Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Ride Review: Victory Vision



I put more than 2,500 miles on a Victory Vision recently –– primarily on my trip to EICMA, but also on the familiar roads of Wales, where I live. I rode it in good weather and bad, at high speed, through cities, and down winding country roads.

Despite its contemporary looks, Victory's Vision motorcycle is hardly new, having first been introduced to the world in 2005 as a concept bike. 

Back then, it was presented as an 800-cc liquid-cooled parallel twin with automatic transmission. Its bulbous front end offered storage where the fuel tank would normally be. In other words, Victory invented the Honda NM-4

The mind spins at what might have been had Victory chosen to pursue such a direction. Instead, the Vision became a top-of-the-line tourer, powered by an air- and oil-cooled 1731cc V-twin. Brought into production in 2008, it remains relatively unchanged today, which seems to be the formula for tourers: Find something that works and don't fuss with it.

By and large, the Vision does work. It's insanely comfortable, ludicrously huge, and refreshingly, looks nothing like a Harley-Davidson. 


Engine

Without a doubt, the best aspect of the Vision is its mountainous Freedom 106 engine, which Victory wisely chose to showcase in the bike's design. It's the first thing to catch your eye about the bike. And, after covering so many miles, it's the thing that stays with me most.

I can still hear its sound — not of pipes, but the engine itself. Indeed, quiet standard pipes allow one to better appreciate the engine. Push it, accelerate hard, and the Freedom 106 roars like the muscle cars of teenage daydreams.

It's not something you hear on start up, though; the Vision is well-mannered below 3,500 rpm. Were it a person, you could invite it to dinner at your grandma's. Considering peak torque of 108 ft. lbs can be found at just 2,600 rpm, it wouldn't be surprising if many Vision owners never knew their bike's darker side. This would be a shame, because nearing peak horsepower (92 hp at 4,750 rpm) takes you closer to God.

I mean, I don't want to get weird here, but that engine spoke to me, man. It connected with my soul. It told me things.

At cruising rpm (below 3,500), the bike sails at 70-80 mph without strain. If Earth had an engine to keep it spinning through space this is what I'd imagine it to sound like: powerful, steadfast. It will lug around the Vision's 900+ lbs. all day. As well as whatever weight you might add in terms of rider, passenger and luggage. I suspect you could also tow a jet ski and not notice much change in performance.

Admittedly, all that power doesn't present itself in the form of bladder-loosening speed and acceleration, but that's not the point of a bike like this. And you'll still have plenty of "go" to beat most cars from a red light, as well as pass them on country roads.


Transmission

Clutchless upshifts are possible. Why you would bother to do such a thing on a Vision, I don't know, but the point is that you can. Which goes to show that the transmission is far slicker than it sounds.

I tend to enjoy the loud CLUNK that announces first gear on cruisers, as well as the slightly less loud THUNK that accompanies all other gear changes. You feel manly and Thor-like when you hear that sound.

Unless you hear it over and over and over and over. 

In heavy traffic situations, the sound of constant gear changing got on my nerves; the firmness of the clutch tired my hand. But, again, that sort of riding isn't the intended use. Avoid rush-hour traffic and the transmission will always sound bad-ass, while at the same time, as I said, being relatively smooth and assured.

False neutrals are few and far between. Shifting is never sticky.


Performance, Handling and Brakes

I was surprised at how light steering is. This has to do with the fact that the fairing isn't mounted to the handlebars. In very high winds, the steering can feel just a bit too light, but in all other situations it means the Vision is more maneuverable than you would expect.

That's the theme of this motorcycle: It's better than you expect. It corners better and leans further than any other big V-twin I've experienced, encouraging you to push harder through bends.

The brakes do a good job of slowing all that weight, but don't be so naive as to attempt to use just one finger on the brake lever. The stronger brake is the rear; mashing on it hard will help activate the bike's combined anti-lock braking system.

I got a chance to test that system on a foggy and wet highway — thanks to the lunacy of Italian drivers — and can happily report it works well. Unobtrusive at other times, the ABS kicks in steadily and with an assured quality that makes you want to send Victory a Christmas card.

