On March 9, 1862, the first "modern" naval battle took place off Sewell's Point, Virginia, between the ironclads USS Merrimack and CSS Virginia. On the previous day, the Virginia had pummeled the wooden-hulled ships of the Union fleet until the Merrimack arrived to defend them. The confrontation eventually proved inconclusive because neither ship's guns could penetrate the other's iron-plated wooden hull. The Merrimack and Virginia were two of the first in a class of warships that were to become known as "cruisers."
Cruisers were intended for long-range solo missions independent of a navy's main fleet, and typically combined considerable firepower and armor with endurance and speed. Perhaps the ultimate expressions of the Cruiser concept were the Panzerschiffe "pocket battleship" cruisers of the German Navy: the Deutschland, Admiral Scheer and Graf Spee, all launched between 1931 and 1934. Though smaller and lighter than battleships, they packed as big a punch.
In motorcycling, the term "cruiser" has come to mean (with few exceptions) a vee-twin powered bike with a feet-forward riding position and more regard given to presence than performance. More recently, manufacturers have enhanced power-plant output to produce power cruisers like Kawasaki's Mean Streak and Suzuki's own M109R. At the same time, cruisers have sprouted luggage - "baggers" - to provide better long-distance capability.
Now Suzuki has combined the performance of a power cruiser in a package aimed more at touring - the Boulevard C109R and RT. Endowed with speed and endurance as well as firepower, they just may be the true two-wheeled inheritors of the Cruiser concept. I'm in Borrego Springs, California, to find out.
The basic platform for the C109R/T is Suzuki's pavement-pounding M109R powerhouse, introduced in 2006. And though the motor uses the same major components, important detail changes have tamed the M109's thunderous output, resulting in a more civilized power delivery. That's not to say it's low on stonk, however. Suzuki claims 114hp at 5,800rpm for the C109 (more than the VTX1800 or Vulcan 2000) trimmed from 127hp at 6,200rpm for the M-bike.
This 1783cc, 112 x 90.5mm bore and stroke DOHC engine has a new crankshaft with 15 percent more "inertia" and revised intake camshafts, the intention being to provide more torque for easier getaways and strong mid-range performance. The C109 shares the M109's shot-peened chrome-molybdenum steel con rods, forged alloy pistons, chrome-nitride-coated oil-control piston rings, SCEM (Suzuki Composite Electrochemical Material) plated cylinders and two-stage cam drive.
Fueling the cylinders are dual 52mm throttle bodies (56mm on the M109R) each with two butterflies, designated the Suzuki Dual Throttle Valve (SDTV) system: one butterfly responds directly to the twist-grip while the other opens in accordance with information gathered by the ECM system from a variety of transponders. Twelve-hole injectors and a new Idle Speed Control system complete the induction setup, with the goals being linear throttle response and precise fuel metering.
Chassis changes include a new truss-type aluminum swingarm (the M109's is steel), 49mm conventional fork (inverted on the M109), and a monoshock rear suspension unit with seven preload settings. Perhaps the most significant and sensible change, though, is reserved for the bicycle department.
Emergency braking is something few motorcyclists do well, yet it's a critical, life-saving skill. Typically, motorcyclists faced with a quick stop put too much load on the rear brake and not enough on the front. The result is a loss of traction at the rear wheel, a skid. Skidding is dangerous in two ways: there's an overall loss of traction, meaning braking is less efficient; and steering control is also compromised. It's particularly a problem for cruiser riders, because cruiser brakes tend to have less front wheel bias than sportbikes. Suzuki's answer is a combination braking system.
The front brake on the C109R works like a conventional unit, operating two of the three pistons in each front brake caliper. But when you stamp on the brake pedal - as many riders do in an emergency - the master cylinder operates the two pistons in the rear brake caliper and one piston in each of the front brake calipers. Suzuki calls this a combination brake system.
Cruisers are about styling, of course, and Suzuki has used dealer and customer input as well as focus groups to come up with the final look of the C109R, which they call the "Power Classic Cruiser." As well as the new swingarm styled for a "hardtail" look, there are 10-spoke cast alloy wheels, a revised exhaust system with uneven length slash-cut pipes, the wide 5-gallon gas tank with inset analog speedometer, deep headlamp cowl, LED taillight, heavy fork shrouds, deep fenders and a host of other design motifs.
The long, uneven length exhaust pipes are important in implying power, according to one focus group, even though this required Suzuki engineers to incorporate an exhaust valve and balance pipe - Suzuki Exhaust Tuning System - to maintain mid-range torque. The overall look, though, especially with the huge 240mm-wide rear tire, is sleek and muscular. The only item that detracts from the C109R's lines is the vast downtube-mounted radiator. Willie G. Davidson would have demanded to have it moved or disguised, just as Suzuki did on the M1090R.
Pull-back handlebars and footboards replace the drag bars and pegs on the M, and combined with a 28-inch seat height, the riding position is intended to be more upright and relaxed.
A group of Suzuki dealers is joining us for the press ride, and they're abuzz with enthusiasm about the new bike. We "gentlemen" of the press, trained to take (ahem…) a more sober and objective view, gather round the monster machine and start jotting notes.
It's big. No surprise there, of course, and at 787 pounds with a 69-inch wheelbase, the C109 is right in line with the Road/Stratoliner, VTX1800C and Vulcan Classic LT. And while Suzuki says the Big-C is designed to be "relatively easy" to lift off the side-stand, it seems to require more of a haul for me than, say, the Roadliner. Back to the gym, I guess.
