Mass appeal bruiser
“Harley is so proud of the engine that, for the first time in memory, it has even offered a power figure on its website: 91bhp, or 67.8kW if you’re of that persuasion.”
You’ve heard of the illusory truth effect, right? The idea that if you say something enough times it eventually becomes ‘true’. Or, at least, it will generally be perceived as such, which is really all you need in politics or business. In the business of motorcycles, we’ve collectively spent the past few years watching Harley-Davidson’s sales dip, telling ourselves over and over again that the company needs to change as a result. This line of thinking has become so ‘true’ that Harley itself seems to buy into it, recently promising us that electric motos, performance nakeds, and adventure bikes are coming our way.
But it’s worth noting that the boys and girls in Milwaukee are still selling in excess of 600,000 units a year – roughly 10 times the amount Triumph manages to get through the door. In other words, there is a different truth than the one we’re telling ourselves in motorcycle magazines. And Harley’s new raked-out, fat-tyred, nutso-styled FXDR is a motorcycle for that reality.
The truth you choose is probably the most important factor in determining whether you will like the FXDR. There is an outside chance that the bike’s shiny planet of an engine will change a few minds, but by and large this is a motorcycle for the home crowd.
The 10th example of the updated Softail line, there is not a great deal about the FXDR that we didn’t see when the overhauled Softail lineup was unveiled last year. That’s not a bad thing; the new Softails are demonstrably better than their predecessors. Broadly speaking, the FXDR shares a chassis with the two Softails it most resembles: the Breakout and Fat Bob.
The FXDR shares the same 34º rake angle as the Breakout, but has shorter trail than both the Breakout and Fat Bob, as well as more lean angle (32.6º right, 32.8º left). That latter statistic fixes my biggest complaint about the Breakout – it doesn’t turn. I remember a Harley engineer (who shall go nameless) once quipping that the Breakout “has all the cornering ability you need for straight-line performance”. The FXDR has only one degree of extra lean over the Fat Bob, though, so the question is how it improves upon that bike. I don’t know.
Harley would probably point to the FXDR’s aluminium swingarm, which helps bring the bike’s weight down to a svelte 303kg wet. Wheels are also aluminium. At the European press launch in Thessaloniki, Greece, company reps were keen to point out that weight had additionally been saved via fenders made of “lightweight composite material”. But all this talk of weight savings seems silly when you take a gander at the bike’s ginormous 240mm rear tyre. Talk of “agile” performance also induces a raised eyebrow, for much the same reason.
A relatively firm suspension (perhaps a little too firm for the ‘we’re out of EU money’ roads of northern Greece) means those brave enough to throw a motorcycle of this size and weight into a corner have a reasonable shot of making it out the other end. Equally reasonable are the FXDR’s dual disc front brakes, which, along with a single rear disc offer up levels of stop that Harley riders of old would not be able to comprehend. The inverted 43mm forks look adjustable but aren’t, and a good squeeze of the aforementioned brakes may produce more dive than preferred by those eager to push this thing for all it’s worth. But look – if you’re trying to drag a knee with this bike, you’re stuck in the wrong truth.
Less contentious is the FXDR’s Milwaukee-Eight 114 V-twin engine. It’s fantastic no matter how you choose to approach it.
“Harleys no longer shake themselves to death, but the company has allowed enough rumble to keep you ever aware of the fact you’re sitting on a metal box of explosions.”
The ‘114’, by the way, is Yankee speak for 1868cc. It is the largest engine Harley makes and comes standard in the FXDR, whereas slotting one into a Fat Bob or Breakout will cost you extra. Harley is so proud of the engine that, for the first time in memory, it has even offered a power figure on its website: 91bhp, or 67.8kW if you’re of that persuasion. Torque is traditionally the more impressive number when it comes to H-D products; in this case it’s 118lb-ft (or 160Nm) at 3500rpm.
The numbers translate into a smooth and powerful experience. Unless the person next to you has spent a lot of money and is really trying hard, you’ll be able to beat just about everyone at a stop light. Walloping power sticks with you up to about 75mph, so there’s plenty of punch for A-road overtakes. Things get a little more subdued as speed increases but the engine will happily cruise at 90mph and roar all the way up to 115mph or so if given enough space.
