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Kawasaki Voyager – Dressed for the Road (Review)

Lifting a nameplate from its past, Kawasaki has introduced a new kind of Voyager for 2009. No longer a pure touring bike that might have evolved to go head-to-head with the Gold Wings and K1200LTs of today, the modernized version is more like an accessorized cruiser.

Giving new life to an old concept can be achieved in many ways. While sometimes a surprisingly mild update will do the trick, as was the case with the latest KLR650, in other circumstances a complete redesign is inevitable, as with the Concours 14. So when the time came to make the mighty Voyager name rise from the ashes, the first question Kawasaki had to answer was, how?

Voyager.07Originally, the Voyager was a dedicated luxury touring bike, introduced in 1986 and last sold in Canada in 2003. Given Kawasaki’s “best in class” philosophy, a true redo of the Voyager XII would mean building a new model that still kept faith with the original mandate but would now ostensibly compete in the modern luxury touring category—one that has grown very challenging and quite exclusive in recent years. It would mean building a Gold Wing beater, no less. Possible, for sure, but risky and very costly.
One look at the new-for-2009 Voyager 1700 shows Kawasaki ultimately opted for a very different, much simpler, much more economical solution than going head-to-head with “real” touring machines. The manufacturer chose instead to build a good old dresser. An accessorized cruiser, if you like.

Without any doubt, many motorcyclists would have loved to see the result of Kawasaki’s energy spent at building a Gold Wing\K1200LT beater. One can easily imagine a machine with at least as many cylinders as the Honda, maybe more, with unmatched power and bullet-train styling and aerodynamics.

Three factors would seem to validate Kawasaki’s chosen direction.

Number one, there’s only one other “classic” dresser on the market, Harley-Davidson’s Electra Glide, and it’s very, very successful. Offering the first classically styled metric touring cruiser doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.

Number two, the new, cruiser-derived Voyager is actually a bike Kawasaki’s own clientele has been building for quite some time now, something it did by bolting aftermarket trunks and Electra Glide-inspired “batwing” fairings onto Vulcan Nomads. Why not build it for them.

And number three, the Voyager is just one of several models produced around the all-new-for-2009 Vulcan 1700 platform, a fact that makes it relatively economical to manufacture. This way of producing several models from a single “do it all” platform is yet another trick borrowed from the Milwaukee Book. In this case, it allowed Kawasaki to renew the Vulcan Classic along with its light touring variation, the LT, to rejuvenate the popular Nomad, and finally to create a new Voyager, all with a single frame, a single engine and a LOT of common parts. As far as big-inch cruisers go, there is no better way of building a family of models.

CREATING SEVERAL MODELS FROM a single platform can be a tricky proposition because by definition every single one of those models then offers the same character and feel, which may not always be appropriate. To ensure each Vulcan gets its own rightful personality, Kawasaki essentially built two pairs of bikes: the Voyager and the Nomad on one hand, and the Classic and the Classic LT on the other. While all models share the same frame, wheels and brakes, the Voyager/Nomad’s all-new six-speed V-Twin is tuned to produce 108 ft/lbs. peak torque at 2,750 rpm, 500 rpm higher than on the Classic/Classic LT. Variations in the injection mapping and different exhaust systems are responsible for the difference. Kawasaki’s logic is that the touring-oriented models will be ridden at higher speeds more frequently than the other two and will thus need to have more torque handy at higher revs.

While slightly firmer damping and spring rates on the heavier Voyager and Nomad round up the technical aspect of the differences between the “touring” pair and the “cruising” couple, the Voyager’s personality is further defined by a unique riding position, a good deal of additional equipment and last but definitely not least, the option of an assisted and combined antilock braking system Kawasaki calls its Advanced Coactive Braking Technology, K-ACT.


FEW WILL ARGUE THAT THE NEW Voyager 1700 is a visually striking motorcycle. While the 1960’s automotive inspiration of the front fairing shape has been described as a bit cheesy by some, most agree that it does achieve the sought after retro/touring look in both a classical and classy manner. The Voyager is one of those bikes you have to see “in the flesh” to truly appreciate. While the “face” of the model is very distinctive, it is in the end only one part of a whole ensemble that, in person, has a very nice flow and is integrated in a very seamless fashion. Plus, this new Vulcan platform offers a surprisingly high level of finish, boasting easily the best attention to detail, richest chrome and most tasteful lines yet found on a Kawasaki cruiser.

If there’s one environment where any kind of touring motorcycle must be exemplary, it is when spending serious time in the saddle. The San Francisco region, where Kawasaki introduced the Voyager 1700, provided the perfect opportunity to sample the new model in such conditions. With a perfect blend of twisty scenic roads and straight open highway, our itinerary included the perfect testing ground. It allowed the Voyager to do its thing in the very element it was designed for, and its thing, the Voyager did well.

You feel enveloped on the new Voyager. Pampered by a deep and cushy touring seat, looking at an automotive-style instrument panel seemingly straight out of a half-century old Buick, isolated from the elements by a generous frame-mounted fairing, positioned in a relaxed, cruiser-inspired stance, you’re thinking, let’s go somewhere.

