Set against the jet black of the newly paved parking lot, the
Virago 1000 stood out like a silver-and-gold-sequined sore thumb. A bystander
spectator might be a better description moved thoughtfully around the bike,
letting his eyes wander from one sparkly detail to another. "'Well." he said
after an appropriate pause, "the) finally got it right." Boy, have they.
Yamaha, the Oriental company that first realized the sales
potential of the chopperesque factory custom, has pulled out all the stops on
this one. Company officials say that this third-generation Virago has
benefitted from styling changes designed to make it look more "American." But
we all know what that means: from its liter-sized slab of a V-Twin engine to
its teardrop-shaped gas tank to its staggered, dual exhaust pipes to its
undulating saddle replete with sissybar. this Japanese cruiser fairly shouts
And while Yamaha's spokesmen publicly stick to the company's
"it's American, not Ilarley" position, behind corporate doors they're happily
rubbing their hands together and sending Telex messages back to Japan
requesting that I985"s allotment of Viragos be increased and pleading that the
styling not be messed with, whatever it might be called. The Harley-look
Virago, sou sec, is one of Yamaha's sales successes of ll)84. Company
warehouses, which in the past have been piled high with the aftermath of
Yamaha's explorations into styling never-never land, are empty of Virago 1000s
(though sales of the less-flashy 700cc version have been lagging). Most
dealers have already sold their last model and are clamoring for more.
Purists who still dismiss cruiserbikes as some kind of tarted-up
fad ought to look at the sales figures for a moment so the) could learn that
these hikes are what .American riders want. And for more graphic proof, they
should ride the Virago, then park it, well, just about anywhere. Within
minutes people will be ogling the bike, asking questions, praising the styling
and, more often than not, finishing their comments with. "Sure looks like a
Ilarley." That last statement is delivered not with contempt, but rather
matter-of-factly, almost as if the statement were synonymous with, "Sure looks
nice." In fact, during our 2000-mile-long test of the Virago, a period that
included countless roadside critiques, no one had anything but good words for
the bike's styling, and most fell in love with it. If the Virago were a movie,
Steven Spielberg would have directed it; that's how popular this bike seems to
be with mainstream America.
Certainly with previous Viragos, Yamaha has had the potential
to build a genuine kick-ass American cruiser, but never quite delivered on the
promise. Introduced in 1981 as a shaft-drive, Monoshocked 750, the first
Virago was a steady if not spectacular seller. Augmented in later years by a
920cc version whose acceptance was at first hampered by video-arcade
instrumentation, the Virago line always seemed to lack that certain spark of
styling excitement. One tester went as far as to call the bikes "almost
That styling mistake was not made this year.
Chief among the cosmetic changes, or at least the moist
commented on, is the gold trim that is spread around the bike. Yamaha has used
gold-look plating before, usually on the inline-Four Midnight Specials, but
never has its use been so blatant. When it came time for the stylists to
decide which parts would get the plating (which is done by a process that
Yamaha is very secretive about, saying only that real gold is not
used), it seems they marked everything that was round for the treatment. The
headlight rim, the rims around the turn signals, the instrument bezels, the
locking gas cap, the rings around the fork sliders, the shock collars and the
rings and emblems on the clutch and alternator covers were all colored gold.
Keeping with the if-it's-round-it's-gold theme, the Virago's new-style cast
wheels and even the edges of the front brake discs were sprayed with gold
paint. What wasn't gold-plated was chromed, and the whole affair is topped off
by sidepanels and a gas tank painted a bright red that Yamaha has the nerve to
call Romanesque Crimson.
But don't get tricked into thinking that Yamaha simply hoisted
some gold- and chrome-plated trinkets out of the parts bin in order to
transform the plain-Jane 920 Virago into a lOOOcc (actually 981cc) boulevard
beauty. There are be-low-the-skin changes as well: the frame, for instance. In
the past, Viragos used a frame with a pressed-steel backbone that housed the
single rear shock and the air-cleaner assembly. That frame is history this
year, replaced with one of similar design that still uses the engine as a
stressed member. The difference is that the new Viragos have done away with
the air-adjustable Monoshock suspension in favor of more-traditional twin rear
shocks. The dual dampers are adjustable only for spring preload and rebound
damping, and offer 3.8 inches of travel.
