PM test drivenFactory chopped

  • Harley-Davidson Softail Rocker C and Honda fury. Image credit: Gregor Halenda
  • Yamaha Raider S
  • Harley-Davidson Softail Rocker C
  • Victory Vegas Jackpot
  • Honda Fury
Date:31 July 2010 Tags:, , , , , ,

Four bikes that look so good you’d think they were customs, but these reliable and easy-riding machines are built by mainstream manufacturers.
– By Ben Stewart

The impossibly long, low look of a custom chopper is unmistakable.

These bikes are two-wheeled jewellery, the rides that put personal style and attitude above all else. To hardcore bikers, of course, a factory-made custom chopper is an oxymoron. After all, where’s the sweat equity? The first customisers – returning World War II servicemen – began to “chop” or strip the bikes down by bobbing the fenders and removing parts to make them appear less cluttered. It was a homegrown, rebellious movement that gained serious traction in the early 1970s thanks to the 1969 movie classic Easy Rider.

But a lot has changed, most notably the rise of made-for-TV bike builders such as Jesse James and Orange County Choppers who craft gorgeous, meticulously detailed rides – with price tags to match. Thanks to the tube, the popularity of this genre has skyrocketed, so naturally the mainstream manufacturers have jumped in. Nowadays, playing Hells Angel can be as easy as walking into a dealership.

Trust us, this is a good thing. A radically cool, old-school custom chopper is typically terrible to ride. The raked-out forks make the bike tough to manoeuvre at low speeds and cranky on curvy roads. The steamroller-wide rear tyre snugs tight to the seat with little or no suspension movement. And the stretched handlebar position quickly tires shoulders. As in the world of high fashion, comfort and functionality take a back seat to style.

Thanks to solid engineering, combined with an eye for design, a factory-made custom dramatically reduces those annoyances. Nor do these bikes empty wallets like a night in Vegas. None of the ones we tested – the Victory Vegas Jackpot, the Harley-Davidson Softail Rocker C, the Yamaha Raider S and the Honda Fury – costs more than a boring family car.

We spent a week covering over 725 kilometres around Southern California on highways and back roads. In addition to our usual PM test crew, professional rider Danny Coe ran each bike through instrumented tests at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California. Instead of ranking the bikes in a finishing order, we rated the machines based on six categories that are listed in the specification boxes. One observation became abundantly clear: it’s never been so painless to cruise in high style.

Yamaha Raider S
The Yamaha Raider really straddles two genres – the power cruiser and the custom chopper. Between the frame rails sits a massive and incredibly potent V-twin that Yamaha borrowed from the Roadliner and the Stratoliner. With 144 N.m of peak torque, it’s phenomenally easy to reel in just about any car or bike on the road with a casual flick of the wrist.

This thing is brutally quick and blasted through the quarter-mile (about 400 m) in only 12,34 seconds. Only the Victory was quicker – yet it costs nearly R40 000 more in the US. Despite the price difference, most thought the Yamaha’s engine was far more polished and sophisticated. The Raider doesn’t compromise function for flash. Indeed, this was the only bike here with twin front-disc brakes. The rear passenger pillion was the largest and most comfortable seat of this group. And the Yamaha was the only bike with a real fuel gauge. The Raider is a big and hefty bike – 326 kg – that feels overweight only when you lift it off the side stand. With a low seat height and modestly sized tyres, it’s surprisingly manoeuverable at low speeds. In the canyons, the Raider is comfortable pushing speeds higher than most bikes in the test could achieve and was quite happy in the curves. Overall, it’s a well-rounded motorcycle. Tester Mike Allen said, “If I had to pick one bike to ride across country, I’d pick the Yamaha.” Downsides? The Raider looks far too tame. Type “cruiser motorcycle” into Google and the generic image would probably look a lot like the Raider. There’s just not enough uniqueness to this design. It’s a terrific bike to ride, but it lacks enough visual character and slightly misses the point of these bikes.

