It’s hard to believe Kawasaki’s Vulcan has been around for almost 30 years. In that time it has developed a loyal and enthusiastic following. Today Kawasaki’s best selling cruiser is its entry-level Vulcan 900 Custom. We thought it was time to find out why it’s so popular and if it really is a serious alternative to Harley-Davidson’s Sportster.
Photos: Anne Watson
Back in 1984, the Vulcan 750 was Kawasaki’s first ever American-styled v-twin cruiser and it spawned a whole series of motorcycles (Mean Streak, Eliminator, Classic, Nomad and Voyager) all based on the same cruiser/tourer theme with engines ranging from 125cc right up to 2,000cc.
Fast forward to 2013 and Kawasaki’s Vulcan is still going strong. Today there’s an eight model line up made up of cruisers and tourers – three 900cc v-twins and five 1,700cc v-twins. All of them though bear an uncanny resemblance to those bikes that come from Milwaukee and in particular its Vulcan 900 Custom, which on paper at least, squares up to the Harley Davidson Sportster.
And like the H-D, not a lot has changed in recent years on this small v-twin Kawasaki. It got a slight overhaul in 2006 with an engine capacity increase from 800 to 903cc and, since then, it has continued on its way with only minor cosmetic tweaks for each new model year.
For 2013 you get a choice of two paint colors – Metallic Flat Platinum Grey with a Kawasaki ‘green stripe’ accent orm in the case of our test bike, Pearl Flat Stardust White over Flat Ebony. Who thinks up these color names? It’s just a fancy way of saying the bike is actually black and white.
Biggest hate on the Vulcan? The badges used on the tank for the bike’s name. They look awful and if this was our motorcycle they would be the first things to go. Not because it says, “Vulcan Custom” just that the stickers look like something you’d normally find on grocery packaging.
That aside, on first inspection the Vulcan Custom is actually quite a good-looking motorcycle, even if it is a mass-produced cruiser. And it’s easy to see why some people could confuse it with a Harley-Davidson as there are several similar design cues, such as the shape of the gas tank, the solid-look rear wheel and the blacked out engine and flat black, slashed exhaust pipes.
Up front, there’s a 21-inch cast front wheel with a narrow ‘pizza cutter’ tire. Coupled with the slim 41mm front forks, it gives the Vulcan a clean front end. There’s 5.9-inches of travel in the forks and, despite the skinny front tire, it steers well and gives a lot of direct feedback to the rider.
It’s a shame, though, that Kawasaki has not tidied up the Vulcan’s cables around the bars a little better instead of using odd metal fastenings to bunch them all together. But, to route them all through the bars, which is what you’d expect to find on a true custom bike, that would push the Vulcan Custom’s price up. This Kawasaki therefore is really a custom bike in name only.
However, we do like the fact that Kawasaki has tried to capture the street cruiser
stripped down image at an affordable price. And, in places, it’s been done really well: such as the gas tank’s shape and the tire-hugging front fender. But, the drawback is that this minimalist look leaves the Vulcan Custom’s radiator and oil cooler much more exposed and even more noticeable when you look at the bike head on.
The classic ‘bobber style’ headlight is nicely executed too and fits in well with the ‘street custom’ look as do the chromed handlebars with eight inch risers that are well positioned and bring everything within easy reach of the rider.
The Vulcan’s seating position is terrific. At 27-inches, nearly everyone will have no problem getting both feet on the ground at a stop. Vertically challenged riders may struggle a bit with the Vulcan’s traditional forward controls but there is a host of after market accessories out there so you should be able to set-up the bike exactly how you want it.
At the rear, you’ve got a solid-look, cast 15-inch wheel with a 180mm tire. And just like a Sportster, the Vulcan sits a little too to high with a big gap between the top of the rear wheel and fender. Part of that is due to the hardtail look that Kawasaki has tried to achieve by using a concealed Unitrak swingarm and spring suspension layout. The spring can be adjusted at seven points and there is an adequate 4.1-inches of travel. Combine that with the front forks and this is a sensible set up on the Vulcan. It’s not the most dynamic of rides but, for a learner or inexperienced rider, they will find the Vulcan confidence inspiring, smooth and surprisingly agile.
