Once upon a time, Japan made a lot of cruisers that weren’t V-twins. Through the late 1970s and the early-to-mid 1980s, the Big Four sold a lot of “low rider” bikes with parallel twin engines, inline fours, even triples. But eventually, they mostly shifted to American-style V-twins. There’s been the odd exception to this rule, powered by other engines, and one stands above the rest over the past decade: The Kawasaki Vulcan S.
Powered by the same parallel twin engine as the Ninja 650 and Versys 650, the Vulcan S has been in Kawi’s lineup basically unchanged since 2015. I wanted to try one when it first came out, but didn’t get that chance. Now, nine years after the launch, I’ve finally been able to put a few hundred klicks on the S. Here’s what I found:
The Vulcan S carries on a long tradition—Kawasaki has repurposed its sporty parallel twins into cruisers ever since the KZ400 LTD of the 1970s. But the Vulcan S particularly follows the Vulcan 500, which was canceled in 2009. That bike served as the low-riding counterpart to the Ninja 500 for a long time, and was known for having surprising amount of zip, enough to embarrass an EVO Sportster at a stoplight.
In the case of the Vulcan S, the liquid-cooled parallel twin makes a claimed 61 hp at the crank, at 7,500 rpm. Max torque is 46.5 lb-ft at 6,600 rpm. Horsepower is slightly lower than the Ninja 650, then, but torque is about the same.
Because it’s built around the same engine as the Ninja 650, there are obviously some basic similarities in the frames of these bikes—but the Vulcan S has a slammed 705 mm seat height. Front suspension is old-school telescopic fork, with no adjustment. In back, there’s a monoshock (no silly, outdated dual-shock rear here!) with preload adjustability.
In other words, a pretty basic setup, just like the Ninja 650 and the now-canceled ER6-n naked bike, which also used this engine. The gauges are a combination of cheap-but-reliable LCD speedo and an analog tach, with clock, tripmeter, odometer and fuel level read-outs.
The bike weighs 228 kg at the curb. ABS is optional, but my test bike did not come with that option.
On the road
When I picked up the Vulcan S, the first thing I noticed was A) the forward controls, which lock you into the B) deeply cushioned rear seat. I don’t much care for forward controls, but it’s part of the low-rider package. If you slam the seat height, then your legs need to go somewhere, and a lot of riders think that feet-forward stance is La-Z-Boy comfortable.
It isn’t, at least not always, because it places all your weight directly on your tailbone, instead of allowing you to move around the saddle and use your legs to cushion yourself from bumps in the road. However, I will say that the Vulcan S was actually surprisingly better than some other cruisers I’ve ridden, bikes with much higher price tags, whose name rhymes with “Fairly-Weightyson.” This is partly because the sides of the seat kind of “cups” your backside. The saddle is very well-designed for such a low-priced cruiser.
However, a set of mini floorboards would be a good addition to the Vulcan S, as they allow you to move your feet around and change up your ride geometry just a bit. I’ve spent many miles with my toes on a set of floorboards and heels hanging behind in the breeze, in an attempt to get close to a mid-controls configuration. The downside is that this means you drag your bootheels in corners, and I did a fair bit of that with the Vulcan S as it was. Still—this would be the first thing I would purchase if I owned a Vulcan S.
But while I don’t like forward controls a lot, again, they’re part of the cruiser package, and I don’t hold that against the Vulcan S. Around the back streets of Halifax for a few minutes and then out on the highway, I was actually happily surprised with how well the bike handles. Surprise, surprise—removing a lot of weight from the cruiser formula, with no bulky fairing on front, makes for a machine that’s unintimidating to a well-trained newbie, and fun for a more experienced rider. The Vulcan series has always had a good power-to-weight ratio, and by the time I got to the sweepers in the middle of Nova Scotia’s Route 289, I was really enjoying this ride. That road dumped me out in Westville, where it was a short hop to the Wood Islands-Caribou ferry to PEI.
Over on PEI, I was in this bike’s true home environment—two-lane highways with speed limits of 90 km/h, and lots of fun little side roads to explore. If I spent $25,000 on a heavy, chromed-out cruiser, chances are I’d be reluctant to bomb down a clay road to the beach. On this little machine? No problem, no problem at all.
