The Big Test

We took 11 big twins out for a real-world comparison and found the real world had changed. The big twin market is no longer a one-stop shop.

Once in a while, we Southern Californians are reminded what winter really means. Our sissy grins get frozen right on our faces, and the only sign of life is the panicked darting of our eyes. That's when we pull over and fall into a shuddering pile on the side of the road--our pampered bodies completely unable to cope. Our four-day Big-Twins test was just that sort of ordeal freezing temperatures, wind, rain, hail and even a little snow thrust us into the reality many Americans deal with each time they open their garage doors in the winter. Our guest tester from Rhode Island just laughed.

The bikes, of course, were hot--11 of the most coveted large-displacement V-twins on the planet gathered for a competition of such considerable proportion no other magazine has dared take it on. The last time we rounded up the V-twins was in August 2000, and the list was remarkably different. Yamaha's Road Star took the cake then, but new entries were in the oven. For our 2002 test, we chose Harley-Davidson's FXDX Dyna Glide Sport ($13,995-$14,745) and Softail Deuce ($16,555-$17,840)--two bikes from decidedly different molds, although both epitomize the current performance trend. We included Honda's Retro VTX 1800 ($12,999-$13,499) since it's a new release for '02, and Kawasaki's Vulcan 1500 Classic FI ($10,599), Drifter ($11,799) and Mean Streak ($10,999). Suzuki's Intruder 1400 ($8349) and 1500LC ($9999) made the list, as well as Victory's V92C ($13,699-$14,299) with its revitalized motor and Yamaha's Road Star 1600 ($10,999-$11,199) and new, performance-oriented 1670cc Road Star Warrior ($11,999). The rules were simple: The bikes had to be V-twin powered and over 1200cc. (Therefore the 1100cc Harley V-Rod was excluded.)

Our test riders were as diverse as the bikes. We specifically chose people of various proportions so we could glean commentary that would cover a large spectrum of ergonomic potentials. Our smallest rider, Blaine Birchfield of Cobra Engineering was 5'5" and 175 lbs. Our largest tester, reader Paul Barry of Rhode Island, was 6'5" and 290 lbs. The rest of us ranged in between, from skinny to plump, short to tall. We were associate editor Andrew Cherney (5'7"/149 lbs), editor Jamie Elvidge (5'10"/135 lbs), Rhonda Hoffman of Planet Cruiser (5'8"/won't say), Doug Meyer from Muzzy (5'10"/182 lbs), beloved groupie Paul Posey of Georgia (5'10"/195 lbs) and Greg White, producer of our television show Motorcyclist on Speed Channel (6'3"/205 lbs). We had also invited reps from some of the manufacturers included in the test. We wouldn't be able to use their potentially biased ranking of the bikes, but we were able to milk their expertise and, in trade, offer a healthy chunk of comparative fodder to assist in future cruiser development. The OEM reps who were able to wriggle away from their desks for four days were Steve Rice of Kawasaki (5'11"/185 lbs), George Harmon of Honda (6'2"/180 lbs), and Brad "Barn-Burner" Banister of Yamaha (5'10"/170 lbs).

We used Death Valley, California, about 200 miles from our offices in Los Angeles, as a base camp. Situated well below sea level, it's usually the hottest place in the Western Hemisphere. It was 28 degrees F. the night we arrived. We bit our numb lips, however, and proceeded to make forays into the mountainous areas surrounding the fascinating Valley over the next few days. What we found (besides a serious ache for a hot bath each night) was that the world of big-twin cruisers had changed dramatically since our last comparison. It's a whole new ballgame, and not one that can be decided on a single playing field.

Skin Deep
Of course, our decision to recommend a cruiser is never based on styling alone, but it is a key factor. These bikes are designed for visual enticement, and all our contestants have pageant appeal right off the showroom floor. The first thing that made us realize this wasn't going to be our usual Big-Twins test, however, was how varied they looked when they were all rounded up in one pen--or in this case, the Denny's parking lot. Obviously, it's the addition of the performance cruisers that changes the herd so profoundly. Now you must choose between traditional and more aggressive, modern lines.

Honda's new-for-2002 Retro-version VTX 1800 is hard to miss--like a Budweiser Clydesdale at the Kentucky Derby. Not many of us thought this was a wise styling move since the bike is already so damn long and those gigantic valanced fenders only exaggerate the heft. People who like this look will also be drawn to the Indian-style appeal of Kawasaki's Drifter 1500. But all agreed the VTX is visually over the top, and the Drifter remains the king of the retro look. The Suzuki 1400 has its own retro thing going without trying. It's simply a design that's so old it's become classic. Some of us remain very fond of the bike's chopperesque attitude, though, and the clean way the chassis frames the motor as well as the fine job Suzuki has done hiding unsightly elements. Love it or hate it, the 1400 remains a conversation piece.

Then you have the Classic Cruisers
The bikes that embrace mid-20th century style, yet are finished and equipped to modern expectations. This category loosely includes Harley's FXDX, Kawasaki's Vulcan Classic FI, Suzuki's 1500LC, Yamaha's Road Star and Victory's V92C. The Classic walked away with inarguable honors here. Most liked the look of the Road Star--and especially its uniquely styled powerplant--yet all felt it would require a lot of aftermarket attention to look as nice as the Classic. The Victory garnered the widest swing in the style ratings. We think the motor looks better with the more curvaceous cans, but some still think it's visually bland. We do feel the bike's overall finish quality is finally on par with the metrics, even if some parts--like that Swiss cheese wedge for an ignition housing are a bit gawky. The Harley FXDX with that flat black drive train and exhaust was more appealing to look at than it was to ride, but it still placed as ninth runner up in the beauty contest. The Suzuki 1500LC was once again dog piled with more insults than praise despite its new wheel finish and more stylish turn signals. (Yeah, we know there are owners out there who think it's the cat's meow.)

