If you want to get a sense of just how good the new Harley-Davidson Heritage Classic really is, I suggest you first take a test ride on the equally new Breakout. Both are popular models, both are part of Harley’s overhauled Softail lineup, both are powered by the Milwaukee Eight V-twin engine, and both have the same frame (though the swing arms are different). But only one of them is a bike I’d spend money on.
I got a chance to ride the 114 cubic-inch versions of both motorcycles in Catalonia last week, along with the equally all-new Fat Bob and Street Bob (more on those soon), and being able to compare the four models helped put each in perspective. In my opinion, the Breakout is the stinker of the bunch. I don’t like its looks, I don’t like its riding position, and I don’t like the fact it can’t corner on any road with curves sharper than those found on a NASCAR track.
I realize there are plenty of folks who disagree. Contributor Leah Misch was a big fan of the raked-out beast when she rode one in Southern California a month ago, as were the firefighters she was perving after. Meanwhile, the folks at Harley tell me the Breakout has been one of their most popular models. Fine; to each his own. But for me, the only truly good thing about the Breakout is its engine.
The torque-tacular Milwaukee Eight – first introduced on Harley’s touring lineup last year – is a legitimately good powerplant that easily outclasses the Twin Cam 103 engine it replaces, and definitely holds its own against competitors like Indian’s Thunder Stroke 111. Possessing enough character to remind you that you are sitting on a metal box of explosions, by gawd, it is still smooth enough to deliver an all-day ride without irritation. So, why not put it in something you actually want to ride all day? Something that can handle a few corners, something that’s comfortable, something... like the Heritage Classic.
The Heritage Classic is good enough on its own, but a test ride on a Breakout draws a big line under that fact and circles it in red marker with lots of arrows and the words “GOOD BIKE!” written across the top. After spending half a day on a Breakout, I threw a leg over a Heritage Classic and was so instantly smitten that I started pleading with Harley to let me ride it home.
Old School or Outdated?
I’ve managed to make it this far in a Harley review without using the word “iconic” but it’s difficult to think of a better way to describe the styling of the Heritage Classic. Aesthetically, it’s the manifestation of the Harley ethos: a physical representation of the golden thread that runs through every Harley-Davidson model. In other words, it’s hard for a Harley to look more Harley than this particular Harley.
I can’t really decide how I feel about that, though. I think the Heritage Classic is better looking than the aforementioned Breakout, but some elements are a little too old school for my tastes. That screen, for example. Certainly the blacked out lower section does a good job of connecting the mind to WWII-era Harleys, where the lower portion of a windscreen was often covered with leather (if anyone knows why they did that, please let me know), but is that a good look? Guys in the 1940s also used to wear their trousers really high; some past fashions should just stay in the past.
Equally, I’m not a fan of the leather saddlebags. Actually a useful set of locking hard panniers, they just don’t look right to me. Perhaps that’s because of the blacked-out polygonal metal studs that accentuate the bags. Those same studs show up on the seat, which is probably why I’m not a fan of that either. I realize beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I can’t help feeling that the sort of person who likes metal studs – shiny or blacked out – is the sort of older individual who might own and still listen to a Foster Brooks comedy album.
Fortunately, the screen comes off in roughly 5 seconds without tools, which dramatically improves the overall look. The bags come off pretty easily, as well, and Harley has an accessories catalog that is literally an inch and a half thick from which you can almost certainly find a stud-free seat.
The rest of the bike’s looks work, as far as I’m concerned - with the Red Iron Denim paint scheme being my favorite. In that color the bike looks like a mythical barn find, its dull finish giving the impression of patina. I’m also a fan of the headlight setup, which gives the bike good presence and visibility, and throws a ridiculous amount of light.
I Can’t Hear You Over the Rumble of My Freedom
Of course, the thing that really draws your eye about any Harley is its engine. The Heritage Classic is available with two sizes of big V-twin – 107 cu in and 114 cu in, or 1753 cc and 1868 cc for the folks who didn’t get the Foster Brooks reference. If you’re a red-blooded God-fearing individual who loves freedom and ranch dressing you’ll probably feel compelled to pony up the dough for the larger version, but the truth is the performance difference is not that great.
In both cases you get an engine that does a really good job of balancing the expectations of a Harley with the expectations of a motorcycle that isn’t a Harley.
That is to say, there are certain things we expect from the Harley experience. You expect rumble. You expect a little bit of shake. These things give the bike a wholly unique and quintessential character. If you’re a Harley hater you’ll see these things as faults. They’re not; they’re signature elements. You wouldn’t go to a Metallica concert expecting to hear a bunch of The Weeknd covers would you? At the same time, though, if you went to see James Hetfield et al, and all you got was two hours of that machine gun riff from “One” you’d leave with a headache. So, Harley has put great effort into developing an engine that riders who are not Church of Harley Orthodox can also enjoy. It’s badass, but not bad.
The shake at idle all but disappears once you get rolling, and the Milwaukee Eight’s powerful torque delivery takes the prize when compared to the more relaxed nature of Indian’s signature powerplant. That said, you’ll want a calm throttle hand when riding in the rain. Harleys don’t come with traction control, which, when combined with the generally poor wet-weather performance of most cruiser tires, can make for some slippery moments in a downpour.