Harleys no longer shake themselves to death, but the company has allowed enough rumble to keep you ever aware of the fact you’re sitting on a metal box of explosions. Personally, I like it. But I am an American-born white male under the age of 45 – I am dead centre in the target market. I also like the transmission, which is surprisingly smooth. You still get a reassuring KATHUNK when throwing the bike into first but for the most part, the old tractor insult no longer applies. Clutch pull is still firm but I swear it gets lighter with each new Softail iteration Harley puts out (or my hands are getting stronger).
Although the engine is content to spend all day chugging along at 90mph, you won’t be. That plastic headlight cowl is for aesthetic purposes only and the FXDR’s ‘athletic’ riding position presents challenges for people of all heights. Feet and hands forward, you ride around looking a bit like a comic book baddie who’s just been kicked in the stomach. For a person of 6ft 1in like myself it is not as uncomfortable as it looks, and being able to hunker down over the bike’s clip-ons gives you confidence to have the sort of fun that makes you forget about discomfort. Still, this wouldn’t be my first choice for an around-the-world attempt.
I mean, where would you strap your luggage? The single-seat FXDR is clearly intended for short distances. The Harley riders of old would call it a ‘bar hopper’, but that term is out of fashion. So let’s call it a ‘bap missile’ – you know, for riding from one sketchy roadside cafe to the next. Okay, let’s not call it that, but you get the point: although the FXDR has a 16.7-litre tank, you’ll not want to go too long without stretching your legs (and back).
It’s not all impracticality, though. The FXDR has a plastic seat cowl that I assume takes the space of what could be a passenger seat – pull it off and you’ll find a compartment of sorts large enough to hold a 500ml bottle of water, a phone, and, oh, say, a pair of socks. Up near the headstock you’ll find a USB port suitable for charging phones and sat-nav devices. There is just barely enough space on the left clip-on to accommodate a mount for such a device.
The small digital dash is bare-bones but offers all the information you need: speedometer, gear indicator, tachometer, clock, two trip meters, fuel level, and fuel range. You don’t get all of this on one screen, mind – you’ll have to click through for some stuff using a button on the left grip. Meanwhile, beyond the presence of ABS you’ll find no electronic rider-aid whizzbangery to stand between you and freedom.
Overall, the FXDR is a good motorcycle, but with a starting price of £19,855 (it’ll cost £350 more if you want a colour other than Vivid Black), you have to go back to the question of truths when trying to assess just how good it is (or isn’t). Related to that, the brief on the FXDR seems a little confused. At the press event, journalists were shown a PowerPoint slide labelled ‘Inspiration’ that consisted of several photos – mostly of drag race tyres, drag race bikes, and drag race cars. But there was also a sportbike engine, a fighter jet, and an angry Rottweiler.
In other words, this bike didn’t quite make sense from the drawing board stage. It didn’t make practical sense, at least. It doesn’t really have the handling to be a performance bike, it doesn’t really have the horsepower to be a power cruiser. It’s just some utterly mad, mad thing that looks and sounds cool. The fact it’s fun to ride (in 45-minute stretches) is kind of just a bonus. The bike’s aesthetic is its biggest selling point. It’s ridiculous; it looks like something DC comics antihero Lobo would ride. And that’s cool. If you think it’s cool.
If your truth is one in which you appreciate Harley-Davidson products, you will understand that the company has long traded on intangibles. It offers things that can’t be quantified or measured – woolly feelings of connection, that tingly happy feeling in your brain, etc. The FXDR is a foundationally solid motorcycle elevated to its price tag by those intangibles.
If you don’t feel them just looking at the bike, it’s unlikely this will be the Harley-Davidson that changes your mind about the company; you’ll have to wait a year or so for the electric, performance naked, and adventure motorcycles. If you do feel the love, though, if you ‘get’ the Harley ethos, then congratulations: Harley’s made a bike deserving of your true love.