Metric cruiser vs. Harley Davidson: Can you tell the difference?

One upon a time, after doing a tune up on my wife’s metric cruiser motorcycle, I took it for a test ride to a local convenience store.

metric cruisersAs I was walking out the door with a Coke I’d just bought, a young guy, looking at my leather jacket and helmet, commented, “Hey – that’s a nice Harley! Is it yours?” I chuckled, responded, “Thanks, it’s my wife’s bike,” and went on my way. Nothing strange, right?

Except that “Harley” was a 1999 Kawasaki Vulcan.

Metric cruiser vs. Harley Davidson

Now, don’t get me wrong, anyone in the know would be able to spot the differences immediately, but that Kawi definitely had the look: bobtail fender, fat tank, chrome dash — really a sweet bike. The same thing goes for one of my favorite bikes of all time — the Yamaha Virago and a plethora of other metric cruiser treasures.

Since the late 70’s at least, the japanese — and I say Japanese because that’s what most people think of when they hear the words “metric cruiser” — have been making some good Harley Sportster clones, and in cases like the XS650, Triumph clones. But to call them just clones isn’t fair. From the 79 Yamaha XS650 to the 2008 Honda Shadow and Yamaha Star series, they’re good bikes in their own right, and some have even become collectible.

Metric cruisers cost less

They may not demand the prices that Harleys do, but therein lies another distinct advantage. For about a third the price, you get a motorcycle that’s every bit as fun, and in many cases, a better choice for the newbie.

Of all the Harley models, the best suited to a beginner would be a Sportster of some kind — but what kind? This is a model that was introduced in 1957, hasn’t changed much since then, and is the most sold and most emulated bike in the world. But any of these models that are still fairly available will cost between about $2500 (for a 70’s Ironhead model) to upwards of $4000 for a newer, Evolution model.

Metric cruisers need fewer repairs

The Ironheads, charming as they are, are famous for needing frequent “attention” while the newer, more reliable Evolution-powered models are far more pricey… so, what to do? Why not take a look at the other end of the spectrum?

When you start to look at the finer details, you’ll see a lot of similarities — classic cruiser looks, and even the (cool-looking) V-Twin motor tucked into the frame on many models. But there are more advantages that aren’t so obvious — for instance, that cool-looking motor has been redesigned and improved to rev higher and run cooler, and with less vibration. All this makes for a more comfortable ride, and a longer lasting bike, with less maintenance necessary, as long as you keep up on the basics. And in the price range from a few hundred (for older models needing a little attention) to about $2500 (for a NICE, newer, 1000cc or bigger ride) it’s hard to not want to take one for a test ride.

Metric cruisers suggestions

I’ve only scratched the surface, but here are some good bikes to start with. For the newbie, check out the late 70’s to early 80’s Yamaha XS650’s, any Yamaha Virago, 80’s Suzuki GS series, any Honda Shadow, and the Kawasaki Vulcan series. These are all cruisers with the looks and the reliability to get the hang of riding on a bike with some definite “cool factor.”

Of course, the newer you go, and the larger the motor, the higher the price goes, but you’ll still be getting a great deal on a very cool bike no matter how you slice it.

Keven Miles

38 Responses to Metric cruiser vs. Harley Davidson: Can you tell the difference?

  1. Ryan Dye February 26, 2014 at 6:53 pm #

    I’d add the Yamaha V-Star 650 to that list. It’s a fantastic beginner bike with enough grunt to keep a newbie happy for many years. Best of all, used bikes 2-5 years old with low miles are selling for 2k-4k. Great value for a reliable and well-built motorcycle.

    • MotorcycleMentor February 26, 2014 at 7:50 pm #

      @ Ryan
      Good add… thanks.
      David

  2. Ronald W Crouch May 10, 2014 at 8:30 pm #

    My over all impression of the difference between Harley is that most metric machines that I have riden have flexible frames and running gear. THE Harleys have a ridged frame and are less flexible. The most forgiving ride I ever owned was Suzuki Burgman A400K5 That bike save my BUTT on more corners that I can remember.I would love to have a Sportster that handled like the Burgman!
    Ron C. near Pleasant Plain Oh.

