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1997 Tourer Comparison: Harley-Davidson Road King vs. Honda Valkyrie Tourer vs. Yamaha Royal Star Deluxe

Motorcycle Cruiser logo Motorcycle Cruiser 6/13/2017
The Honda puts the instruments up where they are easy to pick up, and it also includes a tachometer, which some riders find very valuable. Its warning lights are better labeled than the others’, but the lighting makes the Valkyrie’s numerals slightly less legible than the others at night. 1997 Tourer Comparison: Harley-Davidson Road King vs. Honda Valkyrie Tourer vs. Yamaha Royal Star Deluxe

It was the sort of day that most people leave their motorcycles in the garage. The rain had stopped for the time being, but low clouds threatened to dump more on us at any minute, And it was cold-so cold that the morning weather reports were warning about black ice. Fortunately that problem hadn’t materialized, and as we looked forward to a breathtaking ride up the Shoreline Highway north of San Francisco, we were warm, thanks to generous wind protection, effective riding gear and the contributions of out Eclipse and Widder electric vests.

Research

And the motorcycles were downright hot. The hottest segment of the cruiser market these days is the touring end, once owned by Harley-Davidson. But the Japanese have arrived in force now, making this touring comparison inevitable. For ’97, Honda introduced the heralded Tourer version of its Valkyrie. Yamaha uncorked a second touring version of its Royal Star line, the Tour Deluxe. And Harley made a few seemingly small but significant changes to the Road King. “Road Trip,” said the editor, deliberately ignoring the gathering clouds. And so we were off, headed north., the only direction from L.A where The Weather Channel suggested it might not rain or snow.

If a an air-cooled V-twin, a liquid-cooled V-4 and a big old flat six seem to be unlikely contenders for the same niche, consider their backgrounds. All three descend quite directly from full-dress touring machines. The Road King is simply a stripped-down version of Harley’s Electra-Glide tourer. Described as a “Gold Wing with an attitude,” the Honda Valkyrie is a head-turning, stripped-down, powered-up version of Honda’s big touring machine, and the new Valkyrie Tourer brings the touring nature of the bike back into focus. Yamaha’s Royal Star engine descends from the now-defunct Venture touring bikes. The new Tour Deluxe is the second touring oriented member of the Royal Star family, and with its painted hard bags more closely fits the pattern of the other two than the leather-bagged Tour Classic.

All three fit the same mold in other ways. Big touring-oriented windshields (but not the frame-mounted fairings of full-boat touring bikes), full fenders surrounding wide tires on cast wheels, big fuel tanks, plush saddles and other amenities all reflect a common mission: ride cool, ride far. We couldn’t ride all that far before we would got somewhere it was TOO cool for motorcycling, but the run up the coast looked inviting enough to begin packing warm clothes and rain gear in the saddlebags of the three bikes. The lower part of Route 1 had been closed by a rain-induced mud slide, so we set off on 101, the almost interstate-level highway that runs between L.A. and San Francisco. An occasional side trip on meandering back roads, like 154 and 25, kept the ride interesting.

Fire ‘Em Up

First things first. All three start up easily, but the Harley is a treat. You never have to fiddle with choke or a balky engine first thing in the morning. Just turn on the ignition lock—located conveniently atop the tank—and listen to the fuel pump pressurize the fuel system with a brief whine. Hit the starter button, and it’s ready to ride, whether it’s been 30 degrees overnight or 90. The fuel-injection system immediately settles it into an easy, smooth idle, much smoother than any carbureted Harley’s. The Valkyrie’s ignition switch is under the tank, just inside your right knee, and its choke in up on the left handlebar. The Yamaha requires a long stretch to the ignition switch up under the left front of the tank, and its choke knob is down on the left side of the engine. The choke is easy to reach but not as convenient as that thumb lever on the Honda. The two carbureted bikes take a few minutes to warm before they’ll idle on cold mornings but less than a minute on warm days. After that, all three respond to throttle inputs cleanly and smoothly, although the Harley’s fuel injection has a slight advantage.

