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2003 Yamaha Royal Star Venture: MD Ride Review

There are a lot of motorcycles out there, and only so much time and staff to test them. In choosing the motorcycles tested by MD, there are two obvious categories to choose from. First and foremost, there are the entirely new models that are most newsworthy. Second, we try to identify those bikes that are “sleepers” — bikes that perhaps deserve more attention than they are currently receiving from the press.

The bike that is the subject of this review is a perfect example of the latter category. The 2003 Yamaha Royal Star Venture is a bike that has been around for a few years, and has developed a loyal, almost fanatical following (take a look at the Venture Enthusiasts’ website).

The first generation of the Yamaha Venture (it was not a member of the “Royal Star” family at that time) appeared in 1983, and was refined through the 1993 model year, when it disappeared. This machine was a fast, v-four engined luxury tourer built to take on Honda’s Gold Wing. The bike combined performance and luxury in a special way that still energizes a loyal fan club.

In 1999, the Venture name returned to the Yamaha line-up in a new, cruiser-styled machine based somewhat on the Royal Star, v-four cruiser that itself was destined for extinction and replacement by the Road Star v-twin 1600 cruiser.

I had never ridden a Venture, either the first generation or the second. I was well aware of the first generation machine (particularly, its reputation for outstanding engine performance), and remember being a bit surprised that the Venture name resurfaced in 1999 with the Royal Star cruiser affiliation.

Gen I Venture on left and Gen II on the right

Basically, Yamaha’s grand experiment with the Royal Star had reached a dead end. Although beautifully styled and detailed, the Royal Star never sold in numbers satisfactory to Yamaha. The v-four engine configuration didn’t seem to catch on with the cruiser crowd, and the motor (loosely based on the awesomely powerful V-Max) was so dramatically de-tuned, that the large, heavy machine was relatively slow (even for a cruiser).

So how did the Venture fit into this Royal Star scheme with its heritage of awesome engine performance (for the luxury touring class at least)? Here’s how. Yamaha significantly re-designed the Royal Star engine specifically for use in the Venture tourer. The result is a classically-styled tourer with modern, powerful engine performance. Yamaha claims 98 horsepower and 89 foot pounds of torque are delivered by the 79 cubic inch (1294cc) liquid-cooled, double overhead cam, 70 degree v-four engine in the Venture. Put to the test on the road, this engine delivers with almost effortless power and torque to move the huge, 807 pound luxury tourer along at a pace unmatched by any production v-twin cruiser/tourer (more about this later). Basically, Yamaha took the performance promise that the v-four engine provided in the Royal Star line and finally delivered on it in the Venture.

At more than 800 pounds, the Venture is a lot of motorcycle. Along with the power and torque mentioned above, the Royal Star Venture has all the amenities you would expect to find in a long-distance luxury tourer, including a wide ratio five-speed transmission (although fifth gear is technically an overdrive, it is very useful — even for high-speed passing power), low-maintenance shaft drive, excellent wind protection from the wide, fork-mounted fairing and windshield, with wind deflectors and frame-mounted lower cowlings, large, six-gallon fuel tank (with low-fuel warning light), DC power outlets for both rider and passenger, air adjustable suspension (both front and rear), electronic cruise control, AM/FM radio and CB radio (with handlebar-mounted controls), cassette deck, four speakers (14 watts per channel) which incorporate speed-regulated volume control, two-way rider/passenger intercom system, and massive luggage (15 gallon rear trunk matched with dual 9.3 gallon saddlebags).

To get to the bottom line, the Royal Star Venture is an outstanding luxury tourer regardless of the category you put it in (not just among cruiser tourers, but among all luxury tourers). Both the rider and passenger seats (which were substantially improved in the 2001 model year) offer excellent support and comfort. Indeed, several passengers who sampled rear-seat accommodations raved about the comfort they experienced, from the seat and backrest combination down to the large, well-placed passenger floor boards. The rider ergonomics are also excellent, with wide, high handlebars that leave your arms in a comfortable, neutral position, and rider floor-boards mounted a bit forward, but not as far forward as most dedicated cruisers.

The standard suspension settings are excellent. Providing a very plush, comfortable ride with remarkable control during more spirited riding, the air-adjustable fork and shock have been very well set up by the factory. We did not play with the fork adjustment, but did add air to the shock when carrying passengers. This made a noticeable difference in balancing the machine with passengers aboard (including associate editor, Willy Ivins, who weighs in close to 200 pounds).

The wind protection offered by the Venture was equally surprising. Most motorcycles that try to provide the level of wind protection offered by the Venture have a significant vacuum effect, pulling the rider toward the windshield at higher speeds and/or buffeting at the helmet level (which is noisy and annoying). The Venture offers huge wind protection, with neither of these drawbacks. At 5’10”, I found the pocket of air behind the Venture’s windshield quite calm — calm enough to clearly hear the stereo at elevated freeway speeds.

Honda’s Gold Wing has raised the standard for handling in the luxury touring class, and the Royal Star Venture doesn’t quite measure up to the handling of the new Gold Wing. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to hustle the Venture through twisty roads quickly, and with confidence. Again, the cruiser styling misled me, and I expected sluggish handling from a flexy chassis.

The Royal Star Venture reflects significant effort by Yamaha to stiffen the motorcycle’s chassis to aid steering and overall handling. The huge engine is solidly mounted to the stiff, single-backbone frame. Although handling at parking lot speeds is tricky, and the weight of the bike is very evident, once you are moving, the bike steers responsively and competently.

The engine performance mentioned earlier only adds to the enjoyable mix. The Venture has plenty of the character offered by cruiser machines, but a lot more performance than the styling suggests. The bike accelerates hard, and has a very broad powerband. A pleasant exhaust note allows you to hear the engine pulses, but doesn’t intrude too much. Just right, really. This exhaust note, together with some intake noise and some audible gear whine (probably, from the shaft-drive system) creates an interesting, almost hot-rod feel while riding the bike. Yamaha did a good job of combining a luxurious ride with rider awareness of the mechanical processes going on underneath him (or her).

The five-speed transmission is a bit clunky, but it is easy enough to use. I caught neutral between first and second gear unintentionally on a few occasions, but familiarity with the machine made my shifts more decisive, and this problem went away. That tall, fifth gear allows you to cruise at a mellow engine rpm on the freeway, with better gas mileage. Expect about 40 mpg on average.

The instruments are easy to read and set forth in a stylish, retro design. The huge, sweeping speedometer, for instance, reminded me of my mother’s old Oldsmobile. The very-thorough instrumentation includes speedometer, odometer, dual trip meters, fuel trip meter, clock, fuel gauge, cruise control, turn signals, and assorted indicator lights. The cruise control was easy to operate, and a nice touch on long, open highways.

In summary, I was very surprised by the Royal Star Venture. While it has classic cruiser looks, its performance is nothing like a traditional, air cooled v-twin cruiser. From its large, effective brakes to its quick acceleration and high top speed (believe me, this bike will go as fast as you want to go — unlike most cruisers), the Venture really belongs in the luxury tourer class with more modern designs. If you like the classic styling (we do), it is simply a big bonus. This year, the Royal Star Venture is available in two color schemes, including the one on our test bike and the black, Midnight Venture Special Edition pictured at the right. MSRP ranges from $16,399 to $16,899 for the Midnight Venture Special Edition. Take a look at Yamaha’s website for additional details.