2015 Kawasaki Vulcan S Review

A Vulcan for Millenials

2015 Kawasaki Vulcan S
Author Gabe Ets-Hokin aboard the 2015 Kawasaki Vulcan S. Photo © Kevin Wing

Introduction, A Vulcan for the Millennials

If you're in Southeast Asia, motorcycles usually refer to step-through scooters, typically ridden by 2 or three people, loaded down like the family pickup truck. In Europe, a motorcycle is an exotic, powerful sports machine, ridden hard through Alpine passes. Here in the USA, the archetypal machine is a cruiser with a long, low look, a powerful-sounding V-twin engine and plenty of chrome—just like granddady rode.

That's the way it used to be, anyway.

New riders these days, says Kawasaki Heavy Industries, want function over form. But it's not the kind of function older riders want. They want to be able to handle the bike easily, master its operation quickly, and somehow have performance left over to grow into. Kawi's engineers and product planners have been mulling this problem over for some time, it seems, and they invited me to Santa Barbara, California to ride the new 2015 Vulcan S so I could see what they came up with.

The heart of any motorcycle is the engine, and since the new Vulcan S is all about functionality, the 649cc liquid-cooled Versys/Ninja 650 motor was probably an obvious choice. It's reliable, powerful, compact, simple and inexpensive compared to a V-Twin. For this application, Kawasaki gave it a heavier flywheel, redesigned the cylinder head, lengthened the inlet tracts and applied a few other tricks.

Those changes reduced top-end horsepower, but added a lot of meat to the part of the powerband where the rider spends the most time. Twin 38mm throttle bodies feed the combustion chambers and an industrial-looking exhaust squats under the chassis—new riders don't care about looks as much as they do about practical things, according to Kawasaki's Croft Long.

"It's not the traditional beautiful shape, but our customers want an exhaust that won't burn them and won't get in their way."

Like the motor, the chassis wavers off the traditional cruiser path to provide performance and user friendliness at an affordable price point. It's reminiscent of the Versys, featuring a lay-down shock with a linkage that offers 3.2 inches of wheel travel. The frame places 62 inches between the two radial tires (a 160 section in the back, and a stylish 120/70-18 in front), a 41mm fork handles suspension up front, and there's a 3.7-gallon tank. It uses a solo seat (a passenger seat and  pegs are available as accessories) and clean, swoopy styling (the Japanese companies use the term "flowing lines" a lot) to finish it off. In riding trim, it's just this side of 500 pounds.

Ergo-Fit. That's the system to pre-fit Vulcan customers to their bikes before they leave the showroom, and about 60 percent of Kawi dealerships have Ergo-Fit displays, with three different Vulcans set up for different-sized riders to try. The footpeg mounts are adjustable, there are three seats available, and you can select two different handlebars to get you as comfortable as possible with the ergonomics and controls, and the brake and clutch levers are adjustable for reach as well.

This is a huge thing for new riders, who value the confidence a good-fitting bike can bring, and potentially a huge thing for Kawi—it doubles the number of humans who can theoretically operate a Vulcan S. Being too big or too small won't be an excuse to not buy a Vulcan S unless you can share clothes with Peter Dinklage.

On the Road: Fast, Fun and Friendly

Kawasaki chose Santa Barbara to show off the Vulcan's versatility, and the weather gods gave us a beautiful winter day to ride in. Around town, the Vulcan showed off its ease of use—the clutch is light and easy to manage, and the transmission is smooth and precise, although it requires solid movement to shift. I liked the neutral-finder feature, which should soothe new riders by making it simple to pop into neutral—and impossible to click into second at a stop.

The wide bars and low center of gravity make the bike very easy to handle around town—it feels 30 pounds lighter than its claimed weight, even when stopped. The motor is smooth and tractable, and the FI worked as close to perfect as it gets—the heavier flywheel probably helps a lot as well.

Out on the road, the Vulcan S really impresses me. One of my favorite classic cruisers is Kawasaki's Vulcan 500, and the S is a worthy successor. The power isn't mind blowing, but it's ample and you can find it in most any gear—even top-gear roll-on passes are a cinch. The counterbalanced motor is much smoother than I remember Vulcan 500 or EX500 mills, and it even makes a cool, racy intake sound you can hear through earplugs—BwaaaaAAAAAAAAR! Top speed is probably well over 100 mph—enough power to keep up with traffic? Enough to grow into? Enough to entertain veteran riders? Check, check and check.

The twisty-road experience is also engaging, though it has its limitations. The bike's light weight, well-chosen spring and damping rates and sporty motor let you really haul ass on a two-lane road, even one with bumpy, winding California coastal pavement. I was surprised how easy and fun it was to ride this bike at an ill-advised pace. I'd almost say it's not really a cruiser, maybe some kind of standard (substandard? The marketing guys probably wouldn't want to work with that), but it's still limited by its category. There just isn't enough cornering clearance and rear-end travel to really cut loose on the backroads, but maybe that's a good thing, eh? These Intenders don't want to go fast, they just want to go fast enough.

The group of riders I was with included some riders with a lot less experience than the typical moto-jocks at these events, and they were taken with the Vulcan S. Sasha Rojas, a member of the East Side Moto Babes, hasn't ridden anything besides her Ninja 250, and she was very impressed. "I can go over 40 mph in 3rd gear," she exclaimed, exuberant, "this is amazing!" She also noted riders even shorter than her 5-foot-two-ish would still be able to ride a Vulcan S.

Bottom Line: Specifications, Who Should Buy a Vulcan S?

It's a versatile machine that should appeal to a wide range of body shapes and sizes—Kawasaki claims the Ergo Fit doubles the number of U.S. adults that can fit on the bike—and users can customize it from the Kawasaki parts catalog, adding luggage racks, sissy bars, locking saddlebags and a very stylish windscreen. It may not be the best choice for touring, as the cruiser position caused serious numb bum after a day in the saddle, despite its supportive shape and comfy material. Fuel economy—assisted by an "eco" indicator—should be in the low 50s.

I'm very impressed by my first ride on the Vulcan S, even allowing for the honeymoon-like environment of a California Coast press launch on perfect roads on a perfect, 70-degree day. But it could have been raining and I'd still be taken with the Vulcan's sporty motor and handling and happy, approachable, charismatic nature. At $6,999 ($7,399 with ABS), it's a great value, right up there with the Yamaha FZ-07 or Honda's CBR500R.

Specifications

  • Price: $6,999 - $7,399
  • Engine: 649cc parallel-twin
  • Transmission: 6-speed
  • Front Suspension: 41mm telescopic, 5.1 inches of travel
  • Caster/Trail: 31º/ 4.7 inches
  • Rear Suspension: Link type, coil spring, adjustable preload, 3.1 inches of travel
  • Seat Height: 27.8 inches
  • Front Brakes: Single 300mm disc two-piston caliper, ABS optional
  • Rear Brake: Single 250mm disc, single-piston caliper, ABS optional

Who Should Buy a Vulcan S?

Budding moto-hipsters looking for fashion, comfort and Kawasaki performance.