All three get under way with out lurching or other signs of temperament. The clutches work smoothly, and the gearboxes never miss a gear, although the Road King was reluctant to find neutral at a stop. With the floorboards on the Royal Star and Road King, you get heel-and-toe shifting. Those cylinder banks on the Valkyrie displace floorboards, so it has footpegs and a toe-only shifter. It is the smoothest shifter, but all three are fine. The Harley gearbox makes the most noise during shifts. With five-speed gearboxes all around, the ratios are generally nicely staged, although the Royal Star has a biggish gap between first and second gears. Creeping through town, you can appreciate the low-rpm power all three bikes make, but the Honda is most dazzling. You can actually remove your hand from the throttle in top gear; it will putt along at idle—less than 20 mph—without lugging. The Harley comes close but can’t quite get down to 20 before it starts to lurch. The Yamaha has had enough a few mph higher than that.

Our first surprise came on our way out of the city. While dawdling along at low speeds (below 35 mph), we pitted the bikes against each other to see which had the most acceleration in top gear. We thought the Valkyrie would be the victor here, but the Harley pulled away until about 35 or 40, when the Valkyrie built some rpm and quickly caught up, then pulled rapidly away. That big six never feels like it’s working hard. The Royal Star fell quickly behind the other two in our roll-on races, and its tall gearing and lack of counterbalancing induce a shuddering that make the engine feel overloaded and slower than it actually is. Out on the highway, the Honda asserted itself, effortlessly leaving the others in top-gear roll-ons and all-out sprints. To keep up with the Honda in fifth, the Royal Star rider must select fourth gear. The Yamaha’s extra cylinders allow it to pull just barely ahead of the Harley in power-shifting, rev-limiter-bumping races, though the Harley had the edge in top-gear acceleration at all rational speeds.

The Royal Star suffers not only from being hopped down compared to the V-Max and Venture models which use the same design but also from being geared up with a very tall fifth gear. Even fourth is an overdrive. On the Tour Deluxe, Yamaha has sought to emphasize that top gear is an overdrive by illuminating the engine-diagnostic light when you shift into top gear. (The light flashes if there is trouble.) The bike shudders mildly when you open the throttle in top gear at 60 mph, and gives the impression that it is laboring to pick up speed. Using fourth for everything except droning along at a constant speed solves the problem. Some testers chose to use fourth at all times on Southern California freeways, since the engine doesn’t feel like it’s spinning too fast and more acceleration is available.

Despite the tall gearing, everyone commented on the Royal Star’s vibration, though no one actually complained about it, unless they tried running in fourth gear at over 70 mph on the highway to get some of that missing performance. Two out of three said that tactic brought vibration just into the intrusive range. The Valkyrie and Road King, which one tester described as “the smoothest twin I’ve ridden,” were virtually vibration-free, although the Harley does shake when idling. One tester found the report of that six-cylinder engine busy and wished for an additional gear on top to slow it down a bit. The Harley and the Honda both found favor for their mechanical-exhaust music, but none of our testers found romance in the Yamaha’s V-4 sound, which lacks the aggressive growl of the similar V-Max.

The Buzz

With vibration eliminated as a source of discomfort and good wind protection all around, our riders had to find something else to whine about. On the Harley, this turned out to be the riding position, which got mild complaints from all of those who rode it. The reach to the handlebar, and to a lesser degree the floorboards, felt awkward to all of us, at least with the windshield in place, and one complained that it hurt his back after a few hours. (With the windshield off, the forward-leaning riding posture worked out better.) Riders 6-foot-two or taller might like it, but not our six-and-under testers. Oddly enough, it wasn’t an issue on last year’s ‘King, which two of these three riders rode. We interpret this to mean that the lowered, reshaped saddle creates some of the problem. Because it is saddle-shaped and sloped down from the rear of the tank, you can’t comfortably slide forward to the place we all wanted to sit. Though it certainly isn’t an uncomfortable place to sit, the Harley saddle was the first to wear on us after several hours on the road, partially because it was difficult to change positions.

The padding also wasn’t quite as comfy as the other two either. Shorter riders with their eyes on a Road Kind should consider a different handlebar bend. Short legs will appreciate the closeness of the pavement. The Valkyrie’s saddle, on the other hand, was roomy, wide, flat and cushy, with an agreeable amount of squirming space. The Tour Deluxe has a higher back around the rider’s section than the other Royal Star saddles. The result is a sort of bucket seat that one rider thought might have been molded from his personal bucket. The others rated it a close second to the Valkyrie, which is among the best two or three stock cruiser saddles on the planet.

