A high-tech Harley? Inside the next generation of smarter, smaller hogs

Harley-Davidson is not the first company most people think of when it comes to cutting-edge innovation in the sphere of modern motorcycling. But if you haven’t been paying attention to the bikes coming out of Milwaukee, you might be in for a shock at what’s taking place at Harley Davidson (HD).

Like a lot of motorcycle builders, Harley had a tough stretch during the Great Recession. Also, HD’s domestic competition has been growing lately. But Harley has taken a multi-point approach to these problems. And while the results are not yet in, in terms of sales, it would seem Harley’s roll of the dice might come up a winner.

Here’s why. 

Radiators on a Harley? The ‘Street’ bikes debut

In early November at the EICMA show, Harley took the wraps off two completely new bikes. When I say ‘completely new’; I mean these new bikes, called the Street line, are absolute departures for HD.

The Street line features engines that are fuel injected and blatantly liquid cooled, with prominent front radiators and shrouds.

The Street line thus far consists of a 500cc V-twin and its big brother, a 750cc machine. They look nearly identical in stock form. Both bikes are blacked out and mildly cruiser-ish, but not nearly to the level of the “traditional” Harley, not even close.

HD and other bike makers are rightfully worried because young people are not getting into motorcycling like they used to. Harley isn’t helping itself either, as its smallest bike, the 883 Iron with an 883cc engine runs $8,400 for the most basic version. For a newbie rider or scooter graduate, that’s just too big, heavy and expensive. 

The Street line features engines that are fuel injected and blatantly liquid-cooled, with prominent front radiators and shrouds. Cycle World says the 750 puts out about 54 hp, which won’t win a lot of races. In all honesty, that’s more than enough to cover both city and highway riding while still being able to outrun most cars from a stoplight. Both bikes feature low-maintenance belt drive and six-speed gearboxes, which should cover pretty much any kind of riding scenario.

The Street line is also beginner priced, coming in at $6,700 for the 500 and $7,500 for the 750. All things considered, this is fairly competitive pricing for their displacement niche – and especially so since big Harleys can easily top $20,000.

How will they sell? The HD Street bikes hit showrooms in 2014, so depending on the marketing, the economy and the weather, it will be interesting to see if the Street experiment reels in new riders or becomes a whispered footnote like the small-displacement Aermacchi Harleys from the near-death experience that was the AMF era in the 1970s.

Touring Tech: The RUSHMORE Project

Harley hasn’t been been focusing all their efforts on the Street lineup. Another massive corporate push has been devoted to Project RUSHMORE (HD’s caps lock apparently got stuck on), which has literally remade the big-bike portion of Harley’s lineup from the inside out.

In years past, if you wanted to tour in comfort, you got a Honda Goldwing. Distance riding on a Harley used to mean enduring noise, vibration, not a lot of speed and maybe even a few parts falling off. Those days are long gone now but the look is essentially the same. Park a 1994 Harley Ultra Classic tourer next to a 2014 Ultra and the aesthetic differences are so subtle that from 10 feet away it’s tough to tell them apart. Ride both and there’s going to be no mistaking the difference.

All in all, Project RUSHMORE appears to be just what the many doctors who are ordering new Harleys actually want to order.

The big Harley V-Twin powerplant is still there but it’s been refined, fuel injected, punched out from 96 to 103 cubic inches (with a 110ci option). On the biggest bikes, Harley includes a well-hidden liquid cooling system called “twin cooling” that targets the hot part of the heads, allowing the engine to make more power. But, externally, the engine looks just like the air-cooled units going back decades. The radiators are well-hidden in the fairing lowers. Quiet, reliable belt drive routes power from a tall six-speed gearbox so there’s no chain to oil or the added weight and odd behavior of a shaft drive.

The list of tech features that has been poured into the latest Harley tour bikes sounds like it came from BMW, Honda, or even Ducati. There’s navigation on a big 6.5-inch glove-friendly LCD screen along with voice control for the nav, music and phone. There’s also wired phone integration with a clever sealed storage slot for your phone (plus charging).

New and more powerful audio systems sound better and adjust not only volume but tone as speed and road noise changes. The updated linked ABS braking system doesn’t use those ugly toothed rings on the wheels like the Japanese and Germans, the wheel rotation sensor is safely located in the wheel bearing area away from road debris. It works and looks better than other systems – smart stuff. Cruise control? Check.

“Daymaker” LEDs now live in the headlight bucket and more LEDs round out trim lights and other indicators. Even the aerodynamics of the iconic “batwing” fairing have gotten a modern update with vents to lessen buffeting. Passengers get new, more comfortable seats as well and even the latches on the side cases have been vastly simplified and improved.

Harley Davidson 2014 Ultra Classic

Handling – long a sore point for Harley tourer owners coming from Japanese or Italian machines –  has been upgraded with better suspension, tighter geometries, and more focus on ground clearance, braking and even tire size.

Harley claims the result is an open-road bike that is more fun to ride at longer stretches (and higher speeds) and it coddles rider and passenger like no Harley from years past. Meanwhile, the bikes retain the classic look just like buyers expect. If you want to deviate from that aesthetic, Victory, BMW, the Italians, and the Japanese certainly offer alternatives. All in all, Project RUSHMORE appears to be just what the many doctors who are ordering new Harleys actually want to order.

Harley Online and the Custom Build option

Harley’s rep, history, and hardcore lifer customers pigeonhole it to some extent. After Harley’s Buell sportbike experiment came to a sudden and sad end during the recession, Harley brass most certainly had a meeting of the minds to not only change the image of the brand but also kick-start an online web presence that includes a custom build program.

Along with the spiffy website, Harley continues to improve and expand its custom build program, which allows prospective buyers to choose from myriad factory options including wheel style, paint color, trim items and some performance options including factory-fitted alternative exhaust systems. Once the customer finalizes the sale, the order heads off to HD’s Milwaukee or Kansas facility and the bike is built and delivered.

Harley has an immense and colorful history. Will the new bikes and tech infusion keep Harley Davidson ahead of growing competition? We’re hoping to saddle up the new bikes and put them through their paces to find out.

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