Kawasaki Vulcan S (2015) Review

The new for 2015 Kawasaki Vulcan S is a non-traditional cruiser in every way.

The new 650cc Kawasaki Vulcan S, the first fresh product in the class in ages

Works for Me

Stuffing a sportbike engine in a cruiser is something Kawasaki already tried with the Ninja 500R-powered Vulcan 500 yielding, shall we say, uninspiring results. The new Ninja 650-derived Vulcan S is a very different story.    

Traditionally built small displacement cruisers may have a noble purpose, but exciting they are not. The new-for-2015 650cc Kawasaki Vulcan S, the first fresh product in the class in ages, is anything but traditional. Based on, of all things, a sportbike platform, unconventionally styled and offering more ergonomic adjustability than basically anything else on two wheels, the S legitimately qualifies as interesting news. 

The more the Vulcan S is observed, the more interesting it becomes. The new Kawasaki’s concept is actually different enough that even riders with an experience level way past that of a 650cc cruiser might give it a second look, if only out of curiosity.

One of its most intriguing and innovative aspects is adjustable ergonomics, something called Ergo-Fit. Other than seats that can be moved up or down a few millimetres on just a few models, motorcycle ergonomics are pretty much a one size fits all affair. Bicycles offer more adjustability. Why this aspect of motorcycles hasn’t progressed becomes even more incomprehensible when the simplicity of the Kawasaki Vulcan S system is demonstrated. 

Three different seats, a couple of handlebars and footpegs with three threaded holes instead of one is basically what it comes down to. There’s also no cost to these options: customers sit on a bike in a dealer’s showroom, decide what combination they like best, and voilà, free and instant custom fit ergos. Such adjustability isn’t just unheard of; it’s a game-changing characteristic capable of literally transforming the appeal of a bike. The best way to explain why may be to take my own case as an example. 

I’m an experienced rider and although I do like to go fast, I also genuinely enjoy cruisers. I actually like that they’re not about going fast. I like the laid back positions and I’m very fond of the deep rumble and strong character of their engines, especially the better, bigger ones. 

The big-inch models also fit me better. I’m 5’11’’, so not super tall, but still tall enough that the cramped ergos typical of the smaller displacement models—which are built to be accessible to novice riders and shorter motorcyclists, notably women—often ruin it for me. 

I got that exact feeling of being too cramped on the tighter of the three combinations suggested at the model launch. The forward seat pushed me toward the tank and made the footpegs (in their rearward-most position) and reduced-reach handlebar feel too close. For someone about 5’5’’ or less, that option could be perfect, though. The “mid” combination felt compact, but could have been okay. The seat was in a normal position; the pegs (in their mid position) were far enough to let my knees open up a bit and with the standard handlebar, my hands reached further. Then I tried the maxed out ergos and immediately knew this was it. With the more rearward seat and the most forward peg position, my legs were way out in front as I like them on a cruiser. The handlebar was the same as the “mid” bike; but since I sat further back my arms were more stretched, falling naturally where I like them. I felt as if I was straddling a big bike with open ergos like a Harley V-Rod Muscle or a Yamaha Raider. That’s the ergonomic combination I chose for a recent daylong road test session of this new model. 

On the other end of the spectrum, a female rider with a particularly short inseam reported she was just as happy with the “tight” ergos I first tried but didn’t like. Now that is flexibility. Kawasaki’s Ergo-Fit system is both brilliantly simple and effective and why this hasn’t been done before is baffling. 

But good ergonomics alone aren’t enough to make an entry-level cruiser into an enjoyable ride for someone with a taste for bigger displacement. Those bikes just don’t have enough power and torque. Right? As it turns out, the Kawasaki Vulcan S is the exception to the rule. While it has the same engine size as a V-Star 650 and slightly less than a Shadow 750, the Ninja 650-derived engine powering the Vulcan S isn’t of the same type at all: it’s a streetbike motor, not a cruiser engine. It’s tuned to produce more torque than on the Ninja at the expense of some top end power. The cruiser being also a bit heavier, the Ninja’s performance isn’t duplicated by the Vulcan but for that class performance is very high with straight-line acceleration that easily surpasses most classic cruisers with twice the displacement. 

The parallel Twin builds power in a way that is very reminiscent of the flexibility of a good street bike. Torque is delivered progressively and in a linear way rather than big V-Twin style, in generous chunks at low revs. As for the absence of the classic exhaust note of a V-Twin, well, the truth is it’s not exactly well rendered by your typical 650 cruiser either. At the end of the day, the Vulcan S proves that powering a cruiser with a streetbike engine may be unusual, but can still work very well. 

The streetbike characteristics of the Vulcan S aren’t at all limited to the engine. The chassis too, while not identical, is close to the Ninja 650’s. 

The cruiser is longer and lower and has a more relaxed steering geometry to give it better stability at the expense of some flickability, but the sporty nature of the Ninja is immediately felt on the Vulcan. It’s very easy to lift off its sidestand and once moving, balancing it from one side to the other isn’t just effortless, but also feels unusually natural for the class. Most good cruisers handle corners decently, but the Vulcan feels like it wants and likes to be leaned into a turn. 

This would all be useless if ground clearance was as limited as it is on the average cruiser, but the little Vulcan can be leaned surprisingly far for the class. Maybe not enough to drag elbows, but more than enough to make attacking a twisty back road an enjoyable experience. And thanks to the sporty nature of the frame, the Vulcan can be pushed hard while remaining solid and precise. Good brakes with standard ABS complete a pleasantly competent chassis package. 

The last “un-classic” characteristic of the Kawasaki Vulcan S is also its most visible: styling. Product leader Yoshifumi Mano, who was present at the Santa Barbara media introduction, said the goal was to make the S not look like a Harley. Honda already has a few cruisers (Valkyrie, F6B, CTX) with non-traditional  (i.e. non-Harley) styling and there may very well be the beginning of an interesting trend here. With its underside muffler, sportbike frame and multiple unusually shaped parts, the Vulcan S certainly does not look like something out of Milwaukee. If Kawasaki wanted to build an all-new classic cruiser in this specific displacement class, it would have. 

The new 650cc Kawasaki Vulcan S, the first fresh product in the class in agesV-Twins and American styling are nothing new to the Japanese brand. But times have changed and there now seems to be a general feeling of fatigue or even boredom regarding unimaginative Harley-Davidson inspired cruisers from “regular” brands with some motorcyclists now looking at them with a yawn and a been there, done that attitude. The Kawasaki Vulcan S is one of the very first attempts at reigniting interest for the cruiser genre with a new type of design—something that, by the way, no one so far has accomplished successfully. 

It is also the first and at the moment the only cruiser in the new crop of affordable and accessible small displacement motorcycles steadily being introduced these days. But calling it strictly entry-level would be somewhat misleading: it functions so well for a cruiser of this displacement that more demanding and experienced riders attracted by its enticing $7,999 price point could very well find themselves happy with its general performance. I was.

  • by Bertrand Gahel, May 2015 issue

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