    • RoadKing May 24, 2016 at 8:10 pm #

      Flex in the frame is bad. Maybe you mean suspension?

  3. Sam February 22, 2015 at 4:18 pm #

    I myself have owned 35 motor cycles in my 54 years of riding all Japaness bikes as well as harley,and triumph, I can’t decide which I would pick as one favorite .but at this time in my life ,I ride a 900 valcun custom Nd to your point,I have just purchased a 2008 Yamaha road star Silverado s with less than 700 miles on it for 1/2 price of a new one.My last bike before the vulcan was a Honda VTX1800 F. All outstanding bikes,I’ve loved them ALL!

  4. Dave February 28, 2015 at 9:18 pm #

    There’s not a make of motorcycle I dislike. I do ride a Yamaha V star 650 Classic. I’ve ridden just about any type of bike and make. My dad was a motorcycle guy all his life and owned quite a few. Metrics and a few HD’s. I’ve ridden Sportsters as well as the bigger Harley touring bikes like the Electra Glide. The EG is my dad’s current bike of choice. I think he’s pretty much settled on HD as his official motorcycle. I on the other hand am a bit more thrifty when it comes to my pick.

    Do I like the looks of HD’s and the sound? You bet! Beautiful machines and I’d be proud to ride/own one. And, I could easily do so if I chose to. You see for me it’s about what the actual bike is worth to “me”, not what the price tag reads. My personal feeling on the asking price of HD bikes is just too much for what it is. Not to sound like a jerk but I could walk into the HD dealer and buy any bike for cash that I choose. But, I don’t want to do that. I feel like $25000 for a new Electra Glide is way too much money for what the bike actually is. A two wheeled toy that I don’t really need.

    I love to ride and maybe someday my attitude will change. But for now I’m perfectly content with a much less expensive bike that does the same as the more expensive bike. I don’t ride to impress the people I pass by, I ride because it’s a great way for me to get out and enjoy my free time. It puts a smile on my face and it’s something I look forward to.

    If I were to start traveling by bike in the future I’m sure I would upgrade to a larger cc bike from the 650 I currently ride. The V Star 650 will do anything I need it to do but as far as a long distance touring bike it could use a taller 5th gear or a 6th. I’ve ridden it plenty on the freeway (day trips) at 75mph of hours and it’s fine. It’s just the rider that gets tired. I think it turns about 5000rpm’s at 72mph. But, that’s only running the motor at 67%. Totally understandable to want a bike that runs closer to 3000rpm’s at freeway speeds. Plus running 70+ yields about 38 miles per gallon.

    To me metric cruisers are ideal unless you just have to have the HD. I feel like some buy HD bikes just to say “hay, look at me, look at what I have and how much I spent!” Even used ones that are between 10 and 12 years old still go for $10000 or more. Just depends on what you want I guess.

    One thing I really get sick of is the endless trash talking between the owners of HD’s and metric owners. Both need to shut it. Ride what YOU want and keep your opinions to yourself.

    • Tim March 9, 2016 at 1:26 am #

      Well said Dave!

    • Armaund July 9, 2016 at 8:09 pm #

      Well said!

      I agree with you 100%

    • Les September 16, 2016 at 11:14 am #

      Amen!

  5. Pedro Diaz April 27, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

    Dave: Your last paragraph is the best thing I have read about motorcycles in a long time

  6. Glen June 10, 2015 at 2:21 am #

    Oh the never ending debate of metric verus harley.
    I ride a yamaha 2010 stratoliner deluxe and absolutely love it.
    Compared to the harley street glide it has several advantages. First was the cost.
    The looks of the stratoliner are amazing and I constantly get compliments from all types of riders, fellow metric cruisers, sport bike riders and harley owners as well as non-rriders.
    The yamaha has much better power and handling and requires less service at less cost with less worry of needing special attention. With more than 70 000 kms it still runs like new.
    All the bikes I have owned have been japanese makes and all were solid reliable enjoyable bikes.
    Obviously my preference is metric cruisers, however I too am tired of the debate.
    So as the shirt says

    It doesnt matter what you ride
    Just f**ing ride !!

