For years, Harley-Davidson has been trying to make a bike that handles really, really well. It came closest with the water-cooled V-Rod, but that’s now discontinued after 17 years of sales. It also succeeded with the Buell sportbikes, but that’s a whole different story.
In the rest of the cruiser and tourer line-up, the Dynas were the bikes with the best handling, but they were never great – trust me, I own an ’08 Dyna Low Rider and I wobble around corners with the best of them. The new Low Riders introduced in the last several years are considerably better but they’re still not “great”. So what does it take to make a cruiser that doesn’t need to slow down around corners?
It needs a strong frame and a sophisticated suspension and the right combination of rake and trail, that’s what, and now Harley says it’s put all this together in the new FXDR power cruiser. So last week, we accepted an invitation to go to Greece – where the roads are both awesome and awful – to put it to the test.
THESSALONIKI, GREECE—First, does the FXDR handle really, really well?
Yes, it handles very well for a cruiser. No feet-forward motorcycle will ever be as quick or confidence-inspiring through the corners as a half-decent sportbike. On the super-tight, first- or second-gear hairpins of the mountain roads here, I found myself wishing for a flickable Kawasaki Z650 or a Suzuki SV650, not a 300 kg V-twin with a 240 rear tire.
But Harley’s new FXDR is supposed to be more than any of those bikes. It’s as much about image as it is about ability, so it has to look as least as good as it goes. When I posted photos of the bike on CMG’s Facebook page, commentors called it “ugly” and “a piece of junk,” but these were probably just Harley haters. Beauty is on your own eye, and this bike is most definitely not junk.
The $26,499 FXDR is the latest (and most expensive) member of the new Softail line, which combined and replaced the old Softail and Dyna lines last year. It’s based on the Fat Bob and it’s a precursor to the upcoming Streetfighter that Harley announced in July. It shares a frame with the Breakout and its 114 cubic inch (1,868 cc) V-twin engine with the Fat Bob, as well as its 6-speed transmission and oil cooler, but its intake and exhaust tuning is unique, for both sound and power.
Harley’s quick to talk the torque (119 lbs.-ft. at 3,500 rpm) but a little hoarse when it comes to the power (91 hp, buried in the stats at h-d.com). That’s okay – torque is what kicks you off the line and out of the corners, power is top speed, and this bike’s about pulling away and showing that fat rear tire to the competition. It’s the same 18×8 wheel as on the Breakout, with a 240 mm Michelin Scorcher tire.
On the front, the 19-inch cast aluminum wheel is designed for more responsive steering than the 21-inch Breakout. The 43 mm front forks are inverted and carry 34 degrees of rake and 120 mm of trail, which is 12 mm less than Fat Bob and 25 mm less than Breakout. They have single cartridge damping and a triple spring rate.
At the back, the coil-over monoshock can be easily stiffened by turning a dial below your right butt cheek, while the whole mounting is shifted by 13 mm to raise the bike enough for sufficient clearance between the aluminum disc wheel and seat. The aluminum swingarm is almost 5 kg lighter than the other Softail swingarms – in fact, nearly half their weight – while the seat and tail section are supported by a sub-frame of welded aluminum tubing.
This all means the FXDR is a bit lighter where and when it counts, which helps in the twisties. Its official lean angles of 32.6 and 32.8 degrees are a little more than the V-Rod Muscle. So I hopped on, thumbed the starter, and went looking for curvy roads.
The bike sounds great, and the reach to the pegs was fine for my 32-inch legs. Harley offers an optional seat that will shift you forward an inch, which should work better for the more vertically-challenged among us, such as CMG’s managing editor. Nobody complained about the length of the reach.
Plenty of us complained about the feet-first style, however, including me. It’s not as radical as some Harleys have been, but it’s still a ridiculous compromise in the name of style. Quick – how many Moto GP bikes have feet-forward pegs? How many motocrossers? How many flat-trackers, or ice-racers, or dragsters? When Superman flies through the air, does he go feet first?
The feet-forward style is designed so taller riders can keep low on the bike, says Ben Wright, chief engineer for the Softail platform. “Also, it’s the posture on the bike: part of the style and the image and the ethos of the bike is how you look on it,” he says.
“We’d be compromising a fair amount of lean angle if we pulled these pegs back. There’s a trade-off – are we willing to give up the lean angle to get to that mid-position? It kind of stays with the theme that V-Rod had, as well. It’s a mix: some people prefer it, for the style of riding they would do. But those who like to ride more aggressively, those on a sport bike, those are the customers who tend to ask (for mid-mounted pegs) – they’d prefer to have their feet planted underneath them.
“If we just pulled the pegs back on this bike, for taller riders, the (ergonomic) triangle starts to get crowded. Your elbows and your knees start to come together more. If you start playing that game, then you have to bring the seat up more, and then you start losing reach to ground for the folks who are on the far left end of the spectrum. It’s always a compromise.”
There’s hope, though, for people like myself who find forward-mounted pegs place too much weight on the butt, and who have to build confidence before attacking a corner like one of Jeff Dunham’s puppets.
“We’ve heard on Fat Bob, there’s some customers who’ve said that they’d prefer their feet under them, more of a sport bike,” says Wright, “so I’ll tell you, as the Chief Engineer, I take that feedback and certainly that gets input into our future plans. We’ve just redesigned a new platform, got a new base to build upon, and we’ll react to what the market’s asking for.”