At 610lbs the Vulcan really does sit in the middleweight cruiser class. And although it weighs 28lbs more than a Harley Davidson it doesn’t feel top heavy like a Sportster. The Vulcan has 903cc, four-stroke, liquid cooled, SOHC, four valves per cylinder v-twin, that’s rubber mounted low down in the bike’s double cradle steel frame.
Kawasaki doesn’t issue engine power output figures but we’d estimate there’s around 50hp but there is an official torque figure of 58.2lb-ft of torque at 3,500rpm. None of this is tarmac-ripping performance, but it’s sufficient to hustle the Vulcan around reasonably quickly without any problems.
One of the highlights of the Vulcan is its super smooth, five-speed transmission. It’s far better than some of the real clonkers we’ve experienced on other bikes. Final drive is via the traditional cruiser set up of a belt to the rear wheel.
Partly as a cost-saving exercise and to maintain the stripped down feel on this Kawasaki, a lot of the equipment is very simple and straight forward. The brakes are in this category too. A single two-piston 300mm disc up front and a 270mm at the rear. They work well enough but, on a bike that we think has real appeal for learner or new riders, the brakes could be a whole lot better, more precise and with better feel. This could be done by either adopting twin front discs or just larger diameter rotors front and rear.
Kawasaki hasn’t skimped on the Vulcan’s fuel tank capacity. At 5.3-gallons, which is bigger than any Sportster, and at an estimated mid-40smpg you should be able to ride more than 200 miles between fill-ups.
One of the biggest plus points for the Kawasaki Vulcan is that it’s a simple bike. On a cruiser you really don’t need a lot of equipment or fancy technology to make it an enjoyable ride. Less is often more.
The Vulcan’s big, broad seat, labeled ‘the gunfighter’ by Kawasaki, is really comfortable. For this rider the small back support worked really well and you’ve got a reasonable amount of room to move about when you’re on the go. There’s a small squab for a passenger and a pair of foot pegs. But that doesn’t look quite so inviting and, whoever was last on the back of our test bike left some nail polish where they had clearly tried to hang on to the seat strap.
We really liked the Vulcan’s low seat position and the way the bars are set up, bringing everything closer to the rider. It doesn’t take long to get to grips with this bike, as it’s an unintimidating motorcycle and really straight forward. Just swing a leg over and ride it.
The five-speed transmission is one of the best we have experienced on a bike of this type. Smooth, precise and a lot fun to use. There’s nothing to be scoffed at either with the Vulcan’s relatively small 900cc v-twin. Low down it’s smooth and delivers its modest amount of power in a linear way. It gets a little buzzy at the top end if you really start to press on hard.
Out on the road, the Vulcan’s comparatively light weight and good suspension set-up makes it a comfortable ride. It will do whatever you ask of it. It’s nimble and smooth thanks in part to a reasonably long wheelbase (64.8-inches) and those compliant suspension settings.
In fast corners, it leans over well and you can ride it smoothly and quickly without having to think too much. Slower corners are no issue either and, despite that skinny tire up front, you get a really good direct feedback through the bars all the time.
In rush hour traffic the Vulcan squeezes easily between cars and is quick off the line at a stop light. Clutch and brakes are easy to use and it’s really no hardship riding this bike around town. It doesn’t ask a lot from you as a rider to keep it altogether. That doesn’t mean it’s not involving. It’s just not a demanding motorcycle to ride.
Like larger capacity v-twin motorcycles you can roll on and off the Vulcan’s throttle reasonably smoothly. Low down it pulls well and there is very little vibration. It just starts to get a bit buzzy and fussy over 65mph and in actual fact could probably do with an additional sixth gear, instead of the five-speed set-up, to act as an overdrive.
The Vulcan Custom may not be the fastest motorcycle out there but it feels composed and solid whether you’re on the freeway or cruising a side road. You do though feel pretty exposed in freeway traffic as there’s no screen or fairing, so you’re open to buffeting and side winds, which can make the Vulcan wander around a little. You really wouldn’t want to ride this bike for hundreds of miles on the freeway.
