You may have noticed that Zac has been doing more than a few updates from the road recently. The trip was his American Dream experience – riding all the way from the northeasterly Toronto across the States to Arizona and the southwest for the annual Overland Expo.
Though most people would look to something more Adventure Touring to attend such an event, our Zac went for the exact opposite – a Harley Davidson Switchback. The route took him a total of 12000 kms over three weeks so you could say it was a pretty comprehensive test ride. Here’s what Zac had to say about it.
Harley-Davidson introduced this bike in 2012 as a lighter alternative for riders who wanted a Harley-Davidson tourer, but didn’t want the heft of the full-sized Road King, et. al. Unfortunately, the bike has gained the nickname of the “Road Queen” in some circles, which might not have done much for sales.
Because anyone can go buy a cruiser and throw on saddlebags and a windshield, Harley-Davidson went a step further with this bike, by making it a dual-purpose machine – just not in the usual on-and-off road sense of the word. Instead, this is a bike that’s meant to handle touring, and around-town cruising.
Harley-Davidson has played with the idea of “convertible” models before (like the Rocker C and Softtail Convertible); this time around, they’ve decided to take a Dyna, throw on a beefier front end, and add hard bags and a windshield.
The bags and the glass can be removed in seconds with Harley-Davidson’s quick-detach system, so if users want to simply cruise around town with the bike stripped down, it’s not a big deal.
Although the machine is ‘new’ but it’s the same general package Harley-Davidson has offered for decades, slightly re-worked and given a new name.
The Switchback features Harley-Davidson’s 103-inch engine, the motor that used to power their high-end luxury models. But, a roadside observer at a stoplight might wonder how this motor got to that level of refinement; when at idle, the V-twin shakes in its frame, like an 800-lb gorilla trying to smash out of his cage at the zoo.
But once the light turns green, that 800-lb gorilla really lets his muscles do the talking. Harley-Davidson doesn’t publish this motor’s horsepower numbers, but general consensus is that it puts out around 50-60 hp. However, it’s got around 100ft-lb of torque – and when you’re rolling, all that torque gives you a great command of the roadway.
If you’re like me, you’ll still do some shifting between gears 4, 5 and 6, just because you want to keep the motor growling in its sweet spot in the rev range. But you don’t have to. There’s plenty of roll-on power available through the low-to-mid range.
As with Harley’s other motors, that power trails off when the revs climb; the delivery is growly, not whiny. If you’re used to shifting at 10,000 rpms, you’re going to have to re-adjust your riding, or perhaps consider another machine.
Chances are, if you shift at 10,000 rpms, you’re also used to riding something a little lighter and quicker-handling, as well. The Switchback isn’t really scary-heavy – at 720 lbs wet, it carries less pork than Harley’s full-dressed touring models. But when you combine that weight with a single disc brake up front, it forces you to realistically evaluate your approach to the twisties. That brake has a wooden feeling when you squeeze the lever, too.
That’s not to say you can’t ride the bike hard; you can. But you’ve got to start braking a little earlier, since there’s less stopping power available.
I’ve spent plenty of time aboard cruisers in the past, but they were always Japanese UJMs, with mid-controls. Jumping aboard the Switchback, I had to immediately reacquaint myself with forward controls (it’s probably been six or seven years since I rode a bike feet-forward) and with floorboards to boot. And with those low-riding floorboards, there’s only so much lean angle available (29 degrees of lean, says the brochure), which meant that there was plenty of scraping as a result.
But then, if you’re riding close to the speed limit in the tight spots and watching your following distances while in traffic, you’ve really got nothing to worry about.
The machine handles predictably and won’t scare you with unexpected wobbles or dips. You won’t be getting your knee down while you’re on the Tail of the Dragon, but that’s not all there is to motorcycling. To ride to the twisties, you’ve got to cover a lot of miles, and that’s where the Switchback beats many smaller bikes.
While the Switchback isn’t necessarily the best bike for actual switchbacks, it handles the open road extremely well. Once you’re on the four-lane, all that torque means you can pick off the slowpokes with ease. I’ve spent many hours on small bikes getting blown around by high winds, especially on the freeways, but you don’t have to put up with that on the Switchback. The weight that works against you in the twisties works with you on the highway. Crosswinds, truck drafts – none of that stuff really matters.
Also, it might have been my imagination, but it seemed as if the cagers offered me a bit more space on the road when I was riding the Harley-Davidson. Statistics consistently show that touring bikes are under-represented in car-bike collisions, and I wonder if that could partly be because the riders are A) more visible and B) less likely to be riding like a hoon. It certainly wasn’t due to the bike’s loud pipes, because they aren’t loud – they’re just right, in my opinion. If only more Harley-Davidson riders left them like that.
As I mentioned earlier, the Switchback motor vibrates quite a bit at a stop, but smooths out once you get rolling. At legal speeds, any red-blooded rider should have no trouble with the vibes. Once you start pushing the speed limit, though (say, around 130 km/h), the vibes do become a bit tiresome after you’re in the saddle a while. Could this be a clever ploy by the MoCo’s engineers to stop their buyers from crashing at high speed? I doubt it. In any case, most riders won’t be putting in long days, day after day, at high speed.
The other comfort issue I had was with the stock seat and seating position. The stock seat certainly looks inviting, and when you first place your butt down, it feels fine. But after a couple hours, maybe even less, you realize the Easy Rider seating position actually works against you by placing your weight on your tailbone and lower back.
