Small-displacement cruisers sometimes get the short end of the stick. They’re too often labeled as beginner motorcycles, which can be a fate worse than death in the size-conscious cruiser market. When they hear you’re on the hunt for a smaller-proportioned, lightweight machine, well-meaning friends will often steer you toward the “entry-level” end of the spectrum, where the bikes are built to a strict price, and, well, they often show it. At that zip code, your options used to involve just air-cooled, single-cylinder, carbureted engines, chain drive, a five-speed gearbox, and drum brakes.
But what if you have some riding experience and a hankering for more than just a cheap quarter-liter machine that can barely outrun its own shadow? Maybe you want something that actually looks, feels, and works like a substantial motorcycle rather than a child’s toy but want to pay less than $9,000. Fortunately, your midsize cruiser choices these days are way more plentiful and a lot more diverse.
Although they all have twin-cylinder motors, our group of unusual suspects runs the stylistic gamut, from retro classics like the Triumph America to the more bobber-ish Star Bolt. You want diversity? We’ve got genre-bending crossover machines like Honda’s funky CTX 700N and Kawasaki’s new, über-versatile Vulcan S, both of which offer a slightly more sporting bias. Also remaking the landscape is Harley-Davidson’s liquid-cooled Street 750, which marks The Motor Company’s latest purpose-built, entry-level model. Meanwhile, Suzuki’s long-running Boulevard M50 represents another side of the cruiser continuum: the musclebike aesthetic.
A more disparate group of rigs would be hard to imagine, and that’s a credit to the various manufacturers who came up with such different options for a small-displacement cruiser. Our emphasis in testing focused less on pure performance than accessibility and value. In the end, we were surprised with the rankings at the top and the bottom. Grab a seat, get comfortable and dig in.
With its subtle, blacked-out look, the Harley Street 750’s overall styling conjures up thoughts of a miniature Dyna crossed with a small Sportster, but a baby V-Rod is probably the most accurate familial reference for the new Street 750. The Street’s Revolution X engine gets liquid-cooling and four valves per cylinder in a 60-degree configuration like the V-Rod’s Revolution mill, but that’s where the similarities end.
For one, the Street is the lightest vehicle currently produced by The Motor Company, 507 pounds on our scales (the Street 500 weighs the same). Narrow handlebars, a 25.7-inch saddle height, and mid-mount controls position you atop the bike, and average or taller pilots will get an excellent view of their kneecaps protruding above the fuel tank. Only small riders will feel totally at home—and our smaller testers did—but then they’re the target demographic.
Beginning riders will appreciate the Street’s easy-shifting transmission and light clutch pull, things you could never really count on with a Sportster. The Street’s powerband won’t blow your socks off, but it’s not supposed to; a polite rush of torque comes at 1,500 rpm, surges at 2,100 rpm, and then takes a dip before climbing to the 43.3 pound-feet peak at 3,500 rpm. Power peaks way up at 7,800 rpm, just trailing the Triumph’s best-in-show 55.9 hp. Those are good numbers, but the Street never feels particularly punchy.
New riders will find cornering clearance decent, though we found the suspension wanting—very soft up front, stiff out back—and then you have the brakes. Two-piston calipers acting on single discs (front and rear) offer little power, with virtually non-existent feel and weak initial bite. The lever comes back to the bar, and you’re left wondering just how much brake you have left. We get that Harley wants newbies to go easy on the brakes to prevent locking a wheel (when ABS is not even an option), but these are flat-out crummy brakes. Try again, Milwaukee.
Performance transgressions on a price-point bike we can understand, but in the Street you also have substandard build quality to go with it. You can’t miss the sloppy welds, exposed wiring, and mismatched hardware. To be fair, designing a beginner bike from scratch is no easy assignment. At $7,499, the Street is among the least expensive of these six. Unfortunately, it both looks and feels like it.
|HARLEY-DAVIDSON STREET 750|
|ENGINE||754cc, liquid-cooled 60° V-twin|
|MEASURED HORSEPOWER||55.6 hp @ 7800 rpm|
|MEASURED TORQUE||43.6 lb.-ft. @ 3600 rpm|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||Harley-Davidson 37mm fork; 5.5-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||Harley-Davidson shocks adjustable for spring preload; 3.5-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Harley-Davidson two-piston caliper, 292mm disc|
|REAR BRAKE||Harley-Davidson two-piston caliper, 260mm disc|
|SEAT HEIGHT||27.9 in.|
|MEASURED WEIGHT||507/486 lb. (tank full/empty)|
|FUEL CAPACITY||3.5 gal.|
|FUEL ECONOMY||56/41/49 mpg (high/low/average)|
|RANGE||172 mi. (including reserve)|
With meaty slash-cut mufflers, beefy cast-aluminum wheels, and a low-rise bar capped with a swoopy headlight cowl, the Suzuki Boulevard M50’s musclebike demeanor instantly separates it from this class of incompatibles. The corpulent, Arlen Ness-inspired styling might not be everybody’s cup of tea, but the wide M50 still looks good on the street.