The three street-rod styled bikes in the parade won a lot of praise for forceful styling and inventive visual features. Overall, the Warrior oozed more curbside sex appeal than the Mean Streak or Deuce, and everyone concluded it was the best-looking of the bunch.

Like people, bikes can be thought beautiful for many different reasons. It's all about what's important in the eye of the beholder, right? And you certainly don't need us to tell you whether a bike looks good to you. It either does or it doesn't.

The Comfort Zone
In ranking the important features of a motorcycle, we follow these rules. Foremost, the bike needs to be comfortable or you won't want to ride it. When we rate comfort we look at riding position; handlebar, footrest and seat position and relations; functionality of controls; vibration and overall ride. (Passenger accommodations are rated separately in "Back Talk" at the end of the test.) Each participant in our Big-Twins comparison was asked to rank the bikes on all of these points separately and finally give each model an overall comfort score. Admittedly, this can be a subjective thing. What you'll find here are the averaged opinions--the bikes that do well by the widest variety of riders as well as some key points that may affect people of particular body types.

More of our riders were comfortable on the Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 FI than on any of the other bikes. Short or tall, none complained of being either cramped or stretched. It rated highest for general positioning, smoothness and long-range comfort. It's a Cadillac among cruisers and will offer a cozy, compliant ride whether you're going cross-town or cross-country. Kawasaki's Mean Streak was the next favorite for its overall comfort, followed by Harley's Deuce, although our larger riders found themselves a bit cramped by the H-D foot controls. The Road Star offered a comfortable seating position for just about everyone but emits noticeable vibration that put a few people off.

Our larger, longer riders really appreciated the space available on the VTX and 1500 Intruder, and the Suzuki offers a complaint ride. However, anyone under 5'10" felt both these bikes required too much of a stretch to be comfortable or instill confidence, and most everyone of every size felt the bar on the VTX was too wide. The LC also took top honor for the best stock seat, followed by the Road Star and the Classic FI. The Victory V92C offers one of the best riding positions in the group, but several people were annoyed by the bike's harsh suspension; it works well when you're riding the bike in fast corners, but really beats you up when you're just plugging along in normal situations.

The real losers in the accommodations department were the Suzuki 1400, which cramps even average-sized people, and the FXDX, which offers a decent ergonomic setup but transmits so much vibration you just want to shake the thing back and say "Knock it off!" Kawasaki's Drifter is comfy for short, low-speed rides, but the lack of passenger seat and pegs on the '02 edition limited people so much they simply didn't want to get on it for long stints. The Yamaha Warrior provided the least comfortable seating position with its exaggerated clamshell effect and huge engine accessories. The high desert winds only it made it worse, and when it was your turn to ride the thing all you could do was whimper. As an interesting side note we found two different camps in the footpeg vs. floorboard department. Riders with bigger feet and longer legs tended to feel "trapped" by floorboards, which come standard on the Classic FI, Drifter, LC, Road Star, V92C and VTX Retro. Conversely, those with smaller feet and/or shorter legs found floorboards generally more desirable than footpegs.

The Meat of It
Next on our list of important features to look for in a new motorcycle purchase is the engine and drivetrain. These elements have a very visceral effect on us and are not as easy to tailor as ergonomics. In making our assessments we not only looked for the ultimate in gut-clenching power, we also judged the powerband for balance, starting and warm-up convenience and throttle response. For drivetrain evaluation, we single out clutch reaction and ease of use, efficiency of shifting, overall transmission behavior and any standout gearing characteristics.

But first things first. If you're looking at a big twin for your next cruiser you obviously have a taste for thrust. It's a particularly exciting class this year because so many of the engines are offering enhanced output. All of them offer dramatic low-end grunt, save the 1400, which is designed and geared to deliver more oomph on top. The pumped-up and refined Road Star motor found in the Warrior shines when it comes to sheer strength, and with its 76.3 hp toting only 658 pounds, it bested all the other bikes in the quarter-mile by pulling a 12.71 at 103 mph. The Warrior has a smooth drivetrain to match its intense motor. The VTX's 1800cc powerplant won out for emotional appeal and does offer the highest actual horsepower and torque readings at 94.6 and 105.1 lbs/ft, but unfortunately, it weighs in like an elephant at 796 pounds. We also suffered through some sticking-shifter problems on this bike, which eventually left us stranded in second gear. The problem turned out to be a kink in the shift linkage. The bike had to be hauled back to Honda, where it immediately went to R&D for investigation. All that torquey power isn't much fun on the side of the road.

Harley's Deuce, which uses the counterbalanced Twin Cam 88 engine, was a favorite in the performance department as well. We had the fuel-injected version (it's also available carbureted), and it ran smoothly and pulled like a champ. Both Harleys lost some points for transmissions that don't engage as cleanly as their Japanese competitors and clutch levers that require an aggressive tug. The Victory motor is very comparable to the Twin Cam in output, but it's still a bit unrefined in character when ridden back-to-back with the counter balanced Harley and most of the metrics. We do applaud Polaris for smoothing and finally quieting the bike's transmission though, and overall, the motor and drivetrain did rank much higher than in our last go round. The Mean Streak is incredibly smooth and offers a placating amount of power, if not the commanding pull we'd expect from a bike aggressively marketed as a muscle twin. The Vulcan Classic FI is not far off the mark here. It uses an identical motor sans more aggressive cams enhanced injection and the lower gearing of the Mean Streak to deliver streetable grunt. The Drifter runs hotter cams, but carries more weight than the Classic. All three Kawasakis offer a flawlessly smooth drivetrain, and their Automatic Neutral Finder (which allows the box to shift only from first to neutral at stops) made them sweethearts for our many Chinese Fire Drill-style swaps. Both Harleys and the Victory required a fair amount of plunking around for the green light.

