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2017 Harley-Davidson Touring Bikes — First Impressions

The rejuvenated H-D touring bikes get the Milwaukee Eight Big Twin, improved handling and increased comfort

By Ben Lamboeuf

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Many moons ago, this motojournalist was sent on his first off-site assignment for Easyriders Magazine. The occasion was the release of Harley-Davidson's Twin Cam-powered touring bikes for the ’99 model year. It was the summer of ’98 and I had the pleasure of meeting the H-D press relations crew led by Paul James, who also happened to be on his maiden press ride. As some of the first 'civilians' ever allowed astride the Twin Cam-powered touring bikes, our group of journos got to ride in and around the hell that is Utah's Zion Park in July. I remember once reading nearly 120ºF on the Electra Glide's ambient temp gauge. Good times...

Fast forward Eighteen years... Harley-Davidson invited me to take a ride around Tacoma and Port Angeles, through Washington State's scenic Olympic National Forest in early September. This time, I would be getting acquainted with the revamped touring line featuring the 107-inch, 4-valve Milwaukee-Eight big twin and refined front and rear suspensions. This promised to be another memorable press ride, and a great occasion to catch up with Paul James, who's one heck of a footboard grinder (I am holding incriminating pictures for possible blackmail). Paul is now Director of Motorcycle Product Planning at Harley-Davidson.

This time around though, the weather was a bit cooler than in ’98, and we enjoyed an interesting selection of meteorological conditions. We had fog, drizzle, light rain, sustained rain and the occasional torrential downpour. But rather than gathering materials for the construction of an ark, I thought I would hit the starter switch to see how these touring bikes handled real life on the road.

An all-new Big Twin that still looks so familiar...
An all-new Big Twin that still looks so familiar...

The Milwaukee Eight
Crank the engine over and it swiftly comes to life, before settling down to a low and pleasing idle tone at 850rpm. Right away I noticed a significant reduction in vibration when compared to the older Twin Cams. Come to think of it, after seeing its original size swell over the years from 88 inches to 95 all the way to 103, then 110 inches, and gaining sizable reciprocating mass in the process, the old Twin Cam couldn't possibly sit still at idle. At traffic lights, big-inch rubber-mounted Twin Cams could have easily been mistaken for out-of-balance washing machines. Thankfully that has now changed with the M-8 and its gear-driven internal counter-balancer; a device that was precisely tuned to cancel 75 percent of primary vibration at idle. This is how the M-8 retains the classic feel of a Harley V-Twin while running smoothly at highway speeds.

“The Milwaukee-Eight engine carries the legacy of Harley-Davidson Big Twins into the future,” said Chief Powertrain Engineer Alex 'Boz' Bozmoski. “While respecting the essential Big Twin character, we’ve created an all-new motor. Every aspect of performance, durability and styling has been improved as a direct response to the voice of Harley-Davidson customers around the world.”

A clean-sheet design with no common components with its predecessors, the Milwaukee-Eight is undeniably a Harley-Davidson engine. It's got massive cases (in a good way), and the brawny, fined cylinders flanked by these familiar pushrod tubes fan out toward a pair of muscular heads and rocker covers featuring rippling waves of shrink-wrapped chromed-out goodness. Manly-looking motor... check!

Deep inside, the 107 and 114 Milwaukee-Eight engines now use a single, chain-driven camshaft and hydraulic lifters with one-piece pushrods to actuate long rocker arms. Each rocker arm pushes down on a pair of valves. Boz says the factory has been able to design and source components with such precise tolerances that no adjustment will be needed for the life of the engine. Feel free to discuss...

Of course, I've already heard a few critics asking why the camshaft uses a chain drive in place of a more direct (read precise) gear drive. According to H-D engineers, running a chain drive helps reduce mechanical chatter. Also contributing to reduced powertrain noise are lighter valves, optimized cover designs and improved driveline components. Why is a quieter engine a good thing? Because as a manufacturer who has to comply with strict noise standards, it's wise to work on reducing unwanted engine noise. This allows the factory to turn up the overall exhaust volume, giving you more of what you want. I am not a fan of ear-splitting pipes and prefer a macho, deep sound myself. So for the first time, I thought that I could actually live with a touring Harley and its OEM exhaust note. I rode a test model that used the Stage I kit (with performance mufflers), and this version produced an even better and louder, throaty sound. You know what to do if you want your M-8 to play some sweet music...

Harley-Davidson claims that the M-8 produces 10 percent more torque than previous year models and that the high-compression four-valve cylinder heads offer 50 percent more intake and exhaust flow capacity. Whatever the figures might be, I feel that the bikes pull stronger than ever at any rpm. Throttle response is now more crisp, and the power feels like it's always here, making the Milwaukee-Eight a fun powertrain!

