Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom | First Ride

Kawasaki rebuilds its cruiser line, one model at a time

Can somebody tell me what the big deal is? C'mon, Kawasaki's new Vulcan 900 Custom is practically a carbon copy of the phatter Vulcan 900 Classic that was let out of the stable a few months ago.

Just kidding. Industry wonks say 650-1100cc metric cruisers still bring in big numbers, and Kawasaki needed to replace the Vulcan 800 Custom it had just axed. The slimmer Custom only mirrors the 900 Classic mechanically, and a ride on it-Kawasaki obliged us with a dash around Austin, Texas, last November-underscores the apples-and-oranges differences betwixt the two.

Obviously, there's the nip/tuck factor-the Custom's more taut and toned than the lumpy Classic, its slimmed front end lurking over a scene-stealing, 21-inch front wheel. The cast hoop is tall, yes, but it also rolls spokeless. And the kicker is the design doesn't sport any straight surfaces-the paired "spokes" all have a slight curve. Dood.

That slim wheel also means a change-up in steering geometry. The Custom goes with 33 degrees of rake and 7.2 inches of trail, up from the Classic's 32/6.3. And, as you'd expect on a Custom model, forward controls and footpegs sprout down below. A shrunken headlight, uncovered fork legs and a shaved fender round out the lightweight front end.

Kawasaki went for eye candy on the body, too. The sculpted 5.3-gallon tank is a doozy, with a hand-molded "twin-valley" design and seamless saddle-to-tank junction. It's a tight package that lends credence to Kawa- saki's description of the bike as an "elegant custom."

But equally important is how unintimidating the Custom feels-a point made clear once I settled into the impossibly low 27-inch saddle. I'm-how do I put this?-kinda stubby, and my knees practically grazed the bar ends. The bar is set atop tall risers sprouting from the billet-look triple clamp and fit right in my hands. Comfortable, sure, but because your feet are also up on the controls, your weight is back on the saddle. Get used to it.

The engine fires up easily enough in the cool Texas morning, the injection smooth and surge-less. With the Custom's well-sorted, rubber-mounted mill, you won't feel much in the way of engine pulses; while the single-pin crank design pounds out an offbeat V-twin cadence, a balance shaft stymies the shakes.

Snicking through the 5-speed gearbox brings tons of low-end torque, especially in first, and it's all handled smoothly by the Custom's wide, 180mm rear rubber. I was steeling myself for floppy front steering, but it turned out to be surprisingly light-the skinny front wheel actually felt planted.

When it came time to scrub off speed, the single, 11.8-inch front disc was generally up to the task-two fingers on the adjustable lever were all it usually took. The Custom's performance is about what I'd expect from a bike in this class: strong, competent and willing, but no Barbaro, either.A full array of gauges-tripmeter, odometer and clock-are accessible via an LCD display set in a tank-top console. It's all very trick, so the question becomes why did Kawasaki drop the ball with rear-end styling? The Custom is a looker forward of the engine, but that 15-inch rear hoop is puny. There's no hiding the noticeable gap between the fender and tire.

Still, Kawasaki will probably sell a ton of these. With its good power, great styling and appealing sticker, you might say the Custom's a big deal after all.

To read more about the Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom, pick up the April issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine.

Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom

MSRP $7439
Type l-c 55-degree V-twin
Valves SOHC, 8v
Displacement 903cc
Transmission 5-speed
Weight 549 lb., claimed dry (250kg)
Fuel capacity 5.3 gal. (20.4L)
Wheelbase 64.8 in. (1646mm)
Seat height 27.0 in. (686mm)a