We've always wanted to like the Road Star motor more than we do. It's such a sweet-looking design, and that 1600 number just makes us expect some real power. It tools around fine and dishes out some nice flywheel effect but feels pretty darn anemic on top. Suzuki's 1400 remains a sprightly contender in the performance challenge thanks to an unencumbered chassis and aggressive gearing. This more dated shaft-drive design does produce some noticeable jacking though, and we all thought that it was just a bit too retro. After the conclusion of our test (which continued for six weeks after the group ride) the 1400 had badly glazed its clutch plates. The Harley FXDX Twin Cam pulls well, but its unbalanced nature made it a little too raw for even those hard-core H-D enthusiasts among us. It's also one of the only bikes that was a bitch to warm up on those ultra-cold mornings. Last and least, the Intruder 1500 motor and drivetrain continue to leave us cold. It's a heavy bike and really needs a little more oomph and a little less vibration coming from under the saddle. And while Suzuki has managed to improve the abrupt-release engagement problem in its clutch, there remains too much play before actuation and the engagement is still too sudden.

As for margins imposed by gearing and rev limiters, there were only a few complaints. Several people complained that the Intruder LC is overgeared. Almost everyone kept bumping against the VTX's limiter, and several riders had the same complaint of the Road Star's imposed ceiling.

The Cold Facts
About midway through our second balls-in day, all the testers had ridden the whole range of bikes long enough to start forming comparative opinions. We'd arrived at a little gas station in Lone Pine, California, where we stood around the deli counter trying to get our frozen hands to shovel some homemade potato chowder toward our blue lips.

We'd asked our guest testers to think about dozens of details, but that the bottom line should include two key things: Which of these bikes would you take home, and would it be the same bike if you had to buy it? The potato-chowder conversations were interesting. In all of our previous Big-Twin tests these questions had been pretty easy to answer. Now there was the "Which bike would I take home for what kind of riding?" component. "Am I going to ride it on weekends in the canyons? Tour on it? Commute? Or show it off at Bike Night?" Of course our answer was, "It has to do whatever is most important for you." But a door had been opened and we needed to explore it. The advent of performance twins seems to have put one too many hooks on the hat rack, and now these big cruisers have intentions that are so widespread, it had become questionable whether they could be collectively compared using the same formula.

On one side of the gas pump you have the classic cruisers--bikes that are built for show and as platforms for customizing more than power wars and canyon blitzing. Within that class you have ultra-retro styles like the VTX and Drifter as a sub-class, which really only appeals to a select group of enthusiasts. You also have some classics that are more easily turned into touring bikes. On the other side of the pump you've got these new performance machines, with a more hard-core intent. As we thawed out among the bewildered customers at that heaven-sent chowder-bearing service station, it was becoming more apparent that there could logically be more than one winner in this Big-Twin event.

Handle This
After a particularly curvaceous descent out of the mountains, we decided to park the bikes at the base so we could try them back to back, up and down the twisty stretch. Everyone was particularly interested to ride the new muscle twins in the tight stuff. We love that the manufacturers are chasing the performance trend and finally granting cruisers some of the qualities they should've had all along--like lighter chassis, good brakes, decent suspension and more useable power. So hurray and all that, but the fact is, we've still got a long way to go.

The Warrior is the bike everyone was waiting for to put a little sport in the big-twin cruiser arena (remember the V-Rod doesn't fit in this displacement category). After all, the new Yamaha is wearing a bunch of cutting-edge sportbike parts, including an inverted fork and swingarm lifted from the company's successful R1. We wanted it to go around corners like a wet kid on a waterslide--smooth and fast. The Warrior handles better than typical cruisers, true. But it's a bit quirky in corners, mostly as a result of the wide radial tires and a lack of damping in the rear. Initial steering is quick (some that like the feel of standard cruisers thought it was too quick), and the bike isn't one that you can just set in a line and forget. It requires management all the way through, especially if the corner is anything but smooth or you're carrying a lot of speed. In addition, it's hard to feel sublime when there are sparks careening off your footpegs.

Ground clearance is an area the manufacturers need to pay way more attention to, especially with cruisers intended for fast cornering. There is absolutely no reason why these bikes have to drag so much so soon. Harley-Davidson--the quintessential big-twin builder--figured it out long ago, and its bikes still offer better clearance than 95 percent of metric cruisers out there.

No one was as impressed with the Warrior as they wanted to be. It was the Mean Streak that wowed the crowd instead with its more stable mannerisms and quick-but-predictable steering response. (Our larger riders found the Meanie a bit undersprung in the rear despite air adjustment.) The Harley Deuce was another favorite. It's easy to ride fast--nimble and confidence-inspiring in corners although heavier to prompt than the performance twins with their high-tech forks. The FXDX, which each and every one of us detested in the straights, was also easy to pitch into a corner and tracked a line well. (Again, one of the fundamental reasons why people find the Harleys so nice to ride in corners is the superior ground clearance they offer.) The Victory V92C placed well in the cornering wars, winning high scores for smoothness and stability. That stiff suspension that bothered everyone on the highway is right at home in fast corners as long as they aren't too bumpy. The Victory steers sweetly after a bit of a push and tracks a corner like a hound dog on the scent.

