By Bryan Harley

Kawasaki's Bold New Bagger

Motorcycle sales may have slipped over the last few years, but the bagger segment has stayed red hot. And with good reason. Riders like them for their versatility, from able commuter to long-distance tourer. They’re also coveted for their customization potential. Just look at what custom builders like Paul Yaffe and Jim Nasi are doing with them. Yaffe’s work has spawned the “Bagger Nation,” and there are even magazines that cater exclusively to the bagger crowd. Once the segment was dominated by Harley-Davidson’s Road and Street Glide. Victory followed suit with the release of its Cross Country, and Star wasn’t far behind with the introduction of its Stratoliner Deluxe. Recognizing the potential of the market, Kawasaki enters the foray with the release of its 2011 Vaquero. Motorcycle USA’s Managing Editor, Bart Madson, provided some excellent insight and specs on the new bagger in his 2011 Kawasaki Vulcan Vaquero First Ride article. Since then, we’ve been able to land a long-term test unit, so we threw it on the dyno and the scale, and tracked mileage as we logged more riding impressions on Kawi’s bold new cruiser.

We began by putting the liquid-cooled, 1700cc V-Twin to the test over the last month with a 1,000-mile round trip run to Carmel, California, where we learned the Kawasaki Vaquero is a competent road tripper. Its ergos provide a very relaxed riding position, arms just below chest height, and the forward-mounted floorboards are placed almost perfectly for a six-foot-tall rider. The leather seat is contoured nicely, and its padding allows for long stints in the saddle without bun-numbing pain. Even with a shorty front windscreen, the frame-mounted fairing itself sits high enough to divert most of the wind blast around you, but we did experience a bit of head buffeting at highway speeds. The 9.6-gallon saddlebags easily held a computer bag, cameras, and a backpack with enough clothes for a couple of days. The side-opening bags are comparable to those on the 1600 Vulcan Nomad but have a rounder contour to match the lines of the bike. It only takes a couple of minutes to take them off – just pop them open and undo the two screws inside that hold each in place. Our primary grievance with them is that you can’t unlock the bags and leave them unlocked for easy accessibility. We like the security of knowing that our goods are safely stashed away and won’t fly out from a saddlebag that didn’t get closed correctly, but if you’re making a lot of frequent stops, having to remove the key from the ignition every time becomes tedious. And while the front fairing provided a fair amount of protection for riders, when traveling in the shadow of Mt. Shasta on a moonlit night, the cold air made us wish for some standard fairing lowers. Our night ride also divulged that the headlight’s illumination pattern is limited, but the high beams are like lighthouse beacons.

During our trip, we discovered the Vaquero gets just about 200 miles out of its 5.3-gallon tank, and its fuel needle will dip well below the “E,” but the flashing low fuel sign that comes on in the middle of the digital display when there’s about a gallon to go is obnoxious. It’s effective though, because you’ll stop for gas just to make it stop blinking. Over the course of traveling 2,010 miles, the Vaquero used 51.239 gallons of gas and cost us $216.89. Our average trip to the gas station cost $15.49 per stop as the motorcycle was good for 39.228 mpg, which was right on the numbers displayed by Fuel Range indicator which generally said we were averaging in the upper 38/lower 39 mpg range.

A spirited ride through Carmel Valley and an opportunity to take a touring lap around Laguna Seca on the Vaquero left us impressed with its handling. Even with a 28.7 inch seat height it has a low center of gravity and a tight 65.6 inch wheelbase, so the bagger feels compact and transitions side-to-side well without feeling top heavy. A 130mm wide front tire helps it hug the road when leaned over, and its floorboards are up high enough to allow for generous lean angles. After experiencing its neutral handling characteristics firsthand, we were surprised when the Vaquero tipped our scales at a laden 840 pounds, carrying 45.5% of its weight up front with the back supporting the other 54.5%. Props to Kawasaki engineers for making a chassis that handles lithely despite its portly dimensions. The Vaquero’s well-sorted suspension is also a big contributor to the comfortable ride it provides. Its stout 45mm fork doesn’t dive much under heavy braking, and the only time it blew through all 5.5 inches of travel was on direct hits in big potholes. The rear felt even better, seldom transferring any of the road’s imperfections to the rider. The dual rear shocks are air-adjustable via conveniently located valves under the seat, but the four-way adjustable rebound-damping screw is difficult to access in its location behind the saddlebags.

