Test Ride: 2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S

The Motor Company’s decision last year to scrap the entire Dyna lineup from its portfolio was not well received by its faithful supporters. Among the nameplates trimmed was the Low Rider S, a model well received on its introduction in 2016.  Fear not, ye faithful: it’s returned to the Harley-Davidson lineup for the 2020 model year, but now it’s a Softail, with an MSRP of $23,599 in Vivid Black.

The previous Low Rider S was born from the tall-bike custom craze but clearly reminiscent of the iconic FXR. Like the Slim S and Fat Boy S, it was powered by the robust Screamin’ Eagle 110 engine complete with that massive air cleaner on the right side. The new model gets the slightly larger Milwaukee-Eight 114 cubic inch engine. That means it has 1,868 cc of displacement and power comes on stronger and lower in the rev range (3,000 vs. 3,500 rpm); it will last much longer than your licence if you try to see it through to the top end of sixth gear.

It looks tasty and it looks quick. Comfortable? Well, not quite so sure about that.

Rigid-mounted and counter-balanced, it offers more displacement and power than the 110, but with less vibration and, sorry to say it, less emotion. That’s not to say there isn’t much to like about it. The more I rode it, the fonder I grew of the powerplant, despite the dual shotgun pipes not sounding as throaty or visceral as V-Twins of old. Regardless of where I was in the rev range, it pulled like a runaway freight train when I twisted back the ride-by-wire throttle.

Bringing things to a stop is brisk, predictable and controlled, thanks to Brembo four-piston calipers and 300 mm dual discs up front, and a two-piston caliper with a 292 mm disc in the rear. ABS is standard equipment, but thankfully there wasn’t a time when I had to rely on its services.

My tester was adorned in Barracuda Silver with matte dark bronze cast aluminum wheels, which brought the price up to $24,049. Measuring 16 inches out back and 19 inches up front, they are more subtle than the Magnum Gold ones of the former Low Rider S. Rather than being outfitted in chrome, many of the bike’s components and details are painted black – such as the engine and accents, exhaust pipes, intake, frame, handlebars, etc.

What’s it like to ride?

Leaning the stout 308 kg (679 lb) bike off its side stand (which required some initial finagling, as it’s located directly in front of the left peg), I became acutely aware of the fetal-like riding position. I’m six feet tall (depending on the convenience store doorway I’m passing through) with a 32-inch inseam, but my knees were scrunched up at an uncomfortable height. I needed to fully stretch my arms to reach the blacked-out motocross-style bars, which sit on 10 cm risers. This doesn’t help inspire confidence, or make for spirited riding.

The placement of the kickstand, or jiffy stand, as Harley likes to call it, is cumbersome, being ahead of the foot peg.

If I were to purchase one for myself, the first orders of business would be to install forward controls (which would solve the kickstand placement challenge) and swap the exhaust for something more soulful. Then I’d address the length of the mirrors, which are placed too close to each other to allow a direct rearward view.

As well, the angle of the rear brake required me to hyperextend my ankle to push on it while wearing a typical cruiser motorcycle boot. I switched boots for ones that allowed for more comfortable brake operation, and I also swapped my usual full-face helmet for an open-face model. After all, the location of the gauges relatively close to the tank required me to crank my head down at a sharp angle in order to read them over the chin guard. This meant I had to take my eyes off the road for longer than I’d have liked. When you can see them, the analog speedometer is complemented by a digital gear reader, odometer, fuel level, clock, trip, and fuel range. Farther down below that is a 10 cm analog tachometer.

That’s a cover immediately behind the headlight shroud. You have to look farther down to actually read the instruments.

One last gripe is the seemingly redundant and identical gloss black gas caps. Pulling into the fuel station to top up the tank, I didn’t know which to twist so I went for the one on the left. I guessed wrong. It’s merely glued on for show, and applying enough force to open a typical gas cap was enough to have the faux accent come off in my hand. Oops. Construction and materials are otherwise substantial and high in quality.

If you set aside the frustrating, curious but mostly fixable ergonomics, the Low Rider S offers invigorating straight-line performance, a solo seat that’s comfortable enough for a day’s ride, and decent wind protection from the headlight-shroud-turned-mini-fairing that Jax Teller helped bring back into style. Harley calls it a speed screen.

It’s not going to keep any wind off you, but the headlight shroud does clean up the bike’s lines.

How is it different from before?

Beyond the bigger, more powerful engine, the most noticeable changes (for the better) are to the chassis geometry and resulting dynamics. The previous model had a 30.5 rake, but the new 43 mm inverted fork is set at a steeper 28-degree angle. The adjustable single rear shock resides under the seat, and the bike looks like a hard tail to the untrained eye.

Together, the suspension soaks up bumps and potholes that would have seriously unsettled the previous Dyna. Damping and rebound are more well balanced and composed than I can recall on any Hog. Large potholes and speed bumps no longer make the suspension bottom out.

Where’s the shock? It’s hidden in there somewhere.

The 180mm rear tire isn’t overly fond of rolling over, but it doesn’t easily get upset while leaning; the height of the pegs means you’re less likely to scrape them than on the previous model or on some other Softails.

The Low Rider S is more refined without sacrificing its personality, and so it’s a welcome addition to the Softail family even if it may be seen as blasphemous to Dyna diehards. It is an all-around better version in virtually every way, although it would require too much modification to get it to where it suits me and my riding style. But that’s the beauty of offering a wide selection of motorcycles: just keep trying them until you find one that’s right for you.

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