Foreign Powers

By Jerry Garrett

April 4, 2008 6 min read


Japan is making a rumble in the big-bike market

By Jerry Garrett

Copley News Service

Japan used to be the birthplace of small vehicles - cars like the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Daihatsu Charade, and bikes like the Honda C90 or Super Cub.

But no more. Toyota now makes pickups as big as a Ford or Chevrolet. And all the motorcycle manufacturers are fighting to outdo Harley-Davidson in super-sized power and style.

Take Suzuki's new Boulevard M109R super-cruiser, for example. It may make you wonder how big is too big. And while it may not have crossed the line, it comes close. It certainly sets a new standard for American muscle, albeit by way of Japan.

The M109R is a pumped-up offshoot of the super-cruiser class - invented by American motorcycle manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson, Indian and Excelsior-Henderson - now emulated by dozens of models from Japan.

Cruisers account for more than half of all sales of new road bikes in the United States. Cruisers typically feature a feet-forward, hands-up riding position that offers comfort at the sacrifice of some measure of control. Though they may start with engines as small as 650cc, the biggest of these are now referred to as super-cruisers, or power cruisers; they boast of engines larger than 1800cc - big enough for many automobiles.

The Japanese bike makers first entered the cruiser category with half-hearted efforts a couple of decades ago. But in recent years they've engaged in something of an arms race of engine size and horsepower for class bragging rights. The 109 in the Suzuki's nomenclature refers to its engine displacement in cubic inches. Only a few bikes have crossed the 100-cubic-inch barrier. Anything that big is a lot of motorcycle, to be sure.

There is no doubt the M109R has presence. But it is literally bulging at the seams with attitude. At 1783cc, the M109R's liquid-cooled twin-cam engine is not motorcycling's largest, but Suzuki claims it is the most powerful cruiser V-twin in the world. Its pistons are a whopping 4.4 inches across, which, according to Suzuki, makes them "the largest reciprocating-engine pistons being used in any production passenger car or motorcycle on Earth."

Its output is listed at 127 hp and 118 pound-feet of torque, which trumps both the Kawasaki Vulcan 2000 and the Yamaha Roadliner, equally robust cruisers, by a few horsepower - although the Vulcan still makes a bit more torque. The M109R's rear tire, at 8.5 inches, is wider than most automobile tires.

The engine, in fact, would out power some of the cars in Suzuki's four-wheeled lineup.

The high-performance big-twin cruiser segment is still emerging and evolving. The class bully is the Kawasaki Vulcan 2000. Though it has been around for several years, at 2053cc, the 2000 still has the largest V-twin in the power cruiser class. And that engine sends 116 hp and 114 pound-feet of torque to the back tire.

The Vulcan isn't as flashy from a styling standpoint as the Suzuki, it's a fairly traditional American cruiser design. Though it is comfortable to ride, it doesn't pretend to be a sportbike-caliber handling machine; it's really just a comfortable, stable bike for flying below the radar.

Honda's VTX1800F is also an easy rider. Despite its size, it is so easy to maneuver. It's a favorite of shorter-stature riders, such as many women motorcyclists. A low seat height also helps the situation. The VTX still feels modern in every respect - except its retro-themed styling - even though it was introduced in 2002.

Honda is a master at big bikes, as its legendary Gold Wings attest, and they all seem more than capable of running trouble free long enough to spin the odometer back to zeroes after 99,999 miles.

Yamaha's Star Warrior is lighter and more nimble than the rest of this ilk. Its upright riding position is reminiscent of a traditional American standard bike. It handles as well on mountain roads as it does on freeway commutes. The Star, the brand name Yamaha has now attached to its big cruisers to project a more "American" image, is a confidence-building lineup of bikes for its riders.

Though the Warrior's styling is not as polarizing as the M109R, it is still an appealing ride. Variations of this bike, such as the Roadliner or Stratoliner, add a measure of "streamline modern" style that evokes a 1948 Pontiac Chieftain - or a Union Pacific locomotive.

Since Suzuki is the newest member of the class, it will be interesting to see how competitors respond to it, from a styling as well as power point of view. It's a potent new entry here and, for now, the power-cruiser champ.

Oddly, the Japanese manufacturers have done such a thorough job of staking out leadership in the power-cruiser class, there's not actually any room in here for American-made bikes.

? Copley News Service

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