by Neale Bayly
Rumbling through the early morning streets of downtown Portland, the sharp suit with his cell phone attached to his ear, stops and does a double take as I slow for an upcoming red light. Pausing long enough to nod his approval, he takes a second look as I gun the big, air-cooled V-twin away from the lights, and blast out of the city across the lattice work of metal bridges crossing the Columbia river. Behind me, in the small effective mirrors, the modern city is lit from the morning sun, while the horizon ahead is filled with industrial machinery and warehouses: Portland is a modern city, but she can’t disguise her working class roots.
Watching the industrial cityscape melt into forests of thick fir trees, standing straight and tall against a cloudless blue sky, the scenery becomes more majestic with every mile that rolls across the wide, pull back handlebars. The muddy brown water sparkles as salmon splash their way up river, the scene framed by the artistic bend of the handlebars. The front brake and hydraulic clutch master cylinders bending tastefully toward the tapered chrome bars further compliment the picture. Elegant, sharp bar mounts angle back in line with the long, narrow chrome headlight, drawing my eye to the splashes of green and blue flashing back and forth on the smooth, chrome surfaces.
The digital odometer has not even made it to twenty-five miles and I feel totally at home in the saddle of the new Roadliner. The large, analog speedometer needle is hovering around 55mph, and the small, read very small, tachometer needle is right on 2000rpm: Precisely the point where the big, air-cooled V-twin is making its full 117 ft-lb of torque at the rear wheel. At this speed, the throttle is barely cracked and the Roadliner is loping effortlessly along the twisting Highway 14 that parallels the sparkling Colombia River.
It has been several months since Yamaha announced it was moving all of its cruisers under the Star banner, and with this announcement, the unveiling of the Roadliner. Laying eyes on the bike for the first time, it definitely provoked a lot of thought, but it was hard to comprehend the excitement of the Yamaha staff who had all ridden the new bike. Static intros are a good chance to see new product, but it is hard to form too many opinions without spending at least a day in the saddle and getting a hold of some technical specifications. Now, riding through the cool early autumn Oregon air, I fully understood their enthusiasm.
The Roadliner is totally new from the ground up, and has been born from a desire to move Star cruisers away from being Bar and Shield clones that follow the western styling theme. Instead, Yamaha’s design team looked back to the Art Deco era, focusing on a time where everything was possible and motion and emotion played the biggest part in styling decisions. Dynamic shapes now dominate the Roadliner, a motorcycle that is aimed squarely at the young at heart.
One of those dynamic shapes that is mostly hidden is the aluminum frame. Weighing just 37 pounds, which is some 25 pounds lighter than a Road Star frame, it is made from just eight component pieces compared to 64 for the Road Star. Allowing greater rigidity, it also gives the bike a much lower center of gravity and permits cleaner styling. This is immediately noticeable as soon as you sit on the bike, pick it up off the side stand and plant both feet firmly on the ground. The Roadliner just doesn’t feel like a large cruiser and disguises its weight extremely well.
Attached to the rear of the new lightweight frame, an is equally lightweight swing arm borrows technology from Yamaha’s sport bike line up for the first time on a cruiser. Using ontrolled-fill die-cast aluminum, it weighs in at a super light 11.8 pounds; a full 14 pounds lighter than the steel unit found on the Road Star. Benefiting, not only from lighter weight and greater strength, it also gave the designers greater freedom of choice in the styling department and is made of only five component pieces. Not bad when you consider the Road Star has 23.
The frame rolls on cast aluminum 12-spoke wheels and these not only look good, but also, in my mind, contribute to one of the most significan,t positive personality traits the Roadliner exhibits. Using a 17 inch rear and an 18 inch tire, both wheels come wrapped in low profile Dunlop D251 tires that would look more at home on a sport bike than a cruiser. Flying in the face of fashion to jam the largest, fattest chunk of rubber up under the rear fender, the Roadliner is blessed with the most positive steering and handling on any large cruiser I have ever ridden. Out back, the tire is a sensibly sized 190/60–17 inch, with a 130/70–18 incher up front. This allows the bike to tip into corners so easily, it takes little more than a nudge on the wide bars to get the bike to lean in and hold its line without adjustment. Where typically on heavyweight cruisers cornering at speed can require some mid corner adjustments, the Roadliner just dives in and gets the job done. Of course limits, to this cornering ease and stability can be found if the speeds get too high. But realistically, if you feel the need to be spending your time in the saddle traveling at these speeds, you should really be looking at a machine with more sporting intentions.
Responsible for blasting the new Roadliner down the road with the most impressive rumble through the two-into-one exhaust system, is an 1854cc air-cooled, pushrod V-twin powerhouse. Kicking out a solid 91 real wheel horsepower, it is one of the most powerful pushrod engines in production, and an absolute gem. With two distinct personalities, each as engaging as the other, you can ride the Roadliner one of two ways. In full cruise mode, as we made our way through the serpentine mountain roads that lead up the base of 11,400ft Mount Hood, the big pistons thumping up and down with little vibration, the bike rolling along on a touch of throttle. Feeling totally effortless, it is a stark contrast to what happens when you open the dual 43mm throttle bodies and spray large quantities of 93 octane through their twelve holes down the near straight intake ports. Instantly sending the 100mm pistons into fast forward, as they make their way up and down inside their 118mm stroke, the accompanying rush of rapid acceleration quickly becomes highly addictive. This sort of behavior also sends some deep vibrations through the bars and footboards, which is totally intentional. Yamaha wanted the engine to exhibit plenty of personality, and it is a mission they have certainly accomplished.