I was getting fairly good fuel economy, especially when compared to my own garage of petrol-thirsty machines I’ve been flogging around the Maritimes the past few years. Having a decent stretch between fill-ups is a highly underrated feature on a motorcycle, and I was able to get a couple of hundred klicks before thinking about gas. On an unfaired motorcycle, that’s about when I want to get out of the saddle for a break anyway, especially with forward controls.
Kawasaki does offer a version of this bike with a headlight cowling, but this machine didn’t have it, nor did I feel like I needed one. There was no unwanted turbulence or “dirty air,” because there was no windshield. If I was riding all day at highway speeds in rain or cold, maybe my opinion would change. But I put in hundreds of kilometres through warm summer sunshine on everything from tight two-lanes to fast four-lane, and at no point was I wishing for a screen.
Although this total package would not elicit moto-lust from most experienced riders, I must say my days aboard this machine left me with respect for the bike, and Kawasaki. Team Green has been building this style of bike for 40-plus years, and they did a great job of providing adequate performance from every system on the bike, without anything you don’t really need. The engine will haul 120 km/h, or more, for hours on end.
The Vulcan S doesn’t have as much torque as an American-built V-twin, but bang down a gear or two in the hills and you’ll be fine. Maybe in tall mountain passes you’d miss the muscle, but everywhere else, you can make up for it.
The six-speed gearbox shifts with precision, and the neutral finder works perfectly (a lot of other companies could take lessons from Kawi here). The machine may be basic, but it’s a perfectly competent motorcycle.
Even the ultra-basic fork worked very, very well, keeping the front end planted even when I was pushing this bike through the bumpy two-lane roads that branch off Nova Scotia’s Sunrise Trail.
The only part of the bike that I really thought was a let-down was the rear shock. Maybe cranking up the preload would have improved it (some riders do say this helps), but I felt the shock was under-damped, not just under-sprung. However, if you’re riding at a less frantic pace, or outside of Atlantic Canada’s lunar-like road surfaces, the shock may be fine for you. Suspension is a highly subjective affair anyway, with different riders preferring different characteristics.
I felt that fueling off-the-line was also a bit jerky in spots, and I suspect this is due to a need to tune the EFI to meet tailpipe emissions standards. It’s not that Kawasaki doesn’t know how to do this well. Whatever the reason, it was barely noticeable after the first few klicks on the machine.
The bottom line
The bare-bones Vulcan S has a $8,699 MSRP in Canada this year. For that price, Kawasaki will also make sure the dealership “fits” the bike to you. A factory accessory program includes new handlebars and adjustable foot controls that can be tweaked to fit individual riders’ dimensions, and Kawi likes it when the dealers use these bits to adjust your bike’s fit at no cost. Your local dealer may have a different opinion, so don’t get mad at me if he tells you “No.”
With all that in mind, I think the Vulcan S is a bargain for a motorcyclist who wants an affordable cruiser with the capability to run highway speeds in all conditions, all day long. Get on this bike, and you won’t have the most exciting motorcycle in your local pack of cruiseratti, but you will be able to keep up with them on the highways and byways, and you’ll have a much easier-to-handle machine, especially when you’re doing slow-speed maneuvers, the classic bane of many beginners.
However, there are several things you aren’t getting for that money–the Vulcan S has no passenger accommodations, no sissy bar, nowhere to strap down a backpack or bag. Third-party accessories are pretty cheap on eBay, though.
The Vulcan’s closest competition in Canada is the almost-identically-priced Honda Rebel 500. Without riding them back-to-back, I can’t say for sure which is better, but I suspect most riders would appreciate the Vulcan’s larger engine, but might prefer the Rebel’s looks. But another competitor will be here very soon, from in-house. Kawasaki’s new Eliminator 450 cruiser will perhaps tempt riders away from the 650, especially if pricing is attractive, and if you are Vulcan S-curious, maybe you should wait just a few more weeks, to see if the 450 Eliminator would work as well for you, for just a bit less cash?