Photography: Laura Deschenes
Ever since the Harley-Davidson Street 500 debuted back in 2014, the question’s been there: What do you get, when you buy Harley-Davidson’s lowest-priced motorcycle?
Despite being on the market now for three seasons (currently, pricing starts at $7,999), it’s very hard to find an experienced rider’s review of the bike, so I picked one up from a local dealer to find out for myself (thanks again, Toys for Big Boys!).
First off, the Street 500 is almost identical to Harley-Davidson’s Street 750. The bikes share the same basic platform, with only some changes to the liquid-cooled 60-degree V-twin engine. (Currently, the Street 750 MSRP starts at $8,999).
As a result, I spent a lot of my ride time re-discovering what Costa already found out when he first rode the Street 750 back in 2014.
Like the 750, the seating space on the 500 is cramped. That’s because Harley-Davidson has created a hybrid here: the bike melds cruiser styling (particularly the low seat height) with cafe racer styling (mid controls, straight handlebars). The cockpit is a bit cramped for someone my height (6′ tall), but it wasn’t too bad once I got used to it.
I also noticed the same mediocre braking Costa observed on the 750. The front brakes provided superior feedback to the wooden feel you can get with some Harley-Davidsons, but they were adequate, nothing more (the dealership that loaned me the bike was unsure if had received the upgraded brakes announced for Street models last year). Harley-Davidson has just announced optional ABS is available for the Street lineup, starting in 2017.
However, most of my week aboard the Street was spent discovering it on my own terms in Prince Edward Island.
The Street 500 is very different from the last Harley-Davidson I rode. That bike was big, had tractor-loads of torque, was prone to dragging its floorboards in corners, and featured lots of chrome.
In contrast, I spent most of the week hustling the plain-Jane Street 500 around PEI at a healthy clip, with no forward controls and wide gearbox holding me back. I found the seat relatively comfortable and the cafe-style fairing deflected the windblast at moderate speeds, so the bike was comfortable to ride around and take in the scenery at a slower pace. But if I wanted to speed up, the bike felt comfortable cornering (with one caveat, which we’ll discuss in a minute).
When in the saddle, the seating position is actually more like a naked bike than a stereotypical cruiser. However, the engine does not offer the brutal horsepower usually associated with naked bikes. The 494 cc engine has enough snap to keep you out of trouble around town, but once you get on the highway, you have to plan your passes. The bike is capable of sustaining a steady 120-130 km/h on the highway, but I found the engine a bit lacking on hilly secondary roads; dropping a gear or two helped, but the engine lacks the power you’d want for touring or aggressive back-road riding.
For people looking to buy into the Harley-Davidson lifestyle, the engine also lacks the haptic feedback you’d get from a Sportster or Big Twin. It’s not inline-four smooth, but definitely lacks the heavy, low-frequency vibration the air-cooled Harleys deliver through the chassis and handlebars. That could be good or bad, depending on your viewpoint.
And as for the transmission: Harley-Davidson transmissions have often been summed up with the word “agricultural.” The Street 500 doesn’t have that satisfying (or jarring, depending again on your view) “ka-chunk” when you change gears. Instead, it’s smooth and modern. The clutch seemed to have a long throw, but that was only noticeable in first gear.
I was pleased to see a standard layout with the switchgear. Instead of separate buttons on the left and right handlebars for the respective signals (as with some of the lineup), the indicator switch is fixed to the left bar, as is standard across most of the industry. The high-beam switch is a bit unusual, but easy to get used to.
During the week’s mixed riding, I averaged about 4.55 L/100 km (approx. 62 mpg Imp.), so the Street is definitely easy on fuel when compared to some of Harley-Davidson’s other bikes.
One thing that surprised me while riding the Street was the amount of positive comments I received about the bike. Several people came up to me with questions about the machine, and said they really liked its looks. The bike may have a basic paint scheme and a mish-mash of styling cues, but people really liked the end result. Harley-Davidson forums are filled with negative comments on the bike’s fit and finish, but nobody I met seemed to notice or care.
Overall, the week aboard the Street went well, with no mechanical hiccups. Nothing vibrated loose. The engine might have been a bit weak, but this is a 500 cc beginner cruiser, so buyers should know what they’re getting into.
The only real issue I had with the Street was its suspension. There were several times when cornering hard on PEI’s bumpy roads that I found the suspension wanting – the front wheel was noticeably searching for traction, thanks to bouncing around on rough pavement. On the straights, the bike would give you a stiff rap from the rear if you hit bumps going too fast.
To be fair, at just over 100 kg, I’m probably heavier than the rider Harley-Davidson is targeting with the Street, and most of those riders aren’t likely planning to push the speed limit too hard in the corners. The suspension is built to a price point, and most buyers in this range would be fine with what they get, same as the engine. However, if I was considering buying this bike, I would certainly plan to replace the rear shocks and front fork springs in short order, to match my weight and riding style.
The Street 500 is a budget beginner bike, but I still had lots of fun on it; if I’d had the power of the 750 engine, I’d have been very happy, I suspect.
