Honda's Mighty VTX1800 Gets a Little Brother

The daily dose of spam in my in-box tells me that in this day and age, bigger-is-better. In 2002 Honda took advantage of that theory when it introduced the biggest production cruiser the world had ever seen, the VTX1800. That bike has since become infamous as the progenitor of the ever-popular power cruiser class.

But the big Honda VTX is really, really big. So big, in fact, that it came up a bit short in the handling department when compared head-to-head with opposition such as the Yamaha Road Star Warrior and Kawasaki Mean Streak. The sheer mass of the bike may have been intimidating to some, but sales figures reveal that it is attractive to others. With nearly 30,000 VTX1800s having been sold in the U.S. between 2002 and 2004, it’s safe to say they are as desirable as they are massive.

On the highway and at the drag strip a VTX1800 is tough to beat, but that’s not good enough for Honda. It seems their objective continues to be the total domination of every possible segment of the motorcycle universe. Rather than completely change a proven design in order to address the few complaints levied against its flagship cruiser, Honda created a scaled-down version in the image of its highly successful forefather. Ladies and gentlemen, behold the VTX1300.

With the smaller VTX, Honda has created a bike that provides answers to the questions the VTX1800 left unanswered. For starters, the 1300 is nearly two inches shorter and a significant 60 pounds lighter than the 1800. This reduction is both size and weight has an immediate improvement in the handling characteristics versus the bigger bike. From the moment the 1300 is lifted off its kickstand the difference is noticeable. The bike doesn’t feel a lot lighter but it definitely feels smaller, and once the machine is moving it feels less intimidating as well. It may not break any speed records but it does offer a comfortable ride and excellent manners on the street.

Oh, and did we mention it looks real good? Style is a key selling point for the VTX. The flowing lines of the 1300 are easy on the eyes and grab the attention of passers-by wherever it goes. Architectural highlights start at the front, with a short, tire-hugging front fender, a 19-inch, 3-spoke cast aluminum wheel and the Vince Lombardi Trophy-esque headlight bucket.

Style continues to ooze past the wide drag bars onto the 4.8-gallon gas tank with its sleek integrated instrument panel down to the firm sculpted seat. A speedometer, digital trip meter and idiot-light combination nestles-neatly in the chrome teardrop-shaped housing. The locking gas cap located at the rear of the housing requires removal of the key from the left-side ignition in order to replenish the fuel supply. Expect to get between 37-40 mpg with a cruising range in the neighborhood of 170 miles. The dark-faced speedo with white numbering is easy to read in the daytime, and when darkness falls the red backlit panel looks cool and makes it easy to keep track of your speed. Everything is wrapped up on the back with a bobbed rear fender before coming to the end at the 15-inch cast aluminum wheel covered in 170/80-15 rubber.

There’s plenty of chrome and deep luxurious paint to keep the most hardcore buff-and-shine aficionados busy. Aside from the pearl orange version of our test bike, the VTX is also available in candy red, metallic silver or the always fashionable black. A close look at the spiffy gleaming components, however, reveals that the right side engine case cover, faux valve covers and gauge housing, are all actually plastic. Keep in mind that the bike retails for only nine grand so cost cutting is to be expected. No matter the reason, the plastic did nothing to help keep the bike in favor with a few of the more fickle test riders.

Sitting in the sunlight, gleaming like a good cruiser should, the 1300 beckons a rider to climb aboard and take it for a spin. From parking lots to the canyons, the 1300 provides beginners and experienced riders an excellent riding experience. Slow-speed navigation is not too bad thanks to the low 27-inch seat height and wide handlebars. However, it is a big bike when it comes right down to it, so don’t expect it to handle like a Ruckus. On the road the wide bars make changing directions a breeze while the 41mm fork and a pair of preload-adjustable dual shocks do a wonderful job of absorbing road imperfections. It feels just as stable from the moment you initiate a turn and on through the exit as it does trudging ahead in a straight line. Of course, bigger bumps and broken pavement will send a jolt through your spine and cause some unsettling in the chassis, but that’s to be expected with a paltry 3.6 inches of travel available from the rear suspension.

On the highway the 1300 offers one of the most comfortable cruiser riding positions we’ve sampled. The drag bars provide an easy reach from the saddle for the under six-foot crowd. That’s why it came as a surprise when one of our taller riders complained that they were not wide enough. Once the roads turn twisty however, the riding position seemed perfect for the majority. The curved saddle spreads support fairly evenly across the derriere but it does not fit every possible size cheeks. Everyone raved about the confidence they had in the rock-stable handling. Ground clearance is of particular concern though. The heels of everyone’s boots had the VTX grind on them after a month of back-road cruising. The pegs will touch first though  once you learn how to position your feet in such a way as to keep them clear of the asphalt.

