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Harley-Davidson CVO Line Up (2009) Review

CVO – Carrying price tags that list up to 70 per cent more than standard production models, the annual offerrings from Harley-Davidson’s Custom Vehicle Operations seem an extravagant expense. But Bertrand Gahel argues they’re actually quite the bargain for custom-happy riders.

To the average member of the metric motorcycle community, Harley-Davidson Custom Vehicles Operations models seem like little more than overpriced American Bling. That’s if said member even knows what a CVO model is. What else could you call a Harley that’s 70 per cent more expensive than the stock version? One of motorcycling’s best kept secrets, if you ask me.

CVO models aren’t for, and can’t be, appreciated by everybody. Even Harley enthusiasts don’t always “get” what they’re all about. Diehard Harley fans do though, especially those who are good with numbers. The truth of the matter is that under those seemingly very high prices are models that can genuinely be called bargains. A $40,000 blinged-out Ultra Classic a bargain? Yep.

The notion that a $40,000 Electra Glide Ultra Classic—about $16,000 over stock—represents a good deal is understandably very hard, if not impossible, to grasp by a rider perfectly happy with his $9,000 V-Strom 650. But, to a fanatic of the Milwaukee brand who just can’t leave a stock bike alone, the proposal actually makes a lot of sense. That’s because, in the process of customizing that stock Electra Glide to make it “his own,” he (or she) will often go through 16 grand just like that, sometimes with questionable results. For that amount, the CVO division not only throws in a very lengthy list of carefully and tastefully chosen parts from the pages of the famous Screamin’ Eagle catalogue, it also includes a quite intricate custom paint job

. And last, but certainly not least, a considerably more powerful 110 cubic inch version of the stock Twin Cam 96 is also part of the deal for all the new model year CVO offerings, of which there are four for 2009: the $39,089 Screamin’ Eagle Ultra Classic Electra Glide, the $34,129 Screamin’ Eagle Road Glide, the $27,859 Screamin’ Eagle Dyna Fat Bob and the $29,729 Screamin’ Eagle Softail Springer. While both the Electra Glide and the Road Glide have been part of the limited run lineup for a few years now, the Fat Bob is a new addition for 2009. And while the Springer was offered in ‘08, the ‘09 version is a substantially different motorcycle based not on a stock Softail Springer, but rather on the new-for-2008 Rocker chassis.

At almost $40,000, the SE Ultra Classic is shockingly expensive to the average motorcyclist. But hang around any H-D club or attend any large motorcycle gathering, such as Daytona or Sturgis, and you won’t be able to count the number of heavily customized Electra Glides—or pretty much any Harley-Davidson model for that matter—you’ll go by. CVO models make sense because the bill for such extensive mods sometimes amounts to a few times the price of the stock bike, and because results are, well, proportionate to both the owner’s tastes and the hired shop’s talent. Which can go either way.

While the custom paint and a too-long-to-list inventory of shiny Screamin’ Eagle parts bolted to CVO models are what catch the eye first, one twist of the throttle is all it takes to realize these aren’t normal Harleys. Powered by the Twin Cam 110, they all offer a level of performance well above that of models equipped with the standard 96 cu. in. motor. Finally, the Electra Glide doesn’t feel underpowered anymore. The lighter Road Glide and Springer are even faster. And then there’s the Fat Bob. The combination of its unique Dyna rubber-mount system and the much stronger torque of the bigger engine is absolutely intoxicating in the CVO version. It isn’t marketed, like the V-Rod for instance, as a performance custom, but the Screamin’ Eagle Dyna Fat Bob is nonetheless remarkably quick. I’d easily call it my personal favourite Harley to ride.

Whether it’s bolted on a Touring, Softail or Dyna platform, the Twin Cam 110 impresses most because of the surprisingly fat torque it generates. From idle all the way past midrange, power is as available as it is generous. High revs, though, aren’t where this motor likes to spend a lot of time—it becomes noisy and vibrates too much when held there. For some reason, the otherwise fine transmission also shifts more roughly at higher revs.As far as handling, braking and suspension are concerned, CVO models and regular production run units are almost identical.

Harley-Davidson says it could build and sell greater numbers of each CVO model, but the company would rather protect the sense of exclusivity offered by relatively small production runs. During the official press intro in Santa Barbara, California in July, the pride and excitement of the people responsible for these four models were palpable, and with reason. They are essentially given carte blanche to build whatever they believe will be perceived as the ultimate Harley by a certain category of enthusiast for whom CVO prices simply aren’t an issue. Actually, it seems that over the years CVO buyers have become somewhat of a cult-like group that eagerly awaits each new model year to find out which units the CVO division has selected this time, and to discover how it decided to transform a stock Harley into one of those limited run motorcycles. CVO models form a small and exclusive niche, but one there’s definitely a demand for.

SE Ultra Classic Electra Glide
Production run: 4,200 units
The SE Ultra will set you back an additional $16,000 over the price of the regular black production model. Because of its substantial heft, the Ultra Classic Electra Glide probably benefits the most from the bigger displacement engine as it no longer feels underpowered. The 2009 model gets the same rolling chassis upgrades featured in the standard Touring line.

SE Road Glide
Production run: 3,000 units
The presence of the Road Glide in the small CVO lineup is somewhat surprising as this certainly isn’t Harley’s best selling model. But the CVO team seems to have an unconditional love for the thing and insists on bring it back year after year. According to Harley-Davidson, featuring the Road Glide as a CVO model seems to have a positive effect on sales of the relatively unpopular regular bike. This one will cost you about $13,500 more than the stocker.

SE Dyna Fat Bob
Production run: 2,450 units
Choosing the new-for-08 Fat Bob as a base for a CVO model seems like a natural move given the original bike’s macho attitude. The special paint along with the long list of Screamin’ Eagle goodies work together to accentuate that look even more. At $27,859, the CVO version of the Fat Bob is over $11,000 more expensive than the stocker. It is, however, the most affordable model of the limited edition lineup.

SE Softail Springer
Production run: 2,500 units
What the CVO division did with the famous Springer for 2009 amounts to a stunning piece. Arguably the most elegant CVO to ever grace a showroom floor, it has the most of everything Harley has to offer. The most chrome, the most dramatic paint job, the most powerful engine, the most amazing front end assembly. This year’s version isn’t built around the now discontinued regular Softail Springer, but rather is derived from the Rocker introduced in 2008. Knowing perfectly well the amount of engineering necessary to make a motorcycle handle decently with a 240mm rear tire, the CVO division decided to start from a platform with that engineering already built in: the Rocker. So what we have here is essentially a Rocker neatly disguised in a Springer.

In the paint can
When Harley-Davidson claims its CVO models feature custom paint, they mean just that. Parts don’t simply come out ready to install after a few minutes spent in a fancy paint booth full of robots. They are sanded, primed, taped, painted and buffed all by hand in the Calibre Paint plant by a small army of, well, humans. Parts come to the plant raw and go through a chain of stations where they are gradually and meticulously brought to showroom quality. Because the masking tape, the pinstiping and even the “grinded-metal” effect (on the Springer tank and fenders) are all done free-hand, one can assume no two CVO models are exactly the same. All that labour, of course, is partially responsible for the premium prices of these models.

– Bertrand Gahel



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