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Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra (2011) Motorcycle Review

Harley-Davidson’s 2011 CVO Road Glide Ultra combines two very unique models into one distinct package with an élan that only Milwaukee can manage. It’s an excursion into the very specific world of sensorial touring.

For all its might and charisma, Harley-Davidson just is not good at everything. For instance, no matter how infatuated its legion of fans may be, the Motor Company couldn’t sell them speed if its very survival depended on it. But what the Milwaukee brand is good at, really, really good at, is touring—more particularly “sensorial touring.”

This, Harley-Davidson has literally got down to a science, a fact better demonstrated by the new-for-2011 CVO Road Glide Ultra than by any other motorcycle the company ever produced.

Sensorial Touring is one of those eccentric twist on motorcycling that might not exist today if it wasn’t for Harley-Davidson’s very particular approach to riding. Defined in the simplest terms, it could be explained as the combination of touring and cruising. Sounds simple enough, right? Just bolt bags and some kind of wind protection to any cruiser, and voilà! That would be the way most of Harley-Davidson’s competitors would generally do it. The process is taken much, much more seriously in Milwaukee.

Where the success of luxury touring models such as Honda’s acclaimed Gold Wing or BMW’s K-LTs is essentially measured in both high efficiency and high technology, that of a Harley-Davidson touring model is measured in, well … the reality is, it isn’t measured. It is felt. And there’s a lot to be felt on this latest CVO model.

One of four CVO offerings available for 2011, the new CVO Road Glide Ultra is a mix—another Harley-Davidson specialty—of two models: the Ultra Classic Electra Glide and the Road Glide. More precisely, it’s an Ultra Classic with a frame-mounted Road Glide fairing.
Of course, as with any machine developed by Harley-Davidson’s Custom Vehicle Operations team, the new Road Glide Ultra comes loaded. And rightfully so, shall we add, considering the hefty $41,919 price tag. As usual, the list of Screamin’ Eagle parts is endless: ABS and cruise control are standard, the paint and graphics are done by hand, attention to details jumps to a whole new level compared to stock, and there’s a powerful 110-inch Twin Cam V-Twin pushing the whole thing using a six-speed tranny.

Look a bit closer, though, and you’ll begin to notice even more good stuff. The 18-inch Agitator wheels, for instance, immediately stand out and are the perfect example of some of the super premium parts used on CVO models. New heated touring seats are “suspended” for even more comfort and include an adjustable backrest for the rider.

And then come the electronics. For 2011, a Road Tech Zumo 660 GPS not only comes standard, but is also integrated into the communications system, as does an included eight-Gig iPod Nano, which the rider will use as a source for what is the best sounding audio system so far on two wheels. Featuring what Harley-Davidson calls BOOM! speakers and a new amplifier, it achieves sound quality not yet heard on a motorcycle, and this even at highway speeds, which is very impressive. It is literally an audiophile’s system. I know because I like my music and I like it when it sounds exactly as it should and, so far, with the possible exception of the Gold Wing which does have a very decent system, I’ve never been able to ride an audio system-equipped bike listening to more than very low quality sound.

There’s both a familiar and a fresh feel to the new CVO Road Glide Ultra. Familiar because, well, except for the front fairing, it’s really an Ultra Classic Electra Glide, a model that’s been around forever. This being said, it should also be added that it is built on a platform that was thoroughly looked over a mere couple of years ago, and one that today offers a quite impressive ride in terms of comfort and handling.
For such a heavyweight, it displays simply amazing grace when rolling. But the Road Glide Ultra remains a very heavy motorcycle, and a top-heavy one at that, so extra care must be given to tight, low-speed manoeuvres where even experienced riders can get caught.

For all its familiarity however, the new CVO Road Glide Ultra also does feel different than any Harley-Davidson. It doesn’t just feel like a combination of two models, it feels like the combination of the best features of two models, which in turn feels like a surprisingly good combination for touring. You follow? The touring solution that offers the new CVO Road Glide Ultra is actually so good it’s one of those situations where you wonder why this wasn’t done before.
What this big, frame-mounted fairing and its large windshield add to the Ultra Classic Electra Glide is no less than a new level of “touring credibility.” With just this addition, what has become the new Road Glide Ultra now feels more like a luxury tourer, and less like an accessorized cruiser.
The better wind protection—and not the supposedly lighter steering, which just doesn’t really change much about the riding experience—is the key factor behind this newfound quality as it improves comfort overall. Better shielded from the wind and less vulnerable to the cold and the rain, the rider is simply put in a more enjoyable environment, especially when you factor in the effects of high mileage. The benefits coming from the larger wind protection go even further as, on one hand, you get to better hear that wonderfully deep Harley-Davidson exhaust rumble and, on the other, the sound quality of the audio system is much less sabotaged by wind noise.

It must be noted here that, thanks to some wind tunnel testing, the CVO Road Glide Ultra’s fairing and windshield produce a surprisingly low and very tolerable level of buffeting. According to Harley-Davidson, a rather simple plastic part is used to block air from rushing up between the tank and fairing, which stabilizes the air flow around the rider’s head. Whatever it is, it works, which adds even more to the touring worthiness of the model.

The new CVO Road Glide Ultra gives Harley-Davidson’s touring family a higher level of competence. Price wise, it is set just below the CVO Ultra Classic, which seems to indicate the Milwaukee brand still considers its beloved Ultra as the lineup’s top-of-the-line bagger.
While that is quite understandable in symbolic terms, in reality, the latest CVO offering, the Road Glide Ultra, now represents the best touring motorcycle Harley-Davidson produces. Actually, if pure efficiency is the measure, the fact is it pushes the touring capability of a Harley toward that of super tourers like the Honda and BMW. But the fact also is that a Harley-Davidson will probably never reach such levels of efficiency, nor should it. Anyone making the choice to tour on a Made in Milwaukee machine does it with different expectations than pure efficiency. Well, they should, anyway, as “pure efficiency” certainly isn’t the goal of these motorcycles. They want to be very comfortable, sure, but not to the point where the riding experience becomes numb. They want you to keep feeling stuff. There’s plenty of technology behind them, but it’s used to make things like wind and exhaust noise a pleasurable part of the experience, not its enemy. That technology could be pushed to the point of making handling so “solid and easy” it would feel remote. Instead, they let you feel like you’re actually doing the riding. What the new CVO Road Glide Ultra achieves is pushing the level of efficiency up a notch at the same time as pushing the sensorial aspect of the ride up a notch too. And I love it for that.

– Bertrand Gahel


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