On the road
The FXDR is plenty quick, and if you know what you’re doing, you can spin that Scorcher tire in at least three gears. It gets up to speed rapidly and yes, you look pretty good doing it. At least I thought I did. Somebody took a photo of me posing on the parked bike and I just look like a fat bastard, but on the highway, doing a stomach crunch, well, I’m a bit less fat.
There are four available colours – matte black, glossy black, copper and white – and a “Dominion” appearance option with tasty black and bronze powder-coated trim pieces.
The gas tank is unique to the Softail line, holding 17 litres of fuel, which is halfway between either the 13 litres and 21 litres of the other models. This is not a machine for crossing the country, though – your butt and legs will need a break before your forearms, probably after an hour or two. Nor is it really a bike for commuting or tooling around town, because of the reach forward to the handlebars and the pegs. It’s a great bike, however, for a 220-km day trip, which is what we did. I rode with several other journos, as well as Wright and the less-tall Karen Mayberry, Harley-Davidson Canada’s courageous PR rep. We headed east from Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, into the mountains.
I know the length of the ride because I set the odometer, but none of the too-cool-for-school instrumentation is very clear, or helpful. It’s all contained in a small digital display above the triple clamp and behind a tiny, removable cowl, but the only thing easily readable is the numeric speedometer. There’s a numeric tach, which might as well not bother, and a gear display that only works when the clutch is not pulled in and the bike’s moving (it knows the gear by an algorithm of speed and engine speed). There’s other stuff there, too, including a fuel gauge, but I barely looked at it.
I was much more preoccupied with looking at the clouds. Greek roads are notoriously slippery when it rains and we spent much of the day dodging a huge thunderstorm. Leaving town, we looked good in traffic while letting everyone know who was boss, and we were probably the best-dressed riders on the highway – Greeks don’t really seem to like wearing their compulsory crash helmets. (Taxi drivers have clips for their seatbelt latches to fool their cars into thinking their belts are fastened, but they’re not. Hah! They’re smarter than those stupid safety computers!)
I was glad I was wearing All The Gear All The Time when we rode through a small town after a brief rainfall and I dabbed the front brake for a tight corner – the front wheel refused to stop and the ABS kept me upright until I came to a rest against the opposite curb. This was not the bike’s fault, nor its tires, but an indication of how slippery the road was at that point. It’s also a total kudo to Harley’s ABS.
It’s around the highway curves that it all mattered, though, and the FXDR was no slouch. It took a bit of steering weight to push it into a turn, presumably thanks to that massive rear tire, but once there it was happy to tip right down until my boot heels ground into the roadway. Most of the mountain corners had blind apexes, meaning I couldn’t see where they were going through the trees and so didn’t want to push more than my boots against the asphalt; when everything did come together and I remembered to pull up my feet for more clearance, the bike felt as steady while touching down as if it were upright. This is night-and-day over my 10-year-old Low Rider. Night-and-frickin’-day.
I’d still have preferred a lighter, more upright bike for the super-tight corners, but as Wright said, it’s always a compromise. Nobody looks bad-ass on a Z650, even if they’re overtaking you on a curve, but we all looked bad-ass on the FXDR.
At least, we did until the rain finally caught up with us. We ended up drenched through and cold and huddled under a pine tree for pathetic shelter while the bikes stayed parked for safety beside the road (read all about it tomorrow, if you didn’t already get our newsletter). When this happens, the key is to not look like you’re soaked and miserable and to keep your head held high, despite your saturated leather jacket now weighing 300 kg. Which we did for the final hour, all the way back to the hotel.
The bikes ran well in the rain when we could see where we were going. The giant air intake beside your right knee has a new synthetic material inside it that protects the filter from water, and it doesn’t need oiling or covering with a sock. There’s little weather protection on the FXDR, period, with no plans for an optional windscreen or panniers. Our backs were filthy from spray off the rear wheel, despite the thin composite fender that helps hold the lights and plate bracket; it has a large hole in it for purely aesthetic reasons, to show off the tire and not look like such a large piece of black plastic, and all the crud probably came through it. And in front of the rider, Harley’s “1” logo badge is stuck to the tank and looks super cool, unless you’re a guy and happen to look down at it when sitting. ‘Nuff said. Look at the picture to see what I mean. You won’t be able to unsee it.
Is it worth it?
Harley-Davidson has big plans for the future, and the FXDR is another step in that process: “There’ll be 100 new bikes in the next 10 years, and they’ll create two million new riders, and grow our sales to 50 per cent international,” says Wright.
“We know we can’t do that if we just keep making the same old Harley-Davidsons that we have been for the last 115 years. We’ll continue to serve those customers, but we have to keep pushing the modern, the contemporary, and bring in new customers and keep pushing the envelope. The Fat Bob was a great introduction to that, and the FXDR 114 is now one step further for the Softail platform.”
The FXDR is not cheap, pushing $30,000 after taxes, but it’s not supposed to be. Its materials are high-quality and it’s well manufactured. Yes, it’s a bit of a poser bike, but so are most motorcycles these days and especially power cruisers. The difference is that it actually does come through with the goods when you want it to. It goes stinking fast when you crack the throttle, sounds good while doing it (and there’s an optional Screamin’ Eagle titanium performance slip-on muffler that apparently adds five percent more power and sounds even better), and it won’t embarrass you when the first corner comes up, or the second, or the third. In fact, you’ll feel pretty good about all of them.