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Harley-Davidson Softail Slim : Beautifully Blingless (Review)

For years now, the Fat Boy has been a favourite in the CB office. Can Harley’s new Softail Slim replace this iconic model in our hearts? On balance, there may not be much to choose from.

Harley-Davidson Softail Slim

Softail Slim – Or the Fat Boy Lightened?

It was a long relationship—23 years in fact. The Fat Boy arrived with solid wheels, a beefy front end, canary yellow paint (if you wanted it), a few acres of chrome and attitude. It became the quintessential Harley-Davidson for a few million enthusiasts and one of Milwaukee’s best selling models as it drew non-traditional riders into the fold. Each year at Canadian Biker editorial meetings where we’d plan which Harley-Davidson model we would most like to get our hands on, the Fat Boy would invariably place at the top of the list.

Eventually we had to stop asking for the big Softail from the Harley press fleet because we’d already said what needed saying about the bike and by now we were just inventing new excuses to take it for a ride. I’ll take responsibility for this fascination. Editor    Campbell would often throw his vote behind the Heritage Softail Springer. He’s a few years my senior so that springer front end reminded him of his youth. To me though, it was too forced. Certainly I appreciated the Springer model for its workings, like those of a fine watch, and marveled at the intricacies of its design—as opposed to its ability to keep accurate time. No, for me, it was always “Get us another Fat Boy.”

Why the Fat Boy? Because it’s consistently substantial and purposeful. The styling, despite the solid wheels, is never over the top and never caters to current trends. It’s clean (and being a Softail is always worth a couple of points) and it’s traditional. The many years the Fat Boy has maintained a place in the Harley lineup is testament to its popularity, even earning its own anniversary model that did not fall on a five- or 10-year increment of Harley-Davidson’s founding. Many models have come and gone since 1990  (what ever happened to the Rocker and its stepped seat?) but the Fat Boy, aside from a few revised engines, has remained essentially unchanged since its introduction. The styling was right the first time.

But as with most things that catch your eye, there is always the possibility that something will come along to change your perspective, and make you think that perhaps something else is “out there.”

Harley-Davidson Softail Slim Enter the 2013 Softail Slim, which may well be my new favourite Harley. It arrived at our office in Black Denim (a marketing name for matte black) with not so much as a pinstripe to be seen, though there is a solo seat and 16-inch spoke wheels with black painted rims. Absolutely nothing about the bike suggests bling. If the Slim were a haircut it would be short back and sides. If it were a suit it would be grey flannel. Far and away, it’s the least embellished Harley-Davidson in the lineup. For a company that produces the CVO Breakout, the epitome of flash with its multi-step “Hard Candy Gold Dust/ Liquid Sun with Pagan Gold Graphics” paint job, the Slim is the opposite end of the spectrum. The air cleaner cover is black, the engine cases black, the headlight nacelle black, the primary case is unpolished. Frankly, the Softail Slim is plain—there’s not even the “luxury” of a passenger seat. I love it! Back in the April 2011 issue we lamented the blacking out of motorcycles across the spectrum of brands (“Lift the Black-Out Now!”). Perhaps those words have come back to haunt me as the Slim is about as blacked out as a motorcycle can be, short of a World War II patrol bike, and it looks great.
The surprise I felt at my reaction to the Slim was as great as you can imagine. I’ve long maintained and even hoped (yes, you can read back issues to confirm this) that matte paint was a fad that would hopefully end soon.

But suddenly here is a bike that looks unexpectedly good in matte. It is all in the context. Matte requires a little more maintenance than gloss paint. Now this is ironic when you stop to think about it, because matte is intended to emulate primer. This supports my original thought that matte is all about form not function. The arrival of the Slim at the CB office followed hard on the heels of our time with the Sportster 883 Iron (Read, “The Iron Age,” July 2013.) Literally, we dropped one off at Harley Canada’s warehouse in Richmond, BC, and picked up the other.

