The Big Dam Tour Baggers to Vegas Rally: BMW K1600 B vs Indian Chieftain Dark Horse vs Kawasaki Vaquero vs Harley-Davidson Street and Road Glides vs Moto Guzzi MGX-21 vs Yamaha Eluder
The Big Dam Tour was originally conceived as a multi-day moto-carouse way up to Northern California, where we’d swoop by a few of the state’s many impressive dams, including Shasta and Oroville, as an excuse to ride like maniacs over some great roads. The exigencies of the modern workplace, however, dictated an overnight blast to Hoover Dam via Death Valley – a ride of about 300 miles each way. Actually that’s probably just about right for a “bagger,” which is really just this side of a touring bike, and built for just such overnight hauls as well as around-town use and commuting. Mr. Hoover’s dam is also Los Vegas-adjacent, where a quick search for cheap accommodations had us booked into the Hooters Casino and Hotel quicker than Dirty Sean could say “hot wings.”
And so I found myself burbling through Corona early one morning two weeks ago on a brand spanking Twisted Cherry Harley-Davidson Street Glide, breathing in the wonderful aroma of hot garbage, which always reminds me of that frightening year of law school that “motojournalism” rescued me from. Did you know it was common knowledge among medieval peasants that stored wet hay will spontaneously combust, and they could be held liable if it did and burned something down? I keep waiting for a garbage truck to combust someday. I get behind them a lot on the freeway; riding along in the stench plume feels like a kind of metaphor for SoCal life.
I met up with the other usual suspects at a Chevron/Taco Bell in Rancho Cucamonga: anIndian Chieftain Dark Horse and a Moto Guzzi MGX-21. We actually already tested these just over a year ago in Baggers Brawl – wherein the Street Glide and the Indian battled to an actual mathematical tie!
This year, we have new players: BMW’s new K1600B, Yamaha’s new Eluder, and well, theKawasaki Vaquero has been around for years but we hadn’t tested one since 2011, so it’s in the mix too. And an H-D Road Glide, which is almost the same as the Street Glide but with a bigger, frame-mounted windshield.
Why not just get on with it then?
Somebody has to finish last and this time it’s the Moto Guzzi MGX-21. The Guzzi only finished one percentage point behind the winners in “Baggers Brawl” in late 2016, and beat the now-defunct Victory Magnum. This time out, however, the group could not collectively get past the Italian bike’s ungainly low-speed handling. The bike’s 21-inch front wheel wants to flop over, a problem Moto Guzzi addresses with a sort of steering damper to keep it from doing that. I think an owner would adjust to the funky feel it imparts to the steering, especially at parking lot speed, but its characteristics are definitely offputting at first. (In the 2016 comparo, we said “Once underway, though, it flies straight and maneuvers in the twisties with surprising alacrity. Coupled with that amazing playful engine, the Guzzi is surprisingly sporty.” While we all groaned over the effort required to lift the MGX off its stand, its top-heaviness goes away once rolling and we were able to adjust to its handling idiosyncrasies as the miles piled up.”)
Thai Long Ly says: One minute, you’re ripping down the highway thinking this is the shit! The next minute, you’re holding on for dear life trying not to eat shit. Aside from fear of the impending “death wobble,” which never actually occurs, the bike handles great – though low speed maneuvering is a funky affair, with a strange heaviness to the bars when paired with subtle inputs.
The damper does have the Guzzi weaving occasionally at speed, too, but it never does develop into the “death wobble” of legend. It’s kind of a shame, really, because the rest of the Guzzi is quite a package. It would be the lightest bike here if not for the BMW, and its horsepower would be the most if not also for the BMW.
In fact, the Guzzi and the BMW both are playing a slightly different version of “baggers” than the other bikes here, which are either Harley-Davidsons or slavish clones. These two Eurobaggers nod toward sport-touring, with the Guzzi in particular having its rider assume less of a La-z-boy recliner posture and more of an upright sporty one. The Guzzi’s 90-degree V-Twin is a helluvan engine, but at “only” 1380cc it’s the smallest one here, and wants to be revved a bit to give its best. The “traditional” Twins are doing their best work well below 3000 rpm. Most of us really like the Guzzi engine, which sounds like a cross between a Ducati and a small-block V8.
