2011 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero

Road Test Review

With today’s economic realities, we all want more for our money. We want “Buy One, Get One Free,” we want “But wait—there’s more,” and with a new motorcycle many of us want a bike with multiple capabilities. For example, how about a cruiser that not only looks like a custom, but is also sufficiently functional for a week-long tour? This desire to combine high style with practicality has, in recent years, given us a bevy of “slammed” (lowered) baggers including the Harley-Davidson Street Glide ($18,999), Victory Cross Country ($17,999), Yamaha Star Stratoliner Deluxe ($17,490) and now, the newest member of this group, the 2011 Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero.

Like the others on this list the Vaquero is based upon an existing model and features a big-inch V-twin motor, saddlebags, a fairing and a small wind deflector rather than a full windscreen. The concept is to bring together big-inch panache and grunt with full-sized comfort and luggage capacity, while designing in enough style to win you high-fives down at the local watering hole.

“Vaquero” is a Spanish-derived word that means herdsman or cowboy, and what’s unusual about this bike among competing models is that this cowboy rides alone—Kawasaki considers it a “solo cruiser.” The rear portion of its gunfighter-style seat tapers and slopes rearward—not exactly a confidence-inspiring perch for a passenger. But as of this writing Kawasaki says that it already has 35 core accessories available for the Vaquero with more on the way. These include a two-up gel seat, a touring seat, and a quick-release backrest and luggage rack.

The Vaquero becomes the fifth Vulcan 1700 model (although so far the Classic LT remains a 2010), and like its fellows is powered by a liquid-cooled, 1,700cc (103.7 cubic-inch), 52-degree V-twin motor with single-pin crank for just the right amount of shudder, single overhead cams and four valves per cylinder. Bore and stroke figures of 102 x 104mm result in the long-stroke design that produces a good amount of torque—on the Jett Tuning Dynojet dyno this engine produced 93.4 lb-ft, in fact, along with 72.3 horsepower in our 2009 Voyager test bike. The motor features a blacked-out, textured finish with polished fin edges, and internally all Vulcan 1700s receive several minor tweaks for 2011. These include a new throttle valve system, along with a new intake manifold with a redesigned shape for increased volume and a more linear throttle response. In the six-speed transmission the first-gear ratio has been tweaked to reduce the sound during shifts, and new third and fourth gears have taller tooth profiles to increase surface area. The Nomad, Voyager and Vaquero models now carry taper-tip mufflers that reduce sound at cruising speeds by about four decibels (and require new ECU settings), and the Classic and Vaquero now utilize a nondamper-type clutch for “increased engine feel.” The Vaquero alone gets a new second piston ring for greater durability, and the carbon-fiber belt final drive has been slimmed from 28 to 26mm in width.

The frame is a single-backbone type with dual cradles and a steel swingarm. The frame-mounted fairing is the same as that on the Voyager touring model, but the Vaquero’s sports new, slimmer lowers and, of course, that vestigial wind deflector. Because of the weight of the fairing, these two models carry a heftier fork with 45mm tubes rather than the 43mm on the other 1700s. Choose the Vaquero in black paint and score the black inner fairing and chromed trim ring around the headlight. The other version, in glowing red, features a color-matched headlight surround that’s more in keeping with its custom concept. The inner fairing is also color matched to the bodywork; both offer a retro-styled instrument panel that looks as if it came from a 1950s hotrod. Those louvers beside the headlight are nonfunctional, and may be replaced with optional driving lights.

The hard-sided, locking saddlebag bodies are the same as those on the Nomad, but the Vaquero’s feature smoother lids. They open from the sides, and hold a good deal. Color-matched molding pieces fill the gap between the bags and rear fender to provide a more integrated, custom look. In either color the Vaquero comes with chromed engine guards, chromed mirrors, exhaust system and more. For contrast, the air cleaner cover, wheels, fork and central tank cover are blacked out.

Power up this cowboy with the ignition switch centrally located toward the front of its wide tank, and you’ll immediately enjoy the thumpa-thumpa idle of a big V-twin. The ignition switch incorporates the unique feature that the key may be withdrawn with the engine running to access the two small storage compartments in the fairing, the saddlebags or the dual underseat helmet holders. The key may not be withdrawn from the Acc position should you be listening to the radio with the motor off.