This repositioning of the rear suspension components allowed
more space for the engine's intake plumbing; and Yamaha took advantage of the
situation by mounting the air filter a la Harley-Davidson on the right
side of the engine, between the 75-degree vee-spread. The filter gets its own
chromed cover and a similar cover graces the left side of the engine. That
matching cover houses the intake opening for an air-induction system that
delivers air into the exhaust ports to help the engine burn its fuel more
efficiently. Also housed in the left cover is a decompression valve intended
to minimize backfiring when the big Twin's throttle is rolled off.
Yet another change afforded by the frame modifications is the
inclusion of a half-gallon fuel tank just below the seat, augmenting the
3.3-gallon main tank. Gas drains from the main tank into the sub-tank, where
an electric pump moves the gas up to the carburetor float bowls.
Fuel tanks under seats aren't new innovations, of course: Gold
Wings have had them for years to lower the center of gravity, and Honda's
Magna and Shadow cruisers, like the Virago, use them so the main tank can be
kept stylishly small. What is new here is the addition of an electrically
operated petcock instead of the conventional spigot-type. When the engine
starts blubbering, rather than fumble around under the tank for the petcock,
the rider simply moves a switch on the right handlebar control pod from On to
Reserve; from that point he has about eight-tenths of a gallon of fuel
remaining. A red warning light in the tachometer face reminds him that the
fuel is running out.
Leading the retinue of gold and chrome down the road is a
kicked-out front fork (the 920 Virago's steering an gle was 30 degrees, the
1000's is 32 de grees) that is longer than previous rago units, although
travel is increas only a tenth of a inch to* 5.9 inches. The fork has no
damping adjustments, but air can be added, through a single fitting on the
left tube. Also new for '84 is an integral fork brace and twin, undrilled,
unslotted brake discs. Even the brake calipers, which are painted silver with
a touch of chrome, are new.
Of course, all this talk of gold and chrome and changes just
for the sake of styling sends purists—and you can count a lot of motorcycle
journalists in that group—into a tizzy. They also point an accusing finger at
cruiserbike ergonomics and the fact that those motorcycles won't unkink a
swervy piece of asphalt with the consummate ease of a genuine sportbike. For
those reasons, cruiser^ style bikes have often received a la basting in road
tests, and some magi zines have even gone so far as to poke fun at the bikes
and the people who b^R them. But those reviewers have missea the point, if not
the entire boat.
Not every motorcyclist in America has—or wants—a set of
scuffed-knee roadrace leathers hanging in the hall closet, nor do many riders
commute 50 miles each way, every day. And there is a sizable constituency out
there that likes to be able to see a motorcycle's entire engine, not
have it secreted away behind body panels and a cloak of fiat-black paint.
Those same people like a bike that has real fenders, not an abbreviated
plastic tail section. They like low seats and chromed exhaust pipes and round
instruments and handlebars that reach out for them instead of the other way
All of which is not to say that the Virago doesn't have its
shortcomings. It does. The most glaring of these is the rear suspension. On
anything but the smoothest of roads, the KYB-built shocks are simply
overworked. The shocks have a soft spring rate for a smooth ride, but even
with the preload set to its firmest setting, the rearsuspen-sion bottoms
easily and gives a harsh . Adding luggage or a passenger just jravates
the condition. Ride the Virago fast over a bumpy road and you'll a§gn be on a
first-name basis with the chiropractor.
Thankfully, the front suspension is better; it, too, is soft,
but at least air can be added to firm things up. Ten psi worked well for
general use, 15 psi was about right when the going got faster.
Braking, or rather braking feel, also came under fire. "Vague"
and "requires a lot of effort" were typical comments from our testers.
Certainly a healthy stomp on the rear pedal is needed to get the stopping
process underway. And that brake pedal—at 18 inches, one of the longest in
motorcycling—does bend a little when heavy pressure is applied, a trait that
doesn't help brake feel one bit. Up front, it's a fairly long reach from the
right handlebar grip to the brake lever; and once you do get there and pull on
the dogleg lever, there's not much difference between a gentle roll to a stop
and a full-on screecher. Hard to modulate, in other words.
The seat/handlebar/footpeg relationship also can be a pain.
