Not too long ago, the good Editor called me up and asked if I would care to sample Yamaha's biggest displacement cruiser, the Road Star. Not being one to turn down a free bike I agreed, and accompanied him to Yamaha's headquarters, where not only Yamaha's but the WORLD'S largest production V-twin awaited (until Honda release their VTX 1800 next year anyway - 'arris).
Yamaha has answered the demands of the growing cruiser market with its 3 level "Star" series. The V-Star is the most economical level, with its 650 and 1100 models. Following this is the torquey Road Star, which is available as the Road Star 1600, Road Star MM Limited and Road Star Silverado (the latter two being the 1600 model tarted up a little). And lastly you get to the Royal Star or Venture models, which will run you over $20,000 and are marketed as touring bikes. (We'll be running a test ride on the Venture in the coming months - 'arris).
Whether cruisers make your palms sweat or all look the same to you, one thing is certain: a lot of attention is placed on styling details. Let's face it, if you want to compete with Harley Davidson for the cruiser market, then you may as well figure out what people want and give it to them. Yamaha appears to have done just that with the Road Star.
The Road Star is very traditional looking, deeply valenced steel fenders and chromed spoked wheels. Along with these came a huge gas tank with a rather nice looking emblem, a tank mounted speedo, huge chromed single headlight, and a chromed staggered dual exhaust, all remnants of cruiser styling through the decades.
Finer points include a large chromed sidestand with an engine cut out switch (that will keep you from embarrassing yourself); an ignition switch at the top of the gas tank that not only operates the steering lock (there's a spot for a padlock on the front of the frame too), but also the lock for the rider's seat, under which the oil dipstick is located (which I found, after much searching). Massive fork shrouds add to the Road Star's beefy look and there's replaceable scrape plates on the rubber inset floorboards, which are much needed!
Gear change is via a chunky, but smooth heel and toe shifter with rubber on both ends. There's also a great sounding horn (no feeble "beep, beep"); good mirrors that provide a clear image; a huge headlight that gives off a great highbeam, and a low maintenance belt final drive that has a slack window and adjuster thoughtfully built in to the guard.
Everything appeared well thought out and logically placed, except for the choke, which was awkwardly located on the left side of the engine; and the speedometer, which looks good on the tank and has a nice face, but requires quite a dip of the chin to get a good view of while moving.
Yamaha was subtle in marking its territory with a small indication on the side covers and back fender; and you'll be subtle in announcing your presence with the rumble from the exhaust. There was no mistaking the sound as V-twin cruiser, and the occasional backfire added to the experience, but despite the throaty rumble, you won't be nervous about starting up the bike at 7am and waking the neighbours, as its sound falls considerably short of obnoxious.
The Road Star has been put together well by Yamaha, and received an embarrassing amount of looks and compliments whilst in my possession. (I was even once saluted by a woman from the sidewalk). I must admit that I'm a sport bike enthusiast first and foremost, but the attention grabbing ability of this bike and the (dare I say) respect that I was afforded while riding it (people tended to give me extra space), made it quite an enjoyable bike to possess.
CRUISING AND COMFORT
First let's talk about stopping. The Road Star comes equipped with dual 298mm discs and a pair of two piston calipers up front, with a massive 320mm disc out back. This is a fair amount of stopping power for a cruiser, and worked well on the 675lb beast. I found myself using the rubber padded rear brake pedal more than I do on lighter bikes, simply to assist with balancing at very slow speeds. (I've been called lots of things, but never a foot dragger).
Now, onto moving. Surprisingly, the Road Star handled very lightly once off of the sidestand. I only felt its 307 Kgs of mass when initially balancing it. The lack of overhead cams and a dry sumped engine (no sump pan below) making for a very low centre of gravity.
While turning, the bike didn't drop into corners, rather, it required a gentle coaxing from the wide 1" chromed handlebars, which made it effortless to control. Steering was easy, as was scraping the floorboards. Almost too easy, as I inadvertently did this on off ramps, left hand turns, on ramps (you get the picture). Fortunately, the floorboards fold up quite easily, and allow for a considerable extra degree of lean angle, beyond the initial scrape angle. However, there is a difference between knowing this and trusting this, and I found the low clearance to be a bit of an issue.
Speeding was never really an issue however. The best that I did was just over 140km/h with a passenger, into a strong headwind. (4th and 5th gears are described as overdrive gears). This is where comfort did become an issue. Without any fairing or windshield, and with the feet-locked-on-the-floorboards forward seating position, all of the very cool evening wind hit me full blast in the head and torso, and put stress on my pelvic joints. Not only that, but the generally comfy big handgrips transmitted an uncomfortably large amount of vibration at speeds of about 130-140km/h and made the ride rather unpleasant.
Drop down to 100-120km/h and the story changes to one of a rather comfortable ride. Take the bike down to 0 and it will push you across an intersection in first gear, with 60km/h on the speedo at the other side. The torque (99 foot-pounds at a lowly 2250 rpm) won't shock you, but it will definitely move even the biggest of riders, without protest.
Overall, the bike was comfortable to ride and handle in everyday traffic (there's a hidden shock under the engine to give it the required 'hardtail' look). The low 28" seat height and`well padded saddle will fit most riders out there (even the larger ones), without too much trouble. Slow speed control took some extra attention at first (you've gotta get used to clearing those floorboards when your feet are searching for the ground), and the air cooled engine did produce a bit of heat on a hot day, but generally it was fun.
Occasionally, there was a bit of a rear end wiggle while crossing streetcar tracks and tar snakes, but nothing serious. Even the uninviting 'hardtail' pillion seat got no major complaints from my passenger, except on larger bumps (highway expansion joints) where there was a pronounced moan from the back of the bike.
A few odd things worth mentioning were the gas gauge and a strange tapping sound. The gas gauge worked well, however, when an empty tank was filled up, it took about 5 km of riding before the gauge registered full. There was also an odd tapping sound coming from the front of the engine, which could be heard at slower speeds. It sounded like contracting metal pipes, but its source remained a mystery to me.
The 2000 Yamaha Road Star 1600 is a great big cruiser that will get you all sorts of attention, will keep you from riding too aggressively, and will lend itself well to your own customizing ideas. I enjoyed the way it made me feel (like a big bad biker rollin' down the road), despite its technological shortcomings (we are talking form over function here), and found it a blast to tool around the city on. At half the price of some of its American counterparts, it's definitely a contender for cruiser aficionados.