Star Motorcycles’ new Bolt strikes at the heart of the cruiser market with a 942 cc V-twin engine and a dose of very assertive style. In 2005, Yamaha launched the Star sub-brand to distinguish its cruiser lineup from its sportbike, motocross and sport touring bikes. The branding effort has recently redoubled, with new advertising, bike show displays and in-dealership materials, and the Bolt launches on the platform of these refreshed efforts.
It’s impossible to explore the new Bolt without comparing and contrasting it to the Harley-Davidson Sportster, its obvious and overwhelming competitor. I own a 1993 Harley-Davidson Sportster Deluxe named “Manny,” so I’m intimately acquainted with the model.
In stock form, the Bolt gets a solo seat, dirt track style handlebars and mid-mount footpegs. Seat height is a low 27.2″, and the front of the seat is narrow. Riders with short inseams are going to love the short reach to the ground and to the handlebars. At 6’2″ tall, I didn’t find the riding position at all cramped, though I observed that shorter riders looked more natural on the bike. I’ve spent plenty of time and money tweaking the ergonomics on my Sportster over the years, and I’ve recently settled on a set of handlebars that are very similar to the ones that Bolt has already. Bolt’s seat is good looking in shape, but after a day of riding, I realized that I would choose to upgrade to a more comfortable, perhaps gel-cushioned example in short order.
Bolt’s hand controls are simple and will work very well for most riders. Those with smaller hands may need to seek aftermarket or accessory help, but the clutch and brake operate with such easy pull that the vast majority of riders will be very content. My Sportster’s clutch requires a pretty healthy grip, and can cause fatigue after a full day of riding in traffic. I had no problems with the Bolt’s buttery smooth clutch, or with its five-speed transmission. Engineers explained that the transmission dogs were straight cut, as opposed to the slight angle cut that is more traditional on Yamaha gears. As a result, the gearbox responds with a solid “thunk” when you push down into first gear, a reassuring sound and feel that lets you know that the transmission is engaged. Finding neutral is foolproof and effortless, even before the bike has warmed up — a big advantage over Harley-Davidson’s sometimes impossible-to-find neutral.
Braking is accomplished with conventional, non-ABS, non-linked single 298 mm discs front and rear. Just as you’d expect, the right hand lever controls the front brake, and the rear brake operates with the right foot pedal. Braking effort feels just right, and braking is predictable and solid. Riders interested in even better brake feel may wish to upgrade to braided steel brake lines, an available accessory from Star and the aftermarket. There’s no factory upgrade available to add a second front disc. My only braking challenge with the Bolt was ergonomic — my size 14 right foot was too big to rest comfortably on the footpeg without also resting on the brake pedal, so I was forced to ride with my foot at an angle. I found out later that it’s possible to adjust the position of the brake pedal and rotate it downward to alleviate this issue, something many riders will need to do to set up their own Bolts.
Bolt comes with a trick-looking two-into-one exhaust system, which includes an oxygen sensor and exhaust gas catalyst that works with the closed-loop fuel injection system. My old Sporty has a conventional carburetor, but the current generation of Harley employs fuel injection, too. Bolt’s stock exhaust is quiet but throaty, with a healthy note that impresses without offending. If you’re in the “loud pipes save lives” camp, you’ll need to modify or replace the stock system. Star employed an interesting set of bends to get the rear cylinder’s exhaust pipe to meet up with the front. Stylish brushed aluminum guards keep the hot pipes away from your right leg and boot. The guards were somewhat less successful at blocking heat transfer, as I experienced a little bit of toasting on my thigh when I was stuck in traffic, despite a mild, 70-degree riding day. On a triple digit day in traffic, that could be very uncomfortable. But that’s one of the hazards of riding an air-cooled, unfaired motorcycle — the Sportster does little better with heat management than the Bolt.
Riding the Bolt feels very familiar to me as a Sportster rider. Bolt’s 58.2 lb-ft of peak torque arrives at 3,500 rpm (the current Sportster’s 883 variant delivers 55 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm), which makes for lively starts from stoplights, and quick bursts through gaps in traffic. Star doesn’t report horsepower ratings (neither does Harley), because this bike isn’t really about top speed, it’s about grunt. Power delivery, via belt final drive, is smooth and predictable. At 540 lbs wet, the Bolt is about 33 lbs lighter than the Sportster Iron 883. Like its competitor, the Bolt is nimble and maneuverable, with a low center of gravity and a nicely balanced feel.
Suspension travel is pretty limited, with KYB components providing 4.7″ front and 2.8″ rear. With my big body in the seat, the rear shocks bottomed out over sharp bumps, sending a jolt up my spine if I caught one unprepared. Thanks to the mid-mount footpeg position, I was able to lift off of the seat slightly when I anticipated an unavoidable bump, which mitigated the jolt. I tried out both variants of the Bolt — standard and R-Spec — to explore the difference between standard and remote reservoir rear shocks, but I didn’t notice any improvement with the R-Spec setup. Smaller riders may not experience the same jolts that I did, but there’s definitely room for improvement in the rear shock department. Just as I did with my Sportster, I’d seek out suspension upgrades for a Bolt the minute I took ownership, and I’d advise the same for new owners.
Bolt has some cool contemporary stock features that aren’t standard on the Harley. Bolt’s traditionally shaped round tail lamps and turn signals have LED lighting elements. The round instrument panel is an LCD gauge with digital speedometer readout, dual tripmeters and a clock. It’s a little hard to read in the daytime while wearing sunglasses, but looks super cool and smooth in the bargain.
Out of the box, there are just two Bolt models: the standard Bolt (starting at $7,990) and the Bolt R-Spec (starting at $8,290). Beyond some cosmetics, the difference between the models is the R-Spec’s remote reservoir shocks, a sueded vinyl seat and blacked-out mirrors. Star is ready with over 50 new accessories for the Bolt, including two-up seats, sissy bars, saddlebags and quick release windshields. Sportster is available in five variants for 2013, including two displacement engines (883 and 1200). The closest competitor for Bolt is the Iron 883, which starts at $7,999. Harley-Davidson’s telephone book-sized Parts & Accessories catalog features hundreds of geegaws and doodads to farkle the Sportster, and the aftermarket support for the model is vast.
So, the big question – Bolt or Sportster? For some buyers, it’s not even a question. It’s a Harley-Davidson or nothing. But there’s a lot to like about the Bolt. Yamaha’s reputation for reliability certainly exceeds Harley’s, even though the Motor Company has made great strides in recent years. Harley has the advantage of authenticity and heritage, but that’s an emotional link rather than any practical advantage. Bolt has a great feel, genuine usability and solid build quality that is very appealing. I have grown accustomed to Harley’s hydraulic valves, which do not require regular adjustment. Star recommends valve inspection every 4,000 miles, which isn’t that big of a deal, but doesn’t thrill me, either.
I bought my Sportster for exactly the purpose that Star says they targeted for the Bolt — as a city bike for short hops and commutes. A Big Twin was too big and wide; a sportbike didn’t suit my personal or riding style. Bolt hits the target dead center, and if I were in the market for a new bike for a similar purpose, I’d have a tough time deciding. I would probably still buy the Harley-Davidson, but it would be an emotional decision, because I have really bought in to the H-D mystique. The Bolt may be an important step in building the Star Motorcycles mystique, bringing new riders who don’t yet have a brand connection into the fold. It’s a very good bike, and worthy of consideration.