First Ride: Harley-Davidson Breakout review

Low-slung with a huge wheelbase. The Breakout is here to make a statement.

YOU don't waste time talking about your Superbike's pillion seat or your Supermoto's lack of wind protection.

So a piece telling you how Harley's new Breakout isn't as quick, nor corners as well as a naked bike isn't going to tell you anything you didn't already know.

The Breakout is exactly how a cruiser should look: at almost 2.5 metres long and just 66cm high it's long low and menacing. Parked-up, the first thing you notice is the skinny 21-inch front wheel sticking out proud but it's only when you look around the bike do you see the obscene 240-section rear that, from side on, is neatly tucked away. From the rear, it looks like a rhino has tried to squeeze into a one-man tent. The difference in front and rear wheel sizes and profiles are almost comical but it only adds to the Breakout's almost cartoon-like cruiser silhouette.

It's a Harley and so it's never going to be slight but is a tight package; the front mudguard is chopped down, the exhausts are finished with black silencers to shed visual weight, the headlight is small and tucked in, while the spoked wheels and think rims look light even if they're not.

The Breakout has been designed by Harley's Custom Vehicle Operations and they've been inspired by drag bikes of the '60s. The wide flat bars and hunched-down appearance give you the impression it might be quite a laugh to fire it down a quarter-mile.

The one Harley that's ridden by people who do actually nod back to you is the water-cooled black sheep, the V-Rod and the new Breakout is the closest in Harley's line-up to that black sheep.

What's surprising is that the Breakout delivers more power and more torque than the V-Rod, which is always known as the Harley that goes some. That'll be thanks to the Breakout's monster 1690cc engine which produces 96ftlb of torque at 3,000rpm. Compare that to the V-Rod which delivers 85ftlb at 6,500rpm.

If your name is Geoff Capes then you won't find this Harley heavy, but for everyone else, it is. At 308kg dry, the only saving grace is that seat height: at 660mm it's so low you can almost get the backs of your knees on the floor when you're sat at the lights. The low seat does make managing the weight a lot easier, but I wouldn't want to be under it if it was going over...

When you first set off on any cruiser, let alone a 308kg one with a 240-section rear tyre, you will have absolutely no idea how to get it to go anywhere but straight on. Everything you learn on a 'normal' motorcycle goes out of the window. A nudge at the drag-styled flat bars won't get this beast to tip in, you have to cover some distance across that 240-section rear tyre to get an angle conducive to deviation from a straight line. You push the bars rather than nudge them, add in a swing of the hips and a little bit of willpower and it'll go in fine.

At slow speeds it really is hard work and hairpin bends take prior planning as the pegs grind out at only half-meaningful lean angles, 23.4 degrees to be precise. Drag your pegs and feel like a hero at every corner. Standard cruiser stuff.

This bike isn't about threading your way through Marseille rush-hour traffic or taking on hairpin bends, it's about the feeling you get when you crack the throttle open at 20mph in second, that huge tyre digging while you put all 96ftlb of torque through it and onto the tarmac you're leaving behind. The contra-rotating balance shafts mean the engine is so smooth you'd think it was a Honda.

I get the impression there are two forces at work at Harley: one camp gunning for today's tech with the other camp firmly rooted in the firm's past. Right now, the past is winning. I don't doubt for a minute they can do high-tech, perhaps not MotoGP-levels of precision but more than their range suggests. Take the gear change for example. Slotting the bike into first is like dropping a hammer into a metal bucket. The gear shift is about as light and precise as the rudder of a container ship. Yet the engine is smoother than some Japanese cruisers. The levels of fit and finish are superb in places, but you know that a year's worth of riding in all weathers would tell a different tale.

I know Harley can produce a better gearbox but I wonder if it came back from testing and the verdict was 'It doesn't feel like a Harley'. I sense the battle between past and present will rage on at Harley for years to come.

The Breakout isn't fast but at the same time, it isn't sluggish and once you're rolling, it doesn't mind being hustled. It comes with ABS as standard (which is a slight oxymoron with the whole '110 years of freedom' thing Harley are pushing) but there's nothing wrong with added confidence in the front end. Especially when it's fairly remote, like on the Breakout. Focus on maintaining momentum, take comfort from the pegs touching down through every corner and as one French F800GS rider will testify; a pair of Harleys can be hard to shake off.

It's not all about going fast, maintaining momentum or grinding out the pegs (ok, it's impossible to not grind out the pegs). The Breakout has more pulling power than just the engine: this is a cliche but everyone stares at you when you roll past. You can guarantee they wouldn't bat an eyelid if you were on a ZX-10R.

What do you want to get from motorcycling? Not everyone wants lap-record breaking pace, pillion comfort or a rugged-looking off-road pretender. If you want to make a bit of a noise and you love the torque of a V-twin, then the Breakout might be for you. You can't take yourself too seriously on it and that way you'll have a lot of fun.

There's no getting away from that price-tag though; £15,650 is a lot of anyone's money but it's right in the same ballpark as the Victory Hammer S.

It's a complex contrast of old versus new and if you have well-worn preconceptions about what Harleys are like, the Breakout will challenge those preconceptions.

Take one for a test ride and like me, you might find yourself making space for it in your 10-bike dream garage.

Model tested: Harley-Davidson FXSB Breakout

Price: £15,645 (Black) £15,945 (Ember Red Sunglo, Big Blue Pearl)