Photos by Brian J Nelson and Tom Riles
Two years ago, Harley-Davidson made a pretty big push towards the future with the introduction of the Project Rushmore bikes. Changes to the company’s touring bikes included adding optional linked ABS, new headlights with both LED and halogen bulbs, an infotainment system with Bluetooth connectivity and optional integrated GPS, easy-open saddlebag lids (which are the easiest-operating lids I’ve seen to date) and improved fairing aerodynamics designed to reduce turbulence.
Perhaps more importantly, Harley made the high-output Twin Cam 103 engine standard in all of its touring bikes, as well as a number of other Big Twin models. The Milwaukee motorcycle maker also introduced the Twin Cooled 103 engine, which added liquid cooling, but only to the cylinder heads (like on BMW’s liquid-cooled boxer), which improved output — or at least there was no power loss — as the engine heated up. This also improved emissions, which is becoming increasingly more difficult on a twin with pistons the size of whisky barrels.
This year, Harley has let off the throttle a bit, though there are still some significant changes for 2016 which we sampled at the recent 2016 Harley model launch, held in Portland, Oregon.
Introduced just last year, the Street 500 and 750 were intended to usher a new generation of riders into the Harley experience. As we’d noted when we rode the bike at its launch last year, this new platform had a few flaws. Among them was wonky wiring, which was more unsightly than unreliable, weak brakes (which I found worked fine for an entry-level machine), and oddly-angled switch controls.
Harley has fixed these items for 2016, with an entirely new braking system that uses larger discs front and rear, new calipers and master cylinders and new lines. Wiring has been rerouted, and some of the connectors have been relocated out of sight. Levers are wider and more Harley-like, and the switchgear is now at a more natural angle.
Big news for all Sportster models is a move to a cartridge fork. The forks look identical to the previous damper-rod forks on all models but the Forty-Eight, but the internals have been gutted and replaced with progressively wound springs and cartridges for improved suspension compliance.
The Forty-Eight also gets a cartridge fork, but the stanchion-tube diameter has grown by 10 mm to a stout 49 mm. This isn’t done for increased rigidity, though it is a by-product of the thicker posts; it’s done to give the Forty-Eight a beefier appearance.
At the rear on all Sportsters you’ll find new, nitrogen-charged emulsion type shocks, also equipped with progressive springs.
Despite these upgraded suspension components, adjustability is limited to rear preload, which can be altered via locking threaded collars.
There are two new-ish Softail models for 2016, and they fall under the S-series banner. What distinguishes the Softail Slim S and Fatboy S from their respective non-S brethren is that they are available with different paint schemes, and that they are powered by the Screamin’ Eagle Twin Cam 110 engine.
Previously, the only way to get your legs over that massive V-twin was to either dish out premium dinero for one of Harley’s customised CVO models (just over $35,000 for the 2015 CVO Softail Deluxe), or to spend $6,700 on a crate engine, and then have it installed. It’s now available in these standard production models, which start at $21,500 for the Slim S, which is only $4,000 more than the Slim.
Most Softail models and all Dyna models except the Street Bob will receive the high-output Twin Cam 103 engine. Since the Street Bob is the entry-level Big Twin, it retains the regular Twin Cam 103 engine to keep its price low. All Softail models get ride-by-wire throttle control, which means they also get cruise control, either as standard equipment on the Heritage Softail, Softail Deluxe or both S model, or as an option on the rest.
Most Dyna and Softail models were already equipped with EITMS (engine idle temperature management strategy), which shuts off the rear cylinder when idling on hot days to reduce the resulting the inner-thigh barbequing. Previously this feature was dealer-activated, so when engine temperature reached thigh-grilling temperatures it would idle only on the front cylinder until the throttle was applied. This feature can now be turned on or off by the rider, by simply turning the throttle forward and holding it for a few seconds.
With the complete revision of Harley’s touring bikes just two years ago, the only change this year, other than new colours, is the addition of the Road Glide Ultra. Harley claims Road Glide owners put on more mileage than any other Harley owners, so they’ve frilled up the Road Glide Ultra with a slew of touring amenities, including a taller windscreen, fairing lowers, touring saddle, top case with luggage rack and passenger backrest and rear crash bar, which are above the features available on the Road Glide Special.