With temperatures for our long ride forecast for the 30s and 40s with lots of rain, our prospective passengers suddenly discovered that they had pressing matters that precluded them from coming (“The cat needs grooming. Sorry.” “You know, I just have to straighten up my sock drawer this week.” “Actually, I kind of want to go to the dentist.”) However, we coaxed them onto the pillions later.

The detachable backrests on the Tour Deluxe and Valkyrie made friends quickly, and so, to a lesser extent, did the passenger floorboards on the Road King (which permits you to bolt them on at any of three heights) and Tour Deluxe. However, the Harley’s passenger floorboards are a bit crowded, causing them to interfere with the rider’s legs at a stop. A passenger must choose between banging the back of his shins against the saddlebags and crash guards or having his feet kicked off the floorboards every time the rider puts his feet down to support the bike.

The Harley’s passenger saddle is also less roomy and cushy than the other two. It’s fine for in-town use, but Road King passengers start to squirm first on longer rides. The Valkyrie was rated highest in passenger comfort, slightly ahead of the Tour Deluxe. We frequently went from fill-up to fill-up with stopping. None of the three needs to stop in fewer than 120 miles, even during moderately hard highway use. The Valkyrie uses a conventional petcock to warn that you are starting to suck up the last 1.1 gallons of its 5.3 gallons of fuel. The Road King has a light in the dummy (left) fuel cap, which also has a fuel gauge to alert that you need to replenish the fuel supply. Ours lit when there was still 1.8 gallons in the 5.0-gallon tank. The fuel injected Road King has no petcock. The Royal Star has both a light in the speedometer face and a petcock.

The light lit with about 1.4 gallons left in its 4.8-gallon tank. The Honda holds the most fuel but it also gets the worst mileage. The Yamaha holds the least, but its tank is the easiest to top off completely. The others, especially the Honda, required you to take an additional minute at the pump to slowly add small dollops of fuel and wait for the level to subside and repeat, to get the last two or three tenths of a gallon into the tank. If you have the nerve to ignore that pessimistic low-fuel light, the Harley will take you 20 miles further than the other two on a tank.

Our wanderings up California’s coast north of San Francisco treated us to plenty of twisty roads, which were made more challenging by wet spots and mud- and rock-slides caused by the rainstorms. Shoreline Highway treats you to all sorts of corners-fast sweeping bends, off-camber surprises, pleasant S-bends meandering through meadows, bumpy closing-radius floorboard-draggers, and tight, slimy little switchbacks down at the bottom of dark canyons. It is a great place to test the mettle of a motorcycle’s chassis (and the metal of its floorboards). The Honda and Harley emerged the clear favorites after we had left scratches going both ways on Shoreline Highway’s corners. As with the other Royal Stars, the Tour Deluxe feels heavy, steers slowly, turns reluctantly during braking, and drags much sooner than the other two touring cruisers.

The heaviest machine here, it is at it’s worst when you enter a corner a little too fast and want to slow and tighten your line simultaneously. The harder you brake, the less it want to turn. Perhaps because its tires were worn, the Tour Deluxe we tested seemed even less willing to cooperate in this situation than other Stars we’ve sampled. Even when you weren’t braking, it demands the most muscle to pour it into a corner. With less cornering clearance than any bike here (or any other stock bike we can think of), the Tour Deluxe was the first to (loudly) drag its floorboards. One nice innovation is the folding foot on the brake pedal, which keeps your foot from getting trapped between the pedal and the floorboard when it folds up. It was prone to wobbling in corners, particularly if you tried to alter line or encountered a bump. We suspect that the worn tires contributed to this. In its favor are decent suspension performance and stability in cross winds and gusts. Much more than the others, the Yamaha likes to be get slowed well down before you enter a corner and proceed through it at a sedate speed.