Thai says, This engine, my friends, does power right. It pulls violently to the side off idle with just a whiff of gas. But flog the throttle aggressively and she purrs like a subservient kitten, relaxing her quiver the harder you turn your twisting fist. Torquey AF, this bike will smoothly walk away from everything here but the BMW. A total speed party.
Ahhh, I actually don’t mind the MG at all. All the main building blocks are there, it’s just that none of them fit together and work with the precision all the other bikes here seem to have achieved. The LCD instruments are mostly invisible in daylight, though the batwing fairing they’re housed in is less turbulent than most. The one-button cruise control is a bit more finicky, but it is cruise control. The stereo is weak and its buttons are also confusing, but who needs a stereo on a motorcycle anyway? And if you owned the thing, you’d learn how everything works in time.
In short, it’s a Moto Guzzi, a brand that speaks to a fairly sparse group of unique individualists worldwide; the MGX will appeal to an even thinner slice of that group. If you are one of them, you probably already know it, and our niggling complaints won’t keep you from enjoying the MGX-21 at all.
Barely beating out the Moto Guzzi for Not Last! would be the Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Vaquero. It looks like Kawasaki started stamping these out in 2011, but that 1700cc liquid-cooled V-Twin precedes that date by quite a few years. The Vaquero has no trouble keeping up with the crowd (all these bikes have plenty of torque), but the dyno doesn’t lie, and the Vaquero is the weakest bike here in both horsepower and torque.
It’s also the most behind the times. It does have the cruising essentials, including cruise control and a pretty good stereo. But if you’re after central electronic locking, GPS and Bluetooth connectivity, you won’t find it here. You’ll need a key to get in the awkward side-opening bags every time. And every time you scrounge around in there you’ll note the Kawi’s fit, finish and paint are a few steps behind the other bikes. No bagger guy wants his front fender to admit he’s got ABS.
For some, and I could be one of them, the Kawi’s Dollar Store demeanor might be its biggest attraction: Fewer things to lose or go wrong, and a list price of $17,699 is way less than the next cheapest bike here (the $21,990 Moto Guzzi). What the Vaquero has going for it is what all these bikes do: it’s an excellent place to sit and reel in road at 70 to 90 mph, and surprisingly has one of the best set-up suspensions of the group, with a plush but controlled ride from either end under a deliciously comfy seat.
Even if it’s not the fastest, the Kawi still pulls with plenty of authority, and once you’re in the saddle and only looking at the dashboard instead of the rest of the bike, it does the best imitation of 1950s Americana of all of them. And let’s face it, showing up on a Japanese bagger really does mark you as a person who goes his own way.
Brent Jaswinski says: The Vaquero was perhaps the most vanilla bike of all the flavors. That’s not to say that it was bad by any means – it did everything very well – the other bikes just did it a little better. The Vaquero definitely looks the heftiest of the bunch, but feels surprisingly nimble once things start rolling. Next to the Road Glide and Eluder, I think it provided the most wind protection. The engine’s power didn’t feel as torquey as some of the other bikes, but it was there. Definitely the least refined of the group, from the cheesy pinstripe-graphic stickers to the center tank panel, the overall fit and finish was somewhat lacking. The dashboard was the least sophisticated of the bunch too, well, except for maybe the Moto Guzzi – no digital screen, the handlebar switch cluster was gigantic with more switches and knobs than an airplane… the cruise control button was the lowest and furthest away from your right thumb – like, why? Also, it was the only bike that didn’t have a USB hookup as standard. There were some wires with connectors in the left glove box, but obviously needed some sort of an adapter. Kawasaki, join us in the 21st century why don’t you?
I’m forced to agree with Thai again:
This polarizing vehicle actually fits me like a glove. A cheap, funky, 99-Cent Store glove. Unless I happened to be tripping on mushrooms, covered in velvet, half chewed wasabi peas and neighborhood cat hair, the styling makes zero sense to me. And when I am, it still doesn’t. With that said, the bike is comfortable and the ride is confident and reassuring. The massive splash of plastic disguised as a dash tries way too hard for attention and reminds me of every small town groupie I ever met after any given rock-fueled set. There’s a calm behind that behemoth fairing though, with no discernible buffeting and solid protection from the wind. The consistent wave of torque from the adequately endowed engine propels you forward with satisfying alacrity. She’s far from the prettiest, nowhere near the most talented, nor the most interesting girl in the club. But she’s the kind you can take home and have a drama-free relationship for years long after all the others have turned you down.
