Comparo – Honda, Suzuki, Harley-Davidson Cruiser Test, Part 1

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I Guess We Just Don’t Get It

The cruiser thing, we mean. We admit that after a couple of weeks with an interesting selection of cruisers, we still haven’t more than a vague effing clue what the attraction is. Having said that, however, we’ll still be more than pleased to pass on our opinions.

Needing, we thought, a ‘hook’ for the story, we decided to go for a ‘mid-size performance cruiser’ aspect, so we applied to Honda for a Magna, to Suzuki for a brand-new Marauder, and to Harley for, well, a Harley.

Garden gnomes and cruisers – decorative, tacky, uncomfortable to sit on. Coincidence? We think not! 

Unfortunately, Deeley’s didn’t have an 883 handy (closest in displacement to the others), ditto for a Sportster Sport (gotta love the name), so we got a Sportster 1200 Custom. Oh well. It had the right logo on the tank. The mistake was the ‘performance’ part of our idea. Basically, once you get past the Magna’s lovely haul-ass 750 cc V-4 engine, there isn’t any. Compared to the Honda the other two would have trouble pulling the skin off a cold pudding (the 805 cc Marauder and 1,200 cc Sportster are dead even in roll-ons, as it happens), so that idea went south. Also, none of them handle or brake any better than what you could charitably describe as ‘adequate’ levels. Hmm, need a new theme.

Maybe we should ‘cruise’ on them, whatever that means. Maybe then we’ll get the point. Relaxed, comfortable highway riding, enjoy the sights and smells and all that poetic crapola in living room comfort, right?

The seat that ate your ass – Marauder accessory catalog beckons.

Well, it turns out that none of them are very comfortable, actually. Quelle suprise to Mr./Ms. New Owner, seduced by Barcalounger splendour in the showroom, when the discovery is made that even on a slow road you have a pretty serious blast of wind to deal with, not to mention bumps and the like banging up your ass, though your spine, directly into your brain.

Body size and shape makes a huge difference to comfort on these bikes. Each tester, ranging over about a 25 cm height differential with all sorts of, er, fundamental shapes, had a favourite ‘least awful highway position’ machine, the only consensus being that they were all pretty bad. The Honda’s super-wide bars are terrific in town and provide a very light

So, said the photographer, ride with your front wheel tucked up just beside the leg of the rider ahead of you for a nice, tight shot. Yeah, right.

handling feel, but really hang you out like a sheet on a clothesline on the road. The Suzuki’s flatter, narrower bars are much better on the road, but the pegs are far enough forward to qualify as design for stirrups on a gynecological exam table. And the Harley’s footpegs are the best location of the lot, but again, the oddly-shaped high bars stand you right up as you pass, er, drive into the wind.

Clearly, they could all use a windshield for any extended out of town use, and by coincidence all three manufacturers do have such available. In fact, there’s a huge choice of accessories for all of them, led by the Harley (the Harley catalogs, yes, plural, are about the size of Mr. Sears’ best). In town, things are better. The Harley in particular comes into its own, providing giggles as you blat away from lights and feeling the most comfortable of the lot in urban settings. The Honda’s wide bar begins to make a lot more sense, and it is, of course, the stoplight GP king. The Suzuki’s pegs are still far too far forward for any of our testers, however other than that it’s pretty nice, with a motor that pulls reasonably hard at midrange rpm (other tests have complained bitterly about lack of power, but we found it perfectly adequate. Ditto for its horsepower Evil Twin, the Sportster).

Harley is happiest when rolling along a little under 100 k. On a smooth road. Where you don’t have to brake hard.

With forward pegs forcing all your weight onto your bum, seats become much more critical. The Honda’s and the Harley’s are both pleasant spots to drop your glutes at a standstill, being wide and deeply padded, but offer little support at highway speeds. The Suzuki has lots of padding, but invariably no matter what your height you end up eventually sitting on the, ahem, crack between the rider and passenger portions. After a day in the saddle, everyone was looking longingly at the accessory catalog’s $339 one-piece gel-filled device, which would likely go a long way toward upping the Marauder’s highway abilities.

