Bagger Battle: Road King vs. Vulcan vs. Thunderbird

By Jess McKinley, Shawn Pickett and Don Williams

2011 Harley-Davidson Road King vs.
2011 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Classic LT vs.
2011 Triumph Thunderbird SE


The desire to travel is part of the human condition. It has no boundaries, and the methods of travel that different peoples develop reflect their sensibilities, needs, and ambitions. To travel leisurely, comfortably, and stylishly is also a cross-culture commonality. The English. The Japanese. The Americans.

Flying from Hinckley to Kobe to Milwaukee and back will put 16,000 miles into your frequent flier account, and though we didn’t put quite that many ticks on the odometers of the Harley-Davidson Road King, Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Classic LT, and Triumph Thunderbird SE, the call of the road was especially engaging for us with these three baggers.

The Road King FLHR is the granddaddy of the triumvirate and, as part of the FL touring legacy at Harley-Davidson, its roots can be traced directly back to 1941. Most recently, the Road King was upgraded with a new Touring chassis that has taken Harley-Davidson’s entire long-distance lineup to a new pinnacle.

Triumph vertical twins debuted in 1938 with the legendary Speed Twin. There was, of course, a gap in Triumph production and the new company has only name and spirit in common, but the new Thunderbird carries on the proud tradition of English vertical twins in a category dominated by the V.

Kawasaki built its first self-designed four-stroke twin in 1967, following a period of manufacturing BSA-designed twins. The W1 was a sporty motorcycle, intended to invoke the performance-oriented British twins of the period. Kawasaki moved to overhead cam configurations for its four-strokes in the 1970s and has not looked back-the fully modern Vulcan 1700 V-twin motor debuted two years ago as Kawasaki’s flagship cruiser powerplant.

When addressing these three windshielded cruising tourers, one recognizes that they are all assured members of the same class of motorcycling, but the execution of the concept shows a great continental divide between America, Asia, and Europe that could not be more distinctly pronounced.

The beating hearts of these bikes is self-evidently their engines. Harley-Davidson retains its cache of traditionalism with its air-cooled pushrod 45-degree motor. The smallest of the group at 96 cubic inches, the appeal of the engine derives from its feel and appearance, rather than raw numbers.

Pulling away from any corner or stop, the Road King will always feel underpowered compared to its friends. The long-stroke Twin Cam doesn’t put up numbers that can compete with the Vulcan or Thunderbird, which have higher torque peaks at lower revs than the Road King.

However, judging the Harley on a dyno is missing the point. The power is gently delivered with an abundance of flywheel and flawless EFI behavior. Twisting the throttle produces reasonable thrust without ever overwhelming the rider. The soft delivery is an appealing approach to touring, as it reduces fatigue and effort. Further, the rubber-mounted unbalanced motor is smooth on the highway, bopping along in 6th speed overdrive. At the same time, the motor produces pleasurable pulsations in town and during acceleration.

The Vulcan and Thunderbird, springing from companies with strong, international sporting heritages, compete closely for the hot-rod label in the group. The Kawasaki has a six cubic inch advantage over the 97.5 cubic inch Triumph, and a stroke that is over 3/8ths of an inch longer than the T’bird. Both develop maximum torque of 108 ft/lbs, though the Vulcan does it 500 rpm sooner, at the 2250 mark. Yet, the DOHC Thunderbird revs more freely than the SOHC Vulcan, so the Triumph has a clear edge in acceleration on the open road. The gearing is a touch tall on the Vulcan, so you will likely need to click down a notch on its highly geared trans-
mission for superior passing.

Certainly, both motors are muscular, but neither offers the character of the Road King engine. Kawasaki’s successful efforts at damping the vibrations from the 52-degree liquid-cooled V rob it of any sort of appealing rumble-what’s left is too carefully planned and executed. The Triumph’s vertical twin has a busy feel that never completely goes away. If we don’t get the nice growl, we would rather have glass smoothness. The Thunderbird sits uncomfortably in the middle. If we are in a hurry, the Vulcan and Thunderbird stand ready to deliver, but most of the time we’re in the mood to relax and the Road King has kicking back down to an art form.

Crucial to a successful high-mileage cruiser is ergonomics. This is always a personal issue, and critical pieces such as the bars, windshield, and seat can easily be replaced to taste. Stock, the Road King has a soft catcher’s mitt of a seat that complements its entire personality. The Harley’s bars are strangely low, so a bit of a hunchback develops on longer rides between stops.

On all three bikes, floorboard positioning is perfect. The Vulcan and Thunderbird have excellent seats with good tailbone support. They are certainly a bit firmer than the Road King, but not objectionably so. The Thunderbird’s perch transmits some of that unwanted engine buzz through to the posterior, and that gets old by the end of a long day. Both the Vulcan and Thunderbird have bars that fall right where you want them-perfect for ease of handling and comfort. Both Vs have wide tanks, so the air cleaner covers don’t get into arguments with the riders’ knees.

Chassis theories abound among these three bikes. Unexpectedly, the Road King has the same wheelbase as the Thunderbird at 63.5 inches, and the tightest rake at 29 degrees. The Thunderbird is raked out to 32 degrees, two degrees more than the Vulcan, which has a wheelbase just over two inches longer. These are not insignificant numbers, yet the results conflict with what one would suspect.

