Sonoma, Calif., Aug. 25–26—From the American debut of the cosmopolitan new XG500 and XG750 Street models in January to the surprise introduction on the eve of Daytona Bike Week of the XL1200T—the first XL tourer in two generations—and the return of the culturally groundbreaking Low Rider, The Motor Company was already creating a heady dose of buzz. And then came the Project LiveWire foray into electric vehicles that set tongues to wagging, heads to shaking and provided grist for an exuberant flurry of media speculation—never mind that the machine was essentially a test balloon floated to gauge reception of the concept, without firm plans to ever put it into full production.
So it had already been a busy year for Harley even before they rolled their 2015 model fleet into the town of Sonoma for a press unveiling what would prove an earth-shaking event. Literally. No sooner had they hit town than that 6.0 earthquake laid waste to the city of Napa to the tune of a billion dollars in damage, and the host facility of the press event, the world famous Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa—a mere 14 miles distant from Napa—sustained visible damage as well, and a cadre of guys in orange vests emblazoned with “Structural Engineer” were scouring the premises, originally built in 1926, alert for additional damage or impending structural failure. I don’t think Harley’s arrival was at fault, but you never know about these things.
That said, the upshot is that when all is said and done, the company has in the course of nine months peeled off no less than 10 new models—not including the LiveWire. The collection of 27 models that showed up last year for the 2014 press introduction grew by leaps and bounds in the intervening months to 36 for 2015, and of those fully 17 are bagged and faired, in keeping with the seemingly endless appetite for baggers among the consumer pool. That’s a lot to absorb for the notoriously short attention span of the motopress, and the dribs and drabs approach to rolling these machines out amounted to manageable bites for the high-functioning ADHD press, bless us all.
Topping the collection of new entries is the reworked version of the Road Glide, a model that has long enjoyed a ferociously loyal following of serious touring riders who’ve been obliged to endure the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t recent history of the breed that took it out of the lineup completely last year. But now you see it again, and it’s a doozy. The company’s complete redesign of the famous shark nose frame-mounted fairing is nothing short of a coup. While somewhat similar in appearance to the Road Glides that had come before, it’s only somewhat. Customer feedback had served to inform the company of what, for just about anyone familiar with the bike, was the obvious. As imposing, attractive, and distinct as the machine’s shark nose prow was, it was never great at wind management, owing mostly to its far-forward frame-mount positioning, and created an annoying turbulence about the operator’s helmet. Also as a byproduct of that positioning, the cockpit instrumentation proved a long stretch for even the long-armed. The storage cubbies were poorly positioned and, frankly, cheap flip-top enclosures not up to the otherwise high standards the model maintained in most other aspects.
Those were complaints that the company set out to address when they broke out a clean sheet of paper and a fluid dynamics program and headed off to a wind tunnel at Wichita State University to reconfigure and fine-tune a replacement unit. The resulting piece is more attractive, smaller, and positioned two inches closer to the operator. A new set of handlebars brought the grips back a full 5.5 inches for easier reach and less-restrictive movement within confines of the cockpit. The result is a paradigm shift. No longer is an aerodynamic battle being waged around the heads of the tallish riders. In its stead is a billow of steady, pleasing airflow that can be adjusted to your particular tastes through the use of no less than three switchable vents, and allows the operator to be truly in the wind without the turmoil. It’s nearly impossible to overstate the superiority in ride quality their efforts produced.
Along with the windy issues voiced by the focus group of Road Gliders, they added the stated desire for more extensive and penetrating illumination (and who doesn’t desire that?). As luck would have it, H-D had just the technology already in the bag, and fitted the new iteration with a modular Dual Daymaker Reflector LED Headlamp that throws the broadest and brightest a patch of light in the industry, with 67 percent more dispersal and 25 percent more penetration.
Adding to the Road Glide’s long list of attractions are a Boom! Box 4.3 infotainment system, cruise control, one-touch hard bags, air-ride suspension and improved hand controls. The base price of the bike is $20,899.