Fifth place will be going to your Harley-Davidson Road Glide Special in lovely Bonneville Salt Pearl paint. This one differs from the Street Glide in that it has a bigger, frame-mounted fairing packing a pair of H-D’s excellent Daymaker LED headlights. It also has a higher handlebar than the Street Glide, what H-D calls a mid-ape I believe, along with a few other bits and finishes to differentiate it from the other Road Glides, including blacked-out engine, exhaust, etc.
Most of us, though, just didn’t like the Road’s high-bar ergos as much as the Street Glide’s, even if the “shark nose” fairing does punch a bigger, less-turbulent hole through the air.
Here’s Thai: The rear suspension has the suppleness of your great grandma’s oppression-fleeing leathery hammer toes. It’s best to keep this hog on the smooth parts of the farm for sure. The bike pulls with typical Harley heft and response – with power, hold the grace – a redneck bear hug. These bikes are all about the motor and with recent advancements in forward thinking, the rest of the bike is slowly catching up to the masses. The brakes are dare I say, “wholly adequate,” the handling is planted and the feel is best described as “chunky.” The clutch lever is only slightly heavy, the transmission engages with granola-like smoothness; my mid-`80s Snapper riding mower shifted less clumsily. The air behind the giant frame mounted fairing is calm and the ergonomics are comfortable. The kickstand is difficult for short legged beings, as the reach to disengage is quite far out. I know it’s a design feature, but that kickstand is NOT reassuring to engage and I’m always feeling like the bike is gonna fall over. Overall, it’s a manly bike and I strongly see the appeal. My disdain for Harley products has waned over the years and as the Motor Co. continually ups its game, I come closer and closer to considering ownership again one day.
Brent doesn’t like the Road’s cockpit layout as well as the Street’s: The Storm Trooper bagger! Like the Street Glide, it did just about everything well. Just a couple nitpicks made me favor the Street Glide over the Road Glide. The gauge/touch screen orientation is flip-flopped, which makes reading the gauges a little more difficult. That frame-mounted fairing makes the Road Glide feel waaay bigger than the Street Glide, and most of the other bikes for that matter too, which makes lane-splitting rather difficult. On the other hand, the Road Glide’s fairing provided some of the best wind protection of the group. It’s also a great looking motorcycle, and just like with the Street Glide’s paint, the Road Glides pops just as much. A very sharp looking motorcycle.
It really is a beautiful thing, and a highly refined one too. The biggest complaint involves what Thai was referring to when he insulted your grandmother’s leathery toes: H-D’s emulsion shocks do a fantastic job of suspending the rear end and keeping the seat low, but there’s only so much fantasticness you can make out of 2.1 inches of rear-wheel travel. On smooth roads, she’s lovely. On bumpy ones, not so much. When we stopped for gas in Baker after hammering (literally) over a few bumpy sections of Death Valley Highway 127, the Glide would no longer start; its electronic remote fob deal had jumped out of the (non-latching) glovebox in the right side of the fairing somewhere back there in the dark. You’d think a big red light would come on or something? Happily, we were able to retrieve a PIN code from our man Alan at Fleet Center West, and got the bike to restart. Personally, I like a key.
Finishing less than one percentage point higher than the Road Glide, and less than another point behind the Indian, we give you the other Harley – the Street Glide. Allow me to overuse another word I’m coming to despise, but the Street Glide really is the “iconic” bagger upon which all others are based. And why not? The Street has been a monster seller for H-D for many years. Its pull remains so powerful; it’s the one a couple of us said we’d buy with our own money, even if our job is to evaluate which bike here works best. The Street blows the others out of the water in the Cool Factor portion of our Scorecard, with the Road Glide in second.
Take everything we just said about the Road Glide but improve its ergonomics and handling with that lower handlebar and a reduction in weight of 26 pounds. Replacing the shark nose fairing with the classic fork-mounted batwing just makes the Street feel more frisky and fun to ride, even if it is blusterier. (How anybody rides any of these bikes without good earplugs and a full-face helmet is hard to grasp.) Harley and the aftermarket offer tons of different windscreens.
