2009 V Star 950

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith, Tom Riles, Nigel Kinrade

Once upon a time, the motorcycle tester's job was much simpler. There were good motorcycles and not-so-good motorcycles. It was only necessary to decide the category in which each particular test subject fell. Major manufacturers no longer build bad bikes, however. Some models may not appeal to your personal preferences, and each has its idiosyncrasies; but all of them work pretty much as they should. The most important question then becomes: Is the bike right for its intended customer? Sounds simple, but it isn't.

In the cruiser market, answering that question opens a can packed with imponderables and intangibles. Marketers naturally turn to consumer research in their attempts to divine the purchasing intentions of potential customers and yet, despite that, there are few objective measurements of customer resonance. For putative buyers of Star Motorcycles' new V Star 950, for example, important factors are "image, attitude and authenticity." And then, of course, the tester has to access how these concepts translate into steel, aluminum and rubber.

But customer perception is critical. As Star Motorcycles' Product Planning Manager Derek Brooks explained at the Clayton, Georgia press introduction, their "entry-level" V Star 650 (essentially a grown-up 535cc Virago) was losing sales because potential customers considered the engine capacity to be too small. Yamaha's research also informed them their new cruiser would need to satisfy three disparate market niches: "entry-level" riders, existing mid-size cruiser owners, and owners of heavy cruisers looking to downsize for better value and fuel economy.

So, the new cruiser had fundamentally conflicting requirements. It had to be big yet light, have presence without being intimidating, let shorter folks reach the ground and still be comfortable for bigger riders and, most difficult of all, it had to embody the classic DNA of a heritage cruiser in a sleek, modern design. And the danger in attempting to unite so many potentially conflicting needs, of course, was that the V Star 950 might meet none of them.

The brief for the V Star 950, therefore, was to create a smaller cruiser with a bigger feel, one with more capacity that was still suitable for new riders, and styling expressed as "sport-and-modern classic" not "traditional classic." It also had to accord full-size cruiser feel and comfort in a modern, clean, simple and sporty package.

Making a cruiser look sporty is a challenge, but Star went at it, much as they did with the Roadliner, by defying assumptions about how a cruiser should look, and by adopting a unifying theme based on a design ideal - in this case, the sleek, streamlined profile of a 1927 Type 38 Bugatti.

Clean Sheet

Star decided the only way to accomplish their goals for the V Star 950 was to start with a completely new frame and engine. The duplex steel tube frame is designed to accommodate a very low seat and houses an all-new compact, 60-degree, air-cooled single-crankpin, 942cc V-twin. The 85mm x 83mm alloy cylinders are ceramic composite plated, and house forged aluminum pistons. A Mikuni closed loop EFI system with dual 35mm throttle bodies feeds pent-roof combustion chambers with 9.0:1 compression ratios, and the four valves in each head are lifted by roller rockers running on a single overhead camshaft. The engine has no balance shafts and is rigidly mounted in the frame.

Exhaust note is critical to a cruiser's status, so the 950 has a dual-chamber muffler tuned for sonority and fitted with the now requisite three-way catalyzer. The five-speed transmission uses straight-cut dogs (instead of the more usual three-degree undercut) for slicker shifting, and drives the 4.50-section, 16-inch rear wheel through an Aramid-reinforced belt.

Cycle specifications include conservative steering geometry of 32 degrees with a 5.7-inch trail; 41mm Kayaba conventional front fork; and nine-position, preload adjustable link-type rear suspension. Travel is 5.3 inches front and 4.3 inches rear. A dual-pot caliper grabs the single 320mm front disc, while the 298mm rear caliper uses a single piston. There is no brake linking, and no mention of ABS, as of yet.

Other notable items specified are the 18" front wheel with 130/70 low profile tire (for "lighter handling and lightweight appearance," Yamaha says); a low, low seat of just 26.6 inches, tapered at the front for even easier foot-downs; 58.2 ft-lbs of torque at 3,500rpm (in common with most cruiser makers, Star omits a horsepower figure); claimed 47 miles per gallon of 86-octane; and a rather short recommended valve-check interval of 4,000 miles.

