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Triumph Thunderbird vs Kawasaki Vaquero (Review)


kawasaki vaquero bagger
Kawasaki Vaquero

You’re willing to spend somewhere south of 20 bills on a new bike, but you’re not totally hooked on any particular model. Too many choices, too little clarity. Here, we look at two very different heavyweights, the Kawasaki Vaquero and the Triumph Thunderbird, and why one might be right for you; the other, not so much.

Venture onto any motorcycle forum and you’re sure to find someone wanking about their “lack of choice.” This perennial malcontent will cite numerous makes and models available in Japan or Europe—in fact, nearly everywhere but Canada—and then declare that if only the CBR400RR had been available at his local dealer, back when, he’d have rushed down, chequebook in hand. History doesn’t support him of course. Motorcycle distributors bring in what they’re reasonably sure they can move based on past sales records, not wish lists of obscure bikes. What they do import though—whether the forums agree or not—is amazing in terms of diversity. For evidence, look no further than the cruiser market, a sector once limited to light, middle, and heavyweight bikes. Now there are choppers, bobbers, baggers, muscle bikes, tourers and customs. This is not an all-inclusive summary. Doubtless many sub-sets have been overlooked here. Moreover, it’s important to remember that the final number of accepted cruiser segments must be multiplied by two: standard and metric, as defined by whether or not the motorcycle is built in the United States (standard) or elsewhere (metric). So, plenty of choice in the cruiser class.

No wonder then that many potential buyers have trouble making a decision unless they’re really committed to a particular brand (hello Harley). In the heavyweight division where asking prices typically range between 16 and 25 grand you really have to stay focused if you intend to get what you truly do want. The problem faced by many motorcycle enthusiasts is how to make that decision, what metric do you use to settle on that one bike? It’s a tough call unless you’re really stuck on a particular make, model or colour. And people change their minds all the time. A local BMW dealer here in Victoria has an assortment of trade-ins sitting in his lot: there’s a KTM, V-Rod, Ducati, and a big, red Honda VTX loaded with a touring package. How someone goes from a definitive metric cruiser to an R1200GS is a mystery, but there it is just the same. People change their minds all the time. While some experimentation is understandable, and even desirable, it’s not always indicative of an adventurous spirit. Too often someone simply bought the wrong bike because they weren’t clear on their own true tastes and riding preferences. Clarity might involve the individual being brutally honest. He may like the mental image of himself on a rockin’ hotrod like Harley-Davidson’s Night Rod, but is he really that kind of rider? Or, he might harbour secret dreams of touring North America, and a Gold Wing would fit that bill to a T. That’s a big financial commitment to two wheels though, so he needs to be sure he’s really a long-distance rider . Unless he won the lottery that is, and money’s not a problem.


THIS PAST FALL WE HAD TWO VERY different bikes in our stable, the Kawasaki Vaquero (MSRP: $19,999) and Triumph’s Thunderbird Storm ($16,299). One is a bagger, the other a power cruiser. On first contact with the stickers, the uncommitted motorcycle shopper might say, “No contest, I’ll take the T-Bird.” But that might be a poor decision, not because of any inherent problem with the Triumph—both bikes are excellent representatives of their particular category—but because it would be wrong for the shopper to make his choice based simply on price if he’s not even clear what will actually work for him in the long run. “Buyer, know thyself.” This should be the shopper’s dictum. An extra $3,700 shouldn’t necessarily be the deal-breaker, especially if he’s already considering a purchase in the $20,000 range.

But examining the differences between disparate heavyweights like the Kawasaki Vaquero and the  Triumph T-Bird would be a worthwhile exercise. Exactly what can you get for less than 20 large?

Let’s begin with the Thunderbird Storm, which was previewed in our June issue by Bertrand Gahel (“More Thunder for the Bird”). Gahel’s assessment was that with the big-bore 1700cc Storm variant of the base model, the Thunderbird is “creeping into power cruiser territory.” That may have been too conservative. It’s definitely there. While the Storm is no Suzuki M109-R as far as raw brute force is concerned, it delivers wave after wave of instantly accessible momentum playing in concert with six beautifully spaced and snickable helical gear ratios feeding the belt final drive.

Its 97 hp and 115 ft/lbs. torque are perfectly centred for corner-shredding confidence through each gear change. A combination of sticky Metzler Marathon tires, hard-biting Brembo calipers on Nissin discs, and rail-stiff 47mm Showa forks mean that when it’s time to brake or manoeuvre in tighter open road spaces, the big Dark Custom turns in command performances every time. We handed the bike over to CB Track Editor oliver Jervis for a few days just to get the perspective of an unabashed sportbike guy. He came back raving.