Speaking of seats, we couldn’t coax or threaten anyone enough to ride on the back of the Harley (the pegs are on the swingarm, for crissake!) or the Marauder. I got my wife to ride about 50 km on the back of the Magna and am now living in the woodshed for a week. Suffice to say, these are one-people bikes, end of story. So get a wrench, remove the rear part of the seat, and look cooler.

You can have fun on cruiser-type motorcycles, you just have to be a little inventive.

All the bikes are attractive in a tough-guy sort of way that really appealed to many bystanders during the course of our rides. All three had people drooling over them, admiring either the low, long looks of the Magna and Marauder, or the basic black bastard look of the Sportster (not many seemed to like both). All of them have pretty decent finishes, with the Honda coming up best, the Harley looking a little crude (the bigger-engined H-Ds have an advantage here), and the Suzuki just a bit chintzy around the edges in a few spots, some chromy plastic and such.

Opinions on appearance are, of course, highly personal (“that Harley is the ugliest motorcycle I have ever ridden, worse than an XS400 Custom”, stated one of our keyboard-stained scribes, who shall remain nameless but he wrecked a CBR900RR last year), but by and large, the populace approves. Lesson One for the CMG crew, we guess: most people like ’em more’n we do. Going for a ride, the first trick is to find the ignition switches and chokes, cleverly buried in different places on different sides on all three bikes. Oh well, no doubt an owner would figure it out in due course. All three bikes prove rather cold blooded, the Magna least of the bunch, but both the Harley and the Suzuki sputter and pop for some time after coming to life. The Harley also often refuses to stop, running on for quite some time when hot. Welcome to EPA-land, as Canadian importers start bringing in U.S.-spec carburetted machines to simplify import requirements. Bummer, but that’s the way it works these days.

Sportster looks more like a Harley than any other bike in the test.

These babies have odd gearboxes. In the case of the Marauder and the Magna it’s at least partly because of the distance from the gear shifter to the box input shaft (the Marauder’s rod is about a foot long, no lie!), in the case of the Sportster it’s apparently because it’s a Harley. Shifting into first on the Sportster sounds just like the time I dropped an open can of bolts on my workshop floor, but other than the noise it works pretty well as long as you stomp the pedal. One rider complained of missing the odd shift, but nobody else did. Oh yeah, we’re not sure if the Harley really has a neutral or not. The traffic lights had always changed before we found it, anyway. The Honda’s tranny works pretty well, the Suzuki’s is a bit of a problem both because of the vagueness caused by the rod length, and also by the odd contortions your foot has to go through to move the pedal. Most of us missed downshifts occasionally.

All the bikes will reach about an indicated 160 km/h, um, for emergency passing maneuvers, but you want to watch the need to slow down. Brakes are reasonably strong on the Oriental efforts, pathetic on the Harley, but all feel a little dicey the faster you go. No foolin’ here, although it’s really more a matter of feel than anything else. The Harley is by far the worst, with a wooden on/off lack of sensation in the front brake, compounded by the skinny (low-traction) 21-inch tire. The Honda and the Suzuki are okay, but again, don’t provide much feedback; the front end is far, far away (if not long ago). All reward the rider who uses the rear brake fairly heavily.

The Honda provides the best ride by far, with a remarkably plush suspension

Magna is easily the fastest and best-handling of the cruisers we tried.

front and rear that still provides enough control to make it easily the best handler of the group. The Harley is the worst, with mismatched front (very soft) and rear (incredibly stiff) spring rates. It works okay on smooth roads, but feels loose up front and certainly doesn’t encourage more than a pedestrian pace. On rougher surfaces the rear end hops around enough to bounce you off the seat on a regular basis.

