First Ride: 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic

V-twin value, refined and redefined

By Charles Everitt, Photography by Kinney Jones, Kawasaki corp.

At the introduction of its new Vulcan 900 Classic during Daytona's 2006 Bike Week, Kawasaki made it abundantly clear that value drove the bike's development. Now, value is not a concept that's particularly difficult to crack. Even my deranged polydactyl cat Gibbet, who has a brain the size of a LeSeur pea, understands value with a surprising clarity: She just knows if she can feign cuteness for about 17 seconds (about all she can manage), the human will give her Tabby Treats.

In short, value is all about getting more--more for your cuteness if you're a cat, more for your money if you're a motorcyclist.

Why the emphasis on value? Because Kawasaki's researchers beavered away furiously until they discovered a few revelations: One, cruisers make up more than one-third of the total, still-growing U.S. motorcycle market; two, of that one-third-plus, the metric middleweight (650cc-1100cc) cruiser class apparently is growing like your weird aunt's tomatoes and zucchini--the one living near the nuclear power plant; and three, success in that market niche requires "great style, the right size, and full features at a great value," according to Kawasaki.

The "right size" covers some territory, because it not only refers to the engine's displacement, but to the physical size of the motorcycle, as well. As for displacement, Kawasaki's researchers also identified a--ka-ching!--gap in the middle of the class segment; apart from Kawasaki's own Vulcan 800s, there was ground for the taking right between 650cc and 1100cc. Thanks to the original 903cc Z1 from 1972, Kawasaki had a convenient historical connection, so that was the chosen displacement for the latest Vulcan. Given the first Z1's impact on motorcycling compared to what this Vulcan's will be, some might feel the connection to be just shy of blasphemous. These folks can be seen in Starbucks, muttering darkly into their beards, while posting on their Z1 blogspots.

Regardless of how you feel about the displacement, you'll have to admit the Vulcan 900's newly minted V-twin is the business. Kawasaki's engineers took the basic architecture of the 800's air- and liquid-cooled, SOHC, eight-valve 55-degree V-twin and gave it a longer stroke (66.2mm to 74.2mm) to bring displacement to, you guessed it, 903cc. They also bolted on twin-butterfly fuel injection with 34mm throttle bodies, and a fast-idle system like that on Kawasaki's maximum Vulcan, the 2000. In addition, they borrowed the 2000's intake-tract design. On the 900, the intakes are extremely long, even extending into the airbox; downstream of the throttle body the ports get narrower too. Both features--long, narrowing intakes--heavily favor low-end and midrange torque. In fact, Kawasaki says the 900 pumps out the class's highest peak horsepower and torque: 53.6 bhp @ 6000 rpm and 60.5 lb.-ft. @ 3500 rpm.You can feel how successful they were every time you pull the wire on the 900 Classic. By their very nature, big-displacement V-twins (no matter what anyone says, 903cc is still a big displacement) tend to be torque monsters, and when you emphasize that trait as on the Vulcan 900, you get an engine that lunges forward most anytime you wind the throttle open. And with peak torque happening right at 3500 rpm--precisely 59.1 mph in top gear--passing requires little more from the rider than a lazily flicked right wrist. What's more, the 900 offers excellent fueling, with smooth, progressive throttle response, even off-idle. If anything, the 900 torque and power curves feel a little too flat. Sure, the Vulcan pulls plenty hard, but it pretty much always feels the same; there's no kick anywhere in the rpm band.

Otherwise, though, it's safe to say the Vulcan accelerates like a larger motorcycle. Visually, the engine looks like it belongs to a larger motorcycle as well. The cylinders' cooling fins are intentionally scaled and spaced like a larger bike's, and their tips are CNC-machined.

The Vulcan's big-think sleight of hand continues with the chassis. For instance, Kawasaki added almost 2 inches to the 800's wheelbase (63.0 in. to 64.8 in.) to create the desired big-bike look and feel. Part of that feel was stability, which is an almost unavoidable consequence of putting nearly 2 yards between the axles. The front end's 32-degree rake and 6.5 inches of trail (again, almost 2 inches longer than the 800's 4.8 in.) further contribute to the 900's relaxing stability at freeway speeds. And while so much of the Vulcan 900 has been styled to be almost bigger than life, that notion at least doesn't extend to the saddle height. It's a basement-level 26.8 inches, an inch shorter than the 800's.

At the rear the 900 employs the class's biggest rear tire, a phat 180/70-15, which sits under another exaggerated bit of bodywork, a fender as big as the one on the Vulcan 2000. Final drive is via belt. Kawasaki's to be commended for not going even phatter, to a tire size that could have bollixed up the bike's handling.

Thankfully, a remarkably wide handlebar and Kawasaki's management of the Vulcan's claimed 557.9-pound (dry) weight make the bike far more agile than the chassis numbers might lead you to think--at least in urban settings. Reflecting what seems to be a trend on cruiser intros, our short route included very few corners worthy of the name. There was, however, sufficient city and freeway travel to say the suspensions' soft spring and damping rates serve up a smooth, cosseting ride--a good thing, because most riders will be seriously squirming after barely 30 minutes in the 900's saddle. Vulcaneers tempted to push their luck by the light, relatively quick turn-in will soon find the bike rapidly runs out of cornering clearance, and that the single 300mm-disc front brake has extremely limited initial bite.

No, the Vulcan 900 Classic feels happiest in the cruiser's usual bailiwick: relaxed moto-vation over short distances on most any paved road, with, according to Chuck Berry, no particular place to go. The Classic is a feature-laden rolling testament to the depth of Kawasaki's research, and its remarkably single-minded execution in creating exactly what it figures the market wants. With its MSRP of $7299, buyers can think big--just like Kawasaki did in creating the 900--without having to be a big spender. Now, that's value. -MC

2006 KAWASAKI VULCAN 900

PRICE
MSRP: $7299

ENGINE
Type: a/l-c 55-degree V-twin
Valve arrangement: SOHC, 8v
Displacement: 903cc
Transmission: 5-speed

CHASSIS

Weight: 558 lb. dry, claimed (253kg)
Fuel capacity: 5.3 gal. (20.1L)
Wheelbase: 64.8 in. (1646mm)
Seat height: 26.8 in. (681mm)

By Charles Everitt
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