The Sportster we liked for its authentic unadorned basics, while the Slim was immediately appreciated for the evolution and development that has taken place beneath its no-frills exterior. While the Sportster made you very intimate with every revolution of the motor and shift of the transmission, the Slim showcases the isolation and smoothness of Harley’s Big Twin. The 103-cubic inch motor is so isolated it’s nearly unfelt (keep in mind I just jumped off a Sportster). Starting at $18,279 (in matte) the Softail Slim carries four-piston front braking, makes smooth easy shifts, and delivers terrific throttle response. This may be the peak of what can be done with an air-cooled big-cube V-Twin. Some say the era of big air-cooled motors is nearly at an end, but right here, right now, this one is doing just fine.

Harley-Davidson Softail Slim
On the highway the Slim is unflappably competent. This is why you see so many of its brethren on lonely stretches of road. With the small, narrow profile wheels the 700-lb. (317-kg) bike is quick and easy to turn in, though somewhat compromised by the spacious floorboards, which scrape early and often. The sound of grinding metal always comes as a surprise—so disconcerting—it’s a sound never associated with good things on a motorcycle. To be fair, touchdowns and grinding noises only come at slower rather than highway speeds. Realizing that many of its models have modest cornering limits, Harley publishes their respective lean angles. The spec for the Slim is, 24 degree right lean. In comparison the V-Rod Special, which is arguably Harley’s most sport oriented (non-Sportster) model has a lean angle of 32 degrees. The XR1200 reached 40 degree left lean.

The Softail Slim has the least generous lean angle in the lineup (slightly less than even the Fat Boy Lo) due in part to the 16-inch wheels and floorboards combo. It is one area the Slim sacrifices some function for form.Our road test unit arrived with a set of hard saddlebags and a windshield set up for touring. We immediately removed the bags but kept the functional screen on most of the time. With the Softail  Slim looking so right, straight out of the box, a few accessories would add to its usability. Harley’s aim is to make any bike a starting platform for personalization. Consequently there is a long list of accessories—some functional, a lot more just fancy. What to add and yet keep the Slim stock in appearance?

A set of auxiliary lights for the extra lumens and to make the already beefy front end pop. A set of highway pegs because the solo seat, though fairly comfortable, locks you in place. A little more wiggle room would be good. Finally, add a solo rack over the rear fender for aesthetics and to bolster the carrying capacity of the saddlebags. What else? The potential is almost endless: a set of Screamin’ Eagle shotgun exhaust, decorative covers for the air cleaner, derby covers, chrome. But at some point you are probably better off going after another model that comes standard with more shiny bits. The spirit of the Softail Slim is basic and it is the way that the bike is going to look best.

Harley-Davidson Softail Slim

We took the Slim to Western Speedway, west of Victoria for a photo session. Obviously a track environment is not a natural one for cruisers, especially not Softails, but the heritage nature of the bike seemed like a convenient counterpoint to the old Ford coupe dragster that was coming into the track as we were heading out. Without reading too much into it, the Slim and that dragster were built for a single purpose, getting one person down the road. Both are true to that purpose. There’s a sense the Slim could ride onto a racetrack back in the 1950s, so well achieved is the styling.Like that hotrod coming into the track, it pays homage to a retro era, but neither run on 60-year-old original mechanicals—there’s some modern technology under those hoods!

Will the Softail Slim remain my favourite model in the Harley-Davidson lineup? That will have to be seen, but I am not a fickle fellow. On close examination how far have I strayed from the Fat Boy to the Slim? The Slim is two inches shorter but sits on virtually the same wheelbase; the front-end rake is identical; the seat height is just under two inches shorter and the ground clearance less than an inch lower. Much of that can be attributed to the 16-inch rims. Ready to roll it is 26 lbs. (11 kg) lighter. Factor in the identical engine and drivetrain and you find yourself with a bike that is incrementally easier to handle.

Choosing between any Softail model is a matter of personal preference. Perhaps I have gone from Fat Boy presence to man on the grey denim bike conservative. I can only hope that beneath my grey denim exterior are a few interesting mechanicals. Maybe the Slim is just the Fat Boy without the weight of accessories, chrome and flashy paint. Turns out I didn’t stray that far after all.

–  By John Molony // John Campbell photos

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