So I've been riding a Harley (warning: long post)
There has been a lot of Harley-bashing on this forum and I am not the least offender. However, I expect that many of the Harley detractors, certainly myself included, have limited riding experience on a Harley. In spite of the fact that I have ridden motorcycles for decades, I have only ridden 4-5 Harleys and then only for limited periods or under fairly restricted conditions. A couple of years ago, I rode two different Harleys belonging to my brother-in-law for several days in southeastern Virginia. However, he was giving me a tour of the area, so I could not ride at my own pace and was not on familiar roads. But over the last couple of weeks I have had a friend's 2007 FXSTC Softail Custom in my garage and available to ride at my whim. This post summarizes my impressions, which are honestly different than I had expected.
A lot of my bias against Harleys was formed during my youth, when the Motor Company was owned by American Machine and Foundry (AMF). Those bikes were terrible, poorly machined and indifferently assembled; the worst machines built in England during the twilight of the British motorcycle industry were Faberge eggs in comparison. But that certainly isn't the case with a modern Harley; the fit and finish of this bike is as good or better than most one-off customs. And the paint on this standard (non-CVO) model is superior to any other production bike that I've seen.
For those of you not familiar with Harley's model line-up, the FXSTC pairs the Softtail frame with a moderately extended fork, narrow 21-inch front wheel (90 section tire), and wide 17-inch rear wheel (200 section tire), giving it a "chopperesque" look. The bars have a substantial rise, but are not really ape-hangers and the tank is retro-styled with a simulated second cap (actually the fuel gauge). The engine is the counterbalanced, fuel-injected Twin Cam 96B (96 ci/ 1584 cc). It is finished off with feet-forward pegs and control pedals, a button-tufted king-and-queen seat, enough chrome covers and do-dads to make it a hazard in bright sunlight, and on this particular bike, leather saddlebags. A stock FXSTC weighs 703 lbs. (318 kg) wet and the saddlebags on this one add a few more pounds.
The bike has keyless ignition so, assuming you have the fob in your pocket, you turn the center, tank-mounted knob to ignition and hit the starter button; the bike starts instantly with an (initially) unnerving metallic bang. Note, if you move or even jiggle the bike without the fob, the turn signals will flash side-to-side; persist and the horn will sound. Once running, the bike idles smoothly without any fuss and warms up quickly. This brings to light one of the few design issues I uncovered, the rear cylinder head extends slightly beyond the edge of the narrow seat nose so, if you are short legged like I am, the back of your right thigh touches the head. This is merely noticeable on initial start-up, but sit at a long light after riding for awhile and you will need to raise your right leg.
According to H-D, the bike produces 90 foot-pounds of torque at 2,750 rpm, which gets its considerable mass away from a stop with ease even riding two-up. Living in the L.A. area, I put up with a lot of stops (a minimum of 6 just to reach the nearest freeway entrance) and the Harley's low seat height and massive torque makes them a non-issue, which is a stark contrast to my Triumphs and Ducati. I could comfortably ride the FXSTC around town all day without discomfort, which is really what this bike is all about. At speeds below 50 mph, riding it is efortless either solo or with a pillion. This makes riding it the mile to my local Starbucks or grocery store a reasonable, even preferred choice, something I can't say about my other bikes. Note, I do ride my Triumphs to the grocery, etc. but only as part of intentionally longer rides.
When I told my Harley enthusiast brother-in-law that I would be riding an FXSTC, he said, "You'll have fun with that light bike and its big engine." I assumed that meant it would be quick to accelerate, but experience has shown that "light" and "quick" are relative terms. With half the power and nearly twice the weight of my Ducati Superbike, I would never call the Harley "quick". Give it a big handful of throttle and it does get moving with some authority, but the speed builds smoothly, rather than with urgency. I honestly suspect it is quicker than it seems, but I doubt it would seriously challenge my '97 Trophy 1200 after the first 100 feet or so.
