Way Back To The Future

by Kerry Nicholson 

There are times in a guy’s life when everything just seems to come together. While bantering back and forth with my old cohort, Brian, I was pining about wanting to go on a mountain motorcycle trip “someday”, suggesting that he should get his bike out of pawn and go with me. That someday took shape quickly when Brian pitched our venerable MMM editor about getting “a bike or two” to test on a long range trip through the West. Said editor kindly offered to make this happen and threw in full use of the spacious and ultra chic MMM Rocky Mountain chalet in beautiful Aspen, Colorado. Kismet, baby…the dice came tumbling down and the next thing I know, we are rambling.

Brian and I took a beautiful 2006 Yamaha Stratoliner from the Yamaha press facility. Gorgeous in sliver and chrome, with those drop dead retro art-deco lines, we grinned to each other as we walked around the bike, surveying its every detail. Wheeling it into the sunlight made the initial excitement jump a bit more…this bike is stunning! The Strat is a rock solid 800 pound gorilla (758 lbs. dry) that is long and wide enough to carry its weight well (like me, I try to tell myself). Getting on the bike is a pleasure. The seat is wide and low and the handlebars sweep back to the rider, meeting your hands exactly where you would want to place them. Center of gravity is neutral to the rider and the bike doesn’t feel as heavy as it is. At 106.4” long and 36.8” wide, this is no trifling bike, but a big boy badass cruiser. The width looks fine from the curb, but actually feels, once on the bike, to be a real hindrance to lane splitting. As with many big bikes, this is a disease of perception, not of reality but it really does take awhile to convince yourself to get out from behind that truck’s exhaust flume.

First impressions were good. The bike handles well and while it is no sport bike, turning, braking and power are wonderful. Acceleration is quick and punchy for a bike of this size and the combination of mass and velocity makes for a thrilling ride. The Strat is tuned to sound like its American counterpart, with a mean spirited rumble from its 113 cubic-inch (1854cc), pushrod, air-cooled, 48 degree V-twin power plant. All of the working parts work well as there has been a defined effort to bring the old cruiser up to new techno snuff. Fit and finish are as impressive as I have seen on a metric cruiser…all cables and wires that can be hidden are hidden. If it can be chromed, it is and throughout the beating we put on this bike, it was very clear that the bike is incredibly well put together. There is plenty of power throughout the band and optimal performance begins as low as 2500 rpm, running all the way up to its rev limited redline. My only real (meaning scary) test of the braking system came midway through the trip, as I was blinking wildly to get that blast of sand out of my eyes from a crosswind, failing to see traffic coming to a stop in front of me. I stomped on the 320mm hydraulic rear, and grabbed a goodly chunk of the 298mm dual disc hydraulic front brakes, and was spared from the ignominy of a long hospital stay in Cortez, Colorado.

Leaving the heat of Las Vegas, and heading through the desert and into the high country of Utah on day 2, the bike was a joy. Out on the open highway, with the beautiful Tushar Mountains on the right, and the Mineral Mountains in the distance on the left, pushing the bike really, really hard only caused it to grin, squat down and run like mad. The removable and lockable (but sadly, not adjustable) windscreen added only the slightest instability from crosswinds, and we had those in abundance through the canyons of Utah’s red rock country and New Mexico and Arizona’s high desert mesas. The bike is a real head turner too. All along our route it drew stares, engendered curbside compliments, and about thirty “what kind of bike is that” questions from people we met.

The Stratoliner is very stable on the road with none of the road chatter you tend to get with lighter bikes. Because of its size and weight, there is a comfort level in riding it at speed that provides great confidence. No disruption is felt from rain grooves, uneven road surface or small potholes. It was like driving a big, bad Caddy…but with no radio and all the windows open. On secondary roads, this bike really surprised me. Nimble? For its size, the answer is a resounding yes! A rarity in cruisers, the Stratoliner has a full 49.6% of its weight on the front wheel and this almost perfect balance allows the bike to maneuver in a very un-cruiser like fashion. It handles the open road curves and the mountain twisties remarkably well. Those floorboards are a true comfort for the feet and were given back at the end of the trip with copious scrape marks from dragging them around turns.

The road from Basalt, Colorado to the Ruedi Reservoir goes from 6,600’ to over 9,000’ in a few miles, following the Frying Pan River. This twisty playground, alongside Aspen trees, sparkling trout streams and red cliffs, is a sport bike junkie’s dream. The Stratoliner is not designed to be a sport bike, it is a monster…albeit a monster that you can push hard, lay over and bound up a hill giving thrill after giddy thrill along the way.