The Heritage Classic’s transmission is smooth enough that I can’t really remember much about it. That’s a good thing. As I pointed out recently when talking about the benefits of Honda’s DCT system, the less you think about shifting gears the better your riding. That said, one of my fellow moto-journalists seemed to struggle to find neutral every time we came to a stop. I’m inclined to believe this was because she wasn’t as familiar with the slightly clunky nature of a typical cruiser gearbox. The transmissions on the Softail lineup are no more clunky than that found in a BMW R 1200 GS, in my opinion, but if you’re used to the super slick smoothness of, say, a Honda or a Triumph it will take a little getting used to.
READ MORE: Why Honda’s DCT is a Good Thing | RideApart
It Actually Goes Around Corners
One of the things I learned on this two-day ride through the Pyrenees was that – along with its goal of encouraging 2 million new riders in the United States – Harley-Davidson is seeking to increase its international share to 50 percent of overall sales. At present, international shipments account for 38 percent (2016 figures) of Harley's sales, with the bulk of sales coming from the United States. That's up from 22 percent just 10 years before (2006), which is a move in the right direction. Making sure there are fewer eggs in one basket is a good strategy for the long-term health of the company, and it’s also good for the product.
In seeking more international sales Harley is having to tweak its models to appeal to more international (read: European) tastes. That means a modern Harley has an engine that won’t shake itself apart, a suspension that won’t send you to a chiropractor, brakes that actually bring the bike to a stop, and – on many of the new Softails – enough lean angle to handle normal riding. Yes, you can touch down the floorboards of a Heritage Classic if you try, but, really, you can scrape the pegs of anything if you try. Ride at a speed that won’t earn you an automatic license ban, though, and you’re unlikely to be troubled. I’d say the Heritage Classic leans about as far as a Triumph Bonneville.
The Heritage Classic’s Showa suspension does a good job of soaking up the worst of the road while delivering enough firmness that things don’t get silly in curves. Rear preload is easily adjustable, though you’ll need to remove the seat (which requires tools) to get at the adjuster.
Despite the presence of only one disc up front, the Heritage Classic offers plenty of Brembo-supplied whoa to counter its go. You’ll want to use both brakes when hustling through corners, however, because the slightly wooden front can be difficult to nuance. Meanwhile, ABS is standard because Harley cares about you.
Comfort and Features
The stock Michelin tires may make for some squirrely moments in the rain, but when my crew of mo-jos found ourselves stuck riding through a thunderstorm I was pretty sure there was no place I’d rather be than tucked behind the screen of the Heritage Classic. Looks aside, the screen does a solid job of keeping weather off the upper body. I’m 6 feet 1 inch tall, so windblast hits low in my face shield but the screen is angled in such a way that head buffeting wasn’t an issue.
Getting soaked while wearing my not-waterproof gloves made me wish heated grips came standard but at least the panniers are waterproof, which would have been handy in carrying a spare set of gloves – had I been smart enough to bring a pair.
Once the weather dried up I was able to enjoy the bike as God intended: on sunny open road. As with the screen, the seat isn’t to my taste aesthetically but I have no complaints in regards to its function. It is all-day comfy and the large passenger seat is big enough to accommodate an actual adult-sized person.
Whereas you’ll have to pay extra for heated grips, cruise control comes standard on the Heritage Classic. Much to my delight, the button to activate it is on the left grip. This is the right way to do things in my opinion. The handlebars on this bike look to me like the same mini ape hangers found on the Street Bob, but with the grips angled slightly toward the rider. The Harley reps I was riding with stressed that they are not mini apes, but I can't remember if we ever agreed on what they are in fact. Whatever you call them, they work well – especially for a rider of my height.
The tank-mounted analogue speedometer is a little hard to read on the go. There is a digital display within the speedo that allows you to click through all kinds of useful information including tachometer, trip meter, fuel meter, and range. This, too, can be tricky to look at with a quick glance.
Harley-Davidson has made an amazing amount of progress over the past two years and perhaps one of the things I like most about the Heritage Classic is that I don’t have to contort my thinking to be able to assess it. There was a time, not too long ago, when reviewing a Harley sometimes required a person to first put him- or herself into the mindset of thinking: “OK, I’m imagining a customer who wants a Harley and for whom only a Harley will do. Within that context, what do I think of this Harley?”
You probably still need to do that to make yourself love the Breakout, but the Heritage Classic can stand on its own two wheels against other machines. In the era of retro bikes, this is easily one of the most authentically-styled of the bunch while delivering modern performance and comfort to match or beat all others within its class. It is a bike that would be worth owning even without the Harley-Davidson badge.
With the badge, of course, it comes at a hefty price: US $18,999 or £17,995. That’s hardly pocket change, so you still need to really want a Harley to end up buying one, but you no longer have to compromise your desire for an actual motorcycle. And I suppose you could look at it from the standpoint that with the Heritage Classic you kind of get two bikes in one; take off the screen, panniers, and passenger seat, and you’re effectively left with a Deluxe. So, uh, you know, you’re saving money this way. Hell, man, you can’t afford not to buy a Heritage Classic…
In that same vein, it’s worth asking if this bike defeats the need for the heavier and more expensive Road King. Both run the same engine, but with the Heritage Classic weighing a stunning 113 lbs (51.2 kg) less, you’ll definitely feel the engine’s impact more on the "smaller" bike.
If you can get over the price tag, the Heritage Classic may be one of the best big twins Harley’s ever made. More importantly, it doesn’t need to rely on its storied name to be desirable. Harley-Davidson says it wants to increase its worldwide sales; this is a damned good way to make that happen.
Rider: Chris Cope
Height: 6 feet 1 inch
Physical build: Lanky, athletic
Helmet: Schuberth C3 Pro
Jacket: Harley-Davidson Sully 3-in-1
Body armor: Knox Venture armored shirt