Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Range

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith, Adam Campbell, Kinny Jones

In his best-selling book, Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell describes the usefulness of rapid cognition, the two-second critical judgment we all make when meeting someone new, walking into a building for the first time - or when riding a new motorcycle. I thought it would be useful to apply this principle to my sampling of Kawasaki's new range of premium cruisers - the Vulcan 1700 Classic, Classic LT, Nomad and Voyager - at the April 2009 press introduction in Mill Valley, California.

Rapid cognition isn't intuition, says Gladwell, but an intellectual acumen borne out of the experience, knowledge and insight stored away in our unconscious minds. One skill that Gladwell advocates practicing is to become aware of the first word that pops into your head when experiencing something new. Of course, rapid cognition should never be used exclusively to make judgments about people, or even motorcycles. But Gladwell cites a broad range of examples where that instant reaction counts for a lot. And after all, as they often say, you only get one chance to make a first impression!

Vulcan 1700

Here's the skinny on the Kawasaki Vulcan 1700s. The range comprises four motorcycles that share the same motor, chassis and cycle parts.

The Voyager is the top-of-the-line, all-singing-all-dancing model, and it constitutes what Kawasaki is eager to point out as "the first metric, vee-twin, full-dressed touring motorcycle ever." It was also the main focus of development for the range, such that the other Vulcan 1700 models are essentially less-dressed versions of the Voyager. The Voyager boasts a frame-mounted fairing sculpted to incorporate design elements from '60s muscle cars (and also giving a nod to Harley's Road Glide).
The Vulcan Nomad retains the hard bags and touring king-and-queen seat of the Voyager, but loses the top box and fairing. Instead, it has an adjustable windshield with fitted lowers, a tank-mounted instrument panel, and a passenger backrest in place of the top box.

The Classic LT employs a less commodious seat and substitutes leather saddlebags for the rigid boxes, retaining the backrest and windshield but without the lowers. Pegs replace passenger footboards. And finally, there's the Classic, the stripper of the range, sans saddlebags, backrest or windshield. Bags, shield and backrest are available as accessories however.

One more thing to note: the Classic and LT share engine map settings designed to deliver maximum torque at 2,250rpm, rather than 2,750rpm for the Nomad and Voyager. However, maximum torque is quoted as 108lb-ft for all models. Footboards are also placed a bit forward on the Classic and LT.

All four models share the new 1700cc (104cu in) semi-liquid-cooled, 52-degree V-twin with four-valve, SOHC cylinder heads and dual balance shafts. This is not a stretched Vulcan 1600, but a brand-new motor - though it does incorporate some elements from the Vulcan 2000cc. Although the 42mm throttle bodies are controlled by a digital EFI system, a conventional cable connects to the rider's wrist. The ECU collects inputs from the rider and engine to find the appropriate throttle opening electronically. The system is failsafe, says Kawasaki, with redundancy built in.

Drive to the six-speed transmission is by chain, with a carbon-fiber belt driving the rear wheel. Kawasaki says carbon fiber is stronger than Kevlar®, allowing them to use a narrower belt. The new sixth gear is intended as an overdrive.

The drivetrain fits in an all-new chassis that is lighter, more compact and more rigid than the 1600's, giving improved ergonomics (a shorter reach to the bars) and better low-speed handling. A 43mm conventional telescopic fork holds the front 9-spoke alloy wheel, while the matching rear wheel runs on twin spring/air-assisted shock units that are adjustable for preload and rebound. A pair of 300mm discs handles stopping duties, with two-piston calipers at the front and a similar single-disc setup at the rear.

'Smooth'

…is the first word that springs to mind when I pull away on the Classic. As often happens to me at press intros, I'm the last to be ready, and the group is already riding away as I'm pulling on my gloves. So, I'm grateful that the big Kawi is straightforward to ride, and my hurried exit from the hotel is…smooth. An obvious amount of attention has been paid to what Kawasaki calls "human contact points" in the Vulcan 1700's execution, because the rider-machine interface is as intuitive as could possibly be without telepathy. Controls are light and responsive, and the machine's reaction to rider inputs is willing, steady and predictable - though I did notice an occasional very slight stumble in power delivery transitioning from the overrun.

I'm not a fan of the foot-forward, cruiser riding-stance, and I'm sure the hunched shoulders and spinal stoop it engenders must give chiropractors fits. But on the "more compact" Classic, I find I can sit upright comfortably, aided by the scooped seat and pullback bars. The ergonomics generally are the best I've experienced in cruiserdom. My only niggle is over the wide tail end of the gas tank, which (after two days of riding, admittedly) left me with a slight groin pull and bruises on my thighs.

On the highway, the loping power of the big vee-twin feels like an inexorable force thrusting me along. Again, the power delivery is smooth, but with satisfying power pulses and a throbbing exhaust note. Swinging through tighter bends on the back roads, the Vulcan still inspires confidence with very stable steering, and the wide bars easily overcome a slight reluctance to heel over, caused, no doubt, by the bike's considerable mass and the gyroscopic effect of a big crankshaft. Overall, the handling is solid and predictable; and the brakes are nicely balanced and perfectly adequate.

My gripe here is the same one that always seems to cause moto-journalists consternation, though it's not an issue for cruiser buyers: ground clearance. Admittedly, California 1 has some stimulating twisties, but my footboards hit the road far too easily for comfort. I'm not on an ego trip about how far I can lean a bike, either. I'm a conservative, even slow rider. Yet, on one right-hander, so much metal is on the deck the rear tire begins to slide - not a pleasant feeling! However, this is with the rear preload at zero psi (the factory default), and adding 10-15psi later makes a big difference.

