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Yamaha Roadliner : A Rolling Study of Motorcycle Design (Review)

A crisp V-Twin, sharp braking and superior handling are combined in the Yamaha Roadliner. But will the styling, so new and yet so old, hit its intended mark?

With a page of chassis philosophy lifted directly from the high-tech Road Star Warrior program, and the crispest, most responsive V-Twin currently on the mass production market, Yamaha’s 1854cc Roadliner would seem perched at the cutting edge of something. Exactly what that edge will lead to remains to be seen. Yamaha hopes it’s an inroad to the elusive “younger buyer.” 

Technically, the 2006 Yamaha Roadliner is superb, arguably the new reigning heavyweight V-Twin champion in practically every category worth consideration. Stylistically, it’s complex, bold and beautiful. With it, Yamaha turns away from nostalgic “classic western” sensibilities—the bread and butter of the cruiser market—and roams into a 1930s-40s design era often referred to as art deco. This air-cooled faux freight train was built specifically to target the young and the “wild at heart,” said Yamaha USA’s Brad Banister, during the bike’s late-September press launch in Portland, Oregon. But wasn’t the aluminum-framed Warrior—with its R1-derived components, slick handling and radical styling—supposed to be the clarion call to the youth market when it was introduced in 2002? How did all that turn out anyway? 

A casual observer might conclude that Yamaha’s other, more traditionally “western” offerings such as the V-Star 1100 and 650 are still better selling cruisers. And will a motorcycle with arcane styling and a high price point ($18,499, standard model) appeal to anyone unless their pockets are deep enough to indulge irony? 

But, none of that matters here, the Roadliner itself is a beauty, offered in three variations—the standard model, a blacked-out Midnight version and the heavily-chromed Roadliner S. At the very core is the Warrior principle: an ultra-light, double-backboned aluminum frame with whippy, rigid qualities and a bare minimum of parts. The 37-lb. (16.78 kg) eight-component frame stands in startling contrast to the Road Star 1700’s 62-lb. (28.12 kg) 64-piece steel unit. 

And it will be the Road Star, not the Warrior, to which most comparisons will be made. In truth though, the Roadliner is neither a Road Star nor a Warrior, but a wholly new motorcycle designed to “show and go.”

yamaha roadliner at a sceneic overview along the Columbia river

Though expensive to build, Yamaha says an aluminum frame allows for clean, simplistic lines, a very low centre of gravity and nearly 50 per cent of the bike’s weight to be carried on the front wheel—sportbike style. Mated to the frame are a feather-light five-piece aluminum swingarm (11.8 lbs./5.35 kg), 46mm forks, a link-type monoshock and a three-disc brake package (298mm front/320mm rear) that may be the very best in the cruiser genre. Though the brake specs don’t seem much different than the Road Star’s, the calipers were built monoblock style, as opposed to the convention of bolting together right and left caliper halves. Greater system rigidity is the rationale here. Indeed, braking is sharp and biting. And, like so many other aspects of the bike, the front master cylinder is a design element, integrated with the lever. Style, after all, is what art deco objects reach for. 

Whether the Roadliner finds its most receptive audience among traditional cruiser buyers or someone somewhat younger, one thing’s certain: the bike is a rolling study of styling elements. Yamaha calls it a “neo streamline” concept intended to express aerodynamism, smooth speed and powerful forward thrust. (Think of that 1940s era streamliner engine in your old Lionel train set and you get the idea.) 

From the elegant trim lines on the tank to the saucy upward flip of its tail, the Yamaha Roadliner distils art deco thought—even the pushrods are tapered. The bike’s flylines are a series of repeating points that begin at the front fender strut and continue through the swingarm to the tipped LED signal lights. Between those lines, lie interesting details. The ignition tumbler for example is hidden beneath a chrome slider on the headlamp nacelle. The heel/toe shifter is adjustable for different boot sizes and in fact comes as a two-piece affair that can be quickly separated if the complications of a heel shift are too much for the rider. Mounted to the flange-less teardrop fuel tank is a shield-shaped analogue dash with glowing blue speed numbers and LCD readouts of the trip mileage and fuel status. The multi-function meter is controlled through select/reset buttons on the handlebar switches. This is a rather fussy arrangement that requires some familarization. The tank itself is not large capacity, 4.5 (US) gallons in total with nearly a gallon of that in reserve in the sub-tank hidden beneath the seat. But a “run-out” trial showed that a mildly aggressive rider could coax 200 miles from a single tank of fuel, said Mike Ulrich of Yamaha USA’s testing department. Ulrich has been involved with the project since its inception because, like most of the Star family members, the Roadliner is a YMUS initiative.

Twelve-spoke wheels ringed with tubeless tires (130/70-18 front, 190/60-17 rear) complete a look that’s finished in four colours. The standard Roadliner features brushed components, painted wheels and black cherry paint. The Roadliner Midnight (perhaps the most compelling version at $18,999) is metallic black, while the “S” ($19,999) is either metallic black-and-bronze or white. Again, the Roadliner S is decked out in the highest level of finish.