This one’s, again, “highly refined”, with a one-button cruise control that works great, Boombox Infotainment controls which are relatively easy to figure out, great, top-opening bags that are super-easy to get in and out of, and an overall seamless rider/motorcycle interface. Except for the 2.1 inches of rear suspension travel, just like the Road Glide.
With the install of the new Milwaukee-Eight 107-incher last year, the Glide moved into the 21st century. What addicts its adherents, though, is its ability to keep one foot firmly rooted in the past. Except for the bags and fairing, all you see here is chromed steel, aluminum and rubber, same as it ever was.
Speak, young Brent Jaswinski: The quintessential modern bagger. Fantastic looks and an overall solid package. Everything from the controls, to the ergonomics, to the layout of the gauges and switches – it all felt good and natural and easy to operate. I really liked the placement of the speedo and tach relative to the touchscreen. They were above it and very easy to read, just below the rider’s line of sight. The Street Glide felt a lot thinner and more nimble than the Road Glide even though they’re essentially the same bike. The cherry paint paired with the black motor/frame/tranny/pipes/etc. put the Street Glide at the top of the good looks category for me for sure. My only real gripe with either of the Harleys is that their suspension could have worked a little better. It soaked up all the small stuff very well, but the bigger, sharper hits saw the rear shocks blow through their travel super quick. Overall, theStreet Glide shares the top spot with the Eluder for me.
Thai? Pretty much everything I wrote about the Road Glide applies here, except that the turbulence behind the screen for me was the WORST. My head was pinballing back and forth and side to side, especially at elevated speeds, so much that I could barely focus my eyes. No matter what position I leaned into or away from, it was terrible. The bike felt smaller to me than the Road Glide… perhaps it’s the bars or seat or whatever… but the bike felt more compact and danced more gracefully through the turns as a result. Aside from the incessant head buffeting, the bike was more enjoyable to ride overall than the Road Glide.
Ryan Adams is down with all that: The smaller-feeling of the two Harleys just feels more manageable. Best Harley engine yet, quintessential American Bagger feel and sound. Suspension felt somewhat harsh, Infotainment is easy to use, with speakers that provide good volume.
Sneaking onto the podium a mere 0.79% ahead of the Street Glide would be the 2018 Indian Chieftain Dark Horse (these two tied in “Bagger’s Brawl” two Decembers ago; all that’s changed is the testers and the route).
Everybody likes the Chieftain’s burly engine and power delivery; 1811cc makes it the biggest one here, and the 105 pound-feet of torque it puts out at just 2800 rpm trails only the mighty BMW – which needs 5200 rpm to produce its 106 lb-ft. Indian wisely took a look at the Street Glide and improved upon it wherever it could, and you feel that most in the 4.5 inches of rear-wheel travel its single air-assisted rear shock provides. That and a great seat means this Indian cruises like a birchbark canoe on a still lake over bumps that dislodge the Harleys’ key fobs and jiggle your moobs.
Either the rider sits more forward on the Indian or the fairing sits more rearward; either way, there’s less buffeting in the Indian cockpit, and the instruments and GPS being closer make them easier to read. Furthermore, the electric-adjust windscreen allows people of different heights to find calm refuge behind it. Usually we complain about excessive heat from that big air-cooled motor; this year, nobody really mentioned it. Indian says, “For 2018 heavyweight bikes featuring the Thunder Stroke 111, Indian Motorcycle shrunk the coil cover on the right-hand side of the motor to improve airflow to the rider’s right leg. Although a small adjustment, the change resulted in improved airflow and rider comfort.” Hmmmm.
Ryan wants to own one: My favorite engine and exhaust note of the bunch, Infotainment system is slick and provides shit-tons (sT) of information. The fairing on the Indian worked best for me, with the adjustable windshield providing clean air at every level and the fairing itself keeping the wind off of my chest completely… Comfy seat, big floorboards, and quick steering compared to the other V-Twins. Shame about her face.
