TTAC’s readers are a brave group, and nowhere is that better-proven than in their willingness to let me
abuse test their personal vehicles. From Time Attack Mustangs to Malaise Cadillacs, the Best & Brightest have consistently helped us bring them reviews of interesting vehicles. And I ain’t killed one yet.
Still, it takes a special sort of courage to loan out a motorcycle for a late-night ride up to San Jose’s Skyline Boulevard, particularly given the fact that upon receipt of the keys I then turned to Vodka McBigbra, my infamous traveling companion, and announced, “I’m gonna put you on the back of this bike and we’re gonna go riding down by old man Johnson’s farm, if you know what Prince meant by that, and I think you do.”
The V-Star 1100 was the affordable big-bore option in Yamaha’s lineup for nearly a decade, but the gigantism which affects cruisers and their leather-clad owners has caused the old soldier to fade away in favor of a V-star 1300. The new bike doesn’t have the handsome lines of its predecessor, at least in my opinion. I’m no judge of cruiser aesthetics but to me the 1100 looks right. Not too offensively West-Coast-Cialis-two-fattest-twins-in-the-Guiness-World-Record-Book-big, not too Sportster-883 tiny.
The 55-degree night caused V. McB to decide she’d be better staying back at the ranch and spending the evening smoking some, uh, locally-grown tobacco. Although I was wearing some Betabrand Seersucker Shorts which promised to in no way halt the impending flash-freezing of my reproductive organs, I don’t turn down a free motorcycle ride so in just minutes I’d rolled the V-Star out of its garage and headed up towards the 101.
Why do people buy cruisers? It’s a fair question, and in my Ninja-riding youth I figured it was down to some sort of testosterone deficiency coupled with mild retardation. After all, even though the average cruiser bike is fast by automotive standards (the V-Star has been clocked by the cycle press at 13.92 seconds in the quarter-mile, more than strong enough to wave good-bye to the Scion FR-S and BMW 328i) it has the lowest handling limits of any vehicle you can easily purchase off a showroom floor as a regular citizen. I’m not kidding. An F-150 will run away and hide from a cruiser on most twisty roads. Everything about a cruiser — the too-long wheelbase, the hideous fork rake, the usually-substandard brakes, the tires chosen for aesthetics over performance — keeps the pace slow. If you attempt to push the limits a little on a freeway ramp, you will scrape something in a hurry. My Seventies-era CB550, Kellee, would dust this thing around any racetrack out there, at least until the track straightened out. Performance just isn’t on the menu. Period.
So what. Within a half-mile, I was thoroughly and completely charmed by the vintage-looking Yamahopper. By throwing away any pretense at aggression, performance, or conventional go-fast virtues, the V-Star turns regular riding into a thoroughly pleasurable activity. A modern sportbike eggs you on to go faster, and faster, and oh my G-d I just blew by a cop back there doing 140 on the freeway and now I have to runnnnnn. The V-Star suggests that you relax. Look around a bit. It’s like being a passenger in a convertible, only even better. You can see the pretty girls, the nice-looking cars, the happy little trees. Unlike Kellee, who requires a tricky 3000-rpm launch at every stoplight and often chugs if I’m too conservative with the throttle, the V-Star rolls off from idle and can’t possibly be stalled. There are footboards instead of pegs. That’s kind of nice, although they seem awfully close to the ground in corners.
Around town, the 1100 has instant torque in all gears and throatily throws you towards the gaps in traffic. The brakes, which appear to be about the same thing you find on a Camaro SS caliper-wise, stop quickly without the front-wheel lockup that often plagues long-wheelbase bikes. Everything is very comfortable. There’s a backrest. This particular V-Star had an expensive CHiPs-looking front windshield which took the annoyance, but not the pleasure, out of the rushing wind. Although the only helmet I had was my Impact! Air Draft Carbon, I wasn’t bothered by it’s low neckline. This isn’t an R1 or S1000RR; you don’t need to actively look up to see the road, so you don’t need a relief cut in back. And yes, I obviously looked like a total idiot riding a cruiser around in a top-vented NASCAR helmet.
Once on the freeway, the V-Star isn’t quite as wonderful. The V-twin, each cylinder of which packs the same cubic capacity as the cylinders of a Town Car or the entire engine of my Honda CB550, starts to sound and act exactly like a paint shaker. I don’t mean this as some sort of odd metaphor. I mean it is exactly like a paint shaker. I worried that the engine would come apart for a while, but it’s just designed-in behavior. Unlike, say, an AMF-era Harley-Davidson which might die at any moment from unbalanced combustion activity, the V-Star’s shake n’ bake is pure artifice, as harmlessly authentic-ish as the lumpy idle on a Track Key-equipped Boss 302. This is a modern Yamaha. It won’t break.
As a matter of fact, the V-Star 1100 is well-known for its reliability, despite (or perhaps due to) the fact that it is air-cooled and was one of the last Yamahas without fuel injection. They are available at reasonable prices and usually with a lot of additional aftermarket equipment bolted on; the bike I rode had multiple expensive options for which the current owner, who bought it on the used market, didn’t have to pay.
Cost and reliability aren’t solid reasons to buy a cruiser, however. These bikes sell on the intangibles, so let’s cut the Yamaha’s heart out and weigh it, Anubis-style, against the demands of the class. The biggest problem with the V-Star is that it isn’t a Harley-Davidson. The majority of the chopper culture in this country — hell, a major part of the motorcycling culture in this country — is built around the Harley-Davidson brand. As a Yamaha owner, you’ll forever be on the outside looking in. You will have to explain again and again that your “Harley” isn’t one. You will be the target of contempt from the sort of people whom you might normally hold in contempt yourself. There may even be places where you wouldn’t necessarily want to park the bike lest it be the target of unfortunate behavior; I suspect that sort of thing doesn’t happen very much in the year 2012 but it’s certainly a possibility, particularly in the Midwest. The bottom line is that the V-Star isn’t a ticket to the full American chopper experience.
If you don’t care about that experience, the decision becomes a lot easier to make. The V-Star is a genuine pleasure to ride at legal speeds, which is a statement that couldn’t possibly be made about any sportbike since about the debut of the GPz750. It’s cheap to buy, insure, and operate. There’s room for luggage and/or Apollonia Kotero. The performance envelope isn’t large but it adequately covers the spectrum of potential use. It couldn’t be easier to ride or operate, almost regardless of physical size (the bike’s owner and I are separated by about ten inches of height). It looks cool, sounds nice, and starts right up when you want it to. In my humble opinion, it’s better-looking than the Japanese competition, which makes it the obvious choice for the money.
There’s no cruiser in my immediate future — the idea of the “standard” still has too strong of a hold on me. Even if I wanted a more modern non-sportbike, I’d be more likely to look at a V-Max. This sedate and stylish Yamaha did make a pretty positive impression on me, however. If you’re riding one, and you see me riding, or perhaps pushing, my Honda, please make sure to wave, okay?