I like to think I'm pretty accepting and understanding of a wide variety of motorcycle riders. I don't judge people for being new to motorcycling or unskilled. I try not to judge people for the kinds of bikes they ride.
Which makes sense because I've been a new rider, a bad rider, and owned some inferior motorcycles.
It also makes sense that the one area I just never seem to take into account is how a bike fits. As a six-foot-tall male, most motorcycles are designed with me as the norm. I've never struggled with the reach to the bars or to get my feet on the ground, except with bikes like the Honda XR650L, and I've always sort of assumed everyone gets used to the accommodations you make when riding a tall bike.
Instead of going off of my assumptions, Kawasaki did this little thing called research, which told them that one of the biggest things that turned off all riders, but especially new riders, was a motorcycle with a poor fit that sapped the rider's confidence. Kawasaki addressed this by coming up with a system called Ergo-Fit, which makes the bike's fit customizable for riders of all sizes.
It's the Ergo-Fit system that really makes the Vulcan S different from other entry-level cruisers, and it consists of three adjustable components: the handlebars, the seat, and the footpegs.
For riders under 5 feet tall, Kawasaki recommends the reduced-reach fit, which pairs the reduced-reach bars, which are 1.42 inches closer than stock, with the reduced-reach seat, which moves the seat two inches forward, and puts the pegs in the rear position, which moves them an inch back from stock.
For riders over 6 feet tall, Kawasaki recommends the extended-reach fit, which uses the normal bars paired with the extended-reach seat, which moves the seat one inch further back than stock, and puts the pegs in the far position, one inch forward from normal controls.
Through the combination of two bar sizes, three seats, and three peg placement options, the fit can be customized for almost any rider. On the launch, we had literally every shape and size rider of both genders, and everyone was able to find a configuration that fit well.
The Kawasaki Vulcan S is powered by a liquid-cooled and digitally fuel-injected 649 cc parallel twin, which is derived from the one in the Kawasaki Ninja 650. The engineers didn't just drop in the Ninja motor, however. They made a number of changes to help produce power lower in the rev range and to increase fuel economy. Some of the changes include revising the cam duration and valve lift to trade a little horsepower for torque, as well as increasing the flywheel mass by 28 percent. The cylinder head has also been revised and now has fluted intake ports, and the airbox has been given longer intake funnels to further lower the torque peak.
Front suspension is provided by a Kayaba fork, which yields 4.72 inches of trail. The laydown rear Kayaba shock provides 3.15 inches of rear travel and is adjustable for preload.
The Vulcan S comes with a 300 mm disc and a twin-piston Nissin caliper up front, and a 250 mm disc mated to a single-piston Nissin caliper at the rear. Only the Vulcan S ABS model, with the anti-lock brake option, was available at the press intro.
The Vulcan has a curb weight of 495 pounds.
Testing the Vulcan S ABS
The press launch for the Vulcan S was held in and around Santa Barbara, Calif. The ride consisted of some urban conditions in the morning before heading into the hills along Lake Cachuma, and back down to the coast near Lompoc, where we caught the freeway back to Santa Barbara. By the end of the day, we'd ridden a little over 150 miles in about every riding environment — yes, I even hit a little dirt and gravel.
From my first release of the clutch lever, I was struck by how light and nimble the Vulcan feels. I was a big fan of the Star Bolt when it was released, but this is so much more accessible, right off the bat. So many cruisers feel bulky and intimidating until they get up and going. Not so with the Vulcan S. Steering is light and the bike flicks from side to side effortlessly.
Power delivery is very linear and feels very much like the motor I loved in the Ninja 650 and Versys 650, though the changes they've made are apparent, with the power arriving much lower in the rev range. After one particularly winding road, a few of us were joking that we were almost riding it like a dirt bike, as we short-shifted and powered out of corners. At one point, I found myself chasing the guy leading our group and I realized — I was having fun.
The problem with most cruisers is that they're too heavy and cumbersome, which saps both confidence and fun. When I first got to the press launch, I was wondering if it was really all that smart for Kawasaki to attack the entry-level cruiser market by making something smaller than the competition. Now, I'm sort of wondering why anyone in that genre wants to ride anything bigger. The low seat height (27.8 inches) and low weight, paired with such a proven motor, make quite a compelling package.
The end of the day's jaunt down the highway was the only time I wished for something a little more substantial. As with any bike with this seating position, speeds over 65 mph or so turned me into a bit of a sail, and by the end of the day, I had some stiffness in my back, neck, and forearms from hanging on at high speeds. Another highway drawback was the gearing. Given the number of times I found myself looking for an additional gear on the highway, it was hard for me to believe the Vulcan S has six gears.
Vulcan S highlights
The Ergo-Fit system is pure genius, and the fact that Kawasaki has Ergo-Fit displays, with examples of each fit option, in 70 percent of the dealers is a smart way to show off this advantage. One woman rider in our group was almost 5 feet tall and weighed maybe 100 pounds, and she was able to feel as comfortable on the bike as a guy on the launch who's 6 feet, 3 inches tall and more than double her weight. For a bike aimed at new riders, women, and anyone who has a hard time finding the right fit, this is a huge deal, and I think the Vulcan S will be a big hit with women and other riders who have not found a bike that makes them feel comfortable.