The Dunlop Elite III tires that come standard on the Vision, however, will make you want to send a big box of your own feces. Simply put, the tires are an insult to this motorcycle. It angers me that tires so atrociously ill-equipped to handle wet weather have been placed on a vehicle designed to cover great distances.

In fairness, those great distances are at the heart of why the Dunlops are so poor. The compounds with which they are made give them longevity, allowing folks to claim upward of 20,000 miles on a set. The drawback is that those hard compounds make the tire unsuitable for anything less than ideal conditions.

Were it my bike, the Dunlops would be scrapped immediately. I'd rather suffer the expense of tires that allow me to ride than save money and sit at home each time it rains.


Electronics

The presence of the Vision's reverse gear is damned useful. It's engaged by pulling a lever near your left thigh and pushing the starter button. Perhaps to compliment this, Victory should consider adding something like the assisted hill start feature now showing up on so many of Europe's high-end heavy bikes.

To that end, I'd like to see more electronic wizzbangery on the Vision. That may just be personal preference, though; I'm a sucker for doo-dads. Perhaps something like traction control would be unnecessary on a bike with such smooth power delivery. And how many rider modes do you want for a tourer?

But a slipper clutch could be potentially useful. In fact, I wouldn't complain if the bike were equipped with something like BMW's Gear Assist Pro feature. Electronic suspension would be nice, too. The Vision's air-pump-adjustable rear shock is easy enough to use, but it's not something that can be done while riding.


Comfort and Features

Along with a great engine, comfort is this bike's biggest selling point. I have never ridden a motorcycle more comfortable than a Victory Vision. At the end of a 685-mile day I was tired, of course, but not physically worn down. I had no aches or pains the next day, and was happy to tackle an additional 300 miles. That's more than can be said for some cars I've owned.

The seat is enormous and offers just the right mix of support and wriggle room for long stretches on the road. Ergonomics are relaxed, like sitting in a chair, and massive floorboards offer plenty of space to move your feet around. They also serve to block severe weather. Pulled back bars mean no strain in the shoulders.

This talk of ergonomics comes with the caveat that I am 6'1''. Victory makes bikes suited to people my height, which I love. Those who are short of leg and arm may find the Vision unmanageable. I have a buddy who is 5'5'' and he was not able to get the bike off its stand.

Passenger accommodation is equally lush. My friend Jen is just shy of 6 feet tall and had plenty of room to stretch out as I sped her around town. When my wife (5'8'') sat in the passenger space she said: "If we had one of these we wouldn't need a car."

She's probably right. The Vision's electronically adjustable screen is tall enough to (just barely) put wind over the top of my helmet. Combined with heated grips and a heated seat, it meant I was able to ride through a 35ºF Swiss night without complaint.

Cruise control also makes long distances easier. The Vision's system is a bit rough on hilly sections — struggling to hold consistent speed — and the buttons to set it are too small and poorly placed. Were it my own bike, I would move the controls to the left handlebar to make it easier to set while holding the throttle steady. As with all Polaris motorcycles (both Victory and Indian), the button panel for cruise control looks like an afterthought — a shame for bikes that are otherwise so well put together.

I'm not a huge fan of stereos on motorcycles, but the Vision's system is decent. FM radio signal isn't quite as good as it could be, nor is there an option to choose digital channels. A small compartment in the front tank space has a connection for an MP3 player, but I didn't test this feature.

Again, if it were my own bike, I'd very seriously consider removing the stereo speakers and using the space for more storage. 


As things stand, the Vision offers 29 gallons of storage space — the bulk of that in its voluminous integrated top box. Easily capable of storing two full-face helmets, it was large enough to hold six days' worth of clothes, toiletries, and a two-liter bottle of water on my EICMA jaunt. The panniers, however, are disappointing. Although they look huge externally, the actual space was only enough to store a bike cover in the left pannier and a laptop bag in the right.

