Despite the industry’s constant urge to build bigger, badder V-twin barges, the middleweight cruiser class is not extinct.
All the manufacturers build something in the 500-1000 cc range; some are your classic air-cooled Americana clones, and some are more interesting, like the three we’re looking at today: the Honda Rebel 500, the Harley-Davidson Street 750 and the Kawasaki Vulcan S.
They’re slightly different machines, but occupy roughly the same space in their manufacturers’ lineups. So how do they stack up?
All three bikes have liquid-cooled engines, with different displacements. The Harley-Davidson has a 60-degree V-twin with SOHC (single overhead camshaft, four valves per head). The Kawasaki and the Honda are both parallel twins. The Honda has a 471 cc engine with a DOHC, four valves per cylinder setup. The Kawasaki has a 649 cc engine, also with DOHC and four valves per cylinder.
Unsurprisingly, the Honda has the least horsepower and torque, with 45.9 hp @ 8,500 rpm and 32.9 lb-ft of torque @ 6,000 rpm. That’s because it has the smallest engine. And the Harley-Davidson, with the largest engine, has the most horsepower and torque (57.6 hp at 7,955 rpm, 43.2 lb.-ft. at 3,790 rpm). However, the Harley-Davidson has little edge over the Kawasaki, which puts out 54 hp at 7,100 rpm and 42.3 lb.-ft of torque at 5,600 rpm.
The Vulcan S is Kawasaki’s spiritual successor to the Vulcan 500 cruiser, a small-capacity motorcycle that regularly embarrassed riders on bigger bikes due to its revvy engine, originally built for the Ninja EX500 sportbike. The Vulcan’s engine is a transplant from the ER-6n/Ninja 650/Versys 650 platform, and while it’s not a traditional cruiser engine, it benefits from a design originally intended for decent performance.
The Rebel 500 is much the same; while its engine is smaller, it also has its roots in a sportbike (CBR500R). Both the Rebel and the Vulcan make peak torque at much higher rpm than the Street 750, which has that low-end grunt that traditional cruiser riders want. If a rider is looking for a typical cruiser experience, they’ll flock to the Harley-Davidson for both the power delivery and the V-twin engine layout. Otherwise, the answer might not be so clear-cut, as the Honda’s lower power is offset by another advantage, as seen below.
Honda makes up for its small engine with a curb weight of 188 kg. The Rebel 500 had to be svelte, as Honda also powers this chassis with a 286 cc single-cylinder motor for the Rebel 300 version.
The Kawasaki is considerable heavier, with a 226 kg curb weight. But the Harley-Davidson is the most portly of all, with a 233 kg curb weight, almost 50 kg heavier than the Honda.
If you’re a beginning rider, you’ll probably want the Honda’s light weight.
None of these bikes have high-tech suspension. All three have basic telescopic forks up front. The Street 750 has 37 mm forks with 140 mm of travel, the Rebel has 41 mm forks with 121 mm of travel, and the Vulcan S has 41 mm forks with 130 mm of travel. None of these machines has adjustable front suspension.
There’s a traditional twin-shock setup on the back of the Honda (96 mm of travel, spring preload adjustment) and the Harley-Davidson (also preload-adjustable, 89.5 mm of travel). However, the Kawasaki has a funky monoshock arrangement, similar to what’s seen on the Ninja 650, but with only 80 mm of travel (it’s also preload-adjustable).
There’s no clear winner here, especially not without a back-to-back street shootout.
We’ve found the Street a bit cramped on test rides, while Costa found the Rebel 500 was a surprisingly decent fit when he first rode it. Both these bikes benefit from wide, flat handlebars and mid-mounted footpegs, which make it easier to control the motorcycle. However, mid-pegs can make it harder for a tall rider to fit on a smaller-sized bike, especially with a low seat height.
When it comes to ergos, the Vulcan S is probably the winner, as long as you don’t mind a feet-forward riding position. Kawasaki designed the Vulcan S with a considerable amount of ergonomic adjustment possible, through a combination of stock parts and factory accessories. Whether you’ve got long legs or short arms, Kawasaki has parts to help the Vulcan S fit you better, and if you were at an MMIC show this winter, you might have seen a line of Vulcan S models with these different parts installed — all basically the same bike, but with a lot of difference in seating and control positions once the parts were installed.
As time goes by, the Rebel 500 and Street 750 are both likely to be foundations in their respective brands’ lineups, and you’ll see an increasing number of specialty seats, handlebars and other parts to help ergonomic adjustment, but for now, the Vulcan has the edge here.
All three bikes are available with ABS (optional for the Harley-Davidson, standard on the others), but that’s it for electronic safety features. There’s no leaning ABS or traction control here, but considering the mild horsepower output, there’s no need for that sort of electronic trickery. And as these are all budget machines in their respective lineups, there’s no provision for stereos or other infotainment or navigation equipment that’s found on modern bagger-style cruisers.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and you’ll certainly hear complaints about all these bikes, as the Honda and Kawasaki deviate sharply from traditional cruiser styling (the Vulcan S is certainly built in the mold of the modern muscle cruiser). The Harley-Davidson isn’t quite as far-out as the other two, but still doesn’t look much like a traditional MoCo offering. It’s not too far off the V-Rod’s design aesthetic, but even the V-Rod took a lot of hate from Harley-Davidson aficionados. However, the non-Harley-owning public seems to think the Street lineup isn’t too bad in the looks department, and you’ll find differing opinions on the other two machines as well. If you’re buying a bike based on looks, you’ll just have to decide what works for you.
However, remember the Honda and Kawasaki are available in a limited number of colours compared to the Harley-Davidson, but they’re much flashier-looking than the basic black Street 750. The Street 750 comes in seven different paint combinations, but everything but black costs extra. The Honda is available in three colours, all for the same price, and the Kawasaki is available in a couple of different paint schemes (the SE paint costs extra) and also available with a bikini fairing (again at extra cost).
The Rebel 500 is $7,099 in Canada this year. The Vulcan S is $8,199. The Street 750 is $8,999. Arguably, they’re all priced right about where they should be; the Kawasaki might be a bit of a deal when compared to the Harley-Davidson, which is probably a bit too expensive for what it is. But none of these numbers are shockingly low or shockingly high.
Whichever bike you get is more likely to be the result of where you’re at in your riding career than any of the other factors mentioned in this piece. Are you a beginning rider? You’re likely going to be attracted to the Rebel if you want an affordable, easy-to-ride bike. If you’re a noob who absolutely must have a Harley-Davidson (and that’s the attitude of many cruiser buyers), purchase the Harley-Davidson — it’s a modern engine design, and not as intimidating as a Big Twin. Are you an experienced motorcyclist who just wants to try a relatively peppy cruiser without spending a lot of money? Maybe the Vulcan S would fit you, especially with its more modern styling. There isn’t necessarily any universal right answer if you’re choosing between these three, but there really isn’t any wrong one either.