Test rides

2018 Kawasaki Vulcan S Cafe – Ride Review

Modern-styled light cruiser is perfect for urban adventures

I was pretty excited to get a chance to ride the Kawasaki Vulcan S Cafe. Heading out to pick up the bike at Kawasaki’s UK headquarters I was downright giddy. So, perhaps the reason I disliked it at first was simply that I had built it up too much in my head.

READ MORE: Check Out All of TMO’s Bike Reviews

I’ve long been a fan of the Vulcan S, or, at least, the idea of the Vulcan S: an unapologetically modern cruiser. I can get with that. Technically the Harley-Davidson Street 750 – a modern cruiser in its own right – pre-dates the Vulcan S, but for me the Kawasaki is the innovator. It doesn’t look like an old-school cruiser; it’s not even trying to.

Bikes like the Street 750 and Indian Scout Sixty evoke a spirit of heritage. Like the Vulcan S they’re liquid-cooled machines with modern suspensions and modern brakes and modern tech, but in their styling – the Indian especially – they’re seeking to remind you of the company’s past, trying to tie themselves to bikes that have come before. The Vulcan S doesn’t do that; when it was first introduced back in 2014 I applauded Kawasaki for that fact.

I was less enthusiastic a year later when Team Green attempted to cash in on the cafe racer craze by slapping a bullet-fairing windscreen on the Vulcan S and calling it the Vulcan S Cafe, but, hey: it seemed the essentials of a good bike were still there and it looked pretty cool.

It took me several years to finally get around to throwing a leg over one. And within minutes of getting on the motorway and pointing back home I was hating the little cruiser to the point of existential crisis.

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2018 Kawasaki Vulcan S Cafe

I ended up spending three weeks with the bike and during that time I went on a kind of emotional journey: from loving the idea of it, to hating the reality of it, to eventually coming to accept its limitations and feeling downright melancholic about giving back the keys.

The Motorway Journey

One of the guiding philosophies of TMO is that there are no bad bikes. On a sunny day, with open road and nowhere to be, every bike is awesome. There are, however, bad situations. And it turns out that riding in excess of 60 mph is a bad situation where the Kawasaki Vulcan S Cafe is concerned.

Unfortunately, this was pretty much the first situation in which I experienced the bike. I picked it up at Kawasaki HQ and hopped on the A404 to begin the 150-mile mostly motorway journey to Cardiff. By the time I reached the M4 (about 10 miles into the trip), I was so sick of the 649cc parallel-twin engine’s buzzing that I was having fantasies about steering the thing into a ditch.

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Now, it may be that buzzing is a character thing. I’ve noticed that the presence of at least some buzziness is a common trait in all the Kawasaki bikes I’ve ridden – all the way up to the stalwart GTR1400 (aka Concours14). And, to my mind, there’s no reason the Vulcan S Cafe’s engine would be taxed by motorway speeds. It’s the same powerplant that drives the Ninja 650. It’s been detuned to produce just 60 hp, but that’s more than enough for standard superslab duty.

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2018 Kawasaki Vulcan S Cafe

So maybe Kawasaki does it on purpose? Maybe Kawasaki’s faithful customers expect buzzing the way Harley riders expect a certain amount of rumble. For me, though, it was too much. At 75 mph the bike was vibrating like a horrific Victorian medical device.

Which is a shame because it is otherwise relatively well equipped for long hauls. The seat is comfortable, that little screen could be taller but manages to get a little wind off a 6-foot-1 rider, and, of course, the bike’s Ergo Fit system allows you to fine tune the positioning of pegs, handlebar, and seat. Even with the Ergo Fit system it’s clear the bike is targeted at riders a little shorter than me, but I never felt cramped.

The Urban Journey

My negative opinion of the Vulcan S Cafe changed when I decided to use it to run a quick errand. Zipping through traffic and, crucially, never riding in excess of 50 mph, I found it to be surprisingly light, nimble, and a whole lot of fun.

The little twin’s exhaust certainly won’t put the fear of God into anyone but it made a nice soundtrack to fit with the rest of the urban landscape. My errand was supposed to have seen me traveling just three miles to the parts store, but I was having so much fun that my route meandered all the way to the other side of the city. Suddenly, finally, I understood the concept of a “bar hopper.”

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I’ve always hated bikes that are described as bar hoppers because the name implicitly supports drinking and riding. The Vulcan S Cafe is actually a little too cute to be called a bar hopper. But perhaps that sort of use is the real reason Kawasaki put “cafe” in its name: it’s intended as a vehicle for running from one coffee shop to another. I prefer to call it a parlor prowler: ideal for seeking out the best ice cream spots in your town.

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In this application the Kawasaki is a hoot – like a scooter but so much better. Cooler. More useful. I didn’t feel bad-ass or sinister; I felt eager to engage. I felt I was a part of the urban environment, and happy to be so.

Dancing through traffic, you would not imagine the bike has a 231kg wet weight (509 lbs), and although I had read criticisms of its suspension I personally had none.

