Cruisers are some of the most iconic motorcycles ever made. They’re instantly recognizable thanks to their relaxed riding position, wide handlebars, and comfortable seats. Originally designed for munching miles on big, open roads, the cruiser is the definitive American motorcycle. Now choosing the best, yikes, that is a seriously challenging task when trying to keep the list to just 10.
While most cruisers take their inspiration directly from the big American-made cruisers from the early to mid-20th century, modern interpretations are straying from that path. In order for us here at MBW to narrow the list to ten, some sort of consensus around what makes a cruiser a cruiser needed to be solved. It is 2022 people, we all need boundaries, right? I like it simple, I understand simple, so the simple criteria are, low seat, relaxed riding position, big power, and little to no fairing. Fairings are for touring bikes, yeah I said it! Cruiser riders need extra wind in the face. Lean angle, that means little, cruisers know they will scrape some hard bits.
We’ve seen all kinds of cruisers hit the streets over the past 100 years, so we’ve put together a list of some of our favorites. Here are the 10 best cruisers ever made…that the average rider can easily go and buy.
The Indian Chief is arguably one of the most iconic cruiser motorcycles ever made. The first Chief models were made by the Hendee Manufacturing Company in 1922 before the company rebranded itself as the legendary Indian Motorcycle Company. It was continuous production from ’22 right up to the brand’s demise in 1953. However, Indian was revived in 1999, and once again in 2006. And today, the Indian Chief lives on.
Early examples of the original Chief are hard to come by and highly collectible. However, for those who want a taste of that good-old-fashioned American heritage, modern interpretations are readily available, with impressive specs too.
The modern 2022 Indian Chief Bobber uses Indian’s Thunderstroke 116 engine. It’s a 1,901 cc behemoth that produces an impressive 120 lb-ft of torque. Modern Indian motorcycles deliver all you would expect, as far as ride quality, from a modern bike and manage to beautifully incorporate the historical influences in the nuevo-retro styling.
Ducati isn’t usually the first name you think of when you’re asked about cruisers. The marque is usually better associated with exotic superbikes, desmodromics, and fiery Italian temperaments. However, Ducati has released cruiser models in the past. This time, we’re not talking about the rebadged Cagiva Ducati Indiana. We’re talking about the Diavel. In particular, we’re talking about the XDiavel.
The first Diavel was unveiled at the 2010 EICMA show. It was an immediate success. As a model that comfortably toed the line between sports bike and cruiser, the Diavel became the world’s first genuine performance-cruiser, and it wasn’t long until the platform evolved further.
In 2016, the XDiavel was born. This was Ducati’s first belt-driven motorcycle, and thanks to the low-profile, long wheelbase, and large 1,262cc engine, it became Ducati’s fastest accelerating motorcycle at the time. Today, the XDiavel boasts 152 horsepower, 92 lb-ft of torque, and a top speed in excess of 160 mph.
The Honda Valkyrie isn’t just one of the best Japanese cruisers ever made, it’s one of the best cruisers ever made in general! The Valkyrie had a few variations starting in 1997 based around the 1500 Goldwing engine, then later with the polarizing styling of the Rune and the 1800 Goldwing engine. Finally finishing off with the F6C models from 2013-2015 again using the GL1800 engine. In many ways, the Valkyrie was a bagger before riders knew how cool a bagger could be.
Made exclusively at Honda’s Marysville plant in Ohio, it seemed a no-brainer to take the silky-smooth flat-six Goldwing engine and strip off all the touring weight. Leaving an engine with tires and a handlebar, the 100+ lb-ft of torque easily moved the Valkyrie down the highway. With the introduction of the GL1800 Goldwing in 2001, it was just a matter of time before the larger powerplant made its way into a cruiser form. This time it came packaged as the Valkyrie Rune.
The Rune seemed to be going for Japanese Anime styling, and it seemed to be an either love it or hate it look. The Rune is now an extremely rare ride, having been such a limited run during 2003.
Finally, the last use of the Valkyrie name was on the 2014-2015 models. Once again taking advantage of the excellent Goldwing engine, the bike was reworked for a 50/50 weight distribution, but clad with styling elements that no longer needed any chrome to show off.
The Valkyrie proved a V-Twin wasn’t a requirement to be an excellent cruiser. The choice was comfort and performance over exhaust notes and earth-shaking vibrations. The Valkyrie left a lasting impression, and that’s why we rank it as one of the best cruisers of all time.
For many cruiser purists, things like the Honda Valkyrie and Gold Wing aren’t traditional cruisers. Instead, some consider them to be touring bikes only. So, we decided to add an indisputable Honda cruiser into the mix: this is the Honda Shadow.
The first Shadows first rolled onto the scene in 1983, and since then the line has evolved to accommodate a wide range of engine sizes and variations, from 125cc learner bikes to larger mile-munching 1,100 cc steeds, with Spirit, Aero, Phantom, and RS trims available historically.
If we had to choose a Honda Shadow model that really showcased the best that the range has to offer, we’d choose the most recent edition: the Honda Shadow Phantom. The latest Shadow Phantom is a smooth rider, with plenty of grunt for highway cruising, but in a steady and confidence-inspiring package. Featuring a blacked-out 745cc V-twin, 44.9 horsepower, 47.9 lb-ft of torque, the Shadow has the right mix of attitude, reliability, and fun to provide thrills to beginners and experienced hands alike.
