Staring at the three 2015 Kawasaki Vulcan S models inside the Santa Barbara Art Foundry presents a conundrum. The first Vulcan S in Pearl Crystal White has been set up with the “Reduced Reach” seat and footpeg location, compacting the rider’s triangle for people of smaller stature. I squeeze my six-foot-frame into the saddle, but my knees are up, feet are in, and the bars are way too close for my liking. The middle Vulcan S is shod in Kawasaki Green with its bars, seat and pegs in the “Mid Reach” arrangement. My legs now have a bit more room to stretch but my knees are still up and in and the reach to the bars is more natural but the bend of my elbows doesn’t quite feel right. The final Vulcan S, coated in Ebony Black paint, has the “Extended Reach” configuration which pushes the seat back one inch and places the handlebars out an inch further. My back is now almost vertical in relation to the motorcycle, arms at a natural, relaxed position, feet comfortably forward. Just right.
The 2015 Vulcan S is offered in Candy Lime Green, Flat Ebony, or Pearl Crystal White.
This ability to tailor the 2015 Vulcan S ergonomics to rider preferences is a strong selling point of Kawasaki’s new entry-level motorcycle. This is accomplished by offering the base package with two handlebar options, three seat options and three footpeg positions. Kawasaki wants the bike to fit a wide range of riders, reasoning that if a person is comfortable on a bike that fits them properly, they will feel confident when riding. Kawasaki says 700 dealerships have already committed to displaying an Ergo-Fit Center inside showrooms, where they can demonstrate the bike’s ergonomic versatility.
While the stance and ergonomics are cruiser-like, the performance of the Vulcan S definitely leans toward the sport side.
The Vulcan S’s upright, open riding position definitely feels cruiser-like. Long and low, it’s got a cruiser stance, from its teardrop-shaped tank to relatively small fenders hugging the tires. But after a 150-mile hustle through the hills above Santa Barbara, cruiser illusions dissolve, left in the wake of the Vulcan’s peppy 649cc Parallel Twin and its point-and-shoot handling.
Kawasaki cited many reasons for sourcing the Parallel Twin from the Ninja 650 for the Vulcan S. Paramount was the motorcycle’s intended market. Lead engineer on the project, Yoshifumi Mano, said in the beginning, a V-Twin engine was one of the options they considered but was crossed off the list because it is a heavier engine that’s not as easy to manage. Kawasaki felt the Parallel Twin was a more appropriate choice for entry-level riders, the power more manageable and the engine itself slimmer and lighter. Kawasaki focus groups revealed the engine size and type weren’t the foremost concerns of the Vulcan’s target audience, which didn’t have strong preconceived notions of what a cruiser should be.
But the Parallel Twins in the Vulcan S and Ninja 650 are far from carbon copies. Kawasaki switched up the camshaft profiles, shortening the duration and reducing valve lift. Fluted intake ports improve low/midrange response, and the air box has 30mm-longer intake funnels. Kawasaki also used a heavier flywheel with 28% more mass. Additionally, the exhaust header uses dual-wall construction, and though outwardly it looks nice and thick, internally it is narrower in an effort to provide more low- and midrange grunt.
Lightweight, low center of gravity, a slim chassis and easy reach to the ground make the Vulcan S a great city bike.
Kawasaki also claims the 649cc liquid-cooled Parallel Twin gets 3-5% better fuel economy, something we couldn’t validate because after only running through one tank of gas during our ride. But if the horsepower and torque charts Kawasaki showed us are correct, the Parallel Twin in the Vulcan S has a better punch down low and meatier midrange compared to the other Kawasakis that share the same engine, the 2015 Versys 650 and Ninja 650.
With its spunky engine, light handling, and capable binders, the Vulcan S can be ridden at a sporting pace
Thumb the bike’s electric starter and a mellow, EPA-friendly note taps out of the underslung exhaust. Clutch pull is light and the transmission notches into first gear smoothly. The engine has a crankshaft-driven counter-balancer but there’s still a bit of a buzz at idle, but it quickly dissipates with a twist of the throttle. Release the clutch lever and the Vulcan S doesn’t have that arm-wrenching surge of torque of a V-Twin as the powerband is more evenly distributed throughout the rev range. Don’t get me wrong, as there is plenty of power available from the get-go, it’s just delivered smoother and is more manageable, exactly as Kawasaki intended it to be. In lower gears, the bike’s a little buzzy in the bars around 2500-3000 rpm and fueling is a bit choppy unless you open the throttle wide. Instead of the lumping cadence of a V-Twin, the engine is zippy with plenty of rev. Power delivery overall for the most part is smooth and linear, from a bottom end that kicks in around 2000 rpm up to its rev limit just below 10K. In 5th gear we found a useful top-end surge around 6500-7000 rpm and the wide range of power meant less shifting around town.
