High Plains Drifter
by Sev Pearman
Maybe its because I love early Elvis. Maybe its because I really love the Jim Jarmusch movie “Mystery Train”. Maybe its because the Vulcan Drifter I’m riding feels and sounds like a Burlington Northern coal runner, but I can’t stop singing “Mystery Train” in my helmet.
You can’t help but notice the sheer size of this thing as you climb aboard. The wheelbase alone is 63.2″, and the overall length stretches out to over 8 feet (100″.) All that length equals lots of room, and the Drifter is comfortable. Big old timber-framed lodge comfortable. That gi-huge-ic bed you slept in at your Grandmother’s house comfortable. Even Andre the Giant would find it comfortable.
But back to the motor, that sweet 90 cubic-inch motor. This one is all about torque. Kawasaki claims an honest rear-wheel figure of 85 foot-pounds at 2,500 rpm, and I believe it. At an engine speed where most bikes are still slipping the clutch out of the parking lot, this thing is already chugging toward Chattanooga. Simply pick any gear, twist the throttle, and you are gone.
Thankfully, Kawasaki has bucked the dumb-down trend of cruiser engine architecture. The Drifter has a fully modern motor, with an overhead cam, 4 valves per cylinder, liquid cooling and fully digital fuel injection. Inside, the black box continuously monitors functions like throttle position, coolant temp, air temp and exhaust mixture. It crunches the numbers and instantly adjusts the fuel flow to the injectors. This means that the big Vulcan runs cooler, makes more power and gets better mileage over the carbed bike. One other advantage of injection is that it is easier to ‘dial-in’ freer-flowing (i.e. louder) exhaust systems. But why bother? This motor is grin city!
Vibration is tamed by incorporating a gear-driven engine balance shaft. It is further reduced by using rubber in the engine mounts. There is no bucking bronco action at idle, and at highway speeds you feel only a pleasant…er… throb through the seat, floorboards and bars. Kawasaki’s engineers deserve applause for striking a balance between tradition, function and that elusive quality, ‘feel.’
Another smart touch are the hydraulic valve adjusters. No shims, buckets or lock nuts. No maintenance, period. Hey – would you rather spend your sunny Saturday wrenching or riding?
The gearbox has five ratios, but with all of that torque, it doesn’t even need four. You can pretty much select a ratio, and leave ‘er there all day. The Drifter comes with the mandatory heel-and-toe shifter, but I found it easier to just use the toe portion and shift conventionally. As an aside, there is plenty of room between the hinged floorboard and the shift lever, even for my 12 EEE boots. Much more useful is Kawasaki’s Positive Neutral Finder. Coming up to a stop? Simply rack through the gears into first, and then upshift. You drop into neutral every time. Its details like this that make the big cruiser very easy to love.
The Drifter rides like a ’73 Fleetwood. It doesn’t roll over bumps; with its boxcar length and 668 (claimed) pounds, it simply flattens them. The nonadjustable front fork is beautiful, with its retro blacked-out finish. With its generous 5.9″ travel, its hard to say if the fork dampens bumps, or merely compresses until the Vulcan clears the obstacle. No matter, with 6.4″ of trail, you never get off track.
The rear suspension is air (preload) adjustable, with 4-position rebound dampening. No tools are needed, you simply rotate the shock shroud to get the desired amount. This means that it is E-Z to adjust between riding solo or with a passenger and/or gear. Unfortunately, the engineers lost out to stylists with respect to rear travel. By forcing the Drifter into the low, cruiser mold, engineers were limited to 3.9″ of movement. To avoid topping or bottoming, we had to add lots of air, and run with the rebound set on ‘3’ or ‘4.’ This makes the rear somewhat hoppy, which could get annoying on longer interstate drones. To be fair, this isn’t a fault of Kawasaki, but rather a virus that infects all large displacement V-twins.
The braking ability, to paraphrase Rolls-Royce, is ‘adequate.’ The front is hauled down by a robust twin-piston caliper, squeezing a single 300mm rotor. The rear is controlled by a matching caliper, pinching a 270mm disc. I would rather see a second front disc, but I suspect that Kawasaki left it off to aid the retro packaging. Indeed, when viewed from the right, the Vulcan is simply beautiful, with few clues to betray its recent vintage.
The rear brake is very effective, and can even be made to chirp the back tire. While either brake can stop the train by itself, we had the most confidence (no surprise) when using both brakes together. Best to keep your eyes ahead, and stay on top of changing traffic…
By the way, what is the deal with stupid car-type rear brake pedals? By having to take time to reach the pedal, your stopping distance is increased. With a different range of motion, it is harder to modulate rear brake pressure. This makes stopping neither quicker nor smoother. All of this just for the sake of ‘the look.’ I don’t get it…
The 1500cc (90 ci) Vulcan motor predates the Clinton administration, and has a proven track record. This means that not only have any bugs been worked out, there is healthy aftermarket which offers a sea of exhausts and accessories. Kawasaki has its own ‘Fire & Steel’ line, and offers a comprehensive selection of windshields, leather items, and chrome doo-dads. Whatever you choose, your local dealer will be more than willing to help you out.
After a day in the saddle, I found nothing to dislike. This bike is plain comfortable! The seat is big enough to move around on, yet still lets you feel connected to the rest of the bike. In addition, there is a small bolster at the back, that provides lumbar support. The seat is a low 29″ from the ground, so most folks will be able to flatfoot it at lights.
The floorboards are equally as friendly. They are hinged, so as to not lever the bike up during the inevitable corner scrapes. They are also covered with a vibration absorbing rubber, that aids rider comfort, and provides traction.