Many comparisons were made with the Kawasaki Mean Streak since we've logged quite a bit of time on it as our long-term project bike. This is good news for the VTX since the VN1500 Meanie is probably the best handling cruiser available. We feel confident to anoint the VTX1300 a definitive runner-up. Cruisers are a special breed of bike. They do not instill that need for cornering speed the way a sportbike does and they are not supposed to. Cruising, in contrast, is supposed to be relaxing and easy on the senses. Enjoying the environment you’re riding in and actually seeing the sights is a pleasant reprieve.

“Loved it,” reports MCUSA test rider Rizzo Wallace. “This thing is a blast to cruise around on. I never really thought I would enjoy riding a cruiser around; maybe I am just getting old. It was nice to be able to sit back and take things in without having to worry about how fast you could take the corner or how fast it would go.”

Despite what you may believe, the VTX1300 is not all show and no go. The 1300’s motor is a purpose-built powerplant that deviates from the traditional Honda-smooth feeling found on their pre-VTX cruisers. There’s plenty of user-friendly power making its way through the shaft drive and on to the rear tire. Enough vibes emanate from the liquid-cooled, SOHC, 3-valve, 52-degree V-Twin to keep you aware that it is a large-displacement Twin between your legs. They may have tamed this beast but they managed to not make it too bland for their own good. The finned cylinders could fool you into thinking this is an air-cooled model if not for the slim radiator tucked between the front frame rails.

The 1312cc motor is plenty capable of propelling the bike at a spirited pace, too. Quarter-mile times are in the mid-13s at 90-plus miles per hour, which is just about as fast as a $30,000 BMW M3 for those of you taking notes. Bore and stroke measurements of 89.5mm x 104.3mm are reduced from the 101mm x 112mm specs of the mighty 1795cc mill of the VTX1800. With these long stroke numbers, it makes sense that peak torque is made between 2,000-3,000 rpm. The 72 ft-lbs. of torque helps conceal the fact there is only 56 horsepower on tap. A single-crankpin crankshaft and dual counterbalancers help keep the vibration quelled without detracting from the V-Twin rumble that is so important to the success of the cruiser genre.

Despite the industry trend to go with emission reducing fuel injection, the 1300 operates without it, instead receiving petrol via a single 38mm CV carburetor which makes use of the manual choke necessary for cold starts. A staggered set of dual pipes expel the spent fuel with an extra-muffled exhaust note that may be politically correct but it really detracts from the Big Twin experience. A set of slip-ons will quickly cure this complaint.

Shifting from first to second or vice-versa reveals a decidedly non-Honda clunk from the 5-speed transmission, but the remaining three gears slip into place easily. The clutch is cable-operated rather than hydraulic, but it’s still pretty effortless to engage. The knurled rear brake pedal looks trick and provides an easy target when it comes time to use, although it gets in the way of the exact location your right foot needs to rest on long rides. Since the throw is not adjustable there’s nothing that can be done about it short of cutting it back with a hack saw. Simply cocking your foot outward provides the necessary clearance.

When it comes to slowing the big battle cruiser down it’s the job of a lone twin-piston caliper gripping a huge single 336mm disc on the bow and a 296mm disc with a twin-piston caliper on the stern. That single rotor up front actually offers plenty of stopping power. Unlike the 1800 the 1300 does not come equipped with Honda’s Linked Braking System (LBS) or dual rotors. The front feels a tad-bit spongy at the farthest reaches of the lever but it never faded during spirited rides. There is enough initial bite to cause the non-adjustable fork to dive quite a bit, which can cause your passenger to bonk the back of your helmet, so be careful if you’re brave enough to wear open face lids.

Passenger accommodations received rave reviews. The seat-to-footpeg relationship was comfortable for our sample of pillion pilots that included a pair of five-foot-tall significant-others.

“I’m really not used to riding on the back of a bike but it was pretty relaxing,” reported Mrs. Rizzo. “The seat was a little too narrow but other than that it was pretty comfortable. I’m not much of a cruiser fan but I like the looks and feel of this bike. Overall it’s a nice ride – I’d love to take it out again.”

And they did. It took an act of Congress to pry the VTX out from under the Rizzo family and into the van for return to Honda at the end of the test.

As we mentioned earlier, the exhaust note is very vanilla. Since there is an increasing selection of aftermarket exhaust systems, we decided to install a set of Roadhouse’s latest slip-ons. To further customize our ride, we ordered up the factory headlight cowling and lower fairing just to see how much effort it takes to put a personal touch on one of these beauties. Keep an eye out for that article next month. If you can’t wait to see what it looks like you can put together the VTX of your dreams on Honda’s website. With all the color options, OEM replacement fenders, bodywork, wheels, mirrors, seats backrests and more, the options are limitless.

Honda has come up with yet another winner with the 2004 Honda VTX1300. It may not break any records or set the performance standard by which all new cruisers must aim to beat, but it does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It provides a cost-effective and scaled down alternative to the big, bad 1800. It’s not only easy to ride, but the $3,000 lower price tag makes it easier to slip into a yearly budget.