PM test driven

Engine/trans > 1 854 cm3 Air-cooled v-twin/5m
Rear-wheel kw> 63
Wheelbase (cm) > 180
Seat height (cm) > 70
Weight (kg) > 326
Final drive > belt
Suspension travel, f/r (cm) >13/9
Brakes f/r > 30 cm discs/31 cm disc
Tyres f/r > 120/70r21/210/40r18
0–96 km/h (sec)> 3,83
65–110 km/h (sec) > 3,05
Quarter-mile > 12,34 @ 171,12 km/h
96–0 braking (m) > 37,8
Fuel economy (l/100 km) > 5,3
Low-speed agility / handling / Value / comfort / performan

Harley-Davidson Softail Rocker C
If anyone but the most well-versed motorcycle enthusiast caught an eyeful of the Harley Rocker from the rear, they’d swear it was a one-off custom chopper. From the little bullet taillights to that fender stretched tightly across the fat rear tyre, this bike looks like it must have been welded together by a guy slathered in tattoos. That makes sense considering that more choppers over the past 65 years have been based on Harleys than on any other bike. So the boys in Milwaukee should know how it’s done; yet the Harley was the quirkiest of the four bikes here. Unlike with the others, it feels as though you’re sitting on top of this bike, not nestled down deep behind that V-twin. Indeed, the Rocker tied for the tallest seat height of the group.

That firm seat was not the most comfortable for longer hauls. But once our testers got used to this riding position, the Harley was an easy bike to fall for. Despite its long wheelbase, it felt nimble around town and quick and eager on long, sweeping curves.

The six-speed transmission shifts with a slickness and ease that bettered every bike here. And riders really appreciated the tall sixth gear for relaxed highway cruising as well as the lighted transmission gear display. Twist the right grip and run through a few gears, and Harley’s big 1 573 cm3 twin exhales with a deep, satisfying growl. But the Rocker’s bark was more aggressive than its bite. It was about a second behind the Victory and the Yamaha on the dragstrip’s quarter-mile.

On the open road, that performance gap felt much less significant. Credit the Harley’s generous torque. The Harley looks the most like a true custom, but it’s also priced like one. This is not an inexpensive machine. Still, if you yearn for that authentic Harley- Davidson chopper experience in a reliable factory package, there’s only one choice.

PM test driven
Engine/trans >1 584 cm3 Air-cooled v-twin/6m
Rear-wheel kw > 45,5
Wheelbase (cm) > 176
Seat height (cm) > 70
Weight (kg) > 311
Final drive > belt
Suspension travel, f/r (cm) > 13/8
Brakes f/r > 29 cm disc/29 cm disc
Tyres f/r > 90/90r19/240/40r18
0–96 km/h (sec) > 4,73
65–110 km/h (sec) > 4,00
Quarter-mile > 13,55 @ 153,06 km/h
96–0 braking (m) > 38,0
Fuel economy (l/100 km) > 5,5
Low-speed agility / Handling / design

Victory Vegas Jackpot
The 2003 Vegas was arguably the first factory-made custom, and it arrived with instant street cred because Victory enlisted motorcycle legends Arlen and Cory Ness to help design it, a relationship that continues today. The company offers what could be the most complete line of custom-inspired bikes of any manufacturer; one that now tops out with the Vegas Jackpot. Our test bike was dipped in a crowd-gathering coat of Tequila Gold with tribal graphics, and nearly every square centimetre of metal is chrome-plated. Subtle? Yeah, right. If the paint doesn’t grab your attention, perhaps the extreme tyres will. Up front is a spindly little 90/90R21 tyre. Out back, the Jackpot has a monstrous 250/40R18 slab of rubber that’s just about wide enough to be fitted to the rear axle of a muscle car. It certainly looks menacing.

At the dragstrip, our tester found that the rear tyre was oh so effective at putting power to tar. The Jackpot rocketed down the track, passing 60 mph (96 km/h) in a scant 3,74 seconds and smoking the quarter-mile in only 12,19 seconds. It was the quickest bike in the group. The Victory’s 1 731cm3 V-twin belts out a steady wave of turbodiesel-like torque.

