First ride: Harley-Davidson Roadster and Low Rider S review

First ride: Harley-Davidson Roadster and Low Rider S review
Visordown’s resident Harley owner (yes, we have one in captivity) tests the two latest offerings

WHEN I ride a bike I always ask myself the same questions: Do I like the look? Does it make me smile? Does the bike feed my heart and soul?

Harley-Davidson’s 1200 Roadster and Low Rider S get three yeses.

They’re Harley’s two new ‘Dark Custom’ models, adding to a range of stripped-back machines offering a blank canvas for modification. Harley does not see it as a range as much as a movement, with 92% of owners customising their bikes.

But no alteration is necessary to make these machines stand out.  

Chatting to 20 something Ben McGingley the industrial designer and stylist behind the Roadster he told me he wanted to build a bike that could be ridden aggressively. A new stance and components were introduced. 

At the launch in Marseille, France, riding through peak city traffic, I was quickly aware how much attention we got. People stopped in their tracks, waved and even took photos. The sound of a large group of Harley's was music to my ears. 

The Roadster is narrow, agile and very easily manoeuvred in traffic.

The riding position is upright and comfortable and the 1202cc air-cooled engine blasts the bike quickly from one set of lights to the next.

The high-backed bucket seat is comfortable too, and useful when you open the throttle, keeping you nicely in place without hanging on the bars. With a seat height of 785mm, it’s short-rider-friendly. 

Out on country roads the power delivery gives you enough to keep you on your toes, while the exhaust note lends to an impression of speed.

The pegs seem well-positioned when riding, putting some weight toward the front wheel to help give the bike focus in bends, but when you stop they seem awkward, getting in the way as you put a foot down. 

The gears are fairly close together so you find yourself moving up and down frequently through the five-speed box.  Changing gear quickly makes for a jerky transition, while slowing things down and taking a second smooths out the ride. My own Dyna Streetbob felt the same at first and then loosened up after a couple of thousand miles. It makes you work a little harder but that work is probably one of the things that makes the bike engaging. 

The riding position makes sense in corners and the bike changes direction easily, it does not take long to find the maximum lean angle. The right peg is slightly longer than the left, as it makes space for the brake pedal and exhaust, so it grounds quicker. 

At 60+mph through tightening-radius corners, sometimes off-camber, the sound of scraping hero blobs was fairly constant. Admittedly I was pushing the bike to explore its limits. I may not have pushed as hard on my own bike. At first it can be unnerving, as your foot lifts up, but after a while it becomes almost normal. It’s a bit like the satisfaction of getting your knee down, but easier. Dragging a peg put a smile on my dial.

There is good grip from the radial Dunlop tyres, developed especially for HD.

The Roadster is a riders bike, if you are a purest you will love this bike. 

The peanut tank has a sleek, narrow look and feel, making the bike appear long at a glance, when you climb on it feels short, compact and sporty.  This is where you realise the short wheelbase and you see the 1956 flat tracker inspiration and stance.

With a range of 120 miles according to Harley, you may need a fuel stop between cafe's. 

The dash is nice and simple, with a digital speedo and analogue tacho. There’s no fuel gauge, but it has a warning light. The speedo is hard to read at first but you become accustomed, my attention was mostly on the tacho red line circa 6000 rpm.

The controls on the bars are simple and easy to operate, with an indicator switch on either side. It takes a little bit of getting used to if you’re more familiar with a conventional indicator switch but soon becomes intuitive. A nice touch is that they auto-cancel, and do it effectively.

I found the mirrors a bit close to the bars, especially on the left side.  I would opt for longer-stem mirrors or mirrors that mount under the bars. I was wearing gloves with knuckle protection and, as if to confirm a stereotype, I have quite big hands.

There are two front discs, offering plenty of power and backed-up with ABS. Braking hard, I never sensed any intrusive intervention.

The Roadster has new inverted forks and the rear shock uses emulsion technology with screw style pre-load adjustment. They are a bit taller than the previous bikes offering better performance. 

The Roadster’s not perfect, what bike is  – but you knew that already, didn’t you? It makes up for the imperfections by having what a Harley should: attitude.

Model tested: Harley-Davidson Roadster

Price £9,495

Engine: Air-cooled 1202cc V-twin, five-speed

Torque: 71.5lbft @ 4,250rpm

Dry weight: 250kg

Seat Height: 785mm

Fuel Capacity: 12.5 litres

Wheels/tyres: Offset-split five-spoke, front 19-inch x 3-inch, rear 18-inch x 4.25-inch. Front tyre 120/70R19, rear 150/70R18.

Colours: ‘Vivid Black’, ‘Black Denim’, red, silver/black

The Low Rider S is the spiritual successor to the 1977 FSX Low Rider, on steroids.

It’s got a small frame, hot-rod geometry and Harley’s biggest engine, the Screamin’ Eagle twin-cam 110 (1801cc).

The heavy-breather performance intake screams dragster, and like a dragster it's really easy to light the back wheel up – all too easy on roundabout exits, in fact.

Unlike a dragster it rolls in and out of corners with ease and it’s really easy to sling from one side to the other, helped by a low centre-of-gravity.

With a name like Low Rider, you might expect a laid-back ride. You’d be mistaken in that expectation.

The handlebar position pulls you forward. With your feet a bit out in front too, it feels aggressive – and the torque is huge, with a peak of 115lbft at just 3,500rpm. 

The throttle response off the line is instant acceleration. The pick-up is far more aggressive than a sports bike’s.

The two-into-two exhaust is from the Fat Bob, with a sound that’s subtle at low revs turning to a growl as soon as you crank the throttle open. It’s a sound that begs you to rev the bike – but the first thing I would do is upgrade the pipe to unleash more noise.  

The six-speed transmission has taller ratios than the Roadster, so you don’t need to shift so much. It still thanks you for taking your time as you change, but if you do the shifts become seamless. I rode a brand-new bike and then swapped to one with some miles on it, and the latter was much smoother.

The nitrogen gas-charged emulsion shocks are new and fully adjustable. They work well and it’s good to get gas damping as standard, since I had to upgrade for the same performance on my own bike.

It helps to keep the bike smooth and planted in corners, letting you push a bit more than on the Roadster, while the engine provides exponential grin factor as you power out of the bend.

The cartridge forks are also nice to see as standard.

As on the Roadster, you get two front discs, which work well, with ABS.

And you get a similar high-backed bucket seat, but with styling detail borrowed from the XR 750. At 685mm, it’s as low as the bike’s name suggests, but also much wider than the Roadster’s.

The small handlebar fairing is actually quite effective despite its size, and on the long straights you can sit back and switch the cruise control on, with an easy-to-operate button on the right bar. I can’t say I did this too much - I was too busy seeing what the bike could do cranked over on its side.

As on the Roadster, it’s really easy to touch the pegs down – and the hero blobs had been removed from the Low Rider I tested. I’d put some straight back on there because replacing the pegs after every ride would get heavy on the pocket.

It might mean even less lean angle, but making the sparks fly in 60mph corners is 80% of the fun. Is it exciting? Absolutely. Does it above all else give you a sense of occasion? You bet.

Model tested: Harley-Davidson Low Rider S

Price £14,995

Engine:  Screamin’ Eagle Twin Cam 110 (1801cc), six-speed

Torque: 115lbft @ 3,500rpm

Dry weight: 293kg

Seat height: 685mm

Fuel Capacity: 17.8 litres

Dry Weight: 293kg

Wheels/Tyres: Split five-spoke cast aluminium. Front tyre 100/90-19, rear 160/70-17

Colours: black

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