Far from being a parts-bin special, the 2018 Sport Glide's combination of speed, comfort, and fun may just make it the best of the Softail line-up.
Latest Softail model is arguably best of the bunch
A late-addition ninth member of the Softail family, the Harley-Davidson Sport Glide was introduced to the world back in November and RideApart's Laura Llovet was among just four moto-journalists to be the first to throw a leg over. Usually keen to tear it up on a Yamaha MT-09, Laura was concerned she might dislike the Sport Glide in the same way she poo-pooed the Forty-Eight, but she needn't have worried. After spending a day with the bike in the San Gabriel mountains she enthused: "I’d consider (buying) one sooner than retirement age."
READ LAURA'S REVIEW: 2018 Harley-Davidson Sport Glide – First Ride
Uhm... That's good, right? I mean, it's not bad. Laura's a female Millennial and that's a hard demographic to crack. Knowing that she'd entertain a Harley purchase at some point within the next 35 years has got to take the sting out of all the bad news the company's been dealing with lately.
That said, in the present day Harley's bread and butter is white guys like me who are Gen X and older. So, as a rider who has had something of a transformation in attitude toward the motorcycle brand that made Milwaukee famous (after all, it wasn't that long ago that people were accusing me of being a Harley hater), I wanted to know where the Sport Glide fit into the wider context. Is it really the "go anywhere, do anything #FreedomMachine" that Harley claims? Could you really tour with it? And how does it fit into Harley’s vision of where it wants to be?
Lucky for me, I got a chance to answer those questions when Harley got in touch a few weeks ago and asked if I’d like to leave snowy Britain for the warmth of Tenerife to spend some time with the bike.
Heck, I’ll be honest with you: my answer is always yes when it comes to riding Harleys (same rule applies to Indian’s bikes), but for the opportunity to escape the misery of winter for a few days I would have gone just to clean the Sport Glide. Had I done that, I probably would have enjoyed the opportunity to spend so much time gazing at the bike. It is a much better-looking machine in person than in photos – especially in the Twisted Cherry and Vivid Black paint schemes.
Perhaps part of the reason for that is that it borrows quite a bit from the Heritage Classic, a bike that I rate pretty highly. The Sport Glide’s 16-inch rear tire is wider than the Heritage Classic’s, its front is bigger (18 in. vs 16 in.) but thinner, and both tires have a sportier look. Beyond that, however, you’ll find both bikes share the same chassis, suspension, brakes, and so on. They even share the same 18.9-liter (5 US gallons) tank and annoying tank-mounted speedometer that’s nigh impossible to read on the move.
READING IS GOOD FOR YOU: 2018 Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic 114 – First Ride
Like all of Harley’s big twins both bikes are powered by the 1745cc Milwaukee Eight V-twin engine. That’s 107 cubic inches in old-man speak. Whereas the Heritage Classic is also available with a 114 cu-in lump (1868 cc), that’s not the case with the Sport Glide. You’ll have to settle for the 108 ft-lb of torque and roughly 80 hp that the standard engine provides. Truthfully, though, that’s enough.
Harleys always look silly on paper – lots of cc and not a lot of hp – but in the actual world, the company's modern bikes have plenty of oomph. That’s certainly true of the Sport Glide, which seems to harry down the road with the same enthusiasm as the Street Bob (one of my all-time favorites), despite carrying a good 20 kg (44 lbs) more wet weight. And, as I say, only being available in 107 flavor isn’t a detriment. I spent a lot of time mentally comparing the Sport Glide with the 114-powered Heritage Classic I rode last autumn and the performance difference really is negligible.
Fitting the Sport Glide’s two-in-one nature, its smooth power delivery makes relaxed and urban riding easy, but if you want to hurtle toward the sunset like a maniac all you need do is crack the throttle. That latter style of riding is the most fun. You feel like you’re clinging to a meteor.
Equally awesome is the engine’s sound: Harley has absolutely nailed it with the Sport Glide. This despite the fact the bike is Euro 4-compliant, which means it won’t upset your neighbors or other road users. I didn’t really notice the sound of other journalists’ bikes but I did notice my own. It was a deep, menacing roar that had me making Titus O’Neil noises in my helmet. Through some kind of dark Milwaukee magic Harley has managed to make the bike sound badass where it counts – to the ears of the rider – while keeping it respectable to the ears of everyone else. Mind blown, y’all.
Meanwhile, it seemed like clutch pull on the Sport Glide was lighter than on Harleys of even a year ago. It’s still a good workout compared to the feathery clutch of, say, a Triumph, but not as much of a pain as I remember. Maybe I’ve just gotten used to it. I’m pretty sure that if Harley actually had managed to make clutch pull lighter it would have told me about it – delivering a 10-minute PowerPoint presentation using nonsensical trademarked phrases like Enhanced Manus FreedomAssist®.
DON'T STOP READING NOW: 2018 Harley-Davidson Fat Bob – First Ride
Sportbike guys will complain about forks that dive when riding hard into corners and moan that the single-disc front brake is both spongy and inadequate. Sportbike guys are dumb, though. They’re applying a single set of narrow parameters to all situations. Wanna know what else the Sport Glide isn’t good at? Enduro. Using this bike to compete in the Dakar would be a terrible idea. But that’s alright, because THAT’S NOT WHAT IT’S FOR. The Sport Glide is a cruising/commuting/touring bike designed to be ridden on public roads. If you ride even remotely like a normal human being, sharing public roads with other normal (and unpredictable) human beings, you will have exactly zero complaints about the Sport Glide’s handling.
