For years the Japanese have been trying to outdo Harley-Davidson in the lucrative US cruiser market, with some success.
But the late 1990s saw a whole new generation of big capacity machines which not only matched the Milwaukee monsters in pose value, but actually made decent tourers too. The Yamaha Royal Star is one of them.
With a V4 shaped, four stroke 1300cc engine pulsing away, making gobfuls of power from as little as 3,000rpm, a laid back riding position and shaft drive, the Royal Star can certainly cover some miles, albeit slowly and preferably without too many corners.
Add the optional touring kit of fairing and panniers and you´re all set for that dream ride across three continents. Don´t forget your Amex card.
Launched in 1995 the Royal Star was aimed fairly and squarely at the American market and, not surprisingly, directly at Harley Davidson. Cruising around the Grand Canyon, Roland Brown found it a convincing Japanese attempt to build the ultimate all-American motorcycle.
Sunrise in Arizona’s canyon country. At 7am the road is still mostly in shadow as we follow its winding route along the valley, engines rumbling gently, our eyes occasionally dazzled by sunlight that streams through dips in the horizon. To our right the rock rises almost vertically, its heavily-eroded shapes and multitude of strata bathed in vivid shades of red, pink and orange by the soft early-morning light.
Ahead of us lie 300 miles of roads and much spectacular scenery, including the Grand Canyon, the most awe-inspiring sight of all. The pace is relaxed, and the bikes’ riding position sits us bolt upright to enjoy the view. The big, softly-tuned engine beats away down below, effortlessly churning out low-rev torque with a lazy, long-legged beat.
This is Yamaha’s vision of American motorcycling, and it explains much about the creation of the new XVZ1300 Royal Star. The Japanese firm’s market research indicates that a group of riders on these roads would typically be not our bunch of European journalists but 40-something Americans, with above-average incomes, who grew up on Japanese bikes but abandoned them in the 1980s. Their interest recently rekindled, these riders have returned to motorcycling with cruisers the vast majority of them Harley-Davidsons.
That, Yamaha hopes, will change following the arrival of the Royal Star, a bike created very much for America, but which will be on sale in Britain, too, next year. Although the Star will be produced in Japan (unlike Honda’s American-built Shadow 1100), this bike was conceived and developed at Yamaha’s US base in California. It’s big, it’s heavy, and it has almost all the American cruiser features in place. There’s truth in Yamaha’s claim not to be copying Harley, most notably in the choice of engine layout, but there’s no denying that they’re going straight for the Milwaukee firm’s throat.
At first glance the Royal Star looks like another aircooled V-twin, but in fact its powerplant is a direct descendent of that most American of all previous Yamahas, the V-Max. Like the mighty Max and the Venture giant-tourer, it’s a watercooled, DOHC, 16-valve V4, with shaft final drive. Many parts, including the crankcases (which are polished), are retained. But the 1294cc XVZ motor, which is 96cc bigger than the V-Max unit thanks to a 2mm larger bore, has been comprehensively reworked to make it suitable for cruiser duty.
Internal changes include reduced, 10:1 compression ratio, softer cam timing and a revised ignition system. The balancer shaft is removed, and the diaphragm clutch modified. Smaller 24mm Mikuni carburetors (the V-Max’s are 35mm) and a new, four-into-four exhaust system combine to reduce peak output from an unrestricted Max’s 140bhp and the Venture’s 90bhp to just 74bhp, delivered at a lowly 4750rpm. Even more revealing is that the peak torque figure of 83ft.lb arrives at just 3500rpm.
If the motor is unmistakably large, it sits in a chassis that’s even bigger. With a wheelbase of 1695mm, the Royal Star is longer than anything on wheels bar a Santa Fe freight train, and its tubular steel frame is suitably thick to cope with both that length and a dry weight figure of 305kg. The forks, too, have thick 43mm stanchions, with covers to make them look even more substantial. Rear suspension gives a fake hard-tail look via a single shock placed horizontally in front of the rear wheel.
If that rear-suspension layout is very much inspired by Harley, then so too is the look and feel of the bike, with its big metal fenders, pull-back handlebars, broad gas tank and low-slung bucket seat. The V4 motor’s traditional look is enhanced by bolt-on “cooling fins” which don’t even get warm when the motor’s running, and which can be changed for alternatives with either chrome or black finish.
The Royal Star’s layout and riding position give a feel that is intentionally familiar to anyone who’s ridden big Harleys. You throw a leg over the seat, which at just 710mm is very low, and reach slightly forward and up to the handlebars’ fat grips. Mounting the speedometer and warning lights in the top of the gas tank gives a pleasingly clean view of the wide-spaced forks’ massive top yoke, and the shiny round headlamp. (It also means they can’t be seen unless you look right down, which is not so clever.)
The V4 motor fired up with a pleasant thrap from its four pipes (which will probably have to be quietened slightly for European homologation) and pulled away with the effortless feel of a big Chevy V8. Despite its size and weight, the Royal Star was easy to ride. Its long wheelbase, fat tyres and low centre of gravity aided slow-speed stability, and the broad handlebars and generous steering lock made the big bike surprisingly manoeuvrable.
