Those of you who have been following this mini-series will have discovered that while mid-capacity scooters tick a lot of practical boxes, they don’t provide a visceral low-speed experience to augment a sight-seeing tour through Scandinavia. Given that a feet-forward riding position is on my checklist this time around my next area of exploration was obvious: I needed to look at cruisers.
The thing is, cruisers are surprisingly hard to find in the UK market. Of the big four Japanese manufacturers, only Yamaha has a single offering in their current range, the others having abandoned the segment a few years ago. The reality is that we’re a nation of recovering sports-bike addicts, shifting to adventure bikes as we and our road network suffer the ravages of age and neglect. Those still looking for their low-tech, low-speed, hair-in-the-wind experience go to the player everyone else gave up competing with; they go to Harley-Davidson.
The iconic American brand has been rarely absent from headlines of late, both in the mainstream media as much as the specialist motorcycling news. Retaliatory tariffs against our former colony mean that bringing US-built bikes into Europe adds a whopping 31% tax to the bottom line. Harley has opted to absorb these costs while it rushes to move production of European models to its new Asian factories.
With sales down double-digit percentages across the US as millennials still reeling from the financial crisis mysteriously fail to buy 1960’s nostalgia at a rate sufficient to replace the dwindling supply of cash-rich baby boomers, Europe has become Harley-Davidson’s biggest growth opportunity. Banking on augmenting their existing air-cooled cruisers with a range of freshly-announced water-cooled and electric motorcycles, bicycles and even a scooter by 2020, the motor company is launching a full-scale offensive over the next few years. But right now it’s still all about the classic format, something which might possibly fit my very specific needs at the moment.
It should be noted that my last Harley-Davidson experience was a rather disappointing one. After riding a pair of differently-specified 1200cc Sportsters a couple of years back I concluded from that moment on that “the only time I don’t want a Harley-Davidson is when I’m riding one.” You see, I’ve been a big fan of the aesthetic ever since black paint became a factory alternative to the traditional, tiresome chrome. I love the aggressive roar of the large-capacity 45-degree v-twin engine design, even if I don’t find it necessary to be able to set car alarms off at twenty paces.
The amateur engineer in me finds the low-tech solutions charming in an era when even a KTM Duke 390 comes with an iPad where the dashboard should be. I can imagine an air-cooled push-rod twin is likely to give years of faithful service whereas statistics show I’m unlikely to enjoy a highly-strung Ducati or gadget-laden BMW much past the end of the warranty period. And yet, the riding experience while reviewing those two Harleys was underwhelming in the extreme. Weak brakes, scrunched-up riding positions, minuscule fuel tanks and non-existent suspension led me to conclude that Harley-Davidson motorcycles were rolling art, and nothing more.
And so it was with mixed feelings that I began my research. There was one glimmer of hope, based on conversations with Harley owners over the last few years, who all asserted that my mistake had been riding the “small” Harleys, rather than the “full-sized” ones. They assured me that the build quality and riding experience on the big-twin models was in another league and that I should stop using their 300kg+ kerb weights as a reason to avoid them.
I dug through my notes and reminded myself that Harley-Davidson introduced a new engine for their larger bikes in 2017, bringing a second set of valves and oil cooling to each of their new cylinder heads, as well as the usual hikes to displacement, torque and horsepower. Earlier this year they also revamped their frame designs, ditching the much-loved Dyna range and merging the models with into the new Softail line. Designed to mimic a classic hard-tail frame design by hiding a single mono-shock under the seat and adding cartridge forks and re-badged Brembo brakes, it seems that the 118-year-old company had finally joined the late 20th century!
The latest news, aside from their aforementioned intention to venture into the uncharted territories of electric bikes by this time next year, was the launch of their latest Softail model, the Sport Glide. I was intrigued; a blacked-out engine with minimal chrome, hard, lockable quick-release luggage as standard and even a nifty removable mini-fairing. Black & polished alloy cast wheels and a comfy-looking bucket seat completed the image of a relaxed, light-duty tourer, clearly designed as a stepping stone for those not yet ready to commit to a fully-faired bagger from the Touring range.
I asked my local dealer if I could ride one, and it transpired that they had sold their demonstrator just a week ago. After a quick consultation with the dealer principal, however, my salesman was able to offer me a ride on a recently-traded-in example, complete with a few choice performance upgrades. He rolled it out of the showroom and fired it up while I was collecting my gear, and the sound of the thing coughing to life and settling down to a low, loping idle was enough to make my hair stand on end.
