In our last luxury touring comparison (Rider, August 2015 and on ridermagazine.com),
we put the 40th anniversary Honda Gold Wing up against the Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited and Indian Roadmaster. Even though the Honda’s turbine-like flat six and sportbike-caliber chassis offered a very different riding experience than the American V-twins, we found them to be very close in terms of wind protection, comfort, luggage capacity and standard features—the things that put “luxury” in luxury touring.
Here we are nearly three years later and the landscape has changed. For 2017, Harley-Davidson’s Touring lineup got the new 107ci Milwaukee-Eight engine and Showa suspension, and Indian’s Chieftain and Roadmaster touring models were upgraded with the Ride Command infotainment system. For 2018, Honda launched the sixth generation of its flagship tourer, reducing weight (and luggage capacity) and shifting its focus more toward sport touring. The Gold Wing is now more in line with its six-cylinder competitor, BMW’s K 1600 GTL, which is why we opted to leave it out of this comparison. Taking its place is the new-for-2018 Yamaha Star Venture, a boldly styled behemoth powered by a 113ci air-cooled V-twin and equipped with state-of-the-art technology.
Even though the Venture was powered by a liquid-cooled V-4 in its past life, when Yamaha decided to re-launch its full dresser, research among touring riders and passengers indicated a strong preference for air-cooled V-twins, a predilection that’s reflected in domestic touring bike sales. What some view as an antiquated design others view as timeless, and when it comes to sound and feel, there’s nothing quite like a rumbling V-twin.
The V-twins in this comparison may be derived from or modeled after decades-old architecture, but they balance classic looks with modern technology. All three have electronic fuel injection, throttle-by-wire, cruise control, balancers that eliminate some but not all primary vibration, self-adjusting hydraulic valve lifters and maintenance-free belt drive. The Harley and Yamaha also have hydraulic assist-and-slipper clutches, and the Yamaha has two throttle response modes, traction control and the Sure-Park system (electric forward/reverse).
These are big V-twins—ranging from 107ci for the Harley to 111ci for the Indian and 113ci for the Yamaha—that generate loads of low-end torque, encouraging you to shift early and ride that wide wave of grunt. There’s no replacement for displacement, and the number of cubic inches tells us the rank order of these bikes in terms of torque: the Harley belts out 100.7 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm, the Indian makes 104.2 lb-ft at 3,000 rpm and the Venture cranks out 110.9 lb-ft at 4,300 rpm. All that twist propels these hulking, 900-plus-pounders forward with ease, even when fully loaded.
Fueling and throttle response are precise across the board (we prefer the Yamaha’s more direct Sport mode over the lazier Touring mode), and there’s plenty of visceral pulsing between the knees to keep things entertaining. Exhaust notes are robust and satisfying, but the Indian’s is often too loud. Changing gears is easy, but, surprisingly, the Harley’s hydraulic clutch requires the strongest pull and feels grabby compared to the other two. Overdrive sixth gears allow these bikes to lope along smoothly on the open road, with a pleasant low-rpm thrum.
Only the Indian has a handlebar-mounted fairing, and the weight of the fairing, electric windscreen, infotainment system and front speakers has an adverse effect on handling. Steering through tight corners can be a chore and strong crosswinds require a firm grip to keep the bars steady, adding to rider fatigue on long rides. Frame-mounted fairings on the Harley and Yamaha give them lighter steering and more stability. None of us warmed up to the Harley’s mini-apehanger handlebar, which is narrower, higher and has a more awkward grip angle than the tiller-style handlebars on the Indian and Yamaha. But, being the lightest and shortest of the bunch, the Harley was the easiest to ride fast in the curves.
Admittedly, on back roads we ride these bikes at an above-average pace, but they’re eminently capable when pushed hard. Built to deal with heavy loads, their chassis are strong and their triple-disc, ABS-equipped brakes are powerful (the Harley’s and Yamaha’s brakes are also linked). Floorboards are the first thing to scrape pavement; the Yamaha’s touch down early whereas the Harley and Indian have more generous cornering clearance.
