2011 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero | First Ride

Cowboy up!

By Aaron Frank, Photography by Kinney Jones

Just like heated seats in a car, once you’ve ridden with music it’s hard to ride without. When my iPod is plugged into the Kawasaki Vaquero’s audio system and it cues up Townes Van Zandt’s “To Live Is To Fly” just as we enter the Sam Houston National Forest, I’m reminded how much the right soundtrack enhances a ride. “Where you’ve been is good and gone/All you keep is the getting there,” Van Zandt sings. When it comes to getting there, this is about as good as it gets.

Kawasaki bills its all-new Vaquero—that’s Spanish for cowboy—as the ultimate solo cruiser. The company’s first entry into the key bagger segment combines the style of the conventional Vulcan 1700 cruisers with the functionality of the Voyager full-dress tourer. The upper fairing is borrowed from the Voyager, fitted with a stubby wind deflector and louvered air vents in place of fog lights. The fairing lower is exclusive to this model, and its shape cleverly references the iconic 1984 Ninja 900. This chin fairing also reduces helmet buffeting by routing air around the rider’s legs instead of upward into the cockpit. Air management is excellent, even with the stock 6-inch deflector in place.

Large, 9.6-gallon saddlebags are also unique, with smooth lids and an elongated oval shape to emphasize the low, flowing lines. Keyed closure eliminates the possibility of dumping your load on the road, though the side-loading arrangement isn’t as convenient as a top-loading style. Two colors—Ebony or Candy Fire Red—are available. The red version with its color-matched headlight ring is especially attractive, offering a clean, custom look that’s different from the retro-influenced competition. But the “volcanic magma” blackout treatment on the engine and trim looks as luxurious as a truck-bed liner, and the featureless tank strap and generic gas cap look too cheap for such a premium offering.

The Vaquero is the only big-bore bagger that’s liquid-cooled. The 1700cc, 52-degree V-twin eschews pushrods for single overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, though the single-pin, long-stroke crankshaft maintains the traditional potato-potato idle. Continuing the modern mechanical theme, a ride-by-wire electronic throttle directs the ECU to precisely meter fuel to the dual 42mm throttle bodies. Resulting throttle response is flawless at any revs. A claimed 108 lb.-ft. of torque is available at just 2750 rpm, allowing even this 800-plus-pound hulk to accelerate with unquestioned authority.

A revised transmission enhances the Vaquero’s smooth-riding character. A taller first gear improves the shift from first to second and new tooth profiles in third and fourth gears reduce noise while improving power transfer. Curiously, the clutch cush drive has been deleted in the name of improved engine character, but the effect is largely unnoticeable. Excepting the slightest hint of low-frequency vibration in the overdrive sixth gear, the Vaquero is smoother than anything short of a rubber-mounted Harley-Davidson.

The Vaquero’s chassis is short and narrow for the class, exhibiting exceptional low-speed handling without sacrificing high-speed stability. A mere 3 inches of rear suspension travel is adequate in this category, compared to 2 from Harley and 4 from Victory and Star. The air-adjustable rear suspension is easy to tune via convenient valves located under the seat, though the four-way-adjustable rebound-damping screw is almost impossible to reach behind the saddlebags. The stout, non-adjustable, 45mm fork offers a useful 5.5 inches of travel, and is firm enough to resist diving and pitching even under heavy applications of the firm, fade-free dual front disc brakes.

Combining the rearward seating position of the Vulcan Classic with the forward-mounted floorboards from the Nomad, the Vaquero has one of the roomiest cockpits in Kawasaki’s cruiser lineup. It’s easy to move around on, a good thing because the saddle has an oddly flat center that makes it difficult to settle against the lumbar hump. Fortunately there are multiple accessory saddle options, including some with actual passenger accommodations that the stock saddle sorely lacks.

One aspect that won’t require upgrading is the infotainment system. An AM/FM/WX sound system is standard equipment, with plug-and-play adapters available for integrated iPod, XM tuner and CB radio functionality. The audio system delivers the best sound we’ve experienced, aided by a four-level adjustable automatic volume control, and the controls are intuitive and easy to access with your left thumb. Your right thumb operates the electronic cruise control—again, standard equipment, and again, among the best we’ve sampled, delivering smooth, lash-free acceleration and deceleration at the push of a button.

These standard features—plus crash bars, a heel/toe shifter, adjustable hand controls, dual underseat helmet locks and other convenience features—make the $16,499 Vaquero a knockout value compared to competitive baggers that range in price from $17,490 to $18,999. It’s a great bike on the road, too, offering excellent driveability, capable suspension and all-around unflappable manners, even if it gives up a bit to the competition in terms of fit and finish. If you care more about getting there than posing after you’ve arrived, Kawasaki’s Vaquero is a tough bagger to beat.

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