More bonus points are collected thanks to a new heat management system that's designed to improve rider and passenger comfort. It's the combination of coolant and oil passages that run fluids around the exhaust valves, directing heat away from these problematic hot spots. Combined with the lower idle speed—that inherently produces less heat—and the relocation of the catalytic converter further away, I found the system to be really effective when I hit rush-hour traffic near Tacoma, and found myself flat-footing an Electra Glide Ultra Classic for a mile. Kudos!

Speaking of improved comfort, the M-8 was also designed to be narrower in order make inseam-challenged riders more at ease on these large bikes. This was achieved by using a slimmer air box and a narrower derby cover made possible by a thinner assist clutch pack. This new clutch results in an easier clutch pull too, which is always welcome, especially for those of you who don't ride in California, where lane-splitting is now officially LEGAL! Sorry, I just felt like rubbing it in...

Upgraded Suspension
The Milwaukee-Eight engine is the star of the show this year, but just as important are the suspension upgrades for the touring bike line. The front suspension features new Showa SDBV suspension technology that delivers the damping performance of a racing-style cartridge fork with linear damping characteristics and reduced weight.
In the back, the air-adjustable rear shocks from past years are now history. Instead, the left-side emulsion shock absorber features an easily adjustable preload knob with a visible scale. It allows a preload range that's up to 30 percent wider than previous years. Simply remove the left-side bag using the redesigned and safer releases to access the handy knob. Follow the instructions provided and you can tailor your bike to match your changing needs.  
“Pre-load can now be adjusted to match the load of rider, passenger and gear without tools or an air pump,” said Paul James, Harley-Davidson Director of Motorcycle Product Planning. “Once set, the pre-load will not leak down or require further adjustment.”
I really enjoyed the added control and comfort of this upgraded suspension setup. The front end felt stable and safe on twisty roads. Uneven and rough pavement was absorbed very well, giving me added confidence. I hit a couple of nasty potholes along our 400-mile shakedown of the touring line. Even though the rear suspension bottomed out once, I never felt the kind of brutal pounding that older models would have delivered to my lower back. 
Harley engineers told us that the linked ABS braking system was reprogrammed to better interact with the improved suspension too. 
The Bottom Line
Harley-Davidson say that they listened to riders when developing the new touring bikes, so they could give them more of what they want. I feel that the results speak for themselves. The 2017 baggers don't really need to be 'fixed' before you ride them home anymore.  
Of course, the Screamin' Eagle line of street-legal performance parts is always here if you feel the need for even more power. Stage I, II and III kits can deliver up to a 24 percent increase in torque over the stock engine.
I have to applaud Harley-Davidson's decision to implement what I'd like to call a 'Total Customer Satisfaction' approach when developing the 2017 baggers. Could this new approach have come sooner? Absolutely!
Anyway, it looks like Harley's new progressive ways are in sync with the needs of an evolving client base in the increasingly competitive market of V-twin cruisers. And at the end of the day, I think that consumers will come out on top. Competition is good thing! 

Visit your local dealer to schedule a test ride on a 2017 Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

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Reader Comments

Very good article! I recently test rode a few of the new M8 bikes and found myself quietly smiling with satisfaction as I drove home. My happiness came from a morning of riding on Harley's dime rather than my own, as I test rode several bikes riding for more than three hours and didn't pay for gas at all. Seriously, what better way to explore the new bikes than at a demo event, which Harley offers several times a year at its different events as well as at the local dealers.

I enjoy meeting representatives from The Factory and talking with them about their impressions as well. This year has been a good one in my life and I was able to begin a small 7 year mortgage on a 2016 Road Glide Ultra in April. I'll be a sonofabitch if Harley doesn't unveil a new motor that's better in every way just 4 months later.

I have avoided the dealerships at all costs the last few months trying desperately to keep my desires at bay and not slip into the "gotta have the shiny new bike" when my latest toy still had tits on the tires. Everywhere I turned I keep seeing reminders of Harley's latest iteration and it made me question if I had made the right bike choice. Should I have waited? Is this new Harley really that much better?

My wife and I attended the Lone Star Rally a couple of weeks ago and I again avoided the H-D display with all their amazing new bikes begging to be ridden...I wanted to stay away. Everyone I spoke with who had the M8 was gushing over the new motor, "oh it's so much smoother, faster, quieter, better handling,"....blah, blah, blahhh.

I finally broke down this weekend and decided to try the test ride.