Kawasaki's Vulcan Classic--our does-everything-well-entry--didn't receive overt praise in the handling department, but no one had serious gripes either. It's predictable and pleasant in low-speed corners, although both the front and rear suspension is soft, which causes some wallowing in fast stuff and exaggerates the bike's lack of ground clearance. The Drifter's cushy suspension, although nice on the open road, didn't receive good marks for cornering. One tester likened it to "riding a trampoline."

Suzuki's 1400 was pretty darn fun to ride fast. It's well sprung and small, making it easy to flick around. In low-speed situations, however, the Suzuki's tall, skinny chopper-style front wheel is pretty twitchy, and in anything loose like gravel it's all over the place. Just ask Paul Posey, who was skirting a frozen puddle on a gravel road when the 1400's front end started dancing around. It took him right over a two-foot dirt berm and into a field of boulders. (Good thing the bike's light, so we could lift it back on the road.) The Road Star is smooth and we like it for its low-speed maneuverability. But its soft suspension and unacceptable lack of ground clearance made it a dud for fast riding. The VTX Retro is an absolute barge compared to the whole lot of big twins, a result of its length and absurd tonnage. As one rider said, "If I wanted a truck I'd buy one." The VTX was even last to the Intruder LC, which up until now had always been the object of our obese-bike jokes. The standard VTX does much better than the Retro version in corners, although both are too long and heavy to be called good handlers.

Brake it Up
It's about time cruiser brakes worked well. It always seemed rather rude to us that the manufacturers would put their least sophisticated systems on their heaviest motorcycles. Harley started the much-needed trend when it introduced four-piston calipers on its heavyweights in 1999. In our last comparison, the Brembo-equipped Victory out-stopped all the other big twins, but this year both the Mean Streak and Warrior have outdone both American companies.

The new Kawasaki, with its triple-piston dual discs up front and single disc out back, provides supreme feel and the shortest stopping distance. We love these brakes. The Warrior nearly matches the Mean Streak with its dual-action, twin-piston front and single-disc rear system and is followed by the Victory to round off the top three. The majority of the bikes drew adequate grades for braking performance, although the two Suzukis and the Drifter received more than one negative comment regarding vagueness of feel and dull response. Suzuki's LC gained an additional disc up front this year, bringing it up to spec with the rest of the big twins. Braking feel on the bike remains mediocre.

Most of us got along fine with the linked braking system on the VTX, which appropriates 30 percent of power from the dual front discs to the foot pedal while the remaining 70 percent of front brake action is independently controlled by the hand lever. While the system doesn't offer the dramatic feel of the Streak, Warrior or Victory, it steadily slows the weighty beast and may well be a safety benefit to those riders who over-favor the rear pedal.

It's The Little Things
So if you're going to shell out over 10 grand for a high-end cruiser you're going to expect a few bells and whistles, right? Certainly these bikes should offer a few extra goodies. Only some do. The FXDX, Mean Streak, Victory and Warrior are the only entries to offer tachometers, and the only ones with clocks are the Classic, Mean Streak, Road Star, Victory and Warrior. Kawasaki's Vulcan Classic is the only bike that offers decent bungee-cord hooks. The Victory features our staff's favorite instrument arrangement with an LED display that is controlled by two toggles on the backsides of each handlebar switch housing. Readings are available for electrical and engine condition, fuel quantity, odometer, trip meters and time. This LED panel, which is adjustable for brightness as well, is located within the headlight-mounted speedometer that also incorporates an analog tach. However, on the tour portion of our test more people voted in favor of the Mean Streak's arrangement, perhaps because the Victory system takes some getting used to. The Deuce was also a favorite in this category for its readability and classic, clean styling (even though it lacks a tach).

The Warrior received many compliments for its ultra-cool-looking gauge setup, which shines indigo blue at night. Engine rpm is displayed on a digital graph atop the headlight, while the analog speedo is incorporated into the handlebar riser. Most everyone found the gauges difficult to read during the day. The Road Star has a good-looking arrangement, but it's positioned on the tank and too low to read easily while you're on the road. The same is true of the Vulcan FI and 1500LC. All the bikes offer fuel gauges (a must for injected bikes that don't use reserve) except for the Suzuki 1400, which has always been the first big twin on these tests to run out of gas. (Its tank holds only 3.4 gallons.) On this trip, however, the Mean Streak and the Warrior both petered out at least once before the 1400 ran dry. It may have had something to do with the fact that all the fast bikes seemed to disappear each time the road opened up, while bikes like the Suzuki 1400, 1500LC, Road Star and FXDX consistently brought up the rear. Some bikes just aren't built to fly.

Fuel-capacities-vs.-mileage data placed both Harleys on top (as usual) with averaged ranges that exceed 200 miles. The only bikes that come close to these numbers are the VTX (39-mpg average and 207-mile range) and Victory (33-mpg average and 165-mile range).

Packing soft luggage on most of these bikes was a launch-souring chore. The new muscle bikes with their bobbed fenders add the challenge of keeping the saddlebags away from the wheels. The Drifter, obviously, was impossible to pack anything on since it has no rear seat. Many of these bikes also come with silly baguette-size passenger seats, which make it hard to balance even the smallest load. The worst bikes to pack on (aside from the Drifter) were the Warrior, Deuce, Intruder 1400, FXDX and Mean Streak, in that order. Bikes that more readily accepted luggage were the Vulcan FI, Road Star, Intruder 1500, V92C and Retro VTX. The Kawasaki Classic was by far the most amicable.