The M50’s rider triangle stretches you out into a classic clamshell stance, with footpegs more forward than normal, which not every rider will appreciate. The 27.6-inch-tall seat gives newbies a flat-footed stance, but this is a heavy bike (at 593 pounds fully fueled, it’s the second flabbiest), and just getting it off the sidestand isn’t easy.
Even though the M50’s fuel injection is crisp, you have to rev the engine out quite a bit to achieve reasonable acceleration. Although it’s 135cc larger than the Honda’s parallel twin, the Boulevard’s V-twin only has a little more torque and actually a little less horsepower—like fractions, more or less. And this meager output lugging around nearly 600 pounds of bike makes for a machine that never feels particularly light on its feet. Newbies might not mind and will also appreciate the M50’s five-speed transmission and its smooth transitions between gears, along with little jacking from the no-maintenance shaft final drive.
The other good news is that the M50 is well balanced, and ride quality is fairly good. The Suzuki carries much of its weight low within its 65.2-inch wheelbase, so the bike transitions decently, with low-slung bars that provide solid leverage. In fast sweepers, it gives pilots a nice stable feel, solid tracking, and decent ground clearance, and the M50 can be ridden aggressively if you’re willing to add muscle; the longest wheelbase in the group and a fat 130/90 front tire offer some resistance. But be aware of riding too aggressively since the brakes aren’t quite modern, especially the numb rear drum. (A drum!)
Instrumentation is fairly Spartan, with a solo gauge integrated into the cowling, and the Boulevard’s finish also reveals the usual metric cruiser crimes: cheap-looking plastic and subpar detailing in the fenders, cowling, and cylinder fins. The fifth-place finish comes by way of those faults plus excessive weight and an $8,599 MSRP, the highest here.
|SUZUKI BOULEVARD M50|
|ENGINE||805cc, liquid-cooled 45° V-twin|
|MEASURED HORSEPOWER||42.4 hp @ 6000 rpm|
|MEASURED TORQUE||44.1 lb.-ft. @ 2900 rpm|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||Showa 41mm fork; 5.5-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||Showa shocks adjustable for spring preload; 4.1-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Tokico two-piston caliper, 300mm disc|
|SEAT HEIGHT||27.6 in.|
|MEASURED WEIGHT||593/568 lb. (tank full/empty)|
|FUEL CAPACITY||4.1 gal.|
|FUEL ECONOMY||45/38/41 mpg (high/low/average)|
|RANGE||168 mi. (including reserve)|
Honda says CTX stands for “Comfort Technology and Experience,” which we’ll accept because it’s obvious the “C” does not stand for “Cruiser.” At least not in the traditional sense. The boys at Big Red argue that the CTX integrates the best parts of “the cruiser idiom with its laid-back seating, forward-set pegs, and a torque-rich mill,” but riders asked to actually gaze upon the CTX could be excused for thinking it doesn’t belong in this group. Once you’ve gone around a couple of turns astride Honda’s crossover machine, however, all (okay, most) is forgiven.
Why? It’s a pretty good motorcycle. Credit, in part, the CTX’s responsive steering and neutral handling. It’s not quite as agile as the Vulcan S, but there’s more than decent ground clearance and well-damped suspension. Stable tracking, effortless transitions, and impressively strong brakes with a firm bite and good feel make this machine a lot of fun to ride.
