This urban cruiser earns second place

The Star Bolt made a positive impression during our first ride in San Diego.  Thanks to a big front hoop, tall neck and bars with a dirt-track style bend, big V-Twin, and throaty exhaust, it’s got rockin’ style. It also taps into parent company Yamaha’s racing heritage, borrowing technology like its ceramic composite cylinder sleeves from its line of championship-winning sportbikes. Piggyback reservoir shocks and wave rotors generally aren’t standard fare on cruiser motorcycles either but are included in the Bolt R-Spec package we tested; the suspension upgrade was included in the $300 R-Spec ensemble.

The 942cc V-Twin powering the Bolt isn’t anything new, as it's the engine already in use in the V Star 950. But a new airbox, different exhaust and new settings to the 3D mapping to both the fuel-injection and ignition timing give it torquier low- and mid-range delivery. Crack the throttle on the Bolt and it lives up to its name. It’s snappy off the line in the first three gears, with peak torque doled out at 3,400 rpm. The engine stays in the 53 lb-ft range from 3,400 to 3,700 rpm and still registers 50 lb-ft up to 4,800 rpm, providing a very usable spread of power. Though it couldn’t hang with the Bonneville with its high-end horsepower delivery, it bested the Sportster by .49 seconds from 0-60mph. Though it feels like a bigger bike, it actually weighed in 21 pounds less than the densely-packed Iron 883.

“The Bolt’s air-cooled V-Twin beats the Harley with a torquier powerband. The Bolt sounds burlier, and it delivers with a more direct throttle. Unlike other metric rides, which feel detuned and mellow, the Bolt bangs out some personality, without shaking the rider around like the Sportster. Some riders will prefer the ‘character’ of the Harley, but I think the Star V-Twin is easier to live with – and more engaging,” said Motorcycle USA Managing Editor, Bart Madson.

A single-pin crankshaft and forged connecting rods provide the Bolt’s lumping character, doing so with a rigid-mounted engine serving as a stressed member. The Sportster engine is rubber-mounted yet still will shake the fillings out of your teeth at idle. Both bikes redline in first gear at almost the identical spot, the Bolt tapping out at 43mph, but the Star gets to that point quicker thanks to immediate throttle response. Unlike the late engagement in the throw of the Sportster, the clutch on the Bolt gets into the friction zone almost as soon as the lever is let out. Team that with a spot-on Mikuni closed-loop fuel injection system that’s controlled electronically and throttle position sensors that react immediately to input from a rider’s right wrist and you’ve got a bike that lunges in the lower gears every time you shift.

Heading up OR-66 on our favorite local run, the road snakes its way up the mountain with sweepers and switchbacks galore. Winter snows and slides create uneven surfaces on some sections, and the road even drops a couple inches at one point, but between the nicely damped external reservoir rear shock and thickly padded seat, the Bolt offers a comfortable ride. Heading up the hill, we’re able to settle into a nice flow through the turns as the bike stays stable and sure-footed at lean. The 41mm KYB fork is keeping the front wheel down better than the bouncing around experienced on the front of the Sportster, but neither matches up to the units on the Bonneville. And while the Bolt transitions smoothly and turns in with limited input, there was one point of contention Madson didn’t hesitate to comment on.

“The Bolt’s handling is severely limited by the low pegs. We were running a far from aggressive pace, and the poor Star was scoring off its pegs at an alarming rate. Keeping the pegs low may make the rider triangle more amenable to a broader range of riders, but it scrapes on virtually every corner – even routine left and right handed turns in the city caught us napping when the hard parts would touch down.”

In the braking department, the job of scrubbing speed off the Bolt is entrusted to a dual-piston caliper on the front and single-piston unit on the back, both biting into 298mm wave-style discs. At the lever and pedal riders feel the strong, progressive braking power, but they aren’t as bitey as the Bonneville’s arrangement. The one issue we had was the rear caliper’s tendency to lock up easier than the other bikes. This is exacerbated because the Bridgestone Exedra G721 tire doesn’t provide much traction during hard braking, and the rear end will slide around.

Fortunately, there’s no slippage when banging through some gears. Clutch pull is relatively light, and the straight-cut gear cogs of the five-speed transmission click into place without fuss. It does so with more efficiency than the Iron 883 but can’t quite match the smoothness of the Bonneville’s gearbox. Still, the multi-plate wet clutch proved efficient and reliable, hitting every shift and sliding into neutral without difficulty.

As far as the rider’s triangle of the Star Bolt, the position of the seat and footpegs feels very similar to the riding stance on the Sportster but is more open. The foot controls are also mid-mounted but are set farther forward than the Iron 883, and there’s a longer reach to the handlebar. Combine seat placement that positions riders behind the tank and bars with a pretty good spread and the Bolt offers the most wind protection of the bunch at freeway speeds. Madson commented that the controls on the Bolt also feel bigger, with the Star in general feeling like a physically larger machine – from the bigger controls to the broader engine, it surprised him that the Star was lighter than the tightly compacted Sportster.

One area where the Bolt feels particularly larger is between a rider’s legs. The cylinder heads on the Bolt are wide and the airbox big, so you can’t snug up as close to the bike as the Sporty or Bonnie. Your right leg presses against the airbox on the right side while the exposed cylinder head on the left side has a wire bracket to protect a rider’s leg, but it digs in at the top of your calf. It also detracts from its fit-and-finish, as it looks like it was placed there as a last-second decision after Star realized riders would be burning their leg on the left jug if they didn’t do something.

Speaking of the Bolt’s fit-and-finish, it has its share of both strong and weak points. On the strong side, cropped steel fenders are a bonus, especially for painting and customizing. The 19-inch tall, 12-spoke cast wheel up front is one of its notable features, as are the drilled-out design of the chain guard, heat shield and clamp for the battery box. Granted, the piggyback reservoir shocks are an unfair up-spec advantage, but the $300 price point is worth it both on the performance and styling side. The small, round bullet-shaped LEDs are compact and tidy. The Bolt is also the only motorcycle to offer four-way adjustability of both brake and clutch levers. Of the three bikes in this test, the Bolt garnered the most attention from curious onlookers by far.

One of its low points though is its all-digital speedometer. If it’s getting hit by direct sun, it’s nearly impossible to read because of the reflection coming off the shaded glass cover. The Iron 883 and Bonneville also have digital displays, but their circular speedo dials are analog and the glass is clear so you don’t experience the same problem. We already mentioned the unsightly engine guard around the left cylinder head, but we haven’t mentioned the lip of metal at the base of the tank that detracts from an otherwise attractive design. The space in front of the engine created by the awkward bend to the frame rails of the downtubes also drew questions. We believe the taillight in the middle of the rear fender, despite its cool retro look, could have been integrated into the design more cleanly.

Overall, the Bolt does an admirable job aping the Sportster without being a Sportster. Though it’s the new kid on the block, it has its own identity and appeal. Star was smart not to go overboard with badging, instead opting to let the sum of its parts speak for itself. It not only has the power edge on the Sportster, but does so with a more efficient powerplant as it got the best overall mileage and with a more responsive throttle. Even without the up-spec rear suspension, its front end has better stability over bumps and at speed. It has plenty of character in its own right, and a thumping note bellows from its exhaust. It can’t match the fit-and-finish of the Iron 883, but based on the ride, the Bolt has an edge over its American counterpart, which earned it second place in our Urban Cruiser Shootout.