Low and SuperLow: Costa rides the newest Harley-Davidsons

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Photos by Brian J. Nelson and Tom Riles

Getting an invitation to go to Daytona Beach to ride two new Harleys while the weather at home was still cold and white is not something to turn down. And I’d get a chance to ride the new SuperLow 1200T and the FXDL Low Rider to boot.

Sadly, the Sunshine State was anything but, but unlike my home province of Quebec, at least Florida didn’t demand winter tires to be installed at this time of year.

FXDL Low Rider

Harley invented the cruiser in 1977. That was the year the Low Rider was introduced, earning its name due to its low 686 mm (27 in.) seat height. It had some unique styling features too, including a flat, drag-style handlebar set on dog-bone risers, gas-tank-mounted gauges, a two-into-one exhaust, mid-mounted footpegs and highway pegs. Its 1,200 cc Shovelhead engine was connected to a four-speed transmission and it had electric and kick starting.

As seen in 1977! Well, not quite, but the Low Rider certainly follows a familiar pattern.
As seen in 1977! Well, not quite, but the Low Rider certainly follows a familiar pattern.

The Low Rider became instantly popular, and transcended platforms, moving from the rigid-mount FX frame, to the rubber-mounted FXR in 1987, and then to the Dyna platform in 1995. Its Shovel grew to 1,340 cc in ’78, and then was replaced by the Evolution in ’84 before settling on the Twin Cam engine in ’99.

The Low Rider remained in Harley’s line-up until 2009, when low interest and a slew of other models caused Harley to discontinue it.

The last Low Rider model was canceled in 2009.
The last Low Rider model was canceled in 2009.

However, if you’ve been paying attention to the motorcycle industry you may have noticed this new hipster movement, distinguished by an abundance of facial hair, rolled up jean cuffs, tattered leathers and retro bikes. All of which has prompted Harley to bring back the Low Rider for 2014, with styling cues that hark back to the original 1977 model.

WHAT’S NEW

The new Low Rider is again built on a Dyna chassis, and features a seat height of 680 mm (26.8 in.), a hair lower than the original ’77. It comes fitted with the latest Twin Cam 103, displacing 1,690 cc and producing 99 lb-ft of torque at just 3,500 rpm, rubber mounted to reduce vibration (but not entirely) to a low-frequency throbbing when riding. At idle the engine shakes in the frame, transmitting a soothing, quaking vibration not unlike a bed massager in a cheap motel.

Dual shocks! Spoked wheels! All this bike is missing is a skinny hipster rider.
Dual shocks! Spoked wheels! All this bike is missing is a skinny hipster rider.

Although the Low Rider makeover is part of Harley’s Project Rushmore, which oversaw numerous improvements on the company’s touring bikes including the new Twin-Cooled engine, it doesn’t actually use that engine, likely due to the difficulties hiding a radiator on a fairing-free motorcycle.

Project Rushmore is responsible, however, for a few comfort-enhancing improvements, including a seat with a removable bolster that when installed moves the rider 40 mm forward. The pegs have been moved 50 mm forward from where they’re usually located on a Dyna, and although the dog-bone-like handlebar risers of the original Low Rider have returned, they pivot at the bottom, allowing you to swing the bars fore and aft over a 60 mm range.

It's 2014 and Harley-Davidson has expanded the number of liquid-cooled bikes in their lineup, but the Low Rider is still built around the air-cooled Twin Cam 103 motor.
It’s 2014 and Harley-Davidson has expanded the number of liquid-cooled bikes in their lineup, but the Low Rider is still built around the air-cooled Twin Cam 103 motor.

Reminiscent of the original Low Rider, the speedometer and tachometer are placed atop the 18-litre fuel tank. Twin 300 mm front discs include a pair of four-piston calipers and in the rear is a 292 mm disc and twin-piston caliper. ABS is a $930 option.

THE RIDE

When it comes to weather there’s one thing you should always assume, and that is that the forecast will be wrong. Three different sources were forecasting highs of about 18 degrees Celsius around Daytona Beach, and the overcast morning skies were supposed to be clearing by noon with no chance of rain. I left the hotel in 14-degree temperatures, slightly over-dressed for the anticipated 18-degree high … just in case.

The new Low Rider sports a wide drag bar, like the original.
The new Low Rider sports a wide drag bar, like the original.

Styling-wise, Harley did a great job of remaining faithful to the original Low Rider. With a drag bar and an original strutted front fender installed it would take more than just a glance to distinguish new from old. Even the tank graphics are faithful to the original, and the air filter is teardrop shaped, not unlike the S&S filter everyone used to replace the original filter with. Cast wheels are standard with spoke wheels available as an option, though I prefer the look of the cast items on this bike, and they use tubeless tires.

