2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic 6/1/2006
By Ken Hutchison
In the hotly contested entry-level cruiser market, the trick for manufacturers is to come up with a bike that is simultaneously aesthetically pleasing, inexpensive and entertaining to ride. This means that compromises must be made somewhere, so the company which cuts the least amount of corners is going to gain an advantage on the sales floor. Enter the new from-the-ground-up 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic.
Kawasaki chose to introduce its new bike at the Mecca of cruisers: Daytona Bike Week. We were able to put the bike through its paces along the crowded but scenic coastal highway A1A, during a serendipitous day trip to the St. Augustine Lighthouse Museum on the first day, followed by a free-for-all at the hallowed grounds of all things leather and chrome. Once we were unleashed on the streets to do as we pleased, which included more than a few trips up and down Main Street and a couple beach runs, it was soon revealed that there's more to this little cruiser than meets the eye.
Since style is critical to success in this arena, a few key elements were penciled in that really help the Vulcan 900 Classic stand out in a sea of competition, which too often features old-school technology and dated designs reminiscent of the mid-`70s banana-seat bicycle with the pseudo ape-hangers and the square-edged back tire that the cool (at the time) neighbor kid with the big-hair used to ride. At least the wide tire that was cool back then still is today.
Starting with where the rubber meets the road, the new Vulcan has a fat 180/70-15 rear tire paired with a cruiser-friendly 130/90-16 front tire, both of which are wrapped around shiny chrome wire-spoke wheels. A single-disc brake on each, 272mm up front and 242mm in the back, provides decent stopping power, although the feel at the lever is a bit wooden or Harley-esque, if you will. The bulbous buns fit snugly beneath a pair of contoured fenders, while a pair of stacked slash-cut exhaust pipes are nestled along the right side of the bike. Follow those chrome tubes to the source and you'll find a rubber-mounted, SOHC, 4-valve per cylinder, 55-degree, V-Twin motor that looks bigger than it really is. Based on the 805cc motor in the old Vulcan 800, the Twin received an 8mm stroke job to net 903cc.
Purposely stylized 'Power Alleys' (as Kawasaki likes to call them) are machined into the exposed surface of the cooling fins which simultaneously give the cylinders a unique, customized look and complete the air-cooled-only facade. In fact, the motor is both liquid- and air-cooled. A thin radiator is tucked neatly between the front down tubes of the frame, which pushes cooling liquid through the motor while the fins help cool down the jugs. This combination makes for the best of both worlds. The bike looks like an air-cooled Twin but has the added benefit of liquid-cooling for riding under extreme conditions - like cruising Main Street at Daytona Beach.
Inside the motor a 68mm bore and 74.2mm stroke work in concert with a 9.5:1 compression ratio and single pin crankshaft to develop a tasty little V-Twin lope. It all comes together because a gear-driven balancer keeps the major vibrations in check, while allowing it to produce a distinct feeling and sound in this world of excessively-smooth, overly-balanced clones. From the moment you fire up the 900 Classic, the motor produces a sweet vibe that is somewhere between a big-Twin rumble and the sewing-machine smoothness we've come to expect from a metric cruiser.
An efficient EFI system utilizes a pair of 34mm throttle bodies that, along with the exhaust system catalyzers, ensures the bike creates only earth-friendly emissions while pumping out a claimed 61 lb-ft of torque. On the open road, the Classic has plenty of roll-on power, but you should remember this is an entry-level bike. If you're looking for arm-stretching acceleration, you'll want to check out the bigger and badder Vulcan 2000. Still, the bike is capable riding at a spirited pace and should be more than enough to keep a new rider smiling for quite a while. Row through the 5-speed gearbox under full throttle and you will easily find yourself looking at 100 mph, so the thing can get up and move - just don't put your pink on the line .
Sure, the motor and styling are key elements of the Vulcan 900 Classic, but none of that matters if it isn't comfortable. Thankfully, it is. A comfy ride comes courtesy of a 41mm front fork and a single rear shock that's adjustable for both spring preload and rebound. The hidden shock is mated to a triangular Uni-Track swingarm, which gives it the appearance of a rigid frame while offering up kidney-friendly manners on the open road.
All the ingredients are in place for this bike to be a success. Anyone should be able to hop on this bike and feel right at home. Plus, it has almost everything you could ask for from a cruiser. The proof is in the pudding. Market research revealed that consumers don't like the look of a shaft drive or the messy nature of a chain, so a belt drive ensures a clean, maintenance-free and stylish final drive which caps off look of the chassis. Ask and you shall receive.
This bike was designed to be a good all-around ride, not just a commuter doomed to mile-long jaunts to the coffee shop (although it will do that just fine), but a bike that can be ridden from coast-to-coast if that is what you want to do. We logged over 250 miles on the first day of riding and the plush seat deserves praise. The bar position is very neutral and did not strain my arms while hanging on amid the onslaught of wind blasting me in the face that is inherent to riding any cruiser. If that is a concern, we also tested the faired LT version, but I felt the extra protection took away from the cruiser feel I found attractive about the un-faired version. I'm really starting to enjoy riding cruisers these days and it's because of bikes like the Vulcan 900 Classic.
In the few turns we did come across during our trip to St. Augustine, the bike didn't have a large amount of ground clearance. If you are going to ride fast in the twisty stuff, be ready to grind those floorboards a bit. But if you do, there are replaceable sliders, so go ahead and do it. Despite the sparks, the bike is pretty stable in the turns - as long as you're not trying to chase down your buddy on a ZX. Its long 64.8-inch wheelbase and wide tire requires a bit of effort to turn, but that's part of the sacrifice for a confident and stable highway ride. Overall the bike feels very neutral to me, whether you're maneuvering through a parking lot, lines of traffic or the most remote section of a favorite road.
There are creature comforts and other parts that put the Classic over the top for a bike in this price range. A big 5.3-gallon fuel tank with integrated bare-bones instrument cluster which includes a speedo, fuel gauge, trip meter and an assortment of idiot lights, looks every bit the part of a more expensive bike from the saddle or when you're just looking at the bike sitting on its sidestand. That quantity of fuel is easily enough to get the bike through 200 miles of riding without stopping. The mirrors provide a decent view of what is happening behind, and the push-to-cancel turn signals won't complicate your life. A low 26.8-inch seat height is going to be very attractive to a wide range of riders. Big, wide floorboards, rather than footpegs, are standard. A chrome air cleaner, LED taillight, chrome headlight bucket and high-output electrical system, which allows the use of power accessories, cap-off what I feel is an overall excellent fit-and-finish rating for this machine.
A lot of effort was spent on making the Vulcan 900 Classic look the part of a big Twin, but it does so while coming in at nearly half the price, at $7299 for the base version. The Classic is available in four color combinations: Candy Fire Red, Ebony, Galaxy Silver and Metallic Ocean Blue. The Classic LT is offered in only two color combinations: Metallic Ocean Blue/Phantom Silver, Ebony/Candy Fire Red. The Vulcan 900 Classic LT comes equipped with saddle bags, sissy bar and a windscreen for $8,499.
This bike is fun and easy to ride. They're not too fast but not too slow either. The V-Twin motor churns out enough power to make riding fun for experienced riders and newbies alike. They look cool and can easily pass for a much bigger bike if you don't tell anyone otherwise. At these prices, they're definitely worth taking a look at.