Perhaps most telling, we enjoyed the Vulcan so much that we were way late in returning her. Sometimes, you just hate to see a good thing come to a close…
If you want a bike that is ready to ride the day you pick it up, that provides plenty of stonk with no hop-up required, check out the Drifter. Its understated retro looks and solid engineering pedigree will not disappoint.
by Victor Wanchena
We love retro. It seems from fashion wear to cars the American public has bought into retro styles that were the best and the worst of previous decades. I don’t why we love the past so much but, without waxing on philosophically about our obsession with the “good ol’ days”, it is definitely a part of modern design and style. Motorcycling in its own way has been at the forefront of this trend. Almost every major manufacturer of motorcycles offers something with an eye to the past. Kawasaki is no different and has even taken this to the extreme. They offer not only streetbikes reminiscent of the 60’s to the 80’s they but even cruisers that look straight out of the 40’s. Which bring us to this month’s test ride the Kawasaki Drifter 1500, brought to us courtesy of Delano Sport Center.
The Drifter is a no holds barred version of a 40’s style Indian but with the right modern touches. From the deeply valanced fenders to the lack of chrome, the Drifter screams old school. Based on the venerable Vulcan 1500 chassis which has been on the road in one form or another for over a decade, the Drifter is a modern interpretation of the classic Indian with one notable exception. It doesn’t have the any of problems you would find on an Indian circa 1948. Before you flood the MMM mailbag with angry letters describing my obvious lack of intelligence for not appreciating of genuine American vintage bikes, let me explain. Any bike–and I mean any bike more than 30 years old–invariably leaks oil and other vital fluids, is hard starting, and most often doesn’t handle or stop all that well. Need I remind anyone of manual ignition advancers? So just think of the Drifter as a vintage bike with all of the looks but none of the headaches.
The heart of any bike is its motor and the heart of the Drifter beats strong. At a 1470cc the Drifter v-twin is one of the biggest twins available. It features 4 valves per cylinder, liquid cooling and best of all fuel injection. No carbs on this bike. I am a recent convert to the joys of fuel injection and can’t say enough about how it really can improve a bike. Lower emissions, easier starting, increased power and a smoother running motor are just some of the benefits. The motor also has hydraulic valves which means no valve maintenance ever, very un-retro. On the road the stump pulling power of Drifter’s 85 foot pounds of torque is evident in the lack of a need to shift. From right off idle the motor pulls strongly and cleanly. With a tach not being standard equipment, I’m not sure what the Drifter redlines at but high revs are rather unnecessary as the motor produces peak torque at 2500 rpm. The motor does all of its best work on low end of town. The transmission is the usual 5-speed affair, solid and predictable, and the final drive is handled a shaft drive, maintenance free and a must for anything other than sport bikes.
The chassis of the Drifter is a steel cradle design that is fairly stiff. It is raked out a hefty 32 degrees making for wide turns in parking lots but very stable at speed. The brakes are a single disks front and rear. The front brake is not very powerful to the point that the rear feels as if it has more stopping authority than the front. Suspension is a set of conventional 41mm forks out front. They are nonadjustable and a bit soft for my taste. The rear suspension is handled by a pair of air-adjustable shocks. They work fine and offer plenty of adjustment but when inflated to handle my prodigious weight they tend bounce over sharp bumps. I think the claimed 5.9 inches of suspension travel is a bit optimistic. It might not look exactly like a hardtail but sure can ride like one.
The styling of the Drifter, as I said before, is the extreme of the neo-retro look. The fenders are the bell-bottoms of the motorcycling world, allowing the tires to only peak out and from behind the rear disappears completely making the Drifter look like a hover bike. With the exception of the 2 into 1 exhaust, rims and air cleaner covers, there is no chrome on the bike. In keeping with the period look the bulk of the components are painted black. The headlight sits in a bullet shaped canister the size of the nose cone off ballistic missile, nice touch. The cantilever seat is love it or hate it affair, from the side it does almost look like the whale tail off a Porsche 911, but hey you have to give the Kawasaki stylists points for being brave. The motor case are finished in a lovely silver satin that gives them the sand cast look of vintage motors.
But enough about how the Drifter looks, it’s really about how it rides. If the bike doesn’t roll smoothly then all those good looks are nothing but a pile broken promises. The Drifter might be as large as the biggest bikes on the road, but as you sit on it seems to shrink a bit. The wide bars and upright seating position lend themselves to a feeling of control. Despite its sheer size, parking maneuvers are simple enough and this is where that deep torquey motor really shines pulling you away from a stop with absolutely no effort.
As might be expected the lazy geometry of the of the Drifter’s chassis is very stable on the straight flat roads that make up far too much of the upper midwest. This stability makes for easy riding on the country lanes and the freeway. You can loaf along for hours at a time. The seat is very good for a stocker but did put a little extra pressure on my tailbone. The twistier back roads pose a challenge to the Drifter. The cornering clearance leaves a you wanting for more but the floorboards, which touch down first, fold up and have sacrificial pegs to keep you for eating up any chrome. Even so while hustling through bumpy corners the Drifter said planted and road imperfection tell it what to do. Just don’t expect to hustle through Deal’s Gap in record time.
So what Kawasaki has presented to the buying public is sharp looking cruiser with modern amenities. The Drifter is a well thought out machine that delivers what it promises–retro style and today’s technology. Priced at $11,499 MSRP the Drifter is right in line with similar bikes of its class. Try riding retro, you’ll be amazed at who waves.