Talking me through the controls brought a few other surprises and reminded me of a few neat features these bikes hide under their stylish exteriors. First up, the indicators are actuated by individual left and right buttons on either side of the bars, rather than a combined switch like on every other bike you’ve ever ridden (old BMW’s being the exception here). What’s more, they’re self-cancelling, using a combination of lean-angle and road speed to figure out when you’ve finished negotiating your turn.
Next up was the lack of an ignition key. Like the little Honda Forza 300, all Harleys now use proximity keys instead. The kill switch toggles the ignition state if the fob is nearby, allowing you to start the engine without fishing through your pockets, although locking the luggage still requires an old-fashioned key. Harley also has a typically low-tech solution to the question of opening the petrol tank – they simply don’t make it lockable. Better hope no-one decides to syphon out your fuel while you’ve stopped for coffee…
Tucked away on the left instrument cluster is another surprise – a cruise control switch. Fly-by-wire throttle and some clever electronics in the ECU is all it takes and is a tremendous improvement over the plastic throttle-lock I currently use on my V-Strom. Further up is the control for the multi-function trip computer, represented by a small LCD screen tucked away underneath the analogue speedometer. You can scroll through a couple of trip meters, the clock, fuel range and even current engine RPM, with a digital segmented fuel gauge running along the top of the display. A single number on the right indicates the current gear, although you’ll generally only need it for confirming when you’re in sixth gear on motorways.
Setting off revealed another surprise. That enormous clutch-lever is a two-finger pull, and the rumbling engine responds smoothly and easily to the feather-light throttle. I’ve ridden 125’s that were more difficult to set off on, although I did later discover some slight hesitation on initial throttle openings that my salesman attributed to the upgraded camshaft & associated fuelling changes. I would have to ride a stock example to be sure, but it was no worse than any other modern bike I’ve ridden lately.
Harley’s new engines are now fully counter-balanced, leaving just enough of a throb to remind you it’s there without causing your glasses to rattle off your nose at stop lights. Turning on to the road demonstrated that low-speed manoeuvres would be a little tricky with that large rear-brake pedal, but I had already forgotten that this machine weighed a full 100kg more than the bike I’d arrived on – it certainly didn’t feel like it.
Rolling down the first stretch of road demonstrated a compliant and controlled suspension system at work, communicating the details of the road surface whilst softening their impact. One could joke that the sheer mass of the bike was probably ironing out lumps in the tarmac, but even when I began to scrape parts later on during more spirited cornering the bike remained extremely well controlled.
As I approached the first junction I braced myself and got ready to begin the process of slowing down 317kg of steel using a single front disk, standing by to assist with what I assumed would be a stomp on the car-like rear brake pedal. Imagine my surprise when I had to ease off the front brake entirely to avoid stopping a dozen metres short of the lights, such was the bite and power of that single four-pot calliper. Further down the road I remembered that Harley now out-sources their braking components to Brembo, and experimented with a more enthusiastic squeeze from a much higher speed.
What a surprise. It wasn’t quite the same neck-snapping result you get on a Ducati with twin monobloc M50’s, but it was still something of a shock. Brembo really know their stuff, and the Harley-Davidson Sport Glide stops impressively quickly despite its considerable weight. Being a modern bike there’s even ABS backing you up in case the raked-out steering geometry gets the better of the available traction.
Taking a stop to look up some specs online revealed more interesting facts. Thanks to the low-revving engine (redline is somewhere around 5,000RPM) Harley valve trains use hydraulic lifters, meaning that they will never need their clearances adjusting – ever. The kevlar final drive belt means there’s no chain to oil, and anecdotally have been known to last 70,000 miles and beyond without replacement. That new eight-valve engine is also more frugal than the previous generation, thanks in part to twin spark plugs per cylinder, and averages of 50-55mpg are to be expected in normal riding.
Submitting to the inevitable and introducing small oil coolers to keep the exhaust valve temperatures down also means that there was no more heat spilling off the power plant than from any other bike I have ridden. And this was no ordinary engine; the previous owner had dug into the performance section of Harley’s famous parts catalogue and equipped this bike with a higher-lift ‘Torque’ camshaft, a freer-flowing exhaust and intake and a full dyno remap to match. According to the Harley salesman, horsepower was up 30bhp over the original 75, with a matching jump in torque.
Those may not sound like earth-shattering numbers from what is essentially a 1.8 litre engine, but examining a torque graph later on demonstrated very clearly what all that capacity was doing. Power is a function of torque and revs, and with sheer physics limiting how quickly those giant pistons can be slung up and down the engine never spins fast enough for horsepower to ramp up to the levels we expect. Instead, valve timing and intake/exhaust design are geared towards providing as much low-down torque as possible, making for a bike that launches off the line as though it’s been stung by a wasp.