My solution for my round-the-US trip was simple: I installed my Airhawk seat, which totally solved the problem for me by both raising the seat height a bit, and providing a great air cushion for the long days.
It’s doubtful anyone would consider one of these bikes for commuting, but if that idea is running through your head, banish it. The Switchback is pretty heavy for bumper-to-bumper traffic, and you’ll have a left forearm like Popeye after working the clutch for long periods of time.
On a smooth road, the Switchback’s suspension provides a smooth and controlled ride; when the pavement gets bumpy, you aren’t going to be dealt any bone-shake blows from the springs, but the front end feel gets unpleasant enough that you’re going to dial down your speed, before anything nasty happens.
The windshield does a decent job of blocking the breeze, although I wouldn’t have complained it was slightly taller. The quick-detach option is extremely easy to use, although the mechanism vibrated a bit at certain speeds.
Other details: The Switchback’s gauges are all mounted on top of the tank. There’s an analogue fuel gauge on the right-hand gas cap (I wasn’t a fan of the look, but it works fine), an analogue speedometer mid-ship (it would have been nice to have mph marked as well as km/h) and below the speedometer there’s an LCD display where you can switch between odometer, tripmeters, fuel range, gear indicator/tachometer and time.
A switch on the left handlebar lets you change LCD modes very easily while rolling – it was as simple as it needed to be.
The Switchback’s turn signals are auto-canceling; a button on the left side of the bars toggles the left indicator, and a button on the right toggles the right. I’ve used this arrangement before on a BMW, and it puzzles me; it’s no more intuitive than the standard all-in-one arrangement on the left side of the bars, and I found it difficult to cover the front brake, delicately control the throttle and operate the right signal all at the same time. That’s not a problem with the standard setup most manufacturers use.
And finally, the luggage: You’ve got to be careful while closing the lids on the bags, as they’ll look fine, but sometimes the latch doesn’t catch. I lost a shirt and a pair of sunglasses in Pennsylvania when I forgot to check the bag.
However, it wasn’t a recurring problem – after that, I checked the lid carefully each time I opened the bag. And while I didn’t take the bags off that often, it was pretty easy to do. I had no problems with the quick-detach mechanism coming loose through almost 12,000 kms of testing so it seems Harley-Davidson got it right the first time, unlike some other manufacturers.
The bags themselves had very limited interior space, but a rider should be able to pack for a weekend, no problem, and some sort of tailbag or very careful packing would allow further travels. Persons wanting two-up travel capabilities should look elsewhere.
It’s true this machine won’t handle the twisties as well as other bikes on the market (many of them less expensive), but if you want a Harley-Davidson, then that’s what you want. It’s certainly a fine-looking bike.
It’s no rip-off of another company’s styling cues – my trip to the Barber Museum left me thinking the Switchback’s motor and suspension might be more modern, but it still had the same classic cruiser lines that the MoCo has been producing for decades now. When I rode across the US, I had people approaching me in parking lots all the time, telling me how much they liked the bike’s looks.
And, even though I didn’t tear through them at supersport speeds, I still had plenty of fun through the Tail of the Dragon, Arizona’s super-twisty Rt. 191, and the Million Dollar Highway without woodsing the Switchback.
Any bike is a compromise, and for this machine, you give up cornering performance for highway performance. Conversely, you’re giving up some touring capability from the bigger Harley-Davidson tourers in exchange for a lighter machine.
There are some other advantages to riding a Harley-Davidson as well. I had to stop for the 1000-mile and 5000-mile services when I had the bike, and both times the dealers in Pennsylvania and Colorado fit me into their service schedules without a word of complaint.
I even managed to get a new tire installed on the Friday before Memorial Day, on what’s likely one of the busiest days of the year, without an appointment. I’d heard Harley-Davidson treated traveling riders well, but I didn’t expect that.
So – while this bike is outside my personal price range, it could work well for a rider with deeper pockets, who’s considering a Harley-Davidson.
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.
|Bike||2013 Harley-Davidson Switchback|
|Engine type||Air-cooled V-twin, Twin Cam 103|
|Torque*||134 Nm @ 3500 rpm|
|Tank Capacity||17.8 litres|
|Tires, front||130/70B18 63H|
|Tires, rear||160/70B17 73H|
|Brakes, front||Single four-piston fixed caliper|
|Brakes, rear||Single two-piston floating caliper|
|Seat height||695 mm|
|Wet weight*||330 kg|
|Colours||Red, black, blue|
|Warranty||Two-year unlimited mileage|
The switchback is nice, but for a bit more money the FLH models have more lean angle, range, bigger bags, better frames/suspensions, brakes, etc. Otherwise, there’s no mystique to fugure out – if you’re wanting a cruiser/tourer type machine then I have yet to see a better option.
Think Zac got that wrong, even the 96ci usually dyno’d at about 68 at the wheel stock.
I just can’t get over a 1390 cc bike making only somewhere “between 50 and 60 HP”, for a 700+ lb bike. The only bike I’ve owned that made less power than that had between less than 1/5, and less than 1/3 of the displacement of this bike, the latter having been made in the late 70s. Yeah, yeah, I know – tons of torque – but that’s not enough. I think I’d be more inclined, if I wanted this sort of bike, to look at a Victory or the new Guzzi California. But then I guess I just don’t really get the whole Harley mystique.
I’m sure they’re fine machines in many other ways – they look good, handle nicely (within their lean angle limits), good fuel economy, etc – but I just want more than 1950’s levels of performance.