  7. Jonny Sevierville September 28, 2015 at 1:30 am #

    What cracks me up is how the harley guys brag about how many cubic inches their bikes have. I ride with guys that have 96 cubic inch street and road glides 2003 to 2008 with less than 35k miles on them. I have a 2010 Yamaha Vstar 950 which is technically 58 cubic inches with 55k miles on it. They run same and I weigh almost 100 lbs more than the riders do. If we all ride 2 up I outrun them.
    Never adjusted my valves. Conventional Oil changes every 3k spark plugs every 8k and 1 air filter stripped of its paper element. 1 rear set of brake pads 3 front sets. On its 3rd rear tire (running car tire) and on it’s 4th front tire 4th headlight bulb 2nd driver seat (due to fat ass on it). Small oil leak at output shaft and small one at the valve cover.
    The Harleys have had to have wheel bearings. major engine work. Synthetic only oil changes in engine and transmissions. Brake pads and rotors all of them front and rear. One of them had to replace drive belt Some electrical problems too.
    I paid 4300 (salvage title for having a broken windshield a small dent in tank and a fork scratched)for mine and it only had 300 miles on it. My costs of ownership has been very low. Reliability has been increadible. I’ll ride it till 100k miles. which at that point the only bike that has any value left is a Honda gold wing imho.
    My point finally. It’s not what you ride. It’s that enjoy riding it. It hopefully never lets you down and that it doesn’t break the bank injure or kill you. Safe riding. Jonny Sevierville

  8. David Krentkowski October 26, 2015 at 7:56 am #

    I’ve owned both, and anybody who thinks Harley Davidson is “Americian” made is a fool, just like chevy,,dodge, and ford aren’t either. Yamaha has been more dependable than BMW and far more dependable.

    • RoadKing May 24, 2016 at 8:22 pm #

      My Fords and Harleys are definately American made.

      Super Duty made in Louisville, KY. Focus built in Wayne, MI.

      Touring bikes were made in York, PA.

      While parts may come from all over the place this is where they are built.

  9. Smegs December 29, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    I really appreciate the comments read here! No one seems to be hostile or belligerent about the topic at hand. I love to ride, period. I’ve owned a HD and loved the riding position of their cruisers. I’m not a fan of vibration or loud exhaust, therefore I opt for a metric cruiser. My first mount on a Suzuki M109 I said wow! I test drove the machine and said, Holy Shite! No vibration, comfort, and power to yank your arms out of socket. There is only one original cruiser and HD owns the title. I’m very happy that the owners of those HD’s found the bike that they truly love and hope they can appreciate my affinity and attachment to my metric cruiser. For me it was not about price or image, it was about finding the bike that fit my personal needs and comfort. Ride on my friends.

  10. Ben January 18, 2016 at 10:31 pm #

    I use to own a HD 883, until it started leaking oil. I had to sell her, but I really didn’t want to, as it was just a pint or so on a road trip, and they sell synthetic oil everywhere. Anyway, recently, I got a used Electra Glide, but sold it after six months, due to oil leak. She was leaking two pints, and that proved to be too taxing on my budget for my regular Sunday afternoon rides. I now own and ride a Vulcan 900 Custom. No oil leak. Don’t get me wrong–I absolutely LOVE Harley Davidson! But only when it comes to investments. I have over 400 shares of HOG (52-wk high is $70)! So it is a great, fantastic motorcycle company that listens to their investors, who know what a great company should bring.

  11. Matt April 30, 2016 at 6:39 am #

    No, the Harley is about making it yours.
    Any mod you can dream up for a HD has been done and is available for sale. (Primary drives, final drives, transmission shift patterns and gear ratios, elect or kick start….and any other part of the bike)
    I loved my vulcans but nobody makes a trans gear set, new cams, or suspension mod for them.

    IMO, Harley leaves way too much horsepower on the table for their aftermarket competition and they cost more than metrics…that cost is always recovered in the resale though.

    Buy a stripped down Dyna with a 103ci TC and log onto the internet and have some fun building YOUR bike. Be careful though because a quick trip to the store turns into a 20 min parking lot conversation with a stranger about your rig and their rig.

    BTW, a HD can be fast as hell and reliable…it just cost a little more.