I discovered this fact first while accelerating onto a dual-carriageway and later verified it during an overtaking manoeuvre. The area under the curve on that chart is immense, delivering more thrust at 3,000RPM than a KTM SuperDuke does anywhere in the rev range. While acceleration is, of course, a factor of mass, there’s simply no ignoring that much sheer thrust. Let the engine climb up to 3-4k and you’ll be holding on for dear life, with no signs of the engine letting up. Admittedly I would expect an unmodified engine to reign things in somewhat, the OEM being constrained by emissions and noise regulations in a way that owners are not. But all of those upgrades were fully warrantied and fitted by Harley themselves for around £2,000 extra. Think of it as a Sport Glide ‘R’, then.
So; the engine and brakes impress, in a way that I genuinely didn’t expect. What about the handling? The aforementioned low-speed manners are faultless, and while I daresay that tighter roads might require a slower pace than from a modern super-naked it handled the sweeping curves of Oxford with aplomb. Twice metal met tarmac despite my caution, although I later discovered it to be the after-market exhaust system that was grounding out, not the considerably higher forward-set footpegs. I’m quite certain I would not recommend a Harley-Davidson to someone plotting to chase down sports bikes through the Pyrenees, but then I already have my V-Strom for that.
Which brings us to the raison d’être for this test; I don’t need or want another fast sports-tourer – I need something that would be just as much fun when ridden in convoy behind a Belgian camper van as it would chasing down empty tarmac. And I’m extremely pleased to report that the truly characterful engine, a joy to use at any speed in any gear, made for a fantastic low-intensity journey. Motorway riding was, however, a little less relaxed thanks to the minimal windshield. My example was equipped with the optional taller screen, but I do wonder if removing it entirely might net less buffeting.
The integrated panniers solve the luggage problem; the 19-litre tank and (relatively) impressive economy make 200 miles between fill-ups possible, and the wide, plush seat means I could happily empty that tank multiple times in a single day. I’d personally want to bring the handlebars a little further back to compensate for my stubby T-Rex arms and add a luggage rack to increase carrying capacity further, but the beauty of that Harley parts catalogue is that there are fully-warrantied options available for every taste and requirement.
Dipping too heavily into that catalogue can prove expensive, however, which is a problem when the Sport Glide – one of the cheapest bikes in the Softail range – starts just shy of £15,000. Add an exhaust, a couple of replacement trim pieces to dispatch the remaining chrome and we’re quickly approaching BMW K1600GT territory. Many people will find those prices somewhat difficult to justify when a similar sum thrown at the salesman wearing the BMW shirt will see you rewarded with far more technology wrapped up in the shape of a much lighter, much faster, and genuinely capable motorcycle.
But if we accept for a moment (and I’m still struggling with this myself) that in 2018 big bikes cost big money and start to look closely at Harley’s offerings, you can start to see where all that cash goes. There’s no electronic suspension, but then there are barely any wiring to speak of – at least, not that you can see, with cables routed internally and hiding inside the handlebars and frame. There’s no light-weight alloy frame, but then this is one of the most beautifully-welded steel chassis you’ll ever see. There’s no forum-argument-winning top-end power to be found, but while an inline-four or 90-degree twin is a more efficient way to go fast, that big Harley engine is simply more enjoyable to use. It’s satisfying in the same way that heavy-duty power tools are – you find yourself doing odd jobs around the house just for an excuse to use them.
And unlike the tech-laden competition, the zero-maintenance valvetrain means that a major service on a Harley costs less than a basic oil change on almost any other bike. As far as I can tell, the technicians mostly check that you’ve got air in your tyres and that nothing has rattled loose before sending you on your way. You could probably recoup significant savings in servicing alone, and if you decided to turn your own wrenches would find the bike incredibly easy to work on – just make sure your toolbox includes imperial sockets!
That headline price is going to prove the biggest challenge for me, however. The build quality is incredible, the paint deep and mirror-perfect, and Harley residuals are famously good, although I suspect that’s because many owners barely ride the things. But having met a few who do pile on the miles without a single complaint or mechanical malady it’s clear that an under-stressed, proven formula can make for a reliable motorcycle. I also appreciate the fact that Harley makes it easy for those of less average proportions to swap out handlebars, footpegs and seats, although I wish that such items could be installed at the factory rather than as expensive dealer-fit extras.
I’m not done shopping just yet- and I’d very much like to try out an Indian Scout and perhaps a Triumph Speedmaster to see if I can find a lower-priced alternative, but the fact of the matter is that the Harley-Davidson Sport Glide has set the bar very high indeed. The search continues…