There is no integrated GPS on the Vision. And, although mounting one on the handlebars is easy enough, connecting it to a power source isn't simple. The MP3 compartment also contains a 12v plug, but the watertight nature of that compartment means running a cord into it might require some drilling.

Some of my favorite features on the bike are those blade-looking supports you see near the front and rear floorboards. These keep the bike from toppling all the way over on a low-speed drop. I had heard about this feature, but accidentally tested it at a gas station in Switzerland.

I had too lazily kicked out the side stand, so it sprung back as I stepped off the bike. I awkwardly fought to catch the bike for a moment but gave up after having this millisecond-long conversation in my head: "Dude, this bike weighs almost 1,000 lbs. Keep fighting and that's straight-up Joe Theismann territory. Time to step back and see if that anti-drop feature actually works."

It did. The bike fell to a steep angle and I had to do some serious power squat lifting to get it upright, but there was no damage. No crumpled fairing, no smashed mirrors, no broken levers. Victory was back on my Christmas card list.


Practicality

The Vision is obviously not an everyday machine. Though I found it far more adept at filtering (i.e., lane splitting) than I would have imagined, and fuel economy is equally above expectations. As a tourer, it's good enough that since riding one I have found myself entertaining constant fantasies of my wife and I selling the house, buying a Vision, and living life on the road.

If I did that, of course, I'd have to come to grips with the cost of replacing the tires often, as well as the bike's 5,000-mile service intervals.

Though, you don't need to take the bike to the shop every time. Oil changes are easy and can be done with the bike on its side stand. Annoyingly, you'll need someone to hold the bike upright in order to check the oil level.

The presence of belt drive means you won't have to worry about the mess or fuss of a chain. Though if you want to adjust the belt you'll have to remove the exhaust pipes to do so.

Speaking of which, checking tire pressure on the Vision is a pain in the caboose because the pipes hinder access to the rear tire valve. Especially if the pipes are hot.

Switches for the heated grips and heated seats are placed inconveniently, making them difficult to access while on the move. The heated seat's toggle switch underneath the passenger seat is most challenging, requiring a fair bit of twisting to reach when seated. Once you find it (not an easy task with gloved hands) there is no indication of which way to click for the seat's high and low settings; you just have to learn from experience.

The mirrors are massive and car-like, but I couldn't figure out how to adjust them. Surely it's possible, but the process isn't intuitive.

Lastly, the gear indicator is not as accurate as it could be. When I found myself constantly switching from first to second in utterly gridlocked Brussels traffic the indicator struggled to keep up.


Fit and Finish

There was a time when Victory's paint work left something to be desired. That's a reputation the company is still trying to live down in the UK, where a smaller customer base means ill will is more persistent. The Vision I rode, however, suggests those bad days are long gone. Paint is deep and rich, and did not scratch or chip when hit by hail or my clumsy boot or fumbled luggage.

Wiring is tidy and of good quality. The plastic of the fairing seems durable and the overall feel of the bike suggests it will easily last long enough for an owner to see it to go out of fashion, spend a decade or so being the butt of jokes, then return to fashion again. I can also say with absolute certainty that the panniers and top box are watertight. Locks are of good quality.


Final Verdict

One of the great joys of the Vision is the reaction it elicits from others. I mentioned above that I had put one of my best friends, Jen, on the back. She had never before been on a motorcycle and had hitherto offered a look of consternation when I talked about riding. Getting her to put on a helmet and get on the bike took about an hour of convincing. Within 7 seconds of my rolling the throttle, however, she was shouting –– hooting –– and slapping my shoulders with excitement.

Afterward, she had me take pictures of her on the motorcycle and she told her husband: "I think I'm going to get a bike."

The Vision inspires this kind of wild-eyed fascination from just about everyone you encounter, and for that reason alone it has value. But there is also that engine, the feeling of luxury, and the promise of covering countless miles of road.

The bike is starting to show its age in certain ways –– more rider aids would fit its forward-thinking look, and the entertainment package (if you must have one) is very much of the previous decade –– but I'd argue it is still mostly deserving of its hefty price tag.