The adjustable ergonomics are said to accommodate riders from 5’1” to 6’1” tall. I’m six feet tall and was very comfy with the seat bolster removed and the handlebar adjusted in the middle of its range. Footpegs are a comfortable reach, and their slightly forward position puts your feel roughly where they’d be with floorboards, but without the benefit of being able to move around.

Adjustable ergos mean the Low Rider should suit a wide variety of riders.
Adjustable ergos mean the Low Rider should suit a wide variety of riders.

Wheelbase is moderately long at 1,630 mm (64.2 in.), and with a 30.5-degree rake, steering is lazy, though it’s neutral and contributes to unwavering stability.

The transmission contains two more ratios than it did in ’77, and unlike that that agricultural box of cogs that had canyon-like gaps between ratios and clanged so hard when shifting gears that it shattered windows, the FXDL’s transmission is very light in operation and ratios are well spaced. Gear ratios are almost irrelevant, though, because the engine is torquey enough to pull away from as low as 50 km/h in top gear. It’s actually a great engine that doesn’t rely on revs to generate enthusiastic acceleration, and it sounds good as well.

The six-speed gearbox is much lighter than the tractor-like four-speed in the original Low Rider. It helps when you have a lot of torque, to minimize the need for shifting.
The six-speed gearbox is much lighter than the tractor-like four-speed in the original Low Rider. It helps when you have a lot of torque, to minimize the need for shifting.

Suspension was quite compliant, though even a rigid setup would be considered compliant on Florida’s straight, flat, smooth roads. In the interest of technological advancement, let’s rack up the compliant suspension to Harley’s use of tri-rate springs and damping settings tuned for an “engaging” ride.

Of course, the Low Rider’s lack of bodywork reminded me of Florida’s cruelly comical weather folk – no doubt broadcast so that the majority of Bike Week attendees wouldn’t turn around and head home — as temperatures dropped instead of rising, going from 14 degrees C to 6, where they remained for most of our ride. A call home later revealed it was a relatively balmy 4 degrees in Montreal.

After a warm lunch and lots of hot coffee, it was time to switch bikes.

The SuperLow 1200T is Harley-Davidson's first time dropping a 1200 into the SuperLow chassis - not that it would have been difficult to big-bore the 883 model.
The SuperLow 1200T is Harley-Davidson’s first time dropping a 1200 into the SuperLow chassis – not that it would have been difficult to big-bore the 883 model.

SuperLow 1200T

The Harley Sportster turns 57 this year. There is no other bike in history that has had such a long, uninterrupted run, and that’s not taking into account the side-valve K model that preceded the overhead-valve XL by five years.

Like the Low Rider, the Sportster has gone through several evolutionary changes, though the biggest came when it got a rubber mounted engine in 2004. It has also gone from being a high-performance sport bike (it really was back in the day), to what many hardcore Harley riders now consider a “girlie” bike.

The windscreen and saddlebags mean this Sportster is set up for touring.
The windscreen and saddlebags mean this Sportster is set up for touring.

The latest is the SuperLow 1200T, which is a light-touring bike complete with saddlebags, touring saddle and windscreen. It’s a bike designed to appeal to shorter riders (5’1” to 5’7”) who want light touring capability but may be intimidated by the Switchback or Heritage Softail.

It’s not the first Sportster to don saddlebags and a windscreen; there was the XLT, which was coincidentally introduced the same year as the Low Rider, and in the 1960s you could order an XLH with factory-installed fibreglass saddlebags and a windscreen.

Costa's actually one of the rare Sportster owners who's actually toured on his machine, but his bike (an older model) wasn't "SuperLowered" like this one.
Costa’s actually one of the rare Sportster owners who’s actually toured on his machine, but his bike (an older model) wasn’t “SuperLowered” like this one.

I’ve owned two Sportsters, and I can vouch for the Sportster’s touring capability having previously toured the western U.S. on an appropriately dressed-up Sporty, two-up no less.

WHAT’S NEW

Although this touring Sportster carries the SuperLow name, it’s not to be confused with the company’s current entry-level model that bears the same name but comes with the 883 engine. The 1200T uses the larger, 1,203 cc V-twin that puts out 71 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm. The engine is also blacked out and has chrome highlights, giving the 1200T a premium look.

Harley-Davidson calls these wide pegs "mini-floorboards."
Harley-Davidson calls these wide pegs “mini-floorboards.”

The “T” means there are a few tour-friendly add-ons. Up front you’ll find a compact, quick-release windscreen; behind that a tall, pullback handlebar, beneath your gluteus maximus you’ll find a touring seat that reduces the reach to the handlebar, and there are hard, vinyl-covered saddlebags behind you. The bags have convenient, lockable flip-up lids, but despite the early-morning dampness, I didn’t have a chance to test their water resistance.

