Sometimes it’s hard to pick a winner in these little motorcycle comparisons we’re so fond of doing and sometimes it’s easy, but I can’t remember it ever being so difficult to remember which bike is which. Is this the Kawasaki I’m on now? Or the Star? Thankfully the Kawasaki says Kawasaki on the plasti-chrome tanktop instrument pod, and the Star does not. Once upon a time, all the Japanese four-cylinders melded into the Universal Japanese Motorcycle. Now the focus groups seem to have zeroed in on the Universal Japanese Cruiser.
Wheelbases of these two are both in the 66-inch range, chassis have 32 degrees of rake and similar trail figures, wet weights are about 615 pounds and ergonomics offer nearly identical low-slung feet-forward riding positions. Throw in the fact that Star Candy Red and Kawasaki Candy Fire Red appear to come from the same can, and you’ve got a pair of bikes with a lot in common.
If it’s high performance you want, you are shopping in the wrong aisle. Think wheeled lawn chair, really, machines that extend your relaxing backyard experience into the larger world, bikes for seeing and for being seen, econo-cruisers which have been super-sized because that’s what the American People want. They’re long, they’re heavy and they’re low. Wide, tiller-style handlebars serve to show off your bulging biceps while they also act like the Flying Wallendas’ balance poles. And even if you’re built like Taz, seats just about 27 inches high keep Mother Earth close. In short, these are really easy bikes to trundle around upon; you’re not going to loop out, fly over the bars if you use the front brake or be suddenly struck with an urge to emulate Rossi or Spies. Who? And, due to the bar width, they don’t really encourage lane sharing, either. Performance and riding experience are remarkably similar.
You say potato, I say potahto… wait, isn’t that property of H-D? The identical ergos of the V Star (left) and Vulcan are great for rolling around town, especially if you live where it’s hot: Those wide bars provide excellent armpit ventilation.
Stop riding and start eyeballing, and differences become more apparent. Kawasaki went for a sort of H-D Softail Deluxe aesthetic when it cranked out the first Vulcan 900 in 2006, complete with fake-hardtail frame and a 16-/15-inch spoked wheel combo (for a few hundred dollars more, the Vulcan 900 Custom gets 21- and 15-inch wheels). Chromed plastic abounds, and the only real giveaway that it’s not actually yesteryear is the coolant radiator stuck up front between the downtubes. If you’re in the market for this bike, maybe you don’t notice it? Liquid cooling is a good thing for long-term reliability and power but, in fact, the air-cooled V Star 950, thanks in part to its bigger displacement, makes more horsepower and torque than the Kawasaki. With these motorcycles, though, it’s not all about power, is it? Compare, for fun, the BMW S1000RR’s 2.6 pounds-per-horsepower ratio to these bikes’ ratio of about 12.4 pounds-per-pony. “Non-threatening” defines these scoots; they’re excellent for beginners who want to ease into it on a bike that doesn’t look so beginner-ish, and not bad for more experienced riders looking to downsize, uh, sort of.
For the V Star 950, Star takes off in the “neostreamlined” direction it begat with its Roadliners, fitting an 18-/16-inch cast wheel combo a little more reminiscent of H-D’s Dyna bikes. The Yamaha’s steel fenders are nice. Both bikes strike a fine balance between spending money wisely on nice components people will notice—like tasty upper triple clamps and handlebar risers—and the need to keep the price down in the $8K range through the use of things like single brake discs up front squeezed by twin-piston sliding type calipers (that get the job done perfectly adequately).
And the nicest component on the Yamaha would be its engine. For us motorcycle snobs, air cooling is what makes a “radial” engine a radial engine, and the V Star’s design team understands that. Not only does the Star’s engine look the part, the absence of water jacketing means it makes the right sounds, too—some of them anyway. With four valves per cylinder driven by a single cam in each head, all that’s missing is the pushrod clatter. Together with its reasonably rumbly two-into-one exhaust note and EFI intake honk when you whack open the throttle, the V Star sounds like an only slightly tamed facsimile of the real deal. And with its bolted-in-solid 60-degree Vee, it feels a little more like one than the Kawasaki, too—though both bikes are uncannily smooth up to around 80 mph or thereabouts. Beyond that, both begin to tingle through the bars and floorboards, and not too many more mph beyond that you’ll encounter the standoff between thrust and wind resistance and will appreciate why “the Ton” (for the kids, that’s 100 mph) used to be a big deal.
For urban use, there’s precious little to choose between the two. But if you decide to push the envelope on some twisting backroad, the Star seems to possess a tad more structural rigidity and road feel—though the fact that it runs out of cornering clearance early and often pretty much negates its handling advantage over the Kawasaki when the pace heats up—not that it probably will. Still, these are great gateway bikes and could lead to harder machines. Maybe even a sportbike?
If you’re attracted to either bike, there aren’t any good reasons to dis either one (as long as you’ve never ridden anything remotely sporty, or you have and are tired of it). Star and Kawasaki know what they’re doing. Fuel injection means both bikes start up instantly and run flawlessly, and their gearboxes and belt drives transmit power smoothly and efficiently, returning mpg numbers in the mid 40s. Both bikes’ suspensions and cushy seats do a good job smoothing out bumps along life’s highway, and both provide passenger seats in keeping with the SuperSize theme (rear spring preload is the sole adjustment on each bike). Both are ridiculously easy to operate once you extricate them from the garage clutter (not so easy given their wheelbases and wide handlebars), and both will probably be running strong when they really are vintage. It’s just a little hard to picture us sitting around in 30 years fighting about which was better.