    • Mr Harley June 6, 2016 at 3:06 am #

      BS! I had a 2013 Harley Road Kind Candy Orange and Beer bottle with 9,200 miles on it and in PRISTINE condition ! Every one only offered me 9,500 to 10k on trade in and when I had it on cragislist , I was asking 13,500 NO ONE WOULD BITE only low ballers ..Harleys have Crappy Resale … try to trade one in and see what happens !

      Yet when I tried to give say 11 grand for said same bike I would get the OH its a Harley !
      F them I glad I sold the Bastard and out of the Harley lousy Stealership Service and worth less Bikes ! IMO they are NOT worth the $$$$…
      My new bike a use yamaha Stratoliner s ! love it and not payments !

    • Tj December 9, 2016 at 6:34 pm #

      I agree… Harley’s are about making the bike yours.. custom etc… I had a 07 Boulevard C90…. nice but I bought a 06 Electra Glide…WOW, much much better bike. I’m one who like the sound of the Harley exhaust loud and mean… The Suzuki just didn’t do it to me… looked great but nothing, and I mean nothing is a Harley Davidson…..worth the price and perks HD give to it’s owners…. Not bad mouthing metrics at all, they just don’t have that DAMN like my Electra Glide…

  12. RoadKing May 24, 2016 at 8:24 pm #

    I just want to be able to ride. Nothing like a long road trip on the Harley.

  13. RoadKing May 24, 2016 at 8:31 pm #

    Getting what you pay for is hopefully true.

    Just imagine buying a Harley and when you get it home you notice that it’s a Yamaha.

  14. Harley Ableson June 1, 2016 at 2:23 am #

    The Mighty Goldwing is King. It is true what everyone says. Once you ride the Mighty Wing you throw stones at all the lesser bikes and all bikes are lessor. Lol. Ride what you like and enjoy. Just don’t leave any rocks laying Around! Lol

    • Mike February 19, 2017 at 8:36 pm #

      I’ve owned many many metric bikes. Cost of ownership is far lees in a Harley . Now on my 4 th . First was a 1992 rigid bobber evo 4 speed open primary . Bought it for 6500$ even put 2500$ into off the hop. Rode for 2 years sold for 14000$ . Second a 1989 softail custom . Bought for 6500$ again lol. Still own her . Awesome machine. Bought a cool sportster 2003 for 2000$ . Needed work lol bent forks . Bought tubes installed . Rode it nice bike but not my style . Sold it for 4800$ . Bought a 2008 street bob . Dressed up like a street glide. 9000$ . Love her and still own her . And just bought a 2006 street bob set up like a bobber . Haven’t rode her yet as it is winter . Picked her up for 8500. Also great shape. Owned a few triumph chops . Many Bsa motorcycles as well . Love the Suzuki gs750 but when older parts are hard to source. Love the Yamaha xs650. Lots of aftermarket parts to keep them on the road . Had a 1500 Vulcan . Gas tank rotted out . Kawasaki wanted a fortune for it . Ended up finding on eBay . 200$ still . Then down the road at 31000 kms front engine blew. Front hug lost comprsession. So much money to repair . Can’t remember that exactly. So ok back on the road . Tranny literally piled up skidded my bike to a dead stop. So the cost of ownership for that pis Vulcan was way above any Harley I ever had or still have . I am very much not financially well off . I do buy cash . But I’ve never had so much financial strain as when I owned an older metric . When there a little older there just scrap. I recently bought a spare motor 80 inch low mile evo as a spare for 1000$ . Me and a bud re ringed it and shelved it . Way cheaper . Oh yeah ps did a clutch in the 89 for less than 200$ say that on a metric .😉

  15. Charles Corder Jr. June 10, 2016 at 5:51 am #

    No matter whether your riding an Indian or a Harley or a V Star or a Vulcan the natural high you get from riding your bike is exactly the same.. There’s no feeling in this world like riding on a back road somewhere with the wind in your face and the feeling you get when you crank on that throttle.. Every guy you pass that’s in his car wishing he was you and every woman you pass wishing she was on the back with you.. We all have a love affair with our bikes that only we can understand, so no matter what your riding when you pass me going down the road I promise you’ll get a thumbs up from me because we’re all bikers and we all share that common love and enthusiasm for the bikes we ride..

