The learner-approved Kawasaki Vulcan S is the long-missing link in their cruiser range that should put it in the hunt for the title of best-selling cruiser.
It is set to challenge the Yamaha XVS50 and the up-and-coming Harley-Davidson Street 500 and, like the Harley, it’s water-cooled and a more modern interpretation of the cruiser, rather than the classic styling of the Yamaha.
Instead of trying to disguise the radiator, they actually accentuate it with brushed aluminium guards on the sides. It’s a bold and modern statement that is reflected in the rest of the design.
There’s no chrome like a traditional cruiser and the chassis/bodywork have more of a swooping flow than the classic hard, V-shapes.
The oblong, slanted headlight is more reminiscent of a modern V-Rod than a classic Softail and that low-down shorty matt-black bazooka muffler looks plain mean.
There is a lot to like about the looks of the Vulcan S from its classy and easy-to-clean mag wheels to its modern analogue/digital instrumentation and LED taillights.
Build quality is the usual high Japanese standard and the purple paintwork with blue flecks on our test bike is lustrous and deep. For 2016, the colours are Matte Orange or Metallic Matte Carbon Grey.
My only complaint is the rather out-of-place truck-style black mirrors. Very practical, but simply ugly.
Kawasaki has also been very practical and clever with the overall design and dimensions of this bike to ensure it attracts a wide variety of riders.
Learner or novice bikes don’t just attract new riders, but also returned riders, a big proportion of females and also short riders, daunted by high and/or heavy motorcycles.
So Kawasaki has kept the kerb weight down to 226kg fully fuelled and ready to go, and it has cleverly made the riding position adaptable in a design they refer to as Ergo-Fit.
You can buy easy-reach handlebars ($89) that shorten the reach by 44mm, comfort seats ($334.99) that shorten or lengthen the distance from the bars by 53mm and shift linkage rods that move the footpegs forward or back by 25mm. The clutch and brake levers are also adjustable for reach.
When I first walked up to the Vulcan S, it looked a little small. It’s certainly a low and compact unit, but it’s not diminutive like a 250cc cruiser. This is a full-size bike.
It probably looks lower because of the slammed rear end that hugs the wheel, thanks to the laydown shock.
Our test bike had the standard seat and handlebars and the footpegs set in the mid position.
I’m just over 6’ (182cm) and I found it a quite comfortable reach to the bars and riding it around town it felt just fine. It wasn’t until I hit the highway that I felt the longer seat would be better and perhaps the forward controls could be kicked out another couple of centimetres.
Kawasaki’s Ergo-Fit guidelines say that the Reduced Reach option suits riders 167cm (5-foot-6-inches) and shorter, while Extended Reach accessories are for those 182cm (6’) or taller.
I didn’t feel at all cramped, although on a long ride, my “dicky” left knee started to ache, so I swung my heel over the footpegs to stretch my leg for a while.
The low seat height of 705mm and narrow waist should be good for all but the extremely vertically challenged to comfortably get their feet down at the traffic lights.
So it’s pretty much going to fit any sized rider and despite my initial impressions, it doesn’t look or feel like a small bike once it’s on the road.
Bucking cruiser tradition, the Vulcan S is powered by a fuel-injected water-cooled, DOHC, 8-valve, 649cc parallel twin, rather than a V-twin.
It’s the Ninja 650 engine, but with a revised cylinder head, intake funnels and cam shaft profiles, and it’s tuned for more low to mid-range torque.
It doesn’t have the throb you expect from a V-twin cruiser, nor the engine braking or low-rev pull. Instead, it tingles at high revs, spins more freely and has strong mid-range pull.
Under 3500 revs it shudders a little, so you have to keep the engine spinning around 4000rpm for best results. From there it winds out to a soft limiter at 9900rpm which is stratospheric by cruiser standards.
The parallel twin is married to a six-speed, close-ratio gearbox and chain drive, another characteristic unusual for a cruiser. Thankfully it’s a quiet chain.