Aside from the Honda needing a lift home, we had only a couple of hassles on the road. The FXDX rattled off a filtercover, and the Mean Streak left an exhaust-system heat shield out in the desert. The Meanie also suffered reoccurring taillight failure--not only an inconvenience but a real safety issue. Replacing the rectifier was required to completely correct the problem. When you're switching bikes every 30-40 miles mirrors are adjusted constantly. Most survived this abuse, but the antiquated multi-thread stem-in systems on the Suzukis required a wrench more than once.

All Heroes Rise
So what knowledge did we bring forth from the frigid desert--aside from the awareness that snot hurts when it gets frozen in your nostrils? We learned that big-twin cruisers are no longer one class of motorcycle, and that this test would require more than one winner.

Once the four-day scores were tallied, the staff spent another six weeks confirming the marks. Here's what we found. At the bottom of the heap, and no matter how we shook up the mix, was Suzuki's 1400 Intruder. Yes, it has a very appealing price tag of $8349, and for someone who's not too ambitious and doesn't care that his big twin feels like a toy, it may be a fine choice. For the price, it's a great platform for customizing, on that we all agree. However, we prefer most of the 800s and all of the 1100s available to the Suzuki 1400 for the same kind of cash. Our other least favorite was Harley's FXDX Dyna Glide Sport. It's really pretty fun in corners, but its unbalanced motor and generally unrefined demeanor made us cringe. Fourteen grand is too much to pay for a vibrator. (Strangely, this package works great in the T-Sport edition of the Dyna Glide, and makes us wonder whether our test unit wasn't a particularly bad specimen.)

With the release of its 800 Volusia, Suzuki has shown us it can make a great cruiser. Unfortunately, it's the company's only strong example to date. The 1500LC continues to put us off with its dull motor, unimpressive styling, sub-par detailing and generally lackluster feel despite its tempting price of $10,000. Perhaps Suzuki's new affiliation with Kawasaki will speed up delivery of some worthy cruisers. Honda's Retro VTX is too much of a good thing. The standard VTX rocks and would have pulled a much higher ranking than its obese counterpart (which also happened to go home in a truck, which cost it major points). Had the standard VTX, with its sexy looks and less overwhelmed, overloaded chassis, been included we believe it would have placed fifth in the overall standings. Kawasaki's Drifter 1500 is a nicely styled bike with beautiful details, if you're into that sort of thing. Most aren't. Its wallowing nature, lack of packing space, no passenger accommodations and few hot-ticket high points leave it in the seventh position.

The Yamaha Road Star and Victory's revamped V92C just about tied at mid-pack. The Victory was a real surprise to everyone who hadn't ridden one, and it nudged in above the Yamaha for its sheer dark-horse charm (despite its steep price of over $13,000). We were all impressed by its open-road strength and around-town civility. The bike just continues to improve each model year as Polaris rains upgrades on its big-twin-cruiser efforts. And people continue to feel fond of the Road Star. It has enormous visceral appeal and is appropriately priced at $11,000.

The top four? These bikes fall into different notches each time we bend the priorities. They are the most desirable big twins on the market today, and for different reasons. The Warrior earned very high marks in specific categories. When it came to rating power, handling, braking and appearance it scored all As and Bs (except for some Cs and Ds in the ground clearance and stability columns). The bike sucked in more everyday departments like comfort and practicality, though. It's like a gorgeous woman who looks good for a hot date, but doesn't cut it for coffee and the Sunday paper. Every time we look at this bike we're turned on...then we get a half-day down the road and want to turn around. And its quarter-mile time of 12.71 does make it the champion among stock big twins at the drag strip (just keep it away from those "little" V-Rods).

If classic styling were still the yardstick, and if overall balance and function were regarded more highly than a bike's power and handling, Kawasaki's Vulcan Classic FI would walk away from this competition the King. And it still deserves a crown. This bike physically suited more riders than any other, and almost everyone said they'd choose it first if they were headed for Omaha. It does everything well, if not one thing exceptionally well. It is the best classically styled big-twin cruiser for the price ($10,599). But if price weren't an issue almost every one of our testers would own a Softail Deuce ($16,555 and skyward). This bike had intense appeal across the board. It looks great without being over the top. It has nice, smooth power, beautiful finish quality and detail, handling that's right up there with the performance twins and that neat bad-boy stance that places your body in a posture that would make the Pope look cool. But not one of our testers would be willing to lay down that kind of cash for one.

Have you guessed the overall winner? It wasn't as straightforward for us--but the figures from our rating charts don't lie. Kawasaki's Mean Streak is toted as a muscle twin, but its motor isn't very brawny, especially compared to that of the V-Rod, VTX or Warrior. Its styling certainly screams of fast intent, but the bike is much more gentlemanly than its aggressive appearance portends. In every category the Mean Streak earned honor-roll grades, though. Like the Vulcan Classic FI, it does everything well, but unlike its more subtly styled stablemate, it does some things exceptionally well. Balance is the key to what makes the Mean Streak the overall winner here. It offers new-world excitement with a stimulating motor and inspiring yet predictable handling qualities, without giving up comfort and convenience. It looks hot, it's fun to ride, and it's affordable at $10,999. So there you have it...or them. The Mean Streak is the best all-around big-twin cruiser 2002 has to offer. If you're not into the street-rod look, though, or want a bike that's more Sunday paper than seductress, the best big twin is the Vulcan Classic FI. Sky's the limit and passion rules? The tiara belongs to the Deuce.


