Harley Davidson must hate it, but the top-selling cruiser in Australia is a Japanese bike, the Yamaha V-Star XVS650. They must hate that because a cruiser is, almost by definition, a Harley or something that is built to look like a Harley. (Yes, there are a few exceptions, but generally that’s the case). They can take comfort though, in the fact that of the top-ten best-sellers in the category, they fill the other nine places. The Yamaha is also helped in the sales-race by the fact that it is learner-legal. Even so, there’s no denying the success the mid-size Yammie has achieved. It was the top-selling cruiser for 2012, just as it was in 2011. And it was the 5th best-selling road-bike of all categories for 2012. Yamaha has a long history with cruisers, and I reckon they do cruisers pretty well. If you’ve read my test of the XVS1100 you’ll recall I was very impressed with that. And a long time ago I actually considered buying a Virago 535. (I was turned off when I eventually rode one, but that’s another story). While comparisons with Harley are inevitable, that’s not the way Yamaha see it. Yamaha’s national communications manager, Sean Goldhawk, is quoted as saying, “We’re not trying to compete with Harley, but of the metric cruisers we’re the original.” And, obviously, the best-selling too. So, with a success record like that I felt it my duty to check it out! The demand for the bike presented a problem though; the dealers didn’t have any demos available. Finally, after a few months waiting, a local dealer came up with a 2nd-hand one for me to try. Although 2nd-hand, it was a current model and had less than 1,400km on the clock when I began the test. So it was the same as new. The only differences to showroom were the addition of a sheepskin cover for the seat and a chrome luggage rack.
IN THE DRIVEWAY
The V-Star 650 comes in two varieties, Classic and Custom. The model I tested was the Custom. In appearance, the V-Star is typical cruiser, with stretched-out front forks, wide handlebars, low seat and twin stacked pipes. Yep, just like a Harley. Get up close and you’ll see that this one has a nice metal-flake finish, which I reckon looks really good. The engine is the typical 70-degree V-twin, running a compression ratio of just 9.0:1. Fuel is delivered by two Mikuni carbies. So fairly low-spec there, but typical of the breed. No figures are given for power or torque outputs. Drive is transmitted by shaft. Curiously, Yamaha use all methods of final-drive: the Virago 250 gets chain, this one gets shaft, the 950 gets belt, the 1100 gets shaft, and the 1300 and 1900 models get belt. In practice it doesn’t seem to matter much; they all work well. When I first sat on the bike it felt a bit cramped for a lanky old bloke like me. I soon adapted to it, and it wasn’t a problem, although it did still feel small. I got the impression it was probably designed with shorter people than me in mind. The ergonomics are, again, typical cruiser. It has forward-controls, although with that small-ish feel the legs don’t seem to be poking out too much. The riding-position, as always, forces you into that typical cruiser-slouch – not ideal for anyone with a dodgy back – although it wasn’t as bad as some I’ve ridden. The side-stand is one of those typical long cruiser-style things. I found it a bit awkward to use, having to reach your foot way back to reach the end of it to kick it out into use. The instruments consist of a speedo and … well, that’s it really. There are warning-lights for blinkers, high-beam, neutral, and engine-fault. Nothing at all for fuel, and nothing for oil either. The fuel tank holds a quite reasonable 16 litres, so you’d be safe for at least 300km before you’d have to go looking for a servo. And even then it wouldn’t be urgent. Still, it’d be good to know how much is left rather than guess. The ignition switch hides in the usual cruiser position, down on the right-side of the frame. (Why do they do that?). Otherwise all controls are where you’d expect them to be and work well. The seat was quite comfortable. The seats on cruisers usually are, I suppose, and this one had the advantage of a good-quality sheepskin as well. I think that probably helped a lot in the comfort stakes.