'Refined'

After lunch, I switch to the Classic LT, essentially the same bike but with leather saddlebags, passenger backrest and touring windshield. The bags have wire reinforcement to help them keep their shape, and the lids have hard plastic inserts. They work really well. The windshield also helps reduce the load on my arms by deflecting the airflow. Buffeting would be too strong a term, but some mild turbulence did vibrate my helmet.

In the inevitable stop-start of press intro photo-shoots, I explore the Kawasaki's slow-speed handling and its unique neutral finder. Below walking pace, heeling the shifter from first takes you into neutral, not second. Nice! Turning the big bike around on narrow roads is also helped by the considerable gyroscopic effect of the big motor. And the engine is almost impossible to stall, a boon in tight slow-speed turns.

The overall standard of fit and finish, and the attention to detail, is exemplary. I like the twin chrome-finished airboxes on either side of the engine, which give it a balanced look. And the huge in-tank speedo evoked expensive, classic wristwatch designs. It's a very refined look. A new lock allows the key to be removed when the ignition is switched to "on," although the key must be reinserted to start the bike if the ignition is turned off. Four-way flashers are also fitted, but are only operational with the ignition on, or when the switch is in the "accessory" position. Not much use if you run out of gas on a dark road.

'Plush'

As soon as my butt hits the oversized, pillow-top seat I know the Nomad is going to be a sumptuous experience - and I'm not disappointed. Principal revisions from the LT are lowers and fork deflectors for the windshield; cruise control; hard resin saddlebags; spring-top passenger footboards instead of pegs (rider boards are also moved back); tip-over bars front and rear; and the aforementioned, plush bucket seat with abbreviated backrest.

There's also a revised dual exhaust, which, with ECU remapping, slightly changes the power profile. Kawasaki's research shows that touring riders typically travel at higher average speeds; so, the remap moves peak torque to 2,750rpm from 2,250. As horsepower is a function of torque and engine speed, the result (all other things being equal) should also be higher power. Winding up the Nomad on California 101, the engine certainly feels revvier and more authoritative.

The ergonomics of the Nomad, and the seat and footboard changes, fit my shape even better, and with 16 psi of shock preload, the ride suits my 190 pounds better too. Again there's some minor turbulence from the windshield, and even though it's crystal clear and claimed to be "optically correct," I'd prefer to see over it than through it. Then again, I always wear a full-face helmet and visor, so I'm not a typical touring cruiser rider in weather protection terms.

I'm also a bit "old school" when it comes to cruise control on motorcycles. I know the response to a panic brake or throttle roll off is effectively instantaneous, but it just seems one more thing sitting between rider interface and mechanical response. However, setting the cruise did allow me to test the Nomad's straight-line stability "hands off." The verdict: steady as a rock.

'Imposing'

Which brings me to the Voyager and its innovative K-ACT active braking system. Emergency Rooms bear witness to the fact that many motorcyclists are quite poor at handling the task of emergency braking. It's a complicated process: essentially, to gain maximum deceleration, you have to progressively increase pressure on the front brake while reducing pressure on the rear brake as momentum rotates around the bike's center of gravity. All this without locking either wheel! A small, task-specific computer connected to electromagnetic sensors that detect the rotation of reluctor rings in each wheel can easily sense when traction limits are exceeded and modulate the brakes much better than Homo sapiens can. That's ABS.

K-ACT (Kawasaki Advanced Co-active Braking Technology) takes this a step further. As well as being speed sensitive, the system uses motor-driven hydraulic pumps to boost hydraulic pressure, while control valves allocate pressure to the appropriate wheel. The system also activates one of the front brake's two calipers when the brake pedal alone is pressed, preventing rear-wheel lockup, and controls front brake pressure to minimize dive when the front brake is applied. The result, based on experience, is seamless slowing and stopping. It's so good that I didn't even realize my Voyager had K-ACT until I returned it!

The Voyager comes stock with a "full load" inside the muscle-car inspired, frame-mounted fairing, including a full analog instrument package with tachometer, fuel and coolant temperature gauges; AM/FM/weather band stereo radio (also nicely retro-styled) with options to add iPod, CB and XM radio - all of which integrate for multi-functionality and are controlled from the left handlebar. Phew!

Behind the rider are lavish passenger accommodations in the form of a winged backrest, broad seat and spring mounted footboards. Also fitted are two voluminous hard bags, a two-full-face-helmet top box and protection bars front and rear.

Following Gladwell's principle, 'imposing' was my rapid-cognition response to the Voyager; but that was before I'd ridden it. It does require a good heave to lift off the kickstand, true; but once underway, the Voyager's mass (fully four-tenths of a ton!) seems to melt away. It's physics, of course - the gyroscopic effect of the wheels and engine - and the frame-mounted fairing, which significantly reduces handlebar mass and inertia. Even so, turning the big bike around on a road no wider than its turning circle in a high wind (as we were doing for the photo-shoot) is no picnic.

It's on the highway where this bike excels. Returning to our hotel on US 101, I wound her up to a leisurely 70mph, switched the radio to NPR, and cruised along as comfortably as if I were driving a Cadillac. Even the leg-shields have opening vents to cool sun-toasted tootsies. I could happily have ridden the Voyager to RoadRUNNER HQ in North Carolina.

This is a supreme highway vehicle: long-legged in its sixth-gear overdrive, rock steady in truck-wash turbulence; it has plenty of passing power, and the radio even has automatic volume control, so you won't annoy the neighbors when pulling into your drive.

Was my rapid cognition right? Sure, the Voyager is imposing at first sight. But after riding it, I'd change that to 'impressive.' And that goes for the whole Vulcan 1700 range.