2011 Star Stratoliner

Road Test Review

A large chunk of American motorcyclists are beholden to the past. For years the highest percentage of motorcycle sales has been accounted for by cruisers, classically styled, heavyweight bikes that display more than a passing resemblance to motorcycles hand assembled by dozens of American manufacturers nearly a century ago.

The traditional look, sound and feel of a cruiser trumps all else, leading many of today’s manufacturers to renounce the virtues of liquid cooling and hide bits of modern technology behind chrome—or chromelike plastic—covers. The traditional cruiser formula has kept Harley-Davidson in business for 108 years, and the rise of the cruiser as a status symbol built the Motor Company into a colossus, inspired revivals of Indian and Excelsior and motivated Polaris to launch Victory.

Since the ’80s Japanese-built metric cruisers have come into their own, evolving from awkward imitators into solid performers. Yamaha was the first of the Big Four to build a V-twin cruiser, its improbably named Virago—a term referring to a noisy, ill-tempered woman—entering the market in 1981.

Fifteen years later, Yamaha launched its first model under the banner of its Star Motorcycles brand, which for 2011 has a broad lineup that includes 14 cruisers spread over seven model families, from the entry-level V Star 250 to the asphalt-rippling Vmax. Introduced for 2010, the Stratoliner Deluxe now occupies a category of one, Star having dropped its Strato­-liner S and Roadliner S siblings for the current model year.

One thing the housing and motorcycle markets had in common during the aughts was a bigger-is-better custom craze. During those heady days, Star’s Roadliner and Stratoliner thundered onto the scene in 2006, combining a massive 1,854cc (113 cubic inches) air-cooled, pushrod V-twin with an aluminum frame and Art Deco styling. Distinctive design-in-motion touches included a triad of chrome strips on the flangeless gas tank, tapered fender struts, cone-shaped turn signals and a retro-styled instrument panel. The Stratoliner, named after the pre-World War II Boeing 307 Stratoliner, the first commercial passenger airplane with a pressurized cabin that enabled high-altitude flight, was distinguished from the Roadliner by its detachable windscreen, detachable passenger backrest and locking leather-covered hard saddlebags. Favored for its rumbling power, plush seat, classy styling and generous luggage capacity, the chromed and polished Stratoliner S won our heavyweight touring cruiser motorcycle comparison three years ago.

Not wanting to miss the rising wave of popularity among bad-boy baggers, Star introduced the Stratoliner Deluxe last year, replacing the detachable windscreen with a color-matched, fork-mounted fairing, substituting larger polycarbonate/ABS saddlebags for the leather-covered ones and leaving the passenger backrest in the parts bin. Though a set of saddlebags is the defining characteristic of a bagger, many also have batwing-style fairings, providing fore/aft balance of painted plastic around a V-twin focal point, as well as a convenient place to mount boulevard-bouncing speakers. Saddlebags and a fairing also make touring more feasible and enjoyable. Well, that’s the idea anyway.

Lifting the 805-pounds-wet Stratoliner Deluxe off its elegantly shaped chrome sidestand gets your attention. Weaklings need not apply. Kick a leg over the bike, settle into the generously padded, 27.8-inch-high saddle, and take it all in. Between your legs sits a wide, 4.5-gallon gas tank dominated by a large chrome console, set into which is a stylish speedometer you’d expect to find in a classic car and two small gauges for engine speed and fuel level. Reach deep into the fairing’s center recess, fumble around in the dark until you get the key into the ignition and turn it on. In low light the speedometer’s numbers and the gauge needles illuminate in cool blue. Modernity is evident in the stepper motor-driven sweep of the gauge needles through their entire arc and in the small LCD display. Other clues include warning stickers insisting that you read the owner’s manual, wear proper protective gear and use only premium fuel, as well as an iPod docking cable peeking out from a small compartment inside the fairing. Throwback styling needn’t preclude you from rockin’ out to your favorite tunes.

Spread 38 inches apart from end to end, the handlebar is located low and somewhat far from the rider. Not a problem for my knuckle-dragging limbs, but it warranted complaints from others who rode the Stratoliner S during our touring cruiser shootout in 2008. An advantage of those wide bars is steering leverage, making it easy to roll the Stratoliner into curves and do U-turns in remarkably tight places, a quality further enhanced by a low center of gravity. The massive, nonadjustable clutch and brake levers are a good reach from the grips, and though it’s hydraulically actuated the clutch requires a firm pull. You’ll want to use all four fingers on the brake lever, too, not because the Stratoliner Deluxe lacks stopping power—its dual discs with four-piston mono-block calipers work exceptionally well—but because hauling a half-ton of bike, rider and gear to a stop simply ain’t a two-fingered affair.