Trouble is, this powertrain has all the refinement of an 18-wheeler. Transmission shifts are clunky, with neutral particularly difficult to find, which is frustrating in stop-and-go traffic. The engine sounds a bit less sophisticated than the others here, too.

In slow-go city riding, the Jackpot’s wide rear tyre and skinny front require an experienced hand. The width of that tyre wants to push the bike over and turn more sharply than one might want. The rider does get used to it and, once clear of the city limits, the Jackpot really begins to shine. The Victory provides easy-chair comfort on the open road and surprisingly competent handling on twisty roads, thanks to the relatively short wheelbase.

But, of course, like all these machines, the handling limits are determined by the foot pegs. So plan on scraping them often if you ride this bike hard. Even in this grouping of bravado bikes, the expensive Victory is the extrovert. It’s flashy, slightly crude and incredibly powerful. For some riders, that’s the perfect formula.

PM test driven
Engine/trans > 1 731 cm3 Air-cooled v-twin/6m
Rear-wheel kw > 59
Wheelbase (cm) > 168
Seat height (cm) > 65
Weight (kg) > 296
Final drive > belt
Suspension travel, f/r (cm) > 13/7,6
Brakes f/r > 30 cm disc/ 30 cm disc
Tyres f/r > 90/90r21/200/40r18
0–96 km/h (sec) > 3,74
65–110 km/h (sec) > 2,88
Quarter-mile > 12,19 @ 172,42 km/h
96–0 braking (m) > 39,28
Fuel economy (l/100 km) > 5,1
Handling / design / comfort / performance

Honda Fury
Since debuting last year, the Honda Fury has provided a string of surprises. Yes, it’s still shocking that conservative Honda decided to build a radical factory chopper. What’s cooler is that it has created a wild, stretched-out chopper profile on a bike that’s just as docile, good-natured and pleasant to ride as any Honda cruiser. The Fury is perfect for a novice or moderately experienced rider who wants something unique.

Climb aboard the Honda and you’ll settle into a very comfy riding position. Your body tucks in nicely behind the beautifully tapered fuel tank and provides a windbreak so effective it’s as if Honda tested the Fury’s aero signature in a wind tunnel.

At city speeds, the Honda feels exceptionally light, easy to thread through traffic and smooth-riding over moderately sized bumps. However, on the tight sweeping canyon roads, the Honda’s low cornering clearance and long wheelbase meant it wasn’t as sporty as the other three. But hey, it’s a chopper, not a sportbike. And it’s certainly fun to look down and see the liquid-cooled V-twin exposed by the svelte fuel tank.

The 1 312-cm3 motor feels plenty powerful – until you ride the other bikes. When it comes to thrust, the Honda was not so furious. Yet the Honda’s excellent throttle response made it feel quicker than its numbers suggest. The Fury’s smaller motor also delivered the best fuel economy (4,8 litres/100 km). Our test bike looked sinister and tough finished in flat grey paint with black wheels. The hand of a minimalist designer must have penned the Fury, because there’s no extra flash or fluff. We dig it.

Okay, we’ve got one beef with the Fury’s bodywork: almost all of it is plastic. Call us old-fashioned, but we want metal fenders. That said, perhaps that particular material choice helps keep costs in the basement, because the Honda was the least expensive in our test – and one of the best values in the motorcycle world.

PM test driven
Engine/trans >1 312 cm3 Liquid-cooled, 52° v-twin/5m
Rear-wheel kw > 42
Wheelbase (cm) > 181
Seat height (cm) > 68
Weight (kg) > 301
Final drive > belt
Suspension travel, f/r (cm) > 10/9,4
Brakes f/r 33,6 cm disc/29,6 cm > disc
Tyres f/r > 90/90r21/200/50r18
0–96 km/h (sec) > 5,14
65–110 km/h (sec) > 4,22
Quarter-mile > 13,79 @ 150,10 km/h
96–0 braking (m) > 37,16
Fuel economy (l/100 km) > 4,8
Low-speed agility / value / Design / comfort

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