Marauder doesn’t handle too badly, but the 16-inch front wheel (whose idea was THAT, we want to know?) makes the front end a little skittish on rough pavement.

The Suzuki is somewhere in the middle, feeling much lighter than the others. Of course it is, by several kilos actually, but the secret is the 16-inch front wheel, which provides a Fat Boy^稩 (sorry about that, Mr. H-D) look to the front, but also quickens the steering a lot. A couple of riders liked it the best, others found it too skittish on rough pavement. In terms of comfort on the road, the Honda had the best ride, the Harley probably the best seating position, the Suzy maybe the best combination, especially if you used the rear pegs and could keep your ass out of that hungry crack in the seat.

None of the bikes sounded too loud on the highway, although in town and under acceleration the Sportster was incredibly noisy. Under later interrogation, Deeley’s insisted it was stock, hmm. The Marauder could probably use a little more oomph from the pipes, actually, while the Magna provides a rather attractive tingly growl under acceleration.

Whether accelerating or cruising (there’s that word again) the Magna is dead-smooth, eerily so. The Harley couldn’t be more different, shaking the pins out of your fractures at low and high rpm, with a reasonably bearable sweet spot at about 90-100 km/h in top gear (who knows what rpm, there’s no tach). The Marauder has picked this one out nicely, providing just enough shake in just the right places, easily winning the HQVA (Heather’s Quality of Vibration Award; don’t ask unless you really want to know).

You can’t see Heather’s smile from here, but the Marauder is running. And vibrating. And she could care less what Piero is saying

Speaking of tachs, only the Honda has one. Instrumentation on the others is spartan, to say the least, with the Harley not even offering a tripmeter. Which is too bad, since it has the shortest range (thanks to having the smallest tank; all three bikes returned mid-60s mpg figures) and a surprisingly teensy reserve (only five kilometres according to one extremely pissed test rider), so a tripmeter might help the unwary avoid the inevitable. Also, the odo is electronic, which looks seriously dorky with the rest of the Harley’s bad bastard accoutrements.

The switchgear and such is actually most modern and attractive on the Harley, both the Suzuki and Honda appearing to have copied stuff H-D stopped making, with good reason, years ago. The Harley’s dogleg levers are also nice, although the pull is heavy compared to either of the Japanese bikes. Only the Suzuki offers an adjustable brake lever.

Mirrors aren’t bad on the Magna and Marauder, while the Harley offers some chromed handlebar decorations that resemble mirrors until the engine is running. Not only do they shake too much they couldn’t keep the right one tight enough to stop it vibrating free and waving in the breeze every time we rode it (adjustment requires no fewer than two three-quarter inch wrenches, neither of which comes with the non-existent tool kit).

Oh, God, not back onto the highway!

So what did the CMG staff learn from this little trip into ToonTown, er, CruiserLand? These bikes all look wonderful to most non-motorcyclists (and to many riders, we hasten to add in a pitiful attempt to be fair), are comfortable enough for short jaunts in town, and are more than a small struggle on the highway (although bits like windscreens and such are easily available). They feel remarkably different – the Magna smooth and civilized, yet wickedly fast; the Marauder the lightest and slickest of the three; the Harley rough-edged, cranky, noisy, and mean.

So which do we recommend? Most of us ended up liking the Harley in spite of itself, until we found out it cost nearly $13,000. Gagh! The Magna, in the $11s, seems more reasonable in terms of dollar per performance and sophistication.

But the Marauder, priced in the low $8s (let’s say $9,000 by the time you added the gel seat and a windscreen), has to be the deal of the year in CruiserLand. Arguably the most comfortable on the road, powerful enough for comfortable two-lane passing, and attractive in a flashy cheap date sort of way, it’s got to merit a long, hard look if you’re shopping. But we still don’t get it…

Tune in next week for the individual rider’s opinions of the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly on these current cruisin’ machines.

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