Brent: Like the H-Ds, the Chieftain is a super comfortable bike with well thought-out ergos and control/gauge layout. The electronics were definitely pretty easy to use and provided a ton of useful vehicle information, including tire pressure monitors and even elevation. To me, the Indian had the most seat-of-the-pants grunt out of all the V-Twins, but the BMW was definitely faster. The throttle was also great – more of a quick-turn throttle that didn’t need nearly as much of a twist as the other bikes. The handling felt the second most nimble and flickable (who knew you could say that about a bagger?), second only to the BMW cheater bike… The floorboards were my favorite of the group because they were by far the biggest, or longest rather, which meant you had a large dance floor to move your puppies around on and keep comfortable during long stretches. Personally though, I’m not a fan of the Chieftain’s styling. It’s a little bland and the matte color made it look plastic-y. I also didn’t like how the transmission was covered up by a big panel, unlike the Harleys. Best, most throaty sounding exhaust though, and an overall really nice motorcycle.
Thai Long Ly stamp of approval here: I love the way this thing looks. It’s what a bagger should look like to these baggy eyes. The lines are bold, slightly bulbous and certainly brawny. The display screen is modern, yet the instruments are classically familiar, with a perfect blend of form and function. The ergos are comfortable and wind protection barely ample, despite some annoying helmet buffeting at elevated speeds. The engine pulls mightily, but feels slightly disconnected in how freely it spins for such a large V-Twin. It’s hard to describe… but let me try… most large Twins have a heft to them with a heavy flywheel and somewhat lethargic response. This bike’s engine spins freely and quickly, not something usually associated with big-piston Twins. If the BMW is a turbine, the Harley a tractor, the Guzzi a metro train, then this Indian would be a mother f*ck-ton (mF-T) of squirrels and rats, albeit pissed off and very well-toned squirrely rats. The front end feels a bit light and belies the bike’s heft and seriousness. This adds up to excellent handling and being surprisingly quick on its feet for such a beefy machine.
That leaves the new Yamaha Star Eluder to escape first place by almost three percentage points, which I have to say surprises me when I look at the formidable competition assembled here. But the mighty MO Scorecard does not lie: The rookie Yamaha took first place in the Ergonomics/Comfort and Luggage/Storage categories; her seat is low, cush and welcoming (and a nice passenger perch, too).
She also finished second in most of the other categories, mostly to the BMW: Brakes, Handling, Suspension, Technology, Instruments/Controls, Quality/Fit & Finish and even Grin Factor. The only category that eluded the Eluder was Cool Factor, where she could only outcool the Vaquero and the BMW (which proves how stupid Cool Factor is more than anything).
This bike runs down the road so smoothly, if you couldn’t occasionally hear the V-Twin burble, it would be easy to think you were on a Gold Wing. The damper system Yamaha engineered into the clutch damps out 98% of the V-Twin pulsations you’d normally occasionally feel from an 1854cc engine swinging two 4-inch pistons. A big 46mm fork and single shock provide 5.1 and 4.3 inches of usually plush and always well-controlled suspension action. Rider and passenger both get floorboards for freedom of motion on long slogs.
All your modern appliances are in here, too, big GPS, Bluetoothable sound system, the easiest cruise control to use (but no electric windshield!). I was surprised how much the kids like the Eluder, which to me has all the goods but just seems a bit plasticky and sanitized for a bagger. I thought Yamaha was in for trouble with an R1-snouted bagger, but what do I know? My own 24-year old son loves the thing. His generation grew up on plastic. So did mine, but we knew metal was better.
Brent, who’s 28, is in love too: Ahh… the Eluder. Yamaha hit the nail on the head with this one. The bike is made to crush miles with exceptional comfort. I don’t have a single negative thing to say about the Eluder, I was pleasantly, pleasantly, pleasantly surprised by it. Everything worked great. It’s a bike I don’t think I’ve ever even looked at twice, but man did it satisfy. I guess what they say is true – you never know where you might find love… The Eluder probably has the most storage space as well as spacious and conveniently placed glove compartments on each side. The gauges are right where you want them and in the center is the super informative digital screen. The cruise control is the easiest to use and the wind protection is the best of all the bikes. It was the one bike that felt easiest to get accustomed to as well. And by that I mean I felt right at home on it as soon as I let the clutch out – I couldn’t believe it. All the other bikes took a little adjusting to, but the Yamaha was instantly an extension of myself. Two thumbs up! If I have to say one negative thing about it, I’d say it revs out too quickly in the first two gears, but c’mon, it’s a bagger not a dragger.