So why sell the 500 in North America? If the only real difference between the engines is a bore job, surely it would make more sense to simplify the product line, unless Harley-Davidson is thinking about insurance rankings. The 500 is much more sensible for overseas markets, which are more driven by displacement restrictions. Unless, of course, the 500 is a loss leader, mainly brought in to make sure riding schools have access to affordable machines, as they once did with the Buell Blast – good luck getting a company insider to confirm that, though.
There are other new bikes available in the $8,000 (or less) price range that would offer superior performance, and theoretically more bang for your buck. However, the eight-grand mark seems to be the starting point for most entry-level cruisers, so Harley-Davidson is competitive on pricing in this segment (most of the competition does have larger engines, though).
Does that make the Street 500 a good purchase? It depends how badly you want to jump into the Harley scene, and whether or not you feel the Street 500 is a good place to start down that road. Remember, the 750 version is $1,000 more, but it will certainly offer more horsepower, even if the suspension remains the same. If it were my money, I’d save up for the bigger engine. There just isn’t enough price difference to make the 500 more attractive than the 750.
Over the next few years, it will be interesting to watch the progress of the Street lineup. I’m very curious to see what happens to the 500 – will it see a price drop, to attract riders with less money, or will they strike it from the lineup? I can’t see it holding the same interest as the 883 Sportster, which remains in the Harley-Davidson lineup despite the 1200 cc version being around for decades. And will the traditional riders ever accept the Street models as “real” Harley-Davidsons? Big Twin owners poo-poo’d Sportster riders for years, so it’s difficult to see them warming to the Street lineup.
But the times, they are a’changin’. While this bike doesn’t revolutionize Harley-Davidson’s lineup, it does take it in a slightly different direction, and if that can be used to attract a host of young new riders, it won’t matter what the old guard thinks. I know I had a good time on the bike and that’s good enough for me. I may not purchase one myself, but after riding it, I can understand why someone else would.
Check out all the pics that go with this story!
I quite like the looks of it. For me, I’d prefer the 750. And H-D, please add a second front disc.
I rode one at the Harley demos last year . I did like the motor but that was it. Fit and finish BAD / Brakes / BAD / Clutch / BAD / Suspension / BAD / Price / BAD [ AS COMPARED TO OTHER SIMILAR BIKES IN CLASS ]. I did not like the seating as it is like you sit on top of the bike not in it. The fuel tank seems to disappear . It needs a new frame with a bit of style [hire an Italian designer please ] I have never seen one on the road. Dealers I talk to do not even want them on the floor JUST LIKE THE V-ROD! I did have a ride on the Yamaha FZ-750 AND WOW WHAT A DIFFERENCE! cheaper by $800.00 and outperforms at every level. I ride a 2015 FLHXS / 2009 XR1200 / 1999 SV650 / 2014 CRF250L. [ info for the haters ] Come on there Harley I know you can sort this mess out!
The fit and finish has certainly improved on the newer ones I’ve seen. Brakes, I thought, were better than the Switchback I rode. Clutch, OK once you get used to it (but you do need to get used to it). Suspension, well …
The pricing was better, I think, before the CAD tanked against the USD. CAD is still doing well vs. the yen, so Japanese bikes haven’t had to raise their prices as much, I think.
I agree that there’s a lot of potential here.
You are looking at the bike as an experienced rider and appear to be biased against entry level machines. Entry level riders are going to take most of a season if not two to really become proficient and be able to appreciate and use some of the advanced preferences you mention. They need a bike that will let them become comfortable in the saddle without scaring the crap out of themselves too soon.
Bill J, take a moment and carefully reread the article.
“I may not purchase one myself, but after riding it, I can understand why someone else would.”
That pretty much sums it up, doesn’t it ?
Bill, I have ridden a lot of entry-level machines over the years. I have nothing against them — Rob Harris and I built the Dawn 2 Dusk Rally as a way to have lots of fun on them.
And believe me, good suspension is not an “advanced feature.”
Yet an other peice of crap HD!
Had issues with the one i rented. Was holding a steady hand but the bike kept jerking the gaz. Mech said the gaz pump was faulty on this model
Thanks Zac, for an honest appraisal, this is the first actual test of the 500 I’ve ever seen.
One hopes the Motor Corp. gets behind the 500/750s in a bigger way.
The design strongly reminds me of the 500 and 750 Shadows from Honda in the 1980s – no big whoops but able to put a lot of bums in the seats that might not otherwise be attracted.
A Scrambler or Street Tracker version could be a lot of fun, certainly the base platform allows for a lot of customizing potential.
See if you can convince the ‘powers that be’ to let you hang on to it for a while and make some of the upgrades you mentioned. Better suspension, maybe steel braided brake lines could make a huge difference.
Again, nice write up – ‘Arris would be proud… 🙂
For what i read it seem better than the rest of the range, look better ( that could be improved by a wide margin ), it`s liquid cooled and cheaper. Could it be the only Harley worth buying ?
A ton of fun,had the pleasure of riding this on and off for 2 seasons. Thanks Harley Davidson Gasoline Alley Kelowna.