If that buffet of goodies isn’t quite enough to satisfy your amenity appetite, the new Road Glide has a tarted-up sibling, the new Road Glide Special, which in addition to all of the foregoing, brings an upscale Boom! Box 6.5GT infotainment system with a sizeable touch screen and GPS. Reflex Linked Brakes with ABS improve stopping prowess, a hand-adjustable low-profile rear suspension, and a painted inner fairing and pinstripe paint treatment complete the $23,199 package. (And if you want to avoid the windblast completely, the CVO Road Glide Ultra will accommodate that, and the higher screen employed on that mount is available for the OE models from H-D P&A.)
The Road Glide was the splashiest addition to the 2015 lineup, but not the most unexpected. The rumor mill had already broken that story (with complicity from Milwaukee). No, the “big surprise” award for 2015 is shared by two new/old Touring models, the Electra Glide Ultra Classic Low and Electra Glide Ultra Limited Low, created to spread the joys of the explosively popular Glides to an underserved—and undersized—public. The entire design objective of these two models was to create virtually identical versions of the existing big baggers, but tweak the ergonomics dramatically in the bargain so that riders of lesser inseams—meaning the 20 percent of Harley customers under 5’7″—could confidently command the behemoths.
No mean feat, but one they pulled off convincingly. To the casual observer, the Lows are virtually indistinguishable from the models they’re drawn from. Once in the saddle, however, the differences are pronounced; with a slammed suspension, forward-positioned seat with a low 25.6″ height, handlebar positioned two inches closer to the operator and smaller diameter handgrips (with an Assist and Slip clutch that reduces lever pull by 23 percent), and a narrower profile primary and derby cover, the sensation is that of being on a much more compact machine. (In my 6’4″ case, way too compact.) The easiest way to visually tell that the bike is a Low model is pretty subtle—on the underside of the footboards are protrusions we’ll call “pavement feelers” that ground out in the curves, and are replaceable once you’ve ground them down to the nub. Another “tell,” just as subtle, is an extension on the Jiffy stand to facilitate reaching and deploying the unit.
The features that distinguish the Ultra Limited from the Ultra Classic mirror those of the full-sized models, starting most notably with the use of the Twin-Cooled version of the High Output TC103 motor with its partial water-cooling circuit and radiator plumbing in the fairing lowers. A premium Boom! Box 6.5GT, heated grips, a Tour-Pak luggage rack and internal travel bags in the panniers and Tour-Pak, and Contrast chrome Impeller cast-aluminum wheels complete the outfitting.
Both models share a number of excellent attributes, including Reflex Linked Brakes with ABS, cruise control, Daymaker LED lighting, Smart Security System, and one-touch latches on the baggage.
The basic solid-colored Electra Glide Ultra Classic retails at $24,399, with the Ultra Limited starting at $26,999.
The essential trike
Also coming as a complete surprise for 2015 is The Motor Company’s naked version of their trike model dubbed, aptly enough, the Freewheeler. In sharp contrast to the company’s three-wheeled efforts in the past, the Freewheeler has few touring pretensions and presents itself instead as a hot-rod-inspired street machine—lighter, tighter and more maneuverable than its predecessors. It’s also high on style points, with bobtail fenders, a Comfort Stitch seat that moves the operator an inch forward, low-profile trunk with convenient side-opening lid, mini-ape handlebars, and an entirely new front end topped with a stunning seven-piece chrome headlamp nacelle leading the way and beaming a dual halogen light housed in a polished chrome bucket. An abbreviated front fender wraps a 19-inch Enforcer cast aluminum wheel. Hydraulically linked brakes provide the “whoa,” and a foot-actuated parking brake keeps it where you parked it. A High Output TC103 motor provides the forward go. To back the Freewheeler up, an electric reverse gear is provided that’s actuated by pulling in the Assist and Slip clutch, pressing the “R” button on the left grip, releasing the button and clutch and pressing the “R” again. Confusing? Yes, but only at first, and the sound the trike emits when rolling in reverse is grating, to say the least, but functional. The rear lighting duties of run/stop/turn are all LED, but that’s where the high-tech ends. Don’t look for a sound system on this baby. (And that’s just fine by us.)