I’d expected a softly-tuned version of the legendary V-Max motor to feel strong at low revs, and the Royal Star did not disappoint. Power came flooding in from just above idle, the big V4 pulsing pleasantly and its low-down torque encouraging short-shifting with the heel-and-toe gearlever. Yamaha says the top two ratios of the five-speed box are overdrives, and that’s no exaggeration. As we left our launch base at picturesque Sedona, near Phoenix in Arizona, and headed north through the early-morning sunlight, the big motor chugged along so gently at 60mph that it felt as though it had barely woken up.
The Yamaha’s 74bhp peak output is respectable by cruiser standards, and the bike felt barely less hurried when the pace rose to 80mph. The Royal Star is no speed king, though. It would rumble up to an indicated ton in fourth gear, and then normally hold that speed in top, but the V4’s top-end performance has been so curtailed, and its gearing is so tall, that in fifth the bike wouldn’t accelerate from 85mph into a slight headwind. (Admittedly, the high altitude would have taken the edge off engine performance.) The Virago 1100 that we had along for comparison leapt far ahead in a top-gear roll-on from 50mph, and even pulled away slowly when the Star was in fourth gear.
The Royal Star gained with its smoother, more refined feel, though, and equally importantly the bike’s chassis was well up to the job. One rider reported a slight wobble over high-speed bumps on a naked Star, but the bike I rode stayed stable both in bends and to its top speed in a straight line. Its forks were impressive, soaking up bumps yet remaining firm enough to cope with braking. Despite the limited 97mm rear-wheel travel, typical of a cruiser, the rising-rate rear shock gave a fairly soft ride and didn’t bottom out.
Most other aspects of the chassis were equally impressive, notably the front brake combination of twin 297mm discs and four-piston calipers whose power made a nice change after the average Harley brake. Using the bigger-still 320mm rear disc involved the typical cruiser delay as I lifted my boot off the footboard, but the brake worked well enough once I reached the pedal.
Big fat Dunlop touring tyres, the front a giant 150/80-section 16-inch cover, gave plenty of grip, too, which made the Star’s lack of ground-clearance all the more disappointing. I’ve no complaint about the folding footboards themselves, which are fitted with replaceable scrapers. But the sound of alloy on tarmac was sometimes followed, shortly afterwards, by a potentially disastrous scrape as a solid steel bracket touched down. Lack of ground clearance will not trouble most Royal Star riders, but it’s still something Yamaha could have avoided.
The footboards at least added to the comfort of the Star during our fairly leisurely day’s riding, which was broken by several photo-stops including a long gaze at the deep and spectacular Grand Canyon. Even so, by late-afternoon I’d begun to stand up at stop-lights, to relieve my aching bum, before the 18-litre tank’s range was exhausted. Yamaha claims a 180-mile range, which would be possible given gentle cruising. Faster riding, as we hurried back south down Highway 89, past countless stalls offering Native American jewellery to tourists, ran the tank onto reserve after less than 120 miles.
The Star’s touring efficiency was substantially increased by the screen, which is adjustable for both height and angle, and which I found just right in its standard position. In the States the bike will be available with alternative screens and no fewer than six different seats, too some hopefully offering more generous pillion accommodation than this bike’s. The full American list of Royal Star accessories will run to over 100 items, from fender badges and handlebar tassels to pillion backrests and panniers, and there is a line of clothing too.
Yamaha’s research indicates that the average American buyer will spend at least $1500 on extras. In the States there will also be a distinct full-dress version called the Tour Classic. That bike won’t be marketed in other countries, but Yamaha plans to sell all the bits needed to create it. Most British buyers are likely to spend considerably more than the basic price which will be between £10,000 and £11,000 when the Star becomes available, finished in red and in numbers of just 100, early next year (1996).
Another of the many statistics Yamaha’s market research unearthed was that only 16 per cent of American riders regarded “made in the USA” as important in their choice of bike. That figure seems unlikely, but if it’s true Yamaha could have a big success on its hands. The Royal Star has some inevitable cruiser-related limitations, but it looks good, it’s well-made, and in many areas particularly engine refinement and braking it has the edge on a Harley. Add to that the Star’s abundant potential for customising, and the result is a convincing Japanese attempt to build the ultimate all-American motorcycle.
Get Carole Nash motorbike insurance for the XVZ1300 Royal Star.
Engine Motor Watercooled DOHC 16-valve V4
Claimed power (bhp) 74bhp @ 4750rpm
Compression ratio 10:1
Transmission Five speed box, final shaft
Front tyre 150/60 x 16 Dunlop D404F radial
Rear tyre 150/90 x 15 Dunlop D404F radial
Front suspension 43mm telescopic; 140mm wheel travel
Rear suspension Single shock, adjustable for preload; 97mm wheel travel
Front brake 2 x 297mm discs with 4-piston calipers
Rear brake 320mm disc
Top speed 85 mph
Fuel capacity 18 litres
Current price £10,000 – £11,000