We mentioned the brakes before. They are not a disaster and, while they do the job of pulling the Vulcan up, we have experienced far better on other bikes. Key factor for this to be our number one choice as a new rider cruiser would be for Kawasaki to offer a better braking system. However, as it stands you’ll learn pretty quickly how to ride with the current set-up. It’s just that we think it could be improved.
In line with the Vulcan theme of keeping things simple, instrumentation is straightforward too. The speedometer is mounted on the gas tank along with three warning lights (neutral indicator, turn signals and headlamp beam). While the speedo is clear and easy for a rider to read the three others are nigh on impossible to see in daylight.
Other than that, the Kawasaki Vulcan does exactly what it says on the box. It’s a simple, likeable cruiser.
For close to 30 years, the Kawasaki Vulcan has quietly carved itself a niche in the market. Clearly those who have bought one knew they were onto something good.
It’s not hard to see why Kawasaki’s best selling Vulcan model is the Custom. Sure, it’s not going to appeal to everyone but as a sensible alternative to going down to your nearest Harley-Davidson to buy a Sportster as your first cruiser, this Kawasaki makes some good arguments. It’s unintimidating and fun to ride. And to our eyes it’s not a bad looking bike, at a reasonable price.
The brakes are not the best. They are not terrible either. It’s just that they could be better, particularly if the Vulcan 900’s appeal lies with novice rider who we think would appreciate a bit more stopping power.
Overall build quality is terrific on this Kawasaki but there’s a few sketchy cost saving items like the wire clamps used for tying down the cables on the handlebars.
The awful tank badges. Kawasaki needs to ditch the cheap sticker on the gas tank for something that truly reflects 30 years of Vulcan heritage.
We also looked at how you would do some simple maintenance on the Vulcan. An oil change looks like it could be quite time consuming. The filter is stashed away behind the oil cooler and radiator and whilst not impossible to get to, there are some things that would have to be removed before getting anywhere near the filter. You wouldn’t have this problem on a Harley-Davidson Sportster.
At $9,199 the Kawasaki Vulcan Custom sits right in Harley-Davidson territory. For $7,999 you could consider H-D’s entry level Sportster Iron. It has some nice retro looks but is only available in black. Or there’s the Sportster Low-Rider at $8,099 while the larger engined Sportster Custom starts at $10,499.
And, of course, there are Triumphs and similar cruisers to the Vulcan out there available from the other Japanese manufacturers. But if you’re in the market for your first cruiser we would suggest you do all your homework first and don’t go straight to the nearest Harley-Davidson dealership. There are other options to consider that are as just as good such as this Kawasaki and it’s worth trying them all to find the bike that suits you.
What Others Say
“With big-bike looks-particularly in the blacked-out SE trim with some additional accessories-and performance that may catch folks on larger-displacement bikes flatfooted, the Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom SE is not only an alternative to other mid-size bikes, it is also worthy of consideration by anyone who values practicality as much as style.” — Ultimate Motorcycling
We have looked at some of the websites set up for Vulcan owners who clearly love their bikes and won’t hear a bad word said about them. They don’t care about anything from Harley-Davidson, but do want a motorcycle that is practical, well built, and reasonably priced. After nearly 30 years, it seems the Vulcan is still ticking all those boxes.
But, is it actually better than a Harley-Davidson Sportster? On lots of levels it is. The Vulcan is nicely put together and is probably a more rewarding ride. But it’s a case of horses for courses. People will still go out and buy a Sportster rather than look at anything else. So the Vulcan is never going to be a serious threat to Harley-Davidson Sportster sales
And, like the Sportster, the Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Custom is no ground breaking motorcycle. It’s not especially fast nor does it have a ton of equipment or technology. But that on this bike we think is a good thing. As a first cruiser for a new rider you’ll be hard pressed to find anything better that’s as comfortable or as easy to ride.
Ride Apart Rating: 7/10
Helmet: HJC RPHA Max ($414, recommended)
Jacket: Alpinestars Viper Air ($200, recommended)
Gloves: Racer USA Guide Glove ($109, highly recommended)