The key word here is can. Around town and on short highway
excursions—situations in which the bike will spend most of its time—everything
is hunky-dory. In fact, for that kind of riding the ergonomics are
near-perfect. Ride the Virago for much longer than an hour, though, and you'll
be singing a different tune. Like on nearly all cruiserbikes, the Virago's low
seat, high-rise handlebar and far-forward footpegs mandate a bolt-upright
seating position, so bracing yourself against a 60-mph headwind quickly
The seat itself, a master of deception if ever there was one,
does its part to increase the long-distance discomfort quotient. Not only is
the seat covered with bunched-up vinyl intended to look like wrinkled leather,
but it has a cleverly disguised pleat between its rider and passenger portions
that makes the one-piece saddle actually look like the seat and fender-pad
combo used by those bikes from Milwaukee. Then there are the upholstery
buttons attached to the seat and the sissy-bar pad that are, in reality,
merely embossed into the vinyl. But the crudest hoax of all is that this seat,
which looks so cushy, so inviting, turns into a thinly padded pretender
once the tripmeter spins past the 75-mile mark. Again, the seat is perfectly
acceptable around town; but riders who like to travel in the Then Came
Bronson touring mode would do well to add a couple of inches of padding to
the seat. A small windshield and a duffel bag to lean against wouldn't hurt,
Handling is a mixed bag, as well. To be sure, the Virago, with
its raked-out front end and 19-inch front wheel, won't cut and thrust with the
tucked-in, 16-inch-shod street-racers. Nor was it ever intended to. What the
Virago will do is scoot down a backroad at a brisk pace with a minimum
Push harder, though, and the bike signals its displeasure by
wagging its rear end—those less-than-adequate shocks at work again. Before
that point, however, the Virago tells you to slow down and enjoy the scenery
by dragging its footpegs in corners. Actually, the pegs are mounted extremely
low in order to complement the low-rider seat, making them the easiest to
grind of any footpegs in recent memory. But considering the Virago's intended
market, footpeg-drag-ging is way out of context.
Riding the Virago at a sane backroad pace, however, is
not out of character, and much of the reason why is its engine. Because while
it's possible to level criticisms at the bike's ergonomics, handling and, for
some, its styling, finding fault with this lovable hulk of a V-Twin motor is
hard indeed. The key ingredient in all this friendliness is torque. Peak
horsepower for the 1000 is achieved at 6500 rpm, but the engine makes its
maximum torque way down at 3000 rpm. Real-world translation: Snick the Virago
through its five-speed gearbox as soon as possible and leave it in top gear.
From 35 mph up to its top speed, the Virago doesn't need to be downshifted,
even in passing situations that have liter-sized sportbikes cranking down two
Changes to the two-valve V-Twin engine throughout the Virago's
production run have been minimal, and the 1984 edition is no different. A 3mm
increase in cylinder bore takes care of the 61cc displacement boost, but
almost every other aspect of the engine remains the same. The electric-start
mechanism has been beefed up in response to problems some 920 owners were
experiencing with the unit, and overall gearing is slightly taller. That's
about it for engine updating, a reflection that Yamaha got the basic design
right the first time and that Virago owners aren't necessarily interested in
having a bike with cutting-edge technology.
Technical innovation it may not have, but you'd be
hard-pressed to find an engine easier to live with. It chuffs to life easily
in the morning and is warmed up even before the first run through the gears.
Although the engine is solidly mounted in the frame and doesn't benefit from
any counterbalancers, vibration really isn't a problem up to about 4500 rpm.
Past that speed and up to the 7000 rpm redline, the shaking can be annoying.
Still, 4500 rpm in top gear translates to an indicated 84 mph: Go any faster
and you've probably got more to worry about than vibration.
About the only negative comment that can be made in regards to
the engine is that the rear cylinder weeped a small amount of oil onto its
fins. Nothing drastic, just enough that a pass with a shop rag was needed
every 500 miles or so. And despite the decompression valve under the leftside
chrome cover, the Yamaha still backfired: no loud bangs, just a series of
snaps, crackles and pops, as though the Virago were the world's largest Rice
In a way, though, the backfiring just adds to the engine's
character. Because despite anything you may read to the contrary in the
Laverda test elsewhere in this issue, the Virago's engine is one Oriental
powerplant that has soul, a quality that often gets left out in the
rush for the latest techo-marvel widget or the quickest quarter-mile time.
It's that endearing aspect of the Virago, in concert with its
Milwaukee-flavored styling, that lifts this motorcycle past all other Japanese
You see, the Virago may have Made in Japan stamped on its
steering head, but deep down, this chrome-and-gold charmer is red, white and
blue through and through.