The Three Questions

In every review I write I ask myself the same three questions:

1) Does it fit my current needs/lifestyle?
Not so much. There's no denying the Vision makes a solid tourer, but certain limitations to the bike are highlighted by the European landscape. The bike's weight and width make it less than ideal for use in Britain particularly.

2) Does it put a grin on my face?
Hell yes. I loved getting an opportunity to spend a few weeks with this bike and felt genuine pangs of ache when the time came to give it back. Honestly, if you can't have fun on a Victory you may want to make sure you've still got a pulse.

3) Is it better than my current bike?
My immediate answer is no. But, truthfully, pitting the Vision against a Suzuki V-Strom 1000 is an apples and oranges comparison. Many of the best qualities of the Vision are not present on the Strom, and vice versa. The Vision is definitely more comfortable than the Strom and possesses certain intangibles the Suzuki could only dream of, but for the demands I place on a bike –– and in light of the fact I can only afford one bike –– I still prefer my own.

Or, at least, I do if it's my money on the line. If someone offered to give me either, however, I'd go with the Vision.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Models are hot, but let's drop sexism from motorcycling


Here's the thing: I'm a fan of the ladies. I'm a fan of looking at the ladies. And, when there is mutual agreement to do so, I'm a fan of touching the ladies.

That's just the way I am. Some deep something within drives me to think this way — to look at certain females and think: "Oh, golly, I think I'll keep looking."

The Methodist and Baptist churches that my parents and grandparents dragged me to until I was in my late-teens would describe my behavior as normal, red-blooded and American. I personally wonder if there really is such a thing as "normal" when it comes to sexuality, but I will say that I have no problem with how I think. I'm a man and I like women, and I'm OK with that.

So I will admit that when I go to a motorcycle show, such as last month's EICMA, and I see that every manufacturer — and, in some cases, accessories provider — has festooned its product with extraordinarily gorgeous women, there is a part of my brain that shouts: "Oh, golly! Tight clothing! Exposed flesh! Ample cleavage! Shapely bottoms! Huzzah!" 

And when I say "brain," I'm not really talking about my brain...

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Wind, rain, and terrorism on a Victory Vision


The original plan was to ride to EICMA on a Victory Gunner. I had come up with the idea in summer, imagining French back roads and Alpine passes.

When I get in touch with Victory's PR team in the UK, however, they gently point out the flaws in my thinking: EICMA takes place in mid November and I've given myself very little time to get there. Which means spending time on the motorway (aka freeway/interstate).

"You can do what you want, mate," says Victory UK's PR man, Steve. "I can get you a Gunner, no problem. But, well, have you ridden here in November?"

I have. Britain is terrible this time of year. Incessant rain and gale-force winds. The sun disappears until March. When Steve offers a Victory Vision as an alternative, I say yes before he finishes the suggestion.

The Vision is Victory's top-of-the-line tourer, happy to be brought up against the likes of the Indian Roadmaster, or Harley-Davidson Electra Glide. Relatively unchanged since being introduced in 2008, it maintains a contemporary look that puts it on the same aesthetic stage as the Honda Goldwing.

Twenty-nine gallons (132 liters) of storage space, full fairing, electronically adjustable screen, heated grips, heated seats, cruise control and stereo. All powered by a ginormous 1731 cc (106 cu. in.) V-twin. Yeah, that's the way to travel to Milan.

I pick up the bike in London and ride it back to Cardiff (where I live) to load its panniers and top box before heading out the next day. At first glance, the sheer enormity of the Vision intimidates me. Everything is big on this bike. Fairing the size of a Smart car, handlebars like the horns of a Texas steer, a seat large enough to accommodate an adult male polar bear.

Everything is big except the handlebar-mounted radio and cruise control buttons. They are too tiny for gloved hands. With the stereo, at least, there are additional controls on the bike's acre-sized tank. But those controls are out of my line of sight. So, there is a lot of haphazard mashing of buttons. Eventually, the radio comes to life and –– this really happened –– blares Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild"...