant that there was always something to entertain as the miles clicked by. The cruise control of the Vulcan was easy to use, and all the important switches were easy to reach and where you’d expect them to be.
The drivetrain of the Vulcan was also an issue with our testing posse. While solid clunks and a chunky feeling transmission is all part of the cruiser experience, shifting the Vaquero felt sloppy and less precise than the other two rides. A major culprit for the Kawasaki’s shifting woes looks to be the heel-toe shifter, as it felt like it flexed and moved around more than it should. A solid stomp on the heel side of the lever during upshifts was more effective than using your toe, but not everyone in the crew was into the habit of stepping back on the rear portion of the lever. Clutch feel was excellent, and the belt drive was smooth as silk. Gear ratios were well sorted and the tall fifth and sixth gears allowed the Vaquero to settle into a low rumble across the California desert. But the shifting was not what would normally expect from a Kawasaki, and for that the Vaquero was third once again.
At 838 lbs. the Vaquero has a considerable amount of mass that ultimately has to be slowed. Feedback and feel from the front lever was decent although a bit spongy, and the power of the twin-piston calipers squeezing the 300mm rotors is borderline when hard stops are in order. The rear 300mm rotor and twin-piston caliper is strong, but lacks feel and is easy to lock during panic braking. In the 60-0 mph braking test the Vulcan was the least effective at shedding speed at a distance of 143.65 feet, two feet further down the road than the Star and five yards past the Harley.
In the mountains the Kawasaki was a solid performer with excellent stability and grip in the corners. Turn in effort was the lightest of the three baggers with a light feel to the bars even when hustling faster than a bike such as these should. Uneven pavement and potholes did little to upset the steamroller that was the Vaquero. Even so, the low cornering clearance of the floorboards knocked the Vulcan back to second place in the handling and suspension numbers.
The Vaquero is an excellent handler despite it’s lack of cornering clearance; even when
the floorboards begin to grind away on the pavemnet the Vulcan is solid and stable.
“The Kawasaki surprised me with the way it handled. It’s big and low and it feels like it hugs the ground well,” said Adam Waheed, summing up his thoughts on the Vaquero. “It didn’t have as much cornering clearance as the Star, but when hard parts did touch down it did so in a way that you didn’t’ feel like you were going to high center or lose control. It steers pretty easy and delivers a comfortable ride. I’d say Kawasaki did a pretty good job with the overall handling, and if they could add some cornering clearance it would be just about perfect.”
Fueling on the Kawasaki was excellent all the way from sea level to the 9941-foot elevation of Tioga Pass with no hiccups or rough spots. Starting was trouble-free even during cool mornings in the mountains. Throttle response is
With its ruby red paint and muscular styling, the Vaquero grabbed the most votes in the appearance category.
snappy and crisp from the Electric Throttle Valve (ETV) system, which has a standard cable activating sensors that are read by the ECU which then meters the proper fueling and throttle body opening. Fuel mileage was the lowest at 38.5 mpg, giving the Vaquero a 204-mile range with its 5.3 gallon tank.
Style is what these baggers are all about, and the candy red Vaquero received the most votes as the best looking bike in the group. The front fairing’s louvered vents and round headlight are masculine and just aggressive enough to set the tone for the rest of the bike. A sculpted rear fender and matching side-opening bags flow to the back of the bike in perfect bagger style. With attention to detail in the taillight, gauges and stereo design, the Vulcan looks as good close up as it does from a distance.
The competition in this shootout was much closer than we had expected and a few third place finishes for the Vulcan was all that was needed for the Star and Harley to pull ahead on the score sheet. After numbers were crunched the Kawasaki Vulcan Vaquero finished in last place, although with just a few bolt-on parts the story may have been different. In the end someone has to be the loser, but when the bikes are this good a bronze medal is still nothing to scoff at.