In a few short years, Harley-Davidson will become a significantly different manufacturer than the one we’ve known for decades. Part of the new FXDR114 mission is to smooth the transition from today’s Harley to tomorrow’s.
Change is Coming
Last summer, in an unprecedented move, Harley-Davidson lifted the veil on future projects, essentially letting the world know what to expect from the brand over the next five years. A whole new family of naked bikes, edgy cruisers, several electric models and even an adventure bike are in the works. Shocking.
First, because Harley-Davidson is about to burst out of the cruiser-only bubble it has religiously remained in for the longest time, but also because before the news broke, nothing (nothing) used to leak out of Milwaukee.
I’ve been closely covering the Motor Company for over 20 years. During that time, I’ve tested every single motorcycle it produced, Buells included, and been in contact with everyone over there, from designers and engineers right up to Willie G. Many times I’ve tried to get something, anything, out of them about what would be next, but “We don’t talk about future products” was always the only answer. This decision to crack open the vault door is a big deal.
This context is essential to understand what the 2019 FXDR114 is about. If one wanted to be ironic about its exact role, then it could be categorized as a transition model in consideration of Harley-Davidson’s traditional core customer who has a history of getting deeply worked up any time changes are made, even small ones. In this case, some measure of conciliation seems wise considering the major way in which the company will soon change.
Harley-Davidson basically describes the FXDR114 as a power cruiser with great handling. A simple enough pitch, and yet one that contradicts the nature of the vast majority of Harleys produced since, well, ever. The honest truth is that handling simply hasn’t been atop the company’s priorities list. Styling was — along with engine feel —and in an obsessive way. Which is fine if that’s what customers ask for, as they have. But there are dynamic consequences to styling choices.
For example, the trademark low stance of classic Harley cruisers equates to very low ground clearance and rear wheel travel. Augment the latter just a bit and an awkward gap will begin to appear between the rear fender and tire. Keep it at a minimum and the look will be right, but at the cost of comfort and lean angle. To Harley-Davidson and its customers, that trade off was the acceptable one.
To go from there to a Harley that leans meant something had to give and it was styling, which is obvious the instant you look at the FXDR114 as it just doesn’t look like a classic Harley-Davidson. Gone is the traditional rear tire hugging rear fender, replaced by a stubby floating rear section that isn’t unlike that of, say, the Ducati Panigale. As a consequence, a rear suspension with greater travel can now be used, raising the entire bike up and drastically improving cornering clearance. To maximize this, a single canister that looks borrowed from some Suzuki replaces the traditional long, low mufflers. Elevated forward-mounted footpegs and a longer travel front suspension further help cornering clearance.
Transforming the FXDR114 into a good handler required much less effort, simply because Harley-Davidson’s latest Softail platform is already a very solid base. Hardware improvements are essentially limited to better brakes, a one-piece cast aluminum swingarm and rigidly mounted clip-ons, replacing the traditional rubber-mounted handlebar to improve steering feel.
Other than that, the FXDR114 remains pure cruiser with a chopper-like fork angle of near 35 degrees, a hefty 303 kilograms (668 pounds) wet weight, a classic 19/18-inch front/rear wheel combo, a stretched 1738mm wheelbase and a meaty 240mm section rear tire.
I had seen the FXDR114 only in photos before observing it in the flesh at the press launch in Thessaloniki, Greece. Its atypical proportions, elongated profile, and quirky mix of classic Harley cues—blacked-out Milwaukee-Eight 114, stylish wheels, long wheelbase—are all features that set the model apart. These combine with “foreign” characteristics, such as an aluminum swingarm, sportbike muffler, and shortened, floating rear section. Opinions about the FXDR114’s looks vary significantly, but personally, I find the result attractive, edgy and forward thinking.
For some time now, I’ve been asking Harley representatives how to make cruiser styling evolve. The answer has been forthcoming with the latest Fat Boy, Fat Bob and now the FXDR114, which doesn’t look like any Harley before it, yet is unmistakably one. My personal hope is that this specific styling touch will also manifest as Harley-Davidson goes about its business of building nakeds, ADVs and electric bikes.
The FXDR114 may offer unusual styling, but once on the road, it’s unquestionably a Harley through and through. First, there’s no mistaking the deep, throaty rumble of the Milwaukee-Eight, in this case available only in its 114-cubic-inch version, easily the most fun and desirable one. On the slick and slippery roads around Thessaloniki, it was easy to break the rear loose — other than standard ABS, there’s no electronic aids whatsoever onboard — and I couldn’t resist leaving long black marks every time the light turned green. The 114 is a proper torque monster and a truly pleasant motor. Its vibrations are generally well controlled on Softails, but they’re more pronounced through the hands because of the FXDR114’s hard-mounted clip-ons.
While on the subject, comfort really isn’t the FXDR114’s strongest asset. It’s ergonomically similar to the radical Breakout, but because the footpegs are higher, the riding position is even more extreme. With feet far forward and hands almost exactly above them, the rider is literally folded in half. It’s an aggressive, cool posture, but for more than short rides, it’s far from ideal, and if by misfortune you hit a bump, your totally vulnerable spine will get a nasty hit because your legs can’t absorb anything when stretched that far. The ride might be bearable over a few kilometres, but it quickly gets old. Say, Harley-Davidson, how about the same bike with rear sets?
In regards to handling, Harley-Davidson wasn’t exaggerating. The first few turns on the FXDR114 are actually strange as the bike leans to an increasingly flatter angle, far past what is normal for a Harley, and without anything touching down.
The peg feelers eventually do scrape, but by then the lean angle is sufficient to produce more than decent corner speed. Add the torquey nature of the massive V-Twin and quite strong brakes, and you have a motorcycle capable of a surprising pace on a winding back road. After spending a considerable amount of time on such roads I often caught myself wishing for an encounter with local riders on anything sporty. I would have bruised some egos, guaranteed.
That being said, ripping twisties on an FXDR114 isn’t the easiest of feats. Surprisingly, the length of the bike, and the large diameter wheels, really aren’t problems. But the super wide rear 240 and the near 700-pound weight need some getting used to. In a nutshell, they ask for a certain effort, precision, skill and decisiveness from riders if they intend to ride the FXDR114 fast and aggressively. I actually liked having to put in the work and concentration in order to get the best out of it. Road bikes are at times so well behaved you feel detached from what’s going on: not at all in this case.
I enjoyed the FXDR114, even if my back did suffer from a whole day on it, especially as some roads were quite bumpy. Harley-Davidson says its customer will be the maturing sportbike owner who’s not yet ready to settle for a bagger or a sports tourer.
I don’t know. It’s almost 27 grand. Maybe. It probably won’t be someone’s sole bike. Or maybe it could be, if it’s used only for short rides.
I see the model as a piece of history. I don’t think it will sell in high numbers. It’s the result of a clash between tradition and progress. It exists to announce change is coming and it looks the part. It’s an important Harley-Davidson and whoever is interested in it should realize that.
by Bertrand Gahel