So Yamaha/Star calls the Stratoliner a “cruiser touring” bike. Riding this bike to Aspen, Colorado and back pushed the “touring” part of that term past its limits and into the “ludicrous zone”. Brian and I are in our 40’s and 50’s (I won’t tell you who is who, but I can say that Brian already has his AARP card) and are smack dab in the middle of the primary group that this bike is marketed to. This group is made up of older, more experienced riders who want the look and feel of a cruiser, but with the accoutrements of a touring bike. After two or three hours of riding the Stratoliner, my lower back got to cramping and by the end of the day I was walking bow legged and stooped over like my Grandpa after a prostate exam. It was a daily occurrence to both riders on this trip (the stooping, not the exams), and I think that an upgraded seat and a drivers backrest would put a short end to that problem. For this rider in California, this is a bike to take in great style around town, for the weekend to Santa Barbara…or maybe as far as Las Vegas. I can’t really think of this bike as a long distance cruiser unless your passenger also happens to be your masseuse.

As to the accoutrements, the Yamaha/Star Stratoliner is really an upgraded version of the Roadliner, with added windscreen and detachable hard bags. The Stratoliner bags are detachable, but as evidenced by the lack of handles, were designed to be left on the bike. As such, I would love to see the bike come standard with bag liners and make the whole issue moot. It seems to me that a “touring” bike, with 113 cu. in. of displacement could have capacity for more than 4.5 gallons of fuel (hard to get more than 130 miles per tankful) as this is no teetotaler on gasoline. There were some cold start issues (well at least when it was really cold and when at altitude) that were not terminal, just bothersome. While the windscreen does protect rider from wind, hands, arms and legs are left to the elements. And I can tell you that going at high speeds in 40 degree or lower temps…well, let’s just say that you notice it really quickly.

The Stratoliner is a fantastic bike…the reality is that we flogged it mercilessly halfway across the damned country and back and all it did was perform all day, every day. It was fun to ride, a beauty to be seen on and made me feel like a tough guy. It is hard for me to imagine a better combination of looks and raw power than this bike, and at the end of the day this is a bike I would be proud to own…close to home.

 

by Brian Day

Would you fix a laptop with your biggest hammer? Ride a Waverunner from Key West to Aruba? No? Most of us would rather match appropriate tools to our specific job. My job was riding 2700 miles through the Great American Southwest. If not the perfect tool for this adventurous test tour, Yamaha’s Star Stratoliner made the trip in streamlined high-five style. Plus I now know the exact temperature at which my artificial titanium knee freezes up solid.

MMM Publisher Wanchena really wanted a long distance comparison of 2 similar touring bikes. Kerry Nicholson and I blithely accepted this challenge. But instead of similar bikes from different manufacturers, we got Honda’s ST 1300, a transverse, liquid-cooled, V-4 long-distance road rocket with full aero fairing, and… a Yamaha Star Stratoliner cruiser with a brawny 113 cu. in. pushrod V-twin air-cooled engine. Both are stellar machines, but conceptually as different as oil and water. Testing for MMM is a fun and frequently surprising affair.

An explanation; Star is to Yamaha as an Acura automobile is to Honda. On the Star website, Yamaha’s moniker is prominently missing, and it’s the Star name and logo all the way. The Star Stratoliner is the Star Roadliner—one model lower on the food chain—with a few upgrades. The most important for our purposes were detachable hard bags and a detachable and locking windshield, meaning we’d probably make California to Aspen and back in reasonable comfort. There are some pretty looking accessories on the Star website, but none showed up on our test bike.

Conceptually the ‘Strat is a calculated melange of retro visuals and modern engineering. The motorcycle recycles design from distinctive 1920’s and 30’s Art Moderne objects like streamlined steam locomotives, cars, alarm clocks and probably cigarette cases, too. The unique speedometer/tach cluster harkens back to wristwatches by Gruen, Hamilton and Rolex. Side strakes on the gas tank and battery cover come from the same well of potent human yearning for faster, newer, better. Back in the day, efforts at making objects look ultra-modern were based entirely on emotional response; not scientific testing. It’s cheaper to just make something look slick on the outside, but the Stratoliner had loads of modern engineering to back up all those voluptuously curved, and beautifully finished pieces.

Moving this retro tinware along is one honkin’ big, V-twin engine. This 113 cu. in. powerplant mimics a slice of old aircraft radial, with yard-long pushrods and acres of cooling fins. Oversize engine cases just barely constrain industrial-sized chunks of whirling hot metal and even idling, the air nearby pulses menacingly with exhaust rumble. Needless to say, the Stratoliner demanded respect everywhere we stopped. I could totter away in search of sugar and caffeine, leaving the keys in the ignition (Steal me! Please!), but even the scruffiest road tramp dared not approach. Too big, too nasty lookin’, let’s borrow that Honda…. oops, Acura instead.

