HARLEY-DAVIDSON ROAD KING
WORLD FIRST TEST ‘ Those shiny alloy cases hold a number of hugely significant changes’ Continued over
‘The new motor idles lower giving out a more distinct, classic Harley potato-potato note’
Harley have always been among the most conservative of manufacturers and one glance at the US marqueõs updates for 2017 show that littleõs changed Ð in many cases quite literally.
So, while H-D are making a song and dance about Ônewõ engines that Ôtake the Harley-davidson V-twin to a place itõs never beenõ, many of us may struggle to spot anything new. Harley fans, however, like it like that. When a brandõs hugely successful recipe is founded on traditional, old-school experience and classic style, radical new designs simply donõt happen. You donõt throw the baby out with the bath water. Instead, when faced with evertightening emissions laws, Euro4, plus increasing competition from new US rival Indian, what you do is evolve Ð and the arrival of the 2017 Harley tourers with their new Ômilwaukee-eightõ engines, is the second significant example in recent years of Harley doing exactly that.
The FL family of tourers, including everything from the Street Glide and Road King to the full-dress Ultra Glide, are Harleyõs core range of big twins and, particularly in the crucial US market, by far its biggest sellers.
As such, theyõve become the models which receive any significant technical updates first, before being rolled out to other bikes such as the Dyna Low Rider or Softail family.
So, back in 2014, it was these bikes which were the focus of Harleyõs Project Rushmore programme which saw the biggest technical updates in a generation including all-new brakes and wheels, new clocks (including fancy, LCD Ôinfotainmentõ systems on the dressers), switchgear, bodywork and more.
Crucially, on the top-of-the-range Ultra Glides, it also saw the introduction of partially liquid-cooled cylinder heads (although youõd struggle to spot them) which was a massively significant development for a firm so rooted in air-cooled V-twins.
Now, with the new 2017 Ômilwaukee-Eightõ engines, Harley have gone one step further still.
Although at a glance these new units, redesigned air filter housing and Ô107Õ logo aside, look little different to the preceding Ôtwin Cam 103Õ, in still being the traditional air-cooled, 45-degree, V-twin (and Harleyõs designers have worked very hard to alter its look as little as possible) those shiny alloy cases hold a number of hugely significant changes.
To boost both performance and efficiency, the new Milwaukee-eight is not just larger-capacity (1745cc from 1690cc) it has four-valve heads for the first time each with twin plugs. These hotter running heads in turn demand a more efficient cooling system, so, again for the first time, a subtle oil cooler is used on the more naked baggers such as the Road King tested here, while the faired full-dressers, such as the Glide over the page, use the Twin Cooled version of the Milwaukee-eight with liquid-cooled heads (with different cooling channels than the oil cooled versions) fed by twin radiators hidden behind those bikesõ leg guards, a system first introduced on the 2014, Twin Cam Ultraglide. The result, with both systems, is a claimed 11% more torque, an unspecified boost in power throughout the range and improved fuel economy without, they say, an extra weight. The Twin-cooled version, meanwhile, runs a little cooler than the oiler to aid rider comfort.
So far good Ð but it doesnõt end there. In addition, Harleyõs first counterbalancing system (ie a balancer shaft) is claimed to bring smoother running than ever, thereõs a new slipper clutch while new suspension front and rear is intended to bring a plusher, more controlled ride.
The killer question, though, especially on Harleys where big changes are viewed with suspicion, is Ôhow much difference does it all actually make?õ The answer is Ônot much but also quite a bitõ.
Iõll explain. Take the Road King
tested here, Harley’s class-defining bagger. At first, when you climb on board, everything is identical to the outgoing Twin Cam version of the Road King, from the clocks and switchgear to all the bodywork and ergonomics. Fire the new motor, though, and the improvements start to become apparent: the new motor idles lower (now at just 850rpm) giving out a more distinct, classic Harley potato-potato exhaust note.
The revised gearbox means first engages with less of the horrid ‘clonk’ of before and with smoother shifts up through the six-speed gearbox. The bike pulls away distinctly more eagerly than before, too, thanks to the extra power and torque.
Again, it’s not radically different – it’s an evolution. But Harley claim 0-60mph acceleration can now be achieved in two or three bike lengths less than before and top gear 60-80mph roll-ons in one to two less, as well, and I’m more than inclined to believe them.
While even in the Road King’s natural stomping ground: lazy 55-60mph A-road cruising, in our case along the US freeways across the Tacoma Narrows bridge (the one that replaced the infamous version which collapsed in 1940) and around the spectacular Puget Sound, the difference is clear: the new motor turns over cleaner, smoother; it tramps on faster. It’s not a revver by any means. You never really need more than 2500rpm. And though it’ll gallop off above three, it’s all over before 5000rpm.
This is a slightly smoother, a touch more potent and a definitely more refined Harley powerplant than before. But in truth it’s not that much different from the old, either, so Harley fans need to fear not: it’s like the old, only a
little bit better. And the same is true of the tweaked suspension: not radically different, but definitely more refined, assuredly plush, seemingly in control (as far as we could tell along the untaxing American byways) and pleasingly more easily adjustable than ever.
Harley have made big changes but are they enough to fight off the opposition?