The gearbox is uncharacteristically slick for a cruiser with neutral easy to find, no thump as it engages and easy shifting up and down the ratios.
In fact, you can use it much like a sports bike, shifting quickly through the ratios. That’s handy as the throttle seems a bit short.
Kawasaki Australia spokesman Milo Dokmanovic confirms the throttle has a restrictor to comply with LAMS output rules. Although Kawasaki doesn’t recommend de-restricting or altering the Vulcan S from factory specs, you should be able to derestrict it after you graduate to your open licence.
However, it’s a bit short in the final drive and tingles through the bars, seat and pegs on the highway. On several occasions I’ve gone for a seventh gear. Conversely, I also pulled up at the traffic lights with one or two gears still remaining to click down.
I took off on several occasions in 2nd, but it isn’t a real problem as it’s got enough torque, plus a bigger flywheel mass so it didn’t stall.
Besides, you quickly get used to the shortness of the gears and if you want, you could change a sprocket for taller gearing, although Milo says they have genuine sprocket replacements, but not of a different size.
“There may be aftermarket sprockets available, however as the manufacturer we do not recommend altering our motorcycles from factory specifications,” he says.
The Vulcan S gets along with a sense of urgency when you spin it up, but you’ll have to work the gears to achieve the best results. Overtaking duties require dropping a cog or two.
Hustling it through a set of tight corners isn’t so much of a chore as the mid-gears are fairly similar and you can just keep it in third or even fourth.
Learners will find the throttle smooth and predictable which makes slow-speed manoeuvres easy.
And thanks to its low weight, it’s very flickable around town, changing direction easily and capable of masterful feet-up u-turns.
However, the turning circle isn’t great as the standard bars hit the tank, so you will need to do a three-point turn in suburban streets. Perhaps the shorter-reach bars allow more turn.
Surprisingly for a bike so light and nimble, it felt rock-solid on the highway thanks to the generous wheelbase. It wasn’t even perturbed by wind blasts from passing trucks.
The bars are wide, but not so wide you can’t filter – when you are legally permitted – and they allow the rider to help stabilise the bike at speed.
In the twisty stuff, the Vulcan S again surprises with a reasonable lean angle. Learners may never get their pegs to scrape.
You don’t need to lean the bike a great deal to corner anyway as the the Dunlop Sportmax radial tyres aren’t too wide and are evenly matched in measurements so the bike neither flops into corners, not wants to stand up.
The chunky 18-inch front tyre doesn’t track on grooved surfaces and it provides plenty of confidence when you chuck it into a corner.
Ride is plush and the adjustable pre-load on the rear shock should suit most weights of rider. It feels slightly under-damped and when you hit some lethal bumps the back end pogos a little, while the front end remains fairly planted thanks to well-damped conventional forks.
The 14 litre fuel tank might seem on the small side, but with economy of better than 5L/100km, it’s enough for day trips. It may only pose some concerns when touring or two-up.
There is a large 300m disc at the front which is all you really need for prompt emergency stops on this lightweight bike. The rear brake is soft and wooden, but fine for steadying the ship and trailing brakes through a corner. The ABS comes on smoothly and efficiently.
The instruments are mounted high on the triple clamp so they are easy to see without looking down. They are a combination of analogue rev counter, and digital speedo and comprehensive rider information.
In fact, the array of information available on the LED-backlit LCD screen is excellent for a novice bike. There’s an odo, two trip meters, clock, fuel gauge, fuel range, average and instant fuel economy and even an Economical Riding Indicator to help you get the most out of a tank of juice.
At night, the instruments glow with the blue LED backlight and are very readable, while the headlight provides an even spread of light.
It seems like the perfect choice for so many riders, not just novices. And with a healthy list of factory accessories and the ability to derestrict and tailor the rider ergonomics, this bike will last owners long past their graduation day to an open licence.