2009 Kawasaki Vulcan 900
by Paul Berglund
I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one.” That’s a line from Apocalypse Now. But it happened to me, too. Mine came to me by a phone call. Kawasaki was having a demo ride event. Would I like to go? I said yes right away. Then I got the whole story. This time it was a cruiser, the Vulcan 900. Metaphorically, the big man put a ticket in my hand and I remembered another line from the movie, “Never get out of the boat.” The following is what I did in the name of MMM.
I got to the Kawasaki demo ride before it was open to the public. In addition to the 900cc Vulcans, they offer 1,700cc and 2,000cc models. Each platform comes in several variations. As I looked at all the bikes parked together, I found it hard to pick out the 900s from the other, larger-displacement bikes. The 900 is the real deal as far as looks go. Park it next to the competition and it holds its own. I had to wait till the next day to go for a ride, but the 900 passed the walk-around test. It’s a good-looking bike.
The next day, all the bikes were separated out by model. This time I was standing in a smaller parking lot filled with Vulcan 900s. That only lessened my confusion. The Vulcan 900 comes in three forms: the Classic, the LT and the Custom. I got to ride them all, but to simplify things I’ll review the Classic, but I’ll touch on some of the differences between it and the other versions; the LT and the Custom.
Kawasaki offers a large selection of accessory parts for all three bikes with their “Fire & Steel” line. There were examples of each bike in stock form, and with goodies on. For the next two days, the eight riders assembled here would swap back and forth between eight Vulcans. I went straight for a stock Classic in Candy Plasma Blue.
The Classic has a 903cc fuel-injected V-twin engine. Each cylinder has 4-valves. The motor is liquid-cooled and comes with a counter-balancer to reduce vibration. The transmission has 5-gears, and both wheels have disc brakes. Out back, that disc is joined by belt drive and the fattest tire in it’s class. As long as we’re boasting, it has a 5.3 gallon gas tank; also largest in it’s class. Seat height is 26.8 inches, so as we pulled away in parade formation, I was in the cruiser position. My feet were on the floorboards and I was working the heel-toe shifter. I like to have the option of shifting with my heel, but it’s not something I normally do. I managed to keep up with the others without looking at my feet like I did in dance class.
Curb weight is 619.6 pounds. I was shocked to find that in the cruiser world, that’s a light-weight. The big boys top 800 pounds. The Classic was very graceful for a bike with that much mass. I was quite happy with the handling. As we got out of town and into some curves, I forgot about the weight and wound my way into the countryside. That’s the point of the Vulcan 900, according to Kawasaki. It gives you the look and the feel you want in a cruiser, but it weighs and costs less. The Classic lists for $7,499. I haven’t ridden a lot of cruisers, but I have ridden some that cost twice as much. The 900 gives you the same experience. In fact, several of the people in our group were better riders than me. When the pace would pick up, I could keep up because Cruisers, like Bumbles, have a weakness. In this case, it’s corners.
Cruisers have a built in speed governor. Not in the motor, but in the cruiser style of feet-forward, low seat and short suspension. The first time I dragged the floor boards it scared me. The next few times drove the point home. You’re not going around this corner faster than any other rider on a similar bike. Stop pushing it. Sit back and relax. So in this context, why would you spend more for a bike? The cost, the weight, and the motor size had little to do with the actual riding. Was Kawasaki right about the Vulcan 900? I rode on.
We stayed in a group as the miles rolled by. After lunch, we switched bikes. This time I got on the LT. As the initials hint at, it’s set up for light touring. The LT is the same bike as the Classic, but it comes with two-tone paint and some popular accessories as standard. It lists for $8,799. I liked the leather saddle bags, but I didn’t like the height of the stock windshield. It was too tall. There’s a shorter option available that I liked better. If you like the way the LT is set up, then go for it. I’d rather start with the Classic and pick the parts that best suit me. This was confirmed later in the day when I got on a Classic in Metallic Diablo Black. It was loaded with accessories and, just like Goldilocks, I found it to be “just right.”
I had my pick of bikes because everyone else wanted to ride the Custom. We had two along for this ride. The Custom stands out with its cast wheels, different handlebars and foot controls. I was happy to wait to try the Custom. The black Classic I was riding had a windshield and it was starting to rain. The rain was light and it didn’t last long. I decided all cruisers should come with a windshield. Not just for rain; the “cruiser slouch” position you are forced into leaves you defenseless against the wind. On a standard bike your feet are under your center of mass. You can use your legs to help control the bike and your body. On a cruiser, you steer with your hands, shift and brake with your feet. The rest of you is just dead weight. The windshield helps prevent doing one long sit-up when we were at speed.