Harley-Davidson FXDX Dyna Super Glide Sport & FXSTDI Softail Deuce
Picking representative Harley models for a big-twin comparison is always a challenge, since both its cruiser families have many worthy models. There are seven Softail models, five of which are straight-ahead cruisers that would have been suitable for this comparison. The Fat Boy scored at the top of our last big-twin round-up. This time we asked for the Deuce, since its all-around excellence impressed us recently. Four of the five Dyna models also would have fit here, but we went for the performance-oriented Sport version of the Dyna Super Glide.

Dynas and Softails basically use the same air-cooled, 1450cc, 45-degree, overhead-valve twin driving through five speeds and a belt. However, the Softail family adds counterbalancers and mounts the engine solidly in the frame. The Dyna models rubber-mount their engines and have no balancer. The two also have different frame designs. The Dynas use a conventional twin-shock rear suspension on an "internal" frame. The Softails also have two dampers, but they are placed horizontally under the engine, and the triangular swingarm creates the uncluttered look of an unsuspended hardtail rear end. Its frame tubes are more outboard.

The Super Glide Sport distinguishes itself in the Dyna family with a sporting attitude created by a steeper steering head that provides quicker steering response, suspension that's adjustable for preload and damping at both ends, a higher ride height to increase cornering ground clearance, dual discs and calipers up front, a wide 150 section tire on the rear, a tachometer (mounted with the speedometer up by the handlebar), a blacked-out engine and black, staggered dual exhaust pipes. The handlebar is low and narrow, and the seat is a sporty, scooped design. The suggested base price (which readers report is beginning to be what you actually pay on many models in parts of the country) is $13,895 plus $210 freight (California models cost an additional $290). But you can add over $800 more in manufacturer's options, including wire-spoke wheels (which seems like a poor choice on a sporting-oriented bike, for $320), pearl paint ($240) and a security system ($275). If you don't want the sporting accoutrements, the base model Dyna, the standard Super Glide, is $2000 less.

You can get a Softail with a 40mm carb or fuel injection, and our Deuce was fitted with the injection, which adds $600 to the $16,555 (plus $210 freight and $290 for California emissions) base MSRP. You can also add as much as $585 for paint. The Deuce is the most expensive Softail cruiser without saddlebags. The least expensive, the Softail Standard, has a $12,995 base price. The Deuce has a unique stretched style suggesting a real custom. The look is built around a long, 4.9-gallon fuel tank with the instrumentation atop it, and stretches back from a skinny 21-inch wire wheel up front. The steering head kicks the chromed, curved-profile fork sliders out to 34 degrees, and the narrow fork legs, small headlight, tiny turn signals, and brief front fender give the Deuce a sleek look. At the back, a low, somewhat narrow saddle leads to a fender that reaches well rear of the 17-inch disc wheel. The engine is finished in natural silver metal colors, and the unique dual "shotgun-style" exhaust enhances the Deuce's long, low appearance.


Honda VTX 1800R

Honda's big V-twin platform is the 1795cc VTX, molded into two models. The first, the street-rod-styled VTX 1800C, was introduced last year as a 2002 model. It set new limits for displacement for a production V-twin and finally put Honda in the lucrative big-twin game.

The second VTX model, rolled out this winter, restyles the same basic bike with a more traditional look. Instead of the comparatively brief fenders on the C model, the new VTX, informally called "The Retro," gets deeply valenced steel fenders. The wide look carries to the beamier 5.3-gallon fuel tank, which holds an additional 0.8 gallon, and the fuller, plusher rider and passenger saddle. Staggered dual fishtails replace the two-into-one exhaust of the C with its large canister-style muffler. The new VTX has floorboards instead of the C model's footpegs and a taller pullback handlebar. Details like a license plate light that mimics the profile of the rear fender tell you that Honda stylists put a great deal of thought into this one.

There are two variations of this latest VTX 1800, dubbed the S and the R. The S model has wire-spoke wheels with bias-ply tires. The 1800R that we tested has cast wheels and tubeless radial tires. Both have a 150/80-17 front tire and a 180/70 rear tire, although the R's rear wheel has a 16-inch diameter and the S has a 15-incher. (For comparison, the C has 130/70-18 front and 180/70-16 rear radials.)

Beneath the bodywork, all three versions of the VTX 1800 are the same, except for the wheels. The engine is the same 6-valve 52-degree liquid-cooled V-twin with two plugs per cylinder and programmable fuel injection. The five gearbox ratios and other internal gearing are unchanged, and the shaft final drive is the same on all the 1800 twins.

The same brakes stop all three versions, with two 296mm rotors pinched by three-piston calipers up front and a 316mm spinner squeezed by two pistons on the rear wheel. The same 43mm inverted fork supports the front end and dual preload-adjustable shocks prop up the rear. Though the steering head is welded at the same 32-degree angle, the retro version has an extra 0.6 inch of front wheel trail, perhaps to make it more stable. The wheelbase is the same stretched 67.5 inches. The thicker saddle makes the new version's seat height about a quarter-inch farther from the road. The changes have added to the tonnage. At 796 pounds tanked up, the R was 38 pounds heavier than the C we tested.

