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words - Rob Blackbourn
Like the rest of its '07 range, H-D's grand tourer - the Ultra Classic - is powered by the new 96 cubic-inch engine. Rob Blackbourn from Motorcycle Trader mag puts it through its paces

The Show's On The Road

As you approach an Ultra Glide for the first time, you ignore its imposing size and climb aboard. Immediately you're comfortable. Then the starter drive throws in hard and spins the big pots into life and the air is filled with a familiar and reassuring set of whirring and deep-breathing sounds. And your body starts to jiggle in time with the predictable idling vibe from the big twin.

It's difficult to start discussing a Harley-Davidson without focussing on its engine. Visually the exposed engine's physical size is probably enough to make it the dominant feature but, just in case, a double scoop of polished alloy and gleaming chrome adds heaps of "look at me" impact. And it's always sobering to read "96 cubic inches" (around 1600cc) spelled out on the air-cleaner cover (of a motorcycle). And then there's the noise the thing makes, now protected by H-D copyright…

This latest version of Harley's Twin Cam powerplant is extremely user-friendly with its well-calibrated fuel-injection system and its flat torque curve. It's an instant, if noisy, starter. The idle is reliable. Throttle response is smooth and glitch-free; in addition to its sophisticated management system it's no doubt kept nicely behaved by the high inertia of the heavy crank, rods and pistons; it's probably also calmed a little by the considerable weight of the Ultra Classic (around 370kg dry). It never sounds stressed (except for a bit of grumbling if you ask it to pull from absurdly low revs); in fact it just runs out of breath without protesting mechanically if you spin it up past a sensible gear-change point (it's uncanny the way a 45° V-twin's audible feedback to the rider is so similar whether it's pulling 3500rpm or 5500rpm). There's an occasional pop or bang from the pipes on the over-run but, hey, where I come from that's called character.

The 96 is virtually a brand-new engine; it carries over only a few parts like barrels, rockers, rocker covers and a few miscellaneous items from the Twin Cam 88 design.

The big Electra Glide has a rich history going back to the model's origins in the sixties. Loved by American police forces for highway patrol work and loved by civilian Harley owners everywhere who like to "patrol" their own highways in their own ways, it's a bike that's very much at home on the open road. Its size and its chassis design with Duo Glide-derived heavy forks and twin-shock rear and its traditional bat-wing fairing, make it a stable and capable highway tourer. The big fork-mounted fairing and screen give good wind and weather protection.

The Ultra Classic version's equipment levels are really something too. The on-board Harmon/Kardon radio-CD/rider-passenger communication system is top quality gear. There's a surreal pleasure to be had as you cruise along a stylish boulevard on a big yank bike, with Springsteen punching out a hi-fidelity, "Born in the USA". The stuff that dreams are made of. The electronic cruise control is a good thing too - more about that later.

Seat comfort for both rider and passenger is exceptional. Luggage capacity in the hard panniers and top box is top notch. Before we leave the comfort and convenience area here's a discomfort issue. The big 96-cube engine is a big hunk of metal that throws out a heap of heat. In particular it throws a lot of heat from the rear of the engine on the right side - enough to be uncomfortably hot on the rider's calf and the passenger's shin when you're caught up in stop/start traffic. The heat is carried away at highway speed and the discomfort disappears.

An often-overlooked item that's worthy of praise is Harley-Davidson's excellent turn-indicator controls. The separate left and right buttons operate a reliable self-cancelling system. I reckon it's the best turn-indicator set-up in motorcycling. Still among the electrics for a moment, the headlight is very effective on low and high beams and the horn is usefully loud. The look of the bulky wiring looms, though, where they pass around the steering head is a bit untidy.

Now let's deal with the limitations of the Ultra Classic concept: Although the seat height of 780mm doesn't rule out shorties, the bike's sheer size requires a fair degree of physical strength for feet-down, low-speed manoeuvring and parking it or locking it away; it's most noticeable where you need to get off and push it into a spot (or pull it out). Once it's rolling, of course, a child could control it convincingly (ain't gyroscopic stability grand?).

And for me it's not a commuter - again the size prevents it from diving in and out of the little, momentary "windows of opportunity" that are central to the daily traffic-split between home and work.

Then there's the price. At $33,595 plus ORC, as tested, you will be able to afford or you won't. You will either see the value in around 370kg of motorcycle that quite faithfully preserves the look and the basic architecture of its mid-twentieth century ancestors while incorporating state-of-the-art internal design, control systems, metallurgy and quality standards (with, it has to be said, significantly improved performance). Or you won't…

H-D rider ergonomics are all about easy-going, riding pleasure for a range of rider shapes and sizes. You slip into this thing and immediately you feel right at home. The latest version of the clutch is also about the easy life. It's noticeably lighter at the lever with a nice progressive engagement. The six-speed gearbox changes reliably and easily provided you're firm with it. It didn't miss a change in around 2000km. Motoring writers from a gentler era used to refer to "snicking" through to the next gear. You don't "snick" a Harley. You give it a manly shove and it engages the next big gear with an obvious "clunk".

