2011 Kawasaki Vulcan Vaquero First Ride

A gaggle of V-Twins rumble through the Texas countryside along the farm to market roads north of Houston. The brown grass and pine trees don’t seem to mind the sound, nor do the grazing cattle. The Doors and Jimi Hendrix up the decibel disturbance further as music blasts out of the onboard stereo system – the red-backlighting of the retro-styled dash gleaming under darkened clouds. We’re cruising along, Vaquero style, enjoying our first ride aboard Kawasaki’s all-new production bagger.

Alright, so middle-aged journalists are a far cry from the original vaqueros, a Spanish term for the cowboys who roamed the open range. But the bike’s moniker made Texas a fitting locale for our first ride introduction of Kawasaki’s 2011 Vulcan Vaquero.

We sampled the all-new Kawasaki Vulcan Vaquero on the scenic farm-to-market roads north of Houston, Texas.

The Vaquero bagger gets a freshened up look, sporting the Voyager’s broad upper fairing but with revamped lower bodywork and all-new hard saddlebags.

Kawasaki pitches the latest steel horse in its Vulcan 1700 stable as a solo touring cruiser, splitting the difference between the Voyager and Nomad models. Styling takes center stage on this bike, with a bagger aesthetic Kawasaki describes as aggressive and sporty, with low, flowing lines.

We’ll concede the styling clicks, the glossy paint job of the black model is exceeded only by the Candy Fire Red configuration we snatched for testing duties. A broad upper fairing is ripped right off the Voyager, but benefits from a short wind deflector, as well as lower bodywork that streamline its new look. The upper fairing also houses the Vaquero’s most eye-catching trait – the finned fairing louvers (which can be swapped with accessory head lamps). The all-important bags anchor the new lines, more swoopy than the bulbous saddlebags on its Vulcan siblings. Overall the package works, with the Vaquero’s look familiar yet different.

The same could be said of the engine, a liquid-cooled 52-degree V-Twin. Power claims from the 1700 are unchanged with 108 lb-ft peak torque at 2,750 rpm. The internal architecture remains unaltered at 1700cc from its 102mm bore and 104mm stroke, but the powerplant does source a larger-volume intake manifold for a more linear throttle response and improved idle. Unique to the Vaquero mill the addition of a second piston ring to improve durability.

The six-speed transmission has been tweaked, a lower chain guide removed from the primary drive for a slight weight reduction. The Vaquero also sources the damper-less clutch found on the Vulcan Classic, as opposed to the smoother clutch configurations on the Voyager and Nomad models. The rationale for the damper-less system is to deliver a rawer, more pronounced torque feel from the engine. The first gear ratio has been altered (40/13 to 44/15). Third and fourth gear now feature taller tooth profiles, for smoother operation and reduced shift sounds. The final drive is a low maintenance carbon fiber belt that’s 2mm narrower at 26mm, with tighter fitting specs to reduce the squeaking sounds of loose belts on previous Vulcans.
Backroad fun at a cruising pace, the Vaquero handles moderate corners and transitions without trouble.

Fire the big Vaquero to life and the single-pin crank churns with that characteristic shuddering V-Twin feel. Stomp on the heel-toe shifter and first gear still engages with a rather pronounced clunk, but the engine and transmission deliver easy shifts and acceleration. On road the Vaquero chugs along in the lower revs with ample power on tap. Hard acceleration down low brought a harsher choppier feel than we remember during our 700-mile Kawasaki Flat Track Calistoga Tour aboard the Vulcan Nomad.  We suppose this sensation stems from the aforementioned damper-less clutch, either way we preferred the smoother mid-range power thrumming out between 3000 to 5000 rpm.

The well sorted gearbox doesn’t deliver any surprises. Our only kvetch is mild, as two overdrive gears, fifth and sixth, feel redundant. We found them too tall for much work beyond freeway duties and even then found it necessary to downshift when passing cars. Instead we spent the majority of our mileage in third or fourth, keeping the tach pitched straight up in the laudable mid-range and the big engine on song. We’ll praise the heel-toe shifter as well, which didn’t cramp our size-12 boots unlike some designs we sampled.

The easy-to-use cruise control is much-appreciated as a standard touring feature. The CC is made possible by the Vulcan 1700 line’s Electric Throttle Valve (ETV) system, in which a standard throttle cable activates sensors read by the ECU, the electronics then metering fueling and controlling the throttle valves (for more details read our 2009 Kawasaki Vulcan Voyager First Ride).

We mentioned the cows didn’t mind our exhaust notes, and the new tapered silencers on the Vaquero are indeed quieter than previous models. Kawasaki confirms the new pipes reduce noise, but wouldn’t specify the amount. The exhaust tones aren’t bland, and we aren’t complaining, they just don’t jump out and demand the look-at-me attention that so many of the cruiser brood crave.