From the Saddle

I've chosen to ride the Tourer version of the 950, which, for just an extra $ 1,000 comes with an impressive selection of useful extras: a short, touring windshield, leather-covered hard bags and a passenger backrest. The bags feature a full-width opening, weatherproofing and locking lids (using the same key as the ignition). They're the best designed, most functional cruiser bags I've seen.

The low seat and low center of gravity make climbing aboard and righting the 950 a breeze. With its relaxed seating geometry, the seat doesn't pose any problems for my 33-inch inseam either. Thumbing the starter initiates a pleasantly deep rumble, and the light clutch, ample off-idle torque and easy snick into first gear all make for a drama-free takeoff. Low-speed steering is light for a cruiser and though the front wheel still wants to "fall" to either side at a walking pace, the wide bars help mitigate this.

The engine feels vice-free, with ample power delivery that builds smoothly as revs rise (no tachometer is fitted). I noticed some minor transmission lash on throttle transitions, but no EFI glitches. Shifting is a little notchy, but the bike has less than 250 miles showing on the odometer, and the big heel-toe shift lever helps too. I'm not generally a fan of heel-toe shifters, and on the V Star 950, I twice kicked the bike into neutral when moving my foot onto the footboard from the ground, almost causing me to drop the bike each time.

Before we left on our test rides, Star Motorcycles Testing Specialist Mike Ulrich reminded us that cruiser riders typically ride in a more relaxed manner - the implication being, that motorcycle journalists don't! He also said, according to his research, that footboard scraping was not perceived to be an issue. However, the 950 is fitted with replaceable sliders on the 'boards.

Even so, the first time I gently leaned the 950 into an innocent-looking turn, the footboards grated angrily on the tarmac, instinctively causing me to pull the bike up. That's OK for an experienced pilot, but it could be disconcerting for an "entry-level" rider. Before we break for lunch, I'm scraping not only the boards but also, more dangerously, the brackets mounting them on the frame - and at quite modest lean angles.

The 950 behaves impeccably in open territory though, so well in fact that, apart from Star's Roadliner, it's the best-riding cruiser I've tried. The seating position is relaxed and comfortable (for a couple of hours, anyway); the drivetrain is supple and responsive; and the overall riding experience is very positive. Instruments are limited to the aforementioned speedometer, two trips and a clock. Although the bike has no fuel gauge, when fuel gets low, one of the trips indicates the remaining fuel range in miles - a quite useful feature.

My only gripes: engine vibration through the footboards (the handlebars are rubber mounted) becomes mildly irritating above 70 mph; and - a pet peeve, I'll admit - I have to lift my foot to work the brake pedal, compromising my balance at low speed. However, the pedal is adjustable.

Mission Accomplished

It's hard to imagine a one-liter cruiser weighing 614 pounds (a figure Star is proud to have achieved in terms of lightness) could ever be an entry-level bike - especially for the implied target market, the ever-growing number of women riders. Though the new V Star is as user-friendly as a powered two-wheeler of its size and weight could be - and the easy foot-down capability resulting from its low seat height certainly engenders confidence - I'm still not sure it could be handled safely by a 120-pound newbie. For that demographic, I recommend a smaller bike. So let's call the V Star 950 a "re-entry level" cruiser instead.

And as such, it scores a direct hit. Everything about the 950 says quality and class, especially the tasteful tank graphics and pinstriped effects. Styling is fresh and modern, and designed with enough heritage references in mind to anchor its authenticity. The bike certainly provides power and presence enough to satisfy riders who might be moving to the 950 from an older, larger cruiser. The user-friendly controls, low seat and easy maneuverability also make it perfect for riders upgrading from a true entry-level bike.

But the most amazing feature of the V Star 950 is its price! With a sub- $ 8,000 MSRP, it represents an astonishing amount of motorcycle for the money, and the $ 9,000 Tourer version is probably the best value on the cruiser market today. As you might presume, there's a full catalog of accessories for personalizing your V Star, with everything from driving lights to fender trim, chrome covers to custom seats - as well as the components available for the Tourer. A manifestation of Yamaha's legendary engineering quality and durability, the V Star 950 could be all that most cruiser riders desire - and at a price that's hard to resist.