Whoa, have they gone mad with power cruisers? Within the space of the last two weeks, Yamaha have announced their Warrior, Kawasaki their Mean Streak and just in the last few days, Harley have announced their new liquid cooled V-Rod (although we had to find all the info ourselves as Harley Canada seem to deem us to be unworthy of the info).
Thankfully, Kawasaki Canada are a bit more co-operative with the Canadian press, so much so that they managed to get a couple of examples of their new Mean Streak motorcycle and invited some of us for a day's ride in Southern Ontario.
Technically speaking, the Mean Streak is essentially a Vulcan 1500 motor with larger valves and throttle bodies, hotter cams and a revised electronic central command unit. Claimed maximum power is now 73 hp @ 5,500 rpm, which Kawasaki say is added to the top end without loosing any of the motor's power and torque lower down. As an interesting aside, the performance parts should be able to be fitted into the older VN 1500 motors, although I'd be careful which models I would do that to!
The transmission has had a bit of working over with thicker gears, a closer ratio box (5th is ten percent shorter than on the other VN's) and a smother shifting. They've also switched to paper based clutch friction plates, which purportedly reduce stiction, improve overall feel and further help smoother shifting.
On the road, the new motor feels like a tighter VN motor, but where the standard motor starts to gasp and wheeze, the Mean Streak keeps on pulling till just past the 6,000 rpm red line. It's not an arm wrenching surge and not as entertaining as the Honda VTX1800, with its claimed 106 hp on tap, but thanks to the Mean Streak's leaner mass (289 Kg, versus the VTX's 320 Kg), it is entertaining and generally keeps you above legal speeds whenever safe to do so. I managed to top it out around 190 Km/h, which worked out at 5,500 rpm in top. Not at all shabby - and the thing never wavered in the process (although it was in a very straight line).
I also find it strange that I didn't feel like I was going to be blown off the bike at higher speeds. There's no fairing to protect the rider, but then there seems to be a good smooth flow over the top, and the slight forward rider stance helps too. If you're riding solo, then the rear pegs are quite accessible and allow the rider to adopt an appropriate position when speed is required. If you're a lanky bastard (such as my good self) then you can even sit up the back and stretch out! Actually, that's probably the only use for the "bitch seat" which is tiny and would literally be a bitch for anyone to use more than a blast down Main Street.
Gear changes are very smooth and the close ratio box and low first gear means that you invariable hit the 6,200 rpm limiter in first and occasionally in second (it's sooo nice to have a tach on a cruiser!). Although there's only five speeds available, I didn't find myself wanting for a sixth, and the six piston calipers up front meant I wasn't left wanting for a pair of Depends either.
The brakes are just awesome. Hopefully this trend will see the days of big heavy cruisers with a single disc and two-piston caliper gone forever. After all, the front stoppers are lifted directly off the ZX9R and makes the Mean Streak the bike with the best brakes in the class. Having said that, there is a bit of a tendency for them to grab, especially during slow speed manoeuvring, and all my attempts at getting this thing to haul its arse into the air ended with a just a sad squeal at the front, as the front tire gave way into a slide. Due to the long wheelbase (40 mm longer than the Nomad), there's plenty of weight over the back wheel which means that you have to be incompetent to end up locking up the rear. It also means that the rear is a usable allay in the war against crashing into blind car drivers.
Since this was a one-day launch, I didn't really have enough time to be able to rate overall comfort of the bike, but by the end of the day my arse had only just rung the bell at the house of Numb. The seat is good, and its shape gives good lower back support aided by the fact that the footpegs are close enough to the rider. This lets the rider take bigger bumps through your legs, instead of the poor old spine. And yes, pegs, not boards. If you ask me (and you're not, but I'm going to say it anyway) boards are shite. They ground out all too quickly and unpredictably, generally don't fold up enough and don't let you rotate your ankle to prevent seizing in the one position. Don't agree? Never mind, you're wrong and that's as clear as a pint of Guinness (and just as sweet).
However, the whole bike is made low to the ground to give that 'drag bike' look. This means that ground clearance is a bit lacking and so peg scrapping is a part of life with this bike. Kawasaki obviously realised this and have supplied a large replaceable metal blob on the underside of each peg. Initially, hard cornering can be a bit alarming, but once you realise that cutting groves in the pavement is safe, then it's groove city from there on in.
Ergonomically, the placement of the clocks at the top of the forks means that they're within peripheral vision (as opposed to being on the tank where they're in shite vision), and you've gotta love having a tach (yes you do, it's the law). Oddly, Kawi have opted to put the ignition switch into the tank console. Since a whole load of keys bouncing around in the stylish chromed dish would leave it, well, unstylish, they've made it so the key can be removed with the ignition on. Once the ignition is turned of, it can't be turned back on without the key.
Style-wise, its got the long, low down look with beefy front end that seems to define the power cruiser. There's an arched sweeping effect from front to rear, aided by the seamless tank. In fact, it looks very similar to Honda's Sabre (which could be argued to be the forerunner of the power cruiser), even down to the use of two "shotgun" style exhausts which emanate a quite attractive burble by the way. Oh, and the pipes are actually 'two into one into two, the 'one' bit being where a catalytic converter hides.
Overall, I'm really quite excited by this trend toward the power cruiser (in fact, I'm vibrating at a low frequency as I write). I always knew that one day the cruiser market would marry function and form, and the Mean Streak seems to do this very well. In fact, come to think of it, why the hell has it taken this long to get there? The tune ups to the VN motor still retains the same power characteristics low down as the untuned versions, but now with a power band that just keeps going and brings a whole new usability to the motor. Surely FORM and FUNCTION would have always been marketable? Argh.
General market complaints aside, my brief exposure to the Mean Streak was very positive. Although it's not got the power figures to match the Honda and Yam, it is a couple of grand less. Add to that the lower weight, class leading brakes, and a well tested motor, and Kawasaki have something that is a realistic alternative to the other fat, but now fast, bastards out there.