Finally, the retro rendition is more expensive than the street rod. The least expensive retro, at $12,999, is $200 more than the most expensive C, which starts at $12,499. If you choose all the high-priced options, including the ChromaFlair(R) prism paint, suggested retail is $13,499. Honda is planning to make an equal number of street rod and retro styles, but because the bikes are made in Ohio, that can change if demand turns out to be different than anticipated.


Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic FI, Vulcan 1500 Mean Streak & Vulcan 1500 Drifter

Kawasaki rolled out the first of its current line of 1500 V-twins in 1996. The single-carb Vulcan 1500 Classic was derived from a now-discontinued twin-carb Vulcan 1500 V-twin. It brought traditional American style with an entirely new twin-shock chassis and fresh lines and bodywork. It immediately became Kawasaki's best-seller. The company then built upon it, introducing the Nomad, a bagger for '98; the very retro Drifter for '99; a substantially revised version of the Nomad, the FI, for 2000; an almost entirely new Classic FI model for 2001; and most recently, the Mean Streak, a street-rod-style extension of the line.

With each new Vulcan 1500 model, Kawasaki has introduced improvements and innovations, some of which have then been incorporated across the line, so that even the original carbureted 1500 Classic, which remains in the family (for $9999), has been noticeably improved along the way. However, the carbureted model is significantly different than the Classic FI ($10,599), which has a stiffer frame with a longer wheelbase and revised steering geometry, a larger 5.0-gallon seamless fuel tank with updated instrumentation atop it, a more powerful fuel-injected engine, adjustable shocks, and many detail changes and improvements. However, the resemblance is clear, since both Classics have full fenders over wire-spoke wheels--each with a single disc brake--covered fork tubes, floorboards, wide teardrop fuel tanks, deep and wide saddles and staggered dual exhausts on the right side. We included the FI but not the carb-sucker.

Some of the changes on the FI, including the fuel injection itself, were introduced on the Drifter. Styled along the lines of some of the luxurious American big twins of the late 1930s and early '40s (Indian being the best known), the Drifter ($11,799) has deeply valenced fenders, a large solo saddle, floorboards and a sort of streamlined look, stretching from the long shell for the reflector-type headlight to the fishtail on the muffler for the two-into-one exhaust that evokes that era. It was originally introduced with a blacked-out style to closely match the bikes that inspired it, but consumer demand changed most of those parts to chrome. For 2002, it also received the seamless 5.0-gallon tank of the Classic FI. The dual-shock chassis is stopped by a single disc brake at each end.

The Mean Streak ($10,999) takes the Vulcan 1500 in yet another direction with a performance orientation. Up front, the cast wheel has two discs with six-piston calipers. An inverted cartridge fork and dual shocks that adjust for air pressure and damping combine with revised steering geometry and 17 inch radial tires to invite aggressive cornering. The abbreviated fenders, sleek and seamless 4.5-gallon tank, drag bar on pulled-back risers, tachometer, low-cut saddle with an abbreviated passenger pad, and dual straight-through-style pipes (which actually share a large collector chamber under the bike) all suggest a bike that is happy to be ridden hard.

All 1500 Vulcans share the same basic liquid-cooled, single-overhead-cam, 50-degree, counterbalanced, 1470cc V-twin rubber-mounted to their frames. The power gets to the shaft final drive through five-speed gearboxes with Automatic Neutral Finder. The engines with the digital fuel injection have more compression (requiring premium fuel), revised timing for the four hydraulically adjusted valves in each cylinder, and more intake area, thanks to dual throats instead of a single 40mm carb. Beyond that, Kawasaki gave the Mean Streak even more compression, bigger valves, more aggressive cam profiles and a revised routine for the fuel-injection system, which has 40mm throats instead of the 36mm throats on the other injected models.


Suzuki Intruder 1400 & Intruder 1500 LC

While other companies appear to see an advantage in sharing components between different models, Suzuki seems to have set out to make its two V twins as different as possible. At the most basic level, the two engines are the same, with the same 45-degree V angle, offset crankpins to eliminate vibration, lower end shafts in the same places, overhead cams operating three valves per cylinder, additional oil supplying some of the cooling, and five speeds with shaft final drives. But virtually nothing else crosses between models.

Introduced a decade and a half ago, when cruiser style favored chopperesque themes and a lean profile, the 1400 was engineered to be clean and lanky. It has a small tank, a narrow saddle, a pullback handlebar, raked-out skinny fork legs straddling a thin 19-inch wire wheel, chopped fenders, a little headlight, a small speedo mounted adjacent to the handlebar, one pipe on either side of the bike, and a small passenger backrest.

The 1500, on the other hand, is massive and broad in the retro style that came back in the 1990s. It has wide cast wheels (a 16-incher up front and a 15 in back), fat covered fork tubes pulled in 4 degrees steeper than the 1400's, a big headlight, deep fenders, staggered dual mufflers and a wide saddle. It gets big rider floorboards instead of the 1400's pegs. A large speedometer is set in the top of the conventional fuel tank area, although the actual 4.1-gallon tank is under the saddle. All of the 1500's running gear is different. The wheelbase is 5.5 inches longer, and the LC weighs over 100 pounds more than the 1400. Even the 1500's engine has been styled to look bigger.

You'll find many other differences inside the engines, which share virtually no common components. The 1500, actually 1462cc, has a wider bore and longer stroke, lower compression, and it uses oil to cool both cylinders, not just the rear as on the 1400 (1360cc). It puts both its carbs between the cylinders, while the 1400 wears each carb behind its cylinder.

Changes for 2002 are minor on the 1400--just a new-tire model. The 1500 has grown an additional brake caliper and rotor on the front, and its wheels have a revised style. The prices remain attractive, with the 1400 fetching just $8349--substantially less than any other bike here, and the 1500LC stickered at a neat $9999.