The brakes are typical H-D. They do the job without demonstrating much power or feel.

Acceleration is strong enough. An 80kg lighter Softail with the same donk is obviously a bit swifter but the Ultra is about grand touring, remember.

And the touring is grand. Even at a lazy 2500rpm in sixth you start to run the risk of extra contributions to state revenues. Because the overall gearing is very high, making a swift, clean pass in the 100-120km/h range requires a double downshift; once you're in fourth, though, the Ultra builds speed quite rapidly for a big rig grossing over 570kg, two-up, with luggage.

Not being a fan of electronic whizzbangery in general, I have to admit that the Ultra's electronic cruise control is a real bonus on a trip. At the very least you get to rest your throttle hand. That's important. And when you're into your third or fourth tank for the day "cruise" is also an effective antidote for the boredom factor. You ride for a while on "cruise", sitting back almost as observer/passenger, content to relax while your sub-conscious subtly feeds body-English, foot board pressure and gentle counter-steering inputs to ease the Ultra through the bends. Had enough of that? Time to change mode. Slip into a bit of a crouch now. Grab the 'bars with a bit of attitude. Get into a bit. Get those horses earning their keep. It's like you've swapped bikes. It really passes the time. Then you switch back to cruise for a while. Life's good.

The real joy of Electra Glide handling is found on smooth roads with sweeping bends. I have it on good authority that it can happily and comfortably scoot through a range of sweepers at close to its maximum speed. When you do get near its cornering limits it lets you know with a little pitching and a little weaving. It's not alarming. It's just a warning. But cut the speed just a little and keep punting it and you'll enjoy some very entertaining and satisfying riding without you or your passenger or the Ultra being outside your comfort zones. And you'll cover a hell of lot of country in an hour or two.

The real limitation in the suspension is the inability of the rear shocks to cope efficiently with less-than-smooth pavement, especially hard-edged bumps. It can hit hard and bottom with a bang. Fortunately the seat padding is very good at insulating both rider and passenger from the impacts. Limited rear-wheel travel (a feature of the traditional, unchanging chassis architecture) at 76mm is the problem. Hard hits ask too much from suspension with such short travel. Big Japanese tourers typically have 120mm plus travel, allowing their rear suspensions to keep something in hand for the bad bumps. Even the Triumph Rocket III, arguably a bike from the Electra Glide's genre, has 104mm of travel.

You learn to back off the throttle once the pavement starts to look a bit mottled.

The bulk of our test-ride of the Ultra was a busy long-weekend dash between Melbourne and Bathurst including a side-tour to the charming little towns of Sofala and Hill End. The trip was done two-up with luggage and reasonably quickly. The bike made the experience comfortable and enjoyable for both rider and passenger. It returned a satisfactory 15-16km/litre. It is a genuine, pain-free, 1000km/day bike. It coped with a couple of short sections of unsealed road without drama, despite its size.

So it's a proper tourer then. Just the thing for a two-up round-Australia ride without risking your marriage.

  • The comfort/pleasure thing
  • User friendly engine
  • Turn indicator controls

  • Too much engine heat
  • Rear suspension marginal
  • Some untidy wiring

Type: Air-cooled, four-stroke, two-valve, 45° V-twin
Bore and Stroke: 95.18 x 111.13mm
Displacement: 1584cc
Compression Ratio: 9.2:1
Fuel system: Electronic fuel-injection
Type: Six-speed, helical gear, constant-mesh
Final Drive: Toothed belt
Frame type: Twin loop steel cradle
Front suspension: 41.3mm non-adjustable telescopics
Rear suspension: Air-adjustable twin shocks
Front brakes: Twin 292.1mm discs with four-piston calipers
Rear brake: Single 292.1mm disc with four-piston caliper
Dry weight: 367kg
Seat height: 780mm
Fuel capacity: 18.9 litres
Max power: Not available
Max torque: 12.78kg-m at 3500rpm
Price: $32,995 ($33,595 with two-tone paint) plus ORC
Colours: Six single colours and six two-tone combos
Warranty: 24 months unlimited kilometres
Test bike supplied by: Harley-Davidson Australia
"King Tour-Pak" top box
Wraparound passenger backrest with armrests
Vented lower (rider's leg) fairings with integral storage
Harmon/Kardon radio/CD system with four-speaker or headset output
Auxiliary audio input
Rider-passenger intercom sockets
Passenger audio controls
Electronic cruise control
Black powder-coated engine
Ambient air-temp gauge
Oil pressure gauge
Three additional single-colour paint choices
Six optional two-tone paint choices




Published : Friday, 1 June 2007
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