The top performer in the canyons is the Thunderbird SE, thanks to the lightest weight and the tallest/narrowest front tire. The balance of the shorter wheelbase and most relaxed front end is a winner, as the bike feels relatively nimble. Cornering clearance is very generous and the suspension taut, yet responsive. You won’t be grinding away as you slalom down the road.

The Triumph’s 310mm triple discs are the largest of the three, and the four-piston Nissin calipers are superb in the front, balanced nicely with the Brembo two-piston unit in the rear. Seemingly built for the never-straight backroads of Britain, the Triumph acquits itself confidently at any speed-fast sweepers are as welcome as unexpected hairpins. The motor’s willingness to spin up and the slick-shifting transmission further encourage non-cruising behavior, if you are so inclined, making it a great mount for a sport rider looking to expand his horizons.

With a similarly responsive motor, the Vulcan is eager to keep the Thunderbird in its sights. The 130mm 16-inch front tire holds the road with authority, and the conservative rake allows the rider to turn-in nicely. Changing lines mid-corner is certainly doable, and at no expense to stability. Kawasaki strikes a nice handling balance with the Vulcan.

Braking on the Classic LT is what you would expect from a Japanese machine-progressive and predictable. The brakes are extremely intuitive, and can haul the bike down quickly and safely. With the thick front tire and agreeable rake, experienced riders will be happy to know they can use the front binder to their hearts’ content. The rear disc is also there, but Kawasaki prefers you use the strength of the front.

Lacking prodigious power, the Road King’s chassis is under less demand than the other two bikes. Still, it handles extremely well, especially considering how comfortable the ride is. Ground clearance is far more than you would expect, as it touches down infrequently, even under the hardest riding you are likely to give it.

The Road King will not impress you with its braking, and the ABS is crude by modern standards, giving strong pulsations through the controls when it is called upon to engage. Again, there is no real reason to ride a bagger such as the Road King in a way that will cause the ABS to become active with any sort of regularity, but sometimes it is raining, getting dark, or you are in a hurry and the speeds increase.

When rushed, the Road King is not exactly reluctant, though it is not going to chase down either the Triumph or the Kawasaki with equal riders aboard. In all three cases, the fitted tires are more than capable of handling any road you can throw at them, and we had no preference among them.

Cargo carrying is a crucial bagger feature. Harley’s classic streamlined hard bags have a strong and secure locking mechanism, something the other two bikes pass up in favor of snap-closing soft bags with faux buckles. Sometimes you can fudge the carrying capacity of a soft bag, but with the color-matching plastic Road King bags, what you see is what you get. The Harley bags can carry quite a bit, as long as the shape works for you.

The Thunderbird SE’s bags were our favorites; they are large and the look integrates well into the bike’s styling. On the small side and looking like an add-on, the Vulcan bags are adequate for shorter hops, but that’s about it. We sense an opportunity for aftermarket companies to provide a better choice.

Passengers will note the lack of backrest on the Road King, though the H-D Genuine Accessories catalog has a number of OEM options. Kawasaki offers a standard backrest, and Triumph does one better by fitting a luggage rack on the back of its backrest, extending its out-of-the-box cargo carrying capabilities.

In town, all three bikes are easy-going. The Thunderbird is, perhaps, the least desirable at slow speeds and in close quarters, though the differences are minimal. The soft engagement of the clutch and transmission makes the Harley the go-to town bike. It is pure pleasure, and there is nothing wrong with the thumbs up it gets from drivers and pedestrians wherever it goes-something that comes far less frequently when riding the Triumph or Kawasaki.

When it comes time to roll one of these baggers off the showroom floor and into your garage, the choices could not be starker. Harley-Davidson’s Road King is a certified classic. Ride this bike and be prepared for admiring glances, even from people who have no idea how capable the bike is as a touring mount. With the exception of the easily replaceable low bars, it is a supremely comfortable machine that works in the mountains or threading through fast traffic far better than a rider has any right to expect. When all three bikes were available to ride, the Road King was a frequent first-pick mount.

The Triumph Thunderbird SE approaches the bagger form from an entirely different perspective than the other two machines. The vertical twin gives it a highly distinctive look, and one that is undeniably masculine. A Thunderbird rider is someone who unabashedly goes against the grain. Coming from a performance-oriented company, the T’bird has a very strong motor (with a 1700cc kit available) and it backs down from no challenge. Cargo capacity is impressive, and ready to ride across country at a moment’s notice, it is the most passenger-friendly choice.

Something of the odd man out, the Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Classic LT is a beautifully made machine with performance to match. It is a great ride in every way-comfort, handling, and motor. However, what it attains in capability, it lacks in personality. The metric motor doesn’t have the V-twin feel that you get from Milwaukee and the styling simply lacks the ability to excite passersby. However, if competence is at the top of your list, it is impossible to argue against the Classic LT.

Three baggers. Three continents. One goal. Select your criteria and you will find a motorcycle that will fit your needs. We admire the Thunderbird SE, we respect the Vulcan 1700 Classic, but our hearts are with the Road King.

 

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