The windscreen is removable by unlatching the mounts and no hardware is left behind when it comes off. It is also adjustable vertically over a 25 mm range.

The 1200T has a quick-remove windscreen, just like Harley-Davidson's other "light touring" bike, the Dyna-based Switchback.
The 1200T has a quick-remove windscreen, just like Harley-Davidson’s other “light touring” bike, the Dyna-based Switchback.

The bags are not quick-release, but their mounting brackets include attachment points for an accessory luggage rack. Harley calls the mid-mounted footpegs “mini footboards”, meaning they are ultra-wide footpegs with vibration-isolating rubber inserts – and super-long peg feelers.

The chassis and steering geometry, as well as the slammed suspension are mostly identical between the two SuperLows, except that the 1200T has different shocks on either side; the left one is a standard emulsion shock with a knob to adjust preload, and the right one is a non-adjustable twin-tube design that handles damping duties.

Despite the foul weather, Costa didn't get a chance to try out the bags' waterproofing.
Despite the foul weather, Costa didn’t get a chance to try out the bags’ waterproofing.

There’s no need for alarm at the use of two different shocks on the same bike; I once owned a Harley FXRT that had a regular coil-over shock on the right and an air-adjustable shock on the left and the suspension worked remarkably well.

THE RIDE

I’d been waiting to get on the 1200T since about 30 minutes after our chilly, damp ride began. There were two things gnawing at my psyche after I had pulled out of the parking lot on the Low Rider: The fact that I didn’t wear more layers and that the SuperLow 1200T had a windshield.

Forward controls: Who needs 'em? Sportster owners, apparently ...
Forward controls: Who needs ’em? Sportster owners, apparently … Check out those super-long feelers!

Once aboard it soon became clear that the 1200T was more appealing to me than any other Sporty in the Motor Company’s current line-up, mostly because its windshield had reduced my 8.0 magnitude shivering to a 4.0 aftershock.

As a former owner of a couple of Sportsters, I am fond of the bikes, but I’m not as fond of Harley’s tendency to slam them to the ground to achieve a low seat height. The SuperLow is definitely easy to manage and will inspire confidence in shorter or inexperienced riders, but it comes at the cost of suspension compliance and cornering clearance.

The slammed look might work visually, and appeal to shorter riders, but lowering the Sportster hurts its handling.
The slammed look might work visually, and appeal to shorter riders, but lowering the Sportster hurts its handling.

Harley has done a fine job nonetheless to get the maximum out of the 104 mm front and paltry 54 mm rear suspension travel, and for the most part it had a composed, firm-ish ride, but suspension action did get choppy on one particularly bumpy stretch of road. Of course, the bike isn’t designed for a six-foot, 200-plus pound rider.

Despite this, the 1200T had a reasonably accommodating seating position that didn’t feel too cramped and would probably be quite comfy for riders within the height range for which it was designed. The other drawback is the rather limited cornering clearance, which even at a very sedate pace it’s all too easy to touch the peg feelers, which are unnecessarily long.

Having an 18-inch wheel in front and a 17-inch wheel in rear (both running on radial Michelin Scorchers) does help improve cornering capability.
Having an 18-inch wheel in front and a 17-inch wheel in rear (both running on radial Michelin Scorchers) does help improve cornering capability.

Handling has greatly improved since Harley went to an 18- and 17-inch front and rear wheel combination, as well as the use of radial tires, in this case Michelin Scorchers. It’s a well-planted machine and despite its 272 kg (599 lb.) wet weight it is entirely unintimidating whether rolling or at a stop. The engine adds to the bike’s ease of use, as its broad, fat torque is a boon, and the bike is remarkably smooth at cruising speeds.

CONCLUSIONS

Harley-Davidson introduced a pair of mid-year models, neither of which is all-new but both of which have a certain appeal. The Low Rider, at $17,429, is at the lower end of the price range in the Dyna line-up, and is my second favourite Harley model next to the Switchback.

If you want a sporty bike, you should look elsewhere, but if you're looking for a cruiser, the Low Rider is the ticket.
If you want a sporty bike, you should look elsewhere, but if you’re looking for a cruiser, the Low Rider is the ticket.

If you’re looking for a sportier mount, well, you’ll have to change brands. But if you want a proper American cruiser, the Low Rider has the lineage, ergonomics that fit a broad range of rider heights, and the Dyna chassis is a competent platform whether you’re interested in endlessly lapping Daytona’s Main Street or crossing the continent. And it has the right look, which for some riders (Hipsters?) will be the most important factor.