The Classic can handle freeway speeds. We mostly rode on twisty two lanes, but the brief run on the freeway was well within the mission statement of these bikes. You could easily cross the country on one of these Vulcans, just don’t forget that windshield. And don’t try to rev the 900 to gain speed. This bike is all about the torque. It’s rated at 58.2 foot-pounds at 3,500 rpm. If you short-shift through the gears, you will be pleasantly surprised with your forward progress. If you wind it up to redline on each shift, you’ll be disappointed. None of the Vulcans come with a tach as standard equipment. Normally I’d be angry about that. This time it didn’t matter. There is torque a-plenty down low. Use what’s there and be happy. Going past the 900’s torque band just brings noise and vibration. So, once again, I found it’s best to sit back (you have no choice about that) and relax. Ridden in this manner, it’s a smooth and willing partner.
We ended the first day at dusk; our floorboards gently sparking as we ground our way into town. The company was good, the roads fantastic and the bike… I was beginning to like the little Vulcan. It may have been Stockholm Syndrome, but Kawasaki had decreed “let the good times roll”, and I was having a good time. Maybe tomorrow I’d revert to my bitter cynicism and look at the bike like Lou Grant looking at one more meatball sandwich. Only the dawn would reveal that. For tonight, I was happy as Mary Richards and there was cake on the menu.
Day two dawned with a sore back. Aspirin and pancakes soon had me right as rain. The skies were a deep blue and once again, I was riding the black Classic. I had noticed the previous day that a lot of the riders were leaving their turn signals on. Sometimes for miles. I traced this to another quirk of cruisers: the dash is down on the gas tank. The Vulcan 900 has a modest dash. It has a large, round, analog speedometer, a gas gauge, and a digital odometer and trip meter. The lights for neutral, high beam and the turn signal indicator are lower still. Everyone on the ride was wearing a full-face helmet. The chin bars of the helmets blocked the view. Those valiant warning lights were doing their job, we just couldn’t see them without looking down. By the time lunch rolled around, I was making a habit of looking down for updates.
I also had to adjust my braking habits. Cruisers have a long wheelbase and you can use more of the rear brake. I was doing just that, but with my right leg stretched out on the floorboards, I was pushing with my leg muscles like you do in a car, not with my ankle like on a standard bike. I laid down some stripes (on the road) before I got things re-calibrated.
The guys from Kawasaki had filled up the gas tanks when we stopped for lunch the previous day and again that night, so I didn’t get a chance to check the gas mileage first hand. Word on the street has the 900 Vulcans getting around 48 miles-per-gallon. That, and a generous tank size make for a good range. The stepped seat looked comfortable, but the rider’s portion slanted up at the back to join the raised passenger perch. This and the seating position kept me in the afore-mentioned cruiser slouch. That’s why I ended each day with a backache. I would want a backrest if I were going to ride from fill up until the low fuel light came on.
My turn on the Custom came around. The Custom has mag wheels; a righteous 21-incher up front, and a chubby 15-incher out back. The other models deploy a 16-inch, wire-spoked wheel up front, and a matching 15-inch in the rear. The bigger wheel took some of the twinkle out of the Vulcan’s toes. It felt more stable and less nimble. About half of the test riders preferred the handling of the Custom. It had a better handlebars, but I preferred the feel of the Classic and the LT.
The foot pegs and controls of the Custom are mounted further forward than the others. When taking a fast corner on the Custom, the first parts to drag were my heels. I’ll grind parts of a borrowed bike if that’s the way it is, but I refuse to drag my body parts on a tar road for anyone.
Many of the accessories from the Classic and LT will bolt onto the Custom. You can turn the Custom into a touring rig if you like. The Customs we rode were “Special Edition” versions. They had a matte black paint job with tribal orange and white pinstripes. They also had blacked-out pipes, air cleaner and engine cases. Valve covers were my favorite color, orange. In the Special Edition form, the Custom was a head turner. If you love the looks of the Custom, you should ask your dealer for a test ride. Maybe I’m too tall for the Custom, but I resent it trying to grind me down to size. You may have better luck. The Custom lists for $7,699, and the Custom Special Edition lists for $8,099. Budget extra money for boots and clean underwear.
At the end of the day I was back on the Classic 900. We pulled into a gas station and I was surprised when I looked down to see that low fuel light was on. We had burned through a tank of gas and yes, my back was sore, but I was still having fun. Definitely Stockholm Syndrome. So is this the bike for you? If the only bike you want is a cruiser, then I would suggest you take a good look at one of the Vulcan 900s. With all the limitations a cruiser puts on your riding, why pay more for a bigger, heavier bike? You can get the full-on real deal for as little as $7,499. If you’re looking at cruisers because that’s the only type of bike that fits you, then take heart. The Vulcan Classic will get you on two wheels and you can personalize it to fit your needs.
If you do buy one of the Vulcans, may I suggest you look at all the accessories Kawasaki offers for your new bike? You’ll be stimulating the economy, Kawasaki, and maybe that person you’ve been trying to impress. If we work together, we can do this.
Selected Competition: Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster, Honda Shadow Aero, Moto Guzzi Nevada Classic 750, Suzuki Boulevard C50, Triumph America, Yamaha V Star 950