Relatively light, responsive steering and good cornering clearance highlight the Harley. With considerably less mass than its rivals, the Road King requires the least effort to turn into a corner, even with the brakes at work. You can also make adjustments to your line more readily than with the other two. The ergonomics were an issue, especially in very slow turns where the reach to the end of the handlebar that turned away from you made it awkward. The Harley’s suspension is a bit harsher than the others and the Road King isn’t quite as stable, leaving it slightly less settled than the others through bumpy corners or in gusty side winds.

Our also shimmied a bit in corners, though not as hard as the Yamaha, and again, worn tires probably contributed. The Valkyrie boasts generally light steering and good suspension, although this bike’s suspenders weren’t as well damped as other Valkyries we have ridden. The rear rebounded a bit more freely, in particular. Still, it felt the most controlled when leaned over. It leans into corners willingly, provided you aren’t slowing hard and cooperates with line changes. It was the only one of the three which didn’t wobble at all during cornering, and it also has the most cornering clearance. The Valkyrie feels well planted whether cornering or passing trucks or dealing with other gusts.

The air-adjustable suspension of the Harley provides easy adjustablility and a generally good ride, with some harshness over square-edged bumps. Large, sharp bumps seem to lock the Royal Star’s fork up, but its suspension, which permits you to adjust preload in the rear under the bike, otherwise rides well. The Valkyrie’s suspension feels firm throughout, and its rear shocks, which can be adjusted for preload, were the most likely to bottom. The fork-which provides damping in just one leg-also permits you to adjust damping if you remove the cap on the right leg. Down at crawling speeds, when turning around in the width of a two-lane road or maneuvering in a parking lot, the Harley and Honda were most manageable. The Yamaha’s weight is quite apparent, and we were more likely to bump its steering locks than on the other two. The Honda has the longest reach to the ground, although no one was bothered by it.

All three bikes have similar brakes. They use dual discs up front, but the rear brakes are more sensitive than the fronts. This seems to be less apparent on this Yamaha than on the ‘96 Royal Stars we rode, however, and Tour Deluxe gets the nod for the most controllable brakes here. However, like the other two, its front brake requires a strong squeeze to get maximum deceleration. The Royal Star is also the only one to provide an adjustment, a set bolt, to fit the front brake lever to your hand. The Harley could use one. All three require you to practice hard stops, but the Honda and Harley were more likely to lock the rear brakes up prematurely. With practice, all three can offer strong braking performance, but the Yamaha was the easiest for us to master quickly. Floorboards make the Harley and Yamaha rear brakes more awkward than the Honda with its footpegs.

Harley’s dual-button turn signal controls are also awkward, especially in heavy gloves. Try to brake, downshift and signal while winding through unfamiliar rain-slickened streets at night, and you will quickly appreciate the simplicity of the other bikes’ single push-to-cancel signal switches. Both the Harley and Yamaha self-cancel their turn signals, which some riders like and some don’t. Riders unanimously rated the Harley’s handlebar controls below the other two bikes’. Its horn was also the weakest, with Honda’s barely adequate honkers rated best. You get a good view of the road ahead with all three headlights, and we appreciated the Road King’s spotlights, which illuminate only on high beam. Harley’s ignition switch location atop the fuel tank was our favorite of the three, and permits you to remove the key while riding.

The Yamaha’s ignition lock location-under the left forward corner of the tank, was the most awkward but an improvement on the position used on the other Stars. Harley’s fork lock, located atop the triple clamp, was also preferred, with the Yamaha’s fork lock—located on the left side of the steering head, which requires you to turn the wheel right and perhaps unbalance the bike on sloping ground—least liked. The Harley has the most visible extras—spotlights, fender lights, big bumpers, studded saddle—but lacks a tool kit or helmet lock. Unlocking the front saddle section on the Yamaha or Honda reveals helmet hooks, the usual primitive tool kits and maintenance-free batteries. Our exposure to the three indicates that there aren’t any really ugly maintenance tasks, except for wheel removal if you have a flat or need to replace the rear tire. The shaft-drive bikes make rear wheel removal easier than on the Harley, but you still need some way to lift the bike off the wheel. The five-year Royal Star warranty with its 24-hour roadside-service coverage provides a possible answer to this problem. Tire life seems somewhat limited on all three-less than 10,000 miles and as little as 4000 miles judging from the wear on the Harley and Yamaha rear tires.

