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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

The Kawasaki VN900LT: My Take

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey
I don’t think there’s a more difficult thing for the American male than to admit a mistake, especially when it comes to the purchase of a particular motorcycle.
I’ve been riding for 18 years and over 200,000 miles.  My passion for riding started with a job some 35 miles from home.  The commute was becoming a real burden, with gas at that time a killer $1.14 per gallon.  My better half had thus far resisted my entreaties with that consummate skill all wives possess.  But by this time, the kids had become old enough that she decided I could risk my neck in the cause of the family budget.
I acquired my first bike, a 1981 Suzuki GS550T, for $500.  It was a sharp-looking standard, cheap enough to buy and maintain while I learned how to ride.  I dropped it a few times, but the only casualties were the turn signal lights, which stuck out from the forks.  A nearby salvage yard managed to keep me supplied with fresh ones.  I rode a lot in all weather conditions (save snow and ice) and that bike taught me a lot.  Over time, I moved up to a 1980 Yamaha XS Eleven Special, then a BMW K75RT, and a Honda PC800 Pacific Coast, with which I enjoyed an enduring 100,000-mile relationship.  However, once I sold the PC, we went into a period of financial trial that forestalled the purchase of a new bike for two agonizing years. 

Finally in the spring of 2009, I bought a 2007 Kawasaki Vulcan 900.  I had that bike for about two months before having my third accident.  I was distracted by a car that had started to pull out of a parking lot across my path and thus didn’t see the guy who had stopped in front of me.  I applied the brakes, which were quite a bit more reactive than what I was used to, and locked up the front wheel.  My lane positioning was completely wrong, riding in the “grease pit” portion of the lane, so the bike snap-rolled to the left and went down hard.  I was saved from a broken leg by the crash bars, but still managed to crack a rib.  With my own elbow.  Fortunately, this happened right in front of a hospital, so I had two doctors by my side in seconds.  I survived.  The bike was totaled.
It took a couple of months for me to heal up.  (A busted rib is a whole new kinda pain, let me tell you.)  But I managed to find a 2006 Vulcan 900LT with fewer miles for a real good price, so I bought it.
These Vulcans were my first cruisers, having ridden mainly standards and sport-tourers.  Today, after having put some 10,000 miles on the clock, I feel qualified to speak with some authority on this machine.
First off, it’s a gorgeous bike.  The engineers sculpted a long, low frame that looks sleek and powerful.  The engine was fit into its assigned space with no empty gaps, making the bike look bigger than it actually is.  The stock pipes produce a satisfyingly manly sound that makes the spirit sing as you roar down the road.  It has a very good windshield and it does have saddlebags, which is the same as saying a sports car has a back seat.  They’re small and they’re only rated for about five pounds each.  You can’t take much of a trip with that kind of restriction.  To this ensemble, I added crash bars and a luggage rack.
Like all cruisers, this one has chrome.  But it’s tasteful and not ostentatious or overdone.  And when  clean and polished, it is truly a joy to behold.  It has boards for the rider, but only pegs for the passenger, perched a couple of inches above the pipes.  This means that the passenger’s boot heel easily contacts the hot pipe and melts the rubber onto the pipes.  The common wisdom is to use oven cleaner on the pipes when they're hot, but I'm reluctant to put something that caustic on chrome.  The need for passenger footboards is painfully obvious to the owner.  Why it didn’t occur to Kawasaki is a mystery.  Maybe they didn’t test one two-up.
But that’s not the only riddle.
The speedometer reads high by a consistent ten percent across the entire range, verified by radar.  If that isn’t annoying enough, the odometer is also scaled by the same amount.  To test this, I drove a 30-mile course in my Toyota Highlander, which I know is accurate to within 1%.  That same course measured 33 miles on the bike.  Which means that it will always read 10% more mileaged than it actually is.  Not exactly a strong point in a re-sale.
The fuel gauge is a joke.  You can tell when the tank is full, and that’s the last piece of accurate data you’ll get from it.  Apparently, the float doesn't go either all the way to the bottom of the tank, or all the way to the top.  The Vulcan 900 list shows 39 pages of owner frustration.  But it also gives two fixes.  One involves inserting 270 ohms of resistance across the fuel gage connector.  The other means doing a bit of surgery, by going into the tank through the filler neck and bending the floater rod so the float will go it's full range.  Yeah, you can get it fixed, but Kawasaki really screwed the pooch on this one, since this complaint exists on nearly all model years of this bike.  The only thing that works reliably is the warning light, which glows when you have 1.3 gallons left in the otherwise-generous 5.2-gallon tank.
Checking the oil is a two-man job.  The sight glass is down on the bottom of the engine.  There being no center stand, the oil level can only be read while the bike is upright.  Now, you try to hold a 650-pound motorcycle upright while bending over to look at something the size of a nickel on the bottom of the frame.  See?
And then there’s the seat.
Of all the design conundrums on the bike, this one is the worst.  Sport bikes and standards are meant to be ridden for short distances.  Those seats don’t have to be all that comfy.  This is supposedly a touring bike (hence the “LT” caveat), one that should be able to be ridden for several hours.  But this is, hands down, the most uncomfortable thing I’ve ever sat on.  Cement blocks are easier to take. Kawasaki obviously gave this bike’s physical design to its most skilled engineers.  Why, pray tell, did they pawn off the seat design to the intern?
Another beef is restricted to the model years of 2006 and before.  The stator design left holes in the casing for the wires to pass through.  Over time, road gunk is thrown into those holes, shorting out the stator.  Mine died at 12,000 miles, which for a 21st century bike is beyond stupid.  Sorry, but hoisting a $300 repair like that (with Kawasaki refusing to pay for their design mistake) that early in a motorcycle’s life is unforgiveable.  I guess I was spoiled by the PC800. When I sold that bike at 100,000 miles (in two days, no less), it still had the original stator.
My wife complains about the passenger seat and the vibration.  I explain that V-twins are like that, but she ripostes that the PC800 had a V-twin and it never vibrated like this.  She doesn’t ride much with me these days because of the pain the bike causes her.  And I miss that.  Lest you think her wimpy, three years ago, we rented a Goldwing and did New England over 5 days and 1,600 miles, and she loved every minute of it.
Back to the kudos.
Riding this machine is sheer joy, at least for the first hour and a half. The motor is responsive; the bike, though heavy, takes the twisties with a surprising amount of grace.  There is a surprising amount of ground clearance here.  Now, you can’t fling it around madly; it’s not a ‘Busa after all.  But there is more than enough responsiveness for such a long-wheel-based bike.  The brakes are a bit touchy, but you get used to that.  The tranny shifts cleanly and without drama, and the Kevlar drive belt sends the engine’s power smoothly to the rear wheel. 

