Ask anyone what Vulcan is and they'll probably identify the imaginary home planet of a certain Mr. Spock from the Star Trek movie universe; others may also follow the inspiration trail all the way back to the ancient Roman god of fire. Pose the same question to a motorcyclist and most will promptly identify a Kawasaki cruiser.
For Kawasaki the name Vulcan is synonymous with cruisers, after a long series of VN-denoted models that was first introduced in 1985 with the Vulcan 750, before venturing to several variants ranging from 400 to 2,000 cc motors, most of which were V-twins. There has been only one notable exception, a raked-out Ninja 500R derivative with an inline twin engine that remained in production until 2009.
In the meantime, Kawasaki had already introduced a new 650 cc inline twin engine in 2006, using it to power one of the most successful models of its modern history. The Ninja 650, or ER-6 in some countries, offered punchy performance in either naked or fully faired versions, and also supplied the base for another great commercial success, the Versys sport adventurer. It is indeed a bit baffling why Kawasaki didn't also use this new model to power a successor to the Vulcan 500, something that finally happened in 2015.
Although Kawasaki has just replaced the Ninja 650 with the new Z650 for 2017, housing the latest evolution of its twin-cylinder motor once again in a brand new steel frame, the Vulcan S is based on the first generation, pre-2012 Ninja 650. It's the same chassis used in the Versys, identified from the frame side bars that run horizontally across both sides of the cylinders.
A little-known fact about this motor's heritage is that incorporates Ninja ZX-12R genes. Kawasaki initially designed the 650 inline twin using elements from the cylinders of the 1,200 cc four-cylinder powerplant, employing the same 81-mm bore with a slightly longer stroke that would suit better the mid-sized sport roadster.
The Vulcan S uses the same six-speed gearbox with identical ratios as shared across every model in the family, but runs on new camshafts, intake and exhausts, as well as a heavier flywheel. Designed to adapt the sporty motor to its new cruising role, it produces 60 hp (45 kW) – compared to 68 hp (51 kW) for the Z650. The torque output doesn't change much in peak value at 63 Nm (46.3 lb-ft), but develops on a beefed-up curve that benefits low rpm action.
The steel frame is revised to fit the cruiser bill, mainly in order to work with forks raked out to 31 degrees (from 25) and a low seat height of 706 mm (27.8 in), but the most important feature is Kawasaki's Ergo-Fit scheme. This allows the customer to pre-order the motorcycle with ergonomics fitted to his or her body at no extra cost. It includes a selection of different seats that all sit at the same height, but position the rider closer (reduced reach) to the handlebars or further back (extended reach). The footpegs can accordingly be repositioned 25 mm (1 in) forward or backward, and the steering for the reduced reach option extends another inch closer to the seat.
We tested the Vulcan S with the standard mid-reach setup, which proved to be just fine for my 1.82 m (6 ft). If I were to buy this motorcycle, I wouldn't change anything and, sure enough, Kawasaki indicates that the extended reach package is intended for riders over 6'1", while the reduced reach option will better suit those standing below 5'6" tall.
At first contact, the seating arrangement seems cozy to the point that it feels familiar. Good back support from the seat, no weird angles for the legs; it's comfortable right out of the box. Kawasaki designed the Vulcan S with a wide range of potential customers in mind. First of all it should be an efficient commuter, and in the city its strongest asset is the torquey motor. Having spent some days on the Versys before jumping over the Vulcan's seat, its punchier performance in low revs is evident, making for better acceleration, especially at slow city speeds. The engine feels at its best above 4,000 rpm, but even below this point it is elastic enough to pull the bike's 229 kg (505 lb) – 498 lb in US spec – without the need for urgent downshifts for an overtake.
This attribute will also prove beneficial for novice riders, serving carefree cruising at low speeds with a friendly disposition. Things can and will become more aggressive once the motor approaches its maximum torque playfield around 6,000 rpm, but as a twin it will always be more linear and predictable than any four-cylinder engine of the same capacity, and definitely less jerky than a single.
The 650 cc motor can happily venture far from the city, as the Vulcan S will effortlessly hold any speed up to 140 km/h (87 mph). The top speed can climb up to 170 km/h (106 mph), which is considerably less than the 200 km/h (124 mph) that the Ninja 650 and Versys can fairly easily do, but is still more than enough.
After a whole week on the Vulcan S, the average fuel consumption stood at a very reasonable 44 mpg (5.3 l/100km) – achieved with a rather heavy right hand. Following Kawasaki's ECO indication on the bike's display can easily deliver 50 mpg (4.7 l/100km), something that is much easier to achieve in the city.
The natural tendency of this twin motor is to rev high, it's in its DNA and the temptation will put you to the test every time the road opens up ahead. There's a sportbike tightly concealed under the cruiser's skin, and playing near maximum power levels – above 7,000 rpm – will drag those mpg readouts quite lower.
Its suspensions are rather soft, better serving comfort than fast cornering, yet they still allow the Vulcan S to hold a steady line mid-corner. Only the rear spring is adjustable for preload, but that's not really a problem as both the forks and rear shocks provide enough damping to keep things consistent on the road.
The brakes are up to the task as well, complemented with a fast-acting ABS system. The latter is more than welcome, given that the front wheel sits far from the rider and transmits rather poor feedback.
The Vulcan S takes on motorcycles like Harley-Davidson's Street 500/750, and the brand new Honda Rebel 500, joining the fight with an ace in terms of power. The task at hand is anything but easy, but starting at US$7,099 in its primary target market, it will probably lure many potential customers into seriously considering it.
Kawasaki took no unnecessary risks by building around an engine and frame combo that has proven its reliability. Apparently targeting for an affordable price tag that must be comparable with its direct competition, it created a frugal cruiser without electronic gimmicks and flashy equipment. Just the bare essentials are more than enough to do the trick, with the powerful motor proving to be the Vulcan's stronger asset. It may look like a small-sized replica, but it still is a full-sized motorcycle that can happily gorge on long distances on any kind of road as easily as it can glide through town on a daily basis.
Friendly and predictable as it turns out to be, it offers a perfectly valid choice for the seasoned rider, as well as someone wishing to upgrade from a small two-wheeler to a big motorcycle. With weight finely balanced for controllability at low speeds, dimensions that will not intimidate even in the most congested of environments, and dependable low budget brakes and suspensions, Kawasaki simply delivered the Ninja 650 family recipe with a new twist.
Product page: Kawasaki Vulcan S