We had a few other problems too. The Yamaha’s shift linkage unscrewed from the shift shaft leaving us shiftless on two occasions (one of the drawbacks to that vibration). We finally slathered it with red Loctite, which solved the problem. The Harley was smoking slightly during hard city use, though there was no significant oil consumption. The Yamaha whitewalls were discolored beyond cleaning after days of rain (although this may be a pre-production problem). The Honda, which came to us with 2000 fewer miles than the other two, had no mechanical problems. Everyone who rode all three of these touring cruisers (or, if you prefer, cruising tourers) picked the Valkyrie Tourer as his favorite. But no one scoffed at any of them.

They all uphold the touring end of the equation admirably, and we wouldn’t hesitate to jump on any one of them for a ride to the far coast. As delivered and tested, the Road King is a better fit for taller riders, which held it back among our testers, but which could be mostly remedied with some easy changes. All three also turned heads wherever we stopped and even on the road, and each attracted its share of admirers for different reasons. However, most people felt that the Yamaha looked the most polished and elegant. The Honda collected our Best in Show votes because of its all-around performance excellence, whether it was on the open highway, meandering up the coast towards Leggett, fighting traffic in the rain in L.A., or simply patrolling the boulevard on Saturday night.

Riding Positions:

It’s a testimony to these three bikes that for once my glutes didn’t max out on those long days on the road. The Harley’s reach from seat to bar did put strain on my back, however. The Royal Star fits me better than the Road King. I feel more in control. I like how the Harley’s windshield pops off with just a couple of clips-even if it is optically flawed. I don’t like two turn-signal buttons when simple rocker is more efficient. This was my first ride on the Valkyrie. What detail! What ergonomics! What a looker! And what a motor! Playing tag at day’s end on Highway 1 above Stinson Beach is the tight twisties, I never shifted. Just throttle and brake. The brakes are great, though the front requires more pressure than one would expect. The Valkyrie things a canyon-carving heavyweight, and I feel fortunate to have logged some serious miles at the controls. For now, the Vulcan 1500 Classic is the only thing close. If Kawasaki does indeed introduce a touring version, it should be quite a match. Until then, the Valkyrie is the champ. —Ron Ramlow

Road King: 3

Valkyrie Tourer: 4.5

Royal Star Tour Delux: 3.5

What surprised me the most was how much the change in its saddle altered the Road King. The seat’s new shape and altitude make the bike’s ergonomics slightly more awkward and less comfortable for me. Changes to the handlebar and floorboard position could have made this work, but without them, the Harley loses ground. Despite that great injected engine, it falls behind the others, thanks in part to the awkward controls and very annoying distortion in the windshield. I think the Tour Deluxe is the best Royal Star yet. For my money it is the best looking bike here by far, and there is no way I’d pay more money to get a Tour Classic. With its good comfort, quality suspension, roomy luggage and other attractions, it could be the king of this class—if the engine made the power it should. My touring bike needs more power than current Royal Stars make. If Yamaha had made an engine with power comparable to its original V-4 tourer, the Venture, this thing could be my pick. That leaves the Valkyrie. Not as pretty to my eye as the other two, it nonetheless works better than either of these other bikes. At the end of the ride, when we were splitting up to take different routes home, I pulled rank and took that final seaside ride on the Honda. The sunset never looked better. —Art Friedman

Road King: 3

Valkyrie Tourer: 4.5

Royal Star Tour Deluxe: 4

For me, cruising is about elemental motorcycling. Take a good looking engine, put it in a nice frame, and don’t cover it up with a lot of plastic or unneeded features. With their big windshields and hard luggage, the cruise ships we took north necessarily go beyond purely elemental features because they straddle the line between touring rigs and cruisers. The Valkyrie Tourer comes closest to maintaining the elemental feel I want from a cruiser while still giving me the weather protection and storage I need when it’s time to rack up some miles. The windshield kept most of the weather at bay. The large, good looking bags kept things dry. Although the engine’s business kept me from forgetting I had six cylinders underneath me, the smooth engine gave power at every speed.

