Pros: Simplicity, terrific torque, good handling, all day comfort, great looks, well built, fabulous lines.
Cons: Not enough power, ground clearance, or brakes. Vibration related problems. Dealer service is spotty.
I started out riding as a kid, when Honda was telling everyone that you meet the nicest people on a Honda. First, there were mini bikes, then Honda Trail 50's, fell in love with riding on a Trail 90, and ultimately wandered out to the edge on a Suzuki GS750.
The Japanese in-line four was a narcotic; an incredibly reliable narcotic. They goaded you into red-line shifts and hair-ball canyon antics. They seduced with a Formula One wail from tuned exhausts. They never break.
I had friends with Harleys back then, and I rode the old Shovelheads. They handled like overloaded trucks, shook themselves apart, and spent a lot of time in surgery. I rode over the right side muffler of an AMF Electra Glide (an experience guaranteed to yank your pucker string), and set a personal law, only recently repealed, to NEVER follow a Harley on a group ride.
Despite the lousy handling, however, there was something about a Harley that was as comforting as a long, meditative practice session on my favorite saxophone. The baritone, off-tempo potato-potato lope of an antique, single crankpin V-twin encouraged a relaxed, smell-the-roses kind of pace. It made me smile without breaking the speed limit.
Ten years, fifty pounds, and middle-aged reflexes made me revise my motorcycling priorities. In 1999, your average Japanese sport bike was fast enough for death by disintegration. Since I'm a sucker for good handling standard bikes, the new Harley FXDX Super Glide Sport pushed all the right buttons, and remembering the relaxed point of view the Harley encourages, I went to check it out.
Stepping into a Harley dealership for the first time in ten years was a little weird. Chrome and glass shelves were everywhere, and fashionable people were trying on leathers. I thought I'd made a wrong turn and wandered into Nordstrom's.
The FXDX was beautiful, with a staggering $3000-over-list price tag (marked in "accessories") of $17,000. Noting to the salesman that the bike looked completely stock, he patiently pointed out that the Three Grand was dealer mark up, and if I didn't buy the bike, someone else would. However, he couldn't sell me the bike as it was. To run right, it needed Stage 1 modifications, which included Screaming Eagle (read LOUD) pipes, and re-jetting. I could be OTD for Twenty Thousand Dollars.
I immediately scanned the showroom for something used, and my eyes immediately fell on an immaculate, jet-black, 1999 Yamaha Road Star.
The Road Star was sitting next to a Fat Boy, and to my impartial eye, made the Fat Boy look like an ugly sister by comparison. I'm big (6'5") and felt comfortable on the Road Star. The Fat Boy felt like a mini bike. Whoever traded in the Road Star (with 1200 miles) really wanted a Harley. Every attempt was made to remove or cover with billet, anything that hinted of Japan and Yamaha. The salesman told me that the prior owner had traded the Road Star, a Suzuki VX800 (a very nice bike), and a large amount of cash for a new Hog.
Which brings me to the title of this review. If your first priority to to be seen, ride with a big friendly herd, and embrace the Harley 'tude, then stop reading here. You will only be happy with a Harley, so take out a second mortgage and get one.
If you love to ride, love motorcycling for its diversity, can appreciate a machine for its mechanical merits without "Branding", think immediately about your kid's college tuition rather than twisted spokes on a black-chrome 21" front hoop when you come into extra cash, and want to Cruise, the Road Star may be just the ticket.
I ended up getting a new 2000 Road Star. My wife encouraged it. I have to say, she is a magnificent woman. Five years and 23,000 miles with a motorcycle can give you a very accurate perspective on the merits and drawbacks of a machine. So it says something when I still love looking at it, and always look forward to the next ride.
Vibration is deliberately built in, but it's a reassuring low amplitude throb that is never annoying, even after all-day rides, but is there to let you know when it's time to shift. There are no counter-balancers in the engine; vibration is dampened by a 48 pound crank. This, the long stroke, and the huge displacement make for a slow-revving engine with enormous torque. Motor away in second gear and you can feel each piston's downstroke. Downshifting is something you don't have to think about. You can handle most mountain roads in one gear; third or fourth depending on the kinks in the road or how fast you feel like going.
That 'ol throbbing vibration also takes its toll on the bike. Rear fender cracks on '99 to '01 Road Stars are common due to "fender wagging". Mine has a crack about 1/4" long that appeared at 18,000 miles but has gotten no worse. The muffler bracket for Roadies in this year range were also a problem. They will crack just behind where the bracket attaches to the frame (an NHTSA recall), but since most people put on aftermarket systems anyway, most folks haven't experienced this. I kept the stock pipes (why are all the aftermarket pipes so darn LOUD?), noted the bracket was cracked nearly through at 20,000 miles before a big ride, and had my buddy Brian weld it up. Other friends experienced windshield bracket cracks (at 40,000 miles), and driving light bar cracks.
The big down-side to riding a cruiser is the inability to shift your riding position. With your feet out ahead of you and your butt locked in a tractor seat, there is a limited amount of squirming you can do. After 120 miles you're ready to step off for a few minutes and flex your glutes. After 200 miles (the limit of the 5 gallon fuel tank), you have to slap your glutes to make sure they're still there. The seat, however, is very comfortable, there are lots of after-market alternatives, and the new Road Star seat is much improved.
Overall handling is very good, but ground clearance is severely limited. Any pace faster than moderate on a twisty road will have the replaceable rub-blocks on the floor boards grinding away. After that, the muffler on the right side touches down. Still, the chassis is very stable and reassuring while the sparks are a-flyin', with no head-shake or wobbles.
The brakes are just OK. They are not as strong as they could be, but they are predictable and don't fade under abuse. The front suspension is just OK, but the rear suspension could use some work. Soft-tail, monoshock suspensions aren't noted for ride or travel, but the spring on the Yamaha shock could be stiffer (there are a few after-market options), and hitting a bump yields a loud banging noise that I haven't been able to isolate.
The belt drive is wonderful, providing the light weight and mechanical simplicity of a chain and reliability of a shaft, without the mess and noise of a chain or the complexity and drivetrain lash of a shaft. The belts also last 50,000 miles, and only have to be adjusted every 4500 miles.
The engine was initially described by Yamaha engineers as "having much potential", but it still hasn't been realized, and 55hp and 88lb/ft of torque is simply too little on a bike with four-valve, dual-plug heads and 1600cc displacement. Displacement is up to 1700 in newer versions, and the Warrior has a 20hp advantage. The newly introduced MT-01 in Europe has 100hp in a sport bike chassis (Jeez Mike, don't go there).
There are illegal and expensive modifications that can be made to a Road Star to make it seriously fast, and the engine is built to handle serious modifications. The cams are gear driven, and I hear that the chain driven cams on Harley 88's are a problem at 28,000 miles. I've run into several Road Star aficionados with 50,000 to 150,000 miles on their bikes that have had no problems. There was a transmission recall for '01 to '03 Road Stars, but on balance, and relative to the competition, the bike is better than average from a reliability standpoint.
But the bottom line is the bike is just plain fun, and its quirks are endearing, never frustrating. I get lots of positive comments, particularly from EXPERIENCED Harley riders wherever I go. The only downside is getting peevish (on an otherwise perfect day) when my ride gets an unsolicited "wannabe Harley" label by a RUB with 1/10th my riding experience.
But who would have thought that the price for individual expression would be less that half of the going rate?
Remember. It's about the ride, not what you ride.