can you really tour on a kawasaki vulcan 650s …?

If you want the answer without having to read any further then the answer is yes. If you want to know a bit more and why the answer is yes – then read on for my view on how the bike shaped up on a 2,500 mile trip to Spain and Portugal in September (2017).

Some background and context: I’m not writing on the suitability of the bike for touring from any lack of experience or with nothing else to compare it to. By way of providing some context I’ve toured Europe on a variety of bikes: K3 and K5 Suzuki GSX-R 600s; K7 Suzuki GSX-R 750; K8 Suzuki GSX-R 1000; RR9 Honda Fireblade; 2011 Honda CB1000R; 2014  Kawasaki Z1000 SX – and I reckon I’ve done maybe the best part of 50,000 miles on European trips.

Each of those bikes did at least two trips and some more than that, and I think I did   around 12,000 of road trip miles on the Z1000. Over the years I’ve used a variety of luggage options that have included various Kriega tail bags, backpacks, Givi Tank Bags and of course the OEM hard luggage option on the Z1000.

Now I know many motorcycle manufactures these days tend to make agreements with dealers to sell only their marque, but just allow yourself for a moment to imagine a dealer that retails the full range of machines from say Kawasaki, Suzuki, Honda, Yamaha, BMW, Triumph, Ducati etc etc etc and you were to walk in and ask them to recommend the most suitable machine for two of you to take off on a European trip.

Then if you tell them the trip is going to take in several thousand miles, will include mountains, back roads, superbly surfaced roads with wide and fast sweeping bends …

To be honest I can’t really imagine a single dealer that would recommend the Kawasaki Vulcan S 650 as the pick of the bunch for touring on, and that’s before you mention that it’s got to be capable of carrying a reasonable amount of luggage for two of you!

On the recent trip that my wife and I made, our route took us down the UK motorway network to Plymouth, then after arriving in Santander in Spain we spent three days in and around the Picos mountains before heading into Asturias and Galicia on the Atlantic Coast. Moving on from there we rode down into Portugal, then we headed across Spain down to the mountains of Siera de Gredos, then towards Segovia before returning to Santander.

Finally after crossing back to Portsmouth in the UK we completed the last 240 mile leg of the trip on the UK motorways.  All in all a total of 2,500 miles with a pretty varied mix of roads – certainly enough to provide an informed view on the bike. So what was the bike like?

Wind blast: Wind blast on any naked bike is always going to be an issue for some people. I’ve had a few naked bikes in my time and to be honest have never really found it a problem.

Obviously you’re more exposed to wind and rain on the Vulcan than behind the three way adjustable screen of something like a Z1000 SX, but I cant say that I ever got neck ache on the trip nor was I particularly conscious of wind buffeting.  Realistically some of that has got to do with physique – at 5′ 7″ and around 148 pounds then clearly I’m not a big guy, maybe if I was taller and bigger it would cause more problems – that and me keeping cruising speeds on the UK motorways to around the 75/80mph mark caused few issues.

Luggage: Despite the fact that the bike isn’t an obvious choice as a touring bike I don’t think I had quite anticipated how long it would take me to find some luggage that was suitable for the trip and that (in my opinion) ‘looked right’ on the bike.

There’s certainly plenty of options out there – we didn’t want soft luggage and we didn’t want something that was so big that it just looked odd. In the end we settled for the pannier and mounting set up from Shad and purchased the SH23 panniers.

I wrote a separate Blog post on those here if its something you want to check back and read.

We also bought a Saddlemen roll bag that fits on the rack (model R1300XLE), and there’s pictures and a write up here about fitting that particular piece of luggage. So in total we had about 66 litres or so of space for the two of us, which actually was plenty.

One last item was the Givi Tank Lock bag – this was a piece of kit that I already had and had purchased it originally for use on my Z1000 SX.  The bag had seen service on about three European trips plus numerous trips in the UK – its a pretty neat item and secures to the bike with a simple click fastening on a adapter plate that is fastened to the petrol tank surround.