    • J.R. July 31, 2016 at 3:20 am #

      Mental fantasy held by immature riders. Not everyone wishes they were on a bike, or your bike, or having the wind “blowing through your hair” as you say. This is the image the motorcycling and especially the cruising world tries to portray, but it is simply not true. If if were true, everybody would ride, or at least a significant larger percentage would ride. The truth is not everyone wants to ride for a variety of reasons. The image you hold in your head as your ride is as important to you as the ride actually is. But is this image yours — or was it part of the propaganda of motorcycling? Motorcycling can be fun, thrilling and original (to you, the new rider), but the rest of the motorcycling story becomes a part of the propaganda machine that motorcyclists and advertisers and manufacturers generate. I rode a Tote Goat as a kid, up and down hill, with a wide-assed grin on my face even though my speed was barely faster then a trot. Graduated to small bikes, then big bikes and road for years. Never did I “imagine” that “every guy that I passed in his car” wanted to be me, or ride, nor did I think that every woman that I passed wanted to be on the back. I didn’t drink the koolaid like you did or swallow the propaganda or fall for the machoistic domination of women you portray. You need to grow up and obtain some maturity. Riding is about your enjoyment, not the image you’ve created in your head.

    • Dawn (yes, a woman on the front!) August 15, 2016 at 1:35 pm #

      I rode a Harley once. I thought I had developed spontaneous Parkinson’s disease. I’ll stick with my FZ-09. Nothing tickles the old hypothalamus like a naked street 3 banger!
      I’ve always ridden on the front, though. Am I supposed to be on the back? Seems like it would be hard to reach the handlebars from back there, but what do I know? I’m just a girl.

    • jeff m September 10, 2016 at 3:29 am #

      to Charles corder..I believe in what you say..who cares what others try and critique your thinking..i believe most people that have not rode do wonder what it would be like, living a bit on the edge, to feel alive, to feel some freedom…just like we did when we were kids and we used to take off with our friends on our bicycles..it was our freedom, it was fun and we felt independant.
      On the other side again there are alot of pussies out there and would never want to try something new or fun or adventurous because they are scared to get off the fence to experience it, stuck in daily ruts or rituals..but given the chance I believe most people would enjoy the ride once they experience it.

  16. THEvulcan July 11, 2016 at 8:37 pm #

    I’ll take a Vulcan 800 over the softail any day! It’s lighter and just a few mods gets th hp you need to smoke a screaming eagle! Got under 5 grand in an 05 and will turn heads anywhere I go. Only true die hard HD guys can tell the difference and only true die hard HD guys give a rats butt. Land of the free… Live like it! Screw it let’s ride!

  17. Milkman August 3, 2016 at 8:55 am #

    I have had both metric and Harley. I put alot of miles on them both and enjoyed them immensely. The Harley is a beautiful bike and has a distinct sound. Personally I like the ride of a Harley better but hell the next guy will say the metric rides better so it’s a matter of personal opinion. Ride what you got,have fun.

  18. Crash October 5, 2016 at 8:49 pm #

    I had a Vulcan 2000 for a while, before ever having a Harley. Then i later got a Harley Road King. No comparison. Harley’s a much better ride and better experience overall. Probably a Dyna is the funnest Harley. Just my .02.

  19. Matthew October 9, 2016 at 2:15 am #

    I own a 2003 Kawasaki Meanstreak , custom paint with ghost flames, Vance and Hines straight shots, love the bike, never owned a HD so I can’t say too much negative but the prices and resale prices are very expensive unless u don’t mind Sportsters. I have owned Honda shadow, a Virago 1100 which was great bike just lack of room, a 750 Vulcan which had no problems keeping up with 1200 sportsters, a 1993 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500A, very powerful bike, so I go with what I can afford. And my Meanstreak was made in Lincoln, Nebraska