“I don’t know what it is about this bike but it calls to me in dark ways,” he said. ”Maybe it was like dating ‘that gal’ in high school. You know, the one that meant trouble but you knew you were going to have a great time getting into trouble with. Okay, maybe not like that, but from the very moment I cracked the throttle and felt the Storm’s pulse-pounding torque hit I was in love. This combined with the bikes stripped down nature and raw riding experience brings on a feeling of rebellion and I can’t help but smile as I ride it. The handling is superb and as time went on, we machined in a few more degrees of lean.”
Enroute to grinding down the “hero blobs” from the pegs and the chicken strips off the Metzlers, Oliver clearly established one very intriguing fact: the Thunderbird Storm is a cruiser that a sportbike rider could love. It “called to him in dark ways” and he ascribed a consortium of factors to its sense of performance delivery.

“I loved the light-feeling controls (especially the clutch); the power and the midrange hit; the rigidity of the chassis (which sacrifices comfort for the performance); and the awesome grip of the tires,” said Ollie, who went on to report that complete strangers stopped by his driveway for a better look at the bike, apparently drawn by its dark charisma.
But in his zeal for the power cruiser, Oliver left behind an important clue for the undecided buyer. He spoke of the rigid chassis, which is specifically designed for attacking corners. But therein lies a problem. If you’re not the kind of rider who enjoys driving harder and harder with every upshift, and on every bend of the road, if you’re not into scorching rubber and exploring limits, the Thunderbird Storm is not really a bike for you. From engine to suspension package to frame design and tire selection, the T-Bird Storm is all about being a hotrod.

THEN THERE’S THE VAQUERO. AH yes, the Kawasaki Vaquero. From front to back, it’s a bike designed for riders who crave a bit of spirit on occasion, but are more inclined to seek a gentler pace. Targeted to compete in a class that has been succinctly defined by Harley-Davidson in its Road Glide variations, the Kawasaki Vaquero is a derivative of the 1700cc Vulcans. In red livery, this is a showcase touring cruiser with a highly competitive pricepoint for the category. Like other Vulcans, it’s no slouch in the engine room: 82 hp at 5,000 rpm and 107 ft/lbs. torque at 2,750. Satisfying bursts are available as required, but overall the power feels utilitarian, unlike the wild revel of the Storm.

Kawasaki vaquero of the Vulcan line

From the floorboards up, the rider is comfortably cushioned and attended by a checklist of features. Not so much the passenger though, who must get by on a tenuous perch as the Badlander-style seat tapers down to flow into the moulded bodywork.

But for the rider the ergonomics are relaxed and his position cosseted by the frame-mounted fairing which hosts five operation status gauges and a multi-feature sound system.

Actually the sound system raises a curious point about features-laden baggers such as the Kawasaki Vaquero. Where the Storm’s handlebars are relatively sparse with only the basic control switches, the Kawasaki’s are much busier and cluttered. Fully half of the six sliding buttons on the Vaquero’s left handlebar are solely for the operation of the iPod-compatible sound system. Of concern, the cluster of switches to operate various sound features has displaced the more important controls. The horn button for example has been rotated slightly upward and away from its conventional position. This forces the rider to waste precious micro-seconds hunting for the horn until he grows fully accustomed to its locale.In any event, motorcycle sound systems are generally nothing more than producers of white noise at highway speeds and therefore non-essential. However, park the bike at the campground or picnic spot and suddenly the portable stereo becomes a highly-desirable feature.

Getting to that picnic spot is half the fun. The Kawasaki Vaquero’s cruise control, six-speed transmission with overdrive, and plush suspension make for a luxurious ride in relaxed sweepers. The 45mm forks and four-way adjustable air shocks aren’t meant to carve Stormesquely but they do brace the Vaquero to gently float across road imperfections, leaving the rider unjarred and ensconced behind a cowl that deflects much (but not all) of the oncoming wind charge. The aesthetics of the louvered openings on either side of the headlamp may be unappealing to some for their faux nature, but they’re not entirely without purpose: fog lamps can be retrofit into the spaces.

In military terms, the T-Bird Storm is dedicated to rapid attack mode, while the Vaquero is tailored to the long campaign. For that, there are 35-litre lockable and integrated hardshell bags. A convenient feature allows the key—the same key that opens the bags—to be withdrawn from the ignition while the bike is running. Upfront, two locking glove boxes are sized to contain smaller items.

The LCD readout on the console offers detail-oriented riders the ability to monitor operational aspects such as average fuel consumption, remaining miles in the tank, gear position, and so on. A switch on the right handlebar toggles between the various readouts—in both standard and metric.

The Kawasaki Vaquero’s sultry good looks, silky handling capabilities and languid feel contribute to a sense of sheer well-being, the very essence of its intent. The bagger hits every note that has made the category so successful. The same could be said of the Storm.

Two different bikes with expressly differing capacities in the broader heavyweight class. Which one is “right” for you? Which bike is “best?” That would be a personal decision. But try not to make it strictly using a dollars and cents formula. First, take a look at the guy in the mirror.


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