OUT ON THE ROAD
The engine felt a bit vibey when first started, but idled smoothly. The vibes were always very mild though, and unlike some other Yamahas, there were no harsh spots in the rev-range, it was smooth all the way. Well, up to a certain point anyway. Like other Yamaha cruisers, it did get a bit harsh if you really wound it out; and gives the impression that you’re probably not supposed to be riding it like that. Well, it a cruiser, not a sports-bike! Performance is actually quite impressive. It’s only a 650 – and a learner-legal one at that – but give it the herbs and it goes pretty well. And while it seems to be telling you that it’s not happy being wrung-out, if you do wind it out through the gears it gets that speedo needle swinging around and the bike surging forward quite quickly. The gearbox is only a 5-speeder – again, typical of the breed – but it’s a beauty. In fact, I reckon if you wanted to argue a case for 5 speeds being enough for a bike, you’d use this bike as your case-in-point. The spread of ratios is perfect. 1st gear is low enough to easily get you moving off the line, but high enough that you don’t have to find the next gear half way across the intersection. Then there is an even spread of ratios up to a 5th gear that is ideal for highway cruising. In fact you need to be doing around 80kph before you select top, then you get an effortless cruising ability. Sitting on 110-120kph is no trouble at all. Even the wind didn’t seem too bad at highway speeds, although what wind there was did get a blustery at a constant 120kph. The gear-changes are very smooth and it will accept clutch-less up-changes with no problem. It took a few kilometres for me to get the feel of riding a cruiser again, but this one is easy to ride. I felt a bit clumsy at town speeds at first – especially on roundabouts – but by the time I returned I was fine. Despite the raked-out front there’s no resistance to turning. At suburban speeds, and even more on the open road, it responds easily and accurately. Cornering is a combination of counter-steering and weight-transfer. Lean a little, and press against the bar as you do, and it points exactly where you want to go. As you’d expect, in a straight line it is perfectly stable at any speed. In saying this, I’m talking about cruiser-type riding, not sports-bike scratching. Try to flip-flop it through some tight twisties and it probably wouldn’t work too well; but I didn’t try that – that’s not what cruisers are about. Instead I took it along some highway and also some back-roads that had fairly open turns. In town there were the usual side-streets and roundabouts which are often a challenge for cruisers, but this was fine. The suspension is fairly basic, although it does have a mono-shock rear rather than the more usual twin-shocks. I’m sure the mono-shock has its benefits, although it only provides 86mm of travel, which is no more than you’d get with a twin-shock set-up. Adjustment is limited to preload on the rear. Despite this, the ride is actually pretty good – for a cruiser. You wouldn’t describe it as compliant, but it’s not really harsh either. It’s firm without being particularly jarring. I did get bounced off the seat a couple of times on the highway, but then on a rough patched and pot-holed stretch of back-road it was smoother than I expected. Remember that sheepskin cover though, I’m sure that helped in the comfort stakes. The single disc up front felt a bit weak. Like most cruisers I’ve ridden, you need a combination of front and rear brakes to get effective stopping power. And, again like most cruisers and scooters, the back brake feels quite strong and seems to provide almost as much braking as the front. So there it is – the best-selling cruiser on the market. Does it deserve its success? Well, yes, I reckon it does. It’s actually a pretty good thing. As a cruiser it does a good all-round job; it looks the part and it’s good on the road as well. There’s actually nothing it does badly. It’s learner-legal, but it’s not just being bought by those on a restricted licence, it’s a great choice for anyone looking for a good mid-size cruiser. SNAPSHOT Yamaha do cruisers very well, and this popular mid-sizer is no exception. As a cruiser there are the usual compromises in ride and handling, but this one still works well. It’s easy to ride and doesn’t have that “stiffness” to turn that plague many cruisers with stretched-out front-ends. There’s more than adequate performance, and the fact that it is learner-legal just broadens its appeal even more.
Engine: 2-cylinder, 649cc. Power: N/A. Torque: N/A.
Suspension: Front: 41mm fork, 140mm travel. Rear: Mono-shock, 86mm travel.
Fuel capacity: 16 litres.
Weight: 233kg – wet.
Seat height: 695mm.
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 100 X 19, Rear: 170 X 15
Brakes: Front: Single 298mm disc , Rear: 200mm drum.
Price: $10,499 (+ORC).
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