It also does good with the gas.  I average in the mid-40’s (riding aggressively); others boast of figures into the low 50’s.  A decent amount of passing power is there, as long as you’re not going uphill, and the weight and big, beefy tires make for a stable ride, even in winds up to 40 mph.  Other than the tailbone, the seating position is good.  The boards push the feet out just enough to take the strain off the knees. The height is perfect, so us old guys don’t end up Painfully hunched over at the end of the ride. 
If Kawasaki had spent even 15 minutes contemplating the seats, this would be an outstanding bike.  But I am a “go-far” rider.  For me, a short ride is 200 miles and in the crenelated terrain and twisty back roads of the Allegheny Mountains, that’s a good four to five hours in the saddle.  Kawasaki calls this bike a tourer, but it’s just not up to the drill, mainly because of that rock-hard seat and the smallish bags.  I look at the pillowy cushions on other touring cruisers, for both rider and pax, and ask, “Why not?”
I love the looks and the sound of the VN900.  It is, to my view, pure eye candy.  It has the right amount of chrome, the right amount of growl, and the right amount of power.  It handles the freeway like a pro and can still carve a twisty with a lean angle that can leave the rider a bit breathless.  It handles nimbly, has great range, and sips gas like a miser. 
All it needs is a pair of seats designed for the long haul, something to keep boot heels from melting on the pipes, and bags that handle a realistic amount of storage.
I admit I made a mistake with this bike.  For what I need most in a motorcycle, comfort enough for a 700-mile day, just isn’t in the hand dealt by Kawasaki with the VN900LT.  That doesn’t apply to everyone, of course.  If you’re happy with a couple hours here, a couple hours there, and the 30-minute commute to work, you’ll love this bike. 

But if the horizon calls to you; if you think your bike looks bare without a bedroll, tent, and a tall T-bar bag strapped on, and you're not really happy unless you've crossed three midwestern states that day, you might be happier with a bike toting a better designed seat and gages that don't lie.
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