If you like your cruisers to have the 1940s retro look, then there’s no finer flattery than the Kawasaki Drifter.
With its strangely huge mudguards – sorry, ’fenders’ – wide handlebars and curiously curvy saddle, the Drifter is a close homage to the Indian machines of the past.
Underneath however, it’s a Kawasaki Vulcan cruiser, with a massive V-twin 1500cc motor, or the smaller 800cc version, both set in a low slung, softly sprung chassis. A lifespan stretching back to the late 1980s makes the VN Drifter series bikes one of the most tried and trusted in the big K range.
‘Is your engine running?´ leered the grey-bearded Harley rider with the mirror shades, grinning broadly and looking across at the Drifter as we sat at the traffic lights. I laughed, and gave the throttle a couple of blips, which only provoked the Kawasaki Drifter into making a rather feeble thubba-thubba noise from what must have been the only efficiently-silenced exhaust system in the whole of Daytona.
Still the Harley bigot wasn´t finished. ‘There´s rice underneath it,´ he shouted, pointing below the Drifter´s engine, and cackling even louder to his mate alongside. Naturally, I made sure the Drifter upheld Kawasaki´s honour by leaving both their leaky old Hardly-Movingsons for dead when the lights changed. But somehow I doubt whether that made the slightest difference to their opinion that a Japanese motorcycle dressed as an ancient American bike is not to be taken seriously.
Kawasaki was obviously very serious indeed when it decided that the way to enhance its VN1500 and 800 cruisers was to restyle them to look like an Indian Chief, the legendary V-twin that was produced until Harley´s last great American rival ceased trading in 1953.
You´ve got to give the Japanese firm ten out of ten for sheer cheek, and a pretty good nine mark for efficiency in not only making the Drifter so closely resemble the old Chief, but for giving the new bike an old-style look even above its use of the heavy ‘skirted´ fenders for which the Chief is best remembered.
It´s ironic that just as the Drifter is launched, Indian itself is finally reawakening after a 46-year slumber, as a long series of legal battles has ended with one firm finally establishing ownership of the famous old name. It´s also rather expensive for Kawasaki, which agreed to pay $75,000 to the Indian receiver for hijacking the old firm´s traditional (and apparently trademarked) heavy-fendered silhouette.
Kawasaki had a pretty good basis for this new bike in the VN1500 cruiser, whose watercooled, 1470cc, 50-degree V-twin engine was tweaked for the job. The sohc, eight-valve unit gains higher-lift cams, increased compression ratio, twin spark plugs per cylinder and a digital fuel-injection system to boost its peak output to a claimed 66bhp at 5500rpm.
More to the point, the shaft-drive unit´s maximum torque figure of 85ft.lb arrives at just 2800rpm.
The Drifter´s basic chassis is totally unremarkable, consisting of a twin-downtube steel frame, pair of 41mm Showa forks, twin rear shocks adjustable for preload, and a single disc bolted to each of its wire-spoked 16-inch wheels. But the parts draped around that framework give this bike a look totally unlike any other bike to come out of Japan, unless you count the smaller, visually near-identical 800cc Drifter that is also being introduced this year.
Kawasaki´s designer’s didn´t hold back, giving the bike a look that is overwhelmingly retro even to those unfamiliar with old Indians. From the rounded black headlamp, via the wide, pull-back bars all the way to the buddy-style dual seat and the long fishtail silencer, the Drifter is a two-wheeled homage to 1940s America. Deep maroon paintwork and a minimum of chrome add to the period effect. Throw some dust over this bike and it would look as though you´d just dragged it out of the barn where it had spent the last 40 years. Which is presumably just as Kawasaki intended.
America is definitely the best place to ride a bike like this (some would say the only place), but on reflection maybe Daytona Beach during Bike Week, when two-thirds of the vehicles on the roads are open-piped Harleys, is in some ways not the best part of the States. The Drifter is an unashamed copy, and a good one too. But when let loose among all the brighter, louder, genuinely American V-twins, the Japanese bike couldn´t help feeling a bit underwhelming.