Nevertheless, the power is certainly "adequate" as Rolls Royce says of its sedans. Unlike a Silver "Whatever", you have no doubt that big mechanical processes are occurring when you twist the throttle. While the counterbalanced engine doesn't shake like Harleys of old, it doesn't really seem all that happy about being caned hard; this after all is a cruiser, not a racer. And the comfort diminishes rapidly even at legal highway speeds. At 65 mph, my wife even remarked about the increased vibration and general sense of malaise; this from a passenger that remains relatively oblivious up to the mid-80s on our aforementioned Trophy.
In contrast, handling is a notable bright spot. The long wheelbase and major difference in tire section widths means that you need a lot of lean angle to negotiate even 90-degree corners. Unlike the 2012 CVO Softail Convertible I rode a couple of years ago, whose floorboards touched down at seemingly every opportunity, the FXSTC has excellent ground clearance. It rolls into a corner with authority and holds a line well. Its mass limits the speed of transitions somewhat, but not as much as you might think. There is a five-mile stretch of fairly technical two-lane blacktop that I ride regularly on my '03 Sprint with its significantly upgraded suspension. I find 50 - 55 mph is a comfortably brisk pace, meaning sitting stationary on the seat and not working hard to hold my lines. Surprisingly, on this same stretch, I rode the Softail Custom at 45 - 50 mph or only about 5 mph slower. Clearly the Harleys that I typically encounter on this road are being ridden much more slowly than necessary.
Perhaps even more surprising to me personally, is my wife's reaction to a spirited ride on the Harley. She definitely doesn't like even relatively modest lean angles on my bikes and frequently "suggests" that I "Stop that swooping!", when we ride two-up. Hence, I expected the Harley's substantial lean would bother her. But when I questioned her after several fairly enthusiastic corners, she hadn't even noticed the lean angle. Apparently, the same lean angle seems less on a Harley than on my Triumphs, who knew? Needless to say, this makes a two-up ride more fun for me and honestly the pronounced lean makes the Harley seem to be going faster than it is.
So what do I see as the pros and cons to this Harley?
Self-cancelling turn signals! Every bike should be required to have Harley's turn-sensing cancellation system. On the other hand, I could do without the two-switch, BMW-style turn signal activation.
Fit and finish quality: paint, chrome, assembly are all top-notch.
Fun factor: very high, especially in relaxed, moderate speed, stop-and-go situations. On the other hand, I wouldn't choose this bike for highway riding any significant distances. My first experience was riding it for 45 miles at 70 mph into a 40 mph headwind. That was NOT a pleasant experience, although it probably could have been improved if the flyscreen had been set up for a somewhat taller rider. Nevertheless, both my wife and I notice an immediate decrease in comfort as the speed increases over 60 mph.
Heat! This motor puts out a lot of heat at a stoplight, even when the temperature is moderate. And there are a lot of places to experience it: the aforementioned rear cylinder head, the pipes on the right side, the clutch cover on the left side, all are places where it is too easy to come into contact with a too-hot surface.
Transmission: you will never have difficulty finding neutral at a stop, but the 1-2 shift seems twice as far as any others, so you will frequently find it on upshifts as well. You can get used to this, but not easily, especially if you ride other bikes. And I'll never call my Triumphs' transmissions "agricultural" again; the Harley gearbox is undoubtedly stout, but it could never be called "slick".
Brakes: they will stop the bike adequately, but the front needs a fair amount of effort (no two-fingers here) and given the rearward weight bias, you need to use the rear as well for any even moderately rapid stop. Again, something you can learn, but different from most other bikes.
Would I buy one? Maybe, if I got a deal like my friend did. I am more convinced than ever that I would like to add a cruiser to my collection, although I think a Ducati Diavel is more appropriate for me than an H-D. But you certainly won't find me bad-mouthing Harley's bikes again; much like Triumph's Bonneville variants, they are an impressive expression of retro-cool.
The people who talk the most generally have the smallest results. Results speak for themselves. - Matt Mladin