REVIEW: By golly, modern Harleys have got porky. Forget the lone wolf leading the simple life, riding tarmac ribbons shimmering to golden horizons, mounted upon a steed built as a monument to the mighty twin.
Some of today's hogs are monuments all right, and just as weighty, gleaming mountains of chrome and paint, studs and tassels that rather dwarf the iconic engine and make riding a Harley, or more accurately parking it, a bit of a logistical exercise for even the largest and most muscular rider.
Even the Softail wasn't immune. That format began as a tribute to uncluttered bikes of old, which were built without the tangle of springs and suspension to cushion your spine from the road. Harley worked out how to wedge a pair of small shocks horizontally and within the frame so they're all-but invisible, mimicking those old-style bikes without copying their bone-jarring ride. The format proved popular enough to earn its own name, hence Softail, the first going on sale back in 1984. There are now six of them, but only one has really gone back to basics – this Softail Slim.
Retro looks are popular right now. Think Mini, Beetle, Fiat 500; think modern Triumph Bonneville or Moto Guzzi V7 and a range of other bikes which tip a nod to the past. This one's no different. Harley points you to the 1950s "bobber" look – a two-wheeled hot rod. But this time it hasn't taken the format to excess, rather it has stripped the bike back, hence the Slim tag.
The aim was to make a model that focused viewers on the engine, by slimming it down – and slinging it lower to the ground. The seat sits at 658mm, that's less than the Superlow 883 Harley, and the frame rails skim tarmac around 15mm lower than its Fat Boy sibling. There's a hefty pair of forks up front with a cut-down mudguard to expose the tyre wrapped round that 16-inch spoked wheel, while the rear's bobbed mudguard slims its hips and exposes a tyre that's narrower than many modern Harleys. Forget the custom look, this bike says, I'm designed to be ridden. And forget Sunday morning spent polishing chrome before swinging your sweetie aboard for a cruise – the matt black paint and black powder-coated cylinder heads encourage a more prosaic view of the road, and that single seat underlines the Slim rider's lone-wolf attitude.
Dunno about wolf, I'm not leggy enough – not tall enough for the more exaggerated cruiser either, but here again, the Slim takes a real-world view that'll suit a broad range of rider size. Those wide, flat bars are set close enough to the seat and footboards that my 166cm frame feels comfy; indeed this is one cruiser which may not suit a beanpole.
Slinging a foot aboard I fiddle with Harley's now characteristic security – flip the starter-dial's lid, turn the key to on, close the lid, key in pocket, turn the dial, then thumb the start button for the mighty clunka-clunka as the massive, 98mm pistons start their rumpy-pumpy stroke. Ker-lunk into gear, feet on the footboards and pull away, on to the highway where I immediately notice the low-riding position protects me from the wind, and again admire this modern-generation engine with its flexible delivery and the broad spread of power that leaves some in reserve at the open road limit. The characterful Harley vibe now tunes out at speed and there's plenty of low-down torque, with a strong enough mid-range that when the road gets bendy I leave it in third, the higher gears used for cruising and the motor settling at 2150rpm for 100kmh cruising. Harley doesn't talk about gearbox alterations, and this one certainly sounds as clunky and requires the emphatic approach to gear changes I expect, but somehow it feels a tad smoother and delivers no false neutrals.
All of which lets you better appreciate the bike's handling. A cruiser's long wheelbase and stretched forks make for stability, but this Slim feels almost nimble thanks largely to those broad "Hollywood" bars, their wide curve and cross brace recalling 1940s machines, their easy clearance letting you tip the Slim deeply into bends, or conduct tight, feet-up U-turns, provided your arms will make the stretch.
Those fat forks and the coil-over shocks out back delivered a more compliant ride than expected, the slightly lean-forward position protecting your spine from the pounding delivered by a traditionally upright cruiser stance, the whole feeling planted round corners – and yes, you'll scrape those footboards but don't worry, they fold out the way.
Harley brakes were once the stuff of legend – and not in a good way. Now the four-piston fronts do a reasonable job, though they seem to fade with vigorous application – a touch of foot brake is all that's required to fix that, and the carefully hidden ABS never came into play.
I'm not a great fan of instruments mounted atop the tank. I know it delivers a clean, uncluttered face but I dislike dropping my eyes from the road to check my speed, especially on a bike like this that encourages you to hustle it along a little. Still, this one's easy to read, and I like the wee digital trip that not only tells you distance remaining on the tank, but which gear you're doing and at what rpm. That lot is flanked by two fuel caps – one to access the tank, the other a blind which doubles as a fuel gauge. Look further down and the Slim's tiny waist reveals the motor's top – a nice touch.
Fans of Harley engines should like an approach that emphasises the motor, and lets you make the most of it. And those who prefer Sunday rides to sessions with polish and wax will like the Slim's plain black. Harley specialises in referencing history, but here's one bike that really is as focused on the daily ride as those original machines once were.
AT A GLANCE
Harley-Davidson Softail Slim
How much? $28,995 (on sale September 1, demonstrators in dealerships now)
Engine, transmission: 1690cc air-cooled dry-sump V-twin, six speed transmission with belt drive
Power and torque: Power N/A, 134Nm at 3000rpm How big? 2395mm long, 990mm wide, 1100mm high, 658mm seat height, 1636mm wheelbase, 317.5kg wet weight, 18.9-litre tank
Suspension and brakes: Telescopic fork front and under-slung coil-over shock rear suspension, single 292mm disc front with four-piston calliper and 292mm disc rear with twin piston calliper, ABS
Wheels: 16-inch spoked wheels with Dunlop H-D series MT90 front and MU85 tyres
For: Stripped back looks, low height, more agile than most Harley cruisers
Against: Single seat, tanktop speedo (sorry officer), footboards scrape too early.
- © Fairfax NZ News