Roughly 28 degrees of lean angle on each side means you won’t scrape the pegs unless you intend to. The suspension is both firm enough to avoid donkeying into stops while remaining supple enough to defend you against the worst of the road. And I am happy to report that the backaches that used to be part and parcel of the Harley experience are a thing of the past. You really could go far on this bike if you wanted.
Aiding that are the bike’s relaxed ergonomics and that spiffy removable batwing fairing. I had assumed the fairing was primarily there for show, like the bullet cowl fairing on the Street Rod, but it turns out to be surprisingly useful. Wind is kept fully off the chest of a 6-foot-1 rider, leaving the helmet in clean air. For those seeking even more protection against the elements, Harley would be delighted to sell you a taller accessory touring screen for the fairing.
The fairing attaches to the bike’s fork via two clamps at the back. It can be attached or removed within a matter of seconds, which is something that concerned me when I first heard about it. Stuff that’s easy to remove is easy to steal. Harley does not have a lock for the fairing (as is available for the equally easy-to-remove screen on the Heritage Classic), but if you set the bike’s steering lock it makes access to the clamps extremely difficult and removal effectively impossible. Additionally, the clamps are subtle enough that they wouldn’t stand out to the passerby.
The panniers are also easy to remove but hard to steal. That’s because the attachment mechanism is located inside the lockable hard plastic case. Together the panniers hold 54 liters of stuff, with the exhaust side holding oh-so-slightly less. That works out to be enough space for two Kriega US 20 bags, your waterproofs, and a few bottles of water. Lash a nice Ortlieb dry bag to the pillion and you’re pretty much set for a cross-country adventure.
To help you tackle the long spaces between where you are and where you want to be, Harley made cruise control standard on the Sport Glide. It is operated by an unobtrusive button on the left grip – where cruise control buttons are supposed to be. ABS and a security system are also standard. The single clock offers all the information you really need. Dominated by an analog speedometer, it features a small digital display that offers RPM, fuel range, trip meters, time, gear indicator, and so on. However, as I say, it’s not information you’ll really be able to see while riding because the clock is mounted on the tank.
IF YOU DON'T KEEP READING YOU'LL GO BLIND: 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim – First Ride
Related to that tank-mounted clock, the metric by which speed is measured cannot be changed easily. Which is to say, switching between miles per hour and kilometers per hour demands a visit to the dealership. On many motorcycles, including all Indian Motorcycle models, switching between units is a matter of clicking a button. Not so here. I realize this is an issue that will affect a very small percentage of riders – basically, British people traveling to Ireland and Europe, and the handful of Trumpistanis brave enough to venture beyond the wall to Canada – but I find it annoying. Especially when it’s so easily remedied.
Also easy to remedy is Harley’s silly tradition of placing indicator switches on both sides of the handlebar. Everyone else (including Harley on its Street Rod) places a single indicator switch on the left grip because that makes sense. But Harley’s system sees you push a button on the left to indicate left and a button on the right to indicate right. I have always hated this. It is difficult to hit an indicator switch with your right thumb while also operating throttle and brake. But now I hate it even more – ever since accidentally hitting the bike’s kill switch in a roundabout. Spaniards are not terribly patient drivers, y’all. If you cut your engine in the middle of an intersection you’re creating all kinds of problems.
Meanwhile, looking at the Sport Glide itself, rather than Harleys in general, my biggest lament is the size of the pillion. It’s too small. It’s more of an emergency seat than actual passenger accommodation. You can use it to give a buddy a lift to the nearest gas station, or as a place to strap luggage, but no one who loves you will do so for long if you attempt to ferry them great distances on that seat.
Lastly, I’m concerned about the durability of the Sport Glide’s removable fairing. It’s a great feature but I don’t know whether I believe its plastic clamps are robust enough for year-upon-year use. Buying a Harley is an act of entering into a long-term relationship for many – where I was raised (Texas and Minnesota), it’s not uncommon to see folks riding models that are decades old. Will those plastic clamps still be working in 2038? I’m not sure.
DON'T STOP READING: 2018 Harley-Davidson Breakout – First Ride
Gripes and concerns aside, the Sport Glide is the best of Harley’s overhauled Softail line-up. I love the badass simplicity of the Street Bob and the post-apocalyptic lunacy of the Fat Bob, but if it were my money on the line I’d choose the Sport Glide. Within the context of a Harley-Davidson, this really is one of the best.
Within the context of motorcycles in general, the Sport Glide manages to hold its own. As Harley continues to try to expand its international market share it will need to be making bikes like this – bikes that are good in and of themselves.
The starting price of £14,495 (US $18,599) puts it in the same company as a number of motorcycles that are more powerful and more loaded with technowhizzbangery (eg, a 140hp Triumph Tiger 1200 XRX costs a few hundred less), but you soon get lost in the Land of Apples and Oranges when doing such number comparisons. The Sport Glide definitely costs a lot of money, but I don’t feel the asking price is outrageous if you accept the bike for what it is and what it’s supposed to be.
Yes, it would be a more palatable proposition if Harley were to knock a few thousand denarii off the price tag, but the fit and finish is of particularly high quality and the bike delivers intangibles beyond the scope of imagination for some manufacturers. The Sport Glide is fun, useful, pretty damned sexy, and more desirable than a whole fleet of V-Stroms. Truth is, I have never thought more seriously about buying a Harley than I am now the Sport Glide is on the scene.
Rider: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Build: Like a brick house. A very thin one
Helmet: Shoei RF-SR
Jacket: 55 Collection Hard
Gloves: Aerostich Competition Roper
Jeans: Pando Moto Boss 105
Boots: Red Wing Spirit Lake