While everyone was able to fit on the bike, it does seem worth mentioning that the Vulcan S is a fairly small motorcycle. The big guys fit in the sense that they could reach all of the controls well and had enough leg and arm room, but I can tell you from riding behind them that they also sort of looked like a brown bear riding a unicycle. If you're a bigger dude, you might want to look at something like the Suzuki Boulevard C50, Kawasaki's own Vulcan 900 series, or another more substantial cruiser.
The motor is absolutely wonderful. The Versys 650 has a cultish following, for good reason, and both it and the Ninja 650 won me over, once I'd had a chance to spend some time on them. The Star Bolt is a really nice bike, but left me sort of wondering — "that's it?" — when I felt the power its 950 cc V-twin makes. The Vulcan, on the other hand, left me wondering — "all that from a little 650?"
The Vulcan S is incredibly nimble, which made navigating city streets and pulling U-turns easy, and curvy roads more than a little fun. This is largely aided by Kawasaki's decision to use a more normal-sized set of tires than most cruisers — 160/60-R17 at the rear and 120/70-R18 up front. So many times manufacturers get caught up with making the bike look good on paper, and then forget to make it good at the real stuff... like turning. The Vulcan feels like a return to just simply working well.
As someone who is never comfortable on any cruiser that isn't a giant couch, I thought the seat for the Vulcan was actually shaped nicely. Yes, my butt hurt at the end of the day, but eight hours on a cruiser with short suspension travel on really bumpy roads will do that to me, no matter what I'm on. Suspension travel, while not generous, is adequate, given the goals of the bike. I wouldn't call 3.15 inches very much travel, but then again I only looked into it after we'd done about 20 miles on a barely paved road in search of a nice photo stop.
The instrument cluster is both easy to use and easy to read. It includes just about everything you could ask for, including miles per gallon and range numbers.
Vulcan S lowlights
There were definitely some areas on the Vulcan that made me think "budget bike." Things like the shift lever having so much play in it that I could move it an inch and still not push the bike into the next gear had me spending more time than I would have liked pondering what it was made of, and why it did that.
While the motor and suspension fit the price and abilities of the bike well, I wished Kawasaki had included better brakes. The ABS was not overly intrusive and didn't cause any weird clicking or pulsing, though I'll need more time on the bike to form a more thorough opinion. But the brakes themselves did not inspire confidence. Riding the Vulcan S felt sort of like driving my dad's old pickup, which always worked, but also always sort of made me think this drive was the one when the brakes were going to fail. Initial bite was very soft, and it took a great deal of effort to get those calipers to squeeze tight enough for heavy braking. Granted, most people buying this bike won't ride it like I was, but in an emergency situation, I'd like to feel a tad more confident in my bike's stopping power.
Aesthetically, the bike doesn't really do it for me. I think if Kawasaki goes after the same crowd that buys the Star Bolt and Harley-Davidson Sportster, the Vulcan S will be a tough sale. On the other hand, the styling is generic and cruiser-y enough that it won't turn off people who are less focused on style.
When a six-speed bike leaves me searching for more gears at 65 mph, it's time to re-think the gearing or sprockets. I can appreciate that Kawasaki reworked the gearing a bit to help new riders, but I would probably toss a different sprocket on there to make freeway stints a little easier.
The Vulcan S will have an MSRP of $6,999, when it goes on sale next month, while the Vulcan S ABS will retail for $7,399.
The Star Bolt has an MSRP of $7,990, but tacks on an almost 50 percent larger engine and 50 more pounds. It's a little more appealing to the Sportster crowd, but doesn't feel nearly as friendly or easy to ride as the Vulcan S.
The most comparable Harley-Davidson is probably the Sportster Superlow, which has an MSRP of $8,249. It's Milwaukee's most entry-level, accessible model, with a seat height of 27 inches, though it does pack on an extra 70 pounds, compared to the Vulcan S.
The Honda Shadow is a 750 cc V-twin with an MSRP of $7,499. Its similar style and price point make it the closest competitor to the Vulcan, but having ridden both, I would recommend the Vulcan. I like the styling on the Honda a little better, but found the fit awkward and the engine in the Vulcan is just such a nice little motor.
I arrived at the Vulcan S launch expecting to be underwhelmed. I'd been excited when Honda launched the Shadow RS, only to ride it and find it pretty disappointing, and the Star Bolt has been such a winner that I thought Kawasaki's smaller and less visually appealing bike wouldn't really compare well.
After spending the day with it, I actually think it's a pretty perfect motorcycle for new riders and women who want something that is fun to ride, but is not difficult to handle physically. The low seat height and Ergo-Fit system make it easy for riders of any size to feel confident maneuvering it, even when they have to duck walk it to turn it around. The motor is absolutely wonderful and, for the price, the package is pretty hard to beat.