2009 Kawasaki Vulcan Nomad 1700

Road Test Review

Bike testing for me is most pleasurable in small doses. For touring bikes, my favorite venue is the weekend overnighter. I pick an interesting destination, say within 250 miles of home (the more variety of roads the better), burn the first day rather briskly, then savor the experience with a good night’s rest in a quiet, remote location. Come the next morning, my body and soul usually let me know right away whether my mount provided a pleasant experience to definitely do again…or not.

I recently did a weekender with the 2009 Kawasaki Vulcan Nomad 1700. I pounded the highway straights, muscled through some twisty passes, even forged out early on a 40-degree morning to do a quick photo session down the mountain. And I must admit I’ve discovered a newfound appreciation for its overall abilities. Maybe that’s because its duties have been simplified. In previous years, being Kawasaki’s sole model with hard bags, the Nomad had to suffice as its front line long-distance tourer. But the newly introduced 2010 Voyager currently takes that position, so the Nomad can now return to being what it was originally intended to be—a very well-equipped, light-duty cruiser-tourer.

Or maybe it’s starting to impress because the bike underwent a multitude of changes recently. Underneath the reworked exterior (side panels, exhaust system and rear fender/ taillight assembly are all new) is a lighter, stiffer, more compact frame; there’s a two-degree steeper steering-head angle which has shrunk the wheelbase by 1 inch, and the seat-to-head-pipe measurement is shorter, which ultimately pulls the bars closer to hand. Almost immediately I felt totally relaxed and comfortable sitting aboard the Nomad, and this feel-good sensation lasted throughout the entire trip. Even the seat is a keeper, my bum says so.

Of course the Nomad is well fitted with a multitude of creature comforts. Cruise control is standard equipment; there’s a generous adjustable windscreen that offers good upper protection (you look through this one all the time) without causing too much wind turbulence; adjustable levers and padded floorboards enhance comfort and convenience; the new top-loading bags are a big improvement over the previous side-loaders (although they still won’t pack a full-face helmet, but there are helmet locks for that); and any passengers will appreciate the standard backrest, a definite requirement for happy relations.

While this Nomad is dimensionally more trim, it’s gained some muscle almost everywhere else. The front fork is slightly larger (43mm to 45mm), and the front and rear brake discs have grown in size. But most notable is the total revamp of the engine and drivetrain. Last year’s familiar SOHC, dual-counterbalanced, four-valve-per-cylinder V-twin received a 9mm stroke increase (bumping displacement from 1,552cc to 1,700cc). Compression was raised a half point and fuel is now fed through larger 42mm throttle bodies. Handling this increased potential is an all-new six-speed tranny with overdrive (replacing the previous five-speed) and last year’s shaft drive was pitched in favor of a belt, probably to help reduce weight and increase smoothness. This engine displays a hint of characteristic V-twin “chugging” power impulses when under load at low rpm, but once underway at speed it becomes a silky smooth performer. Kawasaki claims a 15 percent increase in torque from this engine and I had no problem accelerating around traffic in top gear, even on slight inclines, although two-up and fully loaded it might behave somewhat differently. In spite of the engine’s sophisticated fuel injection system (which, by the way, provided flawless throttle response) gas mileage wasn’t great. Whether I was cruising or flogging it, the Nomad averaged just 34-36 mpg…and that’s on the required premium fuel as well.

I whipped this 800-plus-pound behemoth pretty hard in the mountain passes and felt it was very nicely balanced and controlled overall, and there’s plenty of stopping power on hand. Unfortunately, like most cruisers the Nomad runs out of cornering clearance way before it loses competence. Even with the dual rear air-adjustable shocks pumped to max preload, at full lean little dips in the road produced some pretty hefty bottoming of the floorboards and undercarriage. At a slower pace this is a non-problem, of course.

Word has it that the 2010 Nomad features minimal changes (improved heat shielding for one) so this ’09 model should be a good barometer. Overall, I was very impressed with how the Nomad is pleasing aesthetically and has been refined into a very smooth, comfortable and capable medium-distance tourer.