Three CVO models are available, and this year they are all based on touring models. You’ve got the CVO Street Glide, the CVO Limited, and the CVO Road Glide Ultra. As is the norm with CVO models, they are equipped with a Twin Cam 110 engine, special paint, and more chrome doodads out of the accessory catalogue than we have room to mention in this infinite internet thingy.
One addition to the CVO bikes is a tire pressure monitor. Unlike other systems on the market, Harley’s system actually displays the pressure at a standstill, as well as when rolling, so you can check the pressures just by turning the ignition on in your garage.
Upon our arrival in Portland, Harley planned an evening ride on the Street 750, and the two featured Sportsters models, the Iron 883 (starting at $10,399) and the 1200 cc Forty Eight ($12,999).
I began the evening on the Street 750, which confirmed to me Harley really got the engine right on this bike. Despite its modest specs, it is super-smooth and torquey at low to mid revs. The gearbox is ultra-light, and it has a surprisingly plush, if somewhat un-sporty suspension.
The new brakes are stronger, with the front now requiring just two fingers, even for hard stops. The rear pedal is easier to operate, its added height now actuating the rear caliper without having to bend your foot at an uncomfortable angle. But whereas it was reportedly (not by me) too weak before, it is now overly grabby, needing a tender toe at the pedal to avoid locking it up.
I then switched to the Iron 883. The new cartridge fork is a marked improvement over the previous version, and despite the lack of adjustability it is very compliant over a variety of bumps, from sharp ridges to oversized speed bumps.
The new, thicker seat adds a measure of bump damping, which is unfortunately not all that damped by the new shocks. I’m sure they work better than before, but with only 40 mm of travel (1.6 inches), there’s no choice but to use stiff springs, and the ride is subsequently harsh.
And cornering clearance is really hampered, with the extra-long footpeg feelers grinding away at very modest lean angles. Really guys (speaking to the folks at Harley here), I understand the need to slam the bikes to the ground for both realising that hardcore look and to achieve a low seat height, but the cost in ride-ability, comfort and handling is just too high. Unfortunately, with the demise of the XR1200X a few years ago, there is no Sportster model left for riders who actually enjoy taking curves at speed.
The Forty Eight exhibits similar handling characteristics, but with a heavier front end due to its ultra-fat front wheel.
The following day was reserved for the big boys: the two S models, a Softail Heritage, and the CVOs.
Aside from a slightly altered riding position, the Fat Boy S and the Slim S feel and handle the same. The real (literal) kick on these bikes comes from the new Twin Cam 110 engine. Compared to the bikes that this engine was previously available in, the two S models are relatively lightweight in comparison (Slim S weighs 323 kg compared to the CVO Softail Deluxe at 355 kg).
These bikes have a brutish forward rush, regardless of what gear you’re in or what speed you’re riding at. Despite their low 660 mm seat height, the ride is plush and comfy, though footboards will touch in a spray of sparks at a mildly spirited pace.
Compared to their non-S equivalents the Fat Boy S and Slim S are completely blacked out; the only chrome you’ll find is on the pushrods and brake pedal; it’s a sinister look I really like.
In contrast to the S bikes, the CVOs are all shimmering in reflective surfaces and metal-flake paint. They’re at the upper end of Harley’s price range, starting at $42,600 for the CVO Street Glide.
I only rode the CVO Road Glide Ultra, which has a taller windscreen than the Road Glide I’d ridden at last year’s Rushmore launch, and as expected it provides better wind protection.
Opening the three vents in the fairing, which raises the air pressure around the rider, reduces the buffeting, though there is a slight updraft that will tear your eyes if you ride with an open-face helmet.
Harley’s design department made a big push last year with Project Rushmore, and the touring bikes benefitted from some important improvements, which are now available in both Road Glide Ultra models.
For the firm’s other bikes, the company is mixing and matching parts, which in the case of the S models is a good thing for those Harley riders looking for that big engine in a more affordable package.
Our hosts offered us a parts and accessories catalogue to take home, though it was just too big to fit into my luggage. Within it, however, there are thousands of accessories, from valve-stem caps to complete engines, allowing you to customise your bike, a practice most Harley riders partake in.
Even though the Motor Company hasn’t made revolutionary changes this year, it knows its products, and better yet, it knows its customers, so the changes that are made will likely continue to work on young adults (18 to 34), the age group to which Harley has sold more bikes to in North America than any other manufacturer for the last seven years. Love the bikes or hate them, you can’t argue with that statistic.