Perhaps no other name in motoring, with the possible exception of Prius, excites as much vehement debate as Harley-Davidson. You either really, really love Harleys, or you really, really don’t.
When I told rider friends I’d be testing Harley’s giant Ultra Limited tourer, one of the Milwaukee company’s radically updated 2014 Project Rushmore range, I was ridiculed and showered with contempt. I was told the bike’s distinctive “batwing” front fairing looked like “a giant pair of orange Y-fronts.” Another said I had “plumbed new depths” just by swinging a leg over it. I didn’t ask what the old depths were.
I was in their camp, too, the European and Japanese bike lovers, with their high-tech world of downloadable engine maps, electronic suspension, traction control and light, flickable chassis. A reflexive mockery of Harleys was born partly of a couple of short spins down the road, but mostly of received wisdom and a desire to fit in with the crowd.
Nonetheless, what were they really like? Were they as ungainly and tractorish as everyone said? And could I, despite the prejudice, be seduced by one of the most potent brand identities the world has ever seen?
You can’t avoid being overpowered by the sight of the Ultra Limited. Everything about it is large. The seats are huge, the engine is massive, the tank is enormous, the rear brake pedal would look outsized in a car, the passenger footboards are almost as big as frying pans. A three-year-old could fit in the rear luggage box. Not that I recommended trying it.
It’s an outlandish and dazzling thing, as the big Harley tourers have always been. To all that chrome and immodest paint and ostentation has been added a new degree of refinement.
Harley consulted owners on an unprecedented scale for the production of the Rushmore bikes. That, and a series of operational changes wrought by CEO Keith Wandell since 2012, resulted in a range of models that embraced technology, where before the company had been admired and criticized in equal measure for resistance to sweeping change.
On the Ultra Limited, there are linked anti-lock brakes, a liquid-cooled engine, an entertainment system that reads your smartphone, satellite navigation, intercom, cruise control and enough luggage space for a cross-country camping trip.
Below the four analog clocks on the 70s-era Ford Escort-style dash, there is a decidedly 21st-century touchscreen from which you control your radio tuner, stereo, navigation and intercom. On the handlebars are more buttons and little joysticks, six on the left and five on the right, some bearing those symbols automotive designers dream up to make it as hard as possible to deduce what they do.
I plugged in my smartphone and briefly struggled to get some music started. Once it did, through speakers whose quality even at high speeds was astonishing, I worked out how to skip forward and back, and make it louder and quieter, everything except how to make it stop. One joked the system went on a default search for “Born to be Wild” and, failing to find it, got confused and stopped working properly.
This is a seriously well-equipped touring motorcycle. But how does it actually ride?
Finally, a little nervously, I hauled it from its sidestand and got the bike moving. It wouldn’t be entirely true to say the imposing weight disappeared on takeoff, but it was amazingly easy to handle.
The biggest adjustment required was to that sense riders need to have of their size. Even after four days with it, I still hadn’t fully succeeded, and managed to bump the rear into the boom gate of the car park when returning the bike to Harley.
Apart from that -- even coming straight from a wisp of an Italian sportsbike -- the familiarization period was short. By the time I was out on the highway I was swinging it between lanes with confidence and starting, I had to admit, to enjoy it.
On the bikes I’m used to, it’s all about corners. A Harley is about kicking back, taking it easy and enjoying the ride, preferably in long, swooping lines. Once your mind is attuned to this, you can start to appreciate it. And the attention.
When you’re on a Harley, especially one as large and indiscreet as this, everyone is looking at you. Pedestrians, people in cars, buses full of schoolchildren, other bikers. If you’re not comfortable being the most-noticed thing on the street, buy a Yamaha.
On the road, where other bikes draw hostility and suspicion, the faces in the windows of vehicles are almost begging you to put on a show.
The Harley engine, a huge, thundering 1,690cc V-twin on the Ultra, is a thing of legend. On a Japanese or European big-bore motorcycle, the throttle is taut and responsive, requiring sensitive twitches of the wrist to manage the often ludicrous power available, threatening punishment for the slightest excess. Harleys are much more forgiving. Give them a generous handful, and they dish out fat, friendly dollops of torque.
Opening the twistgrip is like blowing into bagpipes. Everything feels loose and saggy until you get some air into it, then things start to happen. You achieve peak torque at a surprisingly low 3,300 revolutions per minute, and then the bike really comes to life with a hugely satisfying, deep rumble.
It feels slow. It isn’t. Reclining in the deep, comfy seat behind the enormous windshield, the impression is of sedate progress, until you glance at the dials and mirrors and realize you’re leaving pretty much everything in your wake.
The Ultra carries itself well up to about 140 kilometers per hour (87 miles), when it begins to feel floaty. This is a bike designed for distance, and it does that job magnificently. Pillion riders will only need to look at the rear armchair, with its built-in speakers and music controls, to be convinced that a 900-kilometer daytrip is a good idea.
A few weeks before, I had sat next to a Harley aficionado on a plane. He complained almost tearfully about the hostility he gets from other bikers, eulogising with a shuddering lower lip about the camaraderie of Harley ownership and the genuine respect and affection showered upon them by the company.
Sportsbike owners ride in discomfort and unspoken rivalry, he said. Harley riders ride together.
Indeed, I was flooded with sarcastic questions from riders, asking how badly it handled, how embarrassed I’d been.
It’s hard to admit that there really is something seductive about them. Against my will, I kept looking into my driveway, wanting to climb it and ride it. Call it the insidious power of American mythology and marketing if you will. Harleys may not be the most elegant and best-handling machines in the world, but they offer an intangible thing no Japanese bike can achieve, something so overused by marketers that it’s almost become meaningless: an experience.
I may not ever own one, but I won’t forget riding one.
2014 Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited at a Glance Engine: 1,690cc V-twin, with 105 horsepower and 105.5 pound-feet of torque Transmission: Six-speed manual Gas Mileage per Gallon: 42 Price as tested: $26,939 Best feature: Luxurious long-distance comforts Worst feature: Having to behave like a car in traffic jams
(Matthew Oakley writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)