Massive forks and heavy-duty shocks handle the critical job of keeping the bikes suspended and in control, and for the most part they’re comparable, with the only suspension adjustment on all three being rear preload. The Indian has a slight edge over the Yamaha in terms of suspension compliance and ride quality. The Harley’s fork performs well, but its dual rear shocks have only 3 inches of travel (the others have single shocks with 4.3-4.5 inches of travel), which can result in a jarring ride on anything other than smooth pavement.
As full dressers, these bikes have big fairings, big king-and-queen seats, big trunks and big saddlebags. The Harley’s sharknose fairing is the only one here without an electrically adjustable windscreen, but its triple “splitstream” vents create smooth airflow and the windscreen height is just right. As the only one with partial liquid cooling, engine heat was never a bother on the Harley and the vents on its fairing lowers make it easy to manage airflow around the rider’s legs. Its seat is plush, but the rider’s portion slopes upward at the back, which can cause the rider to slide forward with awkwardly rotated hips.
Even though the Harley’s 133 liters of luggage capacity is less than that of the Indian (142 liters) and Yamaha (144 liters), the difference wasn’t readily apparent—there seemed to be plenty of packing space on all three bikes. But we didn’t like having to manually secure three separate locks for the Harley’s trunk and saddlebags; the Indian and Yamaha offer the convenience of central luggage locks—actuated by pressing a button on the bike or remotely using the key fob.
The Indian’s fairing and electric windscreen create a bubble of peace and quiet, in part because the handlebar-mounted fairing places the screen close to the rider. We’ve complained about engine heat on Thunder Stroke 111-powered Indians before, and the situation hasn’t changed. Adjustable vents in the fairing lowers help somewhat, but on hot days there’s no escaping the radiant heat. Although it looks inviting and has stylish stitching and chrome conchos, the Indian’s thinly padded seat is the least comfortable.
How about the new-kid-on-the-block Yamaha? Its wide fairing, which cascades down both sides of the bike, is huge, and its electric windscreen is similarly broad. Together they punch a huge hole in the air, but even with the screen’s adjustability we sometimes struggled with helmet buffeting. Swiveling side air deflectors, which can be angled closed to block wind or open to bring fresh air into the cockpit, are very effective. The Yamaha’s air-cooled V-twin also gets hot, but its adjustable lower vents provide some relief. With flat, firm padding and an adjustable rear bolster that provides good lumbar support, the Yamaha’s seat was our hands-down favorite.
Reflecting contemporary tastes and desires, all three of these bikes have infotainment systems with color touchscreens that provide control over various audio, navigation and informational functions, including Bluetooth connectivity and USB ports that enable charging and audio control. And, as equipped for this comparo, all three have front and rear speakers. The Indian’s and Yamaha’s systems are the newest, and they have the largest screens, sharpest graphics and most intuitive interfaces. The Harley and Yamaha also have ports for wired headsets (which can be used for voice recognition commands), CB radio and SiriusXM satellite radio. Each system has its plusses and minuses, but overall they are useful and enhance the riding experience.
If we were awarding medals, bronze would go to the Indian. With endless chrome and graceful lines, the Roadmaster is a beautiful motorcycle, and it has the best suspension compliance and an impressive array of standard features. But from a performance and functionality standpoint, it feels less refined and cohesive than the Harley or Yamaha. Its engine throws off too much heat, its exhaust is too loud, its handling is too cumbersome, its seat is too uncomfortable and it has the smallest gas tank.
Silver goes to the Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra, which handles well, has the advantage of partial liquid cooling and offers more range than the Indian. But it also has a funky handlebar and an irksome clutch, it needs more rear suspension travel and it lacks some features that are standard on the others.
Gold goes to the motorcycle that none of us saw coming—the Yamaha Star Venture—which made a big splash with its global debut at the Americade touring rally last year. Yamaha went out on a limb by blending modern styling with a traditional air-cooled V-twin, but the end result works exceptionally well. For what is mostly a clean-sheet design, the Venture came out of the gate with a smooth, torque-rich V-twin, a solid, capable chassis, attention to detail when it comes to rider and passenger comfort, plenty of luggage capacity, the largest in-class fuel tank and a full suite of electronics and infotainment, all for a reasonable price. Welcome to a new era in luxury touring.