After a couple thousand miles in its saddle, the Vaquero’s powerplant has also left a favorable impression on us. The mill provides most of its torque as early as 2400 rpm and peaked on our dyno at about 87 lb-ft at 3200 rpm. It isn’t tuned to provide as powerful of an initial hit as some of the other motorcycles in its class, but it’s midrange is on par. A spin on our dyno shows that horsepower gradually builds until peaking at just under 69 hp at 4900 rpm. Distribution is even throughout the powerband, which is impressive considering the first few gears have a fairly wide spread. The top end in second gear is generous. The power spread in first gear takes you from 0-45 before hitting redline at 6200 rpm. Second gear takes over after that and propels riders up to 69 mph before it too hits redline at 6200 rpm. Third catapulted us up to 94 mph before it needed to be bumped up to fourth, and needless to say, with speeds approaching triple digits, we couldn’t tap out fourth on public roads. The top two gears are overdrives and I found myself cruising the highway predominantly in fifth gear because it leaves you in the meat of the powerband more so than overdrive sixth, so when you need to accelerate past a big rig, it’s twist and go. The bike settles in nicely at 3000 rpm in 5th gear cruising at 70 mph. We did encounter a buzz that creeps into the tank and bars around 2800 rpm in the overdrive gears, but vibrations were nominal above or below that.

The revised six-speed gear box exhibits a noticeable clunk in first gear, but smooths out after that. Give credit to a taller first gear than the one used on the Kawasaki Vulcan Voyager, the motorcycle responsible for the foundation of the Vaquero’s powertrain. Third and fourth gears have new tooth profiles that contribute to their easier, quieter engagement. On occasion, the tranny resists downshifting without an extra kick, and a few times it dropped into neutral because we accidentally hit the heel shifter. In the braking department, the front arrangement, consisting of dual 300mm discs with dual twin-piston calipers, aren’t real bitey but have good feel and fade-free power. The single rear disc grabs better; applies solid, even pressure; and doesn’t lock up easily. While we can only offer seat-of-the-pants impressions right now, we’ll bring you even more performance numbers in our upcoming bagger brawl, which will include the Vaquero.

Kawasaki has done an admirable job of making a cockpit that’s both attractive and functional. In the middle of the console is an easy-to-read digital odometer. In the same display area are the readouts for dual trip meters and a fuel range/average function you toggle through via the top button on the right control housing. A good-sized analog speedo sits to the left while a tach is positioned on the right, so all your vitals are clustered together. Cruise control is standard and is operated by the top button on the right control housing. We found ourselves using the top two buttons on the left more so because the top one controls the volume of the stereo system (ours was hooked up to the optional XM satellite radio) and the second one down changes stations. The layout works well as the buttons are operable enough with gloved fingers and are integrated into the control housing neatly. Our only gripe is that you lose the XM signal a lot and get the resulting “Check Antenna” display instead.

The Vaquero has character, from the pulse of its single-pin, long-stroke crankshaft V-Twin to the richness of its exhaust note, from its brawny front fairing to the attractive layout of the cockpit. The chrome trim and design of its taillight make me think of my uncle’s old Cadi. Its Candy Fire Red paint scheme has drawn lots of compliments. The motorcycle turned out to be a capable tourer and is now up to the task as a daily commuter. The Vaquero’s styling ranks high with us but details like the flimsy black plastic console strip running down the tank detract a bit from its overall fit and finish. At $16,499 MSRP, it rings in favorably in comparison to Harley’s 2011 Road Glide Custom, which costs a couple grand more. Considering the Vaquero handles well, provides a comfortable ride, has plenty of power, good storage capacity, and looks inspired by Detroit in its heyday, it’s a very competitive package. We’ll find out just how well it stacks up against its competition as we’re rounding up some of its adversaries for a little bagger comparo.