In spite of being traditionally styled, only the pushrods and long stroke are old-school. Plenty of high technology is hard at work inside. Forged, oil-cooled pistons run directly in plated alloy cylinders. The impressively large airbox and steeply angled downdraft intake tracts feed 43mm throttle bodies with 12-hole fuel injectors. Modern 4-valve, twin plug heads churn & burn the mix efficiently. 2 counterbalancers keep the vibes groovy, and a 2-into-1 exhaust features Yamaha’s EXUP valving for chunky lashings of torque and power. All this translates into a muscular engine with generally good manners. The emphatic v-twin exhaust and walloping torque delivery defined the Stratoliner’s fierce mechanical character beyond doubt.

A resounding Harleyesque, klunk is built into the 5 speed transmission to remind riders that yes, another gear has been selected. Ratios were fine except at extra-extra-legal velocities, when it needed another cog. (Note to self: it’s not designed to be ridden flat-out all day long.) Clutch effort was minimal, light and easy. The belt final drive worked flawlessly. Control levers and bar modules are beautifully designed and meaty, easy to work with gloved hands. It was great fun to run up through the gears at full whack, but excess (by touring standards) noise became tiresome on long freeway stints. Wind howl, the macho exhaust and various engine sounds (mammoth pistons, only 5 gears, pushrods and other parts clicking) made earplugs mandatory for me.

Star has done excellent suspension and chassis homework on this motorcycle. At about 780 pounds wet plus rider and gear, it’s heavy ,but artfully balanced. The frame and swingarm are both aluminum, and in spite of those towering cylinders the c/g is admirably low for this style of motorcycle. It doesn’t wallow, wiggle nor wander off-line, and tracks cleanly through corners. Parking lot waddling isn’t fun, but any bike this large is a handful. Above walking speeds, manoeuvering was easier. I hustled through turns on curvy roads so confidently the floorboard skid bars sometimes grounded. On interstates, high crosswinds never threatened stability. Tar lines, road irregularities and rain grooves didn’t upset the bike one bit. This degree of chassis sophistication is light years away from the days when unbalanced, mushy cruisers were the unfortunate norm.

You sit deep in this Star, and compared to most other cruisers it’s a long, wide and low machine. MMM readers know I dislike heel-‘n’toe shifters, but it’s easy to remove the separate heel part via a single allen bolt… which I was too lazy to loosen. Conceived as a cruiser, the ‘Strat offers minimal weather protection; no fairing save the windshield, so hands, arms, legs and feet got predictably wet and cold. On a freezing, snowy pass in Colorado, I swear my titanium knee implant was almost frozen- so I just kept slithering along trying to stay upright until the damn thing warmed up a tad. But clearly good quality, waterproof riding gear is the answer here. The saddle offers decent support except after a while your legs splay out to the sides by unrelenting wind pressure. There’s no rider back support, and my lower back ached consistently after just a couple of hours. Using one of my camera bags, some bungee cords and a spare windbreaker, I eventually constructed a ratty-looking temporary back support which helped tremendously, but looked like hell.

Our test bike was hard to start sometimes. It never left us stranded, but my temper was sorely tested. We often rode at 5- 10,000 feet, in cold, wet weather and over snowy mountain passes. Both the Star fleet technician and the owners’ manual (yes, we DO read those) said to leave the throttle closed when starting, but a whiff of twistgrip sometimes helped. The issue surfaced only when ambient temps were roughly 40 degrees or lower, and the bike was dead cold. Wet weather and one tank of 87 octane gas–the bike should be run on 91–may have contributed to the problem.

Our ‘Strat came with sexy, streamlined black, leather-covered saddlebags; attached to their frames using 3 D-rings inside. One ring was buried, limpet-like, at the bottom of each bag. So R&R’ing each saddlebag was an ordeal—you must dig out everything to loosen that one nasty, bottom ring. By day three, I yearned to toss the leathery losers over a railing somewhere and watch ‘em splinter on a rock-walled ravine. Star says the saddlebags are not to be removed except to clean the bike, change a drive belt or tire. I say fit easy to use hardware or removable bag liners, but do something to make the bags work better in the real world.

Overall, the Stratoliner is an excellent machine; a beautiful, big, distinctive cruiser. It handled 2700 miles’ worth of hard, fast, wet riding with only a couple of hiccups. I’d change some things if it were my personal ride, but we pushed the bike hard in ways the designers probably didn’t envision. (Note from Kerry: KFC Spicy Tater Gravy is NOT the recommended primary drive lubricant…) We got loads of admiring looks and envious comments during our trip, so it seems Star’s combo of speed-forward retro styling and modern mechanicals is a winner whether idling down main street or eating freeway miles all day long.

Editors first reaction®: “”How many bottles did you put on the expense account?”

Selected Competition:
Harley Davidson Road King Classic, Honda VTX1800, Kawasaki Vulcan 2K Classic LT, Suzuki Boulevard C90T

M.M.M.

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