Motorcycle Road Test: 2004 Kawasaki Vulcan 2000

Kawasaki's new 2053cc Vulcan 2000 is the biggest V-twin, but does that make it the best?

In the never-ending race to build the biggest V-twin, Kawasaki has just fired a big-inch salvo across the bows of the worthy oppositions' front-line cruisers. Imaginatively dubbed the Vulcan 2000, this two-barreled behemoth displaces a full 2053cc of enhanced manhood. To put that in perspective, each cylinder displaces more than the whole engine of Kawasaki's new ZX-10R literbike.

Why so big? Well, because that's what V-twin cruiser riders want. They like the look, the feel and the bragging rights of having the biggest one on the block--and if they do it with their motorcycle, they don't have to risk Internet-purchased drugs, enhancement surgery or those annoying indecent-exposure charges.

**Harlesaki? Kawa-Davidson? **

The Kawasaki folk ramble on about consumer testing and focus groups, by way of explaining the design parameters and styling cues of the Vulcan 2000. But one look at it tells the tale better than any focus group: The customers told 'em to make it look like a Harley-Davidson. And Kawasaki did so faithfully, right down to the twin-cam, pushrod valve actuation, separate-looking engine/transmission cases, hardtail/softail rear end and belt final drive. It has a big-guy, streamliner look all its own--but if the badge on the tank said Harley rather than Vulcan, nobody would look too surprised.

The Vulcan 2000 was three and a half years in development, designed from the start to be the biggest production V-twin--King of the Cruisers, as Kawasaki puts it. But this would entail much more than a bore and stroke job on an existing engine. The Vulcan is all new, from stem to stern. The 52-degree, way-undersquare engine was designed with a nearly normal, 103.0mm bore, but a huge 123.3mm stroke. Those Harley-esque pushrods operate a somewhat-less-Harley-like four valves per cylinder: Even so, the intake valves are a huge 40mm in diameter, the exhausts 36mm across. The cylinder heads and the top quarters of the cylinders are cooled by water, which is cooled, in turn, by an unobtrusive black radiator snuggled between the front downtubes.

Fuel is injected into the dual 46mm throttle bodies, and computer-actuated sub-throttle plates, downstream of the wrist-actuated throttles, give the injection system a CV-carb air-metering effect. Roll-on power was crucial to the Vulcan's appeal, and the sub-throttles help keep the engine pulling at large throttle openings and low revs. Dual counterbalancers, one in front and one in back, soothe the vibes, and the one-pin, side-by-side crank delivers the "clamato, clamato" cadence so craved by the V-twin faithful.

Low-Rev Rendezvous

With such a long stroke, the engineers had to work hard to keep overall engine height low, to achieve the right look, an industry-low seat height and a parking-lot-friendly low center of mass. This is one of the practical rationales for the shorter, pushrod-actuated head--and with a torque-monster engine designed to rev to just 5250 rpm, pushrods would work just as well as they look. Hydraulic lash adjusters are built into the rocker arms, making the engine pretty much maintenance-free. It's also powerful: Kawasaki claims a crank-measured 141 foot-pounds of torque, at 3000 rpm, and 116 crankshaft horsepower at 5000 rpm.

The traditional Vulcan shaft is replaced by a belt, and it's not likely to be missed--the belt is lighter, smoother, reduces unsprung mass and is probably less expensive. Another capitulation to the forces of Harley-Davidson orthodoxy? Not so, say Kawasaki's spokespeople--Kawasaki actually beat Harley to the toothed-rubber drive-belt punch with the not-quite-legendary KZ440 LTD, in 1980. But wasn't the first Harley, in 1903, belt-driven? Oh, bother. Time to hit the bar for a belt of our own.

Big Wheels Keep On Turning

A big, bigger, biggest engine such as this would need an equally stout chassis. And Kawasaki delivered, from the 49mm, 5.9-inch-travel fork, to a rigid, cast-steel steering head and swingarm pivot plates, to the four-piston-caliper, 300mm front discs and two-piston, 320mm rear. Rake is a stable-but-conservative 32 degrees, and triple trees with just a 10mm offset are designed to nail the compromise between light, predictable steering at low speed and rock-solid stability at high speeds. The rear suspension, with a short 3.9 inches of travel, is controlled by a direct-acting shock under the seat. It's adjustable for rebound and preload, but to change the latter, you'll need a spanner tool--or a hammer and punch--to overcome the shock body's threaded collars. Wheels are 16-inchers, and the rear tire, at 200mm across, is said to be the widest tire yet offered on a production V-twin--a distinction the Vulcan will have for at least a week if current trends in tire-width one-upmanship continue.

But what, as you might ask of a prospective date, will she do?