We opted for the CTX700N base model with conventional six-speed manual transmission rather than the DCT/ABS trim, which includes the Automatic Dual Clutch tranny and ABS for $600 more. (ABS is only available with the DCT as a package.) The manual tranny is easy to use, and its short throws, positive engagement, and light lever operation made it a favorite here. The CTX was also surprisingly comfortable, with an open seating position, nicely padded saddle (with ample passenger room), and reasonable ergos, though the forward-set foot controls might annoy some. The bike is smooth and deceptively quick, with an engine that delivers good low-end torque from 1,500 rpm to its peak of 41.7 pound-feet, which arrives only at 4,100 rpm, before gradually tailing off. Peak power is 43.9 hp at 6,000 rpm, 400 rpm shy of the redline. This is a sedate, fuel-efficient (61 mpg average) engine that makes a ton more sense in this relaxed “cruiser” than it does in the sportier NC700X. Character? Some, yes, but not enough to sway votes.
And that’s a lot of why the Honda isn’t higher up the finishing order. It’s a terrific machine with unconventional, hard-to-categorize styling. Not quite a standard, not quite a cruiser…something else. But here’s the thing: It’s our jaded view. New riders might have no clue that a cruiser is supposed to look a certain way or that a bike resembling a so-called standard can have a cruiser-like riding position. If you like the Honda’s appearance, we say go for it. It is the least expensive bike in the test, equaling the non-ABS version of the Vulcan S—a lot of “cruiser” for the money.
|ENGINE||670cc, liquid-cooled parallel-twin|
|MEASURED HORSEPOWER||43.9 hp @ 6000 rpm|
|MEASURED TORQUE||41.7 lb.-ft. @ 4100 rpm|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||Showa 41mm fork; 4.2-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||Showa shock adjustable for spring preload; 4.3-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Nissin two-piston caliper, 320mm disc|
|REAR BRAKE||Nissin one-piston caliper, 240mm disc|
|SEAT HEIGHT||28.3 in.|
|MEASURED WEIGHT||482/463 lb. (tank full/empty)|
|FUEL CAPACITY||3.2 gal.|
|FUEL ECONOMY||67/54/61 mpg (high/low/average)|
|RANGE||195 mi. (including reserve)|
Even with a parallel-twin engine, the Triumph America tacks closest to the classic cruiser styling ideal. Yep, the Brits channeled all the usual cruiser tropes here, beginning with full fenders and a deeply dished saddle, plus a super-wide handlebar and the only floorboards here. Unfortunately the America’s classic styling is undermined by some wonky finishes with questionable design choices, like a barrel-shaped, chromed solo instrument gauge that looks clamped between the risers as an afterthought and the oddly shaped console that hides indicator lights.
But never mind all that. Settle into the plush saddle, grab the wheelbarrow handlebar, and get ready. The Triumph delivers far more performance and fun than you’d expect from the somewhat dowdy packaging. A quick trip to the spec sheet reveals some of the reasons. While the Triumph’s engine has the second largest displacement here, it produces the most horsepower. It also posts the second best torque numbers, just 5 pound-feet less than the grunty, slightly larger Bolt. Flexibility is superb. If not for the America’s hefty wet weight (at 600 pounds, the chubbiest here), we have no doubt it’d smoke its true competitors in the class. The only thing missing is thump and throb in the America’s overly polite powerplant; some aftermarket pipes could give it a voice as well.
The America also throws its weight around more effectively than you’d expect from the casual geometry, with the super-wide handlebar giving pilots plenty of leverage when angling into turns. Handling is slow, with heavy initial turn-in on the fat front tire, but the Triumph is smooth and stable. A 63.4-inch wheelbase also means battleship-like stability, and the America brings brakes that are nearly on par with the best here, with stellar initial bite, good progressive feel, and plenty of power from two-pot calipers on both front and rear discs (which Harley runs as well). Too bad cornering clearance is limited by the floorboards.
If it weren’t so big and heavy, and didn’t look quite so stuck in the past, America might have taken the whole enchilada. Make no mistake: You won’t forget that it’s a middleweight cruiser, but with this Triumph, you also won’t have to settle for lackluster performance. For what it is, the America works very well indeed.
|ENGINE||865cc, air-cooled parallel-twin|
|MEASURED HORSEPOWER||55.9 hp @ 6700 rpm|
|MEASURED TORQUE||50.5 lb.-ft. @ 3400 rpm|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||KYB 41mm fork; 4.7-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||KYB shocks adjustable for spring preload; 3.8-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Nissin two-piston caliper, 310mm disc|
|REAR BRAKE||Nissin two-piston caliper, 285mm disc|
|SEAT HEIGHT||27.2 in.|
|MEASURED WEIGHT||600/569 lb. (tank full/empty)|
|FUEL CAPACITY||5.1 gal.|
|FUEL ECONOMY||52/45/48 mpg (high/low/average)|
|RANGE||245 mi. (including reserve)|
Even with feet-forward pegs, a pullback bar, and a low-slung saddle, you might not think of the Kawasaki Vulcan S as a cruiser. It’s light and perky, with a 649cc parallel twin, not some loping, big(ish)-inch V-twin. Perhaps “S” is for “Sporting”? Team Green is probably fine with all this vagueness, since market research has determined that riders are mostly concerned with finding a motorcycle that physically fits them.
