Harley's Softail slims down
If we Kiwis ever get tired of the interval between our frequent earthquakes, we can always visit the Harley-Davidson factory in York, Pennsylvania, where a gigantic stamping machine has been pressing out the mirror-like halves of the brand's signature fat bob fuel tanks for 40 years or more.
Each violent stroke of this three-storey-high monster shakes the fillings in your teeth and momentarily blurs your vision as it noisily folds sheetmetal into a teardrop-shaped reservoir. That the tooling of this machine hasn't been changed for four decades is irrefutable proof that the tanks fitted to Harley's long-running Softail range haven't changed shape in that time.
Like the instantly familiar engine and seemingly suspension-less frame of a Softy, the fat bob is something that a designer seeking to add a new variant to the range can't change. That doesn't leave a lot of scope for coming up with a completely new look, does it? Yet Harley's designers have been prolifically adding new Softail models over recent times.
Last year saw the debut of the new Blackline, for 2012 we have the Softail Slim. Both are minimalist in approach, stripping back the bling and the bull to redefine the 1690cc Big Twin as a more dynamic ride.
There's plenty of brand management going on behind the scenes as these stripped-down Softails debut.
With the Global Financial Crisis, Harley increased the number of smaller-engined Sportster models in its portfolio. Now more affordable Big Twins such as the Blackline and Slim are offering stepping stones between the 883cc and 1202cc Sportsters and the other 1690cc models priced above them. They're targeted as congratulatory purchases for the middle manager who was made redundant in 2009, spent 2010 finding his/her feet, and eventually found financial security again in 2011.
Well, that's the official line anyway. I suspect that another factor in Harley's desire to make Big Twins more accessible is the success of Victory. The motorcycle division of Polaris has developed a simple formula for persuading people away from buying Harley Big Twins: make an even more powerful Big American Twin and offer it at a more affordable price. To me, it is absolutely no coincidence that the $28,995 pricetag of the Softail Slim is the same amount asked for a Victory Hammer.
Riding this Slim, coloured a shady matt back, it's easy to admire the enduring emotive pull of the Big Twin experience. There's the patented engine note, thankfully muffled so that everyone can appreciate it, a measure of vibration that has been refined to the point where it pleases rather than annoys, and soft riding springs that now have the more authoritative damping required to completely control their contractions and expansions.
The mechanics of the experience are ancient, the 1690cc long-stroke pushrod V-twin is not a lot different from the Evolution engine that preceded it and (gasp) a chain-driven separate gearbox then uses a belt to drive the back wheel - yet they've been refined to a point approaching perfection. Imagine taking a lump of coal, and compressing and polishing it for a century, and seeing a diamond appear.
The Slim is less chopper-esque than the Blackline and therefore looks more like something from the pages of a 1950s American bike magazine than an escapee from the set of Easy Rider. The 16-inch spoked wheels front and rear wear tyres of nearly equal size, blessing the steering with more neutrality and extra compliance with the riders' wishes. The blacked-out wheel rims provide a contrast for the chrome-plated spokes, a decorative theme used all over the bike. Meanwhile, don't worry if you think your passenger might have fallen off this bike; they were never there in the first place. For this is a singles-only ride, the lack of pillion accommodation enhancing the slim proportions of the rear end that give this Softail model its name.
While I didn't miss the opportunity to double up on this bike, the rubber-mounted floorboards of the Slim would be swapped for the Blacklines footpegs at the earliest opportunity (easily done as the same pegs are optional for the Slim at ordering time). The boards didn't feel as comfy and touched down earlier, restricting the already modest cornering clearance.
The abbreviation for anti-lock brake systems - ABS - used to mean something unpronounceable in German, but it now stands for Advanced Braking System in Harley-speak. Nice to be able to use the A-word somewhere on this most retro of motorcycles I guess, and the system works well if you give the front-brake lever a decent squeeze and give the rear brake pedal a good kick. Only real concern I have about the Harleys emergency-stopping prowess is the time it takes to reach the latter braking control as you have to raise your right foot off the floorboard first.
Slim by name, fat cruiser by nature, Harley's newest Softail certainly has the handsome, long- and-low looks it needs to succeed. A Victory Hammer might be a slightly faster ride, but heritage, style, and brand power are all found in this Harley's corner.
AT A GLANCE
Engine: 1690cc air-cooled ohv pushrod V-twin, stoked by electronic fuel injection to develop 50kW (67.4bhp) at 4750rpm and 120Nm at 3150rpm.
Transmission: Six-speed sequential gearbox, belt final drive.
Frame: Steel-tube twin cradle frame and steel tube triangulated rear swingarm; 43mm unadjustable Showa front forks, Twin unadjustable Showa rear shocks mounted under gearbox.
Hot: Looks best in matt black so dont pay extra for metallic red; price point steeping stone in Harleys range between smaller Sportsters and heavier Big Twins.
Not: Floorboards restrict cornering clearance further, brakes require strong inputs, pillions catch taxis.