Victory V92C

The V92C is the original Victory model, introduced in 1998. Well, actually, this bike isn't exactly "original," since Victory has been making steady improvements and changes over the last four years. Victory now has four models (and has discontinued a fifth, the Sport Cruiser) in two families. The new family is the TC series, which has a new, longer chassis. The 92C and the similar 92C Deluxe, which adds features like a windshield and saddlebags, complete the line.

All four bikes have the same 1507cc air/oil-cooled, fuel-injected, 50-degree V-twin that for '02 has been massaged to give a claimed 25-percent rise in power. The profiles of the single overhead cam were changed, the four-valve combustion chambers have been tightened up to boost the compression ratio from 8.5:1 to 9.2:1, and the engine-management computer was recalibrated. Cooling load was shifted from the oil cooler, which has shrunk, to the cylinder fins, which are now more robust. Those changes also improved engine appearance.

Victory calls the revised engine The Freedom. It retains the vibration-canceling counterbalancer system, automatic hydraulic valve adjusters, dual 44mm injector throats, five speeds and belt final drive on the right side. The Freedom package brings smoother, quieter shifting than previous Victory offerings. This year the exhaust system has been redesigned with a slash cut on the staggered dual mufflers.

Those familiar with previous V92Cs will retain that familiarity as the V92C enters into its fifth year of production. It retains the 63.3-inch wheelbase rather than the TC's 65.5-inch axle separation and the same general ergonomic layout that we liked so well in the past. Like the other Victory models, the V92C has a single shock on a triangulated swingarm, those beefy 45mm fork stanchions, a 5.0 gallon fuel tank, floorboards, and the unique instrument module. The single-face cluster includes a small-diameter tachometer set into the bottom of the speedometer, with an LCD that includes a host of useful functions, including a clock, fuel gauge, voltmeter, and others in addition to the usual tripmeter and odometer functions. You select and adjust the various LCD functions with buttons on the front of the handlebar switch housings. Additionally the instrument's angle has been revised.

Victory's base model comes with 16-inch cast-aluminum wheels and tubeless tires, each with a single 300mm brake rotor. The front caliper has four pistons, the rear two. A noteworthy item is the fact that it uses plastic-coated braided stainless steel brake hoses.

For '02, there are new colors in addition to black. Besides our eye-catching yellow and black version, there is also a red and white paint scheme and a special-order multi-color flame treatment. Price has increased by $300 this year, with the V92C starting at $13,699 in solid black. With a fresh engine and new models, Polaris has renewed its commitment to the Victory brand, and sales are increasing.


Yamaha Road Star & Road Star Warrior

Yamaha scored a solid hit in 1999 when it introduced the Road Star. After a three-year attempt to attract premium-cruiser buyers with its V4-powered Royal Stars, which missed the target, the company finally gained the impetus to propel to the top with the success of the Road Star. The engine, shaped by what buyers told Yamaha they wanted in a big cruiser, was air-cooled, had pushrod-operated valves (four per cylinder) and packed plenty of displacement. In '99, its 1602cc made it the biggest full-production V-twin on the market.

Now in its fourth year, the Road Star is virtually unchanged. It retains the classic American style it was born with. Full fenders sweep over wide 16-inch wire-spoke wheels. Fat fork tubes reach up past the big headlight to a wide handlebar. A big speedometer nestles into the top of the 5.3-gallon fuel tank. Floorboards confirm the relaxed character of the motorcycle. The large triangular chrome airbox and staggered dual mufflers frame the tall cylinders on the right. On the left, a belt delivers power to the rear wheel under a chrome guard. The price is $10,999 or $200 more if you want two-tone paint.

Although Yamaha has made a Silverado (windshield and leather saddlebags) version of the Road Star and a Midnight Star edition (with more chrome and polished parts and a deep-black color), the Warrior is the first significant variation on the Road Star. The Warrior is almost entirely new, although it's built around the same basic 48-degree V-twin design. Instead of the easygoing approach of the Road Star, the Warrior is looking to kick some ass. New cylinders with bigger bores push displacement to 1670cc, and new heads flow more mixture to the combustion chambers, improve cooling and offer additional strength. New camshaft profiles raise its pulse too, and redesigned rockers accommodate the additional rpm. To help get mixture into the engine, there is a new fuel-injection system with two 40mm bodies replacing the standard Road Star's single 40mm carb. It plugs into an expanded airbox network, which displaces some of the fuel to an additional tank under the seat, though total capacity is just 4.0 gallons. Two equal-length header pipes move exhaust gases to that large single-canister muffler. The ratios in the five-speed are juggled, though all are lower than the standard Star counterparts. The powerplant is finished in black.

The chassis is even more exotic than the engine, with an all-aluminum frame and swingarm that shorten the wheelbase over half an inch and steepen the steering head for more responsive handling. The 41mm inverted fork and dual-disc front brake components were lifted from the R1 sportbike and grafted to lightweight three-spoke cast wheels mounting radial tires, a 120/70-18 in front and a massive 200/50-17 on the six-inch-wide rear wheel. The styling asserts the Warrior's aggressive nature, with a beautifully curved fuel tank, minimal fenders, a small headlight, and a thin saddle that gives only the briefest concession to a passenger. That lack of two-up intent is seconded by the passenger pegs, which are placed very high. Unique, blue-lit instrumentation includes a tachometer and multiple LCD windows. The Warrior lists for $11,999.

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