Harley-Davidson Twin Cam
There is no way that you can write a list of the best cruisers without including Harley-Davidson. The challenge for this writer is, how do you choose a single model? One of the key aspects of Harley Davidson ownership is making the bike you put a leg over, your bike. Have you ever seen a bone stock, Harley Davidson? Maybe once at the dealership before it was sold.
I think it makes more sense to focus on the heart of the Harley, the engine. The Twin Cam 88 and 96 cu in engines are providing countless hours of joy and frustration to thousands, but I am certain when the mention of cruiser bikes comes up, the distinctive sound of a Twin Cam HD engine is the soundtrack most of us hear.
The 88’s came out in the 1999 model year, and the 96 arrived in 2007 and were found in the frames of every Dyna and Softail(FL). In limited models, the displacement eventually hit 103 and 110 cu inches, good for about 115 lb-ft of torque. These are the machines riders can find the true HD experience on, at a price far less than the latest models, and get way deep in the rabbit hole of custom parts. Once you make it yours, all that’s left to do is get out and cruise.
Kawasaki Vulcan 900
Next up, we have another metric cruiser. This time it’s the Kawasaki Vulcan. The Vulcan series isn’t at all new. In fact, it has been around since 1984! The first Vulcan, known as the VN700A, was quite the thing when it rolled onto the scene. It had a beefy Japanese V-twin engine, and an unusual shaft drive! It is considered one of the best beginner cruisers ever made.
Over the years, the Vulcan has been available in a number of displacements, styles, and times, ranging from little 125cc run-arounds to heavy-duty 2,000cc goliaths. Today, the Vulcan aficionados can choose from the futuristic Vulcan S, bagger-esque 1700 Vaquero, and touring-friendly 1700 Voyager. But our favorite model has to be the Vulcan 900, and its awesome Custom variant.
Boasting a potent 903cc 54-degree V-twin engine that shoots out a hearty 50 horsepower and 58 lb-ft of torque, the Vulcan offers enough grunt to satisfy most riders. However, it’s the looks that give the Vulcan the real edge. It’s got wide drag bars, parallel slash-cut exhaust pipes, a low-slung saddle, and a very cool retro vibe. It’s an awesome cruiser that takes elements of traditional design and manages to fuse it with modern features without jarring the eye.
Muscular, powerful, and fearsome are three adjectives that could describe Yamaha’s legendary cruiser. Ever since it rolled onto the scene in 1985, the VMAX has been causing a scene. It bucks the usual cruiser V-twin trend by enlisting a V4 as its power plant, and it does away with a chain drive in favor of a shaft. It’s unorthodox. And what’s more, it’s blisteringly fast.
Over the years, the VMAX has been available in a number of configurations. However, it’s the post-2009 version that we love the best. Featuring a beefy 1,679 cc V4 engine that produces an ungodly 170 horsepower and 100 lb-ft of torque, the VMAX is no slouch. But what makes it so much fun is the fact that it doesn’t have much in the way of advanced riding aids, like other modern performance cruisers.
The Yamaha VMAX is always on these lists. It’s powerful, fast, and a feast for the eyes—but it’s not actually the best choice if you’re looking for a practical cruiser. The mileage isn’t great and if long distancing cruising is your thing, you’re going to want something with a better economy and an all-important sixth gear. However, if you want short bursts of speed, and want to cruise the streets on a mean lookin’ machine, then the VMAX is hard to beat.
Triumph Rocket 3 Roadster
The Triumph Rocket 3 is a very unusual cruiser. This British behemoth is Triumph’s flagship cruising machine: a burly 2,458cc triple-cylinder motorcycle with unbelievable performance specs. The maximum power output is an eye-watering 165 horses and the torque output caps at 163 lb-ft. It’s the very definition of a muscle cruiser.
As a performance cruiser, the Rocket 3 is a direct competitor to the likes of the Ducati Diavel or Yamaha VMAX, but unlike the Diavel’s smaller stature or the VMAX’s no-frills approach, the Rocket 3 is all about top end luxuries. For example, the current Rocket features fully-adjustable Showa suspension, Brembo Stylema brakes, advanced traction control, cornering ABS, multiple ride modes, cruise control, and more.
For much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Suzuki was building the Savage, Intruder, and Marauder group of cruisers, then along came the Boulevard lineup. Now all these bikes were “fine,” but for me, it was simply trying to replicate what was coming out of Milwaukee. Good luck with that. Trying to effectively provide the same-same for a lower price didn’t really catch on.
Taking racing knowledge and bold unique styling, wrapping it around a stout 109 cu/in V-Twin with a fat rear tire, brought attention and helped create a new category of power cruisers. Suzuki also injected this bike with true company heritage. 120 hp and more than 100 ft-lbs of torque, brakes from the GSX-R parts bin, a chassis and fork with sporting intentions, made this a game-changing package. This bike has been Suzuki’s flagship cruiser bike for 16 years! That is how to offer a true alternative to American iron.
The first cruiser motorcycle for Yamaha, the Virago name is a legend. I 100% admit to being biased thanks to a fond memory of sitting behind my father as a 13-year-old and watching the speedo, over his shoulder, climb past 100 mph.
Through the 80s and 90s the Virago could be had with anything from a 125cc to 1100cc engine. The 750, 1000, and 1100 models had the right look and a heavy dose of chrome, mixed with a level of performance that was not to be found in an American V-Twin. The 1100 Virago was good for more than 60hp and only about 540lbs to move. Using a shaft drive to send the power to the back tire, the Virago was more than happy to stretch your arms with a full twist of the throttle.
Thanks to Yamaha’s build quality, many Virago’s can still be found cruising the streets.