As it's the version likely to be of more interest to RoadRUNNER readers, I've chosen a C109RT model, which comes fitted with leather touring bags, a large windshield (tested, say the Japanese engineers, in a "ride across America"), passenger backrest and two-tone color scheme. The engine lurches into life immediately when I press the starter and settles to a smooth, burbling idle thanks, no doubt, to the engine balancer and three rubber engine mounts.
After squeezing the agreeably light clutch lever, a firm push on the heel-and-toe shifter finds first gear with a meaty clunk. Moving away requires little throttle with the engine's tractor-like torque, and once rolling, the C-bike belies its considerable mass. It can be a handful at low speeds, though, as the center of gravity seems quite high. I wouldn't like to have to pick it up after dropping it, either.
Upshifts are aided by the heel shifter, though each gear is greeted with a clunk - just part of the visceral experience - and I find it deceptively easy to pile on quite a bit of speed. In the interests of research, I managed 55mph in first gear before hitting the rev limiter, 85 or so in second and errr… something over 110mph in third. Interestingly, the motor feels smoother the faster it turns. I am a little surprised to find only five cogs in the tranny - not that this torque monster needs any more; but in Milwaukee, six is the new five.
As we climb out of the Anza-Borrego desert into the hills toward Warner, I get a chance to try the big Boulevard's cornering capability. Let's just say the C109RT prefers to go in straight lines: leaning is limited to quite mild angles by hero pegs under the floorboards; initiating and holding the bike in a turn requires some effort; and the 240mm rear tire seems to want to push the bike wide. That said, the 109 is stable on smooth surfaces, though surface imperfections in turns cause it to shudder. The RT will turn - it just needs a little effort and some real estate. Flickable it's not.
But it's the straight, open road where the big Boulevard comes into its own, loping along with impressive gusto. The windshield on the RT works really well to keep the wind off with no buffeting. The bike does get blown around at low speeds, but its considerable inertia keeps it straight at speed. The ride is plush on most surfaces, though expansion joints and road ripples do get transmitted up through the tires. A clear section of highway also gives me a chance to test the combination brake system. Stamping on the pedal - something many riders do in an emergency - does nothing more than bring the big bike rapidly and effectively to a stop. No lockup, no skid.
If a similar system was fitted to all new cruiser-type motorcycles, except those already fitted with anti-lock brakes, I would expect a significant drop in the number of motorcycle crashes. It's not a new idea, but one perhaps whose time has come. On the other hand, the front brake does not feel particularly powerful and needs more than "normal" effort to operate.
Something else that bugs me about many big cruisers, including the C109: in order to brake (or downshift), I have to lift my feet off the floorboards. That compromises my control over the motorcycle (foot "weighting" is important for balance) just when control is especially important.
Once I'm used to the big brute's ergonomics and controls, I start to really enjoy its assertive performance. There's no tachometer, but engine revs seem relatively unimportant: a similarly huge thrust is available in any gear on cranking the throttle, and mid-range torque is especially impressive. The 28-inch high seat makes itself known after an hour or so. It's large and compliant, but there's little thigh support for my longer-than-average legs, focusing the contact on my buns. I'd probably look for an aftermarket gel pad to spread the load.
Sound is an important part of the cruiser ethos, and the C109 doesn't disappoint. Though unobtrusive (this bike is definitely Sunday morning subdivision friendly), the basso exhaust rumble is solid and authoritative. Some mechanical thrashing is audible as the revs rise, but intake roar from the three airboxes is well restrained.
Returning to Borrego Springs, my low fuel light comes on at just 117 miles, which causes me to consider the RT's touring potential. The stock leather side bags are unlined and not particularly capacious, so some extra luggage would be needed for anything more than an overnight. Suzuki doesn't offer alternative accessory luggage, but no doubt the aftermarket will oblige. Other than those considerations, I wouldn't hesitate to cross the continent on the RT - though I'd probably avoid the smaller back roads.
To sum up, I refer back to my notes from the press briefing: Suzuki's aim was to build a timeless classic (and comfortable) cruiser with a unique performance edge. The C109RT definitely hits the mark on all those points.
+ Combination brakes, solid street cred, locomotive thrust
- Range, luggage, locomotive cornering
Distributor American Suzuki
MSRP $ 13,799 (C109R), $ 14,999 (C109RT)
Engine 54-degree V-twin, DOHC
Bore x Stroke 112 x 90.5mm
Fuel System fuel Injection, 2 x 52mm throttle bodies, dual valve
Frame double cradle, steel tube with aluminum swingarm
Front Suspension 49mm Showa fork, 5.1in (130mm) travel
Rear Suspension monoshock, adjustable preload, 4.6in (118mm) travel
Rake/Trail 31degrees/5.2inches (131mm)
Brakes Front/Rear twin 290mm front discs, 3-piston calipers/single 275mm disc, 2 piston caliper
Tires Front/Rear 150/80-R16, 240/55-R16
Dry Weight 787lbs (358kg)
Wheelbase 69.1in (1755mm)
Seat Height 28in (710mm)
Fuel Capacity 5.0gal (19l)
Fuel Consumption N/A
Colors C109R: Maroon, Black; C109RT: black/gray, blue/white