Ok, here's my first cruiser post. Just purchased a nice used Kawasaki Vulcan 500 for my girlfriend after checking out the other small cruisers on the market. She's only 5'2" so the options were somewhat limited as far as size and seat height, would have loved to get her on a sport bike but even the Ninja 250 was too tall. We looked at the Suzuki S40 (used to be the Savage 650) , rode a new Suzuki S50 and a used version, the older model '04 Intruder 800, looked at the Honda Shadow VLX 600 and the Shadow Spirit 750, rode a used '99 Shadow 750, looked at the Yamaha Star 650 Midnight Custom, and also rode a used '05 Harley 883 Sportster.
I'd have to say that the little Vulcan 500 is faster than all the bigger bikes we rode, the parallel twin derived from the Ninja 500 has a surprising amount of guts and it's delivered more smoothly than the v-twins. It also is considerably lighter, which means that it handles much better than any of the v-twin bikes as well, and it's the only one with a 6 speed transmission. It's not a sport bike, but it's actually fun to ride and won't embarrass you in the corners.
Guess it all depends on what you're looking for, if you want that Harley mystique, then I suppose you're willing to put up with a very rough and underpowered engine to get it. I can't imagine how much that bike must have vibrated before the rubber engine mounts were introduced, because even with those rubber mounts, that Sportster was a bone shaking machine.
The Hondas, Suzukis and the Yamaha were all decent bikes, the S40 was actually kind of cool with a big single 650cc engine, just not enough of a step up in power from her GZ250. The S50 had decent power, didn't handle very well in my opinion though, the extreme rake of the front forks made it awkward in the corners. The Hondas were smooth, but the forward pedals were too far away for her to reach comfortably, and the VLX600 was only a 4speed! The YamaStar Midnight Custom 650 was a nice looking bike, very large and heavy though.
When we rode a new Vulcan 500 she knew that was the bike for her, searched far and wide to find a nice used one, finally drove 2 hours to Louisville to pick up an '02 in perfect condition, only 2400 miles. Shouldn't have much trouble selling her old bike, '05 Suzuki GZ250 with only 2500 miles, perfect little beginner bike, just doesn't take long to outgrow it as we found out. I think the Vulcan 500 will suit her for a few years, maybe we can figure out a lower seat on a small sport bike by the time she's ready for her next step up.
So there you have it, my unsolicited review of the small cruiser market through 919 jaded eyes.