On the road the Freewheeler demands much of the same exertions to maintain a line or wheel around a corner as trikes always have, but compared to the more overstuffed varieties it does indeed have a freewheeling spirit. The ergonomics of the operator perch are commanding, the steering inputs quick and predictable, and at $24,999 for the basic Vivid Black, the price is appealing.
Superior Softail stoppage
Though no new specimens joined the ranks of the Softail platform for 2015, there’s still some news of import on that front. All Softail models will now be running an improved brake system that promises improved response and modulation and decreases brake lever pull by a whopping 40 percent. The front brake components have all been upgraded and include a four-piston caliper with 34 and 32mm pistons, brake pads with high-output friction material, a 300mm brake rotor and a new restyled master cylinder boasting a higher mechanical ratio. ABS is now standard on all the Softails except the Slim—it’s offered as an option on that model.
Greet the elite
As I alluded to earlier, Harley-Davidson hit us with a whole raft of models and features this year, and to make matters worse they no longer separate the Custom Vehicle Operations models out from the OE pack and give them their own press introduction. Nonetheless, there are two new additions to that exclusive club, the CVO Street Glide and the CVO Road Glide Ultra. They replace the CVO Road King and CVO Breakout, and are joined by the returning bagged and windscreened CVO Softail Deluxe and the opulent CVO Ultra Limited.
In the case of the CVO Street Glide, the Twin Cooled technology has visited the model for the first time, thus replacing the fairing lower woofers with cooling plumbing, but the model continues to fulfill its role as the rolling Milwaukee sound machine we first met on the 2012 CVO iteration. Only it’s gotten even more potent for 2015 and comes equipped with—deep breath, everyone—a Boom! Stage II Audio System with four 6″ x 5″ woven carbon fiber cone woofers, four 1.5″ midrange polypropylene fiber dome speakers, four 1″ aluminum dome tweeters, two 300-watt amplifiers with static and dynamic equalizers and midrange DPS cross-over. All of those niceties mate up with the premium Boom! Box 6.5GT infotainment system with touch screen, GPS and Bluetooth capability. Whew. An Airflow Collection of custom components on all grips, levers, pegs, pedals and floorboards add the de rigueur dazzle the elite CVOs are renowned for, as do the new 5-spoke Mirror Chrome Aggressor wheels. Add to that every last Rushmore upgrade developed last year and you get the picture. One picture you don’t get without an actual picture is the bodacious paint jobs available on this beauty. The most eye-popping, head-turning motifs to date, with predictably delicious descriptions, to wit: Scorching Yellow/Starfire Black Flames; Ultraviolet Blue/Molten Lava Flames; Hard Candy Mercury/Smoky Quartz Flames; Starfire Black/Gold Dust Flames. (Whoever writes this stuff could make a fortune doing menus for Michelin-starred eateries.) All things considered, the CVO Street Glide gives excellent value for its $36,349 price tag.
In the case of the CVO Road Glide Ultra, it’s an unusual entry into the ranks of the CVO elite, and I say that because when it last appeared in that role in 2011, there was a corresponding OE version available. Not that there haven’t been times when the CVO riffed on machines without OE doppelgangers—the CVO Softail Convertible comes most prominently to mind; I miss it so. Taking its outfitting cues from the previous Ultra exercises, they offer the full-on Tour-Pak equipped, lower-fairinged version of the model in all its glory you can’t get in OE trim, replete with the Twin Cooled mill. As to exclusive features and attributes, suffice to say that there isn’t a one that isn’t found on this enviable gloat boat. And in all honesty, when you consider that this publication and our website speaks to maybe a quarter-million readers monthly, only about a dozen of them have the resources to buy into that top-of-the-line $39,649 CVO dream.
While we’re elated that the iconic Low Rider finally reappeared this year, we’re saddened by the loss of one model from the platform, the Super Glide Custom. I can remember vividly the first time I saw an advertisement for the original boat-tailed FX Super Glide in 1971. I cut it out and pinned it to my wall. I was smitten; I was in awe. What a creation. But now those two iconic words, “Super Glide,” have exited the current Milwaukee lexicon. They are, after 44 years, no more. I knew the Low Rider would return even after its protracted absence from the lineup. I don’t have the same faith in the return of the Super Glide.