That impression began when the big V-twin motor fired-up, with a well-silenced watercooled rustle and not much vibration from the balancer-shaft equipped V-twin engine. And it continued when I accelerated away, the Drifter pulling strongly from low down, and short-shifting eagerly through its slow but positive five-speed gearbox as I stamped down on the heel-and-toe lever.
Seconds later I was cruising down Atlantic Avenue in the middle of a gang of the ubiquitous Harleys, feeling pretty damn cool, but at the same time slightly detached on my quiet, smooth-running Japanese machine. (If Kawasaki are serious about selling this bike in the States they´re going to have to produce a straight-through exhaust system pretty quickly, or put a hacksaw in the tool-kit.)
Performance wise, there´s no doubt that the Drifter has what it takes to match the average American-built V-twin. There´s no tacho, just a speedo in the tank-top, and you don´t need one either as the big Kawasaki lump rumbles forward pretty eagerly, despite its 302kg of weight. The fuel-injection´s response is crisp, the shaft-drive unobtrusive, and the big bike rumbles up to 75mph in an effortlessly relaxed fashion. Revved harder, it starts running out of breath approaching a top speed of about 110mph, but few owners will bother to try.
More importantly the Drifter works pretty well at the lower cruising speeds for which it was designed. The wide handlebars and big footboards combine with a broad, low seat to make the Kawasaki as comfy as your favourite arm-chair. A pillion is well treated, too, with a similarly generous amount of seat room plus a solid grab-rail to hold. The seemingly big fuel tank holds only 16 litres, but at the speeds this bike is likely to travel that will be good for a range of well over 100 miles.
Suspension at both ends is fairly soft, but well-enough damped to give a stable ride. Forks are 41mm units, and worked pretty well. Occasionally the Drifter lurched slightly as its air-assisted shocks hit a larger bump or dip in the road, but the rest of the time the bike felt very solid. So it should, given its laid-back steering geometry and long, 1655mm wheelbase.
It´s very much a big, slow-steering machine that takes some effort to manoeuvre in town traffic, but feels unshakeable on the open road.
Daytona Beach and the surrounding bit of Florida did suit the Drifter in that there are very few bends to interrupt the big bike´s stately straight-line progress. In fact, despite dragging its footboards at modest angles, the Kawasaki cornered competently, provided I didn´t get carried away.
It’s front brake, neatly hidden behind the big fender, is a single 300mm disc gripped by a twin-piston caliper. Provided the lever was squeezed hard, and given some help from the rear disc, the Drifter could be made to stop fairly hard.
Of course this talk of how the Drifter handles and brakes is all very well, but this bike, as much as any American-built V-twin, is really all about image. For my money, and at £7175 this bike costs a fair bit less than most Harleys, let alone the new Indian Chief that has just been launched in the States, Kawasaki has done a great job of capturing the look, if not so much the feel, of a Forties classic.
Of course, there will be some people for whom a Japanese bike pretending to be an American one will never be a patch on the real thing, especially when it substitutes smoothness and efficiency for the more basic, rough-edged appeal of most rival V-twins. Fair enough. But for those who are more interested in style, cruising comfort and price than character or country of origin, the VN1500 Drifter is good enough to be taken very seriously indeed.
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|ENGINE||Liquid-cooled 50-degree V-twin|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||41mm telescopic|
|REAR SUSPENSION||Twin shocks, adjustments for preload|
|FRONT BRAKE||Twin-piston caliper, single 300mm disc|
|REAR BRAKE||Twin-piston caliper, single 270mm disc|
|FRONT WHEEL||3.50 x 17in; cast aluminium|
|REAR WHEEL||5.50 x 17in; cast aluminium|
|FRONT TYRE||130/90 x 16in Bridgestone|
|REAR TYRE||150/80 x 16in Bridgestone|
|FUEL CAPACITY||16 litres|