Big Is As Big Does

If you didn't grasp this fully until now, pay special attention: This thing is big. The long, 5.5-gallon tank is incredibly wide at the back, 16 inches at the kneecaps, forcing your legs apart in a way that only expectant mothers can fully appreciate. The air-cleaner housing, on the right, bumps into your leg, but with your legs already splayed wantonly, the added discomfort is minor. The handlebar curves back, tiller-fashion, to bridge the expanse of gleaming-chrome dashboard and fuel tank. And the seat, at approximately 27 inches, is as low as advertised, but much firmer and more cruelly shaped than you might have expected from such a long, laid-back, comfort-oriented machine. The body the designers targeted is a 5-foot-10, 201-pound male. But for anyone taller, the seat runs out of room quickly at the back, forcing you to sit more on your tailbone than on your actual rump.

Kawasaki gave up a few things in its quest for a low seat height, and one of them was a seat with the shape and padding to suit larger-than-average riders. It's downright painful. A computer-controlled compression release makes starting easy, and the big guy rumbles to life with a surprisingly obtrusive growl and bark. The Kawasaki press intro was staged at a quiet, tasteful seaside resort hotel, and the sound of a dozen or so Vulcans, being started and moved about at 6:30 a.m., made wake-up calls for the snoozing journalists--and other peace-loving hotel guests--completely redundant.

The engine is all torque and no revs, signing off for good at 5250 rpm. The rush of acceleration is solid, breathtaking and gratifying, let there be no doubt. But as we've said many times before about many big-inch V-twin cruisers, this thing is no V-Max. The short-winded engine, for all its low-rpm torque, runs up quickly against its redline, necessitating a quick shift to stay off the soft electronic rev limiter, and the lack of a tachometer makes this harder to gauge than it should be.

Tectonic Shift

We find it ironic that these XXL V-twins are designed, apparently, to be ridden free of the oppressive labor of excessive shifting. But the bigger they get, the slower they rev, making them, in some ways, actually harder to ride. The Kawasaki folks talk about the Vulcan's wide powerband, but it's not quite true--it just has a low, narrow powerband. A V-Max, or any self-respecting GT or literbike, will pull its stylized Vulcan wings off in a 60--80-mph top-gear roll-on, and happily keep going, in the case of a ZX-12R or Hayabusa, to three times the starting speed. Yes, to get optimum acceleration, a smaller, higher-revving engine may need to be downshifted now and then. But a slow revver such as this, or any of its competitors, has to be upshifted at least as frequently, just to keep from overrunning its limited operational range. We know we're getting way too rational here on a subject that is both visceral and emotional in nature. But when you're trying to pass a truck and you have to bang a panicked upshift or two just to keep accelerating, all the emotion and visceral sensation in the world ain't gonna help ya.

The heel-toe shifter and footboards are a little awkward, and the shifter is occasionally balky, at least for our peg-trained left feet--it hung up in neutral a time or two, and we find that it's hard to lift an entire foot and leg off the board to stomp our way into the next higher gear, especially with redline (and a possible bread van) coming at us like a runaway locomotive. We mostly used the front half of the shifter, pulling up to upshift as God and Kevin Schwantz intended.

Kawasaki says the Vulcan will "accelerate harder in any one of its five gears than any other V-twin cruiser on the market." Hmmm. Yes, it makes more torque on our impartial rear-wheel dyno (121.4 foot pounds at 3250 rpm) than any other bike we've tested, V-twin or not. But because of its low-revving nature, it makes just 96.8 rear-wheel horsepower at its 5000-rpm peak. And because it's so hard to run it that fast because of the need to upshift 250 revs later, we usually found ourselves working around 3000 rpm. How much power does it make at 3000 rpm? Approximately 70 horsepower--about as much as a good-running Suzuki SV650 at its peak. Add the Vulcan's massive, uh, mass--its wet weight is 820 pounds--and you've got a pretty routine number of Clydesdales pulling a very large beer wagon.

A Harley-Davison V-Rod, with just 1130cc of displacement, shreds it in the quarter-mile: the V-Rod running 11.31 seconds at 114.95 mph vs. the Vulcan's 12.43-second, 104.2-mph performance. The V-Rod also beats it in a top-gear roll-on from 60 to 80 mph, taking 4.05 seconds vs. the Vulcan's 4.10 seconds. Even Honda's VTX beats the Vulcan in the quarter-mile, at 12.21 seconds and 107.48 mph--and hangs right with it in the top-gear 60--80 roll-on, at 4.12 seconds, just 0.02 seconds behind.

And if you really want to put the size-is-all-that-matters concept into perspective, consider this: It's no cruiser, but the aforementioned SV650, a twin with less than a third of the Vulcan's displacement, runs just about even in the quarter-mile, 12.53 seconds at 104.76 mph.

Love Handles

The conservative geometry, low center of mass and rigid chassis components do their job admirably, making low-speed parking ballet moves smooth, predictable and painless. And as speed increases, the chassis continues to steer beautifully, just as smooth and predictable cornering at over 100 mph as at 20 mph. Cornering clearance is limited, with the footboards' grinding pads touching down routinely, even in ho-hum urban commuting. But most of the guys who ride these big-boy twins actually like the sound of grinding metal--along with the bark and rumble of the exhaust, it's kind of like riding your own, personal Monster Garage. Put it this way--if the looks don't get you noticed, the cacophony of noises certainly will.

