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2004 Yamaha Road Star: MD First Ride

A few weeks before the public announcement of the 2004 Road Star, Yamaha invited a group of journalists to Morro Bay, California to learn about the new bike, and ride it through the coastal foothills. Before the ride, Yamaha discussed the Road Star concept, and the changes to the 2004 machine.

After attending the Yamaha Road Star introduction, I began to think about Yamaha’s history in the cruiser category, and some of the reasons why the Road Star may have turned out the way it has — utilizing some simple, old school technology (including an air-cooled, pushrod v-twin and belt drive).

In the 1990s, Yamaha introduced a liquid-cooled, 70 degree v-4 powered cruiser called the Royal Star. The bike was extremely good looking — both the finish and the styling were top drawer. The bike was also a sales flop. Perhaps, Yamaha learned a hard lesson with the Royal Star. That lesson would be that many cruiser customers don’t just want traditional styling, they want traditional technology, as well. Like an air-cooled, pushrod v-twin, for instance.

The Road Star is relatively unique in the industry now. With other Japanese manufacturers employing liquid cooling in their large displacement cruisers, Yamaha is sticking with the traditional technology it employed in the original Road Star. Indeed, Yamaha talked about “technology of simplicity” at the press introduction, and presented statistics showing that its Road Star cruiser customers preferred “proven, simple technology.”

While engineers tend to be driven by a desire to develop and employ the latest and greatest technology in their street bikes, with the Road Star, Yamaha has apparently done the right thing by sticking with its original engine design.

So the 2004 Yamaha Road Star employs the same basic engine technology as the original Road Star. It does get bigger, however, via a 2mm bore increase. Now displacing 1670cc, the 48-degree v-twin with four-valve heads (some modern technology did trickle in, didn’t it?) stays true to another original Road Star concept — that is, low-end torque and “pulse” is king.

Among the stated goals for the Road Star are “lowest rpm at cruising speed”, with “strongest driving force at lowest rpm”, it is not surprising that the Road Star is geared tall, and likes to be short shifted. The Road Star is smooth, but deceptively quick for a traditional cruiser — particularly, one with an air-cooled engine.

Although the 2004 Road Star likes to be short shifted, it still revs higher than last year’s bike and, coupled with the increased displacement, Yamaha is claiming an 8% increase in torque and a 15% increase in horsepower over the 2003 model. I rode the 2003 model back-to-back with the 2004 model, and I don’t doubt the claims. Basically, Yamaha gives their customers a traditional big-bore motor in the 2004 Road Star that will shrug off the added demands of passenger and luggage (not to mention hills). Without sacrificing ease of operation or rideability, this can only be a good thing.

Of course, styling is a huge part of the cruiser package, as well. Yamaha made some styling tweaks to the 2004 Road Star, again, without drifting too far from the original concept. Some of these styling tweaks actually add function to the bike.

The new, cast aluminum wheels are significantly lighter than last year’s wheels. The front wheel saves 4.4 pounds, while the rear saves 3.1. The cast wheels permit tubeless tires (sized 150/80/16 rear and 130/90/16 front). Even the belt drive system has been redesigned to improve appearance (note the new rear belt wheel) and significantly reduce weight of the drive train.

The engine itself is now finished in black for an even more traditional look. Other design changes which serve essentially a styling goal, rather than a functional one, include clear tail light and turn signal lenses (the tail light is an LED, this year), newly styled handlebar holder, as well as a redesigned instrument face.

Moving to the changes that are almost purely functional, Yamaha will deliver the 2004 Road Star with dual, front 298mm brake discs squeezed by sport bike-derived, four piston one-piece brake calipers, 5mm wider brake and clutch levers, heavier bar-end weights, as well as some changes aimed at improving ergonomics and comfort.

Both the rider and passenger seats on the 2004 Road Star are new designs. The older Road Star seat tended to keep the rider in a single position, while the new rider seat allows a bit more freedom of movement, which aids comfort on longer rides. While passenger seats are an after-thought on many cruisers, Yamaha even redesigned the Road Star passenger seat for more comfort in 2004.

The rider’s floorboards are now rubber mounted, transmitting less vibration than the 2003 design.

We have already discussed the increased engine performance provided by the larger displacement, and we won’t bore you with all of the detail refinements to the engine. Suffice it to say that Yamaha made many changes to the 2004 Road Star engine aimed at increasing reliability and performance (that torque and horsepower increase is not attributable to the larger displacement, alone). Things like cylinder head, rocker arms, intake and exhaust cam profiles, and even the shape of the cooling fins have been changed for 2004. Even the stock mufflers have a larger diameter to improve air flow, and performance, without increasing sound levels.

We sampled both the standard Road Star, and the Road Star Silverado (with windshield and bags). As I stated earlier, we also sampled a 2003 Road Star, for comparison purposes.

Focusing on the most noticeable changes between the 2003 and 2004 models, the brakes are at the top of the list. More striking than the engine power increase, the brake performance of the 2004 Road Star is leaps and bounds ahead of the 2003 model. Although virtually all of the manufacturers have recognized the need for powerful, dual-disc front brake systems on heavyweight cruisers in the last four or five years, the 2004 Road Star has to rank near the front of the class when it comes to braking performance. Both the power and feel of the 2004 brakes is excellent.

The efforts to reduce vibration felt by the rider also seem to have been a success, with the heavier bar-end weights and rubber-mounted floorboards doing the trick. The 2003 model felt a bit buzzy after an hour or so on the 2004 Road Star. Of course, Yamaha’s goal is not to completely isolate the rider from the huge power pulses coming from the 1670cc twin, and those are still transmitted to the rider in a muted, but pleasing way.

Indeed, by focusing on refinement, rather than a complete redesign, Yamaha has come up with a machine that has virtually no rough edges. The suspension is smooth and compliant (although, I got the shock to bottom more than once over sharp edged bumps). The transmission works very well for a large displacement v-twin, and the engine pulls strongly and seamlessly from idle.

One of the things that impressed me most during our first ride on the 2004 Road Star was the front fork. At times, I was aiming for the roughest pavement I could find, and the fork soaked up the bumps imperceptibly. It was a rather amazing experience, that no doubt is a testament to the damping built into the fork, coupled with the large, relatively high-profile front tire. In any event, the fork provides exactly the type of road damping you want on a traditional cruiser.

Although our group of journalists rode at a relatively sedate pace most of the day, we did do some floorboard scraping for the photographers. The Road Star always felt smooth, and under control. This isn’t a corner carver like a sport bike, and it is not intended to be, but it handles predictably and well for the traditional cruiser class.

The riding position felt good — not too stretched out like some of the newer cruisers tend to be (in the never ending search for the longest and lowest machine). The floorboards were also plenty big for my size 11 boots.

We’ll save a more detailed evaluation until we finish testing the Road Star we now have in the garage (a Road Star Midnight Silverado). Our first impressions are very positive, however, and Yamaha has undoubtedly produced a new bike that will please the existing, huge Road Star following, and draw cruiser customers looking for tradition in their bike’s technology, as well as its style.