Slung between the tubes of a diamond-type frame, the location of the Parallel Twin places the motorcycle’s center of gravity low and slightly forward of the rider. A twin-spar frame was used in part to accommodate the downdraft air cleaner. It also allowed Kawasaki to route the pipe down under the footpegs. With the exhaust out of the way, teamed with the slim design of the Parallel Twin, the Vulcan S is narrow side-to-side and the seat tapers where it meets the tank so riders can easily place both feet flush on the ground. The chassis, with its D-section steel swingarm and rear subframe, also benefits the bike in the handling department.
The 2015 Vulcan S turns in with little effort, has Dunlops that provide plenty of grip, and more side-to-side clearance than a standard cruiser.
The 2015 Kawasaki Vulcan S has a revvy Parallel Twin, a well-sorted chassis, and capable stoppers at an MSRP of $6,999 ($7,399 for the ABS-equipped version).
With the extended reach seat, footpegs in the forward position, and the Ergo-Fit mid reach bars, the riding position on the Vulcan S was open and relaxed for a six-foot rider, but the seat did have pressure points in the upper glutes on longer stints in the saddle.
We hustled up the hills above Santa Barbara and handling on the Vulcan S is a bright spot. Steering is pleasingly light and its relatively low COG equates to quick, fluid transitions. At lean, it tracks true and hugs its line, the tacky Dunlop Sportmax Radials providing a healthy amount of grip. The bike has more clearance than the standard cruiser and lean angles are generous, but when you do catch a peg it snags abruptly and hard instead of skimming smoothly across the pavement. Overall though, handling is intuitive and rider-friendly.
The tidy instrument cluster of the 2015 Vulcan S displays the basics, but it will cost you an extra $259.95 to know what gear you’re in.
The stability of the front hinges on a capable Kayaba fork set at 31-degrees of rake. The 18-inch front hoop is only 120mm wide but remained composed and sure on the rough roads that ruled the second half of our ride. These roads also revealed the limitations of the back shock, a single Kayaba laydown unit with 3.15-inches of travel. My 225-pound frame taxed the limits of the rear shock on the bumpy stretches, compressing the shock fully as it used our lower back as a springboard. The shock has seven preload settings, but ours was only in a couple clicks and admittedly we didn’t dial it in. As is, we were hopping around in the seat at times on some of the choppier sections.
The 649cc Parallel Twin of the Vulcan S comes from the Ninja 650, albeit with different camshaft profiles, reduced valve lift, more flywheel mass, fluted intake ports and a larger intake stack.
And while the rear shock could have used a little adjustment, we were quite pleased with the braking arrangement on the Vulcan S. The rotor on the front is good-sized at 300mm, stoppage provided by twin-piston Nissin calipers. The front doesn’t have an aggressive sportbike-like initial bite, but there’s plenty of feel at the lever and power is strong and even. The 250mm rear uses only a single-piston Nissin caliper, but the Vulcan S we tested benefits from Bosch 9.1M ABS. The anti-lock brakes take a pretty good stab to engage, and when the ABS does come on the pulsing sensation is light and tolerable. The Vulcan S doesn’t weigh much compared to production cruisers, tipping the scale just under 500 pounds, another reason it only requires a short distance to brake from 60-0.
A 300mm rotor with twin-piston Nissin calipers anchor down the front of the 2015 Vulcan S.
A single Kayaba laydown shock anchors the rear of the 2015 Vulcan S.
The exhaust of the Vulcan S is tucked neatly out of the way beneath the engine, its exhaust note mellow and EPA-friendly.
Instrumentation on the Vulcan S is fairly Spartan, a solitary gauge residing between the bars. The gauge is divided into two parts, an analog tachometer on the top half and a small window on the bottom containing just the basics – speedometer, dual trip meters, odometer, and a clock. On the two small housings to each side of the speedo/tach are turn signals and indicator lights for neutral and high beam. There is an Eco-indicator visible in the digital display, a good way for new riders to gauge shift points and get the best gas mileage possible. Both the clutch and brake levers are five-way adjustable, another handy feature of the bike. We did find the gauge face to be a little below our line of sight, and wondered why a gear position indicator is a $259 addition instead of standard fare.
The 2015 Vulcan S has light, predictable handling to go along with ample clearance, all rider-friendly attributes for motorcyclists looking for a first bike.
The 2015 Vulcan S blurs lines between sport and cruiser. It has a cruiser stance, cruiser ergos, and the fins of its cylinder heads are even cruiser-like, but its performance is definitely more sport-oriented. From its spunky engine to its light handling and capable binders, the Vulcan S can be ridden at a sporting pace. Kawasaki’s made it learner-friendly, from light lever action on a clutch that’s easy to modulate to a slick transmission with gears that ease into place. Throw in ergos that can be tailored to a rider’s size, little details like five-way adjustable levers and Eco-mode, and you’ve got a $7000 motorcycle that offers plenty at that price point and is fun to ride regardless of skill level.