A day of cruising sunny, funky San Diego is enticing enough without a brand new ride underneath you. All the better, then, when Yamaha brought us to downtown San Diego for a well-organized day aboard their new Bolt, an American-style bobber — an exercise in convincing some die-hard riders that their bike is a viable alternative to Wisconsin iron. While traditionalists may recoil, Star Motorcycles made a strong case for those open to buying a beginner bike without the bar and shield.

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Yamaha takes aim at Gen X and Y riders with the Bolt, looking to offer a legitimate alternative to Harley-Davidson’s Dark Custom Iron 883. Driven by austerity trends during the economic downturn and a demographic with different tastes than the Baby Boomers — this generation doesn’t seem to have the same taste for pricey chromed-out cruisers and choppers — this latest offering emphasizes authentic, clean mechanics and styling with spartan options. What’s more, Yamaha recently received J.D. Powers’ number one rating for reliability, jabbing a sore spot for long-suffering Harley owners.

Meet the Bolt R-Spec

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Appearance: “Urban Performance Bobber” with matte paint job and no chrome
Seat Height: 27.2 inches
Ground Clearance: 5.1 inches
Engine: 924cc air-cooled 4-stroke V-twin
Fuel Economy: 57 MPG
Wet Weight: 540 pounds
Price: $8,290+

The Bolt ($7,990) and the dressed up R-Spec ($8,290) are good solid bikes, low-key and devoid of the chrome and flash that was commonplace in the early 2000s. Sporting a fairly short wheelbase (61.8 inches), the Bolt is easy to operate and a pleasure to ride around town on those short jaunts most riders take often. While certainly not for long-range touring, it’s nevertheless at ease on the freeway, and, paired with a small fairing, would make a decent daily commuter in stop-and-go traffic.

Yamaha hosted the group at the Hard Rock Hotel right in the heart of downtown San Diego. After a quick breakfast, it was down to the garage to choose a steed from a herd of bikes. I immediately gravitated toward a gun-metal gray R-Spec Bolt, noting the simple design and clean lines of the bike; these will be especially appealing to those eyeing the Sportster. The R-Spec adds remote reservoir shocks, a suede-type vinyl seat with colored stitching, black mirrors, and upgraded paint and graphics to the basic Bolt. Throwing a leg over, I immediately felt comfortable in the low (27.2-inch) seat. This along with the bike’s light weight made for easy maneuvering in the tight confines of the hotel garage. As I fired up the Bolt, the concrete walls reverberated with visceral “pulse” of a specially modulated rumble. Think more of the deep throaty bark of a jaunty boxer vice the strained yip of a high-strung greyhound; in fact, this analogy of a compact rumbler extends to other characteristics of the bike.

Meet the Competition: The Harley Davidson Dark Custom Iron 883

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Appearance: Blacked-out paint job with little chrome; drag-style handlebars
Seat Height: 26.9 inches
Ground Clearance: 3.9 inches
Engine: 883cc air-cooled Evolution
Fuel Economy: 51 MPG
Wet Weight: 573 pounds
Price: $8,000+

Out of the garage, we were free to roam the city at will, aided by Google Nexus tablets loaded with key waypoints of interest. I made my way over to USS Midway, an icon of San Diego’s ubiquitous Naval presence, and then on to one of city’s largest greenspaces, Balboa Park, for photographs. With a lot of construction and road maintenance closing down my familiar routes around the city, navigation involved a lot of stop-and-go and lane changing. The nimble bike excelled thanks to a light curb weight (30 pounds less than the 883) and great low-end torque. Add in low stand-over height, and the Bolt handles the stop-and-go transitions of city riding with aplomb. As a heavier rider, I found that the limited rear travel (2.8 inches) resulted in occasionally bottoming out over bumps, something that won’t trouble a lighter, younger person.

While the city riding was a great way to test the Bolt’s agility and ease-of-use, I got the urge to stretch this pony’s legs at a faster clip on more open roads. So, slipping away from the hustle and flow of the inner city, I headed to Cabrillo Point, the southernmost tip of Point Loma that overlooks San Diego. Traffic was fairly light between the morning rush and the lunch hour, and the wide swooping turns made for enjoyable riding: the bike tracked steady and stable, comfortable at speed and predictable in the turns. The smooth road and an extra inch or so more of ground clearance than the Harley meant I felt fine carrying speed through the corners without shifting to the inside.

Yamaha takes aim at Gen X and Y riders with the Bolt, looking to offer a legitimate alternative to Harley-Davidson’s Dark Custom Iron 883.

Along the way, I stopped at the National Cemetery for a moment of quiet reflection in the still morning before pushing on to the end of the Point Loma peninsula and Cabrillo National Monument. The late morning haze made for poor pictures of the city skyline, but the views were still spectacular. The tourists passing by the Bolt, though, had some other views in mind. LED lighting, a simple round LCD gauge with all the bike’s stats front and center, and conjoined exhaust pipes add pleasant touches to an overall look that is very familiar to Harley-Davidson fans. It’s pretty clear this is what Yamaha was aiming for. (While Yamaha offers a number of add-ons to customize the look and increase the utility of the Bolt, they don’t approach the depth of Harley customization and after-market options. Those limits won’t register with the new, first-time buyer, but might factor into long-term satisfaction with the model.)

At a quick lunch at Pehoe’s, a Coronado Island spot set bayside, I took in a clear view of the city and chatted with Tim Olson of Star Motorcycles, a guy who genuinely seems to enjoy his job. As we left, Tim noted an inadvertent burn-out, praising my skills — I was too embarrassed to admit it was clumsiness, not skill, that allowed this generally forgiving ride to briefly show its powerful side. Then it was off to Presidio Park in in the hills adjacent to the original site of the city, “Old Town” — the first European settlement in California. The Bolt’s 942cc engine (with more power than Harley-Davidson’s 883) and straight-cut gears made easy work of the hills with clean, crisp shifts. I stopped in Chicano Park, a collection of vertical surfaces decorated with the striking street art of the Hispanic sub-culture, murals that take graffiti to an art form. The light Bolt easily hopped up on the curb for pictures next to the colorful paintings.

A day of getting to know Yamaha’s Bolt, and the city of San Diego, was a day well spent. Simplicity and maintenance-free riding are where Yamaha clearly comes out ahead of Harley-Davidson, and they’ve closed the gap in other ways, as well. For those shopping with an open mind and a closed wallet, Yamaha’s reliability and superior performance make the Bolt a no-brainer. History and tradition certainly have a place, sure — but you can always go to a museum.