The SuperLow 1200T has a narrower focus. I have no problem riding long distances on a properly equipped Sportster (which would include proper suspension), but I suspect I’m an anomaly among Harley riders.

In an age when bikes like the 72 and 48 are Harley's popular Sportster models, the 1200T fits right in.
In an age when bikes like the 72 and 48 are Harley’s popular Sportster models, the 1200T fits right in.

Most Sportster buyers these days, male or female, seem to prefer the slammed, retro look of bikes like the Iron, the Forty-Eight and the Seventy-Two. The 1200T deviates from that formula a bit in that it’s a slightly more practical mount that is better equipped to cover long distances than any other Sportster model currently available.

At $14,499, however, it’s the priciest bike in the Sportster line-up and might be a hard sell. I just wish they offered a NotSoSuperLow version too.


GALLERY

Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.


SPECIFICATIONS

Bike  2014 Harley-Davidson Low Rider
MSRP  $17,429
Displacement  1690 cc
Engine type  Air-cooled V-twin
Power (crank)*  n/a
Torque*  98.6 ft-lbs @ 3,500 rpm
Tank Capacity  17.8 litres
Carburetion  EFI
Final drive  Belt
Tires, front  100/90B19 57H
Tires, rear  160/70B17 73V
Brakes, front  Dual floating 300 mm discs, four-piston caliper
Brakes, rear  292 mm disc, two-piston caliper
Seat height  680 mm
Wheelbase  1630 mm
Wet weight*  302 kg
Colours  Black, gold/black, silver/black
Warranty  24 months, unlimited mileage
* claimed

SPECIFICATIONS

Bike  2014 Harley-Davidson SuperLow 1200T
MSRP  $14,499
Displacement  1202 cc
Engine type  Air-cooled V-twin
Power (crank)*  n/a
Torque*  70.8 ft-lbs @ 3500 rpm
Tank Capacity  17 litres
Carburetion  EFI
Final drive  Belt
Tires, front  120/70 ZR-18 59W
Tires, rear  150/70 ZR-17 69W
Brakes, front  300 mm disc, two-piston caliper
Brakes, rear  Single 260 mm disc, two-piston caliper
Seat height  702 mm
Wheelbase  1500 mm
Wet weight*  272 kg
Colours  Black, orange, black/white
Warranty  24 months, unlimited mileage
* claimed

3 thoughts on “Low and SuperLow: Costa rides the newest Harley-Davidsons”

  1. I think HD is pursuing the hipsters aggressively. Look at the sportster ads they run and the way the models are looking.

    I have always appreciated Costa’s reviews and share his affection or appreciation for HD’s. perhaps like him I can’t rationally explain it as my experience wasn’t entirely positive from a performance aspect, though he seems to have gotten the best from the old sportster he had.

    While I really admire the looks of the dyna models and to an extent the sportsters the performance is disappointing especially when coming from a performance oriented machine. I was amazed, I thought the dyna I bought looked relatively light and small but it was an unwieldy barge with crappy brakes, next to no ground clearance and primitive suspension. TO make matters worse the mid mount pegs, combined with the seat and bars put me in a position where I was sitting on my tail bone and in excruciating pain after 45 minutes. Hwy pegs didn’t help. The engine was fun though and in spite of it all I really liked the looks of it.

    Having levelled all that criticism I wouldn’t rule out trying one again, such is the draw of the style.

  2. Harley is after “The Hipster” market ?
    Wow !
    I’m thinking that there is probably only one hipster who dreams of riding off into the sunset on a Harley.
    Good luck with that.
    Personally I would think that Triumph has that market locked down with their Bonneville .products.
    Norton would also fill that niche (if it ever comes to market) followed by Royal Enfield and Ural for the lunatic fringe.

    There is probably no moto-journalist more qualified to pass judgement on a Motor Company product than Costa.
    I was very curious to discover his riding impressions.
    He must get tired of having to report on the long tradition that somehow links these bikes with their past.
    Most other manufacturers would be accused of emptying their redundant parts inventory on a ‘new’ model.
    Probably makes for interesting reading to the uninitiated and the one hipster in Harley’s market profile.
    And for those, I say well done Costa.

    1. PS ..Just like the weather in Florida, being mis-reported as to not scare away the tourist market, these latest Harleys just continue that tradition. by mis-manufacturing a new model.
      Thank you Costa for slipping that veiled irony into the metaphor of this assignment.
      I expect that there always is a downside of having to promote interest in what truly is a boring product release.
      Costa should be commended for pointing out the 50mm relocated positioned foot pegs. Kinda hard core for those afraid or physically challenged to go full out radical forward mount pegs.
      None of this should be construed as a criticism of Costa’s work. On the contrary, his work is exemplary. The Motor Company is the one that has to demonstrate vision and creativity.

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