Test Ride: Kawasaki VN1500-J1 Drifter

Words: Rob Glen/Rob Harris   Photos: As specified

Here at CMG we’re always trying to find new ways of taking it easy and getting somebody else to do all the work. That somebody turned out to be a motorcyclist by the name of Rob Glen. Rob is a recent recruit to the ranks of two wheels and currently rides an early eighties Suzuki GS750.

Being relatively new to the sport could be viewed as a bit of a handicap when it comes to test riding the latest and greatest. Well, yes and no. It depends on the type of bike being tested. In our warped world of bikes, bikes and more bikes, we sometimes miss the point of certain types of bikes, analysing them by general criteria that are not necessarily the same as those used by the potential buyer. Yes, if you haven’t guessed already, we’re talking about cruisers.

Does the cruiser buyer care about 0 to 60 times? Stopping, handling, etc.? Well, maybe a bit, but I bet looks, style, feel and, dare I say it, pose ability, are much higher criteria. With this it mind, Mr. Glen and his limited technical know how seem like a positive asset. Of course I could be talking a load of bollocks, but it sounds good dunnit?


Mr. Glen likes his Prozac.

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

Sorry, still Editor ‘arris here. Just bear with me a while longer while I quickly run through some of the technical Drifter blurb, just in case you are actually interested …

For those of you who have not being following Kawasaki’s evolution of the cruiser, let me fill you in here. The Vulcan range has been around for a while, but it was only in 1996 that they switched from ugly Japanese interpretation of what a cruiser should look like to “Hey, is that a Harley?” styling, with their Vulcan Classic. You know the look, deep valenced fenders, floor boards, spoke wheels, yada, yada, yada …

Two years later, would see the introduction of the Nomad variant with hard bags, screen and an extra 40Kgs. This year was the Drifters, with a more Indian than Harley look thanks to the massive fenders, fishtail mufflers and weird seat set up. These changes were not the only ones however. The Drifter gets some technical updates too, with fuel injection and updates for the frame and suspension.

With Kawasaki Canada seemingly pushing the Drifter line over all other models, they obviously have faith. Whether the Canadian rider has the same kind of faith remains to be seen.


Drifters exaggerated front fender

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

“Modern Vintage” styling is the term Kawasaki uses to describe the look of their new 1500 Drifter, a bike that combines modern elements with “traditional styling cues” – retro features that are more than a little reminiscent of the Indian bikes of the 1940s. Whether one likes the Drifter or not, you won’t be able to completely ignore it; it is quite unusual looking, the most striking feature being the enormous “valanced” or skirted fenders which you are either going to love or hate.

Personally I like the way the Drifter looks for the most part, even though I am not enthusiastic about cruisers in general (I ride an older GS750). But the Drifter is an interesting and bold design experiment. I spent a week riding the bike and looking at it parked in my lane way, and I never wavered in my appreciation for those fenders. They are vaguely menacing looking, with lines that hint at something not far from a German infantryman’s helmet, circa World War II, and they convey the same connotations of bad-ass serious intent — something that most cruiser fanatics will probably approve of (even while they keep those associations in the back of their minds, and let’s hope so!).

From left to right: Rear seat section. Engine & floorboards. Wide bars and tank mounted instruments.

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

Other styling features of the Drifter include a lack of chrome. In particular, the forks are black, probably so they won’t compete with the big fender for attention. The other issue is the seat, which is fixed to the bike in such a way as to leave a big space between itself and the rear fender, which frankly doesn’t look very good. Even Kawasaki downplays it in their brochure, which has no picture revealing the double seat’s positioning on the bike (there is a full side-angle view of the bike but only with the single-seat option, which doesn’t accentuate the problem of the weird space). It reminds me a little of a car I once had – a 1968 Sport Satellite: from the front, I was very proud of my car, but from certain side angles I would almost cringe inwardly and think, “Oh my God, my car is a BOAT!”

The Drifter may not look like a boat, but it does sound a little like an airplane, which for a big cruiser is probably a good quality, I would guess. Its 1500 liquid-cooled v-twin engine produces a sound that complements the way it looks. And the bike vibrates agreeably when idling. It has loads of low-end power and is pleasingly torquey, making one of the appealing features of this bike the fun you have pulling away from stoplights. But the price you pay for that is the dramatic lack of mid to higher-end power. Also, I found I had to be a little more careful than usual about road conditions: the Drifter fishtails quite easily accelerating across streetcar rails or slightly damp or dusty roads when you push it hard from a stop.

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

The Drifter handles pretty well, even if you feel like you’re driving a small aircraft down the street, though, inevitably, slow turns are a balancing act with a bike so long. It is smooth and stable on the highway and handles the corners well (never once scraped the floorboards) even when pushed. A fact of some importance to anyone who may have read the CMG article on the Kawi Nomad, a close cousin of the Drifter, when a lack of clearance caused the rear wheel to leave the pavement in a corner, catapulting the rider into the bush!

Other notable features of the Drifter include a hydraulic clutch (a nice feature!), self-cancelling turn signals (not a big deal), and a handlebar lock inconveniently separate from the ignition, each located on opposite sides of the bike.

Photo Credit: Wilfred Gaube

The riding position is, for me, not very comfortable, despite the thick padded seat. You’re forced to assume that seating position so common on cruisers, where your lower back becomes rounded and you just hang on to the bars and ride along looking (and feeling) like you haven’t moved in four hours.

All in all, I enjoyed riding the Drifter, even if it isn’t my type of bike (least of all for $16,000!). One thing for sure, it will turn heads. A case in point: while stopped at a never-ending left turn light, a very cool looking dude slowly crossing the road nonchalantly noticed me and, with a serious expression and a slow approving nod, pointed at my fender-skirted front wheel and gave me a big thumbs-up sign! I immediately blurted, “Thanks!”, which I later realized was not the correct “cool” response, especially since it wasn’t even my bike. Oh well, I made up for it when the light changed, accelerating away with that bad-ass v-twin airplane sound turning yet more heads.

Rob Glen


Kawasaki VN1500-J1 Drifter



Engine type
V-twin, sohc, liquid-cooled four stroke

Electronic fuel injection (2 x 36mm throttle bodies)

Final drive
Five-speed, shaft drive

Tires, front

Tires, rear

Brakes, front
Single 300mm disc with two piston caliper

Brakes, rear
Single 270mm disc with two piston caliper

Seat height
740 mm

1,655 mm

Dry weight
303 Kg

Canadian colours

Join the conversation!