Review: 2023 Kawasaki Vulcan S

Review: 2023 Kawasaki Vulcan S
Photos by: Jay McNally

Riding the 2023 Kawasaki Vulcan S home to Long Beach from the company’s headquarters in Foothill Ranch, I noticed many things.

The 649cc parallel-twin powering the motorcycle is a peppy companion. The bike feels lighter than its 498-pound claimed curb weight suggests. Throttle response can be kind of light switch-y in lower gears at around-town speeds.

In its standard seating configuration, the Vulcan seems built just for my size, because it is. Some of the information on the LCD instrument cluster is hard to read. The rear shock was bottoming out over minor road irregularities.

Examining the right side of the Vulcan S later in the garage, it was apparent the nearly horizontal shock was in its second-lowest preload setting. Removing the side cover from the bike’s left side, I found an owner’s manual tucked into the small space above the battery and an Allen key festooned to the battery’s side—but no spanner wrench for dialing up the shock’s preload setting.

Review: 2023 Kawasaki Vulcan S

1975 to the Rescue

KTM is known for having extensive toolkits and the one accompanying my Super Duke R included a spanner wrench large enough to fit around the Vulcan’s exhaust. However, complete toolkits are also commensurate with motorcycles of bygone eras, and the shocks on my CB400F Honda seemed similarly sized to the Vulcan’s.

After reaching under the Honda’s seat for its toolkit, I soon had increased the preload of the Vulcan’s shock to two notches below topped out. The minor suspension change made the next ride a far less jarring experience.

Parallel-twin engines seem to be all the rage these days, with most manufacturers using the configuration as a base of operations for a plethora of models. The Vulcan’s parallel-twin is no different, powering the likes of the Ninja 650, Z650, Z650RS, and Versys 650.

It’s a well-engineered engine, producing a smooth output of usable power across its rev range. I said as much when I rode the 2022 versions of the Z650RS and Versys 650 last year.

The abrupt off-to-on throttle response of the Vulcan S is surprising, considering Kawasaki touts its dual throttle valve configuration “regulates intake airflow to ensure a natural, linear response.” At the same time, it’s unsurprising because I made the same criticism when testing the 2022 Z650RS.

All the aforementioned 650s are within one or two lb-ft of the Vulcan S’ claimed torque of 46.3 lb-ft at 6,600 rpm. The Vulcan’s claimed curb weight is similar to the Versys 650 but significantly more than the 412-pound claimed curb weight of the Z650RS.

The Vulcan, though, has a seat height of only 27.8 inches, which is 3.7 and 5.5 inches less than the Z650RS and Versys 650, respectively. For anyone with a propensity toward low seat heights, the Vulcan S is definitely winning that category.

Review: 2023 Kawasaki Vulcan S

Ergo Into Comfort

“’Tis not the stature of the motorcycle, but the stature of the rider for which the motorcycle is suited,” is a phrase I just totally made up. But it’s fitting here because fitment is the quality the Vulcan S is most famous for. Ergo-fit is what Kawasaki calls the bike’s ability to transform its ergonomics to fit riders of all sizes.

At participating dealers with an Ergo-fit center, a potential Vulcan S owner can sample the motorcycle’s various configurations. From tall to short to in-between, riders with long legs and short arms, or short legs and long arms, or short legs and arms and a long torso can swap between 18 different combinations of footpeg placement, seat design, and handlebar bend to attain a personalized rider triangle. The adjustable brake and clutch levers also go a long way in delivering comfort as well as confidence.

My Vulcan S was delivered in the Standard position, which covers the average American male. As I am, undoubtedly, average, I was happy with this rider triangle arrangement.

Regardless of the various adjustments to rider size, however, the Vulcan S has a feet-forward, arms-open seating position that tends to catch the wind at higher speeds. Without your feet below you, your lower back and gluteus maximus are doing all the hard work, especially during longer rides.

The recumbent seating position situates the rider away from the instrument cluster nestled atop the handlebar. The tachometer and big numbers of the digital speedo readout are easy enough to see, but the smaller items—such as trip meters, fuel range, and estimated fuel consumption—are certainly on the small side of legible. At night, the blue tach needle glows like a beacon on the horizon.

Big Fun, Small Package

One of my personal bikes is a Super Duke R, so I’m no stranger to prodigious torque. With this in mind, I still find the Vulcan S a worthy companion, whether I’m scrambling around town running errands or battling freeway commuter traffic during rush hour. For the sport cruiser that it is, the Vulcan displays lithe handling manners and more than capable propulsion.

The Vulcan’s single 300mm front disc and two-piston caliper leave something to be desired in the stopping department. But, outfitted with ABS, it’s always in the back of my mind that, given the situation, I can crush the front and rear brake with everything I have to slow my roll without fear of locking and washing.

Aesthetically speaking, I like how the Vulcan S cuts a unique profile. The Pearl Matte Sage Green/Metallic Flat Spark Black color combination is distinctive, while the room-for-one seating capacity lends the bike a further customized mystique.

Viewed up close, Kawasaki deserves praise for very tidy cable routing using fasteners that serve both form and function. I wish the headlight nacelle was color-matched as that would help pull the bike together visually.

If you’d like to share your joy of riding a motorcycle with someone, the Vulcan S is capable right after you spend $187.95 on the passenger seat and $101.95 on the passenger footpegs. And, if you want your passenger along for more than just one tank of gas, the passenger backrest will set you back $302.95. Unless you’re a do-it-yourselfer, there’ll be some additional labor costs for installation, too.

Another purchasing decision to consider is the Vulcan S Cafe model, which brings to the table a three-tone paint job, signature tank badging, sport striping, and a dark-tinted wind deflector. Compared to our as-tested Vulcan S, the Cafe only commands a $200 premium. However, it only comes without ABS, and when weighed against the $7,349 MSRP of the non-ABS Vulcan S, the Cafe’s $750 increase suddenly seems a little more spendy.

Personally, I’d take the non-Cafe model with ABS at $7,899 for the sole purpose of knowing ABS is there if ever I need it. Eight years have passed since the 2015 introduction of the Vulcan S, so there has got to be plenty of cool and usable thingamajigs with which to accessorize the bike and make it your own. At that point, your Vulcan S will be both prettier and safer.

+a lot of bang for the buck, spirited engine performance, customized fitment

-could use a second front brake disc, twitchy throttle, passenger accommodations not included

Technical Specs

Distributor: Kawasaki Motors Corp., U.S.A
MSRP: $7,899 (as tested); $7,349 (non-ABS)
Engine: Liquid-cooled, parallel-twin, 4-stroke, 2-cylinder, DOHC
Displacement: 649cc
Power: 61hp @7,500rpm; 46.3lb-ft @6,600rpm (claimed)
Transmission: 6-speed, positive neutral finder, chain final drive
Rake/Trail: 25°/3.9in
Weight: 498lbs (wet, claimed)
Seat Height: 27.8in
Fuel Capacity: 3.7gal
Colors: Pearl Matte Sage Green/Metallic Flat Spark Black (ABS only),  Metallic Flat Spark Black (non-ABS only)