The suspension devoured both the superslab and back roads. The instrument cluster included a tach and was within my normal field of vision, making scanning the indicator lights a breeze. Although the Road King and the Tour Deluxe more than covered the basics for long cruises, they also offered “features” that interfered with my riding experience. The Tour Deluxe had the best weather protection of the bunch and a seat that felt like Yamaha engineers had made a custom mold of my seat sensors, but the Deluxe’s engine’s vibration felt as insincere as a salesman’s smile—designed solely for effect. While the Road King’s fuel injected engine was the best V-twin I’ve ever had the pleasure of opening butterfly valves on, the sadistic riding position had me looking forward to gas stops. Both bikes had self canceling turn signals, which are the answer to a question I’d never ask. Both felt out of their element on winding two lane roads. The next time I have a lot of miles in front of me and my choice of these three bikes I’ll take the Valkyrie. —Evans Brasfield

Road King: 3.5

Valkyrie Tourer: 4.5

Royal Star Tour Deluxe: 3.5

The Road King has the same fiberglass bags used on Harleys for a decade. Each lid hinges outward on a mechanism that doubles as a latch and lid retainer. Tabs on the inside edges of the lids fit into slots on the inner sides of the bags. This system seems awkward the first few times you use it, but quickly wins everyone over because of its ease of use, solid latching and lid retention. It locks with the ignition key. The Harley bags stayed waterproof throughout the trip and hold about 32 quarts each. Quarter-turn fasteners inside the bags allow the bags to be quickly lifted out for cleaning behind them, and full-size crash guards run around the front to protect them in spills. Honda’s new bags, developed for this bike and the 1100 Tourer, hinge up front and close with a single conventional latch locked by the ignition key.

A retaining lanyard keeps the lids from opening too far and damaging themselves or the delicate-looking hinges. They appear easy to damage if, for example, you forget the lids are open and kick them while mounting. They are the easiest to open and close, and were generally water-tight except when we over-packed one and left a small gap, which leaked a little. The front lower mount doubles as a guard to protect the bag in a tip-over. The bags hold about 37 quarts each. An unsightly vertical seam runs up the rear of each bag. Yamaha uses a traditional removable top for its ABS bags, which accommodate 35 quarts each.

Two nicely sculpted latches, one at each end of the bag, secures each lid. The drawback to this lid system is that if you forget to latch one end, the lid can fall off and get damaged. A retaining lanyard would be a useful addition. The latches also use a different key than the ignition. Our bags, though prototypes of the American-made bags that will be fitted on the bike, were watertight despite slightly loose lids and actually give the bike a more nostalgic look than the less convenient leather-covered bags on the pricier Tour Classic. They are protected by full-size crash bars at their fronts.

The Road King’s windshield is the only one that quick-detaches. Simply pull two spring clips with your fingers and lift it off to clean or significantly change the bike’s appearance. It measures 22 wide at its widest point, 26.5 inches from top to bottom and extends about 29.5 inches above the saddle. Harley offers two-inch taller and four-inch-shorter versions. The airflow coming off ours buffeted testers’ helmets the most of the three, but it still was not excessive or annoying. It created significant optical distortion in the upper two inches or so of the windshield, which was quite distracting and even confusing.

There was some reflection during the day but little at night. The Honda’s windshield is the largest and most protective of the trio, measuring 24 inches wide maximum 31.5 inches tall, and rising approximately 29 inches above the seat. This is the only size offered. The angle and profile of the Lexan(r) shield caused the wind coming over it to buffet the heads of our testers slightly but not tediously. It reflected the chrome gas cap and trim near our lines of sight during the day, which was sometimes annoying. There was minimal distortion. The back of the Honda windshield’s uprights, though chromed, are not as smooth as we expect in a bike of this caliber. Removing the windshield requires you to unbolt it.

The Yamaha windshield includes small (about 5 by 11 inches) lowers, though their effect was uncertain. Our legs sometimes seemed to feel more wind on the Yamaha than on the others because air swirled back in behind these extensions, which can be removed by unscrewing a couple of bolts. The main windshield measured 22 inches wide, 31 inches tall overall and reached about 29 inches above the saddle. The wind flow coming across the Star’s windshield was the smoothest of the three. There was a little distortion in the upper edge and a small amount of reflection. Other heights are available. It had the nicest finish on its hardware, but cleaning the backside around the headlight was difficult.

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