Very likely, many potential buyers will consider the Yamaha Roadliner strictly on the strength of its visual presentation. Or they may be intrigued by its handling qualities. Like the Road Warrior before it, the tight aluminum frame and swingarm combination, clever weight distribution and cruiser-aggressive ergonomics make the belt-driven Roadliner a pure joy to ride quickly, especially where roads bend, twist and offer up long sweeping sections.

But it’s the  smooth 113 cu./in. powerhouse  that makes this a complete motorcycle. 

“Most people think it’s a bored-out Road Star engine,” said Ulrich. “But, it’s all-new. The cases, heads, pistons, crank, the balancers, you name it … all new.”

With two plugs per cylinder and an undertank airbox design that allows for a straight intake tract, the four-valve motor produces an amazing 9.5:1 compression ratio (versus 8.3:1, Road Star and RS Warrior). The big motor’s throb is tamed by dual counterbalancers, tuned to provi-yamaha road liner beauty shot along a country road

de  a “pulse character” as the pistons travel up and down. Its closed-loop fuel injection system, highlighted by 12-hole injectors and 43mm throttle bodies, is made by Mikuni. 

On the exhaust side, a 2-into-1 setup features a catalytic converter and, for the first time on one of its cruisers, Yamaha’s EXUP power valve system. EXUP consists of a variable valve in the muffler that adjusts the diameter of the pipe according to engine rpm to prevent “blow-back” and boost torque in the midrange. 

All this and with “aggressive cam timing,” the Yamaha Roadliner packs a formidable punch: 91 horsepower at 4,800 rpm; 117 ft/lbs. torque at 2,200 rpm. (These are rear wheel numbers.) Yamaha says that in quarter-mile testing sprints, the 705-lb. (320-kg) Roadliner would consistently finish 20 feet ahead of the heavier Kawasaki Vulcan 2000 and Honda VTX1800, its most direct competitors in the big Twin category. Spirited highway riding confirmed the Roadliner’s ability to respond rapidly to cracks of the throttle and to pull promptly from idle to cruising speeds. Roll-ons in any gear produce crisp results before the engine settles into a mile-eating lope, pulling just over 3,000 rpm at 70 mph. Though it’s eager to please and, for a big bike, extraordinarily maneuverable even in stop-and-go city traffic, the open road at high throttle is where the Roadliner is most at home. “The technical point was to achieve comfort and enjoyment in the 55 to 75 mph speed range,” says Yamaha.  The rider’s comfort is the result of a flat but very satisfactory saddle that enjoys an excellent ergonomic relationship with the buckhorn bars and floorboards. But the “enjoyment” part of the ride really does come from down deep in the engine room.

The rider’s first instinct is to draw a parallel between the 1854cc motor and others in the class; to find operational aspects that remind you of this or that engine. But a satisfactory conclusion inevitably slips between your fingers because, most test riders were agreed, only Triumph’s three-cylinder Rocket III builds power more rapidly than the Roadliner. 

Because of its dynamic straight-line acceleration and corner-hugging attributes, top-of-class braking and thought-provoking styling, the Roadliner is sure to be the most inspected new cruiser at motorcycle shows across the country this winter. (No need to wait though, units should already be at your dealer.) What remains to be seen is who’s going to be performing the inspections. Will it be the traditional cruiser buyers and the demographic they represent, or will it be, as Yamaha hopes, riders with a little less grey in their hair? Time will tell.

by John Campbell Canadian Biker #217

Yamaha Roadliner Counterpoint

It’s worth noting that the new Yamaha Roadliner was originally intended to break the two-litre mark—development apparently got as far as a functioning, liquid-cooled motorcycle—but that Yamaha eventually decided to kill the project and literally start over. It seems weight and centre of gravity were both so high it was judged simply too heavy, too big. In its final form the Roadliner is most definitely one substantial motorcycle, but it’s also a heavyweight you can lift off the sidestand and move around with amazing ease. Much more so, anyway, than it’s 705-lb (320 kg) dry weight spec would have you believe. 

Most manufacturers have found a way to make their big cruisers feel as though they’ve dropped half their weight the moment they get rolling. With its rigid but light aluminum frame, the Roadliner one-ups everyone in that regard by behaving in an astonishingly agile and precise manner on a sweeping road. Add to that some of the best brakes in cruiserdom and you end up with a package that is truly hard to fault on the road. Seat of the pants impression is the all-new big Twin powering the Roadliner could easily hold its own from a stop light against a Vulcan 2000 Classic, which is about as strong as it gets these days (in the V-Twin class). But speed obviously isn’t the sole purpose of cruisers and the fact that Yamaha was able to tune the engine to produce just the right sound and feel in just the right dose is the icing on the cake. 

If there’s a downside to all this, it has to be the price which, at just a few bucks short of 20 grand for the gorgeously finished “S” model, is among the highest ever for a Japanese bike. Considering that competitors haven’t been all that successful at moving high priced cruisers, it’ll be interesting to see how this one fares. 

by Bertrand Gahel Canadian Biker #217

 

Related: Yamaha Stratoliner (2006)

Related: Kawasaki Vulcan 2000 (2007) 

Related: Yamaha XV1900 Raider (2008)

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