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MD First Ride: 2006 Kawasaki Vulcan 900 Classic and Classic LT

Last week I made my way to Daytona Beach, Florida for an opportunity to ride Kawasaki’s new Vulcan 900 Classic, along with the faired ‘LT’ version, during the infamous Daytona Bike Week. Despite being slightly distracted by the unique sights and sounds of Bike Week, I was able to form a fairly distinct impression of the newest Vulcan over two days of riding in the Daytona area.

Kawasaki’s goal for the Vulcan 900 was to fill what they saw as a gap in the market, somewhere between the ‘small’ cruisers typically marketed to beginner riders, and the giant ‘premium’ cruisers that are each brand’s flagship. They designed the Vulcan 900 to be rider-friendly even for beginners, while at the same time packing enough power and enough features to satisfy the more experienced buyer. If you were to think of it in terms of the three bears and their porridge, Kawasaki wanted the Vulcan 900 to be ‘just right’.

Many changes were made to the Vulcan 800 motor to create the Vulcan 900′s powerplant – but only a few of these are really important to the bike’s character. First of all, and most importantly, Kawasaki added the extra 100cc of displacement by increasing the stroke by 8mm (from 66.2mm to 74.2mm). The increased stroke combines with a new, heavier flywheel to totally change the character of the motor. The Vulcan 900 also features fuel injection using dual 34mm throttle bodies, with the entire intake tract (including the cylinder head intake ports) having been redesigned to produce maximum torque.

The 900 maintains the same 32 degree rake as its predecessor, but trail has been increased from 4.8″ to 6.5″, for the stated purpose of increasing stability at higher speeds. The 900 Classic also uses a belt drive system, as opposed to the chain drive on the 800.

The size of the bike is somewhat deceptive, as Kawasaki designed it to have a “big bike” scale. Meaning that when parked next to larger 1300s, 1600s, and even the Vulcan 2000, the 900 Classic won’t appear to be smaller than these bikes. Another addition that gives the bike increased ‘presence’ is the new 180 width rear tire.

Despite the large appearance of the 900 Classic, the bike’s ergonomics are definitely workable for smaller riders. The seat height, in particular, is amazingly low – as shown in the included picture. We are certain that riders in the 5’3″-5’7″ range will be amazed by their ability to easily touch the ground on the 900 Classic – particularly given that at first glance, the bike appears to be on the same scale as other, much taller machines.


5’3″ Kawasaki PR Manager Jan Plessner (right) demonstrates the
900 Classic’s low seat height – author (5’10″) shown at left for comparison

I could spend another 6 paragraphs talking about the mechanical and styling changes to the 900 Classic, but I’m pretty sure that you’re reading this to find out how the bike rides. So with that in mind, let’s get down to the real business at hand.

The first thing I noticed when I pulled away on the 900 Classic was the smooth power delivery from the newly redesigned engine. As the day wore on, I grew to appreciate the qualities of this powerplant more and more. Now, I wouldn’t call the 900′s motor FAST, but I would describe it as torquey and FUN.

Keeping in mind that this bike is a cruiser, I found the power to be perfect for just cruising. Whether around town or at highway speeds, the Vulcan 900 never leaves you wanting. The torquey V-Twin moves the bike along in perfect harmony with the position of your right wrist, making gear selection seemingly irrevelevant at anything but the slowest speeds. I found myself using fourth and fifth gear at speeds as low as 45 mph, and even then the 900 would accelerate smoothly with no hint of hesitation or stumbling.

Now, I know I just said gear selection was irrelevant, but just in case you decide you do need to shift, the transmission is definitely up to the task. In fact, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that this is one of the best transmissions on any cruiser I have ridden, hands down. Gear selection through the ‘front and back’ shift lever is smooth and buttery, and I never once hit neutral by accident – despite the fact that this is the easiest transmission I have have ever used as far as finding neutral when you want it.

Moving on to the handling, the best phrase I could find to describe the Vulcan 900′s handling would be ‘confidence inspiring’. This was immediately apparent in my first encounter with an actual corner (something that seems to be pretty rare in the Daytona area, oddly enough) – I laid the 900 over until the floorboard started scraping, and held it there with no hassle and no fuss. I do not mean to imply that the 900 has poor ground clearance (it doesn’t – ground clearance is about average for a cruiser with floorboards), or that I’m an incredibly talented rider (I’m not) – this is just a testament to my comfort level with the Vulcan’s handling.

Now, you’re not going to be passing any sportbikes on the inside, but then again, those sportbike riders won’t be cruising down the highway in comfort like you will on the 900. On the straight parts, the 900 is stable and comfortable, and I was particularly impressed by the shape of the seat – the slight upward flare at the back provides a nice bit of support for your hips and low back, which is an area that often troubles me on long rides (thanks to some vertebral damage sustained in a long-ago MX accident). The long-term comfort will definitely come in handy, thanks to the increased range provided by the newly enlarged 5.3 gallon fuel tank.

The only negative is one that all unfaired cruisers seem to have in common – the riding position (slightly leaned back, arms spread to grasp the wide bars) turns your upper body into a giant wind sail, which can lead to some serious arm and shoulder fatigue if you spend more than a few minutes above 70mph.

That leads in nicely to my opinions on the faired and bagged version of the Vulcan 900 Classic, known as the Classic LT. Starting with the same basic formula as the 900 Classic, the LT throws a tall windscreen and a pair of hard leather saddlebags into the mix for improved touring abilities. However, the windscreen is just about the only aspect of the 900 Classic that I didn’t like. Seemingly thrown on as something of an afterthought, it does provide relief from the windblast – unfortunately, for this rider it caused an uncomfortable and fatiguing buffeting at helmet level (this may vary depending on rider height). The bags are attractive and useful, but overall I didn’t find the LT to be much of an improvement over the standard 900 – especially since the standard model is already so good. The 900 Classic is also a much more attractive machine – I’m not a big fan of the LT’s windscreen from an appearance standpoint, either.

Discussing styling is always difficult, as this is an area of bike design that is almost purely subjective. Kawasaki didn’t break any new ground with the Vulcan 900 Classic, choosing instead to stay within the confines of ‘traditional’ cruiser styling. However, Kawasaki’s designers have done an excellent evolutionary job within those confines, and the Vulcan 900 Classic is clean and attractive from front to back (at least in my opinion). Kawasaki topped off the clean styling with excellent paint – every color that the 900 is available in looks great ‘in the metal’.

What’s the bottom line? Well, the best way to summarize the Vulcan 900 Classic would be to refer back to my earlier Three Bears analogy. The 900 doesn’t excel in any one area – it’s not the fastest, the biggest, or the best handling cruiser ever built. What it DOES do is provide what seems to be just the right mix of ingredients for fun – the newest Vulcan is easy to ride, with handling that immediately inspires confidence in the rider. It backs that up with a great motor and tranny – like I said, not the most powerful in the world, but with plenty of torque that makes the bike a blast to ride. Top that off with classic good looks that compare favorably to much larger (and more expensive) cruisers, and it looks like Kawasaki has a winner with this one. Especially considering the price, which is much cheaper than any of the latest ‘super-cruisers’.

The Vulcan 900 Classic carries a suggested MSRP of $7,299 in the US, while the Classic LT comes in at $8,499. Both bikes should be available in dealers by the end of this month. For more information and specifications, check out Kawasaki’s web site.