It’s not news that Harley-Davidson’s core audience is dropping away. North American riders who buy the biggest, most expensive, bikes are aging, as people tend to do, and the next generation isn’t picking up the slack.
Rather than resting on the ropes, Harley’s come out swinging with a range of alternatives to find new buyers – from expanding to new markets and producing the fully electric Livewire, to consolidating Dyna and Softail models into one all-new, or heavily revised, lineup.
What is it?
The latest addition to this roster is the $22,399 Sport Glide. It fuses cruiser and tourer characteristics into one versatile package featuring a miniature Batwing fairing and lockable saddlebags. Heading to the local Starbucks for a coffee? Quickly remove the side saddlebags and fairing. Presto-chango – you’re ready to go cruising. Traveling to a Starbucks that’s farther from home? Simply reattach the fairing into place, click the saddlebags back on and hit the open road.
Constructed from rigid plastic, the lockable bags offered enough room for camera equipment, rain gear and some tallboy cans of beer, but I had to strap an additional bag on the back for a few days away. Much like the original Ford Model-T, the bags come in any colour you like, as long as that colour is black.
For those on the fence over which kind of model to purchase next, this split-personality Softail was launched mid-2018 to be the best of both worlds. Whenever an attempt is made to combine multiple elements into a single entity, there are often too many compromises made. Just think of the CVO Softail Convertible, which followed this premise nearly a decade ago with rather dismal sales results, and ditto for the short-lived Switchback.
But perhaps things will be different this time around? The removable mini-fairing does look fairly permanent and provides better wind protection than a windshield up to undisclosed triple-digit highway speeds. It works well at not disrupting air flow too much and keeping the brunt of air off your chest while still retaining that wind in your face feeling. The 18.9-litre fuel tank offered more than 320 kilometres of range, even when ridden enthusiastically, so fuel stops were few and far between. I’ve definitely ridden cruisers that were less suited to long-distance touring.
The name Sport Glide is one recycled from The Motor Company’s storied past, as Harley likes to do. The original FXRT model featured a large Windjammer-like fairing, but its design cues aren’t anywhere to be found on its modern namesake.
What’s it like to ride?
Editor Mark chose each of the motorcycles we piloted on a CMG group ride to the Haliburton Highlands earlier this season. He chose the Sport Glide for me because of my experience riding Harley-Davidsons, the fact that I own a Harley-Davidson jacket, and he wanted someone else to carry his groceries and beer. Thus, I was riding the lone bagger among a group of lower displacement, but also far lighter and more nimble naked bikes.
Perception is a funny thing. What’s normal for the spider is chaos for the fly. [Er – are you calling me fly? –Ed.] Having ridden many a Hog cruiser and touring bike over the last decade and a half, the Sport Glide felt quite sprightly by comparison. Nobody wanted to swap seats with me, because it was seen as the consolation prize among the group of bikes assembled. So I carried on happily riding the Harley until Jeff’s curiosity got the best of him and he volunteered to take the Hog for a brief but memorable portion of the ride.
Pulling in afterward for a gas stop, Jeff was bewildered. “How the hell have you been keeping up with us on this thing?” he exclaimed. “I feel like I’m riding a refrigerator.” Needless to say, it’s not for everyone and he didn’t volunteer for another round.
What did he expect? He used to own a Triumph Street Triple R and recently purchased a Kawasaki Z900, and he’s not a fan of the neutral foot-forward riding position of the cruiser. However, as a guy of shorter inseam than myself (and some elementary school age children), he did appreciate the 673 mm (26.5 inch) seat height.
Resident newbie Matt Bubbers opted to pop his proverbial Harley cherry by hopping on next for a particularly enjoyable set of higher speed curves on Highway 523 from Madawaska to Maytooth. Pulling up the rear quite a while after the rest of us had assembled, his impressions were diplomatic but telling. “I can see the appeal, but that’s enough for me,” he exclaimed as he climbed off the bike and returned to the Ducati Scrambler Café Racer he’d been enjoying. Geez, everyone’s a critic!
Even Editor Mark, a Harley owner himself, asked to lead the way on the Sport Glide for a straight section outside of Barry’s Bay, but swapped it for a sportbike as soon as we reached a long, curving road through the woods.
The tank-mounted instrument cluster features a speedometer among some other appreciated bits of information on the small digital display, such as fuel level, a trip meter, clock, odometer, tach and a digital gear indicator – for every gear, not just sixth! Cruise control is standard. There’s no Bluetooth or high-powered stereo, though. After all, this is a cruiser, not a long-distance touring bike.
Immediately after picking up the Sport Glide, I couldn’t help but notice that a number of surfaces facing up at me prominently were ornately adorned in chrome. I wonder if the designers who put the final aesthetic touches on this motorcycle have ever ridden one. Not only will the uneven chrome accents on the tank and triple tree be a pain in the ass to keep clean from water spots, but they also acted as a giant mirror, constantly aimed right at my face whichever direction I seemed to be riding.
Is it any good at what it does?
Truthfully, I wasn’t a big fan of the Milwaukee Eight powerplant when it was launched, but it is starting to grow on me. I still don’t think it embodies enough of that chest thumping, pavement-pounding personality for which Harley-Davidson has become synonymous, but its smooth power delivery does mean your extremities don’t continue to vibrate after the bike has been shut off.
There’s no 114 cubic inch option for the engine, but the 107 ci (1,746 cc) V-twin has plenty of get-up-and-go. With a running weight of 317 kg (698 lbs), it feels downright swift and sporty compared to the larger touring bikes. Torque is rated at 108 lbs.-ft. at as low as 2,750 rpm, so there’s little lag anywhere in the powerband. The six-speed transmission is precise and smooth, lacking the weighty ka-chunk from days of old.
Sure, the powerplant is a big deal, but the biggest revelations to the new Softail lineup are in the ride and handling. Inverted front forks are improved and the rear shock is relocated under the seat. It can be easily adjusted for preload by hand.
Initially I found myself wincing in preparation for rough spots on the road out of sheer habit, but soon realized there was no reason to be concerned. Elephant Road in the Haliburton Highlands used to be a go-to for motorcyclists looking to stitch together a long series of uninterrupted twisties, but the last few winters have not been kind to the poor road. Potholes or mid-corner road irregularities that would have seriously unsettled the previous generation of Softail weren’t exactly enjoyable to traverse, but the Harley soaked them up without occasion or incident.
The 18-inch front “Mantis” wheel gets a single four-piston fixed caliper on a 300 mm disc while the rear gets a 2-piston pot on a floating rear. ABS is now standard fare, as is the typical Harley security system, but predictably there are no fancy variable riding modes or clever techno-nannies. In fact, the only options available are paint colours.
Does it hold up?
For a fully-laden cruiser, the Sport Glide managed to keep up pretty well with bikes nearly half its weight. Granted, it wasn’t without some peg scraping and the guys weren’t intentionally trying to leave me in the dust, I don’t think. [Actually, yes, we were – Ed.] It’s comfortable, versatile and unquestionably easier to ride faster and with more confidence than its predecessor.
Ringing in the register with an MSRP of $22,399 , the Sport Glide isn’t cheap. However you choose to justify such a purchase to yourself and your spouse is up to you, but for those who may have previously been considering the possibility of adding another steed to their stable, it is essentially two motorcycles in one.