Cue the Vulcan S and its Ergo-Fit concept; it allows prospective buyers to mix and match dealer-installed seat and handlebar options that work with intrinsically adjustable footpegs to suit their dimensions. Our Vulcan S’s upright, open riding position (the standard layout) feels sort of cruiser-like, though maybe it’s just the teardrop-shaped tank and relatively small fenders that gave us that impression.
But the littlest Vulcan doesn’t have much else in common with its bigger V-twin brothers, starting with its powerplant; that’s derived from a—gasp—Ninja 650. The liquid-cooled, fuel-injected 649cc parallel twin gets revised cam profiles and a modified intake, exhaust, and ECU for its Vulcan application. So how does the second-lightest bike make use of the smallest engine here? Very effectively. Great roll-on power helps the engine feel bigger than it is, and the Vulcan S’s torque is spread around judiciously. Power delivery is linear even though it doesn’t make its 54-hp peak until 7,200 rpm. Compared to the other engines here, the Vulcan’s seems to rev forever.
Everything about the Vulcan S feels light, from the easy-shifting six-speed gearbox to the steering. A 62-inch wheelbase is about mid-pack in this group, but the Kawasaki is still the sportiest here; you can actually flick it into a turn with little resistance. The ride can be firm on the single shock’s 3.2 inches of travel, while the well-damped 41mm fork serves up a more controlled experience. The feel is similar to the Honda’s, and most testers were split between the CTX and Vulcan for most dialed-in suspension.
The Vulcan S is totally welcoming yet still tons of fun. The variable ergonomic package is, if not completely new, very well executed here. Dynamically, we like the motorcycle a lot. The only open question is whether cruiser-intended buyers will see it as a true cruiser. We encourage them to look beyond the non-traditional styling before making up their minds.
|KAWASAKI VULCAN S ABS|
|ENGINE||649cc, liquid-cooled parallel-twin|
|MEASURED HORSEPOWER||54.0 hp @ 7100 rpm|
|MEASURED TORQUE||42.3 lb.-ft. @ 5600 rpm|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||KYB 41mm fork; 5.1-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||KYB shock adjustable for spring preload; 3.2-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Nissin two-piston caliper, 300mm disc with ABS|
|REAR BRAKE||Nissin one-piston caliper, 250mm disc with ABS|
|SEAT HEIGHT||27.8 in.|
|MEASURED WEIGHT||499/477 lb. (tank full/empty)|
|FUEL CAPACITY||3.7 gal.|
|FUEL ECONOMY||59/44/50 mpg (high/low/average)|
|RANGE||185 mi. (including reserve)|
Sometimes these comparisons are close, real squeakers. We fight and wrangle and play Underwood-esque politics to affect the outcome. Not this time. Simply put: The Star Bolt crushed it. One and done. See you, chumps.
How? A less-is-more design with exposed mechanical components and minimal ornamentation make the Bolt a sort of steampunk standout in this sea of chrome and plastic. With its cropped fenders, small tank, solo seat, and uncluttered bars, the Bolt fits the restrained aesthetic that’s in vogue right now.
It’s not just styling either. We’ve been fans of Star’s 942cc air-cooled engine since its debut in the V-Star 950 back in 2009, though here the rigid-mounted 60-degree V-twin gets changes to its airbox, exhaust, and fuel mapping to deliver better low- and midrange punch. Torque, which starts strong, crossing 50 pound-feet before 2,000 rpm, peaks at a best-in-test 55.3 pound-feet at 2,800 rpm. The Bolt’s single-pin crank adds the sought-after auditory exclamation, and it doesn’t feel detuned like many metric cruisers do. Summing up, the Bolt’s engine has texture, grunt, and poise. It’s not the smoothest at freeways speeds, but that is its only real shortcoming.
The Bolt offers enviable Goldilocks ergos for the average-size motorcyclist. The handlebars atop a tallish neck require a slight reach, and mid-mount footpegs allow mostly adequate legroom, but that position, combined with the low, 27.2-inch seat height and sloped 3.2-gallon fuel tank simply add to the bad-boy demeanor. Go ahead; channel your inner scofflaw.