Waiting until the seventh paragraph to give more than a passing mention to the Stratoliner Deluxe’s engine might suggest that it is lacking in some way. Not at all. In fact, it’s the Deluxe’s greatest asset. Its pair of 927cc ceramic-composite plated cylinders are angled 48 degrees apart, with a bore and stroke of 100 x 118mm, a 9.5:1 compression ratio and four valves and two spark plugs apiece. The black finish on the cylinders contrasts nicely with the machined fin edges and chromed oil lines, valves covers and cases. Dual counter­balancers keep the big V-twin from shaking your bones into dust, but plenty of rumble remains. After struggling to get its 43.3-inch width through the door and fitting its 67.5-inch wheelbase onto Jett Tuning’s Dynojet dynamometer, the Deluxe cranked out 87.8 horsepower at 4,500 rpm (redline is 5,200) and an impressive 110.3 lb-ft of torque at 2,200 rpm. Over 100 lb-ft of torque is available from 1,900-4,600 rpm, thanks in part to Yamaha’s midrange-boosting EXUP (Exhaust Ultimate Powervalve) inside the 2-into-1 exhaust, rendering gear changes mostly optional. The Mikuni twin-bore downdraft electronic fuel injection with dual 43mm throttle bodies and 12-hole injectors worked flawlessly. We averaged 37.4 mpg on 91-octane fuel (required), for a range of 168 miles. As with most cruisers, power is fed from the engine to the rear wheel by a low-maintenance belt.

The Stratoliner’s big mill sits within an aluminum double cradle frame attached to an aluminum controlled-fill die-cast swingarm, both of which are sturdy enough to handle the Star’s hefty weight and prodigious torque. (Let us all rejoice in the fact that the days of cruisers “with a hinge in the middle” are behind us.) Bolted to the frame are wide floorboards set at a slight angle. At highway speeds wind tended to push my legs apart and my boots onto their heels, which became tiresome. The adjustable heel-toe shifter engages each of the Deluxe’s five gears positively, but my left boot was crowded by the heel shifter; since I don’t like using heel shifters, the problem could be solved simply by removing it. A nonadjustable fork with 43mm stanchions and 5.1 inches of travel and a preload-adjustable single shock with 4.3 inches of travel provide a comfortable, responsive ride.

Cornering clearance is as limited as it is on most cruisers, which, given the Stratoliner Deluxe’s deep power reserves and low-effort handling, is unfortunate. It took just a few jarring scrapes of hard parts for me to wake up and smell the wildflowers, to roll off the throttle and channel my Inner Cruiser.

Less philosophically speaking, the Stratoliner Deluxe demands a moderate pace. Instinctively, unconsciously, any time I rode faster than 70 mph my throttle hand eased back, as if controlled by an invisible force. As attractive as the Deluxe’s fairing is, the wind protection it offers is a mixed blessing.

It blocked the wind from hitting my torso, but air coming over the shorty windscreen buffeted my helmet and the rush of wind from beneath the fairing created excessive turbulence inside the cockpit. And at 70-75 mph the buffeting and turbulence felt amplified by vibration in the seat and floorboards, which became exhausting. And considering that music from the speakers is all but inaudible at speeds over 55 mph, long-distance touring on the Stratoliner Deluxe becomes an unattractive prospect, at least if freeways and interstates are involved. Solutions may be found in Star’s accessory catalog, namely a 71⁄8-inch taller windscreen ($129.95) and a lower cowl ($875) bolted to engine guards ($214.95), but we didn’t have a chance to test them. Dozens of other accessories are also available to give the Deluxe a more customized look.

Controls and instrumentation on the Stratoliner Deluxe are basic. A switch on the left handlebar toggles through the LCD display’s options: clock only, clock-plus-odometer and clock-plus-tripmeter. When the low-fuel light comes on, a fuel tripmeter counts up. An audio control unit is located above the left switchgear. With an iPod plugged in, I was able to adjust volume, pause or resume play, and select next or previous track. An iPod fits conveniently in a rubber-lined compartment in the center of the fairing, held in place by an elastic hook-and-loop strap, though I wished for a locking door so I didn’t have to remove the iPod whenever I walked away from the bike (or possibly forget to do so). I’ve come to really enjoy bringing my music collection with me on rides and having easy-to-reach integrated controls. The Deluxe’s speakers provided decent volume, which is speed-sensitive, and clarity, but only below 55 mph. But no iPod, no music; there is no radio receiver.

Deluxe is French for “of luxury,” a description that is a bit of a stretch for the Stratoliner Deluxe, which is billed as a stylish tourer. I give it high marks for cool looks, engine power and feel, handling, braking, seating comfort and luggage capacity. Its locking, top-loading saddlebags look and work great, and they hold 13.7 gallons of stuff. But other than the iPod-only audio system, amenities are few. The inside of the fairing looks crude and unfinished, and it offers no storage other than the open shelf for the iPod. Neither cruise control nor ABS are available. As delivered, audio quality and touring comfort are greatly diminished at speeds over about 65 mph. Accessory upgrades could very well make the Stratoliner Deluxe a serious touring cruiser, though it seems a shame to add more than $1,200 to the $17,490 price tag to find out. (To see how it compares to the Kawasaki Vulcan Vaquero, turn the page.) But if your definition of deluxe focuses more on high style, big pulsing torque and easy-does-it handling than touring capability, this long-and-low ’liner is in the bag.