Get past the styling and the powertrain, there’s not much about Vaquero that we haven’t experienced before in our stints aboard the Voyager and Nomad. Handling wise the Vaquero isn’t built for tight technical terrain, but reasonable backroad twists and turns see the Kawi commend itself well enough. The 45mm fork (same as the Voyager) and air adjustable twin rear shocks deliver a plush ride and once pitched into a turn the chassis remains stable. One big caveat, and not unexpected, the floorboards touch down with alarming ease – standard fare in cruiser country.

Riding position on the Kawasaki is feet-forward cruiser typical, with a comfortable seat and easy reach to the backswept bars.
The Kawasaki Vaquero delivers a great deal of rider protection from its broad upper fairing, though its short windscreen produced ample buffeting for our 6’1″ frame.

The dual front and single rear 300mm rotors are pinched by twin piston Tokico calipers. The braking package brings the 835-pound Vaquero to a halt but require heavy input. According to Kawasaki research the Vaquero demographic doesn’t want ABS. This is a shame, as we deem big heavy cruisers benefit from this safety system more than any other type of motorcycle. Expect to see ABS available as an option in the future, but not this model year.

As required by a bike with touring as its raison d’etre, the Vaquero delivers a riding position amenable to piling on the miles. Kawasaki promises an expanded rider triangle, again without any hard details, but the position felt like the Nomad’s. The feet-forward position rests boots on the floorboards, the pulled back handlebar well positioned for our tastes. Kudos to the 28.7-inch tall seat, not the lowest to the ground in the Vulcan line, but quite comfortable. A firmer accessory seat is available for hard-core tourers, the stock seat better suited for shorter day rides.

The frame-mounted fairing is stable and provides ample protection. However, we found the stock windscreen delivered tiresome buffeting to our shoulders and head. A taller unit, chosen from the six accessory screens, made a huge difference. We first sampled the tallest (18-inch), which required looking through the screen and blocked out airflow almost entirely. A quick run on one of the intermediary height screens proved the perfect balance, allowing us to look over instead of through the screen and delivering a stable airflow.

Reducing the unwanted buffeting not only increased rider comfort, it allowed us to appreciate the on-board stereo system, operated by inputs on the left switchgear. The Kawasaki stereo comes linked up with FM and AM, as well as XM satellite radio capabilities and CB radio. Breaker, breaker, anyone got your ears on good buddy? Yes, people apparently still demand and use CB communication. Lift up the seat and there are easy mounts for rider/passenger two-way communication systems (underseat access also required for adjusting the rear shocks and utilizing the pair of helmet hooks).

The 2011 Kawasaki Vaquero saddlebags and red backlit dash with analog gauges.

Speaking of two-up the Vaquero may be pitched as a solo touring platform but a quick release two-up accessory backrest provides for a pillion in just seconds. A rider sissy bar is also in development, the mounting bracket evident under the seat. The quick release products, dubbed KQR (Kawasaki Quick Release), are tool-less and take nominal time to remove or add. Kawasaki’s accessory specialist, Paul Golde, noted one of the greatest benefits for these removable accessories the ease of cleaning. Kawasaki has also ramping up its accessory production, with 35 optional parts planned for the Vaquero, many of which will be available by the time the bike hits dealers showrooms (Team Green getting down-right Star-like in its prolific options).

The Vaquero bags, while looking good, are slimmer than the top-opening units on the Nomad and Voyager and can’t hold a full-face helmet (half-helmet brain buckets will fit though). The bags are easy to use, however, and can be accessed with the bike running, just stick it in Neutral with the kickstand down pull out the key from the ignition.

We’re suspicious of the Voyager’s range, as the LCD display range to empty fluctuated quite a bit. Depending on the throttle usage, we saw as high as 200 and as low as 90 with a mostly full tank. Considering the 5.3-gallon reserve, our fuel gauges dipped down quicker than expected during our test ride. Range in the neighborhood of 140-miles, which we observed in our Nomad tour, seems about right by our estimation.

Will the Vaquero win over the cruiser with its bagger style?

The Kawasaki’s fit and finish lives up to its $16,499 MSRP, which matches up favorably with its American V-Twin rivals (Harley-Davidson Road Glide $18.999, Victory Cross Country $17,999). The Vaquero also comes with a standard 36-month warranty, which can be extended to a full six years with Kawasaki’s Good Times Protection Plan.

Yes, the plastic housing on the top of the fuel tank is definite gaffe, but the primo paint job brings home the cruiser looks. One Vaquero feature that stood out as a personal favorite was the instrumentation, with its red backlit analog gauges reminding me of my old man’s clunker ’72 Chevy pickup that I blitzed around all summer long as a smug 16-year-old. It is features like this that may best explain the cruiser allure that baffle many a performance-minded rider. It is motorcycle as a vessel of nostalgia, not high-performance engineering.

A successful manufacturer builds bikes the public want to buy. And, as Vaquero Product Manager Croft Long explained to us, while the industry as a whole has suffered greatly, the bagger market has suffered less than most. Kawasaki believes it has built a winner in the Vaquero. Our brief spell in the Texas countryside aboard the new ride gave us no reason to doubt the claims. We look forward to sampling the Vaquero against its bagger kin for a more thorough judgment.