The bike is big, there’s no question. And heavy. But somehow, like the Electra Glide, all that heft ends up being quite manageable. The limited width of the V-Twin is partly responsible, as is the relatively low centre of gravity. The riding position has a familiar cruiser feel to it, but the floorboards are just pulled back enough and the handlebar width is just tucked in enough that it doesn’t feel too relaxed. There’s a balance there that’s pleasantly appropriate and one that cruiser owners wishing to step up to a touring-capable machine will undoubtedly find very natural.

FOR A FULL-DRESSED TOURING cruiser, the Voyager’s original equipment list is extensive, if not extraordinary. Weather-wise, the amount of protection provided by the front fairing, the windshield and the nicely matched lowers (which feature a convenient trap that can be opened to let air through in hot weather) is almost as good as what you’d find on a “real” touring model like a Gold Wing or a K1200LT. But the windshield, which is rather high and will have an average height rider looking through it, cannot be adjusted at all. It also generates a little bit of turbulence around the helmet at highway speeds, an unfortunate yet common occurrence on large windshield-equipped cruisers. While Kawasaki didn’t mention anything about optional windshields of various heights, there’s little doubt some will be available soon either from the Kawasaki’s own list of accessories or from the aftermarket.

There are no heated grips, a feature that should be standard or at the very least optional on any touring oriented machine. There’s no heated seat either. Although the Kawasaki staff present during the model’s launch in California wouldn’t officially comment on the future availability of these much sought-after features, one anonymous fellow winked and pointed at a (very production-looking) prototype heated seat he was enjoying on his staff-only Voyager 1700. Bottom line is, both a set of heated grips and a heated seat should be available at some point.

As for the rest of the factory equipment, expect a trio of luggage that is as spacious as it is easy to use (it locks with the ignition key and can be left unlocked if desired), a roomy and comfortable place for the passenger to sit for long rides, an average-sounding, two-speaker (rear speakers are optional) audio system ready for your iPod or satellite radio, and cruise control.

There’s a very interesting aspect to the development of a single platform capable of being turned into a touring cruiser just as well as a regular cruiser: it has to be built for touring duty from the start. There’s a big difference between that and a stock cruiser that’s been overloaded with a quantity of accessories it wasn’t designed for.

The Voyager never feels encumbered by its equipment, but neither is it integrated as tightly as a Gold Wing and the chassis isn’t designed to be pushed hard at high speeds, though Kawasaki claims it’s 40 per cent stronger.

The term “touring cruiser” actually best describes the most appropriate use and rhythm for the Voyager. It wants to be ridden just like a cruiser. You can comfortably sustain higher speeds for long distances in a straight line because of the amount of wind protection. But as soon as the pavement starts to twist, no one should expect much more than what a stable, solid-feeling, light-steering cruiser offers. Stay within those limits and the Voyager provides a genuinely enjoyable, very accessible—at least for the experienced rider—and surprisingly plush ride. Exceed them and it looses its cool.

K-ACT is one of the most unique features of the Voyager. Offered as an option only on the Voyager and not on the Nomad (at a cost of $1,450 over the standard model’s MSRP $20,249), it’s basically a linked and assisted antilock braking system quite similar to BMW’s Integral ABS.

It monitors traction, speed, and numerous other factors during deceleration and constantly varies braking force at both wheels using a pump and a computer, whether both brakes are applied or just one. One of K-ACT’s best qualities is that it’s pretty invisible. You basically don’t hear or feel anything special in normal use, and it does allow for impressively short stopping distances during panic stops. My personal opinion on the matter is that it’s a must. It WILL pay for itself sooner or later.

OF COURSE, WHAT WOULD any high-end model related to the cruiser genre be without a big, pulsing V-Twin? Unacceptable would be the right answer. In the case of the all-new 1700cc, liquid-cooled, SOHC, 50 degree V-Twin powering the Voyager, high marks are in order. The success of any cruising experience is intimately tied to the character of the engine and so what Kawasaki ended up with is hard to fault. I thought there were maybe too many mechanical noises at low speeds when there’s no wind to cover them up and the front fairing amplifies them even more. But once underway, the new V-Twin is a delightful piece of engineering. Not only is it plenty powerful enough to push the Voyager’s heft with authority in every situation, from leaving a traffic light to speeding past a semi in a hurry, it’s also buttery smooth at cruising speed. But it’s most pleasant quality is the deep rich rumble it produces during acceleration. The six-speed tranny works without flaw and the overdrive sixth brings revs down to a very low 2,200 rpm at 100 kmh, a speed at which all the pieces combine to provide a very pleasant, comforting cruising experience.

And that’s what it all comes down to in the end: the Voyager is very good at offering the cruiser aficionado an enjoyable, almost soothing time in the saddle for hundreds of kilometres on end.

By Bertrand Gahel Canadian Biker

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