  20. Omer T. December 15, 2016 at 5:52 pm #

    I was about to buy a Softail Deuce 2002, had about 30K miles on it and still was selling for $9K at a HD dealership. I went with a friend who was hellbent on me getting a Harley. I owned Yamaha’s, Suzuki’s and even a Can-Am Spyder. My friend took me to the mechanic in the service shop, older gentleman and he asks me: “What do you like?” I said I liked the Silverado 1700 Yamaha. My friend found it at craigslist and it had 17K on the ODO, Mustang seat and had no scratches, no dings. $3800 for it… so the HD mechanic said, :You see that Bobber over there? ( A 2000 XV1600) that’s what I ride.” He smiled and said, “Son, get the Silverado and use the extra $5K, get a hot looking escort and F her brains out.” What is the difference between a HD and a Metric? Depends on what you like. If you like the HD you’ll be paying more and at the end of the day, a matter of prefference.

  21. J. January 22, 2017 at 10:54 pm #

    Yeah If I lived in Japan I would be all about Japanese Bikes. But I live in USA and I try and keep the money here in the states. Besides all those Japanese Cruisers are truly clones trying to sway you from buying the real thing. Harley could go the way of the Metric bikes, but then they would lose their nostalgia and that feeling of true Freedom that only a American bike can deliver.

    • Derek P January 26, 2017 at 4:41 pm #

      Kawasaki Vulcans are all made in Lincoln Nebraska and have been since 1986, and actually use fewer foreign parts that a Street Glide. Honda Cruisers are made in Marysville Ohio.

  22. Derek P January 26, 2017 at 4:40 pm #

    I like Harley’s, but I’m simply not willing to pay the ‘Harley Tax’. A big Vulcan Nomad or Voyager is every bit the bike a Harley is, but for half the price. And there is some evidence they are actually going to require less maintenance over the life of the bike.

    Currently have 50k miles on my Vulcan 900 and 14k miles on my 1500 Meanstreak with nary a problem.

  23. Jason February 17, 2017 at 5:56 pm #

    If you dressed the Malibu in chrome, added an old-design pushrod engine, and decreased it’s performance, would it be better than the Accord? No. Would it sell? Nobody would want it. What if you doubled the price, and give it a history/connection with thugs and crooks? Maybe.
    Motorcyclists aren’t the most practical bunch.

  24. Ohmega Ω April 3, 2017 at 4:27 am #

    I came to that same conclusion myself just a couple of hours ago. I have a 2005 Yamaha XVS 1100 that has a bad starter clutch. The repair kit costs about $500 and labor is almost the same because it requires tearing deep into the engine. What is worse is this is a common design flaw with this bike. I don’t have that kind of cash right now or anytime soon to repair it and no one is really interested in buying a bike that won’t start. So I have a nice looking and riding bike with 19,000 miles that is essentially worthless. I’m looking at a 94 Harley Fatboy at a local dealer with 30,000 miles for $6000 miles. Looking at pictures of the two bikes I realize I have Yamaha’s copy of a Fatboy. By the way a starter clutch for that Fatboy is $55. In my opinion what you save up front on a metric (I gave $3500 for my V-Star) will catch up in the long run when you start buying parts. Harley is a subjective word that means a lot of different things to different people but today it means often imitated, never duplicated in my situation. I have a throw away bike that I liked to ride a lot and wanted to keep a long time. I’ll be doing great if I can sell my v-star for enough money to put down on that Harley.

  25. Dave April 27, 2017 at 11:45 am #

    I have been riding for 3 years, I am 62. I know started late, did mess around on dirt bikes when I was a teen, but who hasn’t. Retired and got the bug to ride a motorcycle.

    I am currently, riding a Ninja 300, handles great easy to operate and not expensive. I ride pretty conservative​ly and find the bike enjoyable. I would love to pick up a cruiser, but I don’t want to spend a lot on a HD, which look beautiful and sound just as nice. So I will be looking for a reliable cruiser soon and will probably go with a Metric.

    I am also going to keep the Ninja, enjoy it too much. I am pretty fit and have learned to use my core muscles to take the weight off my wrist. I do get some odd looks when I take my helmet off and expose my gray hair and beard especially from some HD riders who wonder why this old man is not riding what they are.

    The Ninja 300 has a fairly standard seating position compared to the larger and more powerful sport bikes. I do like the look of a HD Sportster 1200 but not the price and also like Suzuki M80’s and VStar 950.

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