Baggers, with their broad fairings and hard saddlebags, are popular these days, but classically styled cruisers with windshields and leather saddlebags have been mainstays of the touring world for decades. For this comparison test, we assembled a quartet of middleweight metric cruisers available from the factory as touring-ready models. All four are 2014 models (none will change for 2015 except for color and price; see sidebars), with three from Japan—Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic LT, Star V Star 950 Tourer and Suzuki Boulevard C50T—and one from Great Britain, the Triumph America LT.
In certain respects, the four bikes in this comparison are evenly matched. All are powered by twin-cylinder engines—three are V-twins, one is a parallel twin—ranging from 805cc to 942cc. Each has a windshield, floorboards, a heel-toe shifter, leather saddlebags and a passenger backrest. The difference between the lightest and heaviest bikes—the 626-lb. Triumph and the 662-lb. Kawasaki—is just 36 pounds. And all of them are priced below $10,000. (Cruisers from other manufacturers were not included because they’re not available with comparably sized engines or they’re not offered as similarly equipped touring models.)
We packed gear in their saddlebags and hit the road for a couple of days, leaving behind the coastal plain where Rider is based and heading inland, climbing thousands of feet into the crisp, pine-scented air of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains. Our test route included fast-paced freeways and hundreds of miles of winding roads through canyons and among high-alpine peaks. Refer to the one-page sidebars, side-by-side specs and dyno charts for details on each model; read on to see how they compare and contrast.
Sportbikes are about performance and adventure bikes are about versatility, but cruisers are about style and sensation. How a cruiser looks is just as important as how it sounds and feels. Generous amounts of chrome—on headlight nacelles, tanktop consoles, handlebars and trim pieces, engines and exhaust pipes—give these cruisers a classic look. With their prominent V-twins, the Kawasaki, Star and Suzuki conform to cruiser orthodoxy, while the Triumph stands apart with its parallel twin. None are dull in appearance, with two-tone paint on the Kawasaki, Suzuki and Triumph, and red accents with gold pinstripes on the Raven-colored Star. Wire-spoke wheels and chrome studs on the seat, saddlebags and passenger backrest give the Kawasaki and Suzuki a traditional look, while cast wheels on the Star and Triumph are more contemporary and make roadside flat repairs easier. If this comparo were primarily a beauty contest, the Star V Star 950 Tourer would take home the tiara.
On the road, differences between the four bikes became apparent immediately. All have 5-speed transmissions that shift easily with heel-toe shifters and cable-actuated clutches. Cruising at 70-75 mph in top gear, the Star and Triumph felt smooth and relatively relaxed, but the Kawasaki and Suzuki felt busy and overworked, sending excessive vibration through the floorboards. The Star, which makes the most torque (57.2 lb-ft), and the Triumph, which makes the most horsepower (56), have the most responsive engines, delivering more satisfying thrust than the comparatively sluggish Kawasaki and Suzuki. Where the Triumph falls short of the other three is engine character; its parallel twin, despite its 270-degreee firing order, feels too smooth and lacks the loping rumble one expects from a cruiser.
Leaving crowded civilization behind, the road’s grade steepened and its camber changed from curve to curve as we gained elevation. Wide handlebars provide enough steering leverage to overcome raked-out front ends and long wheelbases. The Triumph, with the shortest distance between the axles and the lowest curb weight, has the best handling of the bunch, and its relatively high floorboards give it ample cornering clearance. The Star, with the longest wheelbase (by nearly an inch), second-heaviest weight (655 pounds) and largest front wheel (18-inch diameter vs. 16 inches on the others), feels lazy and ponderous in the corners, and it has by far the least amount of cornering clearance. Between these two extremes lie the Kawasaki and Suzuki, which are more neutral in terms of handling.
Chassis consist of tubular-steel double cradle frames and steel swingarms, with basic suspension and brakes. All have a 41mm non-adjustable fork and either single (Kawasaki, Star and Suzuki) or dual (Triumph) preload-adjustable-only rear shocks. Ride quality was generally good on the open road. On mountain curves, especially at speed, the Kawasaki and Suzuki felt soft and had a tendency to wallow, whereas the Star and Triumph felt firmer and well controlled. Except for the Suzuki’s rear drum, each wheel has a single-disc brake with a 2-piston pin-slide caliper; none have ABS. The Triumph offers the best braking power and modulation, followed by the Star. The front brake, which provides the majority of stopping power, felt spongy on the Suzuki and woefully underpowered on the Kawasaki.
Trading bikes every 40-50 miles during our two-day, 400-plus-mile test gave us ample opportunity to assess seating comfort and wind protection. With the broadest seat and a natural reach to the handlebar, the Suzuki C50T proved to be the most universally comfortable. Its windshield, at an ideal height and width, parted the wind smoothly. The Star also drew praise for comfort, but its short windshield buffeted our helmets. The Kawasaki’s seat is too soft and locks the rider in one position close to the tank, and the grips are positioned at an unusual angle, forcing one’s elbows inward. The Kawasaki has the largest windshield, wider than the others and tall enough that most riders had to look through it. With the smallest handlebar-seat-floorboard triangle, the Triumph felt cramped among tall riders, but drew little criticism or praise otherwise. The Triumph’s unusually tall, narrow windshield provides good protection, but forced all riders to look through it. Backrests help passengers feel secure, but all four bikes have fairly narrow pillion seats that may not be comfortable for long distances, depending on your companion’s posterior fortitude.
Despite their apparent similarities, strong favorites emerged among these four middleweight touring cruisers. When our test riders were asked to pick which bike they would buy, everyone picked the Star…and the Triumph. The Star was a winner because it has what most cruiser buyers want—a big, torquey, air-cooled V-twin and loads of curb appeal. It also gets high marks for comfort, suspension compliance and braking. Although the Star’s windshield is a few inches too short, its leather-covered saddlebags are the largest in this group and they’re the only ones that are rigid and lockable. The Triumph, on the other hand, is for non-traditionalists, for those who can live without the look and feel of a V-twin, and who place a premium on horsepower and handling. Potential downsides include compact ergonomics, small saddlebags and chain final drive (which is messier and requires more maintenance than the belts or shaft on the others). If the Star was lighter, more nimble and didn’t drag its floorboards so easily, then it would be the hands-down favorite.
The Kawasaki and Suzuki check all the necessary boxes in this comparison, but neither stood out in any particular way. The Suzuki has a comfortable seat and a good windshield, the Kawasaki has the lowest price, and both have classic styling touches like wire-spoke wheels, but little else felt special or unique. And their unpleasant vibration at highway speeds meant that none of us wanted to travel long distances on either machine. What all four of these bikes offer is good value, a 200-plus-mile range (all run on regular unleaded) and a full complement of touring amenities right from the factory.
The motorcycle comparison article Touring Twins was published in the January 2015 issue of Rider magazine, along with individual reports on all four motorcycles. Follow the links below to read the individual reviews and see full specs on each motorcycle.