Test ride: 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan S

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Kawasaki’s smallest sport-cruiser has been around since 2016, and it’ll stick around, unchanged, in 2020. This is good news: it’s a fun and affordable bike.

I almost wrote “little bike” there but stopped myself, because although the $8,399 Vulcan S is not physically large, it has aspirations above its station. The engine fills the space below the tank; the muffler is beefy and aggressive; the bike itself can be thrown around like a faster, more powerful machine.

See all the specs for the 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan S here.

The “Covert Green” of the 2019 Vulcan S looks good against the summertime colours. Don’t worry – they’ll come back again in just a few months.

I actually rode the 2019 edition late last year, but aside from the paint, nothing is changed for this model year. That’s too bad about the paint – I kinda liked the “Covert Green” colour scheme, but you can probably still find it in dealerships. In fact, you might even still find the 2018 edition with its Lava Orange paint. Each year, the price was bumped by $100 with no changes, so you’ll save a few bucks with the older editions if they’re on the floor.

This year, the standard colour is “Metallic Flat Spark Black,” and the two-tone bike in Kawasaki’s own press photographs is “Metallic Spark Black,” which costs an extra $200. There’s also a two-tone “Mysterious Grey” for the same extra $200. Hey – it’s your money.

For such an inexpensive bike, there’s a large variety of options. You can spend an extra $400 and get the Café version, with its “three-tone” paint, go-faster pinstripes and a tinted windscreen. More to the point, Kawasaki’s “Ergo-Fit” system makes sure you’re properly set up through the bars, seat, and pegs for your height; with the Vulcan S, there’s a larger available seat and optional pull-back handlebars, as well as three different positions for the forward-reaching footpegs, adjustable over 5 cm. You can’t just click them back and forth, however, as you might with a BMW – each position needs a dedicated length for the shifter rod, which is fitted to your spec. If you want to change the position, it’s easy to do but you’ll need to buy another shifter rod.

Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s see what the Vulcan S is all about.

Mark puts the pedal to the asphalt to check out the Vulcan S.

What is it?

Kawasaki calls the Vulcan S a “sport cruiser” because it’s more agile than most cruisers. It’s agile because it’s comparatively small, at least against its 900 cc and 1700 cc siblings, similar to the Z650 and the Ninja 650, with both of which it shares its parallel twin engine.

The cruiser is tuned quite differently from these naked and sport bikes, of course. Kawasaki doesn’t provide power figures (probably because they don’t sound impressive), but the Internet is quick to weigh in. General estimates are around 61 hp and 46 lbs.-ft. of torque. As IndyTom says on the Vulcan Forums, “It’s not a Super Fast bike but it’s quick enough to get the heart pumpin’.”

The Vulcan S isn’t about to snap your neck back on acceleration, or kill your forearms on the highway, but that’s not its purpose. It’s a non-intimidating bike to ride that just happens to look a bit intimidating – at least to your mom, anyway. According to Kawasaki’s own press blurb, “the engine was tuned for rider-friendly power characteristics that will inspire confidence in new riders.” Well, isn’t that special.

There’s good low- and mid-range torque available, which means the bike pulls happily from just 2,000 rpm or so. It’s very smooth, unlike most rumbly V-twin cruisers. The clutch is very light, so starts from a standstill are simple. At first glance, you might think its inline cylinders are an air-cooled unit because there appear to be cooling fins on the walls, but this is only decoration. A second glance will make the large radiator apparent, which means cooling isn’t an issue when you’re puttering around the city on a hot day.

The city is where the Vulcan S really stands out. The seat is very low, with a reach of just 705 mm to the ground, so traffic lights, congestion and parking are easy to manage. The power may or may not get your heart pumpin’, but it will outperform most other vehicles on stoplight runs. ABS at both wheels takes the worry out of braking, with a two-piston caliper at the front and single piston at the back. And above all, it’s simple to operate and looks good.

That said, there’s no room for luggage, or storage of any kind. You can buy leather saddlebags and a rack as an option, but without them, there’s not even space under the seat for your ownership and insurance documents. Just make sure they’re in your jacket, and you have a backpack to hand, and you’ll be fine.

Ah – now this is more like it, with warm weather, the promise of a winding road, and a well-handling motorcycle.

How does it ride on fun roads?  

Of course, the “Sport” part of the Vulcan S is best found outside the city, out on curvy rural roads, so I swung my boot over the low, single seat – a pillion seat is available as an option – and headed out to God’s Own Country in Ontario’s Northumberland Hills. I was going that way anyway because I live there.

It took just 45 minutes before I was squirming on the seat. Maybe it was too small for my middle-aged butt, but it’s been a while since I’ve ridden a bike that’s quite so uncomfortable so quickly. The following days showed this was the norm, and it didn’t matter if I was in the country or the city. That said, most riders probably won’t want to spend more than an hour or so in the saddle, especially in the city, and the bike was comfortable enough for the first half-hour. After a couple of minutes for a break, it would be comfortable for another half-hour, and so on.

The entire bike is fairly slim, with much of the exhaust system under the bike, which makes it more comfortable for the feet-forward design, but even so. As mentioned, there’s a larger, more thickly-padded seat available, primarily intended for larger riders or to help adjust the reach to the pegs. I weigh 210 lbs. Maybe I should just take the hint.

In those half-hours of happiness, however, the Vulcan S was great fun to ride. It will lean to 35 degrees on either side, apparently, and I greatly enjoyed grinding both pegs at every chance I got. The suspension is very capable, and the offset laydown monoshock at the rear adjusts to seven different settings. My 210 lbs (or 300 lbs with wet leather jacket) weren’t a problem for it. Its agility was as satisfying as the Z650 I rode earlier in the season.

