Friends in Low Places
Rolling into 2015, Harley-Davidson shows it’s serious about three wheels, slams its touring machines and brings back the controversially styled Road Glide.
As demand for big-inch cruisers softens—it’s still the largest segment of the North American market—one of the most interesting companies to observe is Harley-Davidson. The undisputed leader of the cruiser genre, the Milwaukee brand has the most to lose from this trend, which makes its moves all the more captivating. Recently in Sonoma (and simultaneously in Nashville for the dealer network), the 2015 lineup was unveiled to the press. As always “infidels” will only see in it slight tweaks to existing platforms that have no right being called new models, but for the actual Harley-Davidson customer, there is indeed quite a bit of news.
First and foremost is an interesting trend toward accessibility for 2015. While the new Street platform, which will be reviewed in an upcoming issue, is the most obvious step toward making Harley-Davidson ownership more accessible, various other moves have been made to achieve the same goal. One of the most surprising is the introduction of Low versions of the Electra Glide Ultra Classic and the Ultra Limited.
Low editions are nothing new at Harley-Davidson, but they’re often derived from novice-friendly machines like Sportsters. Electra Glides, on the other hand, are aimed at the most experienced of riders, which makes the concept of Low versions somewhat counterintuitive. But the idea is actually quite smart. Luxury touring bikes are mostly bought by experienced riders because managing their huge size and tallish seat demands experience. But what if their girth was made a little bit less cumbersome?
If a rider with just a few years in the saddle wanted a luxury touring motorcycle, what would it take to make him/her feel comfortable? It turns out letting him/her plant both feet firmly on the ground goes a long way toward achieving that goal.
By lowering the Electra Glide Ultra Classic and the Ultra Limited (regular versions of both remain available), both models become a possible choice for a much wider clientele—this with no major redesign, at minimum developing cost and with a reasonable premium to the consumer.
The new $29,839 Electra Glide Ultra Classic Low and $32,999 Ultra Limited Low respectively cost $1,400 and $1,100 more than the standard models. In both cases, seat height drops from 29.1 inches (740mm) to 27 (685mm), which is significant and makes a clear difference in the saddle. Average size riders now touch the ground with their knees bent and smaller riders with both feet reassuringly flat on the pavement. Even though Electra Glides never really had particularly high seats, these are heavy machines with ready-to-ride weights hovering around the 900-lb/400 kg mark. For the less than very experienced or tall riders, the drop in seat height really does make a huge difference in confidence.
But Harley-Davidson didn’t stop there, adding a number of features to help smaller riders feel in control: a low-profile seat reduces the reach to the foot controls; less bulky left and right engine covers improve leg clearance; a pull-back handlebar places hand controls two inches closer to the rider; smaller diameter hand grips reduce the finger reach to the clutch and brake levers. There’s even an easier to reach side stand.
The main modification allowing those lower seat heights, however, is suspension with reduced travel, specifically from 4.6 inches (117mm) to 3.86 (98mm) in front and from 3.0 (76mm) to 2.15 (54.6) at the back. There just isn’t a magical way to reduce travel that much and maintain the same level of comfort.
The good news is that Harley-Davidson touring bikes already had very good suspension, so although the Low versions clearly offer a firmer ride, they aren’t harsh, at least not until they get onto very deteriorated roads.
When the question is how to make a motorcycle as accessible as possible, the trike concept is a controversial answer. Still, for 2015, Harley-Davidson is doubling down on that solution by adding one more model, called Freewheeler, to the lineup. Just as a Tri Glide Ultra Classic is the three-wheel version of an Electra Glide Ultra Classic, the $31,619 Freewheeler is more or less the equivalent of a “triked” Fat Boy. Styling has purposely been tweaked to make the Freewheeler look compact, unintimidating and as motorcycle-like as possible.
According to Harley-Davidson, shortening it by three inches moved the centre of gravity forward and improved handling. This was achieved without reducing the volume of the trunk, which still holds a couple of full-face helmets.
I have to say I was surprised by how decently the Freewheeler behaved on the road. It’s obviously not a traditional motorcycle and it certainly doesn’t ride like one, especially when it comes to changing direction: counter-steering is no longer needed and cornering is achieved without leaning. Actually, for a “normal” rider, there’s not much too like. But the Freewheeler isn’t aimed at the normal rider. It’s destined for whoever can’t or won’t ride a motorcycle, for whatever reason. And there are plenty. Like the husband who really wants the wife to get her own bike, but it turns out she just can’t get to the point where she feels comfortable on a motorcycle.
Or the aging motorcyclist who still wants to ride, but is finding that the weight of a big bike plus his own and that of his wife’s on the back has just become too much to handle. For all these reasons, a trike makes sense, as it becomes a substitute for a traditional motorcycle. In that role, the Freewheeler does a good job.
I’d like to see ABS standard as it would help stabilize emergency braking, and the thing does bounce around quite a bit on bad pavement. But keep the pace relaxed and if you’re one of those who can’t or won’t ride a regular motorcycle, the experience isn’t unpleasant at all. One big difference with Can-Am’s Spyder, the other “three-wheel motorcycle” on the market, is that when riding the Freewheeler, what is seen, felt and heard is pure Harley-Davidson.
Sitting on the Spyder, the definitely un-motorcycle like dual front wheels are always in plain sight, but on the Freewheeler, what the rider sees is exactly the same as if he or she was on, say, a Fat Boy. The deformed scenery reflecting in the chromed headlight, the road on each side of the big fork, the deep soothing sound of the 103-inch air-cooled V-Twin, the relaxed, feet-forward riding position with pull-back handlebar are all elements directly linking the riding experience to that offered by a regular cruiser.
The bottom line is while the Freewheeler evidently does not provide the exact replica of a motorcycle ride it does render a pretty decent substitute of that experience to those who are interested in such a proposition.
Last but not least on the list of 2015 news from Harley-Davidson is the return of the Road Glide ($25,579) after a year off. Still based on the Street Glide (everything from the steering pivot back is practically identical), the Road Glide benefits from all the improvements introduced in 2014 by the Rushmore project. The main new feature is a completely redesigned front fairing. The “sharkhead” styling is still very much present, but now features some pretty high tech airflow qualities. Thanks to software H-D specifically developed to understand and fix turbulence, multiple vents have been designed into the fairing. They can be closed in case of heavy rain or very cold temperatures, but when opened, they all but eliminate turbulent airflow around the rider’s helmet, which can be said of very few faired cruisers.
As for handling, it has often been said that because it doesn’t have a Batwing fairing mounted to its fork like the Street Glide, the Road Glide steers lighter. But when riding both back-to-back, this seems more like a myth than anything else. Anyone waffling between the two should just get the style they like best. Those interested in the Road Glide should know that a better-equipped Special version is also available at a cost of $28,379.
As for the top box-equipped Road Glide Ultra, it’s also back for 2015, but only from the CVO division, meaning it’s loaded with options, gleaming with special paint and powered by the Twin-Cooled High Output Twin Cam 110. Retail price is $48,389.
Seems like there’s something for everyone in Milwaukee’s 2015 line.
-Bertrand Gahel, Issue #306, Oct / Nov 2014