The hit is not as insane as Triumph’s Rocket III, but if memory serves me correctly it is really similar to Kawasaki’s big Vulcan 2000, which has the benefit of more displacement. Leafing through Yamaha’s factory press kit, a colored graph shows the Yamaha to be quicker in a quarter mile acceleration test, so the old arse cheek dyno can’t be too far wrong. It is also interesting to note that at a claimed 750 pounds in weight, the Yamaha is a full 75 pounds lighter. This is a significant amount of weight reduction, and without doubt aids the big Roadliner’s impressive acceleration.
While I am heaping on the praise, it is hats off from the Big Nosed one for the brakes. My usual beef with big cruisers is the lack of bite and feel at the front brake lever. While cruiser brakes have certainly improved, they lag way behind sport bike tackle for sensitivity and performance. Well, not so anymore! The Roadliner comes equipped with the most awesome front brake set up, blessed not only with great feel at the lever, but a strong, smooth, progressive action that can be performed easily with just two fingers. Using dual 4-piston mono-block calipers and 298mm floating discs up front, it is a system that wouldn’t look out of place on a fast sport-touring bike. Complimented by a single dual-piston caliper biting down on 320mm rear disc, the Roadliner’s stopping abilities are second to none in the cruiser class.
Putting the front brakes to test is also the best way to evaluate the front suspension and I am happy to report the Roadliner performs well in this department. As a cruiser, comfort is of paramount importance, so the spring and damping rates are relatively soft, but not so much that the forks dive heavily under hard braking. Like the brakes, the dive seems progressive and inspires confidence to keep pulling the lever. They offer no provision for adjustment, but the rear shock does in the usual way by offering a number of spring pre-load options. Talking with the Yamaha staff, they were quick to mention that the majority of cruiser riders like to be able to change the rear shock when they are adding passengers or luggage, but don’t feel the need to be tweaking compression and rebound settings the way sport bike riders do. The ride quality is superb though and the settings worked just fine for my 180-pound carcass.
Later in the day, it was time to get a little silly with the Roadliner as the endless curves and undulations of the Oregon roads got the better of me. Leaving behind my own metallic signature on the asphalt, I fully appreciated the footboard’s ability to lift when solid parts touched down. Ground clearance is good, and probably right around what you would expect from a heavyweight cruiser, if not a tad better. The parts that touch down are also removable and replaceable, so you are not damaging your motorcycle in the event of a little spirited cornering.
Aiding a little “wild at heart” behavior, as the Yamaha press machine calls it, the smooth shifting five-speed gearbox encourages clutchless up-shifting from the nicely placed heel/toe shifter. Featuring a removable heel part, you can simply remove the small lever and just shift the bike in the conventional way. Either way performed just fine for me, and aside from a good, hearty thunk as the bike drops into first gear, and the occasional clunk going up into second, the gearbox is one sweet unit. This ease of shifting is helped by the hydraulic clutch, which is easy on the hands. Making repeated turns for photographs it did start to feel a tad heavy, and getting snarled up in stop and go traffic might get taxing after a time.
As the sun began to sink behind the mountains, our route took us back into the city of Portland. Sliding in and out of traffic in the warm, early evening air, I felt relaxed and ready to go ride another 250 miles. The new Yamaha Roadliner is an extremely impressive motorcycle. From its unique and thoroughly modern styling, to its powerhouse engine and superb brakes, it is also blessed with some neat extras. Gone are the difficult to use buttons for switching between the odometer and trip meters, replaced by easy to use toggle switches on the front of the handlebars: The right hand switch for resetting system, the left hand for scrolling through the different options. And even though they serve no practical purpose, the blue instrument needles looked totally cool as they became more apparent in the fading light. Parking the bike for the last time, there is one more cool feature to end the experience. After the key is removed, a chrome cover can be slid backwards to cover it up, and leave the front of the bike looking as clean and sharp as a hand built custom: A look that is certainly helped by having all the switch wires running inside the handlebars, and neat futuristic looking turn signals.
Walking around the bike for one last look before heading into our hotel, gives me a chance to absorb the new Roadliner’s looks. The unique headlight, the large LED taillight that flows with the lines of the rear fender, and the super clean, flangeless fuel tank call immediate attention to the Roadliner’s unique look and style. The large, chrome tapered pushrod tubes and individually machined cylinder fins, help the large engine stand out behind the compact and elegant air filter cover.
Coming in three different guises, the Roadliner, the Roadliner Midnight and the Roadliner-S; there are four different color choices available. I spent the day in the saddle of the “S,” and as the most expensive of the trio, it comes with extra chrome and is priced at $14,980. If you are in the market for a powerful head turning cruiser with a high-end quality finish, but don’t want to follow the crowd, then the new Roadliner is the cruiser for you. Featuring Yamaha’s regular One-year warranty, your local Yamaha dealer showroom will have all three models available soon.
Editors First Reaction: “Neale, where are the keys?”
Selected Competition: Honda VTX 1800, Kawsaki Vulcan 2K, Harley Davidson V-Rod, Triumph Rocket 3, & Victory Jackpot.