The Back Road Journey

Cardiff is not all that big and the number of areas within its boundaries that could be described as charming or interesting are not that many. As much fun as I was having running back and forth from Penarth to Roath to Pontcanna, I got a little bored after a few days and decided to once again venture onto faster roads.

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Keeping to 60mph roads and staying nice and legal meant that the cursed buzzing was kept to a minimum and here again I found the Vulcan S Cafe to be a lot of fun. There’s a good amount of lean angle to be had with the bike and when you’re playing the game of keeping the engine smooth you’re unlikely to come at a corner with enough ferocity to end up touching down pegs.

Where the bike frustrates, however, is in the fact you know there’s that little Ninja 650 engine in there. If not simply because you can, you’ll want to spin up into higher revs and start bouncing around. If you’re willing to put up with the buzzing you’ll have all kinds of fun, but you will induce the sound of metal peg feelers being dragged across road surface.

Practicality

Capable of accommodating a number OEM or aftermarket luggage solutions, as well as a passenger, the Vulcan S Cafe would make a unique and clever commuting choice. The bike is nimble enough to weave through traffic and just about everyone above 5 feet tall will be able to put both feet flat on the ground at stop lights.

A 14-liter tank (3.7 US gallons) is a bit miserly in my opinion, but the only time you notice dino juice disappearing at a rapid rate is when traveling at super buzzy speeds. To that end, a commute that involves a long stretch of motorway/interstate would probably be better served by a different bike.

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If you’re looking to cross continents – slowly – you’ll find that the Kawasaki’s build quality is definitely up to the task. Everything is robust and well made. I personally think the fit and finish of the Vulcan S Cafe is superior to that found on more expensive Kawasaki models. It’s dramatically superior to what you’ll find on a Street 750 and well worth the slightly higher ticket price.

What Everyone Else Says

“With its good looks and sporting nature, the Vulcan S Café proved to be an ideal ride for bombing around town and even hitting the canyons… decent cornering clearance allows you to set a fairly brisk pace. The classic feet-forward cruiser riding position is comfortable for up to an hour, but the rear suspension proved harsh and jarring on uneven pavement.” – Jenny Smith, Rider

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“Around town, the Vulcan S Cafe is easy to move around — the center of gravity is low, the 18-inch front wheel steers lightly, and the pullback bars give good leverage. The Vulcan S has a motor that is willing to rev, which is a good thing, as the torque peak of 6600 rpm requires that ability.” – Don Williams, Ultimate Motorcycling

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“A Ninja 650-derived liquid-cooled 649cc parallel twin injects the Vulcan S with sporting spirit and a horsepower endowment to make it capable of running with bigger steeds in the middleweight-cruiser category. Engine vibes are notably higher in pitch than those of the V-twins here, largely due to a 9,500-rpm redline and gearing that dictates nearly twice the revs when cruising in top gear at similar road speeds.” – Don Canet, Cycle World

Verdict

It’s probably worth taking my review of the Vulcan S Cafe with a grain of salt. Or, perhaps it’s worth taking every other review you’ll find with a grain of salt. Because it would appear that no one else thinks the bike is too buzzy. More often than not, other reviewers describe it as something that loves to be revved hard.

And, well, from a performance standpoint, that is true. The bike zips with more authority when you’re ringing its neck. But from a comfort standpoint it’s all kinds of hell. It was for me, at least.

It occurs to me that the issue here is that other reviewers may have been approaching the bike from the standpoint of its being a sportbike with forward controls. Whereas I was assessing it as a cruiser. Maybe that’s an error on my part; it doesn’t look – or try to look – like any other cruiser, so why should it behave like any other?

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I had a lot of fun on the Kawasaki. I enjoyed its quirkiness and I was even able to get to the point where I imagined what it would be like to own one. With almost every new bike I ride I have a moment of telling myself I’m going to go buy one to keep. I never fully got there with the Kawasaki but I did have moments of thinking: “Gosh, if I were super rich I might have one of these for sunny days – just for going to get ice cream.”

If this little parlor prowler were a flavor of ice cream it would be very unique – one that may not suit everyone’s tastes, but worthy of appreciation all the same. Carrying the ice cream analogy even further, I’d encourage a test ride of the bike – a sample spoonful before committing to a full double-scoop waffle cone of the stuff.

 

The Three Questions

Does the Kawasaki Vulcan S Cafe suit my current lifestyle?
No. I liked the bike. But it is simply not the right motorcycle for someone like me, who has no other means of transport. Especially if that someone likes to travel. The 14-liter tank couldn’t get the bike from Marlow to Cardiff without needing a refill.

Does the Kawasaki Vulcan S Cafe put a grin on my face?
When wandering through town, yes. It really is a lot of fun at slow speed. It’s not the torque-rich fun of a true cruiser, like a Harley-Davidson Sportster, but true cruisers have their drawbacks, too. This Kawasaki is a bike for people who listen to Pomplamoose. It’s cute and fun. The problems only arise when you want it to be something else.

Is the Kawasaki Vulcan S Cafe better than my current bike, a 2017 Triumph Tiger Explorer XRx?
Nope. Unless you think buzzy bikes are awesome. In which case, the Kawasaki is a whole lot better than my bike.

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