Appropriately enough this cowboy was introduced in Texas last December, where a group of journalists was able to ride it for a day. Afterward, we had a unit shipped to California for a full test. In overall use we learned that with its twin 42mm throttle-body fuel injectors the bike starts readily warm or cold. Kawasaki has attempted to smooth out the power delivery of the Vaquero, which is evident in the wide release point of the hydraulically actuated clutch, the easy clutch pull, and how its heel-and-toe shifter operates with so little effort and is devoid of the mechanical “clunk” associated with some other brands. The top two gears of the six-speed transmission are overdrives, and in sixth gear the motor is turning only about 2,100 rpm at an indicated 60 mph. If you’re a hard-nosed cruiser rider who covets those mechanical power pulses and a ka-thunk when shifting, the Vaquero may actually be too civilized for you.

Out on the road with the standard 5.0-inch low deflector the wind hit me (I’m 6 feet tall) right about nose level, which created some helmet buffeting but at least kept the wind from coming up under my full-face helmet. And those slim lowers somewhat blunt—but do not stop—the wind from reaching the rider’s legs. Kawasaki offers five optional windscreens for the Vaquero, from 6.5 to 18 inches in height, and at the introduction in Texas I was also able to also ride with a mid-length (14-inch) accessory ’screen. I could still easily see over it, but it shunted the blast to the top of my helmet. This reduced much of the buffeting to head and shoulders, yet allowed the breeze to enter the helmet’s top vent. It would have been my choice for distance use.

The riding position offers a seat with a nicely cushioned pocket that remained comfortable for several hundred miles, the bar places the hands relatively high, and the feet rest on folding rider floorboards (the passenger gets pegs). Despite its long 65.6-inch wheelbase and rake/trail figures of 30 degrees and 7 inches, the big 839-pounder was easy to handle at low parking-lot speeds. Even at normal highway speeds the Vaquero has a lighter feel than its size and weight would indicate.

One of the problems with slammed bikes is that the lowering is achieved by utilizing shorter suspension components, which means there’s less cushioning between you and the road. The Vaquero’s 45mm fork, however, has a full 5.5 inches of suspension travel and the dual air-assisted rear shocks have 3.1 inches, in addition to four rebound damping settings. Overall they provide a better ride than some cruisers in this category, but the tradeoff is that seat height remains at a relatively lofty (for a cruiser) 28.7 inches.

Cruise control and a full-function sound system are two major traveling amenities that are standard on the Vaquero. The latter carries AM, FM and weather band reception, and is compatible with an iPod, XM tuner and CB radio. The tuner operates with the standard bevy of buttons near the left handgrip. As expected, past about 45 mph the sound will be blown away in the wind, but your Kawasaki dealer will cheerfully sell you a helmet headset compatible with the system.

During my test the Vaquero delivered right around 40 mpg of premium fuel; Kawasaki recommends 90 octane or higher thanks to the bike’s 9.5:1 compression ratio. With its 5.3-gallon tank this will take you around 200 miles, but beware the gauge system’s histrionics. When fuel drops to a certain level the LCD display will give a range figure, but its numbers can fluctuate wildly depending upon whether you’re blasting uphill or coasting down. When the warning light illuminates the LCD display begins flashing “LOW FUEL,” and the range figure goes away. I was intimidated into immediately finding a station where the bike took 4.0 gallons, which means it still had 1.3 gallons (or about 50 miles) of fuel available.

With its dual 300mm front discs and single 300mm rear, each squeezed by a two-piston caliper, there’s nothing high-tech in the braking department. Still, the system provides plenty of feedback and control. If you desire an anti-lock system on your big-inch Vulcan, it’s available with the Voyager model.

The Vaquero comes loaded with features like standard radio, cruise control, fairing and handsome, locking saddlebags. With all that it still sells for $16,499 in either red or black, which is about a thousand dollars less than its major competitors. Then consider its 36-month base warranty with optional additional protection, and you’re stylin’. In any case, the Vaquero is a refined, well-finished bike with a relatively smooth ride and a raft of available accessories—all at a very attractive price.