Thai is not without an opinion: Eyeing the bike on the side stand, the hefty profile promises Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, but reality delivers Danny DeVito – at least through the first two gears. It’s a shamtastic buzzkill because the engine has legs… big ones. But when grafted to inexplicably short gears, it makes spirited riding an exercise in frustration as you immediately bounce off the rev limiter before your foot has even left the shifter. If it weren’t for that huge oversight, this bike may possibly be the best bagger here. Notice I said “bagger.” But wait, the heat is unavoidably oppressive – like an all expenses paid Saudi Arabian vacation for your balls… The bike is sure-footed and confident in its handling, with a calm pocket of air behind the well-appointed cockpit. The kickstand is great… easily the best of the bunch. The display is clean and concise as well. The looks are modern and sleek, for a bagger. Once into third gear and beyond, power is smooth and seemingly limitless, slapping you with waves of torque. Thoughtful ergos have everything falling exactly where you’d expect them. This is an exceptionally well thought out bike and ranks high on my list.
He’s right about the heat and the low redline, you know, though the heat’s not that bad. The engine party’s over at just 3,850 rpm. Ryan Adams complained about the same things – but the complaints apparently didn’t stick when it came time to fill out the Scorecard. I’ll add one more negative to the Eluder’s balance sheet. As the great Richard Pryor once observed when referring to his own member, “the shit is big”: 874 pounds on the official MO scales makes the `Luder the heaviest bike here – 106 lb heavier than The Winner…
… which is, of course, exactly the bike I predicted it would be after riding it last fall at its introduction – the new BMW K1600B. Again, BMW kind of stretched the bagger envelope, but I have to say they stretched it in an excellent direction. However “uncool” it might be, the kids couldn’t ignore its amazing attributes in the other Scorecard categories. The seat’s two or three inches higher than the other bikes, but it’s low enough and the fact that the bike is way light makes it easy to handle anyway. (So does its Reverse.) The B could even be almost the least expensive bike here, at $19,995, if BMW hadn’t sent us one with all the good stuff on it.
If you just want to bagger traditionally along, you’ll be fine with any of the others. If you retain vestiges of the performance gene, like so many people riding baggers now, you might appreciate the fact that when you want to, you can grab a big fistfull of screaming Six-cylinder horsepower coming off a corner, and let the traction control deal with it as you bang a couple of seamless full-throttle upshifts with the quick shifter. There’s 132 horsepower down there, and 106 pound-feet of torque at only 5000 rpm. Sorry, but there is no V-Twin rumble here; right where it’s time to clunk all the other bikes into the next gear, this one’s just beginning to snarl like a vintage F1 car on its way to its 8400-rpm redline.
There’s a bit of a dead spot just off idle, but grab a bunch of revs, use the clutch, and it’s easy and emotionally satisfying to blow the doors off guys revving their loud baggers with Screamin’ Eagle stickers all over them at red lights on the way back from Cook’s Corner, even with your 120-pound GF on back. (Actually he had us for the first 20 feet because I didn’t want her to fall off, but after that it was all over. And she’s probably pushing 130 lately.) I’ll admit his bike had more character.
We didn’t even hit any tight roads on this quick spin to Vegas, but I can tell you with 100% confidence that if we had, the BMW would run and hide from any of these traditional baggers. I know this first-hand because BMW rep Gina D and I ran away from the rest of the crowd at the bike’s launch in North Carolina, and flogged the things mercilessly in some very tight twistiness. Set ESA to Sport and away you go. The BMW’s seat is a bit higher so it can lean farther. It’s also, I repeat, way lighter than the other baggers.
Alternatively, put the ESA back in Cruise and set the cruise control to whatever speed you want to bagger along at, no problem, in complete smooth Six-zylinder serenity. BMW’s spinny control ring deal wrapped around the left grip is the best solution for controlling lots of electronic functions without loading the switchgear up with a bunch of little buttons that are invisible after dark. BMW has probably been making bike luggage longer than anybody. Central locking works great, there’s a 12V outlet up front and one for the passenger, as well as a USB port inside a little zippered pocket suspended from the ceiling of the right saddlebag.