A cool front had swept through Houston, so I was wearing a few extra layers this morning as it was just above 41 degrees. My RGU felt very strong as I made my way down the highway ready to take a morning run through the Sam Houston National Forest. I saw the H-D Demo trailer at Harley just as I noticed my fuel light come on. Was it a sign? How convenient I am reminded I need to stop anyways, and what better way to blow off a few hours than to burn H-D's gas instead of my own, right?

I was the very first rider of the day and after signing up using a tablet device which captures everything from your face identification to blood type, enables you to ride without risk to Harley. Now to choose a bike to play on. I wanted to start with the big dog of the group, the CVO Ultra Limited with the new 114" M8 engine. Within minutes I start the beast and notice it is the only bike that has the navigation and radio enabled on it. I turn that crap off as I want to hear the motor and feel the power without distractions. The motor is VERY SMOOTH upon starting. Is it earth shattering? Does it still feel like a Harley? Well, no and yes. It is smooth, but nothing crazy that I really noticed. I did not like the cloth as I had a hard time finding the release point as it seemed very late in the lever throw. The bike pulls away smoothly, but the CVO clutch is something to get used to. Very easy action, just very hard to find the "sweet spot".

The bike seriously pulls, and is very "peppy". I already ride an Ultra, so I am used to the riding position and weight of the bike. Did I notice a smoother ride, or greater handling? No, not really. It handled no better or worse than my current bike. It was nice, but not a revelation. I do have to say, the CVO seat on the Ultra is wonderful. It is too bad H-D won't let you buy one without a CVO serial number. I recently tried the heated Harley Hammock, and it doesn't even compare to that seat at all. The CVO seat is amazing. After the quick test ride, I was pleasantly surprised that this 40K machine wasn't a whole different animal than my RGU. It was nice, mind you, with all the flash and chrome, but it wasn't THAT much different or better. Hmmm, I wanted to ride a few more.

I rode the CVO Street Glide next. Again, same clutch situation as the Ultra Limited...hard to figure out. This bike is a hot rod, but not one I would buy. I enjoy a different riding today than I used to and really enjoy the creature comforts of my Ultra. The smaller profile front tire and slammed suspension takes away from the ride for me. I can honestly say this bike is definitely NOT a better ride than my '16 RGU. The power, well it is nice, very quick. But the power is relative but we are on a test ride, and really you can only go so fast.

I decided the Litmus test would be to ride a '17 Road Glide Ultra. This bike is exactly like my own except a new 107" motor and new suspension. I was very happy to say the clutch action is exactly like the bike I currently ride, so this ride would be very easy to compare to what I ride every day. Guess what? If I had my eyes closed I couldn't tell the difference. I did not feel a difference in motor pull, suspension, handling....nothing. It feels very much the same as the '16 RGU I ride every day with it's "outdated and old" smaller 103" engine. Of course, my only complaint on my bike is a considerable amount of heat on day to day driving in Houston traffic, but I wasn't able to test that donkey on this test ride.

I rode the CVO Ultra one more time before calling it a day and have decided that very well could be my next bike, but it won't be this year. Harley didn't offer a CVO RGU and I'm thankful for that. I need a few years to pay down the note I have on my current ride. The ride home was great because I started to wonder if the new design and motor were a mirage of sorts. Is Harley media trying to convince us about a product which is very comparable to the older versions as superior? Everything you read is about how great the M8 and handling are. Could it be, Harley changed suspension due to a new labor contract and supply changes to the front end components? I didn't notice much change on the handling, but everything you read spouts the wonderment and superiority. What about this new, great motor? Is it perhaps just Harley's way to move closer to the upcoming EPA regulations? Of course they are going to rave about it's better acceleration and torque, but will the rider really notice it or care? You can only go so fast on the road, right?

I rode home with a content smile on my face glad I bought the bike that I did. My 2016 Road Glide Ultra is my favorite bike of all time. I enjoy it, I use it every day. The ride home was great, I didn't ride anything that made me itch with the lust for a newer machine. The desire to check my finances and discover a way to justify and finance a different bike. I am fine with what I have and I'm not falling for The Factory media mirage they are pushing down our throats. My advice to would be buyers, find a later model Twin Cam. Save yourself thousands as they will be dropping in value as Harley phases out the motor. 16 years of aftermarket research has proved this a very reliable and strong engine with tons of potential for whatever you need. Take the money you'll save from buying a new bike and upgrade the suspension, motor, whatever you like. I don't feel 2017 has anything greater than what Rushmore already displayed.

I will stay with what I got. If H-D offers the RGU in a CVO trim, I may look again, but until then, I am happy with my bike. Yeah, that's what I have to keep telling myself, I am happy with my bike.

Ha! Until next time...

Humble, TX
Monday, November 21, 2016

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