Suspension action is fine on the smooth stuff, but sharp bumps or seriously rumpled pavement can overwhelm the rear shock's limited travel and damping limits. Would a taller suspension setup, with more than the Vulcan's 3.9 inches of rear stroke, help here? You betcha.

Out on the open road (cue 21st-century Steppenwolf equivalent), the Maximum Vulcan is smooth, cooperative and generally quite livable. The seat hurts us, early and often, but for shorter riders it may well work just fine. And from the waist up, everything's copasetic: The big headlight nacelle does a good job of smoothing and taming the airflow, and the long tiller handlebar ends in the right places, and at the right angles, for everything from downtown trolling to Interstate cruise-touring. The big mill pumps out approximately 36 mpg at a steady 80 mph, yielding an effective 150-mile cruising range.

All in all, we like the Vulcan 2000 more than our niggling gripes would have one believe. It's a big, powerful, manly feeling motorcycle, as its designers intended, a sort of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, but one developed and refined with typical Japanese engineering expertise and attention to detail. And a long look at the engine might well be a look into the future of Harley-Davidson, in fact. At some point, even rank-and-file Harley riders must inevitably tire of air-cooled, 75-horsepower engines, no matter the size, and this one, far more than the fast, but distinctly un-Harley looking V-Rod, just might have slipped undetected under the Milwaukee chauvinists' radar. We're not suggesting that Harley will ever have any actual connection to any Japanese manufacturer--but when somebody else is building your trademark type of bike with this kind of slick, understated style, big-inch motor, luxury-level polish and generally satisfying function, any competitor would be wise to pay attention.

Photography by Kevin Wing.
Belt rear drive makes the Vulcan lighter, smoother and better handling. And makes its engine highly suitable for popping into a custom chassis.
The distinctive streamline-era headlight nacelle is a point of lively debate: Some love it, others not so much. Three-barreled low beams combine with single high beam for excellent lighting.
Black-crackle paint looks great, but cleaning may be problematic.
Brakes are pleasantly powerful, and the lever for the front adjusts for your hand size.
The tank-mounted speedo's big and good looking, but the tach got left at the shop--a minor problem when the engine only revs to 5250 rpm.
The big dual pipes are big, dramatic and surprisingly unrestrained, noisewise. It is just as important to sound fast as it is to be fast, apparently.
**Performance **
Corrected 1/4-mile: 12.43 sec., 104.3 mph
0-60 mph: 4.12 sec.
0-100 mph: 12.14 sec.
Top-gear roll-on, 60-80 mph: 4.10 sec.
Power-to-weight ratio (with 170-lb. rider): 10.23 lb./hp
Fuel mileage (low.high/average): 29/38/34
Cruiser range (exc. reserve); 150 miles
**The Verdict
Engine: 8 ** Smooth, big torquey--but no king.
**Drivetrain: 7 ** Clunk, sometime balky gearbox.
**Handling: 8 ** Steers great, slow or fast.
**Braking: 8 ** Harley tester should ride this.
**Ride: 7 ** Choppy rear needs more travel.
**Ergonomics: 5 ** Upper body fine; legs, butt in pain.
**Features: 6 ** Form over function, no tach.
**Refinement: 7 ** Lexus feel, first-rate finish.
**Value: 8 ** More inches for way less than Harley.
**Fun Factor: 7 ** Big? Yes. Bad? Not really.
**Overall: **A letdown if you are expecting truly mind-bending engine performance, but quite good overall for an open-class cruiser.
**Dyno: **There you have it: The real reason for big inches. Notice the lovely, fairly flat torque curve? See how it rises above 100 foot-pounds so early and hovers so near 120 for so long? That's what provides such effortless acceleration.
Peak Horsepower: 96.8 hp @ 5000 rpm
Peak Torque: 121.4 ft.-lb. @ 3250 rpm
MSRP: $14,499
Warranty: 12 months, unlimited miles
Colors: red, purple, blue Engine
Type: l-c 52-deg. V-twin
Valve arrangement: ohv, 8v
Bore x stroke: 103.0 x 123.2 mm
Displacement 2053cc
Compression ratio: 9.5:1
Carburetion: EFI, 46mm throttle bodies
Transmission: 5-speed
Final drive: belt Chassis
Frame: tubular steel double cradle
Weight: 820 lb. wet, 787 lb. fuel tank empty
Fuel capacity: 5.5 gal.Wheelbase: 63.8 in. 1620mm)
Rake: 32.5 deg.
Trail: 7.2 in. (183mm)
Seat height: 27.2 in. (690mm)
Suspension, front: 49mm fork
Suspension rear: single shock adjustable for preload and rebound damping
Front brake: dual 4-piston calipers, 300mm discs
Brake, rear: single two-piston caliper, 320mm disc
Tire, front: 150/80 16 Bridgestone BT020
Tire, rear: 200/60-16 Bridgestone BT020