You get a full 4.7 inches of fairly well-dialed-in bounce up front, but we had the twin rear shocks hit the end of their 2.8-inch travel on some larger potholes—and that’s with the R-Spec bike, whose $300 upcharge includes reservoir shocks. The chassis is fine, though the steering is slower than some in this test, and it has far too little cornering clearance; you’ll drag the pegs often.
It’s true—the Bolt isn’t functionally the best bike here, but it manages the cruiser/performance compromises extremely well. It’s the rare machine that is fun for experienced riders and kind to newbies. It follows traditional cruiser styling cues while still managing to be its own entity. And the build quality, despite a few minor miscues, embodies that elusive cruiser aesthetic without sacrificing for price. Good looking. Fun to ride. Affordable. A winner in our opinion.
|STAR BOLT R-SPEC|
|ENGINE||942cc, air-cooled 60° V-twin|
|MEASURED HORSEPOWER||49.0 hp @ 5400 rpm|
|MEASURED TORQUE||55.3 lb.-ft. @ 2800 rpm|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||KYB 41mm fork; 4.7-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||KYB shocks adjustable for spring preload; 2.8-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||Akebono two-piston caliper, 298mm disc|
|REAR BRAKE||Akebono one-piston caliper, 298mm disc|
|SEAT HEIGHT||27.2 in.|
|MEASURED WEIGHT||549/530 lb. (tank full/empty)|
|FUEL CAPACITY||3.2 gal.|
|FUEL ECONOMY||55/53/54 mpg (high/low/average)|
|RANGE||173 mi. (including reserve)|
As expected: The largest engine (the Bolt’s) makes the most torque but has the lowest rev ceiling. Not as expected: The smallest engine (the Vulcan’s) makes above-midpack horsepower and good torque. The Harley’s 55.6 hp happens just before the rev limiter kicks in. Honda trades hp for mpg.
Off the Record
ROAD TEST EDITOR
WEIGHT: 175 lb.
INSEAM: 33 in.
One of the cells in our testing documents asks, “Would you recommend this bike to a friend?” If I’m honest, I would be hard-pressed to recommend a cruiser to anyone. They sacrifice too much (comfort, cornering clearance, handling, etc.) for the sake of style. But I get that some folks love the cruiser look, and for beginners this group is their entry point. And of this group, the Bolt is the standout. It’s got the Harley look and feel figured out way better than the Street 750, and it works well and is fun to ride. The Bolt isn’t as nimble or refined as the Honda or Kawasaki, but it is well sorted and has loads more character. It’s the one I’d recommend.
WEIGHT: 185 lb.
INSEAM: 34 in.
I like this test because it reminds us that there are lots of good bikes out there that don’t get enough attention. Case in point: Honda, Kawasaki, and Triumph have really nice, affordable options in this category. The bottom two, unfortunately, are a different story. Harley’s Street 750 beats walking but otherwise has zero redeeming qualities. Actually, it’s an excellent sales pitch for an 883 Iron, which is an authentic Harley for only a little more money. Suzuki’s M50 engine is a nice piece and works well, but aside from that the bike is horribly dated: too much chrome and a drum rear brake that is shockingly bad. The best bike is clear to see; the Bolt doesn’t have the best suspension or the best brakes or the best handling, but the motor is terrific, and it’s got the attitude dialed in perfectly. Yeah, it’s a “cheap” cruiser, but it’s also a fun motorcycle. Period.
WEIGHT: 115 lb.
INSEAM: 31 in.
The Street 750, ironically, feels like a cheap imitation of a Japanese cruiser. I like the styling but not the wonky handling and lack of brakes. The M50 feels like an outdated brute that requires too much effort to wrangle. The CTX has me confused; it’s the best handling and easiest to ride, but it seems like a cross-dressing sportbike. Take away the cruiser ergos, and it might as well be a naked standard. The Vulcan S is light and nimble and gets points for customizable ergos and some cool styling cues, but it lacks character in terms of sound and feel. This leaves my two favorites: the Bolt and the America. Both have abundant power, smooth handling, solid brakes, and great (if opposite) styling. If I wanted a comfortable, traditional cruiser with long-haul capabilities, I’d buy the America; if I wanted to channel my inner outlaw, I’d buy the Bolt.