The bag itself isn’t bike specific although the tank lock ring itself wont fit all bikes – in this case it was straight swap from one Kawasaki to another. It really is a great piece of gear for holding bits and pieces: cameras, sun glasses, loose change and so on. The pictures below show the luggage in use.

Overall comfort and handling: I’ve already mentioned that I check in at 5′ 7″ and about 148 pounds, my wife is 5′ 6″ and about 126 pounds – so neither of us are tall or heavy –  it’s a combination that seemed to work well on the bike.  We did modify the passenger seat shortly after getting the bike – see this Blog post for information on that and round about the same time we fitted a backrest and rack from Hepko & Becker – info here.

The final thing that made a significant difference to comfort and overall ride was adjusting the rear suspension. We moved it from the factory position to the number six setting (of seven).  I can’t overstate what a huge difference this made in normal day to riding. Oddly enough other than one particular issue it seemed that for the most part the bike even handled a little better with the luggage on and fully loaded – and that wasn’t something that I had expected.

There were no handling issues on the tight mountain roads, nor the long (at times very long) sweeping bends – and although we clearly were not taking corners and bends at the speeds I might have done on other bikes, we were not hanging about either – there are some ground clearance issues and I’ll come to that shortly.

The one issue that was impacted by the combination of riding two up and with luggage was the introduction of a slight steering wobble at low speeds (say between about 10 – 20mph). This was only slight and in fact was only noticeable with both hands off the bars, with hands on the bars it just didn’t happen under any other situation. So at the same time as not wanting to overplay this issue it does need mentioning as it would could  (in my opinion) be a potential limiting factor to the suitability of the bike for two up touring, if you’re a rider with a pillion and either of you are on the heavier side. I’m 100% certain its a luggage/weight issue. But to be clear In our case it wasn’t a problem.

In fact in terms of handling the bike was a complete revelation, it was better than good, the only limiting factor was the ground clearance of the bike, but there again if you buy and ride a bike like this then you know that and ride accordingly. In practice touching the foot pegs down is all too easy, and if you’re being lazy with the position of your feet, contact between the heel of your boot and the tarmac can be pretty frequent (and if I’m honest quite good fun as well). There seemed to be zero impact in terms of speed and handling being two up and with luggage – the bike is an absolute breeze to ride and a lot of fun.

Mileage/range: Prior to the trip we had seen the bike returning a pretty constant 65mpg – which makes for an impressive tank range. Not surprisingly fuel consumption dropped during the trip, doubtless impacted by the long drag to and from the south coast on the motorway network but it still returned just over 53mpg over the 2,500 miles – which is better than any bike I have ever toured on. Although the overall miles per gallon dropped then without doubt this was more than compensated by an increase in smiles per gallon.

Reliability: I didn’t expect any reliability issues and didn’t experience any. We lost a single allen bolt from the plastic panel on the left hand side of the bike, which was soon replaced when we returned home.

Tyre wear: An area that was impacted by riding two up and with luggage was rear tyre wear. Prior to the trip, the OEM tyres had done around 1,800 miles – we had to replace the rear tyre whilst away due to excessive wear, most noticeably on the left hand side, as you can see in the pictures below.

I cant imagine that we would have experienced this type of wear had we done similar mileage without luggage in the UK. Of course the constantly inviting curves on the Spanish and Portuguese roads played a part as well!

Summary: Ive said so many times in the past that you can tour on any bike – ultimately some of the choice comes down to what sort of compromises you want to make. Bottom line on this trip is that whilst the Kawasaki Vulcan S isn’t an obvious tourer, nor is it ever going to be the best – it is actually pretty good, has plenty of power for two up touring, is a breeze to ride and handled with some aplomb pretty much everything thrown its way. I suppose the final ‘test’ question is would you do a european tour on it again?  The answer is a resounding yes and probably next year actually!

For information on my motorcycle travel books (ebook and paperback) please see the following links:

What if You Don’t Break Down and Superbike Across Europe

If you haven’t read the blog posts or seen the pictures from the trip you can read see them at the following links: PART 1; PART 2; PART 3 and PART 4.