The feet-forward design surely does not help the comfort of the Vulcan S, since most of the rider’s weight rests on the saddle and is is not supported through the legs.

Is it worth it?

There aren’t many choices if you’re looking for a small cruiser, and I’ve only ridden a few of them, so I can’t make a categoric recommendation. Probably the closest competition is the Harley-Davidson Street 750, which has slightly less power and slightly more weight, but I’ve never experienced it to know if it’s actually any good. Its base price is less expensive, at $7,599, but once you add the $750 for optional ABS and maybe up to $450 extra for two-tone paint, and the additional insurance premium for the extra 100 cc, there’s really nothing in it.

The Harley Street 750 is old technology – Costa rode it when it was introduced in 2014 – but so is the Vulcan S, now in its fifth year, with an engine that had its roots in 2006, with the original Ninja 650 (although it’s seen a few updates since then).

Honda no longer makes a 750 Shadow, which would have been close, and its Rebel 500 inline-twin may have the same target demographic but it has nowhere near the power or even size. It does, at least, have ABS brakes and a $7,299 price tag.

It’s the same for the Suzuki Boulevard S40, back up to 650 cc but with just a single cylinder and comparatively primitive technology to justify its $6,199 cost. Like the Rebel, it’s more than 100 lbs lighter than the Vulcan S, but there’s no ABS and the rear brake is a drum. I thought only washing machines have drum brakes these days, but the much heavier 800 cc Boulevard C50 classic and Boulevard M50 cruiser are similarly equipped. They’re closer in price, at $8,999, and all three of those Suzukis currently have an extra $500 cash discount on offer, as well as a five-year warranty.

Yamaha sells the Bolt, but it’s a 942 cc V-twin and costs $9,099, which means it has completely different levels of performance.

Hey, what happened to Mark? All of a sudden, he looks kinda cool and macho.

And that’s about it. So maybe the Kawasaki Vulcan S really does hit the sweet spot: not too costly in the mid-$8,000s, not too primitive with ABS brakes and a clever monoshock suspension, an attractive design, plenty of fun to ride, and enough performance to make most people think it’s much more butch than it really is. It’s a bike even your mom can love.

See all the specs for the 2020 Kawasaki Vulcan S here.

10 COMMENTS

  1. There is also Benelli 502c …. I have ridden one and I have to say that it’s a phenomental little power cruiser. Power-wise, not as good as Kawasaki (just 47hp), but built quality is excellent. Not to mention that huge fuel tank (21l).

  2. Riding since1955 ! Being a avid rider with a heck of a lot experience. I rode Harley Davidsons mainly Hummers.But I worked at the local Harley shop mostly as a gopher / gunk man.But everyday someone had to move the bikes outside and put them away..Needless to say the owners son and I might have done a little side by side comparisons of a few sporties and what ever flh we’d happen to be warming up for storage .Then I bought a Ducati 250cc street & trail.That was back when the Honds 305 scramblers were really hot.No match for my little 250.To this day a guy i went to school with who had a 305 always asks”what the heck was that thing you rode I could never catch you “lol.Needless to say the Ducati came with a stack of gears.”Street & trail.” In 1966 The Harley dealer had to start thinking outside the box.He bought into Kawasaki and became a dealer.I traded the Ducati for a 120cc street & trail.Whoa ,2 stroke.That changes everything.
    In 1967 I recieved the letter from uncle Sam.So didnt bike again till in the 70 s.Then 650cc Triumph Bonneville a unbelievable fast, wheel stander.lol Sadly It had to leave when the kids came along. Some where in between I had a 550 yamaha a great small bike and sorry.It could run with sportster’s No problem.Then for a while I was more into kids.Now riding again .I ride a Harley Soft tail deuce .But several years ago I sat on a little 250 Kawasaki Ninja.I told my .”These things would be a blast down on the curvy southern Ohio hills”.But we bought 500s And they are a blast period.Oh yeah,Sporties beware.I love to put it on a 1200cc bike.Ill take the ticket.lol
    But enough about me!
    I ve looked at these 650cc Vulcans since they came out . I love the concept .Bought a used one last year.And so far it’s exactly what I’ve been looking for.Light,low,fast.it handles awesome and N O burning on the calve.Oh yeah the perfect beginners bike!
    And make all the comparisons you want but remember it has Ninja Gene’s lol.

    And remember dont drink & ride.The life you save will be your own!

  3. Editor Mark – Its too bad you didn’t have the chance to try all the possible permutations and combinations for seat/footrest/handlebars. You might have found something more comfortable.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think its a no-charge setup at the dealer during initial purchase.
    As for the motor, until the Indian FTR750 came along it was a force to be reckoned with in American flat track racing. I think it would be pretty much impossible to break one on the street.

  4. Awesome article excellent transfer of information from experience. The 650 cc market was at one time the mid sized segment, today that is more like 1300 cc in many riders eyes and this is unfortunate. At this price this is probably a fantastic “ cafe hopper” (because nobody goes to bars anymore) lighter, nimble, and dependable as well.

    • I will agree; the Bolt motor, doesn’t make the same power HORSEPOWER|46.2 @ 5480 rpm
      TORQUE|52.7 lb.